Quartermaster General and the unbearable lightness of gameplay

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No matter how many ways we game World War II and watch it in movies and dissect its possible outcomes, the central fact of World War II is that it actually happened. The fall of France, appeasement, Pearl Harbor, Stalingrad, Tom Hanks landing on Normandy, Johnson stealing doilies, Brad Pitt in a crippled tank fending off an SS division, BJ Blascowicz traveling through time to fix the timestream, or whatever happened in the last Wolfenstein game. I didn’t play it. Who has time to play a Wolfenstein game when you’re replaying Grand Theft Auto V on a third platform?

World War II isn’t just the most significant endeavor in all of human history, it’s also one of our favorite playgrounds. One follows from the other. Because it’s the most significant endeavor in all of human history, it’s therefore a popular sandbox. Boys love to move chits on a board or hear the pinging pin in a depleted M1 Garand magazine or thrill to the four roaring Wright engines on a B-17 or roll for research in Axis and Allies. And one of the best World War II playgrounds is the utterly brilliant, sexily sleek, and slightly subversive boardgame Quartermaster General.

After the jump, WWII for dummies, geniuses, and everyone in between.

You’d never know Quartermaster General is as good as it is from the name. Quartermaster General is one of the most boring games you could give any game. You’d think a game called Quartermaster General is about handing out blankets to new recruits. But you’ll forgive developer Ian Brody for his lousy marketing skillz as soon as you get to the gameplay, which is surprisingly nimble. Here, let me prove it to you by teaching you how to play Quartermaster General in three words. Ready?

Play a card.

That’s it. When it’s your turn, you simply play one of the seven cards in your hand. You now know how to play Quartermaster General. There are a few incidentals, including the supply rules that give the game its name. But all you will ever do on your turn is play one card. There is no counting, no die rolling, no resources to spend or gather, no combat table, no comparing the value of one thing to the value of another thing, no moving one piece from here to there. It’s just the single card with whatever simple action it instructs you to do. Put an army here. Take a navy off the board there. Gain a victory point if you control this location. Force that player to discard a card.

Because the game has such a simple vocabulary, the verbs are specific, clear, and decisive. Battle. Build. Score. Discard. That’s pretty much it. You never even move pieces. One of the obstacles to learning the game is that new players will often want to be reminded how to move an army. But that’s not part of Quartermaster General. The verbs on the cards ruthlessly winnow the game down to battle, build, score, and discard.

For flavor, the name of each card does all the heavy lifting to evoke history. Germany getting to battle and build with a single card is a blitzkrieg. Forcing Germany to discard one of her powerful tactical advantages is cracking the Enigma code. Russia keeping cards to build armies instead of discarding them is women conscripts. The Lend-Lease program is the US skipping her turn and letting the UK go instead. Italy making an Allied player discard a card is a frogmen raid. American firebombing — Dresden isn’t mentioned by name — knocks as many as eight cards out of the German deck. In case you were wondering, there isn’t a Hiroshima card.

Quartermaster General, which is keenly interested in the historical specifics of how World War II unfolded, is not the least bit interested in getting close to the ground. It’s a high-level strategic abstraction designed to play in an hour or so. Twenty turns and it’s over. Or as soon as the Axis or Allies lead by 30 points. The pieces are simple, the territories are wide. Western Europe is comprised of, well, a territory called Western Europe (Germany and Italy are separate because each faction needs a home country). Everything that happens in Quartermaster General is broad, decisive, even dramatic. With so few turns, with so few verbs, this is a game as fast and lean as a greyhound.

But its genius is that it’s also intricate. Each of the six nations has a unique deck of cards, including several unique cards. The nations all play differently. Germany is a potential juggernaut once she gets underway with special status cards that sit on the table in front of her, giving her special powers. The UK can split off into any number of directions for adventures in Europe, Asia, or the Pacific. Russia is a brute force indefatigable punching bag built to take hit after hit and eventually push back if not kept in check by a concerted Axis effort. You might think Italy would be a toadie to the Germans, and you’d be right some of the time. But a clever Italian player has all sorts of opportunities in the Mediterranean and Africa. Japan starts slowly and is plagued with potential plans to nowhere, but she can eventually build up a crazy victory point machine in the Pacific and Asia. And the US has plenty of industrial might, but can have a hard time bringing it to bear, not to mention deciding whether to help the UK, help Russia, set out into the Pacific, or jump into the fray in Europe.

These are all the story beats we know from World War II, and they’re all expressed with bantamweight gameplay, using decks of cards that guide each nation in roughly historical directions. But it wouldn’t be much of a playground if it simply reenacted the actual war every time. So Quartermaster General affords enough freedom to get a little crazy. Sure, the Japanese might end up in the Middle East, but it won’t happen often and it won’t be easy. But, yeah, it can still happen. Germany entirely beat down and Italy holding all of Europe on behalf of the Axis? Not often, but it can happen. I’ve seen the UK in the Ukraine, Russia in India, and even Japan in the Western United States. Not very often, mind you. In fact, I’ve only seen each of those things happen once in about twenty games. I once saw a pitched naval battle in the Indian Ocean. Once. Quartermaster General plays out familiar beats and surprising twists in a picante blend of “what if?” and “well, of course”.

This is also what gives it replayability. The gameplay might be simple, the decks might guide you along historical courses of action, and the lack of dice might suggest a card-based determinism. But what really drives Quartermaster General is the combinatorial chaos. You can’t know how Germany will play until you see what the UK does in the first few moves, which will depend on where the US is going, which will depend on whether Japan has an aggressive opening. For all the brute simplicity of the Russian deck, you can’t know what’s going to happen until you see what Italy and Germany are doing. And even though Japan might have the odd game in a vacuum, there’s no telling who’s going to show up in India, Australia, or China. It’s a game in which six players, each manning his own station of a clockwork model of World War II, plug in gears, wind them up, and watch what happens this time. This isn’t a six-player only game for nothing.

And, technically, it’s not only a six-player game. It plays best with six players, divided into two teams. It also works fine for two players, each managing three hands of cards. Anything in between gets a bit thorny, with some players have more to do and others have less to do. Sure, it works with two to six players. It works best with two or six players. And, in fact, I’d be hard pressed to think of a better game for six players in terms of accessibility, replayability, depth, and that wonderful post-game conversation about who did what and who should have done what and who could have done what. As a cornerstone of history and one of our favorite playgrounds, World War II is all about stories, and Quartermaster General will give you and up to five friends one hell of a set of a stories.

  • Quartermaster General

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  • Quartermaster General is a fast-paced game that puts you in command of the major powers of the Second World War. In the game, supply is crucial to keep your armies and navies fighting; destroy your enemies' supply lines and their forces will surrender! During play, you control one or more countries on either the Axis or Allied team and try to score as many victory points (VPs) for your team as you can through the use of cards or by occupying the starred supply spaces. Each major power has a unique set of cards with which to marshal its forces, which are represented by wooden army and navy pieces. After twenty rounds of play, the team with the most VPs wins.