Ambush!: a war of words

, | Game diaries

There are a lot of things Ambush! gets absolutely right, including one thing you might not expect a solitaire hex-based WWII board game to even include, let alone nail. The writing.

After the jump: The scariest three words you’ll ever read.

Here’s the mission description for the first scenario, “Bloody St. Mick:”

Late June, 1944. Your squad’s parent division is advancing cautiously through the bocage country of Normandy. Earlier in the day, another squad was sent ahead to seize a lateral stretch of St. Michaux road that, under Allied control, could be used for ground communication between advancing British forces to the east and US forces to the west. Unfortunately, the first squad was forced to withdraw under heavy sniper fire from hidden German positions. This afternoon, your more experienced squad is assigned to attempt the same mission: establish control of the St. Michaux road.

Those 93 words are packed with ominous foreshadowing: Other guys tried this and failed. Now I have to clean it up. All I know about what awaits me is “heavy sniper fire from hidden German positions.” It’s practically the setup to a horror movie.

But the writing isn’t just in the opening. As my squad delicately inches across the map, I look up each hex number on the “Mission Cartridge View Sleeve.”

That usually refers me to a paragraph in the “Paragraph Booklet.”

Within just 18 pages are all the events in the 8 scenarios of Ambush! Often it’s something like an Activation Check, to see if a German soldier spawns on the map, or a Perception Check, to see if one of my guys sees the soldier first and gets a free shot at him. But the first time I succeeded at a Perception Check on this playthrough, I got this:

The second time, this:

The game makes me live through the tension of watching and listening for enemies, then tells me they’re not there. But I know they’re there. They drove back that first squad, remember? I read about it in the setup! I bet that wasn’t even the wind! I bet it was a guy!!!

If Germans weren’t going to show up yet, a lesser game wouldn’t make me go through all those Perception Checks and paragraph lookups. That would be the more “streamlined” design choice, after all. And yet, I suspect that Ambush! is pretty streamlined for a hex-based wargame from 1983. I’m not particularly well-versed in that genre or era, but the back of the box makes a big deal about the game’s relatively low complexity. “The easily-learned rules are specially designed to get the player into the action within minutes.” There’s even a little “rating box” where Victory Games self-rated their own game 2 out of 4 on their proprietary “complexity scale.” (Longtime Quarter to Three fans will note that this works out to “50% complex.”)

I believe that rating. Ambush! sheds the minutiae of early-’80s wargames and emphasizes the things that its designers thought were important. Writing, and the impact it has on mood and pacing, is one of those things.

Tomorrow: moving parts
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Tony Carnevale’s writing and videos have been featured by BuzzFeed, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, MTV, VH1, and many other fine media outlets.