I may or may not have been alive in 1983, and if I was, I was certainly far too young to play wargames. But it seems to me that Ambush! is an absolute masterpiece of game design for that era. Computer wargames were ugly and obtuse; board wargames needed to be played with an in-person friend equally as nerdy as you… and were also obtuse. Ambush! is played solo, and it’s incredibly streamlined. Every feature designers Eric Lee Smith and John Butterfield chose to include serves a purpose.
After the jump, let’s look at a few of those things.
“Ambush! is an unusual game,” says the rulebook, “because… unlike other wargames, [it] has no Game-Turns or Sequence of Play.” I find this claim incredibly misleading at best, but what it’s getting at is that, until you spot a German soldier, you move your soldiers around the map, individually or in groups, one hex at a time per unit or stack, in an order that is entirely up to you. You don’t have to worry about movement speed or initiative until enemies are seen and the game transitions into its combat mode, called “Rounds.” At that time, a turn order is established, terrain movement costs come into play, and so on. This foreshadows Jagged Alliance, in which you move your guys around in real-time until you see an enemy, at which time you go turn-based.
So, that’s cool. But the thing I find truly mind-blowing about Ambush! is a plain old manila envelope-lookin’ deal with a bunch of holes cut in it.
During setup, you stick a “cartridge” (a big-ass card) in this sleeve. Any time you move a guy into a hex, you look up that hex on the cartridge and it gives you a result — often a paragraph number in the Paragraph Booklet. That paragraph will tell you what happens. Maybe you spot a German and the game begins Rounds. Maybe you see a downed British aircraft a few hexes away. Is the pilot still inside? Maybe you think you hear something, but…
Did I tell you how much I love that one?
But what’s even cooler about this cartridge system is that all the stuff the Germans do is in here, too. When a German shows up, his own personal card comes into play.
On that card are his stats and equipment, along with the soldier’s AI. All those numbers on the bottom of the card are paragraphs in the Paragraph Booklet. Some of those paragraphs instruct the German to move. And when that happens, it’s back to the cartridge and sleeve. You look up the hex the German is in currently, and there’s a red number indicating the hex he moves to. If he’s got Movement Points left, he keeps moving. Look up the hex he’s in now — there’s his new destination.
Oh, by the way, there are up to 6 different cartridges for each mission, and as the plot (or “condition”) escalates, you replace the cartridge. Those hexes you walked through which were safe at the time? Something totally different might be lurking for you there now.
I have one question.
How the CRAP did they design this game?!?!?!
Eric Lee Smith or John Butterfield, if you’re out there, I would love to see any photos, notes, or anything at all from the process of Ambush!’s development. Did you use spreadsheets? Magic? Unholy bargains with Satan? How did you keep track of everything?
Tony Carnevale’s writing and videos have been featured by BuzzFeed, McSweeney’s, National Lampoon, MTV, VH1, and many other fine media outlets.