Ask a wargamer for a list of “introductory” wargames, and you’ll inevitably get a list of games that look remarkably like the games that person first played when starting in the hobby. Regardless of release date, these games have hexes, a limited number of units, and simple combat results tables, usually odds-based but sometimes just using differentials. The idea seems to be that if you just peel off all the special movement and overrun and supply rules, the simplest things for a new player to master are simply a bunch of hex-based combinatorial exercises.
The problem is that this looks at introductory wargaming from the perspective of a veteran, who has already assimilated the whole wargaming paradigm of force concentration and plinky-dinky factor counting, so stripping off all the “chrome” leaves a simply math puzzle that any grognard can immediately recognize. Unfortunately, for most normal people, the idea of arranging a bunch of chits so that exactly 21 “combat factors” are adjacent to that hex while another 14 are adjacent to that hex, while having to stay within the limits of a different “movement factor” printed on each unit seems like an impossible (and unpalatable) cardboard combat crossword, never mind trying to figure out what it all means. The Battle of the Bulge? What does that have to do with fitting two or three units in a hex that have numbers adding up to twelve?
If you ask Mark Herman what an introductory wargame is, you get a very concise and coherent answer.
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I recently said that you should pay attention to questions designers are asking. But what I didn’t say was that often, these are questions the players have given them. I’m pretty sure this is what has given us such a lackluster roster of Pacific theater wargames over the years. “How do these carriers fight??” “Where are the critical hits??” Reasonable questions to ask about a campaign marked by carrier battles by a generation brought up reading Walter Lord’s Incredible Victory. So designers chased mechanics that allowed players to recreate specific encounters with ships and planes, while not quite knowing how to integrate this into a larger context. The logistical considerations, huge distances, intermittent pace of fighting, and lack of clear front lines all conspired to stymie designers from the beginning of the hobby. SPI’s infamous U.S.N. showed how back in 1971 there just wasn’t the development skill and mechanics vocabulary to address such a complex design problem. John Prados, designer of the revolutionary Rise and Decline of the Third Reich, failed utterly to adapt his economic system to the Pacific with 1977’s Pearl Harbor. That same year, a game that focused almost entirely on the ships fighting came as close as anyone could for a long time. And no one calls Victory in the Pacific a realistic wargame.
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If you spend enough time playing wargames, you eventually start paying attention to the questions designers are trying to answer. Some seem to have no answer at all. The “WW2 European Theater in an evening” problem has been out there for decades. Hitler’s Reich is the most recent one to strike out looking with a bewildered glance at the umpire. Sometimes answers come from unexpected directions, when talented designers change the question entirely so that the solution becomes obvious. Skies Above the Reich took what seemed to be an insoluble problem of solo daylight bombing over Germany, inverted the perspective, and wrapped it up in an impossibly neat package, like Fermat’s Last Theorem.
And sometimes the whole problem space shifts, and you don’t notice until the seismic disturbance knocks you over.
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Sometimes one new idea can stifle decades of opportunities. Solitaire wargames were almost unknown when On Target Games — basically a one-man operation in West Allis, WI — published B-17: Queen of the Skies back in 1981. A game you played yourself, by rolling dice and generating a narrative about your bomber crew, was oddly compelling in an era when many gamers were forced to solo games for lack of opponents. Avalon Hill saw the obvious potential and acquired it, and published a much nicer-looking version in 1983. Despite the fact that it was, as Greg Costikyan described it at GDC in 2009, “little more than a series of tables on which the player rolls dice,” it seemed to have some essential magic that designers chased for years. Thirty-five years later, in 2018, Legion Wargames released Target for Today, an essentially “upgraded” version of B-17 (after having published a similar bomber-centric game, B-29 Superfortress, in 2011). In between, games like Patton’s Best and The Hunters — and others — helped codify the “story through charts and tables” design school that exempted designers from having to think too hard.
The idea of piloting a bomber through a series of missions is such an obvious story hook that there have been plenty of cardboard and digital entrants in the genre, from 50 Mission Crush to B-17: The Mighty Eighth to the very recent Bomber Crew. But tabletop depictions of the skies above wartime Germany can’t recreate the frantic action of air combat the way a digital game can, so boardgame designers have anchored their games in the desire for mission-to-mission progression, flying repeatedly over the terrain of occupied Europe in an attempt to weave stories out of the unvarying path of a single aircraft.
The key realization that Jeremy White (designer of The Dambuster Raid and The Doolittle Raid solitaire games) and Mark Aasted, designers of Skies Above the Reich, forced on me was that there was nothing wrong with following a bomber on a series of missions. There was, in fact, nothing wrong with following a bunch of bombers on a bunch of missions, as Dan Verssen’s B-17: Flying Fortress Leader and Erik von Rossing’s A Wing and a Prayer did. The problem was the missions themselves: as soon as you knew where you were going, your bombers just had to take off and go there. Meaning you could react to events, but couldn’t drive them. But who could possibly drive events in a game about the bombing of Germany? The bombers are certainly a designer’s last hope.
No. There is another. Continue reading →
Mission 21: Operation Chastise (critical mission). I’m really proud of fishpockets. He used his star-navigation skills perfectly, and got us to the target without ever having to go to low altitude. I’m also proud of RichVR. He got in the ventral turret once we got up high, and even though he was wearing plimsolls so that he could scoot around the plane faster as the engineer, he never complained, even as I’m sure his feet froze at that altitude. I sure am proud of Miguk: he had just gotten to level 6 and learned how to auto-tag fighters, which relieved us of the need to watch radar and track them manually when things got really hairy. I think he truly felt like a contributing part of the team, now. I can’t say enough about Juan_Raigada and MrCoffee, who kept the fighters off us so effectively that we could afford to make a run in with the experimental bomb without being bothered by anything worse than some paltry small arms fire.
But I’m really most proud of…
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Mission 19: Bouncing Bomb Test Run. We’re out of special bonuses, so we decide it’s time for the test mission. There shouldn’t be any enemy fighters over Cornwall, but because we have a protocol in place, the gunners without ammo feeds still got up just after takeoff and grabbed an extra ammo box each. This turned out to be a great move when Forgetful Biggins routed us to some splashed-down fighter pilots in the Channel. We just had to spot them, which wasn’t too hard, since their fancy pants were so shiny and all. Then we took a detour and photographed some recon sites, because we were feeling a bit fancy, ourselves.
The good news I guess is that the experimental bomb works. The bad news is that it means they’re almost certainly gonna make us use it.
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Mission 16: Ammo Dump at Bruges: I have been told that in the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. I suspect this is a small taste of that, since we are going to bomb Bruges again when we just did it not too long ago. Practice must make perfect, though, because it is the smoothest flight we’ve had in days. We even manage to pick up two recon opportunities. That’ll come in handy for our plane upgrades! I suspect the “enemy armor down” and “enemy flak down” that are both in effect for this mission have something to do with this. We also earn an “enemy damage down,” so our next mission will have both enemy armor and damage reduced. It would be great to have these both up for the critical mission, which is Operation Chastise against the Ruhr dams, but I can’t fly that until I fly the test mission to see if the bomb works. Since I have two awesome bonuses in effect, I think we should go for another tough mission. The crew is not of the same opinion, but I’m the boss.
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Mission 12: Operation Hydra (the second critical mission) is the second outright failure of the campaign. We knew something was up when Biggins walked into the briefing hut with a stern look on his face, even though we hadn’t done anything wrong recently. We figured he might cut us some slack for a little longer since we had, you know, just shot down an ace, but all he said was, “Operation Hydra is a critical mission. We need you to knock out these oil farms deep in enemy territory. The enemy is Germany, in case you were confused by the oblique game references to nationalities. Anything else?” We, of course, had nothing else. Turns out we should have been the ones asking him if he had anything else, because halfway into the mission, he comes on the radio and tells us to intercept a V2 rocket while it is taking off, and shoot it down, before continuing with our mission. Of course, that’s impossible, so we don’t do it, and then we try to get fancy and bomb the oil farms from medium altitude to stay above all the flak, but get confused by the cloud cover and hit one out of three. After confirming on all our fingers that “one” is not the same as “three,” we bolt for high altitude and scoot back over the clouds, with some nice dead reckoning by fishpockets getting us most of the way home. We get no money, but do keep our 4500 XP that we got for shooting down a lot of fighters.
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Mission 8: Doodlebug Blitz brings us our first outright failure. The mission, as stated by Wing Commander Biggins, was to bomb five V1 rocket launch sites before eight V1 rockets had been launched. He even counted the objectives out on his fingers so we’d get it. Unfortunately, Left_Empty didn’t get it, because he kind of spazzed out as we passed over the second site and dropped a rack of bombs on the AA emplacement just before the launch pad passed into his bombsight. To his credit, he quickly selected another rack and dispatched the launch site anyway, but when he took off his glove to count his fingers, he realized he still had three sites to bomb, but there were only two racks of bombs left. Boy, was Biggins going to let him have it back at the base! He sheepishly turned to Pilot Officer Brooski and told him the bad news, staying off the intercom so that RichVR, who was becoming known on board as kind of the wiseacre of the crew, didn’t make up some awful play on words involving his name. “I guess you sure left that bomb bay empty, eh Left_Empty!” He could at least wait until they got back to the barracks to hear it.
The only thing we got out of this mission was 2000 experience points, which was enough to level RichVR up on his pilot secondary skill and teach him how to Corkscrew. He’ll probably be bragging about that back at the barracks as well.
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Mission 1: Motor Factory at Zeebrugge. This almost ends in disaster as both the electrical and hydraulic systems go out pretty much on takeoff, then I get so absorbed in fixing them that I tag the first wave of fighters late, and then I compound it by not getting Left_Empty into the bombardier’s station fast enough to open the bomb bay doors in time to hit the target on the first pass. Plus, the port outboard engine gets set on fire. Fortunately, I get things together fast enough to swing back and hit the target, and RichVR does stellar work fixing the engine once the fire dies down and makes the engine kaput (shown). But we don’t get the optional recon photo, which I think is essential to building up your bomber quickly. I satisfy myself with woolen gloves and leather boots for everybody. I also protect everyone by buying Armored Fuselage 1 for the whole plane, because I’m a mensch.
One trick is to select each gunner (tail gunner, mid-upper turret, and nose gunner) and hit “R” right as you are taking off from England, as this will immediately send them to the ammo bay to get an extra ammo box while you’re still over Wessex. Er, Sussex? Whatevs. Continue reading →
The Avro Lancaster had seven crew. The Boeing B-17 had ten. Keep this in mind when anticipating the price point of the inevitable B-17 DLC or standalone expansion. Since I’m flying this crate, I am the pilot (Brooski), but that leaves me with six crewmembers to assign. I am going to randomly choose names from the Quarter to Three thread about the game, entitled “Bomber Crew – FTL + WWII,” even though it is totally not like FTL in any way except that in both games you are running from the Galactic Federation. RichVR was kind enough to gift me the game, so he gets to be the next crew member on the list, which is the engineer. Going down the list of crew members from there, we get fishpockets as the navigator, Eric_Majkut as my radioman, Mr_Bismarck as the tail gunner, Dan_Theman as the top turret gunner, and Left_Empty as the bombardier. Crewmembers who don’t, er… progress through a mission will be, um…subbed for by another random selection from the thread.
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I was in a Lancaster over Bremen. I had to knock out some submarine pens with a mega-bomb from high altitude. My crew were getting cold in the atmosphere, even though they had thermal mittens and electrically heated boots, and if I didn’t get to a lower level soon they would start to get hypoxic, even though I had equipped them with “advanced oxygen bottles” which were probably made in the USA. The target came into view through wisps of cloud, slowly moving across my bombsight. At this height it was a small-but-discernable structure, much different from the seemingly huge targets that filled my bombsight when I attacked from low altitude. As it entered my crosshairs, I hit the “release” button and switched to my pilot to tell him to dive to low altitude. As I dropped lower, I entered a hornet’s nest of fighters. I swiveled my view around and around, trying to pick up the ones I hadn’t yet “tagged” so my gunners could focus on them. I told my radio operator to “auto tag” and start calling out targets. There were too many. So my radio operator got on the horn and requested assistance. An agonizing thirty seconds or so later, a flight of Spitfires flew into view and took down two Messerschmidts right off the bat. Given a bit of breathing room, I sent my engineer to fix the port fuel tank, which was leaking, and sent the bombardier to grab a med kit and give first aid to the top turret gunner, who was down and bleeding. The tail gunner grabbed more ammo. My navigator plotted a course across the North Sea. With some luck, we’d make it home. If we didn’t, my crew had sea survival vests, a dinghy, and a homing pigeon. They had a good chance of getting picked up by the Royal Navy.
Exciting, no? Much different than what I expected from a game that gave me seven bobbleheaded nine-year-olds to fly a cartoony bomber on solo missions over cartoon France and Germany.
Turns out that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t expect. Continue reading →
There is a place in my neighborhood that serves a killer salad: bleu cheese crumbles, dried cranberries, and red wine vinaigrette. That’s it. Each flavor complements the other, in just the right proportion. The greens are excellent. It is primarily a cocktail bar, but the staff clearly understands taste. There is nothing in any of their dishes or drinks that isn’t there for a very good reason: because it makes it better.
There is another place around here that serves salads they call “famous.” They’re basically a huge stack of those everything nachos you can get at upscale sports bars but without the nacho chips. They have a million ingredients, which might lead to clashing flavors except the ingredients are all so bland you don’t notice. They are basically a way for you to stuff your face with a salad because that’s what you like to do.
Point salad games can be one of these two things. Guess which one Great Western Trail is. Continue reading →
Well designed games shine whether you are playing them or just watching. The consistency of theme, presentation, and mechanics that make playing a good game such a joy translates — in the best games — into an eloquent dance that you can appreciate as an observer. If you’re really familiar with the game, you can pick up patterns, see the swings, watch the crescendos and decrescendos, almost like listening to a symphony. A good design realizes that every piece of the game needs to fit together, like strings and brass and woodwinds, but each piece needs to bring something different, like strings and brass and woodwinds. It’s hard to design something that fits its pieces together so distinctly and neatly, which is why so many games just add as many pieces as they can, hoping some of them work together. Dice and cards and plastic pieces and a tableau and victory points here and there and oh look! — a mancala. Good luck getting the conductor to harmonize that.
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Compared to the 1970s, 1980s, or even 1990s, game designers today must feel like they have an incredible armamentarium for expressing theme. Whether it’s through worker placement, card mechanics, resource management, auctions, tableau-building, or even a mancala, there are now so many ways to make little meeples or whatnot go on cardboard adventures that it’s almost like having a whole new ludographic vocabulary. And designers are taking advantage of it, with tremendous new games being released it seems every month.
Then there’s Freedom: The Underground Railroad. Continue reading →