2018 was another fantastic year for wargamers! As a result, this year’s game of the year was even more difficult to select! I added 67 games to my collection this year which included some instant classics, oldies, and even a few magazine games.

Let’s build up the drama a bit for our 2018 Game of the Year… 

The second runner-up is…

Battle Hymn Volume 1 from Compass Games.

This Eric Lee Smith game was the first volume in a promising new series. After a little difficulty unlearning some bad wargaming habits, I had a blast with this title. Civil War games were abundant in 2018. In fact, a number of incredible series released one or more titles. Herman Luttman’s Blind Swords series put out Longstreet Attacks and MMP released Roads to Gettysburg II and Atlanta is Ours.

Battle Hymn - Combat
Battle Hymn – Combat

Battle Hymn took the edge here because it takes what I like most about civil war series and boils it down to the essential elements. The freakish unpredictability of unit performance paired with bloody combat outcomes. As a result, the game just “felt” right to me. I was particularly a fan of the difficult choices players must make when splitting combat values between targets. Excellent way to represent lines of men in combat rather than isolated groups of men!

The next game in the series is already up for pre-order at Compass Games and my sincere hope is that you pick up both volumes!

The first-runner up from GMT Games is….

Skies Above the Reich

I had a hard time with this one, and while I may not love this game, I can honestly say it deserves high praise on every best-of list for 2018. Skies Above the Reich, is an incredible accomplishment.

Skies Above the Reich Cover

The rulebook has it right when the designer proclaims that the game begins as you’re setting up the scenario. It does. That didn’t occur to me until my 3rd or 4th play and owes to the fact that I’m slow on the uptake and to the brilliance of this game’s design.

Skies Above the Reich is punishingly difficult. YES, you will lose cherished pilots due to bad rolls and to errant shots. And yes , you will struggle to get fighters where needed to take down escorts. The enemy escorts are efficient killing machines destined to make your flight “a bit choppy.”

One of the greatest feelings, especially with the optional rules, in all of gaming is taking down a bomber. Breaking the box formation and then picking off inbound bombers is rewarding in a way that few other solitaire air games ever achieve. This isn’t even touching upon the tension when a die roll means life or death as a pilot must bail out of their burning plane.

Skies Above the Reich makes solitaire gaming rewarding in a way that few solo games ever achieve. The topic doesn’t resonate as much with me, but even so, let me reassure you that this is a must-own game.

And…finally…the WargameHQ Game of the Year…

Pendragon

Pendragon Southeastern Setup
Pendragon Southeastern Setup

Boardgamegeek.com lists this game as a 2017 release, and that may technically be the truth. However, it was at the very end of 2017 and couldn’t be evaluated in the 2017 wargame of the year list. Instead, many gamers got this one in January of 2018. I feel very comfortable calling it a 2018 release.

Pendragon is a milestone game in the COIN series from GMT Games.
Morgane Gouyon-Rety is brilliant. Her ability to look at the prior COIN games and pull just the chrome needed while evolving it to perfect fit the topic and theme was remarkable. There are now eight games in the COIN series with two or three more on the way in 2019.

Pendragon sets an almost impossibly high bar for all subsequent games. Since I can’t talk about all the ways I love this game, please check out my review.

Tension and Self-Doubt

Instead, I’m going to focus on just one element of this game that sets it apart. In this case, I think the idea of mercenary units, Foederati in game terms, is a standout concept. The balance of recruiting mercenaries to your side who WILL eventually turn on you is staggeringly cool. This helps demonstrate the constant struggle that the Britons and Duq’s had to deal with as Danes and other invaders crossed the seas to ancient Britain.

Pendragon Early Play 2
Pendragon Early Play 2

This constant fear is something that the other games don’t necessarily create for players. There is a fear of guerilla uprisings, being wiped out by an incredible card coupled with the equivalent of a seek & destroy mission. Players may even face the fear of a partner faction suddenly overusing shared resources effectively clipping your strategy. The slow burn of Pendragon is somehow deeper and more subtle. It creates an inner turmoil about YOUR decisions and not just the decisions of others because you will make choices that come back to haunt you.

Pick up this game by crook or by hook and get it on the table ASAP!

Conclusion

I am regretful that I can’t include all the games I loved this year. There were many! So…as a consolation, I’m going to create a top 20 wargames of 2018 list for your enjoyment and debate!

I love a sale. The build-up to and anticipation felt following the purchases from the many publisher deep discount sales that occur each fall is something I relish. That said, not everyone is feeling the holiday cheer at the timing of these sales or the way in which they’re handled! Who could possibly grinch so hard on these opportunities for gamers to get in on some deep discounts? That’s right, it’s the local retailers who provide the sales, direct local inventory, gaming tables, and local community building that often build a following for the very games on sale. It’s hard to blame them after all, the holiday season traditionally represents the largest retail sales numbers of the year for most local businesses. The direct publisher sales cut into those credit card swipes particularly when timed around the holidays!

This article isn’t intended to play the “woe is me” card for local businesses or to accuse publishers of acting out of some greedy or predatory direct sales practices. Instead, it’s a look at how publishers might better coordinate up and down the supply chain to ensure stores, publishers, and most importantly gamers benefit!

My solution is simple.

Games should be free. Kidding…of course this is going to be more nuanced than that! That said, I also don’t believe there are easy answers here!

Let’s look at the retail environment for a moment. When a game store opens they have to find profitability and though wargames may sell for ~$70 on average at MSRP that ~$35 of revenue every few months or once a month pales in comparison to other product lines like Collectible Card Games, miniature games, and even Living Card Games which each have a steady churn of product and organized play that brings people into the store to buy and play the games purchased. Wargames can be incredibly tricky to stock because wargamers often have very distinctive feelings about specific topics, series, and designers. The burden rests on the retail owner to know their local community. The niche folks aren’t going to be served by an FLGS even IF the store carries wargames as a result.

Couple these revenue and interest constraints with the fact that many gamers don’t have the luxury of living near enough to an FLGS to make the most of this in-stock wargames and publishers need to find ways to get their games to their audience.

There are, of course, a number of online retailers but they rarely restock anything but the most successful series, designers, and publishers. Further complicating this is the high cost of international shipping so not all online stores can reach all parts of the world with games even if they have the game a consumer wants to purchase. As a result of a combination of all these factors wargame publishers need a direct retail strategy in order to get games into the hands of consumers who are eager for their product. Our hobby, after all, remains a niche inside a niche. Even runaway hits like Advanced Squad Leader are expensive to stock and product remains on shelves for years in some cases once the initial core group of series fans have received their initial orders.

The final piece of the puzzle here is the size of wargame publishers. Publishers are sometimes a handful of people as a core group dedicated to their games or a small group of people with many distributed teams based on my admittedly limited understanding from podcasts and articles. That means that shipping is a personal endeavor done by the publisher themselves or perhaps a wife or very part-time employee. Distributors, as a result, play a necessary role in ensuring the supply chain of FLGS’s are fed product so that these small publishers can focus their attention on what gamers want…game development and publication!

So the question remains, what can be done?

I think there are a few things that might help.

The first is quite simple though perhaps the most unpopular. Minimum Advertised Pricing for online retailers. I know that’s unpopular for a lot of reasons not the least of which is that games are already expensive, but this protects the pre-order systems and local retailers who are getting undercut by large online retailers who can sustain the slimmer profits in a small segment of their overall business or for small part-time retailers who are “doing this for the gamers” and don’t necessarily rely on their profits for their livelihood. Leveling the playing field is key.

The second suggestion is a little more complicated, but nonetheless valuable. Allow retailers to sell games at the pre-order price and when the pre-orders ship, the publisher can ship directly to the store in bulk to serve those pre-orders. This will accelerate the preorder system, simplify to some degree international shipping, and provide gamers a trusted local source to make their orders through. While the publisher won’t see the same level of profit, they may very well see a simplification of their post publication shipping and distribution since they can accomplish much of it in larger chunks rather than individually mailed boxes.

The third suggestion is to provide a retailer rewards program. For every dollar of product sold by the retailer, the retailer earns points. Those points translate into discounts that can be passed along to customers during the direct sale period making special orders more competitive with the online annual sale from publishers. This might not 100% match the online sale but the discounts could be issued as rebates through the distributors.

The final suggestion is to move the “big” sale of the year outside the 4th quarter holiday shopping window.

Is any of this realistic? I’m not sure, I can only get the ball rolling on a topic that has been bothering me recently in the wake of all these fantastic sales. There has to be a way for publishers to reward loyal brick & mortar retailers while also remaining friendly and relevant for gamers not lucky enough to have a relevant FLGS near them!

Do these solutions already exist? Let me know and let’s celebrate the cooperation between publisher and brick & mortar retailer!

TitO - Fosters Farm HexThe events described in this article relate to hex 2606 from Revolution Games’ Thunder in the Ozarks (2016).

It’s hard to imagine what Confederate and Union soldiers alike thought when they came upon the eighteen dead Union soldiers who had been scalped, some while still alive, following the skirmish around Foster’s Farm during the battle of Pea Ridge in 1862. Scalping, after all generally was used to exact revenge for killing Cherokee and then typically was only used against other tribes. The only other time it had been a widespread practice was following the promise of bounty payments by the British during the French and Indian War nearly a century earlier. To understand why the Cherokee might have returned to this practice, it’s important to understand how the Cherokee ended up at Foster’s Farm on March 7th, 1862.

The Cherokee were here when the Blue Ridge Mountains were even more mysterious in the morning fog than they are now. To some extent, the story of the Cherokee is the story of European invasion and then adaptation by first nations in the American colonies. The Cherokee, in some cases, adopted European farming practices, professions and even held slaves in rare cases. The promise of the founding fathers, particularly Benjamin Franklin who sought a permanent alliance with the first nations was completely erased by the Indian Removals, most prominently enacted by President Jackson’s Indian Removal Act.

In 1830, Cherokee Chief John Ross argued in front of the Supreme Court in the case of Cherokee Nation vs. Georgia. While the Supreme Court did hear the case, they ultimately decided not to rule on its merits given the “dependent nation” status of the Cherokee Nation. Only a year later, the Supreme Court did rule that the Cherokee Nation was sovereign and that prevented Georgia from imposing its laws inside Cherokee territory. President Jackson refused to acknowledge the decision.

Stand WatieIn effect, the Cherokee Nation was left without a strong ally at either the state or federal level. Because the southern Cherokee had adopted (in some cases) of the practices of southern land owners, like owning slaves, Lincoln adopted a stance that he would condone white settlement on Cherokee lands. Enter Stand Watie, a full blooded Cherokee who in 1837 signed the treaty of New Echota which ceded Cherokee tribal lands in Georgia in exchange for lands in Oklahoma. The treaty would spell Watie’s exclusion from the Cherokee tribe and carried the penalty of death under tribal law. This was never enforced, however, and Watie moved his tribe to Oklahoma settling on the banks of the Honey Creek later that year. Watie was the sole survivor of an assassination attempt in 1839 which kicked off a cycle of violent retaliatory attacks that saw his uncle and brother killed. Watie was ultimately acquitted of all wrongdoing in 1850.

Watie was afraid of the federal intentions to create the state of Oklahoma in what was hitherto Indian lands. As a result, in 1861 Watie accepted a commission in the Confederate Army and immediately began recruiting a divided Cherokee Nation to the southern cause. These men would become the 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles. The Confederates struggled to employ the Cherokee unit and while they fought Union forces, they were also used to fight other native tribes like the Seminoles and Creek who notably opted to support the Union cause.

It was, however, at Foster’s Farm on March 7th 1862 that Watie’s Cherokee would earn their notorious reputation and lead to the Confederate General Pike facing federal charges for inciting war atrocities. So, what happened around Foster’s Farm?

Flag of the Cherokee BravesAs the Confederates approached Leetown, federal troops had taken up positions around a series of farms north of the town. The northernmost of these positions was at the farm of Wiley Foster where a contingency of federal troops and artillery were posted. It fell to Watie’s 1st Cherokee Mounted Rifles to support the attack on the Foster Farm. Instead of a direct attack on the farm, Watie’s men supported an ambush on the 3rd Iowa Cavalry who had been led up a lane by Henry H. Trimble, a veteran of the Mexican War. During the ambush Trimble suffered a grievous wound to his face that resulted in his discharge from service, eight of his men however suffered a far more grotesque fate.

Pea Ridge Painting LOC

During the confusion of cavalry and artillery fight at Foster’s Farm, Watie’s men scalped at least eight Union soldiers. According to a New York Times report from March 14, 1862 there were “Two thousand Indians involved in the battle.”  The number, however, is greatly exaggerated by the Times and though the Times also claimed 18 Union soldiers were scalped, it’s more likely that this is a combined number of scalped and mutilated. Roughly 800 Cherokee soldiers took place in the battle, but the Times article ignited the imagination of savage warfare brought home by Cherokee Indians who had sided with the Confederates.

General Pike, once aware of the massacre, immediately condemned it and went so far as to court martial one of the involved Cherokee soldiers. The press, however, already captivated by the episode would call Pike the leader of an “Aboriginal Corps of Tomahawkers and Scalpers.” It would not, however, appease the public and though Pike resigned his commission in the Confederate Army in July 1862, he would later be brought up on federal charges of inciting war atrocities because of the strong press reaction to the conduct of Pike’s men during the battle.

TitO - NY Times ArticleWatie, would famously go on to be the last Confederate General to surrender at the end of the Civil War on June 23, 1865. As a result of this episode, and the subsequent backlash both in the the south and the north, the leader of the Cherokee Nation, John Ross, sent a letter in September 1862 to President Lincoln conceding that the “great mass of the Cherokee people rallied spontaneously around the authorities of the United States.” The letter, however, would be too little and too late. The conduct of Watie’s soldiers galvanized public opinion about the brutality of native peoples and would be a rallying cry following the Civil War that would lead to the destruction of First Nations sovereignty in the West.

This incident serves as a reminder of the poor treatment of first nations by American Colonists, federal and state governments. These were families looking for a piece of this bountiful land to call their own and live the lives promised to them by their forefathers. Instead, the incompatibility and racism of the European settlers and American Citizenry (including Lincoln) would create conditions in which the combat traditions of the Cherokee would collide with European notions of warfare and conflict. In an already bloody and savage war, the scalping of at least eight Union soldiers at Foster’s Farm by Watie’s men remains one of the most intriguing events of the American Civil War.

It may only be one hex on a map in a boardgame. The story told by that hex and the men who fought there in 1862, however, put into motion a legacy of racial stereotypes and contributed to the end of first nations sovereignty in the American west. The hex is just the culmination and flash point of a decades long struggle to fit in when Europeans came to the new world. Negotiating the harsh historical realities of public sentiment and national determination came to a head at Pea Ridge on Foster’s Farm that March afternoon.

If you enjoyed this article, and would like to see more like, please let me know below in the comments! I am starting a podcast called “In This Hex” and would love for folks who have similar knowledge or stories to tell about their boardgames to come on has content experts. Kind of a “Drunk History” without the funny reenactments and barfing of course! Drop me a line at keith@wargamehq.com if you’re interested or let me know on Twitter @wargamehq.

 

There are so many American Civil War games on the market it has become almost as crowded as the World War II topics! In 2018 alone Longstreet Attacks, Atlanta is Outs, Roads to Gettysburg II, Battle Hymn Vol. I, and Hood’s Last Gamble have found their way from publishers to gamer’s tables. It truly is an embarrassment of riches given how well received these games have been. Each continues either a current popular series like Great Battles of the American Civil War from Multi-Man Publishing or reinvents one like Battle Hymn from Compass Games has done with the Across Five Aprils release from Victory Games almost 30 years ago. Each game brings a unique look at a battle or campaign with well refined rules and seemingly strong play-testing. Today, we’ll be taking a look at Thunder in the Ozarks a Blind Swords game from Hermann Luttmann and Revolution Games.

I’ve been most impressed with the Blind Swords system that powers Hermann Luttmann’s Longstreet Attacks in 2018 (as well as At Any Cost: Metz 1890 from GMT Games). Instead of starting at the end, I already had Thunder in the Ozarks and Stonewall’s Sword which preceded Longstreet’s release. I have to say that Blind Swords might be the best American Civil War tactical series in terms of sheer fun.

Rules Light’ish

TitO - Cavalry StandoffThe rules are not overwhelming. They do, however, present a lot of nuance that creates some particularly thorny decisions for players. While much has been said about chit-pull mechanic games I have to say that appreciating Blind Swords, and Thunder in the Ozarks (TitO hereafter) requires a closer look.  I enjoy reading American Civil War books and I’m struck by how common it is for the narrative description to invoke the relationship between various units as they move into each other’s proximity. To date, this has been handled by savvy players and rulesets that strongly imply why and when you should move units at the tactical level. Blind Swords, on the other hand, outright provides the requirement.

One example of this is artillery which must move when other units move within 2 hexes of the artillery meaning that you cannot order your artillery to remain in obvious harm’s way in order to get off a dying canister shot because the column shifts are favorable. You can receive a charge, but it must be an attack rather than a reckless defensive sacrifice. Cavalry receives their customary ability to escape, but what I like is that transitioning from mounted to unmounted both offers the adversary a chance at opportunity fire AND the cavalry unit becomes an infantry unit for nearly all purposes. I’m not so sure that these are revolutionary concepts, but taken in whole with the rest of the game they feel substantial and provide meat to a relatively light-to-medium weight wargame.

Combat Brutality

TitO - Disrupted Unit

One of the things I lauded in my review of Battle Hymn Volume I was that combat felt significantly bloody. Your choices carried weight and how you chose to expend units in the pursuit of your objectives was a key tension throughout the game. Thunder in the Ozarks has the same weight to the choices. The low counter density and paucity of “strong” units coupled with solid stacking rules means that players have to adapt their offensive and defensive strategies accordingly.

In my first play, I was most concerned with creating a long “un-flankable” line, but learned quickly that this can be a recipe for defeat in detail. Instead, TitO forces you to adapt to the terrain and read the chokepoints at least semi-competently. I, of course, lack these skills but can certainly appreciate the way the game presents the relationship between terrain and units.

Final Thought About Combat Results

TitO - CRT SnippetThe centerpiece of the system, at least for me, isn’t the chit pull or brutality of the combat. The game is, as a whole, easily recognizable faire, but where I think it truly sets itself apart is in the way the game presents the combat results. I like the idea that you’re not necessarily escaping results, your units are tested to varying degrees of intensity. Further, the differentiation between close combat and fire combat to deal with the various outcomes rather than as a unified outcome that only applies additional column shifts or die roll modifiers makes this a lot more fun.

 

TitO - Cohesion TableThe intensity of the result you must check is then combined with dice rolls that represent your losses and your retreat result. Again, the separation does a lot to make the combat more transparent which is greatly appreciated. I’ll dive into this a bit more in my review (coming soon). Blind Swords is a not just a good system, but a great one and I clearly love this game!

 

GMT Games released Skies Above the Reich in late July 2018. Since then, I’ve had an on-again and off-again relationship with this solitaire game set in furballs of the European air war during World War II. Since I’m still not ready to weigh in with a final review, I’ll share some of my observations after my first campaign.

This game is insanely tough!

There’s no way to put this lightly. Skies Above the Reich is a punishing tour de force for new players. The rules are pretty straightforward, but like many great games, the strategy is emergent. For example, it can be tempting to simply say, “I’m going to come in high and from the sun with my entire squadron!” That’s great, but you’re going to get one solid pass and then things are going to go south, particularly because you can’t reliably control where the allied fighters are going to show up.

So, you try the next best thing and you look for ways to come at the bombers from different directions to gain advantage. That’s great, but often times, even in the early war before the boxed formation takes hold, there are deadly kill-zones. You find out quickly that there are few things more terrifying than a bunch of bombers armed to the teeth and all shooting at you!

Finally, you embrace the chaos and attempt to squeeze advantage where you can score it and get somewhat comfortable with the mechanics of fighting the bombers. You’ve forgotten about those pesky Hurricanes, Spitfires, and Mustangs! Next thing you know, oil is spraying over the canopy and you’re just praying the pilot inside can bail out and live to fight another sortie! 

The game is lengthy

Yes, the rulebook warned you that decisions made during setup ARE in fact playing the game. Like the Sun Tzu says, “Every battle is either won or lost before it is fought.” To some degree, that’s true (see above)! It would be a mistake to think, however, that you can breeze through a campaign with the kind of speed you can with say B-17 Queen of the Skies.

Instead, individual scenarios are like Lays Potato Chips. You can’t play just one. You need to string them together to get the cumulative effects necessary of gaining pilot experience in order to mitigate the horrific dogfight casualty results or the shot you took to the wing as you were pulling away from that fallen bomber.

My first campaign took a few days of playing maybe 80 – 90 minutes a crack. I realize that was my first, but if you’re tracking everything and double-checking rules…that’s probably a pretty fair estimation. I know many of you hotshots will be quick to say, “I played a whole campaign in 3 hours.” Good for you! That was not my experience and I’d LOVE to get to the point where that was the case.

A surprisingly large footprint

Skies Above the Reich requires a surprisingly large footprint. You have 5 decks of cards, room to roll dice, chit pull cups, charts, booklets, and beautifully large mounted “maps.” 

I had hoped to leave this fella set up, but it required the better part of one of those game store style banquet tables.

Is it fun?

That’s why I feel like I need to play another campaign. I’m just not sure at this point. I think fans of aviation and particularly of solitaire aviation games are going to LOVE this game. Without hesitation, if you consider yourself part of that fandom…snag a copy of this game TODAY!

For me, I’m not sure just yet. There’s a lot to be said for the emergent gameplay strategy that only reveals itself over many plays. During those plays though, you’re getting smashed in the face repeatedly by a challenging and chart-heavy solitaire game. There’s definitely something special here, but I’m not sold that it’s MY kind of game just yet.

The Mythical Phoenix Rises!

On August 4, 1998 Monarch sold Avalon Hill to Hasbro and, though there were other wargaming companies publishing great games, it was nonetheless the end of an era for many wargamers who the grew up with the hobby.

It might have been tempting to brush this moment off as another evolution and transition of a hobby that saw many publishers rise and fall during even its height of popularity in the 1970’s. After all, Simulations Publications Inc. (SPI) closed its doors 11 years prior in 1987 after a similar set of crises of identity created by new owners and outright mismanagement.

So, what does 2018 have to do with 1998 or 1987? 

The hobby has continued healthy growth, under the steady management of a bevy of publishers. This has included publishers of every stripe from niche publishers like Kevin Zucker’s Operational Studies Group (OSG) to big tent companies like GMT Games. Even new publishers in the United States and elsewhere like Hexasim, Hollandspiele, Compass Games, Victory Point Games and Tiny Battle Publishing are finding a foothold, if not rabid following in the hobby.

Gamers have weathered significant price increases over the last decade and the hobby morphed to include a broader range of high-quality games covering conflicts in ways we’ve not experienced on this scale in the past. Series like COIN, Joel Toppen’s First Nations Solo Series, and the Great Leaders series all come to mind from GMT’s catalog alone. Wargamers are being challenged to re-evaluate what it means both to be a wargamer and what they should expect from wargames.

Classic series still abound as well. Advanced Squad Leader recently made the leap to Korea fulfilling a decades-old “promise.” Series like the Operational Combat Series (OCS) and Standard Combat Series (SCS) from The Gamers, though now published under the Multi-Man Publishing (MMP) roof are still going strong with regular releases and increasingly refined rule iterations.

These are all indicators of the hobby’s relative health and stable footing that has been hard-won after a comparative drought of releasing from the late 90’s through maybe 2004 or 2005.

I want to tackle the two biggest drivers of change happening right now…

Game Evolution & Game Reinvention

GMT Games is beginning to ship the leading edge of their self-termed COIN-fest. This includes a massive reprint order of popular COIN titles from throughout the “series” history. As a part of these reprints, though, designers have re-evaluated their titles with the hindsight of eight incredibly successful games from some of wargaming’s best-known and most-respected designers.

Gamers who are new to the series will get to enjoy a premier wargaming series at the peak of its execution with new versions that fix cards, further redefine the automated bot player logic with a more nuanced approach learned after years of competitive play and evolution of the bot development.

COIN Update Kit

GMT could EASILY have asked longtime series owners to shell out another $60 – $80 at P500 prices for these upgrades. Instead, upgrade kits have been offered to ease the transition so that new and existing fans alike will be able to enjoy the games as their designers have evolved the games.

It is incredibly important to note that designers should absolutely be given the leeway to have their games revisited at any time and, in conjunction with any other co-designers they see fit. After all, many of the games that get this evolutionary treatment are ones that have been revered and include a passionate following.

Evolution vs. Reinvention

Evolution is great, as long as upgrade paths allow existing owners, if possible to upgrade to the latest version. In some cases, this may not be possible. For example, when a game has been out of print and circulation for decades and the game is being provided with new artwork, counters, significant rules updates, and maybe even a new publisher. This is, however, more of a game reinvention than a game evolution.

Game evolution is incremental and is handled in timely updates. Game reinvention involves a fresh approach to the at a lower mechanical level. While many of the rules systems may remain unchanged, a reinvention will showcase an overhaul of one or more systems, components, or presentation elements to the point where the game is largely new for even veteran players.

Two examples of reinvention that come to mind are the released Silver Bayonet from GMT Games which included a solo game, a new approach to smaller scenarios, an incredible “new” map and revamped rules completed in conjunction with a new designer supporting the process.  The result was something truly different, though grounded, in the original release’s purpose. Based on anecdotal feedback from owners of the original who purchased the new copy, they were happy to do so!

France 1944 Preorder Cover

The other example is France 1944: The Allied Crusade in Europe which was originally released back in 1986 by Victory Games. This one is being redesigned by Judd Vance and Mark Herman (the original designer) for Compass Games as a part of their efforts to expose and, in some cases, significantly modernize classic games for a new generation of wargamers. Again, the early descriptions coming out from Twitter about this one sound exciting and the partnership between Vance and Herman is an exciting superfan-superdesigner mashup.

Why Reinvent Classics?

Classics are classics for a reason…right?

Sometimes, yes! Sometimes, it’s not about whether the old-guard deems a game a classic and leaves it as a “shelf queen” untouched. Instead, publishers like Compass Games are actively trying to bring these classic games back into production for a generation of gamers who were not around.

Even games from the late seventies and early eighties are now a generation and a half-old. That’s a lot of gaming eyes that have come and gone without access to what the hobby considers “classic” in any meaningful and actively published way. After all, games are costly to publish and expensive to buy, so there seem to be specific “windows” in hobbyist lives where purchasing these games seem to fall (disposable income in high school or more typically college, then again after gamers have an established job, and finally when they become empty nesters again). 

That’s not universally true, but it seems to ring true with many local gamers who report “just getting back into the hobby after dropping it in college” or “now that my kids are moved out I have time to play with regularity.” As a someone who just turned 40, I can see my gaming time shrinking as my child approaches tween-hood given all the activities in which he’s involved. Finding time in the evenings is even difficult with a job in PR and the schedule uncertainty that can bring with it at times. Many other people have different stories that involve increased business travel, promotions that devour additional hours at the office, divorce, or other significant life changes that push wargaming down the totem pole of priorities.

That only underscores the importance of both evolution and reinvention! 

This is a healthy and significant stage in the wargaming hobby that deserves to be applauded rather than scoffed at by hobbyists. YES, there is some additional cost, but these are optional expenses that are definitely not required to remain engaged. Instead, these are opportunities. 

Opportunities for new wargamers to get invested in classic titles that the old-guard hold near and dear.

Opportunities for old designers to mentor new designers through the process of reinventing classic releases for new audiences.

Opportunities for the hobby to showcase the games that spurred its growth for a whole new generation of gamers.

Opportunities for publishers to keep their catalogs fresh and their game sales high so they can take a risk on the next calculated risk. After all…who would have believed that a game about the longest modern civil war taking place in Columbia would start a gaming revolution that would span eight titles and centuries of insurgency-related conflicts from antiquity to modern day Afghanistan?

Opportunities for old wargamers to reintroduce a game to friends, or just to come to the table with new friends who might not otherwise have been interested in that musty smelling orange and pink colored wargame from 1980-something sitting on the shelf.

I applaud the designers, developers, and publishers taking this approach. It’s an important moment in the hobby to find ways to engage new gamers and this is an excellent strategy! 

I don’t want to play your game if you care so little about its production that you phoned it in on the counters, map art, box design, player aid cards, and map. There, I’ve said it. I know that the quality of the game should matter way more than the quality of the components, but if I’m being 100% honest with myself…it still matters a whole lot more than I care to admit as the price of games continues to rise.

Today’s article is pretty simple, it’s a wishlist for publishers to consider and I hope you’ll add on to this with your thoughts as well to have a public conversation about what we like and don’t like! After all, we’re being held hostage by “the way it’s always been done” in an era where digital publishing and a worldwide network of manufacturers should ensure gamers get what they want.

There are, of course, tradeoffs and publishers try to balance the price of the game with the component count and quality that they demand. Further, the small (by comparison) print runs of boardgames means that there’s a threshold over which even giants like Fantasy Flight Games won’t tread…even as a Kickstarter. So, I fully recognize that the items on this list may cumulatively make games so expensive that they can’t reasonably expect to perform in the market. That said, without saying anything we’re going to continue getting what we’ve always received.

It starts with a box

This is easy…I don’t want a box that has enough room for a small above ground swimming pool unless the components inside demand the box be that big. Some folks like to store their wargaming components in game boxes, but even when the boxes are the deep 3″ – 4″ variety the components (unless bagged) rarely fit in even with thin profile trays like those from GMT Games.

I own a lot of games and it’s irritating when games come in that could have been in a smaller box and now it’s hogging physical space that could store 2 games with the same component count. It’s a waste of money and space…size the boxes for the game inside. That should go without saying, but I see it more frequently than I would like.

Maps are the centerpiece

Maps, for want of a better way to put it are the centerpiece of the majority of tabletop wargames. I want three things:

  1. Durability
  2. Clarity
  3. Appealing artwork

Two of these are on the subjective end of the spectrum, but there are plenty of examples after 50 years of making wargames that should inform artists to the extent possible about what the majority of folks can stomach. As Supreme Court Justice Potter famously said, “I’ll know it when I see it.” In the case of clarity and appealing artwork, there’s a growing consensus specifically around what this is NOT rather than what this IS and taking cues from that shouldn’t be ignored.

Let’s start with durability.

Should maps be mounted? I don’t care one way or the other, but I will say this durability applies to both and my expectation is that the map graphics should flake off from repeated folding and unfolding the game and the seams shouldn’t tear from light usage.

Further, paper should of a sufficiently thick stock that it’s not prone to these problems. Every time I take a paper map out of a box and see that from the initial fold at the factory there are now white lines on the map, I’m looking directly at Compass Games here who seem to charge the most for games with maps that exhibit these issues. It has gotten better in the last few years, especially in 2017 & ’18 releases but a map like the one that came with End of Empire should never have been approved in the proofing stage.

Maps have to sustain holding the pieces, repeated plays, and folding/unfolding on a regular(ish) basis if the game is excellent. Accordingly, it should be tested and given the utmost attention in terms of durability.

What about clarity?

Maps tell a story, but if its impossible to read, then how good is that story going to be? A map like the one in Amateur to Arms is gorgeous, but features horrible information design and layout. Entrances, trails, and boundaries are difficult to see and understand in many cases, especially on the western side of the map.

That said, clarity doesn’t trump aesthetics and maps should be both. There’s a balance that needs to be struck. On the other end of the spectrum are maps from The Gamers which feature smooth flowing, chunky lines, and are boring beyond belief. A little texture goes a long way and no texture is boring. These battlefields were living places and need some character to accompany the clarity or they become clinical.

A few things to consider:

  • Are my elevation changes and dominant terrain features in a hex easily identifiable?
  • Is the typeface period appropriate and easy to read on the map?
  • Are hex outlines understandable even in crowded depictions?
  • Are informational charts on the map placed appropriately and easy to use for both players?
  • Are game-specific features easy to locate and do they feature a creative depiction that’s adapted to the game in a meaningful way?

These questions get at the central challenge of information design for wargaming where there’s a balance to strike between art and design. Start with the feeling and build from there. We’re not trying to play games on an Ellsworth Kelly masterpiece (though that would be pretty awesome if Ellsworth Kelly had designed a wargame board!).

Appealing Artwork

Though the most subjective of my recommendations, it’s one that should be given just as much attention as the component durability. I’m not even suggesting that there’s a “right way” or a paragon of wargame map art. For as many people who love Rick Barber’s maps there are an equal number who don’t find it appealing. The same can be said of The Gamers maps and even the beloved Combat Commander map style.

Art, as much as it is an exercise in subjectivity can be evaluated based on its merits. As such, I think it necessary to propose some criteria for the evaluation of map art.

  1. Does the map evoke the period?
  2. Does the map give a clear picture of the challenges (or lack thereof) of the terrain?
  3. Does the map provide sufficient clarity on terrain occupancy?
  4. Is there sufficient space in the hex, or areas, for the pieces that will be required to occupy it? If not, what alternatives on-map (or off) are provided to players?
  5. Is the color palette both pleasing to the eye and sufficient for the utility of the game?
  6. Are the typefaces used on the map legible, easily seen from where a player will sit, and in geographic proximity to the subject described?

There are, of course, others but these seem to represent the most consistent shortcomings of wargame maps. To people who claim that map art doesn’t matter to them, then great…for some of us it does and if it’s truly not a big deal then why bother chiming in any time someone critiques map art? It gives the impression that you do, very much, care about what map art looks like!

What about counters?

The lessons of UX designer Steve Krug apply in wargame counter design as well (for the most part…).

Here are a few key lessons to learn:

  1. Counters should be usable – Easy to pick up, manipulate, read, and understand intuitively. If the game has lots of stacking, color code them for easy reference and have the colors mean something as well. A giant stack of white counters on top of a gray one is annoying an unusable.
  2. Don’t make gamer’s think – Counters should be easy to understand from an information layout perspective. Be consistent, if movement is always in the lower right corner…keep it there in every counter regardless the unit type. If you use NATO symbols, make sure it’s sufficiently big to see from the table’s edge and that it is used across ALL units of that type. I hate seeing games where some armor is the NATO symbol and on some units it’s the silhouette. Be consistent!
  3. Don’t waste our time – Jamming as much information as you possibly can onto a single counter might feel great because you’ve increased the complexity of the game with minimally adding to the rules overhead someone needs to keep in their brain. Unfortunately, these kinds of counters tend to lend themselves to exceptions which are the enemy of usability.
  4. We form mental maps of information – If the relationship between counters is important, make it obvious at a glance. I don’t want to read the tiny unit designation to figure out which units are in the same formation. Use color. I don’t want to see a tiny depiction of a uniform coat to figure out unit allegiance…La Bataille is guilty of this nonsense.
  5. We are creatures of habit – Use the work that’s come before you and will come after you as a starting point. Failing a compelling and necessary reason, stick with the design patterns that already exist in wargaming. Changing something for the sake of changing it is only going to add to confusion. When you have a novel design that demands the change, it will be intuitive and acceptable, but if you can’t solidly answer “no” to the question, “Could my design work within the norm?” then don’t try to reinvent wargaming. Not only are you not that clever as a design…we’re not that clever as gamers!

I’m going to do a whole article on rulebooks, so let’s leave this here for the time being and we’ll wade into rulebooks and player aid cards at a later date.

As always, if you want to weigh in on this article … hit me up below in the comments or over on Twitter @wargamehq! 

 

“Am I doing this right?”

That’s the question I find myself asking more than any other when I wargame. My hobby doesn’t set off some kind existential crisis, but wargames can be complicated either in the structure and length of rules or in the intricate ways in which the systems of a game interact. Regardless of the cause, I’m struck by how frequently I’m doubting either what I’m reading (or re-reading) in a rulebook as I play the game.

I don’t think my experiences are so unique to myself. In a recent post on Boardgamegeek.com a user raised a very similar question and I thought it was such a good question that I wanted to take some time to address it.

A little night music…

When I was 6 my dad bought my mother a piano for their anniversary. Both of them wanted to learn to play an instrument and 34 years old is as good as any time to learn to play an instrument so they began getting lessons. I was captivated by this instrument and soon learned to pluck out the melodies of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other John Williams scores by ear. After a few years and some begging, my parents relented and I began taking piano lessons.

There are a few hard and fast rules you learn early on when you’re taking piano lessons:

  1. Keep your fingers curved like you’re loosely holding an orange.
  2. The composer wouldn’t have put that mark on the sheet music if they didn’t want you to follow it.
  3. Practice the left hand and right hand separately and then bring them together if you’re running into problems.

These simple rules underscore much of learning to play music and I still follow these three simple lessons when I’m practicing and playing as an adult even though my time is much more precious these days!

What does this have to do with wargaming?

Simply put each of these lessons should be followed AND broken when wargaming.

Keeping your fingers curved and over the keys is critical for the dexterity necessary to playing complex rhythms with fidelity. In wargaming, of course, having the right tools for the job are key and sometimes that means breaking out tweezers, a piece of string or laser pointer, and more directly organizing the game pieces in such a way that you can quickly set up and tear down a game when necessary!

What about the sheet music?

Again, the designer and developer presumably spent a significant amount of quality time in front of a word processor to bring these rules to you. They are each important and they each contribute to the enjoyment and fidelity of the game’s resolution.

However, like sheet music, everyone develops a musical style and sometimes you get the same results with “close enough” and learning to fudge the notes in such a way that allows you provide a close-enough approximation without damaging the integrity of the piece you’re playing.

The same is true of wargaming as well, as much as I’m sure publishers, developers, and designers are cringing right now as they read this. The bottom line is that all these folks are trying to bring a fun game to your tables that allow you to explore the historical, hypothetical, or fantastical topic covered by the game. There’s a level of trust and implied contract that when you buy a game you’ll try to learn the rules in order to bring that game to life as the designer originally intended.

Mistakes were made

The problem, of course, is that we’re humans and rulebooks do not program our brains like a computer programmer can write the code of an application. Instead, designers are relying on an imperfect machine, our brains, which make substitutions, interpret things differently, and are full of the non-hobby information we need to live our lives and perform our work.

As a result, we’re bound to make mistakes and how we deal with that is at the heart of our relationship with games.

Improvising for fun and profit

Repeated plays almost always evolve our understanding of the rules, but the payoff of improved rules understanding doesn’t always correlate with an equivalent appreciation or sense of fun in playing the game.

As a result, I’ve grown to approach wargame rulebooks more like sheet music and less like dogma and more like the lead sheet for a jazz session.

That doesn’t mean I’m throwing away all interest in playing by the rules or demanding my improvised way is THE way the rules “should” have been written. Quite the opposite actually. When I was learning Battle Hymn Vol. 1 from Compass Games, for example, I struggled mightily with the combat resolution systems for the first few games. I knew it wasn’t quite right and I kept asking questions online and re-reading the rules and eventually I got it. My enjoyment was in playing the game, though improvised at first, as I moved toward greater understanding.

Danger Ahead!

There is danger in this cavalier approach to wargame rules that, critically, needs to be taken into consideration. First and foremost, if you’re not following the rules AND you’re not having a good time with the game…please don’t go online and throw out your opinions as though you’re well-informed.

As we learn from Steven Covey in his work around The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, seek first to understand and then to be understood.

In short, ask questions about WHY you might not be enjoying the game and only after you find answers render a more informed opinion.  The trick here, of course, is self-awareness that you’re not following the game’s rules. I’ve been tricked by my own faulty sense of self-assurance on more than one occasion, but asking questions like, “The combat isn’t working out like I thought it would, does anyone else feel this way?” or even more aggressively like, “Applying these values BEFORE the odds determination seems dumb, wouldn’t it make more sense if they were die roll modifiers instead?”

On multiple occasions, I learn that I’m doing something wrong and being open to that rather than getting defensive has lead to more wargame and piano breakthroughs than I care to admit!

Practice makes perfect-ish

The more we play, both an instrument and a wargame, the better we get at it. Bad practice, with both, however, makes for bad play which is why I leave this as the final caution and is another way wargames and playing piano are similar.

It can be tempting to fall into an easy sense of “this is close enough and I’m having a good time!” Fight this urge, I can tell you that I fell into this trap with the incredible Fire in the Lake from GMT Games and only after playing it opposed against a few different folks did I learn just how much richer this game was than I ever would have realized on my own.

That’s not to suggest that solo play is inadvisable, but definitely take it with the biggest grain of salt until you’re tested both strategically and rules master-wise by another player.

When I was a kid, my mother would always remind me to practice. I wanted to be outside playing. I wanted to be doing pretty much anything other playing piano. When I was at my most defiant, she would remind me that this was a skill that could be applied across all areas of my life and would serve me well in the future. I’m certain she didn’t realize that might include in wargaming, but I’m glad she was right and I hope this has provided at least a little fun diversion for thinking about wargaming.

Tell me about it!

Like it? Hate it?

Tell me about it below, or hit me up on social media over at @wargamehq on Twitter!

We are still remembering the tragic loss of millions during the Great War which raged through November of 1918 and my sincere hope is that the centennial celebration of Armistice Day will serve as a moment for world leaders to recommit to peace as the first and only option in diplomacy. Great War Commander (hereafter GWC) was released in 2018 by Hexasim and transports the GMT Games Combat Commander series back in time to World War One. How did the series hold up through the changes required to make this jump? Read on and find out.

First, it is important to understand what this game is trying to achieve. It is a tactical squad-based game with infantry, support weapons such as the Hotchkiss MG, off-board artillery, and yes tanks which make their appearance in late war scenarios. The 12 maps that come with the game are non-geomorphic and therefore cannot be combined to diversify the terrain or create epic-sized battles. In fact, each map could have been bigger, but many of the repetitive game tracks are printed along one edge rather than being printed on a separate player aid card as in Combat Commander.

Players take the role of a commander for the French, American, or Imperial German nations. No British? Correct! My suspicion is that they will be included alongside other missing powers like Italy and Russia in a forthcoming expansion. Players command anywhere from 12 to 30 units taking turns playing a random hand of cards that contain actions, events, and dice rolls.

I won’t get into the mechanics here except where necessary, but they work well. One of the issues many players who didn’t like Combat reported was the lack of necessary actions to do anything meaningful during their action phase which lead to a lot of missed opportunities and discarding cards that could have been valuable in conjunction with coveted move or rally cards. GWC handles this by including fewer so-called dead cards. In the half dozen scenarios I played this was an issue maybe once or twice and was fixed during the first discard and draw I took.

Players use these cards in order to attack or defend (and usually a little bit of both) the five objectives that are pre-printed on the map. What keeps this exciting is the random chit pull for the value of the objectives. Some objectives may be worth just 1 point, but other objective chits increase their value to 3 or 5. Some objectives provide additional value to exiting friendly units off the board. Scenarios define specific objectives that are open to both players to use and see while players randomly draw secret objectives as well which can dramatically shift the balance of victory points.

While we are on the subject of victory points, the system uses a base-zero victory point slider meaning that the armies share the same number of victory points when the victory points total is zero.  When one army has additional victory points then the marker counts up from zero to account for the difference. I like this method because it provides players with an opportunity to see their relative performance rather than an arbitrary victory point score.

Because the game features an incredible amount of. Randomization, I think it is important to note how turns end.  Players draw cards for their hands, the size of which is determined by the scenario and the role that the army is playing. Attackers, for example, get 6 cards while defenders only receive 4. Inside this, there are limits to the number of orders that can be issued per side and how many cards that side can discard at a time. During the meat of the game, players will play cards from their hands and draw cards to both resolve those actions and replenish their hand size. At times there are keywords that trigger random events, snipers, and the turn end.

That means that scenario length can be quite variable, but even replaying scenarios didn’t reveal any shortcomings. It is clear that quality playtesting helped address this when fine-tuning scenarios which rarely were decided by more than 5 points. In fact, the core game mechanics are as strong here as they were in Combat Commander and the adjustments in orders give this game a feel like the stories shared by Rommel in his seminal Infantry Attacks which outlines small unit actions of the First World War.

Strategy Cards

Great War Commander - Strategy Cards

Great War Commander – Strategy Cards

One of the innovations that Great War Commander brings to the Combat Commander formula is the Strategy Card which provides the players with a one-time bonus. This bonus might take the form of a die roll modifier in the attack or defense, or it might grant your forces a special action. Cards are drawn at random from a small pool of Strategy Cards and are a welcome wildcard addition to the game. There’s nothing more disappointing than seeing someone commit to close combat only to have them play a card that effectively gives them the ambush action for that combat. I love this little tweak to the gameplay and find that it gives forces a national identity that doesn’t need to be memorized or cataloged on a player aid card.

So, how about those tanks?

Great War Commander - Tanks On The Move

Great War Commander – Tanks On The Move

Simply put, tanks add some additional complexity to the game and showcase the show-stopping power of these new and frequently faulty war machines. Tanks span two hexes and lumber forward with showstopping power and range. Their two guns give them unparalleled dominance in terms of firepower. That said, the tanks must pass a bog check and upon the destruction of the first tank in the platoon, they must be individually activated and lose the ability to platoon activate making them slower. On top of that, tanks are prone to bogging in the shell holes that litter the maps in which they are featured. As a result, tanks can be stopped not by enemy artillery or mortar fire, but instead because they throw a track or get stuck in some other way.

The range of the tank’s weapons and the fact that a fire command allows them to engage with multiple targets makes their deadly force that much more intimidating on the battlefield. In fact, tanks that bog even part of the way across the no-mans-land of trench warfare scenarios can bring devastating power to bear on the enemy. It’s hard to imagine a force more deadly within the game, but there remains one thing even more fearsome: artillery.

King of the Battlefield

That’s right, the impact of artillery upon World War I cannot be undersold. From the opening madness inside the Belgium forts at Liege to the devastated landscapes familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the conflict artillery literally reshaped modern warfare. The evolution of air combat was, at first, an attempt to bring more accurate artillery to bear on enemy trenches and positions. Aircraft were scouts before they were fighters after all. Artillery is readily accessible, accurate, and deadly in GWC to the point where I have to wonder why were World War I battlefields littered with shell holes if artillery was this effective? The process of laying down a barrage is quite simple:

  1. Play the Artillery Request card
  2. Roll for accuracy
  3. Place the round in the hex where it lands AND the six surrounding hexes
  4. Resolve attacks per the artillery caliber on each of the hexes.

This is a quick, streamlined process that facilitates drama and devastation. It is, however, seemingly too accurate and powerful for something that occurs fairly frequently within the player decks. In fact, I ended up creating a slight adjustment to the rules to make it a little less devastating by using leadership as a modifier for the attacks. Leaders in GWC have a 1, 2, or 3 leadership rating. As a result, I recommend altering the accuracy check to be colored die multiplied by white die MINUS the difference between 3 and the leadership rating of the leader commanding the formation making the attack. This, of course, relies on a few things…the first is that Artillery Requests don’t actually activate a unit or formation they just use a unit as the spotter, so I’m creating some overhead by saying that spotter must be in command range AND that you use the leader who would command that unit for the leadership rating.

In the end, this process altered the chances just enough to make the shots a little more unpredictable which helps units from getting into knife-fight range and then calling down artillery in preparation for an Offensive card play that will overrun an injured enemy. There is enough risk-reward built into the game already and using artillery as a “sure thing” just didn’t sit well with me in my playthroughs. I’m torn in that I recognize the importance of artillery and how it shaped World War I tactics, strategy, and the evolution of aerial combat, but by the same token in terms of the scope of the game it didn’t feel quite right. I will always recommend playing the rules as written to get started, but my variant might help address your concerns if you continue to have them as I did.

Finally, I want to address the maps which are gorgeous works of art in every respect. Unfortunately, GWC adopted the fixed on-map objectives from Combat Commander. The nature of trench warfare, however, doesn’t necessarily lend itself to these fixed objectives and though the scenarios presented are interesting for both sides, there’s little room to build your own scenarios that will be as interesting. One of the things that has generally separated long-term success versus short-term success for tactical games is how active the community is in building content to support the game. In the case of Advanced Squad Leader I have five 3″ binders full of scenarios both official and third-party produced. The steady stream of new content takes advantage of geomorphic maps and the ability to truly customize the game to fit the needs of a specific scenario. In GWC’s case, the maps themselves are a fantastic cross-section of World War I terrain, but the fixed objectives means that similar patterns of gameplay and defensive points will naturally remain the same between scenarios. The random selection of objective values and modifiers changes the pattern, but only slightly.

Take to the Skies

Great War Commander - Map Detail

Great War Commander – Map Detail

I mentioned aircraft and they are in Great War Commander to provide close air support through strafing and bombing runs. There are even little fighter plane tokens to mark your attacks. Ultimately, this felt a little tacked on, but was a fun way to give the game three-dimensions and though the use of air support was never decisive, it was exciting. Planes, depending on the year, can make bombing runs which attacks a single hex, or a strafing run which attacks adjacent hexes. Both attacks have their own combat factors, but the activation of the aircraft never feels like it costs anything. It’s just a bonus to what’s already going on, almost like a random event rather than the calculated arrival of close air support which one might expect at this level. After all, the combat is tactical so the chances that a single plane would suddenly appear at this point and this moment to strafe seems like a matter of convenience here rather than a matter of necessity otherwise it might be more frequent or impactful given the nature of the air war in World War I.

Conclusion

Great War Commander is a ton of fun, but it’s fun that requires you turn off your analytical/historical brain for a moment to revel in the great scenarios and gameplay. The underlying core is exciting and many of the “shortcomings” from Combat Commander have been addressed. The feeling of an empty-hand is all but eliminated and the new elements like artillery, aircraft, and tanks all provide necessary World War I flavor even if they aren’t perfectly implemented. GWC clearly respects its predecessor, but in some ways that may have held it back from truly transforming the Combat Commander system into something spectacular and fresh. New ideas are a great start, and the presentation is top notch, but once the scenarios are played and the game returns to the shelf, it’s hard to imagine pulling it back out until the expansion (if there is one) comes along with new challenges. In the interim, my sincere hope is that the designers rethink both artillery and aircraft to give them a more historic context. Tanks, for all their shortcomings in the games, are incredibly fun and add a new dimension to problem solving on attack and defense. If you’re a World War I buff who needs every World War I game that comes out, then this is your game. If you’re on the fence and love Combat Commander then you might give this one a try before diving in headfirst. It’s a great lightweight World War I skinned game that gets just enough right to keep my interest though.

 

It’s hard to picture what 24 year old Calvin A. Haynes might have imagined when he left his home in what is now East Nassau New York to enlist in the Union Army during the summer of 1862. After all, he had a wife, a daughter, a home, and presumably the comforts of friends and family that you tend to gather over a life spent in one area. What is certain though is that almost a year later, Haynes would describe the aftermath of the battle of Gettysburg to his wife by simply saying, “I went over the field; such a sight I wish never to see again. Every conceivable wound that can be thought of was there…It is beyond the power of man to describe a battle field.”

Gettysburg Casualty

Gettysburg Casualty

Wargaming can be an almost clinical look at the tragic suffering of the men and women who fought or were swept up in the battles about which our games simulate. After all, it wasn’t long after Andean Abyss, the first COIN series title, that I was on an interview team for a Colombian who had fled his homeland because of escalating violence and threats by the FARC against his family. Surely, the citizens who witnessed the historical events laid out in the games that make up our hobby bear both physical and mental scars that they will struggle with throughout their lives. For, the citizens of Gettysburg, their homes were turned en masse into hospitals and scenes of the agony of war.

In a hobby crowded with games about Gettysburg, how does Battle Hymn stand out from the crowd? Simply put, it pairs the game with Pea Ridge, considered the “Gettysburg of the West,” and represents combat in as the visceral slaughter it was during this early-industrial revolution era combat. Designer Eric Lee Smith has managed to create a system in Battle  Hymn that both a) redefines how players need to consider the effectiveness of their fighting forces and b) could be one of the best American Civil War combat systems ever devised.

I will provide a few disclaimers here, as I do with most of my reviews. I only played the Gettysburg battle and therefore I can only speak about how it worked, but the system itself is the same in both battles. I am not an American Civil War expert on par with many of you and so you’ll need to draw your own conclusions about the information presented herein. Finally, I only mention component quality if it stands out in some way either good or bad. In this case, I’ll get it out of the way and say that I love the maps for both scenarios as they are spectacular in capturing the look and feel of maps from this era. Beyond that, the components are solid and meet the needs of the game.

In the last ten years (since 2008) there have been 29 Gettysburg games released. Some deal with a specific aspect of the battle like the recently released Longstreet Attacks: The Second Day at Gettysburg, while others are surveys of the whole battle in varying levels of detail ranging from postcard-sized games, those which have received the Rachel Simmons treatment (Guns of Gettysburg), and even the grand tactical level of a monster like The Gamers’ Last Chance for Victory. In each game, the battle remains the same, the order of the battle is there, and the terrain follows the same broad strokes. The phases of Gettysburg are unmistakable.

Battle Hymn Detail

Unions cavalry encounters a steadily growing and overwhelming force of Confederate troops. Just as the cavalry is about to break, the I Corps of the Union Army shows up and stalls the initial Confederate push. As the first day wears on, the Union is forced back through town and on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. More Confederates arrive and the whole battle seems like it’s going to go the Confederates who are now probing the flanks of the Union army. Miraculously, and overnight, the Union Army gets into place and the bloodiest fighting is found on the 2nd day as the Union reserves plug holes in the fish-hook shaped line they’ve established. When possible, the Union army is able to extend their lines and eventually, the Confederates attempt one last gasp offensive push to break through the Union lines. From there, it’s cleanup.

We’re familiar with this often repeated process and regardless of the scale presented, if you’re maneuvering units in and around Gettysburg the battle is a close fought thing the whole time. It is why I’m so attracted to the topic as a historical wargame! The problem is that each Gettysburg game is somewhat of a “been there done that” experience without something truly fresh and new. The Line of Battle treatment of Gettysburg in Last Chance for Victory provided the best grand tactical look at the game since GMT’s evolutionary release of the original Terrible Swift Sword in their 3rd Edition of Three Days at Gettysburg. That said, the attraction was in the details and calculating the primary weaponry of each side as a part of the combat resolution. For folks who wanted to get into the nuts and bolts (or the bolts and stocks as it were) of Gettysburg could do so in Last Chance for Victory. Guns of Gettysburg stands out as another experience that focused almost exclusively on the variability of the reinforcements and how/where they would enter the battlefield. It was an exciting and fresh take, but one that had dense rules that were difficult to parse and though noteworthy failed to find a rabid broad fanbase.

Eric Lee Smith’s own Across 5 Aprils from Victory Games marches these same fields back in 1992. Since then, Mr. Smith has had plenty of time to hone his understanding of what made that game great and what could be improved upon for Battle Hymn. The counter layout is similar and there are definite links to the prior game in Smith’s Battle Hymn, but the place where I think this game distinguishes itself is by bringing home the visceral nature of combat results in the American Civil War.

It is important to note that units take both manpower and morale damage in this game which combine to make units ineffective first and eliminated second. In game terms, units become shattered where all remaining manpower factors have been demoralized. Units are eliminated when they no longer have manpower factors left. That said combat doesn’t wear down the manpower factors as quickly as it wears down the morale of the units which represents a sort of unit morale and cohesion here. With that background, we can look a little closer at what this means in broad strokes first and then in more detail second.

From the player’s overall perspective this style of combat means that you are thinking about waves of units that must be staged in order to gain ground. Blood will pay for every hex once you make contact and before that with bombardment which steady wears down the morale of the advancing units from as far as 3 hexes away. As a result, the timing of combat is essential.

Battle Hymn relies on a chit pull unit activation system that works perfectly for both opposed and solitaire play. Turns are tense and having the initiative means your side gets to determine when they hold their combat turn rather than through random draw. This is critically important because there are times when you’re crossing your fingers to draw just one more brigade from your side so you can pull off a decisive multi-hex combat only to get your hopes dashed when your opponent pulls their combat chit from the cup. The whole game is dramatic in that way, even from the first turn which most folks can attest (aside from the Avalon Hill Gettysburg ’88 edition) is usually a snooze-fest of first steps onto the battlefield.

Battle Hymn - Chit Draw

Battle Hymn – Chit Draw

Much is abstracted in this game which means both quicker play and that the fluid turn structure keeps both players involved at all times. In some wargames, your opponent could be reading a book, sending some e-mails, or browsing Reddit while you take your turn. Though those games can be rich and full of fun, the downtime is kind of a bummer and is especially so when you’re trying to introduce the game to someone who might not be familiar with wargaming! Battle Hymn is a great way to introduce an American Civil War history buff to tabletop wargaming. They’ll be able to apply their knowledge, see expected outcomes and experience the wrath of poor die rolls and the ecstasy of pulling off a great maneuver and rolling well.

As each player plans their movements, they’re thinking after the first few turns about the fact that it’s pretty common to see your units suffer at least one demoralization increase and potentially even one strength point reduction. This means that each unit is a bit like a timer on the battlefield and you have to read the tea leaves for how long you think they can remain an effective fighting unit. They don’t rally during the day and days are at least 9 turns long with the first day at 11 one-hour turns. The math is as much about fighting effectiveness as it is about firepower.

While I generally don’t like to get into the details of game mechanics, I think since combat is the centerpiece of this review that I should at least give it a high-level overview.

When units move in this game, they are given an approach marker which effectively makes them more difficult to hit but does provide the defender facing them an opportunity to make a preemptive fire combat attempt. In many cases, both units involved in combat will have an approach marker on them. While it’s rare for this to cause massive damage, the initial phases of combat (Bombardment and Approach Fire) are intended to set up the overall effectiveness of the meat of the combat phase. Canons roar first and can only inflict demoralization increases, which in some cases for units defending on the edge can be the difference-maker. In one case, I had a Union I Corps unit defending on Culp’s hill following the retreat through Gettysburg and 6 combat factors of artillery blasted away from two hexes out at the unit. That was 6 die rolls and 2 of them resulted in hits by rolling 1’s. My poor morale checks sent my Union unit to the Shattered box.

Battle Hymn - Combat

Battle Hymn – Combat

Once the opening shots are traded, units make their actual combat checks with the defender’s terrain setting the to-hit number which is subsequently modified by hexside effects and unit types. For example, infantry firing on cavalry or artillery provide different modifiers. After that, all un-demoralized and remaining strength points roll a single d10. Anything equal to or less than the to-hit number lands a hit and the unit is marked with a hit marker to track those hits. In multi-hex combat, the firing unit must split it’s available strength points between the enemy units adjacent to it. This means that those long lines of Confederate and Union forces slamming into one another creates a chaotic rolling line of combat split only by gaps in the line. As such, that combat chit I mentioned before is often the difference maker in who has their forces in place to receive or launch an attack properly. Once hits have been allocated to both sides, the defender (side who didn’t play their combat turn chit) resolves their morale checks first which are modified by their unit’s inherent morale. This number also, equally, modifies the combat roll which is sometimes a negative thing for that unit.

The first failed morale check for fire combat is a loss of a strength point. Subsequent failures increase the demoralization level. As such, tending to the demoralization of units is absolutely key and retreats/retreat planning become essential. It’s possible for retreating units to cause a morale check in units behind the lines simply by being forced to rout through that unit’s hex. This can create a cascade of panic behind the lines if poorly planned.

As a result, when the first night finally arrives, the Union and to a lesser degree the Confederates, must attend to the specific units they need to see combat effective in the coming day. Players are faced with tough choices, do I want the unit who will be great in combat, but perhaps weaker at morale checks or do I want the units who can more easily avoid morale check failures but are weaker in combat? My experience is that a blend of these unit types are necessary to make the most of the forces at your disposal. It gives a great perspective on the battle because casualty management and the morale state of your army are at the forefront of your command decisions at all times. As a result, this is one of the best American Civil War games ever released in my opinion.

Smith’s work here is extraordinary. Though I struggled with the rules at first and am still not 100% certain I have everything figured out exactly, I can solidly say that Smith’s approach to combat and how he chose to create some ambiguity in terms of combat effectiveness is a smooth experience that allows you to play the game rather than fight the rules. The more experienced I get with wargaming the more I appreciate the hobby for its two, sometimes opposed, sides. The side the revels in the glory of minutia. That feeling when you’ve built a great strike force, deployed them well, and outfoxed your opponent based on the tiny details of the rules. You feel like the commander who had to deal with all the variables of combat and you’ve distinguished yourself! The other side of the hobby which is about the enjoyment of the history, fellowship, and measure player strategic thinking against one another in a fast-paced, almost chess-like environment. This game solidly meets the latter’s needs fully, but doesn’t totally ignore the person who wants to dig into the little details because of how the night turns are structured.

During the night turns, units have the option to rally rather than move since rallying consumes the unit’s entire movement. For units on the map, they need to be out of line of sight of an enemy and for units previously shattered this is their opportunity to return to play. That said, Smith made such a great design decision here by both not allowing a unit to ever fully recover since in the context of the compressed timeline that would have been unlikely and to tie how many SPs could return to a non-demoralized state to the unit’s morale. For those keeping score at home, that’s combat resolution, morale checks, and SPs that can rally all tied to the one morale factor on the counter.

Strong design means tackling an aspect of the topic with a clear vision and well-considered rules that get rid of anything that doesn’t pursue the central truth of the designer’s vision. Smith has done this here in his unrelenting presentation of American Civil War combat as a savage, bloody, and horrific event that spares no one and gets at the events Calvin Hayes saw upon that Pennsylvania battlefield nearly 155 years ago. Many American Civil War games have been released and many of those cover Gettysburg, but few leave a lasting impression about the carnage of warfare in the way Battle Hymn does. This is wargaming at its finest. It presents the players with the historical context, a fine game, and critically a lesson about the topic that lasts well beyond the time when the counters have been returned to their trays. Smith and Compass Games have a phenomenal start to a new wargame series on their hands and I cannot recommend this game highly enough.