There are an (over?) abundance of World War II tactical games. Make no mistake, the last 20 years have given us new content and series like:

  • Advanced Squad Leader
  • Advanced Tobruk
  • Band of Brothers
  • Combat Commander
  • Combat Infantry
  • Company Scale System
  • Conflict of Heroes
  • Fields of Fire
  • Fighting Formations
  • Grand Tactical Series
  • Lock ‘N Load Tactical
  • Old School Tactical
  • Panzer
  • Panzer Grenadier
  • Platoon Commander
  • Sergeants
  • Tactical Combat Series
  • Valor & Victory
  • War Storm Series

There are probably some others I’ve forgotten, but these are the series that jump off the page at me when I consider tactical (some grand tactical) and World War II.

The question we’ll be tackling today about tactical WWII games is why some of these games thrive (continue with years of releases and new content) and why some fade away. In future articles, I’ll get into the various merits of the systems and how/why folks might choose these systems.

Why is tactical appealing?

I think the first thing we need to discuss is why tactical world war ii games are so more prevalent than any other tactical game genre with the exception of fantasy tactical (Gloomhaven, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.).

I think there are really three main reasons for this:

Kelly's Heroes Movie Still
  1. They allow players to “take part” in the war movies they’ve seen. War movies are RARELY solely about the operational or strategic decisions that get made. Instead, they focus on a human drama that happens to be set against a backdrop of war. Given that World War II occupies this “just cause” moral fiber, telling stories of heroism, depravity, and redemption are magnified by the stakes and setting. Tactical World War II allows us to relive these moments and feel the punches land in a personal way that broader scopes struggle to conjure in our imagination.
  2. Tactical games deliver faster shots of dopamine to the brain. According to an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Science & Arts, our brains crave a steady diet of dopamine. In the article, smartphone apps are created in such a way to optimize the predictive centers of the brain with an outcome in order to engage and maximize the pleasure/reward sensation of a dopamine release. Tactical games offer this steady diet of dopamine. Generally speaking, tactical WWII games put die rolling on charts at the forefront of the resolution of nearly everything imaginable and then pace those die rolls across a turn in such a way that you remain engaged. Consequently, you brain is getting a faster and more steady dopamine injection when “the dice are rolling your way.”
  3. The barrier to understanding what’s happening is much lower than operational or strategic level games. This isn’t to suggest that these games are less complex. I only need to point to the frustration of learning Advanced Squad Leader or Fields of Fire to trigger a negative response from at least part of the reading audience! In fact, this point is related to the first point I made. Anyone who has ever played a First Person Shooter game will understand the dynamics of movement, shooting, cover, and objectives. The skills learned playing a game like Call of Duty or Battlefield ARE transferable to tactical WWII games. This has only become more evident as the first person shooter genre adds greater depth and complexity to the choices required by players.

All Tactical Games Aren’t Created Equally

If the above justifications for the relative popularity of tactical WWII games have left you questioning why everyone isn’t enamored with these games the reasons are many. In fact, too many to list here. Don’t misunderstand my point and think I’m suggesting there is a universal appeal. I only bring up the points above to provide a framework for understanding why there’s a glut of these game systems on the market. In fact, that leads me to my next point…if these games are so great…why aren’t they ALL popular.

Clearly, if tactical WWII games are triggering dopamine reactions and are so easily relatable then it must just boil down to personal preference! You are right…from a certain point of view. Simply ask wargamers which WWII tactical system they prefer and you’re likely to get impassioned pleas from the fanatics of each series. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that some games are thriving while others are not.

What does a thriving game look like?

In order to understand why a game thrives, we must first understand what “thriving” means in the context of this article. Here are some criteria for a thriving game:

  1. The game system receives active updates from its publisher. This means new games, expansions, articles, scenarios, and maybe sponsored tournaments.
  2. The game system is actively discussed across multiple major venues. While most game systems will have their niche haven for conversation, I’m talking about a game system that receives conversation on what I’ll call the “big 3” for wargaming (BoardGameGeek, ConSimWorld, and maybe a generalist Facebook group).
  3. The game system is actively supported by fans. This means new expansions, unofficial scenarios, fan sponsored tournaments, and game nights/clubs dedicated to the game.
  4. The series has demonstrated longevity of support in at least one of the other categories. A game that hasn’t had active development that still receives discussion is the Tank Leader series from West End Games (and soon Compass Games). Plenty of active discussions over the 30 years since release. Another, would clearly be Advanced Squad Leader and Advanced Tobruk which have had plenty of releases in the last 20 years to demonstrate a serious commitment to longevity.

This framework works well for older and newer games because a healthy pipeline of products is a good indicator of future support. In the case of Combat Commander which has been wildly successful, I would suggest that without some “new blood” in the system…it will begin to fade away no matter how frequently the core game is demanded in reprint.

A thriving game isn’t exclusively measured by sales. It’s measured in how actively played the game is in both casual AND competitive play. How many resources are dedicated to supporting the game well after release by the publisher AND by the community. We have a lot of newbies on the list like Old School Tactical, Lock ‘N Load Tactical 5.0, and even Platoon Commander or Combat Infantry which took their first steps in 2019 and 2018 respectively.

Framework Evaluated

Now that I’ve said my piece let’s evaluate a few popular titles and see if they meet this definition of thriving or not! These results are ENTIRELY up for debate because they’re solely from my perspective, but hopefully you’ll find merit in the evaluation. They should, at a minimum, appear even handed.

Advanced Squad Leader – Thriving

This one is almost impossible to dispute. The game is releasing new content from first and third party publishers all the time. There are tournaments on every continent annually and the game has sustained it’s following for 34 years at this point.

Advanced Tobruk – Not Thriving

ATS Cover

This one SEEMS to meet a lot of the criteria. There was a new rulebook in 2014, Critical Hit seems to unload a boatload of content (more on that in a moment) and there are definitely people who play it casually. That said, a lot of the “new content” is really just rehashed old content that was either produced specifically for Advanced Squad Leader or that had a different name a decade ago that has now been re-released at a significantly higher price-point to make it APPEAR to be something it is not. This is the opposite of the North Carolina state motto “To be rather than to seem.”

Band of Brothers – Not Thriving

Again, this title seems to check a lot of the boxes above. That said, the product support has been pretty sparse. The last meaningful release for this game was in 2016 with Texas Arrows. Band of Brothers is an excellent system, but it seems like the gameplay follows in waves after the release as new players discover it and existing players work through the scenarios. I can’t recall a tournament setting for this one, but that may be a result of my limited convention expertise.

Combat Commander – Thriving

Combat Commander Europe Cover

Here’s where we see how a game can have a lackluster ongoing publication schedule, but a ton of tournament and casual play to keep it thriving. The last release was the 2015 Tournament Battle Pack, but the game, although slipping, has a substantial following still that exceeds that of most other tactical WW2 games.

Fields of Fire – Not Thriving

As much as my bias wants to prevent this…Fields of Fire is not thriving. There was a lengthy playtesting for the new version and it keeps getting kicked down the road. The original release scared people away with a confusing rulebook and a very different approach to tactical WW2 combat. Consequently, Fields of Fire has become something of a cult product rather than a thriving tactical WW2 system. Maybe the new release will help turn that around?

Conclusion

You can get a sense of how I’m considering what is thriving and what is not. I would say that my system is pretty charitable, if not overly so. In the next article, we will look at how a few tactical WW2 systems have found a niche and why they seem to thrive.

Until then, share what your favorite system is and whether or not you think it’s thriving in the comments below!

There’s nothing sweeter than getting the roll you need to eliminate an enemy unit. That is, of course, unless you can immediately advance after combat into the hex or area that the enemy vacated! Advance after combat has been with the hobby for as long as I can remember and provides players with an immediate, time-bound tactical decision.

Today we’re going to look at Advance After Combat and when and how you can exploit it in your games.

The Basics

Advance After Combat (AAC hereafter) allows one, or more, attacking units to advance into the hex or area vacated by a defeated enemy in nearly every case. There are variations of this rule, but the most common flavors include:

  • AAC after elimination – this usually allows one or more to move into the vacated hex immediately.
  • AAC after retreat – this usually allows one or more, with some restriction, to move into the vacated hex immediately.
  • AAC by armor – this usually provides some exception to the rules allowing armored units to penetrate 1 or more hexes beyond the vacated hex.

Consequently, knowing how your game handles AAC is essential to ensuring a breakout.

Why Advance?

It may be self-apparent why you would want to advance to some and equally questionable to others. This will, of course, come down to your risk tolerance. Instead of weighing the risks, let’s look at why you would want to advance DESPITE the inherent risks of extending your line or creating a “bulge” that could collapse.

Think back to our article about Zones of Control and one of the biggest advantages for AAC should become apparent. Many ZOC rules will block further movement in a turn. As a result, AAC offers an attractive alternative to extend your firepower advantage deeper into enemy lines. Since ZOCs are ALSO used for things like tracing supply or interdicting those supply lines, punching through an enemy’s front line is hugely important.

You will also want to keep in mind that retreating units (covered in an upcoming Mechanic Monday) are frequently penalized for retreating or routing through an enemy ZOC. That means your breakthrough, especially if you can sequence your attacks properly, could provide a SIGNIFICANT cascading effect on future combats.

Why hold instead of advance?

That’s pretty convincing! Usually, you will want to AAC. In some cases, however, you will be smarter to hold back and a lot of that is situational and depends on the game rules. You don’t want to create a fragile bubble in the line that might isolate some of your strongest units. If you penetrate too deeply beyond the frontlines, you could quickly find yourself without some of your most effective units.

Instead, look at how your reserves can full the front line gap, keep your ZOC in tact for supply checks, and how you can support an initial victory that results in an AAC!

You want to sequence attacks in such a way that you maximize the effects of a prior AAC to either create additional enemy losses in retreat, or to begin to open up a breach in the enemy’s lines. If you cannot do that, or you are worried about the upcoming success (maybe the dice just aren’t rolling your way this turn!) then hold back a little.

Aggressive vs. Conservative Play

My greatest fault as a player is that I’m overly conservative. AAC rewards players who are bold enough to take advantage and maximize their successes. In some regards, you must be audacious and throw everything you can at the enemy in order to make the most of an AAC.

Aggressive play will be rewarded, especially if you understand how combat works and can shift the outcomes generally in your favor for a turn or two. Conservative play, on the other hand, is unlikely to give you what you need.

The best example I can give is seen in nearly every eastern front wargame. If you sit down across from a timid German player in the opening months of Barbarossa. You will assuredly win as the Russians. Conservative play will not yield the early results and breakouts are essential to sustaining your forward progress.

Aggressive vs. Conservative play is too broad and philosophical for an article like this. Suffice it to say that you will need to make the most of the offensive actions in order to realize the advantages provided to the attacker with AAC.

Minimizing the effectiveness of AAC

Defense in depth. Learn it and live it well if you expect to combat AAC in any meaningful way. This doesn’t necessarily mean interlocking ZOC behind all your front line units. In fact, this may do more harm than good since you’ll make a series of fragile lines through which the opponent will cruise rather than putting up a still defense.

Instead, consider the effectiveness of where you place your reserve forces. This comes down to knowing the supply and ZOC rules of the game you’re playing. You can place reserve units at road hubs, cities, supply centers, etc. in order to maximize their responsiveness and to protect soft rear-area targets of opportunity. The last thing your opponent wants to see is an effective counter-attack AFTER they’ve completed their AAC!

This can also mean knowing when to collapse backward as a line is compromised. Sometimes, you can trade hexes for defense, especially if you can keep the pressure up on the front line aggressors. A fabian strategy. Be careful though as many savvy game designers guard against this style of ahistorical play by creating severe penalties for moving out of an enemy’s ZOC.

Finally, you can look for a weakness if an AAC unit leaves behind a bad angle or weak point. That advanced unit needs supply and support. If they don’t get it, you have a chance to prune the incursion before it turns into a full fledged hole in your line!

Conclusion

Hopefully this article has given you a VERY basic overview of the interactions between ZOC and AAC. Now you’re familiar with the jargon, some common moves, and have some thoughts to get you started as you encounter these common wargaming concepts in your next game!

Your Thoughts?

What are your favorite tips and tricks with AAC? Share them in the comments below!

The research is done. You’ve placed the order. Your game has arrived and the shrinkwrap is torn. What next? Today I’m going to be looking at Zen and the Art of Wargame Prep. This is all about those things we do as wargamers between purchasing a game and getting it on the table. I want to underscore that everyone does this a bit differently and while there are definitely wrong ways to do things, there’s no singular right way.

I’m going to walk you through my process. It’s one I’ve learned over time and one that I regularly adjust or screw up depending on the complexity of the game!

Let’s put first things first and talk about unboxing.

Unboxing your game

I don’t think I’ve read the back of a game box in years. That’s probably to my disadvantage, of course, because a lot of work goes into that marketing copy, image selection, and game details. I stopped because there was not real normalization between game companies around what “Solitaire Rating” or “Complexity” actually means. Further, to whom are they calibrating these recommendations?

I like to tear right into the game and pull out all the components. While there are plenty of folks who oogle at each counter-sheet and pick out the unique units, or data structures therein. I don’t. Instead, I go straight for the Player Aid Cards (PACs).

Player Aid Cards

The PACs show off a lot of information about the game. The questions I like to see answered here:

  • How does the sequence of play flow?
  • What terrain will I see in the game?
  • Which rules did the designers feel were important enough to make it onto a PAC?
  • How does combat work at a high level (roll high/low, odds or factor-based, etc.)?
  • What kinds of other charts exist where I might be making checks (morale, cohesion, weather, etc)?

You can learn A LOT from those PACs and they’re well worth the time to review before reading a rulebook if you can. The next thing I dig into are the scenarios.

Scenario Listing or Books

GMT Games has certainly popularized the two-book combination of a rulebook and a playbook. Though not the first to do this, it has become a hallmark of their games. Consequently, it has become increasingly popular with other publishers.

I love these books because they often provide me with an idea of the scope of game and how many scenarios might exist. A lot of folks love the “big one” that’s the crown-jewel of the game, but I like to see which one I want to start playing.

The scenarios also provide you with guidance on how you’ll be asked to pull counters for scenario setup. That’s hugely important as you organize in baggies or counter-trays so you can minimize the amount of time spent hunting for the right counter. Speaking of counters…

Punching the Counters

Get after it! There’s no reason to wait! Punching counters is a bit of a wargamer ritual that comes in many forms. Some people get in there with their hands and pinch and pull. Others like to use a hobby-knife and slice the counters free of their frames.

Personally, it all depends on the game for me! Some low-counter density games are pretty easy to pop the counters out and then use my Oregon Lamination counter-rounder to take care of the fuzzy ends. In other cases, I know I won’t round every corner, so I like to cut the counters from the frame to keep them sharp.

This can take minutes to hours depending on the same of the game. I’m a big fan of finding a Netflix series to watch while I prep my games. It’s relaxing, repetitive, and requires just the right amount of concentration to let my mind wander and relax without zoning out completely.

The Zen

I won’t belittle Buddhists by pretending to use anything other than the bastardized western slang interpretation of “zen” here. While I’m certain there are applicable links between counter-clipping and Zen philosophy, I’m wholly unqualified to make such a comparison.

Instead, I want to stress the importance of finding moments of mindfulness! People find these moments in all kinds of activities. My mother, nearly 70, finds that during water aerobics and in her quilting. Cooking brings this sense of mindfulness to my wife who loves reading cookbooks, searching for recipes, and trying new ingredients for the foods she prepares. Even my son gets in on the action as he perfects his Minecraft village to unwind after homework.

I find wargame preparation the perfect way to de-stress. As a CTO, I spend a lot of time in meetings and planning. I worry about budgets, productivity, our services, staying ahead of competitors, and finding opportunities to innovate. There’s a lot going through my mind all the time and it can be incredibly difficult to just “turn it off.” Wargame prep, and specifically clipping counters is that release.

However, you engage with wargames, be thoughtful and find “joy” in moments. These are the times when the game consumes your attention in a way that allows you to block out your life’s stress. We all have them and we all need an escape for even a few hours or minutes.

Rulebooks

My LEAST favorite part of learning a new wargame is dealing with the rulebook. Almost every game I’ve had explained to me is straight forward, easy to learn, and takes under an hour to have the core concepts figured out. Wargame rulebooks make these games seem like the most complicated mutli-universe physics dissertation ever written.

Consider rules for movement. 99% of the rules for movement are simply:

You can move all or some of your counters. They move space to space up to their movement allowance by subtracting the terrain costs for spaces or borders. Units can always move at least one hex so long as where the unit moves is not prohibited. Units stop or pay extra to move into / out of an enemy unit’s zone of control.

Instead, players get 2 pages of exceptions with things that might as well read, “Because people are bastards…you cannot move a submarine through a land locked space.” or something similar. Players are forced to sift through the “no shit Sherlock” rules and filter what’s important from what’s ancillary or edge case because of poor organization of the concepts.

I know the rules exist because “playtesters tried it.” Instead, I’d prefer the rulebook to simply say:

If your opponent acts like a jerk and says things like, “Well the rules don’t prohibit it.” Pack up and go. Stop playing with that person. They are petty. You won’t change their ways. Game with better people.

Distilling rulebooks has become something I enjoy with the advent of PDFs and tablets that make digital reading and highlighting a possibility.

Read & Slide

I also like the method of learning by setting up the learning scenario or “example of play” and following along with the rulebook. This too can be relaxing and productive.

I can read the same sentence in a section 10 times, but if I start moving the units around and rolling dice…a lot of time it just makes more sense to me. This was a skill that was especially true when learning some of the rules in Advanced Squad Leader where seeing is believing. The interruptions of things like Defensive First Fire and Defensive Final Fire become significant in instances where a unit is charging at a defensive position to attempt a demolition charge toss!

Moving the pieces around gets you into the “game” and helps set some of the tone for what will happen!

Game Storage

Finally, it’s time to store the game until next time. I love going through a deciding how to store a game and where to put it. I had shelves built to display my GMT Games in our loft and each shelf has a “theme” or “series” that I try to keep together. It can be fun picking which games go on which shelf and in which order.

I like the aesthetic nature of games on a shelf. It’s the same way people who own books might sort through their books and shelve them with great care. Further, I like to label everything and keep it easy to find for next time. That’s another time to enjoy the organization / preparation part of the hobby.

The Most Rewarding Moment

There is no substitute, however, for actually playing the game. So, no matter which path you take…enjoy the game play. It’s why you bought the game. As tedious as it can be to prepare that game for play, hopefully you find “zen” in the work.

Share some of the ways YOU find zen preparing games in the comments below! What rituals do you follow with every game you prepare?

Board wargames, generally speaking, use cardboard squares or rectangles called counters. Understanding the information design contained on these tiny representations of units is key to playing wargames. Today, we’re looking at counter layout!

Why Counters?

Wargame counters go back to the 19th century and the Kriegsspiel game where small blocks were used to represent various units. An evolution of this was to have the units physically occupy a similar area as the formations they represented.

Basic information about the unit type was included, but it wasn’t until much later than specific values for things like attack and defense were included on the game pieces.

It was important in the NATO joint operations era to use a common set of symbols. This NATO symbology stuck because it provides a concise and easy to learn alphabet of symbols that can be combined to add meaning and nuance.

What’s in a NATO Symbol?

NATO symbols come in a handful of basic forms. These forms are extended to add nationality, size, combination units, complex unit types, and recognition (though these forms are typically not used in wargaming).

Let’s take a look at “the chart” and break down these NATO symbols with wargaming examples.

Basic Symbols

Basic NATO symbols

These are the basic symbols used across counters in wargaming. Some will be immediately familiar (Armor, Cavalry, & Infantry). Others maybe less so like Medical or Air Defense.

Each counter is going to have one of these symbols as the baseline symbol on top of which modifiers can be added to create more complex unit types. Some, in fact, are made by combining these forms.

A mechanized infantry unit is the combination of Armor and Infantry symbols. This is an incredibly common symbol for WW2 and contemporary wargames.

Extended Symbols

Functional Symbol Extensions

The symbols to the left are not units in and of themselves. They are, instead, used to modify the basic types. Though you might struggle to find a Medical Electronic Warfare unit, you could find a medical cross country motorized unit!

These provide useful extensions to provide specificity to unit employment. SPI’s Intro to Wargaming refers to these as “Functional Symbols.”

The current NATO specification refers to them as Icon Extenders and the resulting Basic Icon with the Icon Extender as an Extended Symbol.

Some Examples

These are some examples of how the basic and extended symbols can be combined to create new meaning. The only thing you need to train yourself to consider is what combination of symbols are being used. That typically means memorizing only a handful of symbols from the basic and extended menu.

The combinations are also generally going to be very specific to the era and to the game being played. Consequently, few games require you to have an encyclopedic knowledge of NATO symbols and combinations. Games also typically include a reference in the rulebook that explains which combinations will be used and what the game will call them!

How Big?

Now that you know WHAT the unit you’re looking at is, it’s important to know how big it is. This is accomplished by using a size symbol. These are made up of dots, tick marks, and X’s. Sometimes, particularly for smaller units like Kampfgruppe you’ll also see notations like “KG” on the counter.

Thunder in the East basic unit types.
Thunder in the East counters with basic unit types and sizes.

The size of the unit is almost always indicated just above and connected to the unit type symbol. In the example above, we see two German armor units (basic symbols) that are Corps sized. We also see a Russian Infantry Army. So, how do we know their sizes?

SPI Unit Scale chart

Here we see the most common sizes and symbols that you will encounter in a wargame.

Understanding the scale of the game is helpful to understand why a unit may have a strength (offensive or defensive) of a particular size. Wargames are generally normalized around a specific scale. The strength values will be higher or lower depending on the size of the unit which is why it’s important to recognize both the default scale AND the unit scale.

Here, we can see that the Russian reduced army is actually less effective on offense than the German unit, but almost as strong as the German unit on defense! How do we know that?

Those Pesky Numbers

The numbers that appear below the unit type, designation, and size are the combat and movement values. Games vary, but generally speaking wargames show two or three values that tend to be read (from left to right) as Attack – Defense – Movement. When there are only two numbers the leftmost number is generally Attack AND Defense or…the game has a set movement for unit types and drops movement to only show Attack & Defense on the counter.

Counters can be modified in a myriad of ways to cram more information into the smallest possible state.

In the example above, we see that the German movement has a white “6.” That white number indicates that during a breakthrough in Thunder in the East, the unit gets to move an additional hex. This is a particularly powerful special ability that you wouldn’t want to miss, and so the designers made it stand out by altering the color.

Other examples include, boxed, circles, colored, or underscored or superscript numbers. Good design demands that these numbers be readable, legible, and meaningful. Cramming a counter full of tiny superscript numbers and colors just makes for an over-complicated mess in most cases!

The values of the units are used, of course, to determine combat effectiveness, movement, and special abilities.

Who is this unit?

It can be important to under WHO the unit is in order to understand these numbers. Different units stood out in the various wars, battles or historical topics wargames cover. Consequently, counters have found ways to incorporate the unit designation into the design as well!

Thunder in the East basic unit types.
Looking at our counters again, we see that these are the German 2nd SS Panzer Corps and the German 41st Panzer Corps. We also see the Russian 3rd Guards Army.

Unit designations come in many varieties and, again, depend on the scale of the game. Some games, at the tactical level, may opt to use generic units. Other games, at the army/corps level (as seen above) will opt to provide generic country and unit designations.

Operational and grand-tactical level games tend to offer players an in-depth picture of the OOB that includes that Division and usually a regiment and possibly a company. These details help bring the OOB and game to life since historical information can be used to showcase WHY units were in particular places or to highlight WHY a unit is so well (or poorly) rated.

Counters are Dead…Long Live Counters!

Wargaming has come a long way. Initially only simulated in generic forms like Go or Chess. Wargames evolved through the Kriegsspiel to represent actual terrain and units. This further evolved into miniatures games with sophisticated rules and formations. Ultimately, commercial wargaming in America was defined by the early releases of Avalon Hill which featured these counters.

The counter has, for better or worse, been a staple of the hobby ever since. While many games eschew counters for other forms, the counter will never truly go away. Maybe technological advances will give us a world where what we see on the pieces will be digitally rendered and controlled by the game on the table. As a result, taps, swipes, and even holding a thumb on the piece will give us greater interactivity. These re-usable pieces may look 21st century, but they will find their roots deep inside the 19th century.

Share why you love or hate counters in the comments below and share with us your FAVORITE counter layout/design!

Wargaming is an incredible hobby and today we’re looking at 10 reasons why wargamers are awesome. It can be easy to forget about the loads of great people who support the hobby on a daily basis in big ways (publishers & designers) and in little ways (the guy down the street who is always up for a game). Consequently, I want to spotlight just 10 reasons why wargamers are awesome (in no particular order)

10 – History Buffs

It almost goes without saying. Wargamers value history. This isn’t just lip service paid to the hobby because of the historical topics that dominate the games we play. Actually, it’s a compliment that runs far deeper than outsiders might realize.

Wargamers have a much better broad understanding of history. Most wargamers have a staggering level of knowledge about a handful of historical topics. We’re talking about being able to break down communication protocols of tank leaders on the eastern front down to the month and year. This isn’t casual, “I’ve read a few books on the topic” expertise, but rather the knowledge brought on by years of fascination with a few topics.

The result is playing games against people who know a great deal and care deeply about the topics they game. That’s hard to find in the eurogame world outside of train gamers. The games don’t demand that depth of knowledge and wouldn’t reward it in most cases.

9 – Fierce competitors

Wargames are, by their very nature, cutthroat and competitive. After all, you’re talking about games centered on the direct confrontation of forces in armed or political struggle (sometimes both). Wargamers are amazing competitors who know how to feint, attack, blitz, execute a fabian strategy, or even how to stand and fight.

This isn’t a coincidence! Wargamers, to some degree, persist in the hobby because of a passion for that level of competition! They brings a deep bag of tricks alongside solid tactical or operational doctrine from their understanding of history (see above). The result are games well played and competitive. Seeing guys like James Pei hone their expertise over decades to dominate certain games is stunning. It’s also equally stunning to see players move from a novice to a tougher competitor because of solo and competitive play in home games.

8 – Gracious Hosts

I have never met a wargamer who wasn’t a gracious host. Often, games come with insufficient player aid cards (especially old ones) and wargamers will prepare by creating copies or homemade aid cards. Further, wargamers typically welcome others into their homes. This is particularly true when playing monster games that require they remain setup for weeks or months on end.

Wargames aren’t always the kind of game that you can set up in an evening, play and taken down again. Instead, wargames typically require that the host invest 45 minutes to 2 hours in some cases setting up the game before the other player arrives. An unspoken rule of wargaming is that if you invite someone over to play a game, you will be the rules expert. The opponent will attempt to learn the rules before arriving, but the host serves as the game’s “rules sherpa” when the going gets tricky. That’s a lot to ask because wargames can often have tricky devils in the details.

7 – Interesting Personal Lives

One of the things I enjoy most about boardgaming, but wargaming in particular is the interesting lives that wargamers have outside the hobby. We are some crazy successful folks (at least the people I’ve gamed against). This isn’t just to pat each other on the back here either.

In the last two year’s I’ve played against:

  • District Attorney
  • Neurosurgeon
  • CEO
  • CFO
  • CIO
  • PIO
  • Database Administrators & Programmers
  • Space Program Freelance Photographer
  • Retired military

The list could go on! These are super interesting folks who have a lot to share about their life experience. They bring exceptional critical thinking skills to the table with them and hearing about their work is sometimes as interesting as what’s happening on the table.

6 – Helpful Attitude

Questions are going to come up as a result of the complexity inherent in the hobby! Wargamers tend to be eager to help by nature. We all love a particular game and the wisdom of the crowd generally provides a great deal of expertise when asked.

This past Monday, I did an article spotlighting Zones of Control that used examples provided simply by asking in the Twitter community. That was a useful exercise. It helped build some anticipation about the article, but it also provided an opportunity to get some help.

The same is true in game forums on CSW or BGG. Players know they’ll need help at some point and give help generously and often. One of the cool things is to watch folks who love a game so much they’ve become the unofficial oracle for all rules questions. These people selflessly give endless guidance to hapless newbies.

5 – Patient

This goes hand-in-hand with the point about helpfulness. Wargamers are patient.

This isn’t an action packed hobby. There are games when the downtime can be incredible. This is particularly true of monster games where the other player(s) may need sufficient time to check their moves and consider them before you’re able to “phase” or take a turn.

Game setup is no easy task either! I just finished setting up Thunder in the East from Victory Point Games and it took the better part of a week spending 15-20 minutes a day plugging away at it. Some of that was because I’m new, so I was checking and re-checking rules compliance during setup. That said, it is illustrative of the time commitment just to get a game on the table and ready to play.

Finally, everyone has had that moment where they’re just at a loss about what to do or loses sight of where their strategy was headed. In those moments, an encouraging word or piece of guidance goes a long way. I’ve always benefited from a patient opponent willing to clarify a rule or go over options with me. (See Fierce Competitor).

4 – Detail Oriented

Wargamers are detailed oriented. We might not always enjoy that part of the hobby, but by and large wargamers are detailed oriented.

Consider the effort that goes into organizing games, learning rules, setting up scenarios, and resolving combat. There are elaborate systems of component storage that folks have cooked up that go well beyond just putting counters into trays.

My ASL collection is split between #2 coin envelopes with custom made counter stickers to show me what counters are inside for armor and guns to planos arranged by nationality and troop quality. That might seem a little fussy…but it’s one of the more basic configurations of counter organization for ASL. Don’t get me started on my Romney’esque “Binders full of scenarios.”

3 – Thoughtful Analyzers

The culmination of many of these positive traits is that wargamers tend to be thoughtful analyzers. Now, that can bleed over into analysis paralysis, especially in crucial turns where every counter move is a huge deal.

This analysis takes into consideration game rules, historical outcomes, past experience, personal or established strategy, and weighing the risk/reward of the various options.

The analysis is often done “on the fly” and with great clarity. Wargamers demonstrate an elasticity of thinking. Finding and considering these novel solutions requires a level of familiarity and thoughtfulness that goes beyond simply “knowing the rules.”

The best AARs from wargamers put this expertise on showcase as they break down the decision as it was made in the moment and consequently what was learned from further consideration. AARs are infrequently simply session reports. They usually involve self-reflective statements that judge what players did in the context of the game and how they evaluated it. AARs can be reviews of games masquerading as session reports which makes them absolutely worthwhile reads from the gamers who put the time into creating them.

2 – Curiosity

Wargames offer, in many cases, a sandbox to explore alternative history. It is fun to consider the “What-If” scenarios of history! Wargames provide a “laboratory” to consider some of these strategies, missed opportunities, or avoided chance deaths.

One of my favorite is exploring what would have happened had Reynolds lived at Gettysburg. His leadership, calming influence, and insightful mind might not have affected the Gettysburg campaign, but I wonder whether a coherent argument from Reynolds might have influenced the decision to pursue the fleeing Rebel army and increase Union advantage.

Would my outcome be historical? Almost certainly not. The curiosity of exploring these alternate paths of history can be rewarding. Wargamers share this sense of “what if” and it makes for interesting debate and gameplay.

1 – Sense of Humor

Let’s face it…wargames rely on dice usually. Those dice don’t always tumble and land the way we want. Having a great sense of humor goes a long way in the face of a failed roll.

The topics covered by wargames can be heavy. There are scenarios in ASL that are incredibly grim and showcase less the tactical combat of World War II and more the human suffering of the combatants.

The competition is fierce (see above) and sometimes levity helps all these things. Wargamers have a great sense of humor. It’s an endearing quality and runs the gamut from boisterous and silly to wry and dry. Finding that nugget of humor in a disappointment or dark moment of a game gives a spark to the enjoyment found at the game table.

Wargaming can be a rewarding social hobby for those who desire that aspect of gaming. Consequently, the time spent (sometimes considerable) around a game table hovered over maps and chits (or miniatures) can be made that much more enjoyable by sharing a laugh in the midst of competition.

Thank you

This is just a quick thank you to everyone who has made wargaming a joy for me or for someone else. The games are a delight to engage in usually. The experience is only amplified by the people with whom we share these moments.

So…take a minute to thank an opponent (new or old) in the next week for all the ways they make gaming fun!

Welcome back to the second Mechanic Monday! This week we’re giving Zone of Control a closer look. I want to plug a book before we dive in though. Please check out Zones of Control: Perspectives on Wargaming if you’ve not already done so. There are some excellent essays in here from commercial designers and the growing number of scholars!

Zones of Control Book Cover

Around the Hobby

I posed the question on Twitter back on the 8th about this and want to run down the great responses that resulted:

Napoleon’s Triumph (Simmons Games)

Interestingly, this was a concept that come up quite a bit. Non-hex games that feature zone of control rules. This is of course the natural progression of historical miniature wargames that included concepts like Zone of Control even if they didn’t share the term.

Wellington’s Victory (Frank Davis) & Silver Bayonet (Gene Billingsley)

Volko points out a particularly interesting example here with Wellington’s Victory. Typically, Zone of Control is a concept seen in non-tactical wargames at the operational or strategic level. So, seeing it in a tactical sense, and in a Napoleonic title in this way makes good sense, but also provides a level of planning that many other tactical titles might not consider.

The second nuance provided here is the concept of units that ignore the typical Zone of Control rules. This feature is particularly compelling in the case of modelling an insurgent forces who can move undetected or uninhibited through an area.

Empire of the Sun (Mark Herman)

Empire of the Sun features a unique Zone of Control and Zone of Influence (ZOI) which acts as an extended Zone of Control in some ways. Zone of Influence is used to reflect air power two hexes out from an in supply carrier unit. What sets this apart is how ZOI affects things that make logical sense like:

  • amphibious landings – prevented in non-neutralized ZOI
  • supply – blocks a supply path
  • HQ activation – blocks the path
  • strategic movement – unable to move into or through
ZOI example from Empire of the Sun rulebook.

The power of a carrier unit is therefore properly reflected. Interlocking and cooperating carrier units create necessary coordination of naval units. Savvy play means that players can effectively use air power projection from carriers to cut off units or to prepare for an amphibious landing. Further, in the island dotted south pacific, ZOI can create bottlenecks and need to be attended to by both players.

‘4x Games from Mark Simonitch (Holland ’44, Ardennes ’44, France ’40, etc.)

Simonitch games feature the concept of Zone of Control Bonds. These deal with the offset and alternating nature of hexagonal grids. Simonitch gives additional strength to hexes AND hexsides shared by multiple units instead of simply expressing ZOC as a function of the hexes surrounding a unit.

ZOC example in Holland '44 Rules
From the Holland ’44 Rulebook

This also allows for rules that govern how the bonds might be broken like when two city hexes lay between the units, BUT a straight line between units is along the hexside. Normally, this would create an impenetrable bond, but Simonitch’s take allows for nuance that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

While no hex-grid system gets ZOC perfect, Simonitch’s approach feels right and that cannot be undersold.

Here I Stand (Ed Beach) & Wilderness War (Volko Ruhnke)

Point-to-Point movement games, traditionally the domain of Card Driven Games (CDGs), feature the concept of Intercept. As Irishhistoricalgamer points out, this isn’t a traditional Zone of Contol. It does, however, express the ability of units to extend their reach or to counter-move.

Wargames are by turns static and while struggling to give off the impression they are kinetic. Static in the sense that units move and react in phases. The units, between phases, remain in place and largely inert. Designers have found numerous mechanics to combat the ways players exploit this dual nature of units. CDGs have developed the concept of Interception.

ZOC for Fun & Profit

Zone of Control offers gamers the opportunity to increase their reach. This has never been more true with hex & counter board wargames. These tips, provide you with a few things to consider regarding unit placement.

Tip 1 – Maximize your ZOC

ZOC Example 1

Here we can see a unit that is probably misplaced. The left side of the blue army’s line remains wide open and free from ZOC for advancing units. The difference between getting flanked and not is often in how well you know the boundaries of what you influence via ZOC.

Tip 2 – ZOC Overlap is a GOOD thing (usually)

ZOC Example 2

Here we see a continuous line of unbroken Zone of Control. The problem is that the left side of the line is much weaker than the right. This CAN be used as a baiting tactic depending on the terrain or reserves who can respond behind the front line. However, this is generally a bad idea since there’s little other units can do to assist if one of the blue units is defeated.

Tip 3 – Consider Local Terrain & Movement Rules

ZOC Example 3

The scenario didn’t give you as many units as you might have liked? You need to take a close look at the map for any terrain that you might be able to use to your advantage! Here, we’re using a lake to extend our line.

Tip 4 – ZOC matters for reserve units!

ZOC Example 4

Here we see a problem when a reserve unit has been smashed into the front lines. they only affect one hex. further, if there was a breakthrough to the unit’s left, they would have to make up for any depth of the line breach in movement.

Using your ZOC for reserve units can be incredibly powerful, especially in cases where the attacker is on a strict time limit in the game or scenario.

Tip 5 – Understand your opponent’s movement and ZOC

ZOC Example 5

Here we see that the red units have advanced to face the line, despite a blue unit that subsequently moved to create a supply and/or retreat threat for the red units. While the red player may have considered the threat of attack and realized that the blue unit couldn’t make it, they were stalled south of the lake.

The blue player’s turn begins and they moved their unit into position before launching their attack. This is dependent upon the game sequence of play, but a lot of games follow the move and then fight rule or give the phasing player the option of how to proceed.

Summary

There is a lot to Zones of Control in wargaming! They come in as many variations and game types as you can imagine from area based (Napoleon’s Triumph) to hex & counter as well as Point-to-Point (Wilderness War / Here I Stand). Taking the time to understand how Zone of Control works in the game you’re playing can make a big difference in the outcome of the scenario.

In the immortal words of Master Sun:

Ponder & deliberate before you make a move.

I cannot remember a time when more high quality wargames were released with the frequency that we’re seeing today. It hardly seems possible to keep up with game releases. Selecting what games to buy is already challenging, so today we’re asking the question: What are the relative merits of the various wargame release strategies?

First, we will narrow down the release strategies covered by this article. There are, after all, as many ways to fund and release a game as there are game designers. Consequently, we’re going to focus on just a handful of the most prominent methods employed by publishers.

Immediate Release

I couldn’t come up with a better term here. Perhaps a publisher can help? The immediate release strategy implies no prior commitment or funding strategy that requires consumer intervention. The other two strategies we’ll explore today require a buyer to indicate their intention to purchase ahead of release.

Immediate releases, instead, come to market based on the interest, timing, and readiness of the publisher. This is a strategy most commonly employed by Hollandspiele, Revolution Games, Clash of Arms Games, and many other small publishers.

The Benefits

The marketing hype, previews, and release happen on the publisher’s terms. As a result, they can directly influence the initial release and popularity. Games do not languish in development and any games that must be “cut free” are done so quietly behind the scenes without any public embarrassment or question about the game’s quality.

Further, the development of a game can take as long as a publisher would like. Development outside the eyes of the public can be a hugely beneficial thing. Compass Games’ Brezhnev’s War got slammed ahead of release for poor Order of Battle research. Unfortunately, Ty Bomba was unable to help convince folks of the reasons behind the decisions (which had merit). The resulting fallout likely affected sales.

The publisher can pace releases to fit their schedule. That may allow for a steady stream of games over the course of a year (a few a quarter for example) or allow them to strategically time releases to coincide with times that consumer spending is at its highest. The lack of release date expectation from the hobby can be liberating in that there’s no clock against which a “successful” release is timed.

The Drawbacks

Simply put: The release’s success is only as good as the publisher’s estimation of the market for the game.

For many companies, pre-orders and crowd-sourced funding options provide both a way to raise capital and to project sales. Functionally, this helps ensure that games people want are made and in quantities that don’t create issues for warehousing. Publishers, after all, want games in the hands of fans without overproducing or miscalculating interest.

The other drawback is related to the first. Funding is a complicated issue. The commercial wargame industry is largely populated by companies who do this for the love of the hobby. There’s no Elon Musk of wargaming and the days of a game like Panzerblitz which sold 200,000 copies are over. Even incredibly popular titles like Twilight Struggle might…pun coming…struggle to get to those sales levels.

My Take

I love a company that knows their audience and games. I’ll take a game now that scratches a gaming itch over a game that publicly languishes in development for years any day. More importantly, I want to see games when they’re ready with a controlled push of information. Sometimes, games are in development and they never make it publicly known which can also negatively affect sales numbers.

Immediate Release, when paired with print on demand, is possibly my favorite methodology. There’s no risk (aside from component supply) that the game will be out of print by the time I’m ready for it. I don’t have to commit to an over-hyped marketing cycle before seeing the game or its reviews!

Crowd-Funding (Kickstarter)

Kickstarter can be a polarizing method for promoting and funding a wargame. I was a victim of the whole Valley Games Up Front! debacle back in 2012 to the tune of $100. Since then, however, I think my run has been pretty good with every product delivering even if it was WAY beyond the timeline.

Kickstarters have been synonymous with miniature “Ameritrash” style games, but in 2016 Worthington Publishing announced they were switching to a Kickstarter-based publishing model. After some initial concerns from gamers, they successfully released their first trio of games about the American Civil War (Grant’s Gamble, Lee’s Invincibles, and Jackson & Sheridan).

The Benefits

Publishers who have a great game, but need to raise the capital for printing, distribution, and final artwork are rewarded by this system since buyers pay well before product delivery. Quality artwork is expensive. Manufacturing and distribution are also expensive. Kickstarter helps publishers get over these hurdles.

The second, and perhaps equally useful aspect of Kickstarter is the ability to gauge buyer interest in a short period of time. Most Kickstarter campaigns run for 30-45 days. During that time, there are regular marketing pushes through both game media (BGG Ad Buys), social media, and even playtester testimonials on blogs. Consequently, the ability to take a temperature check for the game is rushed to the forefront.

Success breeds success on Kickstarter.

Cool Mini or Not was already a big player in the miniature world. I remember going to their site back when I played Warmachine and checking out their mini paintjob ratings. It was inspiring to see insanely talented people who honed their craft. Flash forward and Cool Mini or Not is putting out Zombicide Season 1. I was into it, but didn’t go in whole hog. Once everyone saw what a massive success it was, they were drooling for Season 2. The same is true of the Jamey Stegmeier of Stegmeier games. Each game was great, and each subsequent game built on the success and quality of the last.

The Drawbacks

Expectation management in every sense of the word.

Players often don’t have rulebooks or solid previews (sometimes only paid previews or flashy videos) to evaluate whether they’ll like the game. Couple that with misleading (or meaningless) marketing language and it’s a recipe for disappointment.

Publishers, particularly new and untested ones, oversell and under-deliver with frequency on the platform. Up Front! from Valley Games was a notorious example. They didn’t own the rights, had internal issues, and were guilty of fraud among other issues. That’s an extreme example. More frequently, the ability to secure a manufacturer in China, get shipping and logistics details hammered out, and over-promising on “stretch goals” get publishers in trouble.

The stakes are high for the publisher, especially if they’ve invested personal money, time, and relationships in the development of a game that goes unfunded. A failed campaign has the potential to drive away other publishers from buying the design and developing it further. That’s a risky proposition!

My Take

I haven’t been burned by a Kickstarter in a LONG time. I’m careful about what I back and don’t get lured in by spiffy stretch goals. That said, I’m dubious of most wargame releases unless they can satisfy at least one of the following criteria:

  1. I am familiar with the game’s designer and trust their prior work.
  2. The publisher is not new and I trust their prior work.
  3. The game’s deliverables, topic, and components seem achievable.

Wargames aren’t cheap and Kickstarters often run a little more than a traditionally released wargame. As a result, there should be a healthy dose of skepticism prior to a purchase. I have, however, purchased some awesome wargames through Kickstarter like Band of Brothers Texas Arrows and Thunder in the East.

Publisher Pre-order System

You can call it the P500 system after the signature pre-order system introduced by GMT Games. Pre-order systems have been in place for a decade (considerably longer if you consider the old SPI surveys to be a non-committal form of P500 in the 70’s). Another publisher that’s adapted this system with some success and modification is Multi-Man Publishing who sets pre-order goals based on their projected revenue targets for each game. Another company that uses this under a totally different name is Legion Wargames who have their CPO or Customer Pre Order system.

The Benefits

There are very few drawbacks to this system and it shares many of the advantages of the other two systems already mentioned.

  • The publisher controls the timing and message.
  • Rules and quality previews can be shared along the way.
  • Longstanding and financially stable publishers engage in this practice.
  • The publisher can gauge interest in the game and collect money as the game requires payment with the manufacturer.
  • Previews and marketing can be launched prior to and then sustained throughout the initial announcement of the game.

There are others, of course, but these are the ones that come to mind.

The Drawbacks

The main one that I can think of off hand is that games can languish in the pre-order system for years. This comes in two varieties. Games get an initial spike in interest post-announcement from eager fans and then pre-orders trail off. Eventually, the pre-order number doesn’t move and the publisher has to decide whether it’s “close enough” to justify or whether to cancel the project.

This is exactly what happened with Mike Nagel’s Captain’s Sea. GMT Games had it up for P500. The game spiked up to about 225’ish pre-orders. It sat sub-300 for quite a while. I am a huge fan of Nagel’s Age of Sail fleet combat games Flying Colors. Thankfully, Captain’s Sea is available over at Legion Wargames where it has … sadly… met the same fate. I am quite certain that this game is going to be awesome sight unseen. That’s blind optimism, but it’s mine alone.

The second way a game languishes is when it meets its pre-order number but the game development isn’t ready or some other administrative issue continues to push it back. I make no pretenses about my love of Fields of Fire from Ben Hull. The 2nd Volume With the Old Breed currently has 1,333 pre-orders. It has had well over the requisite 750 for quicker publication for coming on 2+ years.

This game has been slated for release in the 3rd or 4th quarter of 2017, 2018 and as of the most recent update from GMT Games 2019. Tom Petty reminds us that “the waiting in the hardest part” but this is getting painfully long.

My Take

I love the pre-order system. No bones about it. It’s familiar like old slippers. They’re easy to find, use, and do the trick for keeping my feet warm. I typically pre-order anything immediately upon announcement from GMT Games and Multi-Man Publishing games. I’m getting that way with Compass Games, but their process works a little different.

Tell me in the comments which release strategy you prefer!

In the History Bookshelf January 2019 edition, we’ll be looking at a few books you might want to check out this month. They won’t all be non-fiction books, but they’re guaranteed to give you some ideas about what to read in the coming weeks!

Spearhead book cover

Spearhead: An American Tank Gunner, His Enemy, and a Collision of Lives in World War II

Adam Makos

This is a new historical fiction release from Makos who chronicles that story of a tank crew following the invasion of western Europe. Fans of the movie Fury are likely to find this one a good read.

The book promises the following WWII engagements:

  • Armor Ambush at Mons
  • The Battle of the Bulge
  • Cologne
  • Welborn Massacre
  • a final showdown at Nazi Fort Knox

Makos is respected for his attention to detail and historical research. If you’re in the mood for some historical fiction this winter as the temperatures plunge (or for those in the Southern hemisphere…) as the waning days of summer begin to set in…check this one out!

Big Week Book Cover

Big Week: The Biggest Air Battle of World War II

James Holland

Big Week was released in November 2018 and will compliment any playing of games like Target for Today, Skies Above the Reich or B-17: Queen of the Skies!

The book jumps between strategic, tactical and personal accounts of the evolving air war in Europe. The focal point, however, is Operation ARGUMENT which intended to deplete German air power prior to the allied invasion of western Europe.

Why does this one make a great February read? Because Operation Argument took place in February 1944! So give this one a looksie if it’s something the piques your interest.

Tragedy at Honda Book Cover

Tragedy at Honda

Charles Lockwood

We have covered air and land. Let’s take a look at the sea now!

Tragedy at Honda covers the events of September 8th, 1923 off the California coast near Point Honda where nine US Navy Destroyers ran aground in the fog shrouded night. The account details the tragic events, but also the efforts to save the sailors and the subsequent massive courts martial which ended up being the largest in US history.

I picked this one because of the non-standard topic and because it’s important to remember our servicemen whether directly in harms way or not. Their jobs are often treacherous by the very nature of the martial life they’ve chosen to live. Given the current government shutdown that excludes payments to our brave Coast Guard sailors, I wanted to throw this one out there. Check it out!

The 1st Conspiracy Book Cover

The First Conspiracy – The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington

Brad Meltzer and Josh Mensch

From the Amazon.com description:

Taking place during the most critical period of our nation’s birth, The First Conspiracy tells a remarkable and previously untold piece of American history that not only reveals George Washington’s character, but also illuminates the origins of America’s counterintelligence movement that led to the modern day CIA.

In 1776, an elite group of soldiers were handpicked to serve as George Washington’s bodyguards. Washington trusted them; relied on them. But unbeknownst to Washington, some of them were part of a treasonous plan. In the months leading up to the Revolutionary War, these traitorous soldiers, along with the Governor of New York, William Tryon, and Mayor David Mathews, launched a deadly plot against the most important member of the military: George Washington himself.

This is the story of the secret plot and how it was revealed. It is a story of leaders, liars, counterfeiters, and jailhouse confessors. It also shows just how hard the battle was for George Washington and how close America was to losing the Revolutionary War.

In this historical page-turner, New York Times bestselling author Brad Meltzer teams up with American history writer and documentary television producer, Josh Mensch to unravel the shocking true story behind what has previously been a footnote in the pages of history. Drawing on extensive research, Meltzer and Mensch capture in riveting detail how George Washington not only defeated the most powerful military force in the world, but also uncovered the secret plot against him in the tumultuous days leading up to July 4, 1776.

This one could be great or it could be a bust. I’m not a huge fan of Meltzer, so I’m witholding judgement. This one was released on January 8th, 2019 so it’s freshly released. Check it out here.

Vietnam Book Cover

Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy, 1945-1975

Max Hastings

From the Amazon.com description:

Many writers treat the war as a US tragedy, yet Hastings sees it as overwhelmingly that of the Vietnamese people, of whom forty died for every American. US blunders and atrocities were matched by those committed by their enemies. While all the world has seen the image of a screaming, naked girl seared by napalm, it forgets countless eviscerations, beheadings, and murders carried out by the communists. The people of both former Vietnams paid a bitter price for the Northerners’ victory in privation and oppression. Here is testimony from Vietcong guerrillas, Southern paratroopers, Saigon bargirls, and Hanoi students alongside that of infantrymen from South Dakota, Marines from North Carolina, and Huey pilots from Arkansas.

No past volume has blended a political and military narrative of the entire conflict with heart-stopping personal experiences, in the fashion that Max Hastings’ readers know so well. The author suggests that neither side deserved to win this struggle with so many lessons for the twenty-first century about the misuse of military might to confront intractable political and cultural challenges. He marshals testimony from warlords and peasants, statesmen and soldiers, to create an extraordinary record.

Hastings is becoming one of those authors that writes sweeping histories of vast and complicated periods of time. I think given the recent’ish release of The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick there’s a hunger for these kinds of high level critical re-evaluations of the conflict. As a result, we get books like this one. That said, Hastings definitely has my attention here! Check it out!

We all have it. A shelf of games that goes unplayed. You may just have a few games instead of a shelf. I, on the other hand, have shelves (plural) of unplayed but loved games. The firearm world calls these “safe queens.” They are the guns that are too valuable to shoot or have special sentimental value and won’t be sold. Wargamers have the same concept, I’ll call it Shelf Queens. The unplayed, but loved wargames on our shelves.

I have 1,531 games and expansions according to BoardGameGeek. I have been done the majority of my purchasing in the past 6 years or so. As a result, there’s no possible way for me to play all the games I own at this point. It might be a race against time even to play them before I shed this mortal coil.

Why Keep Buying?

Any time a commodity faces a combination of popularity and scarcity people tend to make poorer buying decisions. You know the game you’re pre-ordering probably won’t make it to the table in the next few weeks after receiving it. Instead, it just “feels good” to buy it just in case. This leads to over-buying in some cases and certainly creates the conditions to have some shelf queens.

Collecting is a legitimate hobby!

Don’t get me wrong! Collecting wargames is most certainly a part of the hobby I enjoy. I love researching a game, reading game rules, exploring the historical topics. I also enjoy being able to pull a game off the shelf and mess around with it for a few days even if I never get “good” at that game.

The shelf queen, however, falls somewhere beyond just playing the game once or twice though. So, let’s look at a real-world case…in fact…let’s look at…

Case Blue

Case Blue AND Guderian’s Blitzkrieg II were BOTH on the shelves of my FLGS when it opened its doors in 2010. One of my gaming friends at the time said, “You really need to check out Guderian’s Blitzkrieg II. It has scenario setups that are longer than some rulebooks. It’s the ULTIMATE monster. You can even combine it with Case Blue!”

One look at the price tag and I was less enthused.

Instead, I waited. Case Blue disappeared from the shelves a few months later. Guderian’s Blitzkrieg II was still hanging around though and I decided to pick it up. My friend was dead on correct. It was a monster…in fact…more monster than I could handle. I put it on the shelf after reading through the scenario booklet a little bit.

The Series Completionist Mentality

I ended up getting the itch for the Operational Combat Series (OCS) a few years later. While I had Guderian’s Blitzkrieg II to scratch that itch in addition to a few other titles…I went on a buying spree. The only game that remained elusive was Case Blue. The prices for the title had skyrocketed by 2015. So, I patiently waited and stalked BoardGameGeek, ConSimWorld, and eBay hoping for a glimmer of hope.

An email notification let me know that my time had come and I was able to pick up the game for under $200. While not a steal exactly, it was FAR less than other unpunched copies on the market.

The OCS series was nearly completed! Just DAK2 (which I ended up giving up on since I had DAK) and Hube’s Pocket remain the only two games I don’t own in the series. The series completionist mentality drove me to collect beyond what I would play.

The Queen Arrives

I immediately opened up Case Blue the day it arrived and poured over the contents. A little re-arranging of my shelves and the game went into the spot it’s basically held ever since.

I can’t bring myself to punch it out because I’m not proficient enough at OCS to enjoy it. Further, I have other more manageable OCS titles that I want to play first. The value of the game is well established. In fact, the cheapest copy on BoardGameGeek right now is $450 with a copy selling in January 2019 for $396.

I also cannot bring myself to sell the game because I know I won’t get it back. So, it sits pretty on the shelf and I occasionally open it up to look through the contents and maps.

A Past Pain

The real question here is: Why?

Everyone’s story is different. In my case, there are two key stories. The first is that my parents were wholly opposed to ANY kind of gaming beyond mass marketed games. It was a HUGE deal when the D&D Red Box showed up under the Christmas tree in 1985 and a bigger deal a few years later when Axis & Allies arrived.

My parents didn’t have some kind of religious or moral opposition. They just didn’t understand my interest and because I was athletic…they only fostered that facet of my life. This brings me to my second “past pain.”

I was at Michigan State University and realized a local game store had TONS of Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) modules on the shelves. Over the next few months, I bought everything they had and filled in the gaps from eBay where Avalon Hill’s recent demise meant people hadn’t quite come to grips with the collectible nature of some of the modules.

I amassed a complete ASL collection and played it off and on for a few years. As my interest waned, and my wedding approached I wasn’t keen to move this massive collection from Michigan to North Carolina. I decided to sell it. I think the whole collection sold for maybe $500. The buyer was thrilled and I was happy that someone would enjoy the games as I had.

Fast forward, not even that long, and I desperately wanted back into ASL..and my wallet has never recovered…lol

Shelf Queen Acceptance

It’s 100% OKAY to celebrate your shelf queen. Hobbies are meant to be enjoyed. Find the time to enjoy your hobby and share it. Sometimes, you’ll even find that person who also desperately wants to play the game and a shelf queen will turn into a well-worn game.

The social aspect of our hobby can sometimes overshadow the enjoyment of more solitary moments. Shelf queens are emblematic of that opportunity to enjoy a peaceful moment of collecting accomplishment.

Share your shelf queen story in the comments below!

This is the second in the series of In This Hex articles. I still hope to create a podcast around this topic, but hope to bring you a monthly feature article. The series focuses on interesting events that took place on the maps where we slide cardboard. A small way to link the present to the past in a (hopefully) interesting way. Today, we’re looking at hex (roughly) 1516 from This Accursed Civil War and the battle of Naseby.

Naseby is notable because the battle was the last time a legitimate Royalist army would take the field under King Charles I in the English Civil War. The entire English Civil War is a melodramatic and emotional affair complete with colorful personalities and astounding anecdotes. If you want to get more information, I HIGHLY recommend the Revolutions podcast that spent some time with the English Civil War. Let’s dive in…

Mid-Summer Mud

It was mid-June. Summer by all accounts. English summers are only theoretically warm and dry. The reality can be quite different with periods of surprising heat and the lingering English rains falling more than anyone might hope. That was the case on the 11th of June 1645 as the Parliamentary New Model Army lifted its siege of Oxford to move north.

The Royalist army had taken Leicester and though the Parliamentarians were sieging the Royalist seat of Oxford, the opportunity to engage lured them away.

The roads were a muddy mess. Full of ruts, puddles, and made the journey to a small town about 20 miles south of Leicester that much worse. In many ways the town of Naseby seems almost pre-destined to be the site of a decisive battle in the English Civil War.

Why Naseby?

After all, it was first mentioned in 1086 as a part of the Domesday book. This ambitious cataloging of Saxon holdings recorded the ancient nature of the city. Later in the 14th Century, the Black Death would take its grim toll in Naseby causing parts of the city to be abandoned. Naseby’s ancient tradition and brutal history were about to come to a head on the 14th of June.

The New Model Army that marched forth from Oxford was only established in February of 1645 under the command of Sir Robert Fairfax. The first task was to lay siege to Oxford in order to take advantage of absent Royalist armies. As a result, the Royalists sacked Leicester which accomplished their goal of baiting the Roundheads into the Midlands for a battle.

Cavalry Absent

Cavalry has served as the eyes and ears of armed forces for centuries and the 17th was no different. Lord Goring seemingly abandoned them following the sack of Leicester. This left the Royalists all but blinded in the lead to the battle. As a result, Royalist pickets were surprised on the 13th of June while enjoying themselves outside an Inn by Roundhead scouts.

Unwilling to retreat, the Royalists lead by Prince Rupert, decided to engage. Though King Charles I was present, it would be Rupert who would lead just as Fairfax led while Cromwell acted as deputy commander.

The bright spot, of course, was the fact that the rain had stopped and neither army quite knew where the body of the other stood that evening.

Plans are Laid…

In the dark early hours of the 14th, both armies moved into their respective positions. The Royalists taking up positions on a ridge that would be known “Rupert’s Viewpoint” to historians. The Roundheads reaching the battlefield near Naseby by 5am.

A View toward Rupert's Viewpoint.
A view toward “Rupert’s Viewpoint”

The Parliamentary army drew up across the Broad Moor. Owing to the speed with which they moved did not feature significant artillery. The cannons did not, in fact, play a major role in the battle though the Royalists did lose many to capture following the battle.

Instead, the cavalry differences were noted and expecting a push on the western line along the Sulby Hedges road the Royalists placed Col. Okey’s Dragoons to shoot and receive the inevitable push. It was a glorious sight that morning as Royalist and Roundhead moved and counter-moved to arrive that this moment. The lines, nearly a mile long by account, stood across from each other and the cavalry difference was immediately apparent. As Lee at Gettysburg would later re-learn, sometimes Cavalry can make a world of difference…

The Battle Opens

Prince Rupert, commanding the Royalist armies struck out first with his horse cavalry and promptly routed the Parliamentary forces. Tactics demanded they receive the advance with pistol, which did little to prevent the cavalry from overwhelming them. As a result, Rupert’s horse units pushed all the way back to the Parliamentary camp and were out of the battle until such a time that they could be rallied and brought back from the looting.

This was a constant issue with the cavalry of the day. It seems the measured Napoleonic use of cavalry we are most familiar with was nowhere in sight. It was often the feature of horse attack to simply continue to drive the receiving unit as far away from the field of battle as possible. This was on the right wing…

On the left wing…Oliver Cromwell decisively struck. As Royalist cavalry led by Sir Marmaduke Langdale pushed up the hill to Parliamentary positions, Cromwell counter-charged down the hill. The result swept back the threat from Langdale’s men. Cromwell’s unit, the famous Ironsides, were rigorously trained and ready for this moment.

Instead of mindlessly ploughing forward to continue to sweep Langdale’s horse from the field, they halted and wheeled back to the center. Rupert’s men were into the second line of Fairfax’s Royalist infantry by this point. The left and right wings were secured by traded routing units. Cromwell’s men were able to outflank Astley’s Royalist foot.

Now or Never

Here’s where the day gets even more interesting. By all accounts battlefields are confusing, loud, and fast-moving. Often, the difference between success and failure is moments. Seeing and securing the advantage is based on split-second decision making from professionals.

King Charles still sat above the battle from his vista on Rupert’s Viewpoint. Seeing the initial success of his forces, he must have been envisioning a victory despite the odds here. Surely, he remained hopeful that Lord Goring would appear given the size of the battle at any moment to provide the necessary cavalry support his forces clearly needed.

Instead, he saw the Ironsides draw up short and wheel. It was decision time. It was now or never. With foresight, he could see that it was time to intervene while he still had a chance with his horse unit. As he set forth with his Life Guard, the Earl of Carnwarth grabbed his horse by the bridle and exclaimed, “Will you go to your death in an instant?”

Rupert was nowhere in sight. His remaining cavalry were routing from Cromwell’s counter-maneuver. His center lay exposed. The Royalist cavalry body was severely outnumbered. Fairfax still had reserves to throw into the battle. To an outsider, and likely to those on the field, the King’s charge WAS a suicidal mission.

Yet, there was a glimmer of hope. MAYBE intervening to halt Cromwell’s Ironsides WOULD be the decisive action that saved the day. So, Unhappy King Charles had to make a choice…do I stay or do I go?

Like The Clash the King, in that moment, decided that if he stayed there would be trouble, but if he went it would be double. Subsequently, Carnwarth lead the King to the rear. While it temporarily saved his life. It sealed the fate of the battle and the decisive rout of Royalist forces.

The Fate of the Royalists

The Royalists would never again field as formidable an army. Cromwell’s forces were able to consolidate their gains through capture of officers and equipment. King Charles I was effectively out of the fight despite the fact that Naseby was 6 years before the end of the English Civil War. Even the eventual 16,000 strong Royalist army that would face off against the New Model Army in September 1651 would be far less battle ready than the force brought to Naseby.

While we can never know the exact hex of Earl of Carnwarth’s plea, we can speculate about whether or not Astley’s men might have been saved. Could the King’s Life Guard have intervened and rallied Langdale’s cavalry and rejoined the fight?

History is made up of so many moments. They are often moments of decision that flash by so quickly that the gravity of the decision is never immediately felt. It’s for the subsequent generations to consider. All we know is that the Royalists would never regain their standing following that June afternoon in 1645.