The Charles S Roberts Awards, CSR Awards hereafter, reappeared unexpected in 2020. The gold standard in wargaming opened up for a more democratic approach to selecting the winners this year. Revisions to the voting included providing additional categories to recognize independent non-publisher creators. Today, I’m sharing my picks for this year’s CSR Awards and why!
Best Ancients to Pre-Napoleonic Era Board Wargame
A few games come to mind right away when considering this massive era. The first, of course, being that this is a HUGE span of history compared the other eras that are far shorter by comparison. I understand this to some degree given that 18th – 20th century titles tend to dominate the market in terms of releases in any given year.
The first game I think of with this category is Mark Herman’s 2019 re-release of The Peloponnesian War. I was thrilled to see this title got to GMT Games instead of Compass Games where so many other Victory Games reprints seem to be headed. The re-release is really a collector’s edition upgrade from the original that incorporates the strengths of GMT by adding stellar production values and quality.
The second game I thought of was another GMT Games title. Ancient Civilizations of the Inner Sea released in 2019 and brought the royal rumble format to the Mediterranean. The low complexity slug-fest was lauded by a ton of players loved including Steven Glenn who wrote, “One of my top games of the year. Just a rollicking roller coaster of a game.” There’s no doubt that this game shares the same fun of Time of Crisis released in 2017, so it definitely stands as a strong competitor for my pick in this category.
The hands down winner, however, has to be Nevksy from Volko Ruhnke. This is 2019 and if I wind the clock back to say 2012…and the last new series Volko uncorked, we were treated to a decade of COIN games! Nevsky has it all, a lesser known topic, a era that lacks broad game coverage, a novel approach to medieval warfare, a topic that’s only half-told through the battle on the ice. Nevsky launches the Levy & Campaign series with grand style and a game that stresses the balance of strategic goals with the short-term levy system. It’s a game, like life, where you have so much you want to do, but not enough time and resources to do it. Volko does an incredible job painting a picture of a harsh landscape, primitive transportation, and begrudging loyalties. The stark reality of the title makes you feel a little better about what we’re going through in 2020!
Best Napoleonic Era Board Wargame
Waterloo, Gettysburg, Battle of the Bulge. If you’re missing one of these game topics in your collection, you have far more restraint than I do. It seems like finding quality Napoleonic era games that don’t strangle the brain or the wallet can be difficult. You have Kevin Zucker cranking out The Library of Napoleonic Battles series games every 8 – 12 months. There has been an effort in recent years by Clash of Arms games to reprint and upgrade the Waterloo campaign games in the La Bataille series.
More interesting to me, however, has been French publisher’s Hexasim and their Eagles of France series. These games, like Kevin Zucker, offer a grand tactical look at the most famous battles of Napoleon. Unlike Kevin Zucker’s games, there’s an effort to be innovative and original in the presentation of these well worn battlefields. That’s not a knock against Zucker necessarily. I own a lot of his titles, but I will say that they do not represent a maximum effort.
Hexasim’s Eagles of France series started in 2015 with the first release (drum roll please…) Waterloo 1815: Fallen Eagles. Since then, players have been treated to games covering Austerlitz and Ligny. 2019, however, saw the release of Quatre Bras 1815: Last Eagles. When I said Napoleonics were heavy on the Waterloo…I meant it. The 100 Days constitute 3 of the 4 releases, but they are worthy of getting Eagles of France coverage.
The series itself – is an IGOUGO system with variable reinforcements and leader activation. The chaos is real folks. Further, the system requires you to issue orders and geographical objectives to control your units. It’s a novel approach that rewards forward thinking and a little luck. The result is a game that offers a great deal of interest. Players aren’t just slaves to history and the strengths and weaknesses of the commanders, instead, they’re engaged in fighting. That’s a massive accomplishment in and of itself. As an added bonus, owners of Ligny 1815: Last Eagles can combine it with Quatre Bras 1815: Last Eagles for a massive game.
In short, I can’t think of a more deserving game.
Quatre Bras 1815: Last Eagles
Best Post-Napoleonic to Pre-World War 2 Era Board Wargame
In another year, I could have simply said Great War Commander, also from Hexasim actually, and I would have been happy. Instead, I’m left thinking about a bunch of games from 2019.
The first game is Brave Little Belgium from Hollandspiele. I would love to recommend this one since it had so much good press, but it’s one of the few Hollandspiele titles I don’t own yet. As a result, I don’t have much to say about it and can only recommend that you check out some other great content about it!
The second game is Death Valley: Battles in the Shenandoah which marked a return to the GMT Games Great Battles of the American Civil War series that was birthed by Richard Berg with Terrible Swift Sword in 1976. Three editions later, and under the care of GMT Games, the system pioneered at SPI “back in the day” has released its 7th title. Death Valley is really a look at Stonewall Jackson in the Valley. Where we already have Stonewall in the Valley for the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War from Multi-man Publishing, this brings the focus in a bit closer.
Specifically, Death Valley gives us a nice array of combat in the historic Shenandoah Valley from 1862 and 1864. First and second Kernstown, Winchester, Fisher’s Hill, Cedar Creek, and Port Republic to name a few. This game is really a sandbox to explore Stonewall Jackson’s battles. A complicated series, with classic roots, and a design father who sadly passed in 2019 would normally make this my pick.
It is not.
My pick, instead, is another game on the American Civil War that was released this year from Tiny Battle Publishing in The Devil’s To Pay! The first day at Gettysburg. Devil’s to Pay takes Herman Luttmann’s Blind Sword series and adapts it to a tactical level. Here, we are peeling back the abstraction to get in the weeds with command and control in the American Civil War. This is a hallmark of what attracts players to series like MMP’s Line of Battle and GMT’s Great Battles of the American Civil War. After all, the most interesting tidbits about the American Civil War are the personalities and how they behaved on the battlefield. We still debate and reconsider that behavior today to try and better understand what happened and why.
Devil’s to Pay, however, distills the command system to a chit pull and a die roll. Combined with contextual data about the unit, players activate and maneuver their armies in much the same way as other larger scale Blind Swords system games. Given that Blind Swords sprung to publication in the interregnum between the last CSW awards and now, I cannot possibly think of a more deserving system and game for this award.
The Devil’s To Pay: The First Day of Gettysburg
Best World War 2 Era Board Wargame
Blitzkrieg: World War 2 in 20 minutes won this on Boardgamegeek. I’m not going to talk about it much more than, I’d be curious to try it out. While I won’t exactly “turn my nose up” at games…I turn my nose up at people who don’t know anything about wargaming selecting a wargame of the year. I have to assume, fans of 18xx games feel the same way about non-18xx fans picking their “game of the year.”
That said, let’s cut the bologna and call a spade a spade. World War II takes A LOT to get my excited any more. The approach, components, or topic need to speak to me more than here’s some generic battle on the eastern front. Oh look at those wide open plains…tanks…planes and supply and whatnot. That doesn’t really it speak to me any more like it once did. Instead, to qualify, this year you had to pique my interest in some unique way and to quote Brad Pitt’s character from Inglorious Basterds “…brother business is good.”
The first game out of the gate that caught my attention was Last Hundred Yards. After struggling through learning this game, I can honestly say that it’s the most unique tactical World War II game since Fields of Fire. In fact, I would argue that few games do it better. Mike Denson, the game’s designer, has cracked the code on how to incorporate command and control when units experience volume of fire and stress. They don’t simply cower. They don’t exchange firepower factors. Heroes capable of game-breaking feats don’t simply emerge and command points aren’t spent. Instead, units act, react, and act again. They return fire, take advantage of opportunities, and critically…they don’t skulk…In fact, units behave much like you would expect them to, and in 2020 that’s still a remarkable achievement.
Maybe I’m crazy for not picking this game?
Instead, I’m going to Tank Duel from GMT Games. I am not 100% sure what it is that draws me to this game. Usually, when you see a game where you’re managing the crew of a tank, or a few tanks, it’s in a game that closely resembles Patton’s Best from Avalon Hill or one of the countless Dan Verssen “Leader” games. Tank Duel is not as simple game as it sounds, there’s a lot going on with relative movement that’s conceptual and akin to Up Front. There is a lot of symbology and procedure to keep straight as well. The leadership you show, is managing a hand of cards that outline what you can and cannot do with your tanks which sometimes means making hard choices. In the end, though, the narrative is fantastic and it’s fun enough that I’m willing to put it in front of Last Hundred Yards by the razor thinnest of hairs only because I think it has a broader appeal compared to “another” World War II Tactical Game.
Best Post-WW2, Cold War, & Hypothetical Era Board Wargame
There are really only three games in the running here for me. Quite simply, the market for hypothetical NATO vs. Warsaw Pact in Europe has been on fire.
It should come as no surprise then that my picks are Less Than 60 Miles from Thin Red Line Games, Red Storm by GMT Games and World at War ’85: Storming the Gap.
First, let me be clear, Less Than 60 Miles is aspirationally picked here and largely because of the coverage afforded for it by Kev at The Big Board. If you’ve not done so already, I strongly encourage you to check out his site and coverage. The game, based on my impressions of what Kev had to say is that there’s an incredible amount of detail to keep track of. For me, that’s a bit of a dealbreaker until I consider the fact that sometimes games shine when they overwhelm us. What I mean is that wargames often work hard to distill a gaming experience that balances play, fun, and whatever level of simulation might be possible. Some games, however, intend to overwhelm with the sheer complexity of armed conflict. Not since Ug clubbed his cave neighbor Funka was combat simple…and even then…well….let’s just say Ug had a lot of explaining to do…
The second game is Red Storm which marks the first attempt since Elusive Victory to take the fantastic Downtown system and move it forward into the modern era. Yes, Bloody April tackled World War I air recon and combat. I love that game, but it’s definitely not SAM sites and controllers and AA and radar platforms with SEAD packages and close formation bombing that made Downtown such a sensation. Red Storm, takes this to the NATO vs. Warsaw equipment that we’ve been dreaming about since Downtown first got released. It’s exactly what the doctor ordered on that front, newer hardware, smart munitions have evolved, sensor technology and a much more competent battle-space make the game that much more engaging.
The pick, however, has to go to Lock n Load Games World At War 85: Storming the Gap. I was a massive fan of the original World at War game with it’s horrible counters and all because there was something so visceral about the combat. You were chucking dice, raining down MRLS munitions and scooting helos all over the early days of World War III. The game completely went off the rails with the introduction of science fiction/horror/supernatural weird war III fiction that underpinned parts of it.
Since that time, I have been anxiously awaiting this game and it 100% does not disappoint. The right balance between fun and rules density is struck. YES, the rulebook is long, but if you formatted it like a GMT Games rulebook and stripped out the examples, it would be far shorter. It reads like a friend telling you how to play the game to be honest. The counters, maps, scenarios, and the new card-based activation system (a change from chit-pull) is just plain fun. When it comes to gaming, that’s exactly what I want…a game that transports me to the conflict for fun not agonizing over charts and exceptions.
World at War ’85: Storming the Gap\
Best Board Wargame Computer Assist Module
I’m not voting in this category because I don’t have a clue what this means. The description is: Game or game series specific computer module built to enable easier play of a board wargame.
There are a bunch of things that come to mind VASSAL modules, that Space Empires 4x web app to track your stats, and probably more that I’m just not aware of coming out this year. So…no dice!
Best Science-Fiction or Fantasy Board Wargame
The only game I own from this genre remains in shrink wrap on my shelf, so no vote here. I think Escape from Hades by Hollandspiele makes a great case for itself. You have Herman Luttmann and Fred Manzo with some seriously amazing pulp sci-fi artwork to accompany it. This is, seemingly, an homage to those Task Force Games small-box games from the 70’s and early 80’s which is an added bonus.
Quite frankly, Tom and Mary Russell seem to have their finger in the pulse of oddball games that folks are going to enjoy regardless of presentation or component limitations. They build it into their ever-growing library that will forever be seen as one of the truly innovative small publishing efforts in the hobby. What’s amazing is that they’ve absolutely proven, and continue to re-affirm, that people will play great games even if they don’t come from one of the larger publisher companies out there.
Part 2 Coming Soon…
Part 2 will start the computer wargaming awards and some of the community awards. Again, I may not have an answer for every category, but at least you’ll get my thoughts (whatever that’s worth…lol) and have a reason to go vote to prove me wrong, support your favorite game, or just to make sure your voice is heard this year!
Remember to check out the awards and vote by June 15th at: https://charlieawards.wordpress.com/