Strategic European World War II games have a long history of popularity within our hobby. In fact, the fan base is so passionate for these games, that virtually every system has its zealots who have stuck with the game long after its popularity has waned. These rabid fans, in many cases, have been responsible for the development of “advanced” versions of the games or have even sustained them in active development to the present day.
So, what draws us to these games?
Strategic games offer a world-leader’s view of a conflict so large and logistically complex that it boggles the mind to think that mere mortals were responsible for executing it. Whether it was the “Big Three” meeting to determine the strategic national intent and cooperation (or lack thereof) at a series of conferences, or the meetings between generals and their staff, the conflict was wrought with every opportunity for failure.
Humans are imperfect. They are by turns humble and ambitious. Kindness mixed with cruelty. They are savage and at times humane. These stark frailties were on full display, on a global level, for over a decade when you consider the events that lead to global war and the final prosecution of that conflict.
As a result, only a strategic game captures that in finite chunks. Strategic games provide a lens through which the designer interpreted this devastating wholly human endeavor. It offers a sandbox in which we take the full might of the various nation state actors and throw them against one another to see what shakes out. Was the war predetermined because of the American industrial might? The quiet resiliency of the Brits? The overwhelming crush of patriotic manpower brought by the Soviets? Or…was it more tense. Did history hang by a thread while the fates of hundreds of millions of people lay in the hands of an elite few who had the weight of the war on their shoulders alone.
Strategic games put that weight, albeit in the least possible serious way, on the shoulders of the players.
Okay … why then JUST look at the European theater?
The European theater is the one most frequently visited by boardgames. Global-scale games frequently get their start as European Theater of Operations (ETO) games before they end up looking to the east beyond the Soviet borders and into the vast expanse of the Pacific.
The players are often better understood and the battlefields are destinations for tourists from across the globe. The European theater, for better or worse, is simply more familiar on a global scale. That we won’t be looking at Pacific theater games, does not cheapen those titles, that theater of war, or the men who struggled upon its far-flung island chains and atolls. Instead, they may be the islands we hop in a future series of articles sometime well in the future.
Finally, why bother with World War II. Yuck.
Simply put, because World War II remains the conflict of the past 100 years. It remains a cogent lens to understand what came before in the modern world and what has come since. World War II offers a “safe” entryway to stories of human suffering, triumph, and national character that other conflicts that have come since simply don’t afford.
More personally, for Americans it was the moment that America awoke on a global stage to send its agrarian men and boys, it’s urban industrial laborers, pop culture icons, and industrial might out into the world. It was the forge that shaped the iron of the American century and laid the groundwork for what came after. I am, of course, including both the good and the bad here because World War II sent its battlefields home with the men who pulled a trigger. For the many thousands of men who didn’t, it reinforced social status, and societal norms that even a global war was unable to undo. For the women at home, it offered a glimpse of equity in a way that suffrage only hinted at decades before.
World War II may be overplayed in the hobby, but that doesn’t make it any less relevant or interesting to look at how a niche of strategic games were formulated in our hobby What do they say about our evolving understanding of the conflict, the lessons we learn, and how we view ourselves or the nature of World War II.
What Games Will We Cover?
Before looking at what we WILL cover, I think it’s incredibly important to highlight what we WON’T cover.
If a game was developed as a global-scale game (World In Flames, A World At War, Axis & Allies, and the like) then they will not be covered here. We may cover games that, in combination with others, create a global-scale game (Advanced Third Reich, Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg, European Theater of Operations for example). That said, we will be primarily concerned with games that are specifically about the European Theater of Operations across the history of our hobby.
For our definition of strategic the player must be able to control the following factors:
- Multiple branches of the military (no solely ground, air, or naval centric games).
- Some type of production whether that’s unit-specific or more broadly defined strength points.
- Some type of “research” whether that’s technology research or national strategic goals.
- Direct control of the forces on the map, so nothing where a progress indicator is used.
- Must cover at least from 1941-1945, though preferably from September 1939 to May 1945.
As a result, I am looking at covering the following titles:
- Rise & Decline of the Third Reich (Avalon Hill, 1974)
- Hitler’s War (Metagaming 1981, but we’ll cover the Avalon Hill release in 1984)
- World War II: European Theater of Operations (SPI/TSR, 1985)
- Advanced Third Reich (Avalon Hill, 1992)
- John Prados’ Third Reich (Avalanche Press, 2001)
- Europe Engulfed: European Theater World War II Block Game (GMT Games, 2003)
- Axis Empires: Totaler Krieg (Decision Games, 2011)
- Unconditional Surrender: WWII in Europe (GMT Games, 2014)
- Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945 (GMT Games, 2015)
What does this mean?
Over the course of the next 6-8 months, WargameHQ will be looking at these games (and others potentially) as a part of this series of coverage. We’ll do some unboxings, interviews, session reports, reviews/final thoughts, and we will be building up to talking more about GMT’s upcoming strategic release Downfall: Conquest of the Third Reich which is also Chad Jensen’s last game and John Butterfield’s next game for GMT Games.
So, we’re starting with Hitler’s War (my copy of Rise & Decline of the Third Reich was missing ONE counter…) so until I can get that replaced (soon) I’ll start with the second game on the list.
Enlisting your help …
I am WELL aware that this is hardly comprehensive. That’s not REALLY what I’m looking for here. These happen to be the Strategic World War II ETO games I own. What I’m looking for, though, are games that had a unique take on World War II in the European Theater that aren’t already on my list. I want to ensure that I include the ones I can a) get my hands on and b) would be worthwhile because they have an opinion on what the keys to victory may have been for one (or all) of the nations involved.
If you know of a game that’s glaringly absent…please let me know on Twitter @wargamehq or here in the comments below!