Spotlight on Games > 1001 Nights of Military Gaming

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Caesar's Epic Battle of Alesia
Wargame about Gaius Julius Caesar's taking of the Gallic stronghold. Fascinating situation as Vercingetorix and the Gauls are besieged inside Alesia while Caesar himself is surrounded by yet more Gauls, whose actual locations are hidden. The Gauls are going to strike somewhere, sometime, but where and when?
Car Wars
Wargame about conflicts between armed and armored automobiles is close to a miniatures game. A great deal of the fun is in designing vehicles which can actually rather lengthy if players wish. In reality this is almost a role-playing or arena combat game, but with cars. [Take That! Card Games]
Car Wars: the Card Game
Another translation of Nuclear War, this time to the Car Wars universe. The artwork is not that compelling and play seems to be heavily-influenced by a few unbalancing cards.
Cave Troll
Fantasy dungeon crawl board game for up to four. The twist on the usual plan is that players control some monsters as well as heroes. A turn is governed by 4 action points, each of which can be used to draw one of the player's tokens or move one a space on the board. Players compete in a region dominance system to control the most pre-printed gold at up to 4 random scoring points and at game's end. Among the special tokens are a wraith that can push a hero out of a room, an orc who can eat them and the cave troll which collapses the ceiling and thus destroys the entire room – not the one you have used your treasure chest and dwarf to triple in value and several heroes to protect, you hope. Turns pass quickly and total duration is not amiss for the number of decisions, but there are two major problems here. The first is that even though every player has the same set, the tokens are rather uneven. A player fortunate enough to draw the more powerful ones earlier can have a considerable advantage. There's often a lot of ability to stop the leader, but the board is complicated enough that he's often hard to identify. This relates to the second main problem: the system is very fragile. Anyone can attack anyone else and have major kingmaking effects. This might not feel so terrible if there were a closer attachment to the theme – if this overused theme is still enjoyable that is – but the system could easily be applied to several other topics and much does not feel as it ought. In this it is not helped by average artwork. There are communication design problems too. Gold indicators ought to be printed in the corners of the room, not in the centers where tokens obscure them. The scoring track markers are triangles which cause problems when they need to overlap. This game has some potential as a gateway game for those into this theme, but even they may feel disappointed with the results. Maybe it's better for grognards who can just enjoy analyzing the tactical moves without caring too much who wins or loses.
Champions
Probably the best of the role-playing games about the superhero genre because it includes several inobvious, but keen observations such as "superhero powers must demonstrate visible effects." It also takes seriously issues such as how heroes interact with their environments such as demolishing buildings which is not really important in other RPG environments. The biggest downside with this system is a minor one, the often poor artwork.
Chariot Lords
Multi-player wargame after Britannia set in biblical times, or, for the cognoscenti, a remake of Ancient Conquest. Interesting topic and nice pageant of various races. Rules are straightforward, although would have preferred that all of the "national exceptions" to the rules be relegated to a chart instead. Combat is not really explained at all except in an example. Counters look quite nice, but there are far too few of them; the player is denied too many options and in some cases (Acheans for example) is too easily wiped from the map. This also leads directly to boredom as quite often most of the map is uninhabited. The Hittites for example expand far too easily with no opposition their first neighbors, the Luvians, coming into play rather too late they should be contemporary. The legendary, much-sought Fertile Crescent is worth no more than arid hill land, which here is actually preferable in that it is easier for infantry to defend! Instead the victory point charts are loaded with far too many special case victory point goals which are impossible for any to track (note that one must track not just one's own, but everyone else's in this game of minimax). Victory conditions ought to have been greatly generalized. Turn order of nations is randomly decided (borrowing from Cosmic Encounter and Targui) which makes for quite a bit of fun and variety, but renders planning impossible and rewards luck more than anything else. This feature is probably unwise for games which include geography. Notice that the Hittite goal of obstructing the Egyptians might not even get to happen, especially if Egypt gets to move first. The Assyrians can probably not succeed at all as they are badly represented, unless of course they luck into back-to-back turns. Unfortunately for Red, Assyria is intended to be the chief point-getter. Much historical combat never occurs and the chronology is the most old-fashioned available. (For a better one see Centuries of Darkness by Peter James et al.) Even terrain is not handled in an interesting way. For example, even in the hills chariots are better than infantry. Annoying are needless inconsistencies such as differentiating mountains and marsh when the two function identically save for one tiny case, and anyway there is only one marsh on the map. The Victory Point charts are worse as the most important information is hidden behind some vague and unusable background expression. Background material is fine in a game, but should never hinder proper understanding of the rules. Strategically, it seems there should be at least three strategies: (1) be aggressive as possible, (2) defend as much as possible or (3) spread out to achieve points, but it appears that only the first is truly viable. Many have praised this game, but it is difficult to see what they liked unless it is a nostalgic feeling for Ancient Conquest, which not having played it, I cannot claim. At best this is a decent introduction to the period, but far from satisfying for historian or strategist. As the minimum game length is seven hours, your best best is to look elsewhere or be prepared to make radical modifications. [Ancient Egypt games]
Chess (Schach)
Very old, by-now abstract, two-player game whose origins are disputed. Probably shares a common ancestor with Xiang Qi, Shogi, Stratego, Animal Chess and others. Obviously has experienced a large number of rules changes over time. Allowing pawns to move optionally move forward two spaces is a fix to speed things up while the en passant rule is a fix to this fix. Strategy is very deep, although computers seem to be playing fairly well these days, with no luck apart from who starts. Despite its former reputation as a quaint, sissy pursuit, it is increasingly becoming recognized, for example as in The Joy Luck Club, that good play is mostly about aggression. As with the similarly popular Bridge, the very extensive amount of literature about the game can prove to be a downside. In the words of Baldesar Castiglione who wrote his Etiquette for Renaissance Gentlemen in 1528: "That is certainly a refined and ingenious recreation," said Federico, "but it seems to me to possess one defect; namely, that it is possible for it to demand too much knowledge, so that anyone who wishes to become an outstanding player must, I think, give to it as much time and study as he would to learning some noble science or performing well something or other of importance; and yet for all his pains when all is said and done all he knows is just one game. Therefore as far as chess is concerned we reach what is a very rare conclusion: that mediocrity is more to be praised than excellence." [10 Most Famous Board Games]
Circus Imperium
Chariot-racing game with combat is a take-off on Circus Maximus, but instead of being set in ancient Rome, imagines a fantasy world where chariots are pulled by ferocious beasts. Rules are similar except that beasts may also make attacks. A bit of a random romp, though high-spirited and is very impressive and more fun when played using the optional miniatures.
Circus Maximus
Wargame about Roman chariot racing. Fun and atmospheric, but can be problematic as bad luck can knock out a chariot with just one throw of the dice, leaving the hapless player with nothing to do. Recommend each player run two chariots. Strategically, when in doubt, go with speed it usually wins out. [summary]
Citadel of Blood
Magazine wargame set in the same fantasy world as that of Swords and Sorcery. Essentially a role-playing game for 2-6 with no game master which de-emphasizes most of the role-playing aspects and maximizes combat elements. A number of games of this type (by different publishers) appeared during a certain period including Mystic Wood, Dungeon and Magic Realm. Here players are attempting to raid the citadel of X the Unknown, a powerful sorceror with a number of Orc and other allies. Characters are either Elf, Human or Dwarf and are rated for Weapon Skills, Other Skills, Resistance Value, Wound Points and Magic Potential (a triple rating depending on which of the world's three suns dominates), which gives the number of spell scrolls they may carry in. Each carries a primary and secondary weapon. Players have a limited ability to customize these factors. A march order is selected and in the characters go. The citadel turns out to be a maze which is built as the party moves. Characters draw chits to determine whether they are entering a room or a passageway. Rooms have printed on them various features such as fountains, statues, trap doors, mirrors, furniture, altar, artwork and staircases, or may be empty. What kind of opportunity these items represent is determined via dice roll on a table. Doors may be trapped. New rooms have a fifty percent chance of containing one or more monsters while previously-visited rooms have a one-in-six chance. Players may attempt bribes or negotiations in alternative to combat. Stairways permit travel to a new level as the citadel may be up to three stories in depth. Combat is resolved by lining up the parties against the monsters and rolling on a combat table. Monster activities are controlled randomly. Spells may be used to affect combat and include Blast, Explosion, Lightning, Sleep, Redemption, Magic Shield, Hesitate, Cease Fire, Mental Attack and Wrath of God. There are also non-combat spells such as Lock, Mage Armor, Neutralize Poison, Stone-Flesh, Strength, Teleport, Heal, Rejuvenate, Thief and Resurrect. Negotiation spells include Oratory, Cow, Daunt, Sway and Cajole. Monsters include chimaera, cronks, demons, wolves, warriors, mages, gargoyles, harpies, hydras, medusas, minotaurs, ogres, orcs, skeletons, trolls, vampires, wargs, wights and wraiths and their ability gets better as one goes deeper in. Of course there are various types of treasure to retrieve such as weapons, armor, potions, talismans, medallions and rings. Eventually if players are lucky they may find the Hellgate and X the Unknown himself; by destroying them the team wins and the player with the most experience and treasure is the individual winner. A bit mechanical, but moves along quickly and is not without interesting decisions at times. There is also an interesting dynamic between cooperation and competition.
Civilization
Very seminal wargame by Francis Tresham that appeared at a time in the early 1980's when games seemed to be in a general slump. Innovations include civilization cards and associated Archaeological Succession Track which measure technological progress, a fun card-trading system and rather elegant rules for movement, combat and economics. In fact, although important, combat is greatly de-emphasized AST progress and successful trading is what the game is really about. As far as this goes, there are multiple strategic paths as well with some players opting for a quick and cheap approach, some for the blue (arts) cards, some for the green (science) cards, etc. My strategic preference, by the way, is to build my first two cities at thirty-two population, build three more cities on the next turn, then two more cities on the turn thereafter. My favorite first civilization card to buy is Coinage because it has such nice effects on the economy. Note that all of this works a little differently if playing the overcrowded island of Crete. Admittedly there are some problems. The first AST barrier for Egypt and Babylon is simply too devastating with experienced players these civilizations rarely have a chance. The Civil War event is very damaging to one's chances and it encourages players to memorize its location in the Grain deck. The way in which secret calamities are traded is rather nasty, encourages lying and can sometimes cause meta-game problems. The game tends to last n + 1 hours where n is the number of players. Overall however a very interesting effort however and would-be empire-builders everywhere have embraced this one closely. Extra Trade Cards expansion kit adds variety as does the Western Extension Map, which covers Iberia and more of North Africa. [variant] [Ancient Egypt games]
Civilization: Advanced Civilization
The advanced version is more of a wargame, losing much of the elegance of the system in the process. Now there is no longer any strategy in trying to lock others out of certain civilization cards as anyone may buy anything at any time, which admittedly may be more realistic. But it no longer rewards the fine sense of timing and judgement that the original required. On the other hand, it is now no longer possible to lock anyone out of the entire game as players buy combat abilities and turn on the leaders. Combat has become much more important and the endgame tends to be marred as it develops into a popularity contest often as not. Strange situations in which the player doing the best does not necessarily win can result vis-à-vis victory points in the endgame.
Civil War
Wargame about the American Civil War with a strong emphasis on leader promotion. An impulse system parcels out movement to only a little bit at a time which keeps things manageable and downtime to a minimum. The leadership system is quite interesting as they travel on the board upside down and there is an elaborate promotion system. All theaters are included, even the Far West and you can have fun with Texas Rangers chasing Apache! The naval systems are well done also. Surprisingly well-balanced. Works well for three as well giving the East and Sea commands to one North player and the West and Trans-Mississippi theaters to the other. [errata] [summary]
Clash of Empires
Two player magazine wargame on the opening days of the first world war in the west. Nice features are an interesting and nice-looking point to point map, simple rules, fluid play, random events and short playing time. Not entirely realistic but a nice adjunct if you have been reading something like The Guns of August or Goodspeed's The German Wars. [errata]
Conquest
Abstract military game from 1972 originally supported only two players, later expanded to four, playing either individually or in partnership. On an abstract geography, players marshal soldiers, knights, chariots, elephants and two types of ships in plastic or metal. Each type has a limited number of moves and a player only has twenty per turn overall. But a piece that captures another presumably consumes it as a nourishing lunch because it then gets a new movement allowance all over again. Remembering all these separate movement counts can become quite a chore sometimes. Oh for clickable counters similar to those that miniatures have lately been sporting. The design seems to have been accomplished piecemeal rather than reflecting any overall elegance. For example, with twenty movements points, it was probably too powerful to let the current player perform too many attacks unanswered so there is a rule by which the defeated player can counterattack. But maybe that became too strong, so the counter attack can only be from at most two spaces away. Plus, a soldier cannot take out an elephant. One fix must have followed on top of another and another in a way not that different from modern Chess. It all seems to sort of work, but please don't ask for consistency or rationale. Chess is to the point actually as its capturing and piece variety was almost certainly the original inspiration. In its ability to move many pieces, it is even more similar to Feudal and shares the problem of it being almost impossible to plan as so many changes occur between turns. You may consider that your pieces are unreachable by the opposition, but if some third player should interpose a piece between yours and his, he may capture it and then use the extra movement to go capturing in your domain. This may be the first game designed expressly for Physical Design Freaks as the best part is the way that the nicely-molded pieces fit together. For example, two soldiers can be impaled on an elephant and then the elephant loaded on a ship and sailed away. When they arrive at the enemy port, the reverse operation turns them back into individuals. Mere manipulation of these things is quite a lot of fun and looks wonderful as well. But don't ask for a theme as it's hard to imagine that any of this has aught to do with the realities of ancient warfare. While once ahead of its time, it has not aged all that well. No doubt it must still be popular with those who have grown up with it, but those coming to it for the first time will find it, as detailed above, far from state of the art. The two-player and partnership versions seem preferable to the four-player which must have plenty of kingmaker situations. Strategically, it's probably much better to advance slowly and with many supporting pieces rather than indulge in the sudden raid. In the partnership game, it will probably usually be more profitable for the partners to concentrate on KO'ing a single opponent than to attempt the easily-contested quest chamber at board's center. [Donald Benge]
Conquest of the Empire
Martin Wallace design, a translation of his Struggle of Empires to an ancient Rome setting. Happily all of the objections to the earlier game have been positively resolved while retaining the auction for turn order and alliances. The card deck has become much larger, but is only used a little at a time. The interesting dice subtraction combat feature has been replaced by dice whose icons need to match one's forces, encouraging a "combined arms" approach, which is, however, more expensive. One new rule troubles: any opposing force blocks movement, even if it's a simple infantry being met by an enormous force. This works well in terms of player decisionmaking as it's a dilemma between creating blockers vs. having them available in the main force, but it's rather unthematic for the scale and era. Even worse, by the end game it can lead to virtually all significant movement being blocked, which is rather anti-climactic. It can even lead to a player attacking the wrong opponent, i.e. one not the leader, just to get points, which is never pleasant for the victim. An overrun variant might be advisable here. Presentation is with the usual Eagle bombast. The board measures 3' by 4' and needs two tables. There's an orgy of plastic pieces in six colors, plus cities, roads and a generous helping of the special dice. As I play more and more plastic pieces games, I've come to realize that each one always features one, very large, very special piece type, the pìece de resistance let's say. Here it's the trireme, a glorious hunk of plastic with stylized oars, which is a bit ironic given the Roman nautical reputation (bad). The package is also set up to play a wholly different game based on VI Caesars, which later became the Milton Bradley Conquest of the Empire. I would enjoy this more if it didn't last so long (about three hours) and if combat were more nuanced like the Wallace game I prefer, Empires of the Ancient World, but if you're determined to be in the plastic pieces category, you can do far worse.
Martin Wallace
Conquête du Monde, La (Risk, Risiko)
World conquest rendered very simple and abstract by French film director Albert Lamorisse (The Red Balloon, Stowaway In the Sky) is perhaps reflective of the Cold War conquer-the-world attitudes of the time (1957) from which it sprang. There is no unit differentiation or attention to historical facts. Players collect cards which is a mechanism for helping out those with smaller board holdings. Unfortunately, whoever is luckiest at collecting cards receives the most reinforcements and tends to do the best. Includes an almost legendary amount of dice rolling. Much of the strategy is in deciding when the odds favor taking a particular player out of the game and thus receiving more cards to cash in for extra armies. While there is plenty of excitement, there is little profit in long-term planning and the best strategy often does not correspond with victory. In addition eliminated players are left with nothing to do during this long contest. Only the monopolistic nature of the US board games market seems to have prevented this warhorse from having been long ago put out to pasture. [10 Most Famous Board Games]
Strategy: Medium; Theme: Medium; Tactics: Low; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 3
Albert Lamorisse; Parker Brothers-1959/Hasbro; 2-6
Conquistador
Multi-player wargame on the European colonization of the Americas. Represented are the Spanish, Portuguese, English and French all of whom have rather different sets of resources including leaders, funds, etc. Unfortunately designed as if it were a game about baseball with total adherence to statistics – the arrival of various leaders and their characteristics is completely predictable whereas it might have been much more interesting if this were more random. Rather unbalanced and very susceptible to kingmaking, which is rather objectionable considering how long it lasts (probably about eight hours at minimum). Optional fifth player is a German banker (Fuggers) who has no ships at all but may make money by financing expeditions. There are some rules problems as well – I am still not sure whether Spanish missionaries are supposed to add or subtract from the die roll. Not recommended. Later re-published as New World (not described here).
Cosmic Encounter
Another very unusual but very effective wargame from the same designers who created Dune. Although involving combat, it is extremely abstract and could stand in for almost anything. The chief attractiveness is the huge number of attractively-presented special powers that the players represent. Each of them breaks the rules in a completely different way – wanting to try out each of them brings players to the table over and over again. These ideas are taken further in the various "flare" and "super-flare" card powers. Of course anything can get to be too much of a good thing and here when the rules led to players using multiple powers at the same time or the moons expansion kit which forced players to speak in rhyme and other sillinesses, the cup of imagination ran to excess. Another difficulty is that shared with others of this type, how to resolve the unexpected situations occasioned by conflicting rule-breakers. Overall, however, can be enjoyed for a long time if the worst excesses are curbed; it's just very fragile, especially compared to games being created decades since its invention. [Periodic Table of Board Games]
Peter Olatka; Bill Eberle, Jack Kittredge, Bill Norton
Crusades, The
Wargame on the First and Third Crusades. The former, main game, takes 4-8 players and about ten hours to complete, which can be problematic if some players have bad luck and are knocked out early. It's a nice, flavorful realization of the war although more development was needed before publication, especially the rules which permit Crusaders to attack one another, the Fatimids who are far too powerful and quite a few rules glitches. I have a variant to address the first two and there are several pages of errata for the last. [background]
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