Spotlight on Games > 1001 Nights of Military Gaming

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Napoleon at Waterloo
Very introductory wargame given away by SPI with new subscriptions to their magazine Strategy & Tactics. Units are army, cavalry or artillery rated only for movement and strength. Zones of control are semi-rigid and active. Not a bad introduction to the hobby as it is simple, fast and fairly balanced.
Naval War
Card game about sinking World War II enemy ships. Cards from all nations are randomly distributed to all players so there is no strong adherence to theme. Is actually mostly a translation of Nuclear War to a World War II naval setting. Later release Atlantic Storm is another way of doing a similar thing with trick-taking. Naval War tends to degenerate into a luck-of-the-draw and popularity contest without use of two vitally-important variant rules: night actions and partnership. [Take That! Card Games]
Necromancer
Magazine wargame in a fantasy setting in which two magic wielders raise forces from the dead to fight one another over three "jewels of power" in a many-leveled misty land. The chief innovations are that players may convert enemy troops to their own side and that the more units controlled, the weaker each one becomes. Unit types are similar to those of Sorcerer with Zombies heavy and slow, Wraiths fast and weak and Skeletons moderate with bows and arrows. Jewels have a large possible variety of effects which are only determined when in the actual hands of the necromancer. Several optional rules keep the play fresh as well. This absorbing system is very expandable for more players simply by photocopying counters and re-coloring.
Nepal
board
For such a dramatic area, too few games are set in the Himalayas. Thus it's great to see it being treated here, especially by an indie publisher. Steve Jones appears to be the primary designer at Blue Panther and in shorthand it's reminiscent of Railway Rivals, but with the combat rules of Civilization plus endgame majority control. The entirety of Nepal is shown, dotted with towns and divided into hexagons. All players begin in central Kathmandu (though starting at different corners as in Railway Rivals might have proven more strategic) and expand outwards by placing their cubes, each turn being able to perform a combination of three move and grow actions. Play begins with a few public demand cards in play, meaning that the first player to complete a chain of spaces between two towns listed gets to place a cube on the card's most valuable points award. The second player to do so places on the second most valuable award, etc., but only routes which are intact by the end of play still count. As more and more cards appear during play, there are a couple of ways at looking at strategy. Either one goes directly for the available cards or plays for the longer term, trying for wide connectivity so as to be able to pick up lots of new cards when they appear. The map is divided into five provinces and at the end the player with the most and second most cubes in each receives points, providing a third consideration. All of this works okay, but is greatly complicated and made incredibly fragile by the injection of combat into the equation. While combat is attritional – lowest count in a space removes a piece first, then the next, etc. until the space's limit is reached – it's still quite significant and potentially destructive, as a player who refuses to cooperate with others can sink not only his own chances, but that of another as well. Stubborn players can get involved in prosaic, repeated combats that allow neither to accomplish anything, which seems to particularly occur in the area just southeast of Kathmandu. Of course co-existing with others has its own dangers, especially in the last round of play when it facilitates cutting off others' routes. Unfortunately instead of kingmaking being curtailed, the system encourages it by providing a full extra round of play once the end has been sighted. This also has the effect of providing a nice advantage to whichever player goes last; considering that this is likely to be the player who ran out of cubes and is thus already the leader, it's the opposite of a catch-up mechanism and exactly not what one wants. Thematically, it seems strange that no distinction is made for mountains, which are considerably higher in the north and west. But then the trade routes don't appear to make any sense either. While in the area depicted the concept of trade ought to reflect a trip, here it seems to represent something like rails or a highway, and yet one that can be fought over and taken over by others. It's all very difficult to reconcile with reality. On the other hand, the quality of the bits is pretty good, perhaps apart from the plain cardboard box wrapped in a sleeve. The wooden board looks like real fake wood paneling and is brightly and attractively illustrated. The small cubes are plentiful and of good, glossy quality. The cards are well made and there is this unique separate wooden scoring track that looks like it was burned into balsa with a home woodcrafting device. Unfortunately communication design is another matter. The board, and therefore the spaces are way too small. Each hex tends to be so crowded with cubes that one can't tell its population limit; they really should have been colored differently to indicate this. Another problem are the long, foreign town names printed on cards in a difficult to read font. At least one player is going to have to try reading these upside down, not at all easy. The maps on each card help, but not enough. Between the many cards and many statuses of the various routes determining who is doing well is so long and tedious that one tends to not even try. With five players, which is definitely not the ideal though three will exhibit similar problems, this can stretch to two unhappy hours by which somewhere in the middle everyone will only be hoping for a speedy conclusion.
MLMM4 (Strategy: Medium; Theme: Low; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation: High; Personal Rating: 4)
Steve Jones; Blue Panther; 2008; 3-5
Neuroshima Hex
boxcover
You may have seen one somewhere. A transparent box is filled with mouse traps, each trap with a small ball. Now a ball is thrown in, triggering a trap which throws two balls, which hit two traps, throwing four balls, etc. Now imagine that as a war game. The board shows three concentric rings of hexagons into which players land one to three randomly drawn hexagonal pieces per turn (reminiscent of Attika). Present from the start is a headquarters piece for each. Every couple of turns someone plays a tile that activates combat. Now each tile, in its priority order, fires at the enemies at which it aims. Generally, being hit means the destruction of the tile except for the headquarters which simply loses victory points from the track instead. Each player's army has a slightly different set of abilities. Some tiles have the ability to enhance others; some can fire into non-adjacent hexes and some are even able to move a little. Actually, the latter is often a disadvantage. In a four-player outing, the board is so crowded that it's a happy day when one can find a useful space to place a piece, much less be able to move anywhere. If moving is your advantage, your days are probably numbered. Thematically this is apparently derived from a post-apocalyptic Polish role-playing game, but it's hard to see what kind of reality it could represent. Forces are not marshalled or marched in any way, but simply dropped in. And what do activation tiles represent? This creates a reality unto itself rather than reflecting any sensible one. But this is beside the point in any case as any time there are more than two players there are definite kingmaker issues. As there are already four expansion kits – mostly adding new armies – this is essentially the collectible card game manifested in a new way. But too often its play is simply a mind-numbing exercise in making obvious, limited choices.
Michal Oracz; Z-Man Games; 2006; 2-4
LLML3 (Strategy: Low; Theme: Low; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 3)
Nuclear War
Satirical card game about major nuclear conflagration which owes a lot to Touring. What would seem to be a no-win subject actually makes for a blackly humorous experience as players used secrets, propaganda and nuclear missiles to gradually reduce their opponents' populations, leading to the famous phrase, "Do you have change for twenty-five million people?" As players get to make a "final strike" when their last population is destroyed, it often happens that no one wins. If a player happens to hold a one hundred megaton bomb, he can even try to destroy the world. Anti-missiles actually borrow from the rules of Mah Jongg they cause that player to be the one to take the next turn. Perhaps of less poignancy now that the Cold War has ended, but still a fast and fun silly experience. [Take That! Card Games] [Flying Buffalo[ [Rules]
Nuclear War: Nuclear Escalation
Expansion kit updated flavor for the newer technologies of the 1980's including cruise missiles, MX missiles, spies, space platforms and killer satellites. In general worthwhile because more options make things less certain. Can also be played standalone, although less successfully as there are fewer cards. Six blank cards came with the set and for these I designed six variant cards which were published in Space Gamer magazine, issue no. 74: Cobalt Bomb &ndash Neutron Bomb &ndash ASAT &ndash Weather Control &ndash Orbital Mind Control &ndash Mole.
Douglas Malewicki & Michael Stackpole; Flying Buffalo; 1983; 2-6
Nuclear War: Nuclear Proliferation
Second expansion adds countries with special powers, which are a bit unbalanced and not all that interesting. But the rest of the modernizing additions such as SCUD missiles, atomic cannon, stealth bombers and fighters, submarines, Patriot anti-missiles, saboteurs and other cards are well worth it. After this there were also individual cards sold, later on grouped into booster packs. [Flying Buffalo]

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Ogre
Wargame based on the science fiction story "Bolo" by Keith Laumer (who is better known for his "Retief" series). One of the first and still best micro-games games playable in a half hour or so, but still containing interesting strategic and tactical decisions for both sides, even if inside a chaotic environment of dice rolling. Probably there are not enough dice rolls to avoid the vagaries of the dice here, but it remains an excellent introductory wargame. Later followed on by GEV. [Steve Jackson Games]
One World: One World
Two player wargame (microgame) set in a wholly-invented mythological or fantasy world. Actually works almost like an abstract as each player has pieces of three types, each of which move in a different way. Combat was handled via the rock-scissors-paper technique. An amusing romp with more playability than one would first imagine.
One World: Annihilator
The same package also includes Annihilator, a two-player science fiction wargame in which an enormous invading robot ship immune to energy and solid weapons must be boarded and disable from within by space marines. Very light and subject to luck of the dice. More adaptable than most to solitaire play.
One World, The
out of print
Wargame about an obscure topic, battles of pre-Columbian Aztecs, has some novel ideas, but does not really work without modification. [more] [variant]
Origins: How We Became Human
This one is not easy to write, especially having had a hand helping to develop it for a while. But mine was not the main hand and not all ended up the way I wanted so there should be at least some kind of balance in my perspective. First, let's entice with the novelties. In how many games can you refer to an opponent as a Neanderthal and be correct? In how many can you enslave another player? Or force another to enslave you? How many games have the kind of breadth that goes from the development of speech centers in the brain to the atomic bomb? This one presents human progress as a synthesis of brain evolution, resource exploitation (taking after Guns, Germs and Steel) and ideas. It is a game of efficiencies with considerable luck. On a hex map of the world play begins with each player a minor tribe, one of Neanderthals, Cro-Magnon, Peking Man, Archaic Humans or the recently-discovered Homo floresiensis. This may be giving a bit too much credence to the multi-regional theory of human origins, but works well for a five-player game. In later eras, Cro-Magnon is considered to have "won" and player divisions automagically alter to become races and then nationalities as the three eras of play proceed. Player activities are governed by two tracks: Innovation and Population. As these tracks are cleared by removing cubes from them to the board or brain, players receive more and more action points. Initially the primary actions are to draw cards and move. Later, other activities such as domestication (à la Jared Diamond), resource exploitation and attacks come to the fore. The first two depend on the roll of the die to a great extent and thus can be cruel, though some cards help by providing die modifiers. Combat is part of the game, but normally should be limited to a small, sharp attack if players are aiming to win. One of the best things players can do is play cards that gain them elders. Not only does this clear the Innovation track and thus afford a wide array of possible Innovation actions, but it provides the ability to bid on Public, we could call them civilization or achievement, cards. Available in three areas – information, culture and administration – not only do they provide most of the victory points, they also confer some side advantage or disadvantage or both. Administration cards provide an interesting example. Each turn the player needs to perform a die roll to see whether his civilization has collapsed. The fewer cubes he has on his Population track, the more likely this is, but the player's best administration card modifies the die roll to make it less likely. So this is good, usually. But the inventor also presents the theory that before a civilization can make progress into the new era, it first must fail. So at a certain point the player actually wants to fail this roll and if he has too much administration it can be difficult. By the way, each player has a different set of victory conditions, i.e. wants to collect just two types of cards. But as in Aquarius, one action is to exchange victory conditions with someone else, which can be cancelled at some cost by the intended victim. In terms of design, most great games have at least one innovation not really seen in games before. Here we can count at least three: (1) forces travel along hex lines and fully occupy the three hexes around the intersection on which they stand; (2) technology transfer occurs by one player picking up a card from another's discard pile – very easy and intuitive; and (3) gaining ability places something called Elders into a pool which, when spent, are not removed, but just go into the expended state from which they may be reset and spent again and again – a nice representation of the idea of capacity. At the same time there are aspects of the game that will irritate those sufficiently sensitive to problems of the kind. Some are caused by attempts to bring out as much of the theme as possible. Weather changes occur by die roll and can severely cramp the range and options of some positions, which may find their players with not much to do for rather long periods of time. There are also going to be a few too many niggly details for some, like remembering which tracks cubes go to and come from and other matters, enough to inspire me to create a help sheet to be used in addition to the one already in the game. Then too, the discard pile system means that memory is a useful skill which can be irritating to some. There are game flow issues. Card draws are at the start of the turn rather than the end, which can slow down play. The design correctly diagnoses the potential for a runaway winner, but solves it not by helping out those in the back, but by creating an intentional bottleneck, that is the wait for the very-hard-to-achieve energy level 2, which is the only way to reach Era III. Of course this is a solution, but it's a blunt force instrument that just makes everyone wait. The biggest omission, however, is that there is not enough strategic variation. Winning is a matter of playing in one kind of way, constantly improving the Innovation track, having Elders to bid with and progressing as fast as possible. There is no room here for an idea such as a military victory or other kind of strategic path. In fact, even attempting such is a major disaster as the player who constantly fights finds himself with almost no actions and little ability to climb out of the hole he has dug for himself. Not only that, he puts his attackee(s) into the same hole and, as cards are coming out at a slower than usual rate, delays the progress of play for everyone. On the plus side, however, this is an excellent treatment of theme. Some of its bases are controversial, but they're often fascinating nonetheless, such as Jaynes' theory of the bicameral mind. Each of the cards is labeled and illustrated with some milestone in the human march to Progress. The rulebook and backs of pages contain considerable background information (in English only, while the rules themselves are in both English and German, which is confusing at first, but eventually assimilable). Furthermore, the latest research and findings are often included, such as the recent discovery of settlements now lying beneath the North Sea. The Diamond thesis that describes how Eurasia had the best plants and animals while other continents did not is somewhat departed from because otherwise it would hardly be a balanced game. Good plants and animals are found throughout the world. Perhaps the single most interesting feature is one I discovered by accident and I doubt was put in intentionally, but comes out naturally from the research. Players often neglect climate changes alter that the map by colonizing areas they are not allowed to enter. To correct this tendency I started placing translucent chips over the spaces which could not be entered. Together these chips created lines which completely isolate certain map areas. Sub-saharan Africa was one; the East Asian heartland another; the rest of Eurasia a third. The interesting bit is that this completely dovetails with what some Berkeley anthropologists theorize must have happened in the ancient human past: human groups cut off from one another, reduced to smaller groups that were unable to interbreed. According to them, anyone looking for an explanation of why there are races, and what races are, need look no further. It's rather amazing to have this elucidated by a game. In terms of production, having been produced by the German printer Ludofact, this effort is head and shoulders above anything to previously appear from Sierra Madre Games. True, the box is too large, but that does leave room for expansion kits, even other Sierra Madre Games games. The map looks good for the most part, although the use of a saturated red over saturated blue causes the "color vibration", used to great effect in ancient Etruscan tombs, but somewhat jarring here. The overall footprint is also large as besides the board, a player needs a personal display and also a help sheet. It all just barely fits on a large table. I find it useful to also add clear chips to remember the starting points for the tracks and as mentioned above, for the map. To wrap up, this is certainly not for everyone. It probably needs more than two players to be good and at least three hours as well. It has a few too many rules to be other than a game for gamers. Although aiming for the German-style, it ends up more a hybrid. Its fans will be those having patience, open minds and above all an interest in its theme. Still, it's not difficult in the Chess sense, just a bit complicated. [summary]
Strategy: Low; Theme: High; Tactics: Medium; Evaluation: Low; Personal Rating: 7
Philip Eklund; Sierra Madre Games 2007; 2-5
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