November 28, 2008

My Four Favorite Wargames

Over at Twenty Sided, there recently was a post on Shamus' personal "Worst Rule Ever."  Now, Shamus is primarily writing about Role Playing Game rules, but in the comments, there are more than a few board games involved.  That post, the recent "Life Events" that have been occurring over here at The Pond, combined with the holiday season got me thinking of The Old Days.  Long evenings and weekends spent poring over hex maps, sewing boards (huh?), and rolling dice... lots and lots of dice... pretty much all of which were really quite fun.

So I got to pondering: which of the games I played 30 years ago with Vaucaunson's Duck, Gainesburger, The Other Jeff and the rest of the crew did I like the most?  In the end, I've whittled it down to four.  It wasn't easy... quite a few really good games didn't make the cut (Snit's Revenge, Kingmaker, MAATAC and its sister game Star Fleet Wars, Squad Leader, and Wooden Ships & Iron Men, you were great)... but these four are all games that if someone said to me right now, "Hey Wonderduck, wanna play?", I'd drop everything.

They're in no particular order, so let's get started!

1) OGRE, Steve Jackson Games.  It's hardly an unique premise: high-tech mechanized warfare in the future.  Tanks, missile launchers, ground-effect vehicles, howitzers, and infantry, all firing tiny nukes, nothing to get excited about, right?  Until you notice that while one side has lots of counters, the other side has... one.  THEN you realize that this might actually be interesting after all.  Y'see, an OGRE is a very, very large, very very smart, very very strong cybernetic tank.  For you sci-fi readers out there, think Keith Laumer's BOLOs and you've got the right idea. 

You can play a game of OGRE in about an hour or less, and the rules are quite easy to learn.  Every normal unit counter represents one vehicle, squad or artillery piece, and has three ratings: attack strength, defense strength, and movement.  Combat is handled by comparing the attack strength to the target's defense strength, then rolling a single die on an odds chart.  There are only three results: kill, disable, or no effect.  The OGRE, however, has multiple things to keep track of: tread points, anti-personnel weaponry, secondary and primary guns, and missiles.  All of them are targets to the 'normal' player, but all of them can can fire until destroyed.  Treads, of course, handle movement: blow off enough treads, and the OGRE slows down.

Over the years, it's been found that the game is perfectly balanced, with neither side more likely to win than the other (except for one particular defense gambit called "Four Howitzer Defense"; when done right, it's nearly impossible for the original two types of OGRES to defeat).  As a result, it's a great way to introduce people to wargaming.  The experienced player takes the defensive side with all the normal units, the beginner takes the OGRE, so he or she only has to worry about one thing. 

It's a simple game, but endless replayability makes it a classic.  The two sequels, GEV and Shockwave, were good, too, but nowhere near the level of OGRE... the miniatures version is great fun, too!

2) VICTORY IN THE PACIFIC, Avalon Hill Games.  The game that got me interested in The Pacific War, VitP is the sequel to War At Sea, also by Avalon Hill.  Deceptively easy, VitP turns out to have quite a bit of depth and strategy due to its scoring system, Points of Control, which are basically economic values (though not entirely).  The Pacific is broken up into 13 areas, each of which is worth a certain number of PoC.  The PoC value is different for Allies and Japanese players, however: Indonesia is worth 3 PoC for the Japanese (due to its large oil and rubber reserves, which is why Japan went to war in the first place), but only 1 PoC to the Allies, for example.

To begin the game, Japan has a huge fleet, the Allies a small one (just like it was historically).  However, the Japanese player gets few reinforcements, while the Allied fleet begins to get massive amounts of reinforcements on turn six.   So for the Japanese player, the game becomes a race to garner as many PoC as possible in the first five turns, before the Allies can really start whittling (hacking?) away.  The game ends on turn 9, so it then becomes a race to see if the Allied player can make up the points in three turns.  There's practically no way that the Japanese can win a purely military victory... again, just like history.

Counters were double-sided, signifying "patrolling" and "raiding" ships.  Patrolling ships could only move one area on the board, but if they controlled the area they were in, they collected PoC for their side.  Controlling an area for two turns flipped control from one side to the other.

Each counter on the board represents one ship (though there are also counters representing land-based-air units and 'ground units', usually division-sized).  Each ship has four values on the counter: Attack strength, Hit points, Speed, and Air strength.  Every attack point is worth one roll of a die, a 5 means the target ship is disabled for the remainder of the battle, a six is a damaging hit, which entails the roll of another die.  The number that comes up is the amount of damage marked against the target's hit points.  Damage is cumulative, and if the target goes below zero HP, it is sunk.  Ships with radar (mostly battleships) get a +1 to their hit rolls.  Air attacks work in a similar manner.  It's not complicated, but it works well.

Over time, house rules evolved to allow CAP, but otherwise we played the game straight; it didn't need much improving, as evidenced by its 1977 Charles S Roberts Award for 'best strategic wargame,' which is basically the Oscar of wargaming.  VitP still has an avid following, and there are rumors of a new edition coming out "in the future."  If so, there's no question but that I'll pick up a copy.

3) STARFLEET BATTLES, Task Force Games.
As you can guess, it's starship combat, Star Trek (original series) style.  The catch, though, is that the game outstripped the TV show in matters of detail and history.

Originally there were seven races in the game: Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Gorns, Tholians, Kzinti and the Orion Pirates.  Yes, the Kzinti appeared in the animated Star Trek, work with me here.  More were added over the next few years. 

Where the game really split from the TV show was in the number of ships available.  If you think about it, there were only four types of starships shown on the show: the Federation Cruiser, the Klingon D7, the Romulan Warbird, and the Tholian vessel (called a Police Cruiser in the game).  In SFB, there were hundreds of other ships; frigates, destroyers, light cruisers, dreadnaughts, carriers, combat tugs, fighters, you name it.  More weapons were added as well, along with a separate in-game history.  When the Star Trek movies and new tv shows came out, Task Force Games' license didn't allow them to use any of that material, so the canon has diverged wildly from the game, to the point where it effectively isn't officially "Star Trekky" anymore.  The fact is, though, that it's more consistent than the TV show's history these days, and when I think Star Trek, I think SFB. 

The rules are immense, and it's often said that nobody knows them all.  In fact, a running gag at Task Force Games (and Amarillo Design Bureau, the group that picked up the pieces when TFG went under) was that they would eventually release The Doomsday Book, a one-volume compendium that would have all the rules ever released for the game: three volumes, at least 20 expansions, and many, many others that appeared in Captain's Log, a monthly magazine for the game.  This table-breaker was eventually released in 1990, but even then, more and more things kept being added.  It's truly mind-boggling.

Combat is too intricate for me to get into here, but has been praised as the most immersive starship combat game ever, and was inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming, Arts and Design Hall of Fame in 2005, where it joins such people and games as Dungeons & Dragons, Ace of Aces, Steve Jackson, Diplomacy, Squad Leader, and others. 

SFB, apart from being a ball to play, was also one of two games I was ever an official playtester for (Battletech being the other), specifically the "fast patrol ships" expansion and the "Federation and Empire" campaign game.  I also won a regional tournament once, flying a Gorn cruiser (defeating an Orion, a Romulan, two Federation players, and a Kzin in the finals).

To this day, I still read the history parts of the rulebooks from time to time.  An interesting thing is that SFB is one of the few wargames to successfully make the jump to computers, with the Star Fleet Command series of games.  Fun times, fun times.

4) FIGHT IN THE SKIES, TSR Games.  I've saved the best for last.

This is It.  This is The One.  This is the first wargame I ever played.  As such, it holds a special place in my heart.  It's also the first (only?) historical game ever released by TSR, best known for Dungeons & Dragons.  FitS covered aerial combat during WW I, specifically the years 1917 and 1918.

Easy to play, it was the only game that everybody in my circle of games played (with varying degrees of skill).  Many, many nights were spent in the basement of Vaucaunson's Duck's home (the Game Room), with whirling dogfights screaming along the sewing board marked in one-inch squares.  I could easily write another 5000 word post on this game alone.

Players controlled one (or, rarely, more) plane.  Movement was one square = 10mph, so if an airplane was move at 100mph, it could move 10 squares.  Turns slowed the plane down to its turning speed.  Players were encouraged to keep track of their pilots (who were limited to one type of plane; for example, Vauc's best pilot was Rick O'Shea, a Canadian flying Sopwith Camels for the RAF), as with more missions survived (or more kills scored), they earned bonuses to accuracy and flying ability.

Plane types had accurate statistics (Camels and Fokker Triplanes were more manueverable than SPAD XIIIs, which could dive faster than anything else in the game, for example), and just their ability to take damage just felt right (the Nieuport 17 was the flimsiest plane around).  Each plane had seven locations they could take damage (Left Wing, Right Wing, Center Wing {hits here could also hit the pilot}, Front Fuselage, Rear Fuselage, Tail and Engine), and had varying stats per plane, except for the engines, most of which could take six points maximum (except the Nieuport 17, which could only take 5 in its Le Rhone rotary).

Simple on the surface, but surprisingly complex in depth, FitS later had a wimpy RPG component slapped onto it, resulting in a release called Dawn Patrol.  Ironically, this version was the best selling of the game's seven editions, selling as much as all the rest combined.

The game is still being played rather avidly, and holds the unique distinction as the ONLY game to have been on the event schedule of every GenCon ever (yes, including D&D), and the first scheduled event on Saturday morning is the "Dawn Patrol" game of FitS that's become quite the tradition at that Con.  I'm proud to say that I participated in the Dawn Patrol of GenCon 17, and managed to shoot down Mike Carr, the inventor of the game himself, that morning; I was ranked fourth out of something like 40 players in that game.  I also ran a FitS game that year, a battle between "unloved" planes, Pfalz DIIIs on the German side against Hanriot HD.1s on the Allies' side.

I can't tell you how much I respect and enjoy Fight In The Skies, even to this day though I've not played for many years.  It was a major part of my life growing up, and as such, goes down as My Favorite Wargame of all time.

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:12 PM | Comments (11) | Add Comment
Post contains 2062 words, total size 16 kb.


I've played so many, many games. Seeing your post, I stopped for a moment and wondered if there was any game equally beloved.

And there's one: Avalon Hill's Titan. Simply a magnificent game, combining building, strategy, and tactics. The board design is amazingly subtle. The common result for new players is to get stuck on the outermost racetrack and end up specializing in green, for example (ogre, troll, cyclops...). And there was also a nice spite aspect to it, if you managed to ambush someone's building pile with one of your hunter-killer piles.

I played Ogre with a friend of mine at work when it first came out. We must have been doing something wrong, because I don't think we ever had a case where the non-Ogre player won a complete victory. The Ogre always nailed the command post; it was only a question of whether it made it back off the board again afterwards.

I remember when the article about the "4 howitzer defense" came out in Strategy & Tactics (IIRC) and we tried it, but even that didn't save the command post.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 29, 2008 12:59 PM (+rSRq)

2 I only played Titan once or twice... I remember it as being quite fun.  Somewhere around The Pond I have a link to an online version of the game; if I find it I'll post it.

Posted by: wonderduck at November 29, 2008 02:34 PM (NjUTN)


The big problem with it is that it has a pretty steep learning curve, and it takes a long time to play.

Learning the rules isn't too tough, but really coming to understand the strategic board takes a lot longer, and if you don't understand it you'll be at a serious disadvantage. But the recruitment part of the game gives the players continual reinforcement and reward, which is part of why it's fun.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at November 29, 2008 03:49 PM (+rSRq)

4 Found it!  It's a java version called Colossus:

Posted by: Wonderduck at November 29, 2008 05:14 PM (jcrUS)


My favorite table-top game has got to be the original Cosmic Encounter.  The carefully timed changing of the game rules by a player (and not necessarily during their own turn) made each game a unique and challenging experience. 

Unfortunately, most of my gaming buddies disliked the fact that the game rules were constantly in flux.  They enjoyed developing standard strategies and tactics which they could improve from one game session to the next, but Cosmic Encounter did not give them a static play field.

Posted by: Siergen at November 30, 2008 01:00 PM (DX0g9)


OGRE and GEV... most way cool.  Pace SDB, it took us morons in Beaverton (but then, everyone in Beaverton must be a moron...) awhile to figure out that an OGRE did not have just one shot per gun (which just made the odds of it winning 50-50).  When GEV came out, it unfortunately was overtaken by AD&D within a few months and went down the memory hole.

VitP is one of the best strategic wargames I've every played (and owning most of the AH pantheon, that's saying something).  Easy to play, but forcing you to think many moves ahead, drunk or sober, young or old, it was one of those perfect storms of gaming.

Beyond the scope of your original post, I still occassionally play Diplomacy online, and while I piss (PISS!) on Squad Leader, I will die in my trench defending's Combat Mission series for best computer WWII tactical wargame, evah.

As we in the CM Cesspool say, "Send me a setup, you fool."

Posted by: Tiberius at November 30, 2008 05:54 PM (VD/19)

7 Sweet memories!

Ogre was the first wargame I managed to play, and GEV made a nice addition.  Star Fleet Battles was awesome, though in some ways exceeded by the quirky Star Fleet Battle Manual.  I still have my copy of Victory in the Pacific, and it was my first clue as to the importance of production in the war.

I'm surprised Car Wars didn't get mentioned. What guy doesn't enjoy the fatasy of gunning down those other annoying drivers.

I never cared much for Fight in the Skies; Mustangs and Messerschmitts held a stronger aesthetic and simulation apeal for me.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

Posted by: RPD at December 01, 2008 02:27 AM (/hrIa)

8 I lived in a group house for the better part of the Nineties, and there were various pick-up gaming types who would show up and play whatever was lying around.  I wasn't really much into gaming at the time, so my interaction was usually a matter of sitting with my back to the gaming group, whittering away on Usenet.  But I do remember that most evenings' gaming sessions were concluded with a mock invitation for a 'quick game of Titan', usually for sessions ending after 1 AM.

Posted by: Mitch H. at December 01, 2008 11:40 AM (jwKxK)

9 I can write no paen to FITS more elegant than Wonderduck's, so I won't even try.  It is truly a great game.  But I'll make a small correction:  the pilot of the Camel was Bill O'Say.  Other Sopwiths I played were flown by various of his brothers.  And they were British, I think.  I'm not really sure how that family name came to be, but it did lend itself to all sorts of puns.  We used a sewing board marked with 1 inch squares because the board that came with the game was too small for a normal mission.  Our games primarly were one-on-one fighter dogfights, probably because that was the sort of combat that most appealed to our young imaginations.  There was a whole world of reconnaissance, ground support and balloon-busting missions we never really got into.

I think that the combat air patrol rules for Victory in the Pacific came from an article in the Avalon Hill General somewhere - there were also rules for combining the game with War at Sea, and playing both fronts at once - interesting if you wanted to see how adjusting the makeup of the British Atlantic and Pacific fleets affected the flow of the war.  But I don't think we could ever make the combined game rules work very smoothly.

Another game important to me but not mentioned by Wonderduck was "The Warlord Game" (sort of a proto-Sid Meier Civilization-type board game).  Strangely appealing at the time.  Must still be sitting around somewhere.

Posted by: Vaucanson's Duck at December 01, 2008 11:47 AM (XVJDy)

10 Vauc, now that you've mentioned it, I remember playing The Warlord Game a few times with you.  That, too, was quite fun, but I hadn't thought of it in decades.  When you said the name, it immediately came back, though.

Posted by: Wonderduck at December 01, 2008 07:17 PM (jcrUS)

11 Ah, sweet Ogre... I picked up an unopened copy in a comic & card shop in Biloxi about nine years ago and loved it instantly. GEV and the other follow-ons were fun, too, if not as simple.

Posted by: Franz at December 02, 2008 08:21 PM (ctUpa)

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