War games. When hearing the very words, many run screaming. Others imagine white-haired men bending over a cluttered table for days, pushing little counters from hex-to-hex across paper maps, rolling dice to attack, and consulting charts to account for terrain, weather, morale, and what the men had for breakfast – all the while arguing about whether Napoleon cocked his hat to the right or the left. I’m a war gamer at heart, but no longer play those complex, weekend-long, hex-and-counter tilts. I simply don’t have the time, nor do I know anyone else so inclined to spend a day worrying about facing, supporting fire, zones-of-control, and lines-of-supply. Too much detail bogs down play amidst confusing rules. Too much depth creates a simulation at the expense of gaming fun.
Let’s face it, if war games intimidate you – or if you’re an armchair general looking to initiate that intimidate individual – the biggest obstacle is overcoming the genre’s negative stereotypes: long, complex, cumbersome, fiddly, and dusty. But there are simpler war games that can satisfy an appetite for grand strategy and epic narrative. Many of them still require a significant time investment, but others play within an hour or two. Some use dice-based combat, but certainly not all. And most replace boring, generic counters with cool, plastic miniatures. So with the unwashed masses in mind, here is a progressive list of ten titles I recommend to gradually break into the genre. Hopefully before long your friend/child will be full-fledged grognards battling all weekend and out-flanking your sorry Panzer!
The Skinny: This is the only game that I know of about the Black Death. As was the case in the 14th Century, your goal is to avoid it and survive! Each round you’ll place your own population cubes around Europe while rats multiply and carry the Plague. Not pleasant, I know. When an epidemic triggers in a region, players can lose population, but you have some control over how the Plague spreads – and you don’t even have to wash your hands! You can manage the situation even more by claiming certain character roles which allow you to manipulate the Plague, protect your population, or cope with rats. You can have multiple roles at a time and you keep these until an opponent takes one from you. However, while having multiple roles gives you lots of abilities, it also increases your risk of losing people.
The Appeal: Underneath the role selection and area control mechanics lays a war game. Your goal in Rattus is not just to survive, but to have the greatest population in the end. This is a big distinction. It means that you’re trying to move the Plague so that it kills off your opponents’ cubes. You can use some roles to great effect in these attacks. Rattus is a sharply interactive game where you deliberately target other players. The theme is refreshing and intriguing, the rules are simple, and there are a lot of strategic/tactical choices. And no dice! It’s a war game in a Euro’s clothing. That’s right – this title will trick your uninitiated friend or child into starting down the war gaming path!
The Skinny: Another war game that doesn’t exactly walk or talk like one. Admittedly, it does look more like a game of conquest, because you’re trying to take territory. But there are no armies, no producing units, no controlling a nation, and no rolling for combat (mostly). At least in the traditional sense of war gaming. The goal is to earn victory points by capturing territory in a fantasy world. Each region is worth one point, but you can earn extra points by capturing places based on your race’s characteristics and traits. There are several different races with unique characteristics, and many different traits that grant other special abilities. These races and traits are paired randomly and become available to draft. You pick which combo you want and then start your conquest, typically targeting land that nets you the most points. The other unique aspect? When you become too weak, you can decline your race and choose another.
The Appeal: Small World is a simple strategy game. Even though it would seem that elves, dwarfs, wizards, and Amazon warriors would pander to “geek culture,” the theme is humorous and innocent enough to appeal more broadly. The game lasts only a set number of rounds, depending on player count, so it can be played in a surprisingly short time. There is a lot of variety. Combat is simple math – if you attack with more race tokens than the enemy has tokens in the region, you win. Typically your attacks are oriented towards earning maximum points, rather than for any personal reasons. That and scoring is hidden to limit the “gang up on the leader” problem that many games have. Small World is a light, quick-paced romp that will start to pull in your friend or child even deeper.
The Skinny: This quintessential design launched a thousand titles in the genre. It is a straight-forward, conquest game in which the world is divided into 42 territories. Beginning with a random number of equal holdings, you and your opponents battle it out, taking land and earning reinforcements every turn based on the number of regions you control. Armies are generic and combat roles are simply “highest wins.” The victor is the last one standing.
The Appeal: The granddaddy of them all! The iconic Risk was first published in France in 1957 and then in the U.S. two years later. I don’t recommend it as a war gaming staple, but as an introduction to the genre, it cannot be beat. It can go a little long, too, to put it mildly. In fact it’s so simple, that it quickly loses interest for most people, anyway. But for its historical significance and war gaming basics, it is hands-down the easiest title to dip a toe into the pool of conquest.
The Skinny: Do not refresh your browser – this is not a double-post. Instead, Risk 2210 takes the same mechanics as its predecessor half a century earlier and adds a few elements. One, it includes ocean and lunar territories – both new frontiers ripe for conquest. For another, there are special commander units to purchase that let you do special things and lead troops with a better die roll. Buying things is also new as you now get monetary credits for each territory owned, in addition to traditional reinforcements. There are also command cards which you can buy and play for sweet bonuses that can really swing play. Finally, the game ends after 5 rounds. Yes, five. The winner is the one with the most points.
The Appeal: Risk 2210 is just one of many variants on the classic. If you’d rather, you can get other thematic versions, like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. But I recommend this one, because licensed versions tend to have smaller circles of appeal. The biggest draw to Risk 2210 is its endgame. You can always play a longer session if you wanted, but the 5-turn limit keeps the game from lasting all day, growing stale over time, and helps you tolerate the wide swings in fortune wrought by the command cards. Those cards, while very random, are the other main attraction – many war games are card-based and/or use cards to inject various actions, powers, and/or events. Risk 2210 introduces that mechanic in a simple and innocuous manner.
The Skinny: After Risk, this intriguing title is the next logical step. It introduces enough twists to be very different, but the general concept is similar and you’re still fighting over our familiar world. Themed in an alternate 20th century interbellum period, the design eschews nationalities and formal political boundaries, as in Risk, although it employs point-to-point movement, as opposed to “areas.” Instead of one generic army type, you have three, plus naval units. Combat is not completely dissimilar, but uses custom dice, and rolls are not simultaneous – initiative between who shoots and removes casualties first changes based on the troops engaged. The largest twist from Risk, however, is card play. Each round you choose a card which limits how much you can produce, how many moves you can make, and how often you can attack for that turn. It also grants a special, nifty ability to use that round. The game ends as soon as one player reaches a designated victory point threshold, which is earned from owning capitals, certain resource spots, and achieving majorities in land, sea, and production.
The Appeal: Dust dials up the complexity just a bit, but is still accessible. The victory point orientation refines strategy, helps ease the sting of direct interaction, and keeps the game from dragging on for hours. It also forces players to attack and discourages “turtling” – an unfortunate, delaying tactic in many war games whereby players hunker down and build up near impregnable defensive positions, yet lack the strength or resolve to attack. The cards focus planning, add replay value, and keep individual turns at a reasonable length. Combat is fast and fun. The unique theme could be a draw, although alternate, quasi-Steampark history might just as easily cause hesitation. If you can convince your board game civilian to look past that, the mechanics are ideal to get them just a little deeper into the genre.
The Skinny: A game so massive it comes with an exclamation point! Well, it’s not necessarily massive in rules and complexity, but it is in components. This is one sprawling game – especially with the Deluxe Expansion added to it (recommended). Attack! begins with the tried and true premise of conquering the world. Set in a 1930’s world of loosely familiar geo-political territories, you assume the lead of no particular nation to build units and roll to victory. However, instead of an open-ended “move until you can’t anymore” approach, the design uses action point selection. There are seven different actions you can take, choosing three or four every turn – abstracted as seasons in a year – never the same action twice in the same year. In addition to moving, attacking, and producing, you can also attempt to peacefully annex a region or research to build your economy and infrastructure. The ultimate goal is to earn victory points, based on territories gained, but also your technology level. The game lasts for a set number of years, of which you may decide.
The Appeal: Within the genre, I always like to describe Attack! as bigger than a bread box but smaller than a refrigerator. It is more difficult than Risk, but lower in complexity than most other titles. The economic and research elements add depth, but remain rudimentary enough to grasp easily. There are cards to earn and play for special bonuses. And combat is unique, probably the biggest attraction here. You still roll dice over a number of rounds necessary for one side’s eliminate. However, you only commit 4 units at first and increase by one each round, as long as you have the numbers. The custom dice have icons that match units engaged to score hits. So the odds are close to even with any kind of troop, but they all have unique abilities worth using. The game can run overly-long, but you have the flexibility to tailor that length. Besides, the action point allowance mechanic keeps downtime to a minimum and prevents endless turns – making Attack! ideal as a non-war gamer’s war game.
The Skinny: Again, not all war games need dice and this recent title is the standard-bearer for that category. The goal here is to gain victory points and you earn most of them by winning battles, so you are encouraged to go after others. As in Attack!, Kemet limits you with an action selection mechanic whereby you choose five different actions each turn. You’re not necessarily taking territory just to hold it, but to grab points for doing so. The interesting aspect is that you have a finite army which you might find restrictive, though interestingly you can “sacrifice” troops for other benefits. Most of them will be dying in battle, though. Movement is rather freer than in traditional war games, and that can catch you off guard. Combat is handled through personal sets of cards with varying offensive and defensive strengths that you must manage wisely. You do sort of build up an infrastructure in order to increase your position and treasury, even acquiring mythical creatures to boost your fortunes.
The Appeal: Kemet has all kinds of eye candy and a really immersive theme. At first glance, it looks to be extremely complex, but the design is really slick and streamlined. There’s typically a lot of action and the whole affair plays in 1 ½ to 2 hours, a reasonable and rewarding time investment. The combat mechanic eliminates randomness in favor of strategy, bluffing, and reading your opponent. There are always plenty of options and you never feel restrained despite the fact you can’t repeat any actions in a turn. Make no mistake, though – Kemet is an aggressive, in-your-face brawl. Thankfully, it’s fun, fast, and smart enough to keep your new up-and-coming war gamer thirsting for more!
The Skinny: I haven’t yet listed a title dealing with a specific, historic conflict. Which is ironic since recreating certain times can be a lure within the genre. This tactical war game rectifies that. Memoir ’44 simulates, albeit loosely, World War II battles with customizable terrain tiles, plastic miniatures, and custom dice. The core mechanic is card-driven. The battlefield is divided into three sections: right, center, and left. You play one command card on your turn which lets you activate troops in a particular sector – or more – in order to move, attack, and/or perform some other special operation. Battles are resolved by custom dice matching icons to the units you are attacking, or forcing them to retreat. You earn a medal (victory point) when completely eliminating a unit, as for accomplishing other objectives as indicated by individual scenarios. Typically a scenario ends when one side has garnered a set number of points.
The Appeal: There is a reason I waited to include Memoir ’44 in the #8 spot: non-war gamers and casual players can hesitate when jumping into a historically-based game. Many people are afraid they’ll get bogged down in historic minutia. After they’ve become a bit acclimated to the genre with other titles, they’ll be ready for something more “real.” And you can reassure them this design still favors playability and accessibility over detail and simulation. It actually presents historical battles very abstractly. What it does have is a nice mix of tactical play with randomness, a fun and simple combat system, and high replayability. Plus there are numerous expansions to explore for even more variety if it proves a success with your growing grognard.
Conquest of the Empire II
The Skinny: War games aren’t just about attacking. That gross stereotype may be a common denominator, but some titles focus less on combat than others. Most war games require players to manage other resources or details, in addition to cutting down ranks of infantry. Up to now, this list has included some exemplary titles with important non-interactive elements. Conquest of the Empire II is the culmination of this concept. Based on an original design from the 1980s that was essentially “Roman Risk on steroids,” Conquest II is a completely different animal using the same plastic minis and gigantic Mediterranean map. Combat is not strictly an end goal, but rather a means unto an end. That, specifically, is influence. Players earn points by buying influence in select provinces. You don’t need armies to buy influence. In fact, you can’t earn influence with your military. But you do need boots on the ground to protect your interests – and/or to oust foreign troops if you’d like to steal your opponents’ influence. Conquest II also uses an action point selection mechanic (8 actions per year), includes bonus cards, and lasts a set number of game turns. It essentially does a lot of what Attack! does, but more Machiavellian – and the system is better off for it. Armies of opposing factions can occupy the same territory, there is a forced alliance element that changes every round, and movement is very abstracted for speed and simplicity. When combat does occur, the system is very much like that in Attack!.
The Appeal: Conquest of the Empire II is a war game with more going on than just war. It incorporates other elements that your budding war gaming colleague will be familiar with from other hobby designs, namely area-majority, action point allowance, and bidding. The political aspect in the form of influence and alliances enhances the design’s strategic nature tenfold. It is moderately complex with a higher learning curve, but still rather approachable. Besides, your new war gamer is ready for this by now.
Ikusa (a.k.a. Samurai Swords, a.k.a. Shogun)
The Skinny: There are games that have great theme – and then there are games where the theme drives every aspect of play. A final “dudes-on-a-map” game to round-out this introductory list, this time you’re fighting over the fields of feudal Japan. Ironically, Ikusa harkens back to Risk, rather than building upon modern war games. Of course, it was originally published in the 1980s. There are no cards, no random events, no action selection. There is blind bidding for turn order. But essentially, you begin with random territories garrisoned with a few troops, earn money by taking territories to buy more troops with which to take more territories to earn even more money, and so on. There are two distinguishing elements to Ikusa. First, combat is resolved with 10-sided dice, with better unit types hitting at lower results. Second, players have three armies apiece which will conduct most offensives. Armies are stocked on an off-board player mat with their locations marked by a separate miniature to move around the board. These are significant because individual territory garrisons can only hold a maximum of 5 units, while armies carry 15. Oh, and if you loose all three of your armies, you’re out of the game!
The Appeal: Ikusa is long, draining, clunky, complex, geographically unbalanced, and suffers from a runaway leader problem. But it’s also strategically challenging, strongly thematic, ripe for shifting alliances, and has ninjas! The concept is straight-forward, but there are fiddly rules. Offense is important, but it’s easy to build up staggering defensive fortifications. Variable units enhance combat and tactics, but the dice can be unforgiving. In other words, it’s a great start to those even more complex, thematically-driven, historically-based war games which will come after. And did I mention it has ninjas?
Well, now you’re ready to launch full-fledged into the war gaming genre. From Ikusa, you can dive into other clunky, dudes-on-a-map games like the infamous Axis & Allies, the redoubtable Fortress America, the retro-design Warlords of Europe, and the thematically dizzying Warrior Knights. But don’t stop there! Once you’ve conquered those, you’re ready to march onward to the plethora of block games and hex-and-counter titles out there just ripe for the plucking.