Entry Level Wargames: Three Titles for the Budding Armchair General07 Aug 2020 3
Lean in close, I have a confession to make. I'm a terrible wargamer, and not for lack of trying. But help is at hand, for all who share the dilettante affliction or want to plunge in beyond a dabbling toe. Listed below are three specific titles that I feel are great introductions to wargamer concepts. By no means a definitive list, just three solid efforts with discrete investigations of concepts that loom large in the wargame space.
This article has been written in co-operation with our sister website - The Wargamer. If you want to read more about wargaming, make sure you check them out!
Unity of Command - Marching on Stomachs
Unity of Command gets mentioned as a crucial stepping stone into the world of the steely digital grognard. Hard to argue. Its take on Stalingrad is buoyed by impeccable interface and clean, crisp art direction - often a confraternity left to founder in the wargame space. Beauty is however not skin-deep, and if there's anything this clever, bust-ridden hexer can teach us, it is that you're nothing without food in your belly, ordnance for the offense and fuel in your tank.
This tidy 2011 effort, now bolstered by a couple of expansions and in the looming shadow of an impending sequel, emphatically underscores an army's reliance on logistics. There's no better illustration of the concept than an encircled group, squeezed and pinched into obliteration by surgical strikes on its supply line.
If Unity of Command's AI has any mandate, it would be to go for said jugular. Either side of the Ostfront is dominated by a computer-controlled assailant designed solely to engineer a constricting rout. Every tungsten drive through an enemy's lines will be almost romanced as the AI calculates its vector towards your supply points. Every strangulation a lesson. An army isn't an army if the army can't shoot. It's merely uniformed prey.
Such carnivorous intent by the AI would be withering, were it not for Unity of Command's brisk missions. Compact design means new players can attend Flanking 101 without being overwhelmed by a Grigsby-grade wall of counters, tables and vast tracts of the East. Scenarios are still brutal, but they're bite-sized and beautiful.
There's a Sun Tzu quote in there somewhere about logistics. And also a quote about picking up Unity of Command, because it taught him everything he knew.
It's also worth noting that, since this article was last originally published, the developer has released a sequel - Unity of Command II. It improves on almost everything the original game had to offer and is largely set in North Africa and the Western theatres. We're not sure it's as good an 'entry' wargame, although it still retains some of what made the original so accessible in the first place. Plenty of chunky new mechanics though which may cause some head-scratching.
Afghanistan '11 - Asymmetric Warfare and the Liquid Enemy
Johan Nagel is my favourite developer in the strategy space. A former South African marine officer, fought at Cuito Cuanavale and, most importantly, conducted township counter-insurgency ops; Nagel has a deep understanding of the intricacies of COIN. Vietnam '65 was his powerful debut, chasing Charlie and the NVA up the Ia Drang, political willpower picking up the tab on every acquisition, every action, every success and every single loss. It was smart and slick and put Every Single Soldier on the map.
With Afghanistan '11, Nagel takes his brand of counter-insurgency warfighting and gives it contemporary context, nesting Vietnam '65's combat inside a fresh nation-building superstructure. This is as complex a battlespace as they come, rivalled in the modern era perhaps only by the current Syrian climate. It comes as no surprise that Afghanistan '11 is a deft interpretation of the Coalition's enterprise. Like Vietnam, it packages operations as political investment, with specific focus on making visible, measurable progress.
Therein lies the rub. As was the case in Vietnam, fighting the quote-unquote enemy is a frustrating endeavour. It requires a massive logistic undertaking; gaining the support from local villages for intel, enact infrastructure overhauls, comb highways for endless IEDs and surviving ambushes, as well as dealing with the intractable tumult of domestic politics. At the same time, you're trying to bring down the immense hammer of American warfighting on Taliban insurgents and tribal warlords who, if not completely annihilated, simply vanish.
Afghanistan '11 is a juggling act, but the game is as accessible as it gets. Combat has just enough bite to be interesting. The rotation of village visitation offers up the right amount of leads on enemies and infrastructure. If military hardware is your thing, as it is mine, you can spend the fleeting downtime ogling the gorgeous vehicle models while muttering how things are a little too quiet. Nagel has produced a take on a contemporary conflict that goes beyond the nuts and bolts. It's a sharp look at the multi-faceted nature of warfare in the asymmetric age. An essential purchase, in every sense of the word.
Twilight Struggle - Global Influence in the Age of Nukes
Describing GMT's abstract Cold War title as a 'war game' will raise not a small amount of eyebrows depending on who you talk to, but the Cold War itself was less about big military conflicts and everything about jockeying for influences and control over global affairs. Sure, it wasn't all peaceful: The US's dismal ventures in Korea and Vietnam saw a rocky start to their ideas of interventionism, and even the Soviet Union had its share of struggles, especially as time went on.
A hypothetical 'Cold War gone hot' WW3 scenario is wonderful fodder for a grogs imagination, but trying to simulate the reality of a world being divided by the newly emerging modern superpowers is no less as intense, or exciting. Playdek Inc, did a masterful job of translating Twilgiht Struggle to digital, so if you don't fancy dealing with all those counters (or don't think anyone will play it with you), there's a robust AI and a modest online community waiting for you on PC and mobile.
It's a card driven game, where the cards can have multiple uses - with the main two being using the action on the card (which may not necessarily help you) or converting it into 'Operation' points to spend in building up (or tearing down) influence across the world. Both sides start with several protectorates and diplomatic concerns in place (don't get distracted by Germany), and then from there you need subtly attempt to outplay your opponent. You have to be careful though - plenty of actions can end up lowering the DEFCON level, and the player that drives it down to DEFCON 1 - all out nuclear war - loses. Outside of that, it's mainly down to whichever side as the most Victory Points, and you can these through a surprisingly complex web of factors, which can change from game-to-game.
Do you have any of your own suggestions for games that serve as good entries into the world of wargaming? Let us know in the comments!