This is my first entry into our Best 3 Games with… series where we have examined a specific mechanic, theme or game type and then provided a list of the Best 3 Games that exhibit that mechanic, theme or game type that we have played. You have to remember that these are the best of the games that we have played in our OPINION and we are sure that there are many other worthwhile games out there with the highlighted elements (I have only played about a dozen games with World War II theme)! We hope that these entries broaden your horizons and expose you to alternate games that you are not familiar with. So with this entry, I would like to look at a theme of games that I personally love playing for the historical immersion that I get from the well integrated game play and the light that they shed on arguably the greatest conflict in the history of the world. With that, I present to you the Best 3 Games with…World War II!
3. Axis & Allies Revised Edition by Hasbro
One of the first war games that I owned was the original version of Axis & Allies from the Gamemaster Series by Milton Bradley. I loved that game and my brother and I played so much that we basically broke a majority of the miniature’s guns, bayonets, etc. When the Revised Edition was released in 2004, I purchased it and immediately began playing with a small group almost weekly. Axis & Allies is a great example of a game about World War II encompassing both the European and Pacific Theaters of the war in one game. The game allows for up to 5 players, each representing a distinct nation. The game is an area movement and area control economic game where victory conditions can be different for each game.
I love the Revised Edition of the game as they added several new pieces including Artillery (which gives a +1 to the attack value of infantry when present) and the Destroyers. The map has also been rearranged (I love the addition of West Russia) which has created the need for new strategies for the Axis powers to launch Operation Barbarrosa to invade Russia. One of the reasons that I love this game is that there are always interesting choices about what to do with your units. Should I direct attack? Should I hold reserve units to perform a counterattack? How can I protect my more expensive armor units and use them effectively? How can I bring enough air power to bear on his flotilla off the coast of England to hold off invasion another few rounds? I also love the ability of each nation to gamble with their IPC’s (Industrial Production Credits) and invest into the roll of 6 sided dice to develop game changing technologies like long range aircraft or heavy bombers. Some will say this is a waste of time and resources, but if you succeed, they open up new and interesting ways to defeat your opponents. I know there are much heavier, more involved operational level World War II games out there with better strategy and that are more true to the genre than A&A, but A&A provides me the all important FUN factor, in a relatively simple and easily played format with strategic thinking. It also is a very nostalgic game for me and that is why it made this list.
2. Combat Commander by GMT Games
I acquired my copy of Combat Commander: Europe in May this year and since have played about 9 scenarios and acquired Combat Commander: Mediterranean and Battle Pack #1 Paratroopers. Read my Preview of Combat Commander: Europe and Combat Commander: Mediterranean. So what can you expect when you purchase one of the greatest squad level based combat simulation games on the market? Combat Commander is a card-driven strategy game (I love CDG’s if you didn’t know!) covering tactical infantry combat in the European, Mediterranean and Pacific Theaters of World War II made for 2 players, although there are several ways to play solo if you search on Board Game Geek. 1 player takes the role of the Axis (Germany, Italy or one of the minors such as Rumania) while another player is one of the Allies (United States of America, Russia, France or one of the minors such as the Polish).
The players will take turns playing one or more “Fate” cards (each side has a deck of 72 available cards) from their hands in order to activate units on the map to perform military functions such as Fire, Move, Request Artillery Support, Recover, Dig-in, etc. The players play until a Surrender Limit has been reached, which is preset by the scenario, and represents the number of units that can be eliminated prior to a loss or until a Time Track has reached the designated point where the game will then be in Sudden Death and will be ended by a dice roll. I love this game and the opportunity that I have while playing to experience the frustration with the conditions of combat such as communications, or the lack thereof, superior forces, line of sight, elevation and obstacles from terrain, smoke or a raging fire. I have found that this game is about trying to manage your forces properly and take the actions which allow them to achieve their objectives. This can be difficult as each nation will have a hand limit based upon their posture (4 cards for the Defender and 6 cards for the Attacker) and each nation has differing abilities based on historically accurate reasons to discard their hands to cycle through useless cards (The French are bad at this as they had a lack of training and absence of good leadership). This can cause a true feeling of the “fog or confusion of war” and paralyze your best efforts to meet those objectives. I find this not only entertaining but what I can only imagine is a realistic representation of what it must have been like. Some would complain that the cards are random and don’t belong in a strategy game but I disagree. Chaos (lack of good cards) changes the best laid battle plans and there are certain factors that contribute to that chaos, such as running out of ammo, your guns jamming, being pinned down by a sniper or having your units morale drop leaving them hugging the ground and keeping their heads down, that make battle difficult. The cards represent this part of the chaos and is a genius addition to the game.
The other favorite part for me is the narrative that is told as the battles unfold! I have loved the experience of defeat as well as victory when playing. I have felt as if I was Sergeant Kaminsky (Russian) trying to inspire my men to move up on a building to engage the enemy and knock them out of that fortification. I experienced the disappointment of Sergeant Ganz (German) as his troops were forced to retreat to the north to try to repel the Russians who were threatening the German troops in the buildings. I felt the disgust in my unit’s performance when the very powerful infantry gun continued to miss its targets! I was relieved when a random event put a blaze marker in between my troops and the German forces in the woods obscuring their line of sight and not allowing them to effectively fire on me. The narrative is the best part and allows my mind to participate in the battle, even though I am not there. It is a similar feeling to a well written book that forces you to take the role of the main characters and see things from their perspective. This game is a good representation of the theme and historically accurate with each scenario being based on actual battles and engagements.
1. Empire of the Sun by GMT Games
Empire of the Sun by Mark Herman is a card driven design that takes a strategic level look at the entire War in the Pacific from the attack on Pearl Harbor through the eventual surrender of Japan aboard the USS Missouri. Read one of my After Action Reports on a game of EotS here. EotS is the first card driven game (CDG) to move the system toward a more classic hexagon wargame, while retaining the tension and uncertainty players have come to expect from a CDG. Players control either the forces of the Empire of the Sun Japan or the United States of America and are cast in the role of various generals and leaders such as Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Admiral Chester Nimitz, and Earl Mountbatten as you direct your forces across the breadth of the globe from India to Hawaii and from Alaska to Australia. This is represented on a single huge map based on a 1942 projection of the entire theater of conflict. I can assure you, the large map is extremely intimidating as there are myriad counters and markers on the board.
I love the combat system as it involves 2 tiers or parts. The 1st is the resolution of air and naval combat. This involves all ships of the line and aircraft. 2nd is the resolution of the ground combat portion which involves only the ground troops. Once both parts have been completed, a winner is decided. The realism is palpable as you cannot or don’t completely wipe out forces amassed in a certain area but will inflict step reductions based on the results of a die and consulting a combat table that includes factors such as surprise. It potentially will take 2-3 successful attacks upon a hex to dislodge the troops that are protecting that area and to me this is what makes EotS great as it truly captures the feeling of the struggle! I also love the event cards and the various options that they provide players. The Japanese have a lot of interception cards that allow them to intercept major American attacks from as far away as up to 20 hexes. This simply means that the American player can never assume that his attack will go the way it was planned and that he will most likely be fighting additional Japanese units that have been moved into the battle from other adjoining areas in addition to the units that were originally there. This has caused me much heart burn during our sessions as I may have been trying desperately to gain a foothold on an island that was only lightly defended, only to see the fortune of the battle turn in the favor of the Japanese after a well played event card!
One other element that is amazingly designed is the game’s dealing with various issues that plagued the War in the Pacific such as supply, amphibious assaults, political will at home, public opinion (remember that many Americans never saw early pictures of the death and losses of American troops during such amphibious assaults as Tarawa, Peleliu, etc.), China and inter-service rivalry. The key variable in determining strategic victory is the level of U.S. political will. The Japanese win the game by forcing the U.S. into a negotiated peace. The Japanese achieve this by knocking countries like India, China, and Australia out of the war, while inflicting massive casualties on the United States. Each year the war advances, the pressure on the U.S. player mounts as they must assault more and more areas to prove to the public that they are winning the war. In the end, the game is an epically amazing journey through the history of the conflict in the Pacific. It is a long game, taking at least 4-6 hours for the shorter scenarios, and even longer for the longer scenarios or the full campaign but the play experience is amazingly simple once the concepts have been learned by each player. I love Empire of the Sun and the representation that it is of World War II.