Mark Herman is one of the most consistent designers in the industry and has been putting out wargames for decades now. Widely regarded as one of the best, where should we even start with the library of games he’s designed?! Well, it’s all opinion, but I put together a list of three games that to me are must haves. Three isn’t many games to go on, but I tried to choose games that were different enough from each other to get a wide range of game styles. There are so many games I couldn’t include on this list which is criminal, so here’s my three favourite!
3. Fire in the Lake: Insurgency in Vietnam
Fire in the Lake is probably my favourite COIN game. For the uninitiated, COIN stands for COunter INsurgency. The board will be arrayed with a slew of brightly coloured cubes and octagonal prisms which represent different nations, factions, and troop types. Best played with 4 players, the US and the ARVN will attempt to eradicate the NVA and VC forces across the country. Like any COIN game, the alliances are tenuous, as there can only be one winner, and the VC and NVA guerrilla forces are extremely hard to stamp out.
Fire in the Lake made the list because, whilst complex, it provides one of my favourite COIN experiences. Moving US and ARVN forces can be sticky and require a lot of logistics, and they cannot be everywhere on the map at the same time (at least effectively). The VC are so difficult to entirely wipe out of a region that their mere presence is always a thorn in the Free People’s side. The NVA on the other hand are like a massed horde, needing superior numbers to effectively combat and bombard the US troops. I love the asymmetry in Fire in the Lake, and the theme is top notch. This is one of the bigger, longer, and more difficult to learn COIN games, but for me the payoff is masterful.
Slap on a playlist of Black Sabbath, Dead Kennedy’s, and The Animals and enjoy the ride.
2. Churchill: Big Three Struggle for Peace
Churchill is a Card Driven Game that can be played by 1-3 players. You will take the role of either Roosevelt, Churchill, or Stalin and participate in a series of diplomatic conferences throughout WWII, deciding the course of the war, and attempting to shape the post-war world. Each conference is a ’round’ and begins with a debating section. This is the card driven portion of the game. The players will choose a number of ‘issue’ counters to bring to the middle of the table. These are the items on the agenda for that conference, which will be enacted, affect the war, and help the allies gain VP’s. Then each of these items will be debated over with the use of cards from the players hands. Each card is an historical figure that was either a diplomat, politician or attache. The issues that end up under your control at the end of the debate, will be implemented how you want them to be. These issues range from allocation of production resources, clandestine actions in satellite countries, Atomic Bomb research, the opening of second fronts in each theater, and many other things.
These issues are played out abstractly on a series of tracks and boxes divided into a Pacific and European Theater. Learning the game was a unique experience, because it is a unique game. The resolution of combat/political control is at such an impersonal scale I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. An entire front of the war is a single block. This contrasts starkly with the deeply personal and individual nature of the debates. And that’s what I love about Churchill. The game is incredibly fun. Playing with three players is one of the best gaming experiences out there. But playing with 2 and a bot, or even solo with 2 bots works really well too.
Churchill comes with some of my highest recommendations. Mark also released the second game in the series called Pericles, which is a very different beast and can handle up to four players. But for me Churchill is hard to top because I love the WWII theme, and I think the 3 player dynamic gives a really fun wargame experience you don’t typically find.
1. Empire of the Sun
Whelp. Time to put on your big boy pants. Empire of the Sun is an incredible game. The scope of the game, the openness of the game, the complexity of the game, the artwork of the game. Empire of the Sun is one of the best strategic games, period. You’ll fight massive pitched carrier battles, naval bombardments, and bloody landings all over the Pacific Theater. But what makes this game such a dream is not just your capacity to field huge fleets and armies, but to react to, and intercept those fleets. There’s no such thing as a sure-fire combat in Empire of the Sun. Even with overwhelming odds you might have a bunch of reinforcements swell the enemy ranks, you might roll poorly and have your attack values badly diminished, you might even have to call off massive offensives due to inclement weather.
The game is a typical CDG, in the sense that each card has an Ops value or an event. But that’s pretty much it. The game is not for beginners. I actually wrote/am working on still a series of articles trying to help break the game down into manageable chunks. Suffice it to say that as complex as the subsystems of the game are, and as much as my brain burns after playing this for long periods of time; I just cannot get enough. You’ll need a good amount of time for this one if you play start to finish – but you’ll quickly learn to concede after things take a turn for the worse, so you can start again! Failing that there is a solitaire module that comes with the game which can be a mind bender at first with all the jargon and acronyms, but once you get going it works decently. I know Mark is completely overhauling it for the new printing coming out soon, so maybe look at the new version on P500 if you’re interested.
A game of this scale, that works this well is an achievement in and of itself, but having so many moving parts, and it still being so accurate and yet (miraculously) playable really sets this game ahead of the competition. The game spawned a few other titles that use the same mechanics – Plan Orange (a what if Pacific 1930’s wargame) and South Pacific (a smaller scenario from C3i) each of which have their own, very different merits too. But Empire of the Sun is the grand daddy. This game has the entire Pacific Theater on a single map board, and you play to the bloody death, one way or the other, across all of that beautiful blue ocean.
So. There you have it, my favourite three games from Mark Herman. I know, I know, there’s some heresy here! “Where’s Washington’s War, Where’s We The People, what about The Great Battles of Alexander?” But I’m going to be honest, I’ve not played TGBoA. I decided to leave Washington’s War off the list, not because it isn’t great, because it most assuredly is but I left it off because I think the games listed above are better. Sure, We The People was the grandfather of the CDG, but Empire of the Sun is basically the end game of the CDG, and it’s unbelievably cool what the system has developed into.
Other honorable mentions are, again, Pericles, a fantastic ancients game. I’m not really an ancients kind of guy, but Pericles has such good gameplay that I became interested in it. Mark’s older games like France 1944 have the birth of some of the command systems he uses in later games. I love France 1944 as a solo game. It’s an old Victory Games title about the break out of Normandy and race to the Rhine. Gulf Strike is a large game about the first Gulf War that is a really good game on the topic, and can be found at a reasonable price online.
Basically, Mark Herman has way too many good games to make a reasonable list, and he’s one of the few designers out there where I will buy a game simply because it has his name on it.
So, what are your favourites? Feel free to flame me in the comments. I can take it.