Spectacle. Over produced. Novelty. Form over substance. These are all statements that I have read on various message boards around the internet regarding the game War Room designed by Larry Harris, Jr., the designer of the classic Axis & Allies. War Room is a deluxe global World War II game for 2-6 players that relies on some very interesting mechanics to simulate the war of all wars that involved every country in the world and lead to the ruin of many nations while others rose from the tumult to lead the world into the 1950’s and beyond. This game is huge, there is no other way to say it! The board is a top down world view of the entire conflict and really is an impressive site. In fact, when I first saw pictures of the game a few years ago, that was what drew me in. The board really doesn’t fit on our table in the bunker so playing it at home is going to be problematic as it is a table hog. We will have to lug this thing to conventions to get it played so we can not only find 4 other players for a full 6-player game but also so we can get some space to spread it out. I don’t think that finding people to play it will be a problem as when you walk by you will be unable to help yourself and you more than likely will be sucked in, but keep in mind that this one is going to take at least two days to fully complete. But there is more to the game than just its table presence.
We played parts of two games with 6 players a few weeks ago on a trip to see some friends in St. Louis (we were vaccinated and tried to maintain as much distance as possible). Our first game was more of a learning experience, as everyone was simply trying to feel out the game mechanics and how things worked. There were many strategic errors made as well as oversights as we were learning the secret order writing process and made several large mistakes causing gaping holes in lines and a general lack of unit support for defense. We also struggled with the massive distances needed to move troops for the Allies to Europe, North Africa and the Pacific. The map is well laid out and you can tell that spaces were thoughtfully placed to replicate the distance of these oceans and you could really feel it. Our second game lasted well into the early morning hours and saw Japan flex its muscle to conquer China, most of the Pacific and commence with their efforts to move on the Middle East and against western Russia and also saw the Axis powers in North Africa push the Allies out of Alexandria and repulse Operation Torch in western Africa. With these outcomes, we felt that we had all learned a lot about the mechanics, the management of the economic elements and the way that combat worked to better play an eventual third game in the future. I really liked the game and frankly have been thinking about it quite often since our plays but I will reserve my final judgement till the end of this post. I now would like to go over some of the elements that were generally considered to be very well done and that also caused great discussion among the players. A funny side note. After our second play, all players were exhausted, both physically and mentally, and simply sat there and could do nothing but engage in a very deep and thoughtful discussion about the game and what was learned. There were some really great insights into the strategy situation, and about what was best for the Allies and Axis to do, as well as a very heated discussion about the relative power of units involved, mainly focused around the Battleships and how they seemed to dwarf the power of the Aircraft Carrier, and also the dreaded DOOM STACKS that seemed to form and come together in major cataclysmic battles. We will cover some of these points now.
Simulation and the problem of lack of options
The starting situation for the game is in 1942 after the disaster at Pearl Harbor, while the fighting at Guadalcanal is ongoing (as there are both American and Japanese troops occupying the island and are immediately engaged as the area is considered contested), after Western Europe and Paris have fallen and Hitler’s forces have built up their infamous Fortress Europa and as the Nazis are moving on Moscow on the East Front. The situation is dire for the Allies for sure. The first moves for the game seem to be in many ways programmed by necessity. The Germans must attack Russia on the East Front, the Italians and Germans in North Africa must make an attempt on Alexandria and Egypt and Japan must focus their initial efforts on moving on mainland China to try and knock them out as quickly as possible. The Allies are also very much under the gun from the first turn as they have to protect their convoys from the Wolfpacks in the Atlantic, have to begin the 2-3 turn process of moving enough men and material to build up forces in England and move against North Africa and Russia must brace for the inevitable impact of the German blitzkrieg but also drain some resources away to the east to hold back the Japanese. The choices are pretty well set at the outset and we discussed whether that was a good thing for this particular game.
Don’t get me wrong. I think that wargames typically start at a full on engaged status, think the long line of units stacked adjacent to each other on the East Front in those games, and the options at the start are always pretty clear. After these initial engagements though, things open up a bit and players have some more options for maneuver, movement of units to fill gaps and target weak or damaged stacks for the killing blow. This is the case with War Room as well but there is such a large commitment needed by both sides to perform these few first moves that it makes the process of doing anything else pretty daunting. What we found was that after the initial clashes, that units were destroyed and stacks dwindled, t the point that it was very difficult to get enough power up to do anything else strategic during your second move. Typically, you were still engaged in those initial clashes and territories were encumbered and contested so the second round was simply a continuation of those initial battles. This is not a problem necessarily but makes the game feel a bit scripted at first.
Order writing during the Strategic Planning Phase
The general consensus was that the order writing was the best part of the game and really caused some fatigue and consternation for all the players, but in a good way! During the Strategic Planning Phase, players have to look over their situation and secretly record their unit movements on a scratch pad. There are generally two different numbers of orders. Smaller countries, like Italy and China only have 6 order spaces, while the larger countries including the US, Germany, Russia, England and Japan, have 9 order spaces. Each of these orders will activate just one stack identified by a formation number, 1st, 17th, 82nd, etc. and then identify a space, either an ocean space or a land space, that the unit will be moving into or attacking if adjacent. So an order will look something like this: 82nd (US land unit located in London) –> A-15 (ocean space west of Spain). Each player records all of their orders and then hands their sheet to an opposing player (Axis player hands to Allied player and Allied player to Axis player). An important part about this step is the recording of the players bid for turn order on that sheet, which requires them to write down a number of units of their Oil resource that they are sacrificing to try to go first). This is a very expensive part of the process as oil is a precious and difficult resource to obtain and is vitally important to the player as any mechanized unit, such as Tanks, Battleships, Aircraft Carriers, Fighters and Bombers, require a few Oil to build.
After turn order is determined, the players then read those written orders out loud in turn order and movements are made. The kicker here is that if an order is now unable to be completed, it is cancelled. If there is another way to get from point A to point B through other friendly controlled areas within the units movement limit the order can be carried out but if an enemy has blocked that route or moved into the space from where the unit was planning to move from, that unit is now pinned and will have to engage in combat there. This is great fun as you can see the strategy of each faction playing out in real time as those units are moved. Sometimes the movement choices are obvious and don’t generate much furor, but sometimes an unexpected movement or attack is taken and it really creates some buzz and players Ooh and Aah audibly. This part of the game is really great and I loved the orders segment. Several times, I actually wrote down the wrong space I was moving to, or I actually wrote down the same movement twice! Don’t ask how that happens but there is some angst and deep thought in this phase and each move is so vitally important because you only have a limited number of orders. Also keep in mind, that each unit that you move must use an order. Not each destination space but each unit you want to get into that space. With this limitation, you can imagine that there are many more movements and attacks that could be done but you don’t have an action to take. This is the main focus of the game in the concept of a global theater with each faction having units in multiple theaters with multiple goals and objectives. You cannot do all that you want to do each turn and your opponent’s hidden actions will sometimes create new goals and objectives that you must attempt to meet in the next Strategic Planning Phase.
One of the ways that we judge every wargame we play is in the combat system. Most of our wargames use odds based Combat Results Tables and players will search for better numerical odds to improve the results of their attacks. This is not the case in War Room. Rather than looking for numerical odds, players will be looking for dice odds to increase their number of dice that they are using as this will improve the chances of rolling certain results. The combat system is pretty basic, but has some very well done aspects that have to be considered. First off, the game uses 12-sided dice with only colors showing on the various faces. These colors correspond to unit types with red being Bombers and Battleships, Green being Fighters and Tanks, Blue corresponding to Cruisers and Artillery and Yellow to Submarines and Infantry. The odds portion of wargame combat is represented in the frequency of the colors appearing on faces of the dice. There is just one Red on each die, 2 Green, 3 Blue and 4 Yellow. This leaves two wild colors in Black and White with 1 side each, which apply to Surface Units and a concept called Force Advantage. Force Advantage means that one side has more different types of units in the battle than the other player and provides a bonus with Black hitting as a wild. Think of this as combined arms and the benefit that this normally gives in the form of a Column Shift or DRM. The White result can be used only to finish off a damaged unit.
In the above picture of the Battle Board, you will notice that each unit type is listed and then there are a number of dice that the unit rolls listed in the center. For each unit of that type, you get those dice and add them to your pool. These rolls are done simultaneously and will often be a lot of dice, the limit is 30 and this is often reached with Doom Stacks, and casualties removed as the appropriate color is rolled. All units get to attack so there is no worry about destruction before they get to roll. The real cool innovation with this simple combat system is the unit’s Initial Status or as I like to say stance. This is not just for the Attacker but is also a choice for the Defender. For example, you can place your Infantry units in a Defensive stance where they will only roll 1 die but gain the advantage of requiring two hits to remove. While Offensive Infantry will roll 2 dice each but only take 1 hit to be destroyed. Armor is one of the most important units and has the same choice of Offensive versus Defensive. With the understanding that Green is a bit harder to roll (1 in 6 chance versus 1 in 3 for Yellow) I always throw my Tanks into Offensive because they will get to roll 4 dice, as compared to defensively only rolling 2 dice. The other cool choice you have is with Artillery as it can focus on Ground support or can turn its guns to the skies and shoot at Fighters and Bombers if there are any in the battle. This is glorious and when an Artillery scores a hit on a plane it is always very rewarding.
The only issue that everyone had with this system is that Red units are extremely hard to kill, as they only die on 1 in 12 faces on the dice or if the player has Force Advantage 2 in 12. They just don’t get hit very often. Match this concern with the fact that Battleships (not shown on the Battle Board as there is a separate board for Naval Combat) take 3 hits to kill, and you have the makings of a very formidable force when a Naval stack has 3 of these behemoths.
The other part of the combat that is so glorious is the fact that units that are lost in battle are not only destroyed and you have to replace them using your scarce resources but each of those lost units matter to the morale level of your nation. Each unit is assigned a value that you count for each lost unit of that type at the end of the turn and then compare that to a sliding scale where you will gain stress. This stress then will erode your nation’s morale over time and as it does there will be negative impacts, such as the loss of resources, a loss of a certain amount of orders and ultimately total collapse where the nation cannot produce additional units. This is a very interesting system that gave us pause as we got into battles and made us think about when we attacked and how we positioned units during those battles. A very interesting twist on combat.
Concern over Battleships vs. Aircraft Carriers and whether this game is historical
That leads us into my next point, and one that I was not very happy about. I love World War II, both the history and playing games on the subject, and I have always been told that Aircraft Carriers were the real kings of the seas and Battleships were there to just support amphibious landings and protect Aircraft Carriers. Well, War Room does not ascribe to this as the food chain of naval units has the mighty Battleship firmly entrenched at the top of the heap, with Aircraft Carries coming in at 3rd position behind even Cruisers. I just didn’t agree with this from the get go and during our first game I was playing as the United States and on Turn 1 purchased 2 Aircraft Carriers and placed them off the coast of California to get into the fray in the Pacific Ocean against the Japanese. I was sure that this purchase alone would put me in good position to start fighting back in the Pacific and driving the Japanese toward their home islands while I moved toward Indonesia and invaded the main source of their Oil resource, putting the vice grip on their empire and causing them to die a slow and attritional death.
During our very first naval battle though, the Japanese player had moved two Battleships together with a few other units, including an Aircraft Carrier, a few Submarines and Cruisers while I had two Aircraft Carriers, just 1 Battleship and a few Submarines and Cruisers. The Japanese also were able to fly in several sizable stacks of Fighters and Bombers while I could only get 1 such stack together. I thought that I would take this one but had miscalculated as the Battleships roll lots of dice and take 3 hits to sink. Let me remind you that Red units, which includes Battleships and Bombers, can only be hit on a Red result on the dice which only has 1 face on a 12 sided die. If you have advantage you can also use Black to cause them a hit but they have such powerful defenses they are nigh impossible to sink. The battle did not go my way and I ended up losing most of my fleet, including my only Battleship because the Japanese rolled so many dice and got lucky with several Red results while I only destroyed his minor boats including a few Submarines and a Cruiser. My Pacific fleet was devastated and I was left only to ponder what just happened! I didn’t have an answer at that point and we played for about 6 hours before everyone decided to give up and restart as we had learned some really great lessons and knew that many strategic mistakes had been made. But, the biggest lesson that we all took away from that first game was that the game seemed to follow a somewhat ahistorical route with naval power.
As we were setting up for our 2nd go, we randomly drew powers and I drew out the Empire of Japan and would get to put this new understanding of history to the test. During the 1st Turn, I spent my resources building two beautiful new Battleships to supplement my already pretty strong fleets. The plan was to group these two new Battleships with an existing stack (the 3rd Fleet) in Tokyo Harbor giving me a maxed out stack of 8 naval units, including 3 Battleships, 1 Aircraft Carrier, 2 Cruisers and 2 Submarines. And then see how they would fare! Well, the answer to that was very well as the United States player never really challenged me in the Pacific as I was able to not only maintain this strong stack in the Central Pacific along with several stacks of air power that could descend on anyone moving toward me but actually destroyed all of the Allied ships near Australia and India and created an almost impenetrable screen for my exploits of taking China and then focusing on Russia and the path to Moscow from the east. The only other odd thing in this discussion was the costs of the two units. Battleships require 4 Iron and only 3 Oil while Aircraft Carriers require 2 Iron and 4 Oil. This doesn’t seem like a huge difference but keep in mind that Oil is your most scarce and hard to gain resource. This disparity in the cost of Oil just seemed to further move us towards building Battleships.
Now one final comment on this section. This is not intended to be a slight or a major problem in my opinion. It is just an observation that threw us for a loop. We all adjusted to the concepts and players changed their approaches. Not a big deal. You have to keep in mind that this game is a light wargame, I know that you might find a game that takes well over 12 hours to play with this many components and that large of a map anything but light, and it is intended to play out fairly easily and really is a great and very interesting experience. We just all had issues with this and thought that maybe Aircraft Carriers needed to have more Fighter Planes (as they only come with 1 when built) which would have balanced the issue a bit…but not totally.
Economic management or the Direct National Economy Phase
The only other comment I will have about the game is that we really liked the Economic management side of the game. This comes during the start of each turn with the Direct National Economy Phase. It was not difficult, in fact it was very simple as your resources are shown on territory cards that you have while your forces control the areas, and you track them on a nifty card with holes punched in it where you place color coordinated pins in the number of each resource that you have (Red for Oil, Blue for Iron and Yellow for OSR or Other Strategic Resources). If the territory you are gaining the resource from is contested during the Direct National Economy Phase, meaning an enemy force is currently there along with your troops, you will not gain that resource this turn. You actually have to outright control the area and opposing troops and the skirmishes that will be ongoing disrupt your resources and cause issues. Simple, easy to understand, but a challenge to master as you have to understand what it is that you are trying to do and how you might be able to afford that.
I found that the trading aspect of the economic side of the game was also very cool and provided additional opportunities to trade for the resources that your nation is short on. To trade, you need to have units adjacent to a trade zone on the map or have a connection to an ally that has an adjacent resource. This is the easiest way to get the scarce resource of Oil and we found that this was a major motivation early in the game with players as they were trying to get the Oil they needed to build mechanized units, aircraft or naval units. Not having what you need, when you need it is very challenging and it was great to have this extra layer of worry as it made me think more strategically about some of the attacks I was making and how they would gain me resources or in trying to figure out ways to protect those resources that I already had. I also had a real motivation to make sure that if an opponent invaded a territory that had resources to finish them off and not let them linger to deny me that resource.
For some of the warts that the game has, mainly from a historical side and from a lack of technology side (that was always one of the things that I really enjoyed about Axis & Allies was that throwing away 5 IPC to roll a d6 and watch your money go down the drain!), we really enjoyed our experience with War Room. And I would state vehemently that the game is an experiential wargame. You will live it for the better part of two days and it really is a great time. I found that I thought about the game long after we had finished and considered various alternative strategies to get around certain difficulties that are present on the map. We played the game with 6-players, where the United States player controlled China, but there is an option for 7 but I would not recommend that as the Chinese are nothing more than a speedbump for the Japanese and really have very few meaningful decisions or actions. But playing this game with the full player count was stupendous and created such a fun and engaging experience. I see this one being a perfect candidate for a convention where you can get a few big tables together, create a Geek List to find the requisite number of players, and simply spend 2 days slugging it out until someone emerges victorious! I know that we have talked about ways to get this one played at a convention and I really relish that opportunity.
Here is a look at our unboxing video that was posted on our YouTube Channel several weeks ago so you can get a look at the size and scope of the components:
Finally, there is a 2nd Edition Kickstarter upcoming soonish (possibly June) so keep your eyes out for that!