On January 30th, Alexander and I were both invited by Fred Serval, the designer of Red Flag Over Paris from GMT Games and host of the excellent Homo Ludens YouTube Channel, to participate in a live streaming panel discussion covering our Top 5 Underrated Wargames based on their Board Game Geek Rankings. The panel included Fred as the host, Kai Jensen wife of the former Chad Jensen and developer and designer of wargames over the years, Alexander and me and Cory Graham codesigner of Vijayanagara: The Deccan Empires of Medieval India.
First off, this was a challenging task because we were supposed to choose games that we felt were underrated and should be closer to or appear in the Top 100 of the BGG rankings. Anytime you attempt to rank games it becomes a matter of taste and opinion and is a very challenging proposition. Also, the BGG rankings are very challenging and some of the trolls that rank games there are just mean spirited or have a vendetta against a subject, designer or publisher and may or may not have even played the game that they are ranking either a 1 or a 10.
With all of that being said, Alexander and I had a discussion about this topic and I came up with the following five games to share and provide my thoughts as to why they are underranked! Remember, that my list is ranked from the games that are the most underrated so the game in position #5 Fields of Despair, which is ranked #162 is closer to the Top 100 while the #1 game on the list is further from the Top 100. Capisce?!?
#5 – Fields of Despair: France 1914-1918 from GMT Games (2016) – BGG Rank #162
World War I games can lead to lots of trenches and bogging down in attritional battles and for good reason as the war was simply horrific and drug on for years with both sides losing and gaining ground that they just took a few weeks prior and no real progress being made. Most games on the subject deal with this in a fairly static way. But, once in a while a new designer with a new vision comes along and throws a curve at us with some new mechanics and new energy about a subject. Such is the case with Kurt Lewis Keckley’s Fields of Despair: France 1914-1918 from GMT Games.
Fields of Despair uses a very unique and revolutionary block system designed to maintain the confusion and uncertainty of the Fog of War throughout the entire game. The reason that I consider this system revolutionary is that in most block games, the combat values of individual blocks usually range from one to four, so as you scan the battlefield and after a quick calculation in your head you can come up with a pretty good guesstimate of what force power is arrayed against you, while in FoD the combat value of blocks ranges from zero (dummy blocks) all the way to a maximum of twenty. This difference in value ranges alone has completely changed the block wargame scene and has created a very strategic game that can be quite deceptive and difficult to play well. The reason for this deception is that you can build up one block in a hex to 20 when in other block games this would require 4 or 5 blocks that have tipped your hand and help your opponent to gauge your strategy and react more effectively to counter that. But, this deception does have its limits as air reconnaissance, one of the best parts of the design, allows players to scout out the strength of units and remove that deception. But, you cannot simply scout with no opposition as your opponent can place their air units in that hex you are scouting to initiate aerial dogfights that will ruin your recon attempt.
Movement in the game is also very straightforward and simple and can be used as a deceptive tool as well in addition to the use of dummy blocks. Players are allowed to “make change” during the movement phase, which means a larger block can be broken apart into 2 separate blocks or can even be done in reverse by consolidating a few smaller blocks into a larger force. So after the movement phase, you will not be 100% confident in your enemy’s strength, even after having attacked the last round, and will have to sometimes just throw your hesitancy out the window and attack. The Fog of War also isn’t lost after first contact with the enemy. Blocks remain hidden even when enemies occupy the same hex and stay hidden until one player decides to allocate an air squadron for reconnaissance or sends his men across no man’s land to attack.
For these reasons, I think that FoD is underrated and should appear in the Top 100 Wargames on BGG.
Here is a link to my written review of the game that was posted in 2016: https://theplayersaid.com/2017/04/04/not-your-grandfathers-dreary-trench-warfare-a-review-of-fields-of-despair-france-1914-1918-by-gmt-games/
#4 Old School Tactical: Volume 1 East Front from Flying Pig Games (2016 ) – BGG Rank #336
I love a good tactical wargame and OST does a great job of using the tried and true methods of the genre while also adding in some tricks that make the experience unique. The first of these innovations is the Impulse Points system of activation. The system is pretty revolutionary in my opinion and attempts to model the difficulties and uncertainty of battlefield command. The amount of Impulse Points that each side has to work with each round is determined by a dice roll during the Turn Sequence, which seems a bit arbitrary but just works as it creates some real tension and uncertainty. Each side either rolls 2 or 3 dice, depending on the scenario and its circumstances, and then marks that number on their Impulse Points track. This means that either side will have between 2-18 IP’s to use during that round. These points are then used in order to activate individual units or groups or stacks of units to take actions such as Move, Assault Move or Fire. Each of these actions costs 1 IP or if moving or firing an entire group, it will cost 2. The Impulse Point system is designed to simulate the rigors of battle including poor communication, lack of ammunition, fear or courage under fire and many other considerations that existed during combat. This system can be extremely frustrating at times, especially when you roll poorly and end up having only 2 or 3 points while your opponent rolled extremely well and has 15. This means that you will be able to take less actions this round while your opponent gets more. More actions leads to greater results on the battlefield and can truly determine the outcome of the game. If a player has less IP’s than his opponent, he can pass his turn and take no action without losing a point. If a player has more points and decides not to act, then they must sacrifice one point that round. This part of the system is really good as you have to decide how best to use those points. Do you wait to perform an Opportunity Fire on your opponents move when they come into range? Or do you seize the advantage and move across an open field in order to take up defensible positions in that small structure before your enemy can benefit from it? Great decision points with this system that create significant opportunities for strategy and definitely an aspect that doesn’t feel “old school” but more modern. The game also uses cards, that are single use benefits, that also add some chaos and bit of the unknown.
When you are in a game that is touted as realistic small unit tactical combat you expect there to be losses. In OST, the offensive minded player will be rewarded as there are not great defensive bonuses from the various terrains. Most offer only a +1 defense and don’t truly make that much of a difference in the grand scheme of things. So if you like to lose units and force your enemy to lose units, OST is right up your alley! But, hands down the best aspect of the combat system. Melee is very fast, very lethal and very satisfying. We loved that the calculations can’t be changed by the play of a card so once you figured the number you simply roll and consult the appropriate table. I also liked that the melee takes place at the end of all other movements and Fire attacks as this caused us to definitely try to plan for how to handle the outcome. Finally, one of the selling points of Flying Pig Games marketing strategy for OST is the idea that the rules are not too complex that you won’t need to constantly refer back to the rulebook for every action. We agree with this and feel that the rules are fairly easy to grasp. We did find the vehicle rules to be more complex but after one play using them, we felt comfortable enough to only use the player aid and unit reference cards to refer to the rules and not necessarily the rulebook itself.
Just a great old fashioned dice rolling slug fest that I am always pleased with after playing, and we have now played multiple scenarios in all three of the volumes. When I look at the ranking of 336, and then compared it to the rankings of some other tactical games, I feel like this one is underranked by at least 100 places, which would bring it into the Top 200 and at a place that I feel good about.
Here is a link to my written review of the game that was posted in 2017: https://theplayersaid.com/2017/01/25/what-does-old-school-mean-a-review-of-old-school-tactical-vol-1-from-flying-pig-games/
#3 Titan from The Avalon Hill Game Company (1980) – BGG Rank #314
In my humble opinion, fantasy wargames are great! I love mixing the combat aspects of wargames with the out of this world wildness of Orcs, Ogres, Dragons and other mythical creatures arrayed against other fantastic beasts on the battlefield. This one is probably more nostalgic to me but Titan from Avalon Hill is just about as good as it gets in the fantasy wargame genre. The game has hexes, and you move your Titan around the board recruiting different beasts from terrain types that you land in. These beasts start out as very basic creatures, such as Ogres recruited in the Hills, Gargoyles in the Brush and Centaurs in the Woods. But as you obtain multiples of these base creatures you then can recruit their upgraded minions such as Cyclops, Trolls, Lions, Gorgons, Giants and even Dragons. This makes it very interesting as you have to plan out your moves, this game is a roll and move at its heart, and follow the interlocking ring of hexes down or up when you can to reach the desired terrain to recruit what you want to fill out your army.
The game then has a tactical combat aspect as you will come into contact with your opponents stacks of creatures, that may or may not contain their main Titan, and have to fight it out on a mini tactical board that is the terrain that you land in. If your creatures in your army are native to the terrain, they get bonuses or can move about freely through the brambles, swamps and trees to get at your enemy. Each unit then rolls a number of dice, some of the units are huge like the Trolls (rolling 8 dice) and the Serpent (rolling 18 dice) and it becomes an exercise in counting up hits and removing those units as their defense/health is depleted. The winner of the battle will then score points and can also recruit after the battle is over if they have matching creatures for the terrain. Just a very simple and cool system that can keep the game going for 6-10 hours as you fight it out to the last man standing.
When I saw the ranking of #314 I initially thought that was sufficient but after thinking on it more found that it should also be ranked nearer to the Top 100, not because it has some fantastic or unique mechanics, but because the system works and is fun to play. The one down note on the game is that it can be a bit mean spirited as you can knock out one of your opponents early on before they can build up and then they will have an early night as they can leave or sit around rooting against you for the remaining hours. Just a simple yet well put together game that creates lots of yelling and screaming as the battles can turn on a dime and an unexpected result can come about as a well constructed stack is attacked by an even better put together horde.
#2 Bomber Command: The Night Raids from GMT Games (2012) – BGG Rank #526
We love Air War games here at TPA and one of the best out there IMHO is Bomber Command The Night Raids 1943-1945 from the beautiful mind of Lee Brimmicombe-Wood. Bomber Command is a game of the night war in the skies over the Reich during World War II. The game recreates the RAF bombing raids against the heart of Germany and the defense of the German Luftwaffe’s night fighter arm. Based on an air combat system derived from the award-winning Downtown and The Burning Blue ‘raid-scale’ games, Bomber Command details the tactics of night fighting but also with the bombing process that is highly dependent on the damage that the bomber has sustained and weather conditions to determine accuracy and damage done. But the game also creates a really interesting conundrum as you are literally trying to bomb military targets but end up having bombs drift over onto civilian targets such as neigbhorhoods doing untold damage and killing innocent people. This is not something lost on the game as it is a study in the bombing campaigns as the RAF and Allies had to answer for their reasons due to the propensity for collateral damage.
The game is designed for 2 players, with one player controlling the RAF and the other playing the Germans in their desperate attempt to protect the Reich and its industrial heartland. Strategic bombing during World War II began in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and the Luftwaffe began bombing cities and the civilian population in Poland in an indiscriminate aerial bombardment campaign. As the war continued to expand, bombing by both the Axis and the Allies increased significantly. The German player must manage flak, Himmelbett zones, Wild Boar and Tame Boar tactics while the RAF main force raids are supported by Mosquito diversions, “Gardening” operations (mining of seaways) and decoy raids. Two card decks–one for each player are used to resolve the complex interactions of electronic countermeasures and radars, along with other operational factors such as Mahmoud patrols, Flower raids, and Beleuchter illumination units. A detailed bombing resolution system depicts the difficulties of marking targets and area bombing at night.
The best part of the design is that players must secretly plan out their bombing runs and defensive measures on a piece of paper called a Planning Sheet. This creates some real tension and also lots of moments where you slap your forehead as you were either chasing a ghost, not on the tail of the main bomb group or are hopelessly out of position as the German player to make a difference. For the RAF player, it seems that nothing goes well from the get go and you will generally take lots of damage with very little ability to counteract that except for the play of a few cards to save your bacon. After you reach your targets, there is a very involved process of targeting, drooping of bombs, drift and then impact where fire storms can be started and VP’s are earned. The game is a bit dreary and stark and I really liked the immersion aspect I got from the game board, consisting of black and lots of gray, and the City maps are well done as well as they are trying to convey to the players the feelings and emotions of the game. There is nothing happy about the maps, they have bland colors and are not overly decorated with symbols or other unnecessary writing. They convey the starkness of the scene and the difficulty that I am sure the pilots and bombardiers had with knowing their bombs were going to kill and maim people. With the Allied bombing campaign, it was an all out assault on Germany, its industry, its infrastructure and its ability to make war. But it also was a weapon of terror used against the German people in order to effectuate change in their government. The thought was that through fire bombing city centers, that workers would have no place to live, feel unsafe and only be concerned about the bombings and not be productive in creating bombs, bullets and tanks and would sue their government to surrender.
I really like Bomber Command and we were definitely pleased with the game play, the components and the integration of the theme into the game. The tension was real between us combatants and we never felt comfortable…until the game was over! I would recommend this to anyone that enjoys games about the airwar in World War II. Player interaction is very high, and the game plays very smoothly, although it is more complex than other games. I feel like this one should be ranked in the Top 200 as well as it is just that good, with a very cool and interactive hidden movement mechanic that can be terribly frustrating, along with an interesting and complex bombing sequence. But the best part is that after you drop your payload, you have to make it home! I shudder thinking about that.
Here is a link to my First Impressions/Preview post: https://theplayersaid.com/2016/09/02/a-first-look-at-bomber-command-the-night-raids-1943-1945-by-gmt-games/
And also a link to an AAR after our 2nd play: https://theplayersaid.com/2016/10/01/they-sowed-the-wind-and-now-they-are-going-to-reap-the-whirlwind-aar-for-bomber-command-berlin-scenario-by-gmt-games/
#1 Bleeding Kansas from Decision Games (2019) – BGG Rank #1,233
Finally we come to my most under ranked wargame, that really isn’t a wargame but a great area control/card driven game on a historical subject in Bleeding Kansas designed by John Poniske and published by Decision Games. The game is a very well designed 2-player game that deals with the violence and politics of pre-statehood Kansas from 1854-1861. The game focuses on the tensions between pro-slave and abolitionist parties and their attempts to win over emigrants to Kansas to their cause and thereby influence the outcome of elections to move the state toward their leaning on the issue. The game has four elections that players will fight over trying to have the most influence in Kansas counties to score victory points.
The core mechanism in the game is the cards. Each of these cards is tied to an historical event, important person or other factor involved in the conflict and allows players to choose their actions for that immediate turn. The game proceeds as players alternate the play of one of the cards from their hand to take various actions from symbols that appear on the cards. These symbols provide actions such as influencing new settlers to the region to join their side in the conflict, build up forces for the coming battle, take control of counties by moving these forces around or displacing those of your opponent, attacking the opposition, burning down their population centers, enticing settlers to migrate to their areas or request intervention from the Federal Garrison stationed at Leavenworth. The cards carry out the plans of players and create a historical narrative of the conflict.
This is a tense back and forth for control of Counties and the goal is to win the elections for the cause. I loved not only the game play but also the frame of mind that it took for us to play this one. As the Abolitionist player it is not that hard as you are trying to keep the State anti-slavery while as the Pro-Slavery player it can be a bit tough to agree with your position and suspend disbelief. But that is one of the elements that makes this one a great game. It makes me think!
The game is simple and plays quickly. But don’t let the game’s simplicity fool you. This is a knock down drag out bare knuckle fight for supremacy in the Kansas Territory and will test you’re meddle as you fight back and forth undoing what your opponent has just done. The game boils down to staying the course and playing your cards smartly to gain the upper hand in elections. You have to be able to judge where control stands as you play each card and you have to plan as scoring elections can really sneak up on you if you are not paying attention. We really have enjoyed Bleeding Kansas and both of us added the game to list of the best wargames of 2019. It deserves to be ranked much higher but not in the Top 300, probably more in the range of 350 or so.
Here is a look at our video review of the game: Video Review for Bleeding Kansas
Here also are links to a series of Action Points on the various aspects of the game:
There you have it, my list of the Top 5 Most Underrated Wargames based on Board Game Geek Ratings. Please let me know your thoughts and also some wargames that you believe are underrated.
If you are interested, you can view the 2 hour panel discussion on Homo Ludens YouTube Channel linked below.