Feb. 2020 Edition
When we started this website I had no idea what it would grow into, or in what direction it would lead us. So, for some greater clarity I’m creating two Top 10 lists for myself: Top 10 Wargames, and Top 10 Board Games. There might be some glaring omissions from this list but then there’s always that age old argument of “is Twilight Struggle a wargame?” For the Purposes of these lists it is not. I’m also leaving off a Players’ Aid favourite Churchill for that same reason. It’s just an opinion but those don’t feel the same as something like Stalingrad ’42 for example. Also my favourites do fluctuate so if you hear me tout a game as my favourite, or if you watch our Top 5 GMT games on YouTube and it’s not #1 here.. well.. that’s life! So here it is. My Top 10 Wargames:
10. Red Alert: Space Fleet Warfare
PSC Games (2019), Designed by Richard Borg
Red Alert is actually a Commands & Colors game, of which we have played may games from many titles in the line. Red alert is my favourite for a couple of reasons, it has the very obvious toy-factor for me, and the chrome parts are great, and finally the sci-fi theme just speaks to me. At my core I will always love miniatures, scale models, and table top wargaming. It’s what I grew up on. From our old Airfix, Revell, Matchbox, and Tamiya 1/72 scale, to my dads 28mm white metal Napoleonics (from his university days) I just have an affinity for models. Red Alert gives me awesome space ships on standees I can fly around, make pew-pew noises, chuck some dice and make them explode. All the fun and light wargame feel from the C&C system with my favourite theme, sci-fi, and bumper production value. She ain’t cheap though. There’s a bunch of expansions which just add more and more (most of which are super fun) so you can have as much or as little of this game as you want.
9. Pacific Victory (Second Edition)
Columbia Games (2018), Designed by Tom Dalgliesh
I enjoy block wargames, most of them fall into that beer and pretzels category. Typically fun, fast paced and a little chaotic these games also look and feel great on the table. The first edition of this game came out in 2000, and from what I can tell the Second edition is much the same gameplay wise. They updated the block graphics, rulebook, and map a little. The map is very big, with huge hexes to fit all your blocks in, there’s good China sub rules (without being overly complex), and for a game at this scale it’s not overly long. It’s long, but nothing unexpected. Pacific Victory adds a number of elements compared to other block wargames from Columbia; HQ activations, tropical cyclones, and a map shaped in such a way to denote supply lines. These elements contribute to a great balance between the Pacific Theater’s unique historical setting, and actually having a fun and playable game. I’m also a sucker for Pacific Theater games so this was an instant hit for me.
8. Empire of the Sun
GMT Games (2005), Designed by Mark Herman
I mentioned I like Pacific Games, right? I’m not sure what it is that appeals to me about them, but I think my lack of knowledge and exposure growing up could have done it. At school there was such a heavy focus on WWI, and then the causes of WWII, and the interwar period that I never learned about the Pacific really. I think in A Levels and university that would have been an option, but I choose to study Classic Civilization and English Literature for my A Levels instead, and then Biology (?!) at university. As such basically all I know from The Pacific has been through Grant, wargames, and my own independent reading. It’s still such a new, different, and unique military theater that I’m always drawn to games on the topic. Mark Herman’s beast; EotS is a deep, rich, and crunchy game. There’s a lot to digest, and a lot of places to trip up on the rules, but the freedom this title provides as Supreme High Commander is astounding considering that at it’s core it’s a Card Driven Game (CDG). Vassal is a great way to learn this game, but sitting down and hashing out a game with Grant is such a rewarding and challenging experience it will remain a perennial favourite.
7. Armageddon War
Flying Pig Games (2018), Designed by Greg Porter
Shamefully I have not played this one in a while. Thematically speaking I have basically zero attachment to this game. It’s a near future wargame set in the middle east based on some hypotheticals. When announced it just didn’t spark my interest. We spoke to Mark at Origins in 2017 about it and he was very, very excited about. Finally when we got it and played it I was blown away. There’s some very cool aspects to this game. At it’s heart the game is a small bucket o’ dice game. The dice are custom with hits, misses and other symbols on them. There’s three different ‘levels’ of dice, and you get to use better or worse dice depending on terrain, range and other modifiers. IT just keep the game feeling fresh, instead of just -1 for being in cover etc. This uses a chit pull system, which is chaotic, and I love it, but it’s a rolling chit pull. A scenario might have 45 activations. Not 8 rounds. When you use the last chit, you leave three or so on the record track and put the rest back in. There’s no traditional clean up phase or end of round admin. It’s all done seamlessly during each activation. A such each scenario feels like one long pitched, rolling battle. It’s exhilarating and a white knuckle ride. Never seen anything like it in another game. Also the admin counter are a revelation, those little “flags” sticking out from under the counters. Genius.
6. Fields of Fire (Vol. 1)
GMT Games (2008), Designed by Ben Hull
Disclaimer – The image above is from Vol. II, haha. It does illustrate the one thing that tips Vol. I over the top for me though. For me Fields of Fire Vol. I has more freedom in the map set up. You set it up and deal the terrain cards. Vol. II has a lot more in the way of pre-planned beach landings and hill assaults, so the map boards are set out. Vol. I you never know what you might get, and then you have to plan and execute a winning strategy. This is a solitaire only game. It’s at a company level all the way down to squads. It’s very detailed, very rich, and helps to weave very visceral narratives. I love playing this game. The rulebook is a tough read, and I don’t blame people for giving up on it, but for me the pay off is worth it. All the dice rolling is done through the closed system of card pulls, and they can just put you in such fascinating tactical situations. Out in the open? Zeroed-in artillery. Running up a gully? MG 42. Objective Village? Wandering patrols with Sniper over-watch. All of which hurt. You have to worry about an intelligent enemy, as well as the minutiae of keeping everyone in command, and rescuing casualties and bringing up support weapons. The game is also massive, ranging from WWII Normandy, to Vietnam. So much story in this box if you’re willing to invest the time.
5. Fire In The Lake
GMT Games (2014), Designed by Volko Ruhnke & Mark Herman
Volume IV of the COIN series, this game meshes dudes-on-a-map style games with begrudging allies, and a-symmetric factions/victory conditions. COIN is appealing to look at and a blast to play. Fire in the Lake is on the heavier scale of the system. The full campaign is long, has an unbelievably cool story arc, but also has a huge strategic playbook due to the map size. But I cannot get enough of it. The game is best when you play the full campaign, with four players. The tension, even between allies, is something enjoy. The longer term strategies you need to employ (destroy those LoCs!) versus short term benefits (must protect that tunneled base!) are just one of the layers of thought you will be processing anytime you have to make any kind of decision. At times the action moves like a terrible swift sword, and at other times it’s the very epitome of a quagmire. But it’s never not-Vietnam. The only reason I wouldn’t play it any time is that it’s very long and I hate to leave FitL unfinished, so block out some time, get some friends together, and blast House of the Rising Sun by The Animals, and hop to it!
4. RAF: The Battle of Britain, 1940
Decision Games (2009), Designed by John Butterfield
RAF might not be up to today’s standards as far as aesthetics go, but dammit, if this isn’t one of the best solo games out there. Thematically it’s at the top for me. I stick on Ron Goodwin’s soundtrack, and I’m immediately transported to 1940, Merlin engines thrumming over head, Commonwealth pilots rallying to save the last bastion of freedom in Europe. In essence this is a tower defense game. I’m trying to keep enough patrols flying and reserve squadrons available to respond to Goering’s onslaughts, wherever and whenever they might come. IT has a two player option which is fun, but the reason RAF is one of my favourites is that the campaign arc is so nail-biting and exuberant (if you win), and frankly it’s hard to do that with an opponent as the game isn’t a short one. What’s nice is that the counter density and markings makes this really easy to pack up and set up. I played a raid day or two per night for like two weeks and tore it down every night without any hassle. The map is functional as all get out, every chart right there. Easy and accessible. There’s a new (pricey) deluxe version with mounted maps and a 3 inch box, but the artwork is identical and the counters the same, which is a bit disappointing. I love my version, I will never, ever part with it.
I don’t have a video review of this game. I will rectify this shortly. Haha, sorry.
3. Unconditional Surrender! World War 2 In Europe
GMT Games (2014), Designed by Sal Vasta
How many grand strategy games are there covering ETO? Well, for me personally any that I play will always be compared to USE. Sal designed a classic. It’s a perfect game for me. She’s a long game and you’ll need table space to keep this one set up, as it’s a two mapper and uses some play aid cards for a lot of different holding boxes etc. But my goodness. This game covers the entirety of the war, and can even go on a little longer if certain things do or don’t happen, but the first portion of the game where German is trying to strong arm, or court minor nations to aid them in the war is beautifully done. A simple political system that can have massive ramifications. As such you can play entirely a-historical games (Spain activates as a power, Italy joins the allies from the start etc) meaning you can have endless possibilities of game states. OR you can just play it straight. The stacking limit of 1, and the movement and combat action point system keep the game moving at a great pace, and is never overwhelming. The game uses a singular CRT for all combats, with a great play aid for all the modifiers you can get. It’s such a streamlined system that is a joy to play. I never felt bogged down. I’ve only played it solo over the course of a month or so, but this is #1 on the list to make Grant play when I finish up of basement space. I cannot wait for Armistice! in the next few years from Sal.
2. Here I Stand
GMT Games (2006), Designed by Ed Beach
Another deserved classic. This game rushed up to the top of my all time list when we played a multiplayer game for the first time before Christmas. Previously we’d only played the 2-player variant in the 500th Anniversary edition so it was impossible to pass judgement. We still haven’t had max player count, hoping to do that at some point this year, but oh boy, this is a game that was made for me. The Reformation is a piece of religious history that is very dear to my heart, so this game that depicts not only the political, but the military, and religious struggle of the period was always going to be a big win. On top of that you have some pure negotiation (I suppose it’s not pure, as there are some restrictions) with everyone else as you carve up Europe and vie for power. Asymmetrical factions mean that there’s always something new to experience in this one and the game feels like it’s on a knife edge at all times. I just crave that kind of tension in a serious wargame. Sure, I like to play the pieces but I also love playing the players. Deception, bluffing, alliances. All the hallmarks of a game that I would love. And it delivers. It’s very long, but we’re also super slow players, I think, haha, but there wasn’t a minute I didn’t enjoy. Even during your player down time you just sit back and watch other allies cannibalize each other or enemies keep themselves locked in conflicts weakening themselves for you to take the prize afterwards. It’s glorious. This is a classic. It’s a piece of educational riches as well.
1. Labyrinth: The War on Terror 2001-?
GMT Games (2010), Designed by Volko Ruhnke
Labyrinth is game I cannot rate highly enough. Again, it has everything I enjoy in a game. It’s unpredictable, a-symmetric, fast paced, and so tense. Luckily me and Grant learned it together. So we’ve had the same level of experience with the game. What that means is that neither of us has X years of prior play memorizing the deck and knowing what could be coming ahead etc. It also means that when we do play there are extra layers of bluffing and double bluffing, as he’s seen me do certain things before and might expect a follow up similar, and then I might attempt a counter blow somewhere else, but he might suspect my feint and attack me elsewhere too. Oh, man. I cannot tell you enough how much I love this game. And for all the other great titles on this list, I think this is the one that feels the best when you win. Obviously not from a factional standpoint, but simply from a mechanical stand point. More than any other game I’ve played Labyrinth is the one that is the most open ended. They set you up in 2001 and the game stands or falls on the wits of the Jihadist player. It is on you to make it a cat and mouse game. You need to be agile, multiplicative, and duplicitous in your plots and schemes. That’s something I find thrilling, I’m playing the game, but I’m also trying to play you. There’s already one expansion with another on the way that add in more up to date historical events and keep the game evolving, but really, the base game is so pure and one of my favourite all time games. I do understand that thematically speaking this one isn’t for everyone, but for me it is a 10/10.
So there you have it! My Top 10 wargames of all time. Some honorable mentions, in no particular order, that were painful to leave off were : Warfighter WWII, Bomber Command, Richard III, Holland ’44, Ranger, D-Day at Omaha Beach.
Leave a comment with your favourite wargames, and make the case for the ones you love the most!