Entry Level Wargames: Three Titles for New Armchair Generals05 Oct 2017 2
Lean in close, I have a confession to make. I'm a terrible wargamer, and not for lack of trying. But help is at hand, for all who share the dilettante affliction or want to plunge in beyond a dabbling toe. Listed below are three specific titles that I feel are great introductions to wargamer concepts. By no means a definitive list, just three solid efforts with discrete investigations of concepts that loom large in the wargame space.
R.U.S.E. - Importance and Manipulation of Intelligence
Eugen deployed a deft World War II RTS in 2011 in the thankfully multi-platformed RUSE. They've since returned to the theatre with Steel Division after the Cold War triumvirate Wargame series, but RUSE remains a unique jewel in the French developer's crown. In certain ways, it feels almost the opposite of a modern Eugen game, pared back to a bare unit count in place of Wargame's thousand-odd motor pool. No large import on armour placement, no micromanagement. Simple stack selection on sprawling maps, simply croupier-raked across the sectors.
RUSE isn't about complexity, but information. It doesn’t concern itself with tactical-level street fighting. The game investigates the art of deception, best experienced in multiplayer against a human whose unpredictability and wile make the mechanical systems shine.
The most immediately apparent visual element unique to RUSE is that, for the most part, every unit brought onto the table is visible to the opponent. Taking its best cues from the war rooms of the greatest generation, unit groups appear simply as circular chits to the untrained eye. The interplay of recon, intelligence and deft deployment of the game's namesake sector cards is where the magic happens.
Working akin to the buffs and debuffs of the MMO genre, players temporarily blanket individual sectors with radio silence, decoy units, speed boosters and the like. The idea is to play a poker-like hand against an opponent, ascertaining their feints from their honest flanking while trying to pull similar stunts with them. With a very lean interface and almost negligible economy, the focus is on a repartee of information analysis. Goading force diversion with a push of dummy units, springing an army group from radio silence, selling a column of light armour as heavy with contrary intel. The list goes on.
While the gameplay itself is abstracted to the point of mere historical inference, RUSE is effortless in selling the concept of intel and analysis being an army's greatest weapon. In its grand depiction of operational command, RUSE offers a very user-friendly entry point that builds on traditional RTS convention, but with a unique twist and approachable pace.
The caveat in this hearty recommendation is that RUSE has been delisted from digital stores on account of, all things, World War II hardware licensing expiration. That said, physical copies can be sourced for tuppence. And should be.
Unity of Command - Marching on Stomachs
Unity of Command gets mentioned as a crucial stepping stone into the world of the steely digital grognard. Hard to argue. Its take on Stalingrad is buoyed by impeccable interface and clean, crisp art direction - often a confraternity left to founder in the wargame space. Beauty is however not skin-deep, and if there's anything this clever, bust-ridden hexer can teach us, it is that you're nothing without food in your belly, ordnance for the offense and fuel in your tank.
This tidy 2011 effort, now bolstered by a couple of expansions and in the looming shadow of an impending sequel, emphatically underscores an army's reliance on logistics. There's no better illustration of the concept than an encircled group, squeezed and pinched into obliteration by surgical strikes on its supply line.
If Unity of Command's AI has any mandate, it would be to go for said jugular. Either side of the Ostfront is dominated by a computer-controlled assailant designed solely to engineer a constricting rout. Every tungsten drive through an enemy's lines will be almost romanced as the AI calculates its vector towards your supply points. Every strangulation a lesson. An army isn't an army if the army can't shoot. It's merely uniformed prey.
Such carnivorous intent by the AI would be withering, were it not for Unity of Command's brisk missions. Compact design means new players can attend Flanking 101 without being overwhelmed by a Grigsby-grade wall of counters, tables and vast tracts of the East. Scenarios are still brutal, but they're bite-sized and beautiful.
There's a Sun Tzu quote in there somewhere about logistics. And also a quote about picking up Unity of Command, because it taught him everything he knew.
Afghanistan '11 - Asymmetric Warfare and the Liquid Enemy
Johan Nagel is my favourite developer in the strategy space. A former South African marine officer, fought at Cuito Cuanavale and, most importantly, conducted township counter-insurgency ops; Nagel has a deep understanding of the intricacies of COIN. Vietnam '65 was his powerful debut, chasing Charlie and the NVA up the Ia Drang, political willpower picking up the tab on every acquisition, every action, every success and every single loss. It was smart and slick and put Every Single Soldier on the map.
With Afghanistan '11, Nagel takes his brand of counter-insurgency warfighting and gives it contemporary context, nesting Vietnam '65's combat inside a fresh nation-building superstructure. This is as complex a battlespace as they come, rivalled in the modern era perhaps only by the current Syrian climate. It comes as no surprise that Afghanistan '11 is a deft interpretation of the Coalition's enterprise. Like Vietnam, it packages operations as political investment, with specific focus on making visible, measurable progress.
Therein lies the rub. As was the case in Vietnam, fighting the quote-unquote enemy is a frustrating endeavour. It requires a massive logistic undertaking; gaining the support from local villages for intel, enact infrastructure overhauls, comb highways for endless IEDs and surviving ambushes, as well as dealing with the intractable tumult of domestic politics. At the same time, you're trying to bring down the immense hammer of American warfighting on Taliban insurgents and tribal warlords who, if not completely annihilated, simply vanish.
Afghanistan '11 is a juggling act, but the game is as accessible as it gets. Combat has just enough bite to be interesting. The rotation of village visitation offers up the right amount of leads on enemies and infrastructure. If military hardware is your thing, as it is mine, you can spend the fleeting downtime ogling the gorgeous vehicle models while muttering how things are a little too quiet. While something like Command: Modern Naval & Air Operations hews deep into the gristle of conducting military ops in the modern era, Nagel has produced a take on a contemporary conflict that goes beyond the nuts and bolts. It's a sharp look at the multi-faceted nature of warfare in the asymmetric age. An essential purchase, in every sense of the word.
Do you have any of your own suggestions for games that serve as good entries into the world of wargaming? Played any of the above and want to let us know your thoughts? Let us know in the comments!