Berg's Best: An affectionate Top Ten

By Bill Gray 07 Aug 2019 0

Richard H Berg passed away on July 26th of this year. While many thought his personality a bit prickly (in a nod to Don Rickles, he reveled being called “Mr Warmth”), there is absolutely no question the man was a cardboard counter wargame design genius. At last count I had 60+ of his 189 games myself, and having known him personally and collaborated with him on a couple of projects, I thought what better way to remember a master practitioner of the hobby then by listing my own personal top 10? 

Some he designed in total, some in collaboration, but all were pure Berg, and that’s a good thing. 

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1. Battles of Waterloo (GMT, 1994). I collaborated as an historical consultant with Berg on this game, and if there was a single product that offered a clear insight into the man’s design philosophy, it was this one. It covered the entire campaign and all four battles at the brigade level and to my mind showed that Berg: 

  • Was most comfortable with sword, sandal and black powder gaming, eschewing World War II, the staple for most other designers, 
  • Was fond of introducing chaos into his games, such as his Initiative and LIM (Leader Initiative Marker, basically chit pulling) system which randomized not only which side moved first each turn, but in what order units from both sides would function, if at all,  
  • Was determined to allow players make their own mistakes, vice prohibiting a certain tactic because it was never done historically, and 
  • Was a master at introducing his irreverent, Bronx style humor into his writing to completely immerse the gamer into the subject matter his cardboard represented. In this game for example, he wrote about Prussian commander Feldmarschal Prinz Blucher, “Let’s face it, anyone who claims to have been impregnated with an elephant by one of Napoleon’s Grognards is, perhaps, about 13 bricks short a dozen in the reliability department.” Hysterical, but it got the point across. 

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2. Terrible Swift Sword (SPI, 1976). Though published a year later than La Bataille de la Moscowa, this game popularized both monster games and tactical battles games that were essentially miniature wargaming ported to counter and paper map. The game covered the three days of the 1863 battle of Gettysburg, and when picked up by TSR Inc, could be combined with another Berg creation called Rebel Sabers to replicate the Dutch Road cavalry clash near the battle. GMT’s Three Days of Gettysburg (third edition published 2004) is basically TSS overhauled with updated rules (eg, chit pulling) and graphics, bringing it in line with GMT/Berg’s Great Battles of the American Civil War (GBACW) series. 

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3. The Conquerors (SPI, 1977). This game was both a strategic and tactical study of the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and the eastern expansion of the Roman Republic vis a vis the Second Macedonian War and the Syrian War against Seleucid King Antiochus. The strategic portion of the game was pretty standard fare, but the tactical game was unique in that it did not us a hex map for resolution. Instead, players were presented with one of two Tactical Battle Displays that used a point to point, block based movement system, with far more options for maneuver for Manipular Romans. Later overhauled and republished by Excalibur Games. 

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4. Siege of Constantinople (Strategy & Tactics, 1978). This magazine game was both the promo and fifth portion of SPI’s Art of Siege quadra-game and wound up being the best of the five. It had its own distinct flare because of the unique environment of the besieged city, not the least of which a large frontage of beachfront property. With the later produced optional naval rules, this meant the inclusion of naval landings that had to be accounted for as well as the Ottoman’s dragging their navy overland to bypass the Golden Horn. Siege towers, Urban’s Bombard, tunnels and all the trappings of siege warfare were included, but so was German engineer Johannes Grant which allowed the Byzantines in the game to repair breaches during an Ottoman assault, and strategic movement within the city for the defenders. This made the game a real nail-biter. 

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5. A Famous Victory (Moments in History, 1995). Berg designed for many companies and indeed, some GBACW games only saw the light of day because of firms like Simulation Design Inc. In this case Ulrich Blennemann and MIH published a Berg twofer, covering the battles of Blenheim and Ramillies from the War of Spanish Succession at the foot battalion, horse regiment and cannon battery level. It was really GBACW pushed back 150 years plus, but with armies that both organized and fought differently from each other. And to go along with Trotter and Pistolier type cavalry, this game first introduced me to the concept of chit pulling and another game innovation, the Line Command. This was the idea that if the end unit of an adjacent line of battalions was within command radius, the rest of the line was as well by default. Simple but brilliant, this game was followed up by a sequel called Fields of Glory which covered the battles of Oudenarde and Malplaquet. 

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6. Simple Great Battles of History Rules (GMT 2nd Edition 2017). Probably no series of games says Richard Berg than the Great Battle of History (GBOH) series, Mark Herman his lifelong co-author and collaborator. This product line essentially covered ancient warfare from Biblical times forward, with a brief foray into the Thirty Years War. And GBOH not only covered the Mediterranean based empires, but west to India as far as Japan. The series was similar to GBACW in that these were miniature style wargames ported to cardboard, but understandably complex given weapons, formations and tactics covering a couple thousand years had to be accounted for. This rules set was a separate, streamlined set that was both easier to play, but generic enough to substitute for the game specific rules of any GBOH product, from Chariots of Fire (Biblical Warfare) to The Ran (battles in Samurai Japan). 

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7. War Galley (GMT, 2006). Designed with Mark Herman, this is GBOH for admirals. Units represent single large ships or groups of several smaller ships. Players check for wind, then divide their fleets into squadrons. After that an initiative roll is made to determine which player moves first, and he moves a single squadron as a result. Then the enemy moves one of his, then a friendly squadron, then an enemy squadron and so on. Overall, the rules here are about half the length of regular GBOH fare, and if nothing else says a lot about the flexibility of the design philosophy behind the system. 

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8. Risorgimento 1859 (GMT, 2000). Another unofficial adaptation of the GBACW series, the game included three battles at the tactical level from the 1859 Italian War of Independence, pitting the Franco-Sardinians against their traditional whipping boy, the Austrians. Here we are talking the huge battle of Solferino, so some modifications were required to include an increase in scale to an hour per turn, 325 yard hexes, with infantry units multi-battalion regiments. Also, in a spiffy little switch, none of the units had a numerical strength but instead losses were totally reflected in terms of morale. Also included was a point to point campaign system by historian Peter Perla directly linked to the tactical battle suite. A similar experience to GBACW, but much easier to learn and play. 

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9. Arquebus, Men of Iron IV (GMT, 2017). In many ways GBOH for the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the Men of Iron series is also the ultimate evolution of the rules system developed by Berg and Herman so many years ago. The armies are pretty similar in every way possible, and battles were quite small meaning there a fewer pieces on the map and less rules needed to manage them. In fact, this series actually does away with turns as a necessary game construct. That’s right sports fans, this game has no turns. Instead at the beginning of a scenario a designated first player activates a Battle (as in, a Medieval brigade) to function and this activation is free. When finished he can activate another, but his opponent can attempt to either negate this activation or steal it for himself. If successful the player plays his free activation and the round robin process continues until one side or the other loses enough leaders and units to rout. Please read my review of the game for details, but when compared with the original GBOH SPQR, this is a fascinating look to see how Berg matured as a designer. 

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10. Campaign for North Africa (SPI, 1979). OK, you knew we just had to include this, right? Seriously, any game that gets featured on a high octane TV show like the Big Bang Theory has got to be special, and CNA (as its lovingly called) is that and more. One of the very few World War II games Berg designed, its touted as the most accurate yet complicated board wargame ever. Really a study in logistics vice combat, the game had a 10 foot map, 1800 counters and rules so specific that fighter pilots were tracked by name and the Italian army’s water consumption was modified by the fact they needed more to cook pasta. A team of five on both sides was recommended for 1,500 hours of play. No wonder when Sheldon showed the game to pregnant Bernadette she pats her tummy and says, “C’mon baby, get out of here right now!” Berg himself admitted to never having finished a game of CNA

But who cares? Playfully vain to the last, Richard Berg often remarked, “I am da king!” Perhaps not, but as this short list should prove, his place in the upper echelons of wargaming royalty is beyond dispute. 

NB. Photos from GMT Games and Board Game Geek.

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