The Year in War Games 2019 - Computer War Games26 Dec 2019 2
When I was putting together a year's end retrospective on wargaming at the end of 2018, Editor Joe and I had a discussion about the overall tone of the year - was there a through-line, some concept or feeling that could describe that year in a single word or phrase? We agreed that, while there hadn't been any major innovations during 2018, it felt as though wargames "were on the cusp of something." Whatever that is did not fully manifest this past year, but reflecting on 2019 via Wargamer articles, I think we have a better idea of what it is we're looking forward to.
Looking back at our reviews index for 2019, what's most striking to me is how wide a net wargames have cast this year. We've also massively expanded the mandate for what's covered here at Wargamer, thanks in no small part to Bill Gray's frankly prodigious output. Bill has covered everything from flight simulators (IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad) to the tabletop, and seems to have been able to find a good time in every epoch he visited (although John Tiller Software's aging graphics engine continues to irritate his eyeballs, as in Wellington's Peninsular War, which he otherwise enjoyed quite a bit). Our coverage has also opened up to more Games Workshop titles, with reviews of Aeronautica Imperialis: Wings of Vengeance, Warhammer Underworlds Beastgrave, and the excellent Necromunda reboot Dark Uprising coming in from Charles Theel this year (Charles will be talking more about this next week-ED). Also outside our normal diet of real-world bullets and tank treads was Joe Fonseca's review of Fantasy General II, back after a 23-year absence and - delightfully - a wholly worthy successor to the original.
There were only a few major new wargame releases this year, and most have caused a splash in one way or another. One of the most important new releases of 2019 is undoubtedly Field of Glory Empires, which adds a massive grand strategy layer to AGEOD's ancients offerings and even integrates Field of Glory II for battles, creating what Bill called "a third completely different game" in which the strategic layer feeds back into the tactical and vice versa. I came away from Steel Division 2 very impressed and said so, but this view was certainly not universal and even managed to make a few people on the internet rather cross with me. However, I felt it accomplished something similar to the fusion of Field of Glory II and Field of Glory Empires: Demonstrating the massive scale of total war, which dwarfs its own component battles - which themselves can be staggeringly huge from the perspective of the human brain.
While Steel Division headed to the Eastern Front this year, Unity of Command headed to Europe, the two franchises passing each other on their way to their new theatres like ships in the night. When the year began, we weren't sure whether Unity of Command 2 was going to show up in 2019 or not, but show up it did - and how. As you can read in Jack Trumbull's review, Unity of Command 2 is one of the year's best wargames - and I'd go so far as to recommend it to people outside the wargaming hobby. It's gorgeous-looking and approachable, but that doesn't mean 2x2 Games has compromised on challenge.
Rule the Waves II is on the other end of the visual spectrum from Unity of Command 2, but despite being on the homely side, it's no less a contender for a spot on our favourite wargames of the year. Joe Fonseca wrote our review of the early 20th century naval warfare game and says he adores it - he'll likely be busy designing and commanding fleets and spreadsheets well into next year. Finally, CMANO has a beautiful new edition in CMO, and Bruce Postlethwaite says it's the real deal - Command: Modern Operations sports an optimized simulation engine, better looks, and it's a software system used by NATO members for training and simulation purposes, making it the premiere sandbox for modern warfare simulation on the home PC.
Finally, we've also been blessed this year with Strategic Command: World War I, the rebuilt version Fury Software's classic Great War simulation. Bill took on this review and found it to be his new go-to game for First World War gaming, writing "I have to say no game covering the Great War at this level comes as close to a period ambience as this one. The game just felt like World War I, lock, stock and Stosstruppen."
Not all our most-anticipated games have wound up being hits, of course. Close Combat has finally returned in full 3D with Slitherine's Close Combat: The Bloody First, and Martynas Klimas accurately called it 'divisive' in his review - the game has seen a "mixed" reception over on Steam. It's still Close Combat, for better and for worse. Much worse is 1C's standalone DLC Men of War: Assault Squad 2 - Cold War, which Editor Joe came to regret ever saying anything nice about by the time the review copy had been around for a couple of days (seriously, just mod vanilla Assault Squad 2, you'll have a much better time).
2019 saw a couple interesting experiments in the wargame space. Radio Commander is a Vietnam War RTS that hides your units from you - instead, you've got to keep track of what's going on by radio communications with your units, updating a paper map with the latest intelligence you can gather. The normally very straight-laced Arma 3 went in a more X-Files direction this year with its Contact DLC, which I found entertaining but not particularly relevant to wargamers.
Looking back over the sum total of what The Wargamer has produced this year, it's clear that 2019 has seen the field itself broaden. For now, at least, we're not labouring under the complete supremacy of World War II games - and with perhaps one or two notable exceptions, the WW2 games we got this year were meaningful additions to the genre. This year, though, we've seen games tackle everything from ancient battles to theoretical modern conflict in Venezuela, we've revisited the Spanish Civil War along with the American Civil War. New games have tackled the Allies' hypothetical invasion of Kyushu in '45, while add-on content for solid mainstays like Hearts of Iron 4 and Armored Brigade have given us more nations to play with. We've even gotten a couple new entries in the Napoleonic era, and there are even some solid new games for naval combat commanders this year.
I apologise profusely to any authors I've inadvertently left out in this breezy trip through the year that was 2019 in wargaming, but I think the point - such as it is - has been made: If 2019 hasn't brought about the paradigm shift that Joe and I mused about last year, it's seen a meaningful broadening of horizons as developers look beyond World War II, and a nearly universal refinement in the craft of wargame design whatever the approach.
Fat and happy as I feel now after such a pleasant year for wargaming, I'm left with a decidedly murky view of the coming year. It's not that I dread it at all, but with so many long-anticipated titles finally showing up in 2019, it's hard to have many solid expectations for what's yet to come. Whatever does come our way in the coming year, however, is sure to be judged against what we got to play this year - 2019's wargames have set a new benchmark that we all stand to benefit from in the coming years.
Warmest holiday wishes and happy New Year to the Wargamer community! Be sure to share your favourite moments from 2019 with us in the comments.