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The best wargame gifts: our holiday gift guide 2020

Sacha Fonseca recommends some spouse-friendly purchases for those looking to recruit their better halves to the hobby

Best wargame gifts main image

Every year my partner regales me with the positive qualities of innumerable wargames. I am a loving and supportive wife, so I do my best to listen and take in what I can, with full knowledge that I will be the one playing wargames with him until the world gets back to some semblance of normal. So, some games get turned down from his huge sparkling lists for various reasons; replayability, solitaire compatibility, and the horrendous scale of the campaign and time investment for some games are but a few of the factors that can mark them down.

But I wanted to provide wargamers' as yet uninitiated partners with a list of games which I have found fun to play and, very pertinently, beautiful to behold.

Most of these games are quite big, but – for the most part – fit into their respective boxes, and so don't tend to leave too many errant little chits lying around the house. That said, I'll begin with a few stand-out games that come in a smaller package – quick and easy to wrap, unwrap, learn and play, and pretty easy to cart around to friends' places or on holiday, too.

I hope these gift ideas can bring a smile to your loved ones.

Stocking Stuffers

These games are small enough and, in terms of wargames, cheap enough, that if you wanted to give your partner an awkwardly rectangular stocking this year, I can highly recommend them.

Best wargame gifts 2020 13 minutes cuban missile crisis box with box art showing JFK

13 Minutes: the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962

This game is wonderfully compact and has only 13 cards! You and your partner will play as the USA and the USSR in a cold war battle over points. You will be creating a tableau with events from the Cold War and deciding how much influence you would like to place on the card.

More influence means that card goes to your side of the board – but be prepared, because the other player can take it back from you. This game is all about calculated risk because there are only so many cards, and so much influence in total. In addition, if either of the players initiates nuclear war by collecting 3 or more of the same DEFCON symbol, they lose.

What’s great about this game is that it is a nice, short, warm-up game for a game night. If you are the competitive type, you can easily do best out of three and still have an evening to do other things with your partner. I like this game because it uses the same dual card mechanic that Twilight Struggle uses without the horrific time sink and if you get destroyed by a good series of card plays you’re not stuck at the table for two hours trying to recover. This is the Cold War game in our house, and I highly recommend it.

Best wargame gifts 2020 eight minute empire board and pieces photo via Red Raven games

Eight-Minute Empire

This game is a little bit of a misnomer. It doesn’t take exactly eight minutes to play, more like 15, and it can take longer if you have more players. But the game is still a compact delight. It is an area control game that combines elements of Risk and Civilization. You use cards to take actions and gain resources. Resources give you points but you have to balance that out with acquiring land. The more area you control the more points you get.

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What I love about this game is the variety that has come from an old print and play. The original has a faux-European map, and there is a proper European expansion available. For those of us who grow tired of traditional war game scenarios and want something different on the table you can also grab Eight-Minute Empire: Legends which is a stand-alone game that is; small, modular, beautiful and has dragons!

Best wargame gifts 2020 Battleline Medieval card art photo

Battle Line: Medieval

My husband and I played the original iteration of Battle Line at a board game café in the Before Times, and really enjoyed it. It is a simple card game with the objective to win as many battlelines as possible or win three battlelines grouped together. If you are good at math and card counting this might be a good puzzler, and if you’re horrible at math like Joe and I are, then this will also be a tense game of praying your math was right. Capturing a battle line comes in many forms with a hierarchy similar to poker: having the highest number set (10-9-8) will win, but having the same suit beating a scattered suit.

There’s a player aid to remind you of the possible winning combinations. Basically, it is a fun game of historical poker. There are action cards that you can use to sway the battles as well which adds another layer to this simple game. The original came with little wooden pieces to represent the battle line and the cards had a fun Greek vase kind of art style to it. But I’m going to convince you why Medieval is the version to buy.

It is gorgeous, the old art was fun, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the intricate heraldry that was created for the new cards. Instead of the wooden pieces there are actual battle scene cards where your medieval soldier cards can fight. If you flip them over there are scenarios that alter what can happen on each battlefield which really helps the replayability of the game. Medieval is the one that we own but you can decide for yourself which version to buy.

The Big Games

Best wargame gifts 2020 Victoria Cross 2 photo showing the game box, board and pieces

Victoria Cross II: Deluxe Edition

Has your partner somehow conned you into watching Zulu (1964) every December for the last 8 years? Well, if they like the battle of Rorke’s Drift as much as mine does then this is the game for you. Years ago, we picked up the first edition copy of Victoria Cross and gave it a few plays. Overall, it is a fun siege game that only takes up a couple hours of time. You really feel the tension trying to survive the endless wave of Zulu warriors and playing as the British is a challenge which makes me happy. It feels like either player could tip the battle in their favour which is not something that all wargames can provide. For me anyways, simulation is fun to a point but it’s important for the opposition to feel like they’ve got a shot. However, you want the deluxe second edition.

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The map is so much better. Paper maps aren’t very survivable, and it was hard for us to determine the distance from different zones sometimes. The new map is much clearer and has the zones marked out. The blocks were fine, we have plenty of games with blocks, but the new chit-like pieces are a big improvement. They really help with the bluffing aspect for the Zulu player. This version also has solo play, for when you want to encourage your partner’s hobbies but just aren’t in the mood for gaming. The AI is good and made Joe put up a fight. Finally, there is the fact that the mounted board is doubled sided so you can fight the battle of Isandlwana too! This game has much more value than the original, is clearer for play and is so much prettier.

Best wargame gifts 2020 Imperial Struggle photo showing game board, pieces, trackers and materials on a table

Imperial Struggle

I think this is on everyone’s Christmas list this year, but there is a good reason! I am one of the five people on the planet that detests Twilight Struggle. It takes forever, the cards are ruthless, and the game is complicated as heck. Imperial Struggle asks players to take on the role of France or Britain as they struggle to gain influence over the world in their colonially diabolical game of Sylvester and Tweety mischief. It’s complicated but it feels much more balanced in its experience for people who are newer to wargames.

The cards are better than Twilight Struggle because they only have one event on them per country so you don’t have to deal with extra consequences while you try to focus on what is happening in this already involved game. Speaking of involved, this game does take a long time, if your partner asks you to play be prepared for a four-hour game.

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The longest part of the game comes from the battle boards, there are game altering consequences for each war that takes place at the end of most turns and you need to make sure you are balancing your army, cards, colonial expeditions and navy so you don’t get trounced.

Now you’re asking “Sacha, why would I play this?” Well, it is a fun challenge. If you like PC games like EU4 then you might get a kick out of this. The board is clear to read, the setting is broader, so it is easier to get into, and each country has interesting, personalized cards which are a great game changer. A bonus for me, which GMT really needs to do with all their games, is it includes an organization tray too so you can easily put everything you don’t need away at the end of a round. Imperial Struggle is by far the better ‘Struggle’ game.

Best wargame gifts 2020 Pax Pamir box art

Pax Pamir: Second Edition

Pax Pamir is a piece of art. The game pieces are engraved, beautiful and bright. The game map itself is made of cloth and looks like something many a grandmother would make. The cards are sturdy, unique, have historical flavour text and all the information you need is put on the cards clearly. I love that this war game isn’t just map and territory focused in the same sense as other games. The map changes, not necessarily because of fights, but because of influence.

The game is a complex political tableau-builder which has players taking the side of whoever seems to be winning. Britain, Russia and the Afghan leaders are all fighting to take control of Afghanistan for themselves and the players choose to back a specific faction to take over. Much like in Game of Thrones, alliances are cheap, and if it seems like you backed the wrong horse you can change sides. The tableau is how the whole game functions, players take cards from a central market to add to their tableau which in turn gives them the ability to take over provinces or use special abilities.

It’s tense watching what cards your opponent goes for in the market and you all have to deal with event cards that can end the game at certain points as well. I will say the one downfall of this game is that, although it can be played with two players, I think four is probably best. This is a long game, but if you have enough people in your bubble it is a really good time.

Buy now

Undaunted: Normandy

Purchase: Amazon

For the WWII fanboy on your list, I highly recommend Undaunted: Normandy. I don’t know if anyone has picked up on my pattern yet, but I like card games. They are by far the best way to make wargames more accessible for newer players. You play as the US and Germany with a modular map changing each scenario, you get a starting deck of cards as your platoon and an objective. The deck building aspect is really fun as you try to balance your deck so everyone can move. It is tense because if you get hit you lose a card in your deck and if all your cards are discarded that unit is dead. This is a game of strategy and deck-building for everyone.

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Undaunted is something that you can play in an hour at a time due to its scenario system. This scenario system is perfect for newer players as they introduce new units each time, giving the player time to get used to the mechanics of their new unit and apply what they learned before. If you are a more advanced player, they have a scenario for you in the back that has everything all set up for a big battle. I love how the maps change and are placed down. I like the game of gambling and puzzling as you try to figure out how to get to the objectives most efficiently. This is fun and much quicker than most wargames I’ve played.

Best wargame gifts 2020 Memoir 44 Commands and Colours photo showing board and pieces

Memoir ’44 and Commands and Colors

I’m not here to convince you to buy the billions of expansions that both these gaming series’ have, but I can say that I really enjoy playing both of these games. Memoir and Commands and Colors (CC) both use a system of hex grids and cards in battle. The cards will inform how you move your troops across the board in the centre and left and right flanks. Your goals are based on in game scenarios or basic kick the other guy’s butt with pre-made armies. Games usually take an hour or two which for wargames is not exceptionally long. Although I find CC more difficult to set up with the hundreds of stickers to be stuck, which game you pick is really based on you and your partner’s tastes.

If they are a WWII buff, Memoir is the way you want to go. I’ve only played the base game, but there is a ton you can play with it. I have very fond memories of actually dropping my little minis on the game board to simulate para-dropping my guys in France and laughing at that one unit that landed behind enemy lines. CC doesn’t quite have the same production, but it comes in a bunch of flavours, which is great for variety.

You can also get Napoleonics, Ancients, or Medieval – and, from other publishers, CC comes in WWI, American Revolution, American Civil War, Fantasy, and Sci-fi flavours. The Napoleonics and Ancients are complete with around a dozen expansions, so if they like the base game you have future birthdays and Christmases sorted. Joe and I are currently waiting with bated breath for Samurai Battles to come out. I’ve got high hopes for it after being slightly disappointed with CC Medieval’s starting armies.

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 War of the Ring Second Edition

Purchase: Amazon

Saving the best for last! Every year, Joe and I watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy (yes, of course the extended editions). If you, too, have a taste for Tolkien, then War of the Ring is a great starter wargame. You are tasked with either playing Sauron’s hordes or given The Fellowship and allies to control. This game is great for people who have seen the movies or read the books, because we have a general idea of how the battle and events can go. We have an idea of where things are in the world; we have expectations for the armies. The roleplay aspect of this is exceptionally fun, and I love seeing the deviations to Tolkien’s story come alive. You roll dice to clash your armies, and can use your cards in battle to change your odds.

The game board is extraordinary( and large) and the cards are amazing, and tied to events from Tolkien’s world. The models and art are cute, and more related to pre-Jackson iterations of the fellowship. The one thing I dislike about the production is the colour that they chose for the minis, the red for the forces of evil hurts your eyes after a while and is ugly in comparison with the rest of the game. This game takes up space and time, we play for six to eight hours to finish a game.

But we have fun, this doesn’t drag, and I am proud to say – as a member of Sauron’s army – we’ve recovered the Ring every time. Joe and I have also tried to play a multiplayer variant in The Before Times and enjoyed it, but this game shines at two players. There are more expansions, but we haven’t had a chance to try them yet. Maybe I’ll get one for Christmas this year?