I said, war, good god, now, what is it good for?
Say it again, war, what is it good for?
Absolutely, nothing, listen to me
War, it ain’t nothing but a heart breaker
War, friend only to the undertaker, war
–War, by Frankie Goes To Hollywood (1984)
I just bought my friend Risk Legacy, which got me thinking about war games. In a way, this was a selfish present, as I fully expect to be invited to join in the epic 15 game campaign which will shortly begin. It’s also incredibly selfless of me, because he is a huge Risk fan and I think it’s slightly tedious after the first few hours! Like that guy from Board With Life, my favourite is Lord of the Rings Risk, but I hear Legacy’s pretty good too. In essence, though, my gift was a commitment of time: a promise to spend time with my friend. This is, after all, the very essence of this hobby of ours- board games are about enjoying time together with friends or family.
Which is all very well, but I want to talk to you about conflict.
Specifically, board games which simulate conflict, war and aggression. I grew up playing Diplomacy. A lot of Diplomacy. Before the internet, people used to play this classic by post. One game could last years! But not us. We would gather together in a group of seven and put our friendships to the harshest of tests, simulating the pre-World War One conflicts between Europe’s 7 Great Powers of the early twentieth century.
Diplomacy gets a lot of bad press, but it’s a classic for good reason. It famously features no dice or other random elements at all. Tactically, the game is about outguessing, outsmarting and outmanoeuvring your opponents. While strategically, the emphasis is on forging, managing and – inevitably – breaking alliances with other players. We fell for this heady cocktail in a big way, devoting hours at a time to playing and replaying the years 1901 to 1910 (or so) on cardboard using plastic pieces. We would even, on special occasions, play in evening wear- as if we were ambassadors of the Great Powers, deciding the fate of a continent after dessert and before the port and cigars arrived.
I was also peculiarly fond of an old GW game called Blood Royale. This was another game of European conquest, involving largely the same powers, but several centuries earlier. The game lasted a long time, but crammed a lot in: international trade, combat, royal families and lineage and a juicy selection of calamities and events. Indeed, you would usually spend more time attending to your family’s genealogy than in actual combat. I still have the game, but I fear that I might tire of it fairly quickly these days. The plastic coins for currency were a definite plus in comparison with the usual paper money, and regions on the map producing resource tokens which could be traded and sold seems years ahead of its time.
There was also a really interesting mechanic for recruiting armies. Each player had a finite stock of 20 cardboard tiles representing their armies. In addition to paying their wages, if an army was defeated, the tile went into a sort of “limbo” area meaning that you couldn’t replace your losses immediately, but wait a full turn before they became available again. So, you had to be careful about committing your full forces to any given conflict, as a heavy defeat would leave you effectively defenceless for the whole next turn.
The wargamers among you will be weeping with frustration at this point, so I’ll move quickly on to cover some more recent, card driven offerings. First up, A Few Acres of Snow, which Alastair reviewed recently. This is set in the British vs. Canadian/French conflict for control of Canadia back in the 1750’s – I have only played once, and I won convincingly but it left me a bit cold (if you’ll excuse the terrible pun).
I was new to the game, and to this style of game in general. Therefore, I reverted to type and I chased the end condition and victory points. I won by simply building a lot of settlements, after only a few scattered skirmishes. It felt a little bit like we were playing two different games, where the Canadians were itching for a fight, and the British were just quietly getting on with infrastructure and local government. In most games that would spell a bloody disaster for the planner/builder. Possibly, this is some deep “make civic administration, not war” moral which designer Martin Wallace is trying to install in players. But, I’ve only played this once, so I’m prepared to be proved wrong.
And then there’s Twilight Struggle (sadly, not Rocky IV the board game). Lots more cards simulating the cold war era intrigue between the great global superpowers of the Vampires and the Werewolves. I only played half a game, so that may not be 100% accurate, but you get the gist. It looks pretty good, and someday I’ll play the other half!
“War is sweet to them that know it not.”