Yet another great thing about boardgames is you can learn a lot while you enjoy a game—sometimes without even realising it. Historical events and boardgaming have long co-existed happily together. I won’t be looking at the long and extremely detailed history of wargaming in this article, but let’s explore a few slightly more mainstream boardgames that actually can teach a lot about the past to old and young players alike—and they’re fun too!
The Days of Wonder game Memoir ’44 (2004), has, more than other game, been an education for me to play. I’ve certainly learnt a lot about the battles of World War II from this excellent game—one of my top five favourites. Of course it helps that my regular opponent is a bit of a WWII buff, and everytime we sit down to play and I read out the title of the scenario he says something like “ahhh yes, this battle; this was when the blah met the blah and the blah blah happened.” But even if you don’t have a gaming friend with an encyclopaedic knowledge of every battle of the war, the scenario introductions can teach you a lot about the conflict you are about to play out; and actually playing the game can give you an insight into the forces and factors involved in each battle.
Of course to get the full enjoyment of this game you really should invest in all of its expansions. Expansion sets for the Eastern Front, the Pacific Theatre and the Mediterranean Theatre bring those aspects of WWII to life, and there really are few gaming experiences as enjoyable as playing an Overlord scenario with two boards and multiple players. Adding the Air Pack brings in a number of very nice little pre-painted planes to spice up the action, and I’m really looking forward to the new Breakthrough expansion that lets you play with a board designed for deeper end-to-end scenarios rather than the usual side-to-side ones.
One of the most satisfying Memoir ’44 experiences is playing a series of scenarios together as a campaign, and the Memoir ’44: Campaign Book Volume 1 (2009) is designed for just that. Included are more than 50 scenarios and advanced campaign rules covering three Theaters of Operations throughout the War: The Battle for Normandy in the summer of 1944, the Blitzkrieg to the West in 1940, and Operation Barbarossa on the Russian Front in 1941. If you don’t have at least a rudimentary knowledge of the passage of WWII after playing that lot, you just haven’t been paying attention!
Staying in the World War II period, another excellent game that explores the time is Tide of Iron (2007) by Fantasy Flight Games. Armed with this game, and of course the expansions Days of the Fox (2008), and Normandy (2008), you can learn a lot about the course of World War II, and replay many of the major conflicts. Tide of Iron is more complex than Memoir ’44, and goes into much more detail, with a far greater emphasis on strategy and specific scenario goals. Along with the scenarios that come with the game and its expansions, you can also purchase the hardcover book Designer Series Vol. 1, which gives you another twenty scenarios designed by some of the best in the wargaming business. Anticipation is high for the Russian Front expansion slated for this year, Fury of the Bear.
For a completely different take on WWII gaming, try Duel in the Dark (Z-Man Games, 2007) and its expansion Baby Blitz (2008). This very clever game simulates the British nighttime bombing raids on German cities during the war, but not in a ‘traditional’ wargaming fashion. The expansion explores the Luftwaffe raids on London and western England. This is more a strategic boardgame than a wargame, as you win by scoring victory points either by successfully completing your secretly plotted bombing runs or strategically placing civil defences such as flak and floodlights to thwart them. The detail in this game is incredible and it’s a very unique gaming experience.
Heading back in time to WWI, Wings of War (Fantasy Flight Games, 2004) and its many expansions may not recreate specific air battles—though I’m sure that is, in theory, quite possible, but for any fan of airplane design history, this game is a must. The rules are simple and fun, and the game is great out of the box, but to get the most of it your really need to get yourself some of the stunning airplane miniatures. There’s a continually growing range of this accurately modelled and painted miniatures, and flying them around a tabletop is huge fun. You can even buy large mats to give you a suitably attractive surface of fields to fly over. Wings of War: The Dawn of World War II (2007) brings the game into WWII; I just played this for the first time and was impressed how the same system has been adapted to feel faster and more frantic with the more modern planes such as Spitfires and Messerschmitt, and it was a huge amount of fun.
Back to more traditional wargaming territory, Britannia (Fantasy Flight Games, 2005) takes us considerably back in time to explore the history of the conquests of the British Isles. This is a fascinating and involving boardgame that traces the Roman invasion in 43 AD, through the conflicts between Angles, Saxons, Picts, Norsemen, Scots, Irish, and other tribes, finally all the way to the Norman invasion of 1066 AD. There’s a certain amount of pre-scripted activity to keep the history roughly on course, but players still have the freedom to change the history and explore what could have happened. If you can never remember the difference between Angles and Saxons and Picts, this is the game for you. Set aside a long afternoon and some dedicated players, and the game will definitely be rewarding.
The setting for The End of the Triumvirate (Z-Man Games, 2005) is that period of history when the fate of the Roman republic rested in the hands of three men: Caesar, Pompeius, and Crassus, and explores what would have happened if these three had engaged in civil war. As you can tell from the title, this game is definitely best with three players, though, less satisfyingly, it can be played with two. There are three ways to win: politically (a player must win the election to Consul twice); militarily (a player must control nine regions); or a mixture of both. It’s a cleverly balanced and very strategic game, more Euro game than wargame, and gives the player some interesting insights into the Roman world and its struggles for power.
Wind the clock about one hundred and fifty years back to play Hannibal: Rome Vs. Carthage (Valley Games, 1996). This classic game, first released by Avalon Hill in 1996 and now back in a beautifully designed edition by Valley Games, uses a card-driven system to recreate the events of the Second Punic War from 218 to 201 BC, when the Carthaginian general Hannibal came close to defeating the might of the Roman Empire. Famously, Hannibal drove war elephants with his army over the Alps to invade Italy, and so can you if you play this involving game, nut you’ll have to wield political control as well to achieve victory.
Finally, an excellent way to refresh your high school ancient history is the wargame system Commands & Colors: Ancients (GMT Games, 2006). If you’re familiar with Memoir ’44 you’re well on your way to knowing how to playC&C: Ancients, as it basically uses the same system of card-driven unit activation by Richard Borg (variations of which form the basis of Battle Cry, BattleLore and the brand new Battles of Westeros as well). C&C:Ancientshas five expansion sets that allow you to recreate a wide variety of battles that took place between the Greeks, Romans, Carthaginians and the invading barbarians, from 3000 BC to 400 AD.< So if you still think of history as something you only studied in high school in boring textbooks, maybe it’s time to try out some of these games and discover the thrill of battles, strategies and personalities past. The games are great fun—and you might even learn something! For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit the publisher sites or BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for many of these games at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).
by Universal Head
Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing for clients across the globe for more than twenty years, and playing games for much longer than that. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent an entire year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for a computer game. In between he’s designed just about every form of visual communication: corporate identities, websites, packaging, brochures, even postage stamps. He also created the game websites www.tekumel.com and www.battleloremaster.com. His blog site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.