Every time an undergrad asks What if?, a history professor gets her tenure. Yet there’s an undeniable appeal to that question. What if Hitler had been shrewder about invading Russia? What if the United States had gone all-in on the Pacific rather than entering the European Theater? What if both Axis and Allied powers had teamed up to battle aliens? There’s no way to know, man.
Other than that last one, those are the questions at the heart of Cataclysm: A Second World War, Scott Muldoon and William Terdoslavich’s take on the devastating twentieth-century conflict. And they’re also the questions that arise approximately every two minutes while playing.
After spending six, seven, and eight hours respectively on the full campaigns of Churchill , Fire in the Lake, and Pericles, a bracing twenty-minute tug of war was the last thing I expected from Mark Herman. Yet here it is: Fort Sumter, a wargame more in the vein of 13 Days than Herman’s usual wheelhouse. But as an experiment in capturing the stresses of the U.S. Secession Crisis in as few minutes and moves as possible, it’s largely successful.
I’ve heard some people mention COIN Fatigue. Not me. For a long time, my attitude was that if the powers-that-be at GMT Games desired to produce a hundred of these things, I’d be there. Each new volume is like a component-dense map pack for some popular train game, sans the trains and plus some deeply clever card play and action manipulation and politicking.
Okay, nothing like a train game.
Then I played the latest volume in the series, Marc Gouyon-Rety’s Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain. And despite everything it gets right — and it’s a lot — it dawned on me that I was beginning to feel tired. Though it’s possible that my fatigue may have been philosophical. So let’s engage in some therapy!
Whether it’s tackling the Vietnam War, the Cuban Revolution, narco-terrorism in Colombia, or the shenanigans Julius Caesar pulled before attracting Shakespeare’s fancy, the COIN Series has never shied away from a hard topic. If anything, the French-Algerian War of 1954 to 1962 is a perfect fit for the series’ asymmetric take on insurgency warfare, casting players as either the French colonial government or the Front de Libération Nationale. Even better that it should be Brian Train’s second contribution after the quagmire simulator that was A Distant Plain.
But the stickiness of its setting isn’t why COIN’s seventh volume comes as such a surprise. Rather, it’s because Colonial Twilight is the first entry to feature fewer than four sides — and for all its familiarity, the result is a game that breaks exciting new ground for the series.
Not to be too hysterical about it, but the Peloponnesian Wars were sort of a big deal. By the time the clash between Athens and Sparta grew to encompass Sicily and much of the middle and eastern Mediterranean, and certainly once they drew in the Persian Empire, they practically qualified as an antique World War. The outcome would cut short the golden age of Greece and pave the way for those perky Macedonians to solidify into the force that would Hellenize much of the known world.
It was Very Serious Business, is what I’m saying, brimming with intrigue, oration, and big stonkin’ battles on both land and sea. And in order to capture the freewheeling nature of the conflict, Mark Herman’s sandbox wargame Pericles just might be one of the maddest — and most maddening — things I’ve ever Greek-wrestled with.
The Roman Ludi Saeculares of 248 were an astonishing spectacle. Featuring exhibitions of hundreds of animals ranging from giraffes and elk to lions and rhinoceroses, as well as gladiatorial matches, banquets, and theater, the commemoration of the thousand-year existence of the city was intended as the greatest expression of Roman longevity ever shouted from the rooftops.
But while these festivities represent a date historians would eagerly dial into their time machines, the Roman Empire of 248 was anything but triumphal. The host of the games, Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus — more commonly known by his epithet Philip the Arab — was beset by scandal and whispered rumor. Not only had he overseen the death of his predecessor while serving as his bodyguard (awkwaaard), but he had also paid the Sassanids of Persia a tribute of half a million denarii to leave the Empire’s eastern border alone. In the same year as the millennial games, dissatisfied legions rose against Philip to appoint a new emperor of their own, spurring opportunistic Goths to flood across the Danube. Philip the Arab died in battle after fewer than five years as emperor. And that was considered an above average tenure for an emperor during the Crisis of the Third Century.
Barbarians. Famine. Civil war. Plague. Assassination. Inflation. Any game about Rome’s half-century of near disaster will have to grapple with a wide range of issues. And even though Wray Farrell and Brad Johnson’s Time of Crisis somehow touches on all of them, that’s only the second-best thing about it.
Churchill is a game I’ve wanted to write about for almost two years. It takes a sky-high view of World War 2, pitching you as the Big Three in their efforts to break the back of the Axis Powers. Yet it couldn’t rightly be described as a wargame. Rather than emphasizing the strategy or logistics of war, it’s about the interactions between Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt (and later Truman) across multiple conferences as they divide the responsibilities and risks of beating Germany and Japan — and eventually divvy up the world itself. It’s a game of politics, of give-and-take, of hard expediency in the face of crushing reality. It’s about working hand-in-hand with your ideological enemies and hoping you have enough clout to avoid triggering yet another war once the current one is wrapped up. It is, in a word, bold.
One of the great difficulties in creating any work of game-as-history is the sheer potential bulk of the thing, where the subtle complexities of real-world conflicts must be modeled as rules, endowed with appropriate exceptions, and tested for some semblance of balance. Take the Battle of Sekigahara, for instance. Set in the autumn of 1600, this was the final step in a years-long campaign by Tokugawa Ieyasu to bring the warring daimyos of Japan under his thumb. During the course of this seven-week campaign, clans and generals swapped sides, cobbled highways and back-country fortresses alike played important strategic roles, firearms and cavalry disrupted the usual order of battle, and some dude held a fortress against all odds through the sheer weight of his respectability.
The beauty of Sekigahara: The Unification of Japan — and I don’t use that word lightly — is that it’s perhaps one of the least demanding games I’ve ever played from GMT, somehow managing to capture the drumming tension of its subject matter without ever once sacrificing depth for simplicity or simplicity for depth.
Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series represents one of the best board game systems ever designed. But don’t take my word for it — wait, no, that’s exactly what I’d like you to do. Head over to the Review Corner, where I’ve outlined every volume in existence thus far, pick out whichever one sounds most compelling to you, and dive in. Whether they’re featuring the war for control of post-Escobar Colombia, the Cuban or American Revolutions, or even the military campaigns of a little-known dude named Julius Caesar in Gaul, these are some of the best simulations of complicated conflicts on the market.
“Where have you been for the last couple weeks?” you’ve undoubtedly been asking. Wedding, wedding, new baby (not mine), work, school, wedding. That’s where.
Oh, and I’ve also had a few articles published over at Miniature Market’s Review Corner. First up, Michael Barnes and I debated the merits of Cuba Libre as an entry point into the excellent COIN Series, followed by a discussion about our reservations about Falling Sky: The Gallic Revolt Against Caesar, and why despite those reservations it has become my favorite volume of the series. Meanwhile, I also reviewed Star Trek: Frontiers. Long story short, it’s Mage Knight in outer space with an extra dose of talking. “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra,” indeed.