Seven years ago, I attempted to write my "mission statement" for gaming and what I wanted to get out of my tabletop games, specifically Horse & Musket era games. Doing this, I figured, would help me narrow down my scope of what I was looking for in a set of Horse and Musket rules. Moving from set to set is costly in terms of money, time spent reading and digesting, and time during games where key mechanics are not necessarily known or "learnt." A huge selection of choices doesn't make this process any easier, either.
I have mostly abided by the tenets linked to above when shopping around for a set of rules. While those have helped greatly for any game system set in the 18th century and 19th century, nowhere else is the issue of rules overload or uncertainty more evident than in World War II gaming, where I can potentially serve as a rifleman (5 Men in Normandy), all the way up to Winston Churchill (Axis and Allies), and literally every level of command in between, fighting in my own, happy, bloodless version of the world's biggest war. Where to start?
Well I'm starting with organizing my own tastes and preferences for gaming. Just like the Horse and Musket rules outlined in "Steve's Tenets of Gaming" , Im attempting to come up with my "Mission Statement" for World War II gaming, that can hopefully help me organize my tastes and figure out what the heck I'm "really" looking for in a set of rules for games set in the mid 20th century. Is it rules overload? Or do I just like buying rules? Well to answer that question, I'm trying to answer what it is I'm after, anyways. That starts (naturally) with more questions!
The basic questions revolve around preferences. Have you ever examined yours? What's the driving factor in your rules preferences? Your procurement? Is it nostalgia you're after? To narrow down a search for my "favorite" WWII rules, I'm considering what it is/was I've liked about my games over the years. Once I answer the basic questions, I can then answer the more advanced questions.
1. What is it that makes the game fun or enjoyable?
For me, the terrain and visual appeal of the table is important, so there must be terrain and a visual aspect to the game that should look good and convincing. Thinking of Kursk and images of German or Soviet armored formations. It should look authentically like a World War II engagement, or at least what I perceive based on reading and research, what a WWII battle should look like.
Next is tension. There should be tension from the rules produced where fate can hang on choices made by the players, and that fate is apparent. It should not feel like baking a cake whereby I follow a recipe. IE "the author wants you to do this, and you'll win almost every time". Military planners are more akin to cooks, not pastry chefs in their application of doctrine. In games, there should be tension - mental strain - where a player is stretched by choices, and through those choices, the fate of the battle hangs in the balance. This is the stuff of gaming legend and stories will be told around the gaming table of those choices for years to come!
Another aspect is uncertainty. There needs to be an element of uncertainty in the game. I shouldn't be able to do everything I want, all the time. Uncertainty can be folded into the game design in any way imaginable. Some of the more popular ways to introduce uncertainty are random or blind activations through cards or chit pulls, command tests whereby a unit has not yet received its orders and will remain defensive throughout a turn, "action points" mechanisms to limit actions a player can take, activation mechanics or morale checks where a unit in some kind of emergency state cannot act or can only act in a limited way due to failing a morale check. There are dozens more I'm sure but those stand out as great methods which introduce uncertainty in games I've played, and I'm basing these examples off of some of my favorite WWII rules I've played to-date.
This is a critically important feature to me. The narrative produced by the game is important and gives me the ultimate satisfaction I'm looking for when I play. What was the storyline of the battle that's transpired? Was it historically plausible? Doctrinally possible? Here's an example - a number of years ago during the Ponyri Campaign game, a friend drove his Tiger tank too close to Russian infantry. The Tiger was pinned by a light Soviet AT gun, the crew undoubtedly freaking out at an AT gun being so close to the tank.
Anyways, passing a "Beyond the Call of Duty" test, following another German attempt at suppressing the Soviet infantry near the tank, the Russian infantry rose up and close assaulted the pinned Tiger, knocking it out of the fight. Those kinds of narratives, things which speak of heroics and chance and daring-do, were not even imagined when the day broke and I was setting up the table that morning. I'm speaking of the Battlegroup rules here, but many rules produce a great narrative with a rich storyline.
|he shouldnt have driven so close to that tiger without infantry support!|
The ultimate point I'm trying to make is that narrative is a huge objective of mine when I think about what I want from a game. I want the game to be a rich story of heroism, unforseen events, frustration, confusion, and joy. Arguably all things experienced by a Soldier at war and almost certainly part of the appeal of a rules set that offers any uncertainty.
There is a conundrum with narrative and rules, though, when you factor in scale. More on that when we get to the advanced questions below.
2. What do I want from the game?
In light of the above questions, what games have delivered on enjoyment and have delivered what I've wanted from the start? Well, in coalescing a "mission statement" here, I'll offer the following of what I want from a WWII Game, and aspects of my more memorable and fun wargames that I've participated in:
A visually-appealing recreation of a battle or engagement that produces an interesting narrative, historically plausible results, and is playable in an afternoon or evening.
With the knowledge from the above questions answered, I'll offer advanced questions and try to answer them to narrow things down.
1. What am I looking for in a "good" game?
In the context of this question, "good" being the elements identified above IE what makes it fun, and what I'm looking for regarding the results.
A "good game" offers a game whereby terrain is both visually pleasing and tactically/operationally important. The table looks like a battlefield from WWII with lots of kit, and terrain shapes the decisions made in the battle, just like in real life. The rules provide some uncertainty and some tension, and the outcome is rarely a foregone conclusion.
2. What Rules Support a "good" game?
Ultimately, these aspects above are the most important that I'm looking for when I play a WWII wargame. So finally to the heart of the matter - what rules sets out there come close to a "good" game strictly using my parameters above?
Battlegroup: Kursk (et al)
Flames of War
Into Battle / frm Tigers at Minsk
Rapid Fire / Rapid Fire Reloaded
WWII Wargaming from Neil Thomas' "Wargaming: An Introduction"
Alex's Up the Blue WWII variant for Neil Thomas' One Hour Wargames
There are clear strengths and weaknesses with all of the rules mentioned above but all of them incorporate the tenets outlined above somewhat. The Battlegroup series, Crossfire, Iron Cross, and Into Battle probably coming the closest in terms of uncertainty combined with producing a rich narrative. Some of that is based simply on mechanics (IE the mechanisms produce their own uncertainty and you dont necessarily need to produce it through any additional process) and some of it isn't.
Arguably, all of the rules above produce uncertainty and their own narrative from the game, although to varying degrees and level of importance. EG Neil Thomas' WWII rules from WAI have an interesting feature where a unit that takes a casualty tests at the beginning of its next turn to gauge suppression on the unit. This is about all of the uncertainty and friction you'll get in those rules, except for the wild swings in die rolls throughout your engagement. Rather - the uncertainty comes from the players. This is a Frank Chadwick school of thought.
Rapid Fire is an interesting animal, too, whereby game play actually improves with the more "Stuff" and units you put on the table, with Battalions being worn down and forcing morale checks - otherwise - play tempo and/or friction is almost exclusively determined by the controlling player and his opponent.
So as you can see from the rules choices I've singled out (Battlegroup, Crossfire, Iron Cross, Into Battle) there are some similarities in the ones that most strongly meet my preferences - namely that units are mostly squads and that those squads are "sovereign" units, meaning that fire is adjudicated by the squad base and not by the individual figure or by the rest of the unit, and this independent unit can pretty much do as it likes within some parameters.
This is another WWII rules conundrum - fire by stand or fire by figure. The rules above all do it a bit differently but you could easily divide them into those camps - Bolt Action, Rapid Fire, Battlegroup, and WWII WAI on one side, and Iron Cross, Crossfire, Flames of War, Into Battle on the other.
Is this a scale issue? Or a penchant towards a particular mechanism? There's no easy answer but I suppose it comes down to the question of - is the destination the most important aspect to you or is it the trip itself? Would you rather roll 8 firing dice or 1 pair of firing dice if both rolls determine the future morale or status of your squad?? Is there a compromise? It's probably more fun to roll 8 dice, and certainly it's more satisfying to roll more than less (to an extent), so I'd say I would prefer a compromise on this issue. Somewhere between 3 and 8 are fine with me for fire. I absolutely hate the One Hour Wargames 1D6 damage roll, much preferring Alex's mods of 3D6 replacing the pip counting of a 1D6 roll which is boring to me.
Bottom line - it seems with all of the rules choices I've mentioned, any final result will have some aspect of compromise in it.
2. What is the appropriate scale to get what I want from the game?
A huge question (pun absolutely intended). What level do you see yourself as when you game? What level of command do you aspire to on the tabletop? Erwin Rommel commanding the Army? Robert Redford or Michael Caine's characters from "A Bridge Too Far?" (Battalion Commanders perhaps) Gregory Peck's character from "Pork Chop Hill?" (Company Commanders) Or the NCO from "The Hurt Locker" (Literally a squad leader) The answer makes a huge difference in the selection of games and theaters, and this post is really only focused on the tactical level although there is a plethora of games where a stand is a platoon that we havent even considered here (Blitzkrieg Commander, Fistful of TOWS, GHQ WWII MicroArmor to name a few) but might be worth its own post...
Where Do You Focus?
For my own part, my narratives tend to focus on the tactical picture, but from the perspective of the Battalion Commander to the greatest extent that I can. While I may only have 1 company on the table, I'm not focusing in on the level of detail that the company commander is - I'm much more interested - usually from the scenario's own victory conditions - in the outcome. I plan to integrate or incorporate higher level fire support assets that a company commander could really only dream of - so in that case - I see myself more as a Battalion Commander during my games, even if I'm solely pushing a company. This particular company is most likely the main effort, and i've come down to join the company commander and ensure the assault goes off as planned. To that end, "company level" rules sets are probably the best for me and my level of play, standing there as a battalion commander.
Scale really comes into focus here - and games that fire with individual soldiers become less attractive when you want that level of miniatures on the table. Rules that get down to a level of granularity where you're throwing grenades and firing with individual SMGs and rifles probably cant finish a game in "an evening" or "an afternoon" of say perhaps 4 hours of gaming. Games like Battlegroup fall short here as they really have a "sweet spot" in terms of execution where a platoon or 2 on the table is about the upper limit of what you want (even if "Battalion" level games are completely possible - you'd need a church basement and a weekend to play them).
This helps narrow down the search a bit. We have a list of rules that offer a varying degree of aesthetic appeal and usefulness (terrain and kit), uncertainty, and narrative. While each rules set shines and easily gives a fine game on its own merit, when judged against my priorities for gaming - my Mission Statement - what are we left with?
The refined Mission Statement (AKA What I'm Looking for in a WWII set of rules)
A visually-appealing recreation of a battle or engagement that produces an uncertain and interesting narrative, historically plausible results, and is playable in an afternoon or evening.
What rules best deliver on that statement - based on my own experience?
Rules where a stand = a squad, but where the player holds roughly company to battalion command. Where does that leave us? Let's break down the rules here, based on the rules that more strongly align to the mission statement I identified from the list above:
Battlegroup: BG is a very fine set of rules that produces a lovely narrative - arguably the best for storyline gaming that is out there with the use of the chit pulls, beyond the call of duty tests, and other special rules. No game of Battlegroup is like the other. It's one of the finest rules sets out there. The use of individual figures for combat, however, means that Battlegroup games are best set at the Platoon scale, a nudge above skirmish gaming. Battlegroup can handle "Battalion" level games, but you need alot of space and time to play. You're probably not going to fight the entire Battle of Kasserine Pass with BG, instead being content to fight an engagement within one of the Divisions, Combat Commands, Battalions, Companies, and finally within a platoon from that hierarchy. We want something a bit bigger.
Iron Cross: If I'm going solely off of these tenets, Iron Cross probably offers the most solid compromise using the Mission Statement. Stands are squads, making me the company or battalion commander. Command friction and uncertainty is delivered in a big way through the reaction system and the use of command token pulls where literally no game is like the other. Stands (squads) fire independently of one another and are independent units. It's not without its problems, but again we're looking for compromises here. Iron Cross is a great, streamlined game that delivers on its promises. While not as textured as say Battlegroup, we are searching for bigger battles, here, and Iron Cross scores big in the narrative, uncertainty, and the aesthetics department.
Crossfire: Probably scores as high as Iron Cross but without as much structure. in fact I've likened Iron Cross to Crossfire but with a more structured turn sequence. Crossfire puts you solely in the boots of the Company or Battalion commander, and most of the scenarios from the "Hit the Dirt" scenario book are at the Battalion level where you maneuver multiple companies of troops around. Crossfire is much maligned for its armor rules and I will freely admit that playing solo with lots of armor is tough and the games dont unfold like you'd expect them to without another human being. Admittedly Iron Cross is similar and is much more fun when played against a human being as solo I sometimes forget where I was in a sequence of action 1- enemy reaction 1 and 2 - friendly action 2...The armor rules when played solo are the only reason Crossfire scores low here but will always have a special place in my heart. Crossfire loses ground in terms of the limited ability to put "all the toys on the table". Frankly I'm not sure I could do that on a 6 x 4, but I'll certainly try!
Into Battle (formerly Tigers at Minsk): Norm Smith's "Into Battle" are another set of rules that are similar to Crossfire or Iron Cross in scope (squad is a stand, novel reaction mechanisms) Norm has the action somewhat "zoomed in" on the company or even platoon level fight and the use of higher assets is much more restricted with a necessary cap on firepower due to morale breakpoints. Norm's Into Battle rules score extremely high in the arena of narrative and storyline, with the command check for hexes, and the use of opportunity fire markers and pin markers which must be removed prior to actions being taken by a unit. This keeps Norm's IB games moving with players engaged in all aspects of the turn, not jsut their own turn. Norm's use of a time clock with random events also adds a delightful element of uncertainty and command friction. My "group" here has loved every game of Into Battle that we've played. The only drawback in terms of the mission statement is that Into Battle is meant for a small table with a small amount of units - and my penchant towards "lots of kit" means I'll happily and readily play Into Battle for small games, but for larger games (see my Weiler, 1944 game for 2021's Christmas Offensive) I'll need to go with a different rules set.
Flames of War: The 800lb gorilla in the room on this blog post! I've played probably more games of FOW in recent years than any other WWII wargame - so what's the deal? Why not jsut accept FOW and move on? To be honest, I'd be fine with that. Theyre very solo friendly, simple enough, allow for huge games to be played on whatever size table you want (smallest is 3 x 2 tables for city fight games) and they place a great emphasis on tons of kit. FOW is probably one of the easiest of any game systems out there to plan and build scenarios for.
FOW breaks down squads into teams, however, but places you as the Battalion or maybe even the Brigade commander. Fireteams are almost treated like riflemen. Make no mistake, FOW does exactly what it says and when I see a nice, historically plausible game (no Brits vrs Americans or Germans vrs Japanese here) at a convention, I'll hop in and play it. But in terms of the mission statement, is it what I'm after?
Where FOW falls short is the narrative aspect. I have had many games of FOW that are similar, due in part to the low level of uncertainty and command friction, which is pretty much only bestowed by the rallying rolls, reinforcement rolls, and motivation checks after or during an assault. Otherwise, there is a cake-baking aspect to FOW that is somewhat predictable and machine like. While I can host a truly massive game with it, and it's probably the mechanism I'd choose to play a truly massive game with, play enough solo games of FOW and you'll find yourself a bit bored and looking for a different challenge. Perhaps that's where I am now with it in my hobby. Narrative and uncertainty trump the more universal aspect of the rules. I might be a bit unfair with FOW but will absolutely keep playing it - I just wanted to explore the "where I am with what I want" aspect of my hobby here.
Anyways this post was extremely long-winded but I wanted to organize my thoughts on the matter and see where the post took me. Something as massive as WWII rules probably deserves a long blog post anyways! I hope you enjoyed my rationale for picking some of my favorite WWII wargame rules and seeing which ones met my "mission statement" for what I'm looking for out of my rules.
So based on your experiences - what did I miss? What tactical WWII rules deserve honorable mention? Should I also compare Rapid Fire and Bolt Action? I hope no one took any offense to my list here - no omission was on-purpose - these are just rules i've played the most of over the years and happen to know and enjoy the most! If you know of a rules set that I left out let me know. What do you think of the idea of making a mission statement for your gaming? Could it be possible I'm overthinking it?