I’ve had a fancy for a while to go old-school and check out some hex-and-counter wargames, and one of the most convenient ways to get a feel for them seems to be through the auspices of Strategy & Tactics and its sister magazines World At War and Modern War. These magazines all come in two editions: a magazine-only version for those who only really care about the military history articles they pad out their page count with, and a version which comes with a free hex-and-counter wargame – a tradition that Strategy & Tactics has maintained since the 1960s.
In order to test the waters, then, I decided to pick up issues of each of these magazines to test-drive the games in question. As it happened, the 40th issue of World At War happened to include not just one but two games, both of them solitaire affairs, allowing me to jump right into it.
Before I get into reviewing the specific games, I thought I’d give some consideration to what hex-and-counter games seem to aim to accomplish compared with other varieties of wargames:
- They are easier to modify than videogames. Not only are all the rules of a hex-and-counter tabletop game directly known to all the players (whereas in a computer wargame some of the rules aspects might be obscure), they’re also able to be changed at a moment’s notice. If you find a particular rule isn’t working or enjoyable, you can stop using it or change it immediately. Conversely, if some aspect of a computer wargame bugs you, removing it is not so straightforward (and may be effectively impossible if the game isn’t particularly modder-friendly) if the game designers didn’t think to include the option to change or remove it.
- They lend themselves to higher-level decision-making. Let’s face it, although an individual miniature in a miniatures wargame doesn’t necessarily have to represent a single person, there’s a tremendous tendency to think of it that way anyway, particularly if it’s a more detailed miniature – and if you like miniatures at all, you probably dig the fine details of them. Sure, Epic-scale Warhammer 40,000 games have minis representing large numbers of people, but let’s face it – those tiny little things just don’t look as good as 28mm or even 15mm scale miniatures, and the 6mm scale used in Epic is about as small as miniatures can get. Conversely, a single counter in a hex-and-counter wargame can represent a whole army without a shred of cognitive dissonance whatsoever.
- The publishing model lends itself to fine simulation of very specific scenarios. Part of this may be down to the magazine format – if you’re editing World At War and you know you need to provide a new World War II-themed game every issue, then it makes sense to greenlight more games modelling specific battles or events of the war rather than running World War II: The Game every issue. But on top of that, looking at the games advertised in the magazines and available out there on the market, the trend does seem to definitely favour games in which predrawn maps and predetermined troop setups are provided and the action is based either on a specific historical incident or a particular “what-if” scenario. Conversely, miniatures wargames seem much more open to setting up terrain on an ad hoc basis and running a wide variety of different scenarios with your minis, which kind of makes sense: nobody’s going to pay money for a bunch of miniatures they can only play one very specific scenario, and likewise nobody’s going to pay money for a hex-and-counter game where you have to draw your own map and customise your own counters. Effectively, in a minis wargame you are paying primarily for the minis and secondarily for the associated rules system, whereas in a hex-and-counter game you are often paying for the research and creativity which went into designing the scenario and then secondarily for the associated rules system.
That being in mind, let’s see how these solo scenarios panned out.
Rampage is a game modelling the Allied push across Northern France, Belgium, and the Western portions of Germany between August 1944 and September 1944. (I told you these games tended to model very specific situations.) The aims of the game aren’t really about facing down and defeating the Germans, because the Germans are for the most part running away – for much of the map until you get to Hitler’s designated “OK, seriously guys, no retreating beyond this point” line the Germans will tend not to invest much in the defence of any particular location, and indeed a hex which doesn’t have any particularly special features will often have a 1 in 2 chance of not being defended at all. The key to the game is in pushing back the German front line at a suitable pace, and in seizing key objectives -the major cities on the Seine and the V1 launching sites on the coast – without taking excessive casualties.
In particular, if more than one British unit is wiped out, it becomes impossible to get a full-fledged victory and only a draw is possible. (The historical result apparently a draw, with the Western Front advance getting bogged down enough to delay the end of the war by up to half a year by some estimates.) At it happens, this is an area where the very specific nature of the scenario and the victory conditions made it reasonably easy to beat the game; by making sure the German reinforcements trapped in the “pocket” towards the start of the game were eliminated and by having the Americans move first most of the time, through lucky dicerolling I was able to get the Germans to expend all their defensive forces against the American advance, allowing the British forces to advance in comparative safety, and by keeping most of the forces stacked up together I could assault the victory point locations with devastating force. The last key to my strategy was in intelligent division of aims – with the Americans going for the important cities whilst the British went for the V1 sites (which, thinking about it, matches their priorities at the time rather neatly).
I was in fact able to win the game by the end of turn 2 – having seized all the victory conditions, I could ensure that no British casualties would take place through the simple gambit of not advancing any further, since the German forces are purely reactive in this. Part of this came down to lucky rolling, but I suspect another part comes down to the game design failing to adequately compensate for my superior knowledge of the situation: I knew the Germans would only bring a certain number of forces to bear in defence of any position west of the “retreat to this point” line, and I knew when the German reinforcements would be coming and therefore knew it would be advantageous to press on quickly and make little delay, and most of all because the victory conditions didn’t punish me for American deaths I was more than willing to let the Americans face the brunt of the danger and work them like dogs. I am not 100% sure the same was true of Montgomery and Eisenhower in real life.
Still, this was a fun little introduction to this gaming subgenre; fiddling with the counters is nicely tactile, the map is quite neatly realised, and although I had work a bit to interpret some of the rules (since they’d changed their mind about what colour to print the British forces between writing the rules and going to press) it wasn’t as complex as I was afraid it would be. I just hoped the other game would be marginally more challenging.
Stalingrad Cauldron is, like Rampage, designed by Ty Bomba; both games are intended to try out different ideas about solitaire wargaming. This time around, as the name implies the scenario focuses on Stalingrad and the regions and towns surrounding it; you are in command of the Soviet forces, and have to balance the necessity of keeping the German 6th Army isolated in Stalingrad whilst at the same time pushing back the German front lines to reclaim the eastern regions of Ukraine for Comrade Stalin. Early on you have to deal with the particular complication of Operation Winter Storm, in which the Germans land a bunch of forces behind your lines in order to try and help the 6th Army engineer a breakout.
Once again, I found that this was a game where a winning strategy could be arrived at simply by examining the victory point mechanic, and the mechanics built in to simulate particular historical outcomes. For instance, it’s quite useful for the game’s purposes to engineer a collapse of German Army Group A, since once you have done so you get a victory point simply for engineering the collapse, pick up the victory point for the nearby oilfield if you hadn’t grabbed it already, and if you can bring a sufficiently strong force to bear you can get 3 victory points by exterminating the (thankfully non-elite, unsupported) German troops who withdraw to the Gotenkopf. The only tricky part is that you lose 1 Victory Point for each Soviet force that is eliminated in Army Group A’s zone, but by careful stacking, apportionment of blows, and by playing the probabilities you have a good chance of avoiding losing any here (particularly since Army Group A’s defences are more or less spent at this point).
Likewise, spotting that you get 1 Victory Point for each of the 5 units of the German 6th Army you kill, lose 1 for each that escapes, and are penalised in firing on the 6th Army for each airfield the Germans control means that on the northern sector (controlled by Army Group Don) you can instantly prioritise a) exterminating the Winter Storm troops (easy enough if you concentrate your forces in the inner ring of the Stalingrad siege line, which allows you to attack the Winter Storm troops with dominating force) and b) grabbing at least one airfield, and then once you have an airfield bombing the shit out of the 6th Army is the way to go.
Once again, I felt that once I’d cracked the strategic challenge here, the game itself was too easy. Despite several setbacks during attacks (one of the nice mechanics here is that you’re never quite sure whether a section of the German frontline is barely defended or massively reinforced), and despite not using air support to the fullest extent I could (and there’s really no penalty in doing so so I should have done it), by the fourth turn I’d almost earned double the number of victory points the game requires; if you get 8 you have drawn with the historical Soviet commander, if you get 9 or more that’s a win because you did better than the historical commander did, though I’m fairly sure the historical commander didn’t have a set list of victory points to achieve that they would have been able to prioritise like I have. Exterminate the 6th Army and you are on 5 points, collapse Army Group A without losing any forces and you have 7, and then it’s not too hard to pick up the rest. I gave up on turn 4 because I realised that there was a good chance (particularly with the massive amounts of reinforcements incoming) that I could push the Germans all the way off the map in the last two turns without really trying.
This is another game which is fun to play once but doesn’t offer much replay value. I think, alongside Rampage, I found it enjoyable as a way to learn about the historical scenario presented, but both games suffer from the fact that the Victory Point structure more or less mandates a particular optimal strategy, which if followed can only be derailed if you are truly, exceptionally unlucky. In short, I felt it was worth a spin, but I don’t think I’ll be holding onto this issue of World at War in the long term.