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.