by Gideon Marcus
When we think of the word “invention,” the big-ticket items come to mind: rockets, nuclear reactors, jet planes, penicillin, nylon. But innovation happens in all fields. Take entertainment, for example. A hundred years ago, music could only be heard live. Now we have phonographs, wire recordings, tape cassettes. A century past, and plays were strictly a live event. In the present, we can enjoy television and films, too.
Board games have evolved tremendously in the last century. From the old standards of chess, checkers and backgammon, the rise of the boxed game has provided a profusion of diversions. You’ve probably played some of the more famous ones like Scrabble, Monopoly, or Cluedo. These are abstract games, fairly divorced from reality (though Monopoly’s property names are taken from real streets in Atlantic City).
Now, imagine there was a type of game that immersed you right in the action, putting you in the role of a general or a President. There is a new class of games that simulate historical conflict (which I covered a couple of years ago) called “wargames.” They put you in the seat of a battle leader, pitting your strategic wits against an adversary. Unlike Chess (which is the spiritual granddaddy of the field), the units at your disposal represent actual divisions and brigades.
Well, sort of. There is a wide range. Take Stratego, for instance. This new game from Milton Bradley is unlike any I’ve played before in that you have no idea how the enemy’s forces are deployed. Both sides start with forty units of varying strength. At the top is your Field Marshal; at the bottom, your fleet-of-foot Scouts. In between, you’ve got a descending array of officers, from the General to a horde of Sergeants. Each unit has a number attached to it, and they can defeat any piece with a higher value (for instance, the Lieutenant, rank 6, is defeated by the Captain, rank 5, or the Major, rank 4, and so on). In addition, there are immobile bombs, that destroy all attackers save the Miner (rank 8), and there is the Spy, which can destroy the Marshal, but only on the offense.
The goal is to take the others’ flag – but where is it? It’s a fun, chess-like game that will take about 30-40 minutes. I must report that I was ignominiously defeated in my first game by The Young Traveler.
At the other end of the scale is just-released Waterloo, from the company that has become virtually synonomous with wargames: Avalon Hill. Waterloo is an elaborate rendition of Napoleon’s last campaign, his desperate attempt to defeat the Allied armies in detail in the fields of Belgium. The actual units that fought on those late spring days of 1815 are represented with cardboard chits with combat strengths and movement factors printed upon then.
Unlike as in chess or checkers, the map is the actual battlefield overlaid with an ingenious hex grid that allows movement in all directions. Rivers and forests hinder movement; slopes and rivers affect combat. Battle is engaged when units become adjacent, whereupon a die is rolled and the “Combat Results Table” (CRT) referred to. Fights at even or even two-to-one odds are chancy affairs. Success is only reasonably likely at three-to-one, and that chance is drastically increased if you can cut off the enemy’s avenue of retreat.
The combination of the CRT and terrain make Waterloo a fascinating and taut game of maneuver. As the Allies, you try to take defensible positions while you wait for reinforcements to arrive in time for you to take on the superior French forces before they reach the road to Brussels. As the French, you try to use your initially superior numbers and your fast-moving cavalry to defeat the Allies piecemeal.
It’s highly immersive, but the time commitment may be more than you’re used to – plan on spending five hours locked in mortal, 19th Century combat. Best accompanied by a glass of brandy and some period-appropriate records from the Vanguard Bach Guild collection.
My wife and I are still knee-deep in our first game. I’ll be sure to let you know how the conflict ends when it happens. Perhaps the First Empire will survive beyond The Hundred Days following Napoleon I’s return from Elban exile…