Play These Wargames First

Having identified the most enjoyable wargames ever made, singling out the battle sims most likely to turn genre curiosity into genre passion, shouldn’t be beyond us. What makes the perfect introductory wargame? These are the qualities I look for in gateway grognardiana…

^ Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol

  • Top-notch tuition. Greenhorns really shouldn’t have to pore over a pdf or plough through a dozen dense tutorials during their first date. Every icon and number on the screen should come with a demystifying tooltip too.

^ Firefight

  • Intuitiveness and elegance. When unloading an APC or calling in an artillery bombardment requires as much effort or thought as outwitting a Tiger tank or neutralising a pillbox, all is not well on the ergonomy front.

^ Total War

  • Substance and variety. If Terence or Teresa Tenderfoot has seen everything the game has to offer by the end of Day 1, then said game isn’t a great advert for the genre.

^ Ultimate General: Gettysburg

  • Able AI. You won’t catch me encouraging newcomers to play offerings inhabited by boneheaded Boneys or moronic Montys.

^ Door Kickers 2

  • A selection of short scenarios.  The weekend-whittling colosso-clashes can come later.

^ Panzer Corps 2

  • Customisable difficulty. The more notches on the difficulty slider, the better.

^ Rebel Inc: Escalation

  • Total reliability. Few things alienate faster than bugs.

^ Fantasy General

  • Availability. I’m reluctant to recommend anything that can only be obtained through abandonware sites or eBay.

^ Vietnam ’65

  • Affordability. Ideally, curious combat choreographers should be able to try before they buy. If that’s not possible, then a wallet-friendly price-tag is the next best safeguard against buyer’s remorse.

^ Unity of Command 2

  • Realism. It almost goes without saying that a wargame without historical truths at its core is no wargame.

If there’s a title that ticks all of these boxes, I’m unaware of it. Of the clutch of games that almost qualify, if push came to shove I’d probably pick Battle Academy 2 as the most deserving of the title ‘Best Introductory Wargame’.

Temporarily deprived of Second Front earlier this week (the limited public playtest is now over) I sought solace in the game that in look, feel, and design philosophy is arguably closest to it. While Slitherine’s 2014 sequel can’t hold a candle to SF in some respects, in others it enjoys a clear edge.

Initially, I missed individual leaders and heroes, weapon scavenging, multi-storey buildings, and the Western Front. I found myself hankering for dynamic blazes, a more powerful zoom, and SF’s excellent LoS tool. However, as one day of rapt campaigning turned into two, then three, I was reminded of the things – the many things – BA2 does extremely well.

Like SF, it’s a profoundly legible TBT and an exceptionally ergonomic one. Potentially fiddly tasks like taxiing troops about and transporting AT guns, are oh so simple. Pithy targetting texts allow me to quickly weigh up whether I should take-on that T-34 by the hayrick or have a shy at the KV-1 beside the stream instead. Unhindered by complex phasing, even large, busy scenarios, proceed at a fair old lick.

The complicated relationship between infantry and armour that, ineptly handled, can break a WW2 tactical wargame, is deftly dehydrated in BA2. Unsupported tanks roaming unscouted towns are seriously vulnerable. The game understands the havoc that can be caused by plucky bands of grenade- and Molotov cocktail armed ambushers, by dug-in AT guns, and close air support. Slith’s implementation of both cover and morale feel, to me, almost perfect. Angry abodes as well as grunts occasionally lose their nerve and head for safer squares.

In THC’s upcoming AI Olympics, I wouldn’t be surprised if BA2 picked up a medal or two. Scenario designers have the ability to organise units into groups then give these groups specific objectives, aggression levels, and modi operandi. The approach ensures lively and varied enemies, and means computer-controlled forces usually cope well with the randomly generated cartography served up by the worth-its-weight-in-KV-2s skirmish generator.

One area where Slitherine probably should have taken greater risks is the campaign. The comic-book mission preludes and isometric briefings are a delight, and the scenarios are skilfully engineered, but without core force carry-over/cultivation, or strat map decision-making, you might as well be working your way through a ‘single missions’ folder.

Picturing something more ambitious – campaigns built on the fly by the same tech that generates random-map skirmishes, perhaps – isn’t hard.

Back in 2014 I snobbishly accused Battle Academy 2 of “teetering on the edge of tactical blandness”. In comparison with the likes of Combat Mission, Command Ops, and Scourge of War, maybe that dig is justified, but when you place BA2 in the much narrower field of ‘wargames with the common touch’ it starts feeling a trifle harsh.

Sorry, Comrade, I misjudged you.

Cornerites, what computer wargames would you recommend to someone who’s never computer wargamed before? Which titles do you think have the best chance of fanning the flickering flame of curiosity into an inextinguishable blaze of enthusiasm?

13 Comments

  1. I think those titles that aren’t strictly wargames offer the best chance of capturing the novice’s attention. Unity of Command II comes to mind — a nearly flawless blend of strategy, tactics, and puzzle, all lightly dusted with some RPGish elements (bolstering units with additional capabilities, etc.)

    And it looks, sounds, and feels good, which can’t be said for many of Tim’s dusty favorites.

  2. Battle Academy 2.

    So glad to see it getting much deserved credit, and so long after it was released.

    This is my all-time favorite war game, followed by Close Combat 2.

    In my 17 years of service in the profession arms (to include four deployments to hostile areas), and 28 years of computer gaming I can say that Battle Academy 2 delivers the most realistic and enjoyable combat experience of any wargame that I’ve ever played.

    The rules are simple and the focus on fire and movement at the small unit scale are second to no other game. Simply – if you apply realistic tactics, the game will reward you. This is a simple but apparently novel concept that most games cannot seem to master.

    I only wish Slitherine wouldn’t have cancelled development on the series. I think Battle Academy 3 expansion in the jungles of the Indo-Pacific or the fields of Western Germany would’ve been a much welcomed experience in war gaming.

  3. Second the recommendation for Unity of Command 2 (and possibly the original Unity of Command) as a good gateway wargame on the operational front. Panzer Corps and Wars Across the World are also great entry points to this style of wargame.

    On the real-time, tactical side, the Close Combat series is good because it has a visceral feel that can hook a new player. But for my recommendation, I will turn to indie game Firefight as my pick for gateway real-time, tactical wargame. It is definitely on the simplistic side but has enough realism to get someone involved without being bogged down in too much of anything.

    I also think many of the adaptation of board wargames can be a good gateway into things.

  4. Company of Heroes and Total War are probably the most successful entry-level wargames that teach some tactical principles.

    I’ll suggest Doorkickers 2 as an out-of-the-box contender. It’s still in early access it’s already fully playable, just missing a campaign and long-term unlocks. Granted, it’s about small scale tactical COIN firefights, not about shuffling panzers or T72s about, but the small scale and easy-to-grasp UI make all the fights extremely legible, and it teaches players there’s a world out there beyond right-click to attack-move.

    • I’d agree that Doorkickers 2 is a great in-road for gamers who are accustomed to modern shooters who want to dabble in wargaming. The amount of equipment and scenarios offers lots of variability, but will have familiarity to anyone who’s played a AAA shooter in the past 20 years.

      The recent (recent?) addition of the semi-stealthy CIA operations was quite a dramatic change in playstyle that I really enjoyed.

  5. Earlier this year, I decided to try and work my way into the genre, from a cold and dark start, as it were. The barriers to wargame adoption are pretty high for a complete newbie – impenetrable UIs, a dense screen of jargon and acronyms, forum conversations which quickly devolve to the esoteric, counters with NATO notation…..and that’s not even considering the need to look up very basic stuff – do I want to play a game at battalion, regiment, division level? Well, I’d better find out what those terms mean.

    I started with Battle Academy (the first one) and it was the perfect introduction for me. The UI is simple, clean and crisp. It’s very tactics-adjacent, so those coming from more mainstream turn-based tactics games like XCOM can pick it up easily. It also introduces lots of wargaming concepts which are second nature to old hands but need to be introduced to newbies on some level – so things like the importance of armour facing, the real difficulty in dislodging a dug-in position, the need for an infantry screen for your armour, the inadvisability of driving your tanks unprotected through narrow city streets, the power of artillery and air support and so on. All in all, it did a really good job of introducing what the genre is about, even though all this was delivered in a seemingly oversimplified tactical battle game, which is excellent in its own right. And you can just jump in and have fun! So I’d agree strongly with Tim’s selection above.

    The other introductory game I went for was Vietnam ’65. Again, to a novice, this looks quite intimidating, with its heavy cover art and muddy-looking screenshots. Most of what is written about it is very positive, and is written by serious wargamers, so the surprise when playing is that it is almost more of a mobile puzzle game based around logistics, than an old warhorse with a tendency to bite. While it still does a lot of interesting things, the surface simplicity went a long way towards removing some of the (rather intimidatory) mystique around wargames, for me.

    I’ve also been playing some Lock’n’Load Tactical Digital stuff, to try and get a handle on hexes and counters, and it’s been a hoot.

    So I have a rough roadmap worked out which I’ll follow over the next number of years (I won’t be playing wargames exclusively so maybe … 20 years?). The idea is to move from these easier, sometimes mobile-adjacent squad-based games, towards more operational-level stuff, taking into account the Combat Missions, Mius Fronts etc along the way. Eventually I may end up in the top tier, where I can play Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, or the Enemy Action: Kharkov boardgame which I maybe inadvisably bought. I’m having a lot of fun to start out, hopefully that continues.

    Here’s the first tier of my roadmap:

    Battle Academy (plus DLC, plus Battle Academy 2)
    Vietnam ’65 (plus Afghanistan ’11)
    Lock’n’Load Tactical Digital stuff
    Radio Commander (maybe not exactly ideal as your first game, but I like maps)
    Unity of Command II (I have the first but from what I read it’s overly puzzle-y) to get some logistics/supply stuff going
    Panzer Corps Gold (and eventually II)
    Drive on Moscow and Battle of the Bulge
    Ultimate General: Gettysburg
    Close Combat 2
    Possibly rounding it out with some Wars Across the World stuff before moving into Tier 2 with some ‘simpler’ operational-level stuff to start like Cauldrons of War.

  6. I might get chased off for saying so, but just my personal opinion…I found Unity of Command much too puzzle-y for my tastes.

    The UI design is slick, intuitive, and delightfully free of fiddling but, ultimately, the gameplay felt more like puzzle solving than proper wargaming.

  7. For me at least, Combat Mission (playing WeGo) was a hell of a gateway drug into deeper and “bigger” wargaming. Battle for Normandy, in particular, was graphically rich and the UI just made sense. Now I don’t think I ever played a CM map with more than 20 or so units until my 3rd or 4th year owning the game, and the amazing “tutorials” were player made scenarios accompanied by articles on blogs explaining advanced infantry movement. I would have never been able to graduate to hexier things or the mindblowing Graviteam games without a solid CM backbone.

  8. I think the majority of people who play wargames play them because they have an interest in the theme. So I think most novices would be aware of the lingo. Formations, ranks, attack and defense jargon. For me the interest came from “could they have succeeded if they done this” . Be that knocking out the Russians in ww1 or ww2 before the Americans arrived or Hannibal taking Rome or what if the Russians rolled into the Fulda Gap. In my experience one of the best operational level wargames that scratched that itch and didn’t feel overwhelming is the strategic command series of wargames. Its relatively accessible for an operational/strategic level game. Much of the minutia (rail logistics etc) of fighting at that level is abstracted away but not so much as to make it irrelevant. That would be my recommendation. Cheers

  9. So for me I think it’s not so much the drawing-in that’s important, more that the game quickly delivers a rewarding experience. I came to PC wargaming with a limited experience of “real” wargaming (shifting minis around according to WRG rules on an upturned Subbuteo pitch) and went straight into CMx1. From the get-go I could see it was I wanted so I needed it to work for me and so I also was happy to keep learning it.

  10. I just registered to answer Colm above, not that I disagree with him but rather because I wanted to add a different perspective from a near newbie.
    I had zero interest in military matters until a few years ago. Early this century my strategy needs were fulfilled by City Builders (e.g. Pharaoh) or Civ games (5 with the Vox Populi mod) or Oxygen Not Included for instance. There are many strategy games to choose from, but I am often put off by the learning curve. Not that learning new rules and game mechanisms is a problem (although some wargames are pushing it a bit far to my taste) but more because the time and effort invested were not justified by the longevity of the game (either because the game was showing its limits or eventually felt too repetitive or just that I got bored and wanted some new shiny thing), and you don’t know this until you have spent the time.
    On the other hand, wargames are all trying to simulate the same reality. The time invested in learning the lingo, unit types, NATO symbols, the importance of combined arm tactics or logistic planning in one game will be reusable in another. So, although games can be very different, they all have something in common. It is this consistency and the perennity of the knowledge acquired which I find attractive.
    The other appealing point is the uncertainty of the results. Games too often have either chess like rules (totally deterministic) or hidden mechanisms (RNG). Take wargame combat formulas for instance, they are not necessarily explicit, but they can be approximated with some gaming experience. And there is randomness on top of it which can also be estimated by the player. This results in giving a feeling of control despite getting unpredictable outcome (controlled chaos). I believe that this limited role of luck is what makes wargames addictive.
    My entry point was the first Panzer Corps, I played it quite a lot. I then enthusiastically bough Commander: The Great War just after, which I enjoyed too but didn’t play as much and eventually lost interest (like so many other games). I forgot about it all, then years later I came across Field of Glory. This one perfectly fits my definition of controlled chaos above; I understand precisely why I am doing something, but I have a degree of uncertainty on whether this is the right choice and how it will pan out in the next few turns. I am now occasionally playing and enjoying more hard-core games like Lock’nLoad Tactical, Carrier Battles and Flashpoint Campaign.
    So, to answer the opening question, I would say that more people would be interested in wargames if they were not feeling out of control in the game (battling the UI, the jargon, facing numerous and opaque counters, and sometimes incapability to set a clear short-term goal). My suggestions would be Field of Glory or maybe a simple WEGO wargame if there is one (small number of counters to move each turn and immersive visual resolution while still having time to ponder between moves). Frozen Synapse also fits my definition of controlled chaos, but would you count it as a tactical wargame?

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