Harvest time is power outage time here in rural Wessex. In August it’s not uncommon for Bramley End to have its electricity supply interrupted by combusting or carelessly driven farm machinery. Knowing this, I’m careful to have at least one analogue game option in reserve in case of emergencies. This week, when a field fire kindled by a dust-clogged baler sizzled overhead power lines on the edge of my village, I reached for The Armchair General, a WW2 history book with a novel twist.
In essence The Armchair General is a Choose Your Own Adventure book for grown-ups fascinated by WW2. John Buckley, Wolverhampton University’s Professor of Military History, teleports the reader into a series of smoky Allied conference rooms, government offices, and HQs at pivotal moments during 1939-45. After providing a few pages of background information, he asks you to make a decision. The path you choose determines your next dilemma.
Dice, hit points, and writing implements play no part in proceedings, and miscalculations never prompt restarts. Because the war is split into eight self-contained, multi-decision chapters…
…a bad call in, say, North Africa in 1941 might curtail your Desert War experience, but has no impact on your chances of mounting Operation Overlord in 1944.
Fragmenting the conflict allows Buckley and his readers to hop from front to front at will, and helps the alternative history stay within the bounds of the plausible. While I wouldn’t turn my nose up at a WW2 gamebook that explored wilder what-ifs such as an occupied Britain, a resolutely isolationist USA, or a successful Hitler assassination, by avoiding scenarios like these The Armchair General sustains a documentary feel from beginning to end.
Going in, I was slightly concerned that the book would offer little challenge and few surprises to someone with 40+ years of wargaming and history consumption behind them. When, within a couple chapters, I found myself pondering decisions like these…
…those fears quickly vanished. While the chapter headings suggest a tour of the achingly familiar, the knowledgeable Buckley frequently comes at famous events from unusual angles. At times even grogs may struggle to distinguish historical paths from fictional ones. For example, I attempted to carve out a USN victory at Midway by mimicking the actions of Nimitz and Co. However, let down by memory and tactical instinct, I wound up with a chastening draw rather than a clear cut win.
Apart from the Midway scenario, very few chapters contain tactical noggin warmers. Ninety percent of the time you’re far from the fighting, contemplating choices that will shape operations, impact alliances, or effect entire fronts. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to go completely off-piste either. Like a river constantly seeking the sea, the eight narratives have a tendency to bend back towards the actual whichever paths are chosen.
The fact that The Armchair General doesn’t let me lose the war or contort it into something unrecognisable doesn’t bother me at all. During the past few days I’ve done things few computer games would permit. I’ve scrubbed Operation Market Garden at the eleventh hour, sacked Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris for disobeying orders, surrendered Malta to the Italians in a naive attempt to buy peace, and invaded the Japanese home islands. Making these decisions then reading about their consequences has been thoroughly absorbing, even when, deep down, I know I’ve chosen a path out of curiosity rather than the conviction that it’s the strategically sensible thing to do.
Unless you retrace your steps on finishing a chapter and inspect every rejected section, it’s inevitable you will miss out on significant chunks of the book during your first play/readthrough. Most decisions are prefaced by four or more pages of easily digestable background info. In addition to giving you the facts needed to make an informed choice, Buckley introduces relevant characters and sometimes shares pertinent period documents and maps. Encountering briefings of a similar size in a PC wargame would probably put my back up, yet here they work perfectly. Hungry for useful insights I find myself scrutinising and savouring instead of speed-reading eager to reach something more thrilling beyond.
The historical notes that conclude each chapter are just as compelling as the preambles. In them the author outlines the historical course of events, and explains the thinking behind the various counterfactual routes and outcomes. (Obviously if you intend to replay and have an excellent memory it’s probably best to skip these spoiler-stuffed sections). If Buckley’s expertise and open-mindedness wasn’t obvious before, then these afterwords make it plain.
Hopefully, before the paperback version comes out in October, the slightly fuzzy Operation Market Garden map on page 336 will be replaced with something crisper, and – if it hasn’t happened already – someone at Penguin will urge Professor Buckley to commence work on another Armchair General-style tome. Having thoroughly enjoyed this one, I’d jump at the chance to navigate WWI, the Cold War, or the American Civil War in a similar manner.