This blog was set up for the Roll to Save podcast, which covers (amongst other things!) the history of tabletop roleplaying games. We’ve covered off a ton of these over the last couple of years, but we’ve not just talked about them – we’ve also played a load of great games too, and not just old classics either. This Sunday sees the latest instalment in our “Alien” cinematic one-shot, for instance.
However, as I’ve delved into – and bought – more and more RPGs – I’ve always found eyes being drawn to the one hulking beast on my shelf that is the figurative elephant in the room.
You see, like most folks of my generation who were drawn to the tabletop roleplaying hobby, I also dabbled in wargames.
Back in secondary school, I was introduced to these by a friend who had a copy of “Axis and Allies”. In retrospect, I’m more inclined to refer to this as a “boardgame” than a “wargame”, because to me the latter term always has a promise of some kind of simulation, and at least a nod to a plausible facsimile of whatever conflict it was purporting to represent. “Axis and Allies” was simple to learn and a lot of fun, but not exactly what you’d call a well-crafted engine of historical accuracy.
Still it had those little plastic aircraft, and I don’t know a single player who could resist picking up a couple of them, having them dogfight and making “Ew-eeeeewwwwwwww! DAKAKAKAKAKAKAKAKA!” plane-noises with them.
It also taught me that the kind of wargame that I’d enjoy playing would be a grand strategy game. There’s plenty of games out there that see you control squads, or individual armoured vehicles, but I definitely preferred a much higher view, where the units being moved around were infantry and armoured corps, airwings and fleets, and where economic and diplomatic decisions were more important than tactical ones.
A few years later, whilst browsing the Virgin Megastore in Glasgow for RPG supplements, I came across my first “proper” wargame. Avalon Hill’s “Third Reich”. This was back in 1991, and despite the game being 17 years old at that point (and therefore older than me!), myself and my friend Callum played this game furiously for an entire summer, absolutely revelling in the level of detail that it provided.
Now your entire war effort, economy and diplomatic manoeuvres were linked. Spend too much on rebuilding those forces that you lost, and you might not have enough resources left to order that important push in the winter of the coming year. Likewise, ignore one theatre of war to concentrate on another more intently with the goal of achieving a swift victory, could have disastrous consequences.
Of course, the game wasn’t perfect. For starters, there was a lot of historical precedent built into the game. Certain events, because they happened in the real war, were pre-ordained to happen in game. Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland would join the Axis, regardless of what else was occurring on the board. The Americans would enter the war in Winter 1941, regardless if Germany declared war on them (as they had in real life). Likewise, unless Germany attacked the Soviets by the summer of 1941 the USSR was free to arbitrarily declare war on Germany at that point, again regardless of what else had been happening on the board.
There were also certain little ahistorical anomalies for which the game became infamous. For example, in most games, after beating Poland, the Axis would generally perform a massive push on the Western Front and Scandinavia, which would usually see France fall far sooner that they had historically. Likewise, it was sometimes possible to get Britain to surrender by getting a lucky airdrop onto London, regardless of how many RAF squadrons happened to be around at the time!
Naval combat was also pretty bland, and largely consisted of the Royal Navy steamrolling the Italians and occasionally fighting off opportunistic Germans who fancied their luck at a little bit of Seelowe action.
Worse, if you were playing a multiplayer campaign game, the Soviet player literally had nothing to do in the years leading up to 1941 other than trying to second guess the German player when it came to deployments and occasionally beating up a minor country that the Germans had forgot to garrison.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a lot of fun, but the detailed minded purist part of me soon started craving something with a little more realism…
…which I found on another trip to the Virgin Mega Store in Glasgow a year later. Whilst trying to decide how to spend my Christmas money, I came across the sequel to “Third Reich” called – imaginatively enough – “Advanced Third Reich”.
This game seemed to be everything I wanted. It still used the same basic rules and mechanics as the original 3R as its foundation, but it had layers of dynamic new content built on top of this.
For starters, there was a whole swathe of diplomatic rules. Now, the great powers had the opportunity to influence minor countries and sway them to their cause. No longer was it guaranteed that Hungry, Romania and Bulgaria would just rock up the Axis’ party in Summer 1941 – now Germany had to influence them, and the Allies could do likewise. Nearly every country on the board could be affected from diplomacy – from Germany giving assistance to Irish terrorists, to France being able to secure forward bases in Belgium – and this suddenly made the game a lot less predictable.
There were also rules for escalating tensions between the US and the Axis, and the Axis and the Soviets. Now it was possible for Germany to behave like less of a hooligan and mollify the US slightly in the hope of delaying their entry into the war. Likewise, if the European Allies were unnecessarily combative (USSR – I’m looking at you!) this could also reduce US-Axis tensions.
Strategic warfare – which is to say German U-boats running amuck in the Atlantic and Allied bombers raining down high-explosives on German industry – had previously been abstracted to a once a year sideshow, that was more an annoyance than anything else. Now, it mattered every turn, and if it wasn’t taken seriously enough by the side on the receiving end, it could have disastrous consequences.
Surrender rules were updated, so that the Soviets and the British no longer simply keeled over if their capital was taken, and the French were likely to commit more Free French forces if the battle of France had seen substantial commitment from their Allies.
Now military action, the economy and diplomacy were truly linked like they had never been before and this grand strategy game felt suitably…well…grand.
What’s more the board had been redesigned and was a LOT bigger, and the counters were absolutely beautiful, with unique pieces for every nation and variant in the game. The rules and play aids were all beautifully produced and well laid out. True, the rulebook might have been too dense for some, but I absolutely loved it.
After learning the game, myself and my friends played many games over the next few years. These were always big occasions, because playing the whole of the European war was a huge undertaking and I don’t think we ever finished a campaign! One memorable game was one where we played the 1944 scenario, where the desperate Germans tried to hang on as the Allies encroached from all sides.
A3R was – and is – an amazing game, and one I have many, many fond memories of, but it often got me thinking “Could there be a better simulation of World War II out there?” Turns out that the answer to this was “Yes” but I’d have to wait until 2003 for that.
It’ll also be the topic for another article…