2013 was a great year for armchair strategists and keyboard generals. There were three notable developments for those who prefer well-designed strategy war games to kill-’em-all shooters.
First, this year saw the debut of several excellent games that dealt with modern warfare in the late Cold War or the present day. Second, several great games tackled the difficult topic of counterinsurgency.
Finally, those of us who despaired that only brain-dead games would ever grace our tiny screens will be cheered to see high-quality war games for tablets and smartphones.
If you need a holiday present for the war-gamer in your life—or if you owe yourself a present—check out War is Boring’s top war game picks for 2013.
‘Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations’
This isn’t just a game. It’s a simulation that’s as close as many of us will ever get to real Pentagon simulation. C:MANO, as fans call it, is a real-time game that boasts an incredibly rich—and unclassified—database of the aircraft and ships of the Cold War and beyond.
Want to pit a flight of U.S. F-22s against a gaggle of Chinese J-11s? Or Chinese subs against an American carrier task force? C:MANO is your virtual sandbox. The player can finagle all the myriad factors that decide victory in modern tactical combat, from what weapons to launch at what range, to when to activate sensors—or, more importantly, when to keep silent.
While C:MANO necessarily makes its own assumptions about the performance of various systems, there is so much riding on the capabilities of untested weapons such as the F-35 or China’s carrier-killer missiles that any insight into their effectiveness is valuable. I strongly suspect that this game won’t prove any less accurate than the government’s tippity-top-secret simulations.
‘Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm’
Set during a hypothetical Soviet invasion of West Germany in 1989, Red Storm uses the concept of orders—or rather how long an order takes to travel from headquarters to subordinate units—to illuminate the differences between the large but somewhat inflexible Soviet juggernaut and the smaller but more flexible NATO armies.
It’s essentially John Boyd’s observe-orient-decide-and-act decision loop in game form, with victory going to whoever can best adapt their plans on the fly. Oh, and for the hardware-heads, it’s a chance to match T-80 tanks versus M-1s, Challengers and Leopards.
We may not ever see a clash between mass mechanized armies again—thank goodness. Red Storm will give you some clue as to what might have happened had the Cold War turned hot.
‘Drive on Moscow’
A simulation of Operation Typhoon, the desperate German attempt to seize Moscow in 1941, as well as the devastating Soviet winter counteroffensive afterwards, Drive on Moscow is a war game expressly designed by serious war-gamers for the iPad and iPhone, rather than an awkward port of a board or PC game to tablet.
It still amazes an experienced PC war gamer like me that Drive on Moscow manages to simulate a multitude of factors, such as terrain, supply, German fuel shortages, elite units and armor superiority, while remaining playable on a tiny screen.
This is the game to bring on a long airplane flight.
‘A Distant Plain’
Counterinsurgency is no easy matter to simulate. Not even the Pentagon with all its resources has been able to effectively model the staggering complexity of COIN and nation-building.
So kudos to designers Volko Ruhnke and Brian Train for having the guts to produce A Distant Plain, a board game of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, where up to four players assume the roles of the coalition, Afghan government, Afghan warlords and the Taliban.
A Distant Plain uses the concept of “operations,” in which the various players can conduct different types of actions. Thus the coalition can perform patrols or conduct air strikes, the Afghan government can attempt to govern areas to win popular support, the warlords can conduct cultivate-and-traffic actions to gain resources—opium money!—and the Taliban can do ambushes, extort resources and infiltrate enemy forces.
If that’s not enough, players draw randomly from a deck of cards that depict a variety of special events, from Predator drone strikes to Taliban urban terror cells. A fairly sophisticated and complex game, true, but there is nothing else like it for delving into the murky world of COIN.
‘Days of Battle: Golan Heights’
The smallest and simplest of War is Boring’s 2013 picks, Days of Battle: Golan Heights gives each side no more than a handful of small cardboard pieces to simulate the desperate Israeli defense against the massive Syrian surprise offensive in October 1973.
But as I noted in an earlier review, veteran war-game-designer Frank Chadwick packs a lot of insight into modern combined-arms warfare through a few elegant rules.
For example, troops fire at each other in a certain sequence and with a certain effectiveness depending on the time of day; thus tanks on a daylight game turn shoot first at infantry, and then surviving infantry shoot at the armor—but at a penalty.
At night, infantry shoot first, and then surviving tanks shoot at the infantry—but also at a penalty. Tanks also get bonuses when they fire from hilltops, while infantry rules in urban terrain. A tense and excellent war game, and a superb lesson for new gamers.
Happy holidays from all of us at War is Boring!