Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, Command: Modern Air Naval Operations, Combat Mission: Red Thunder... most of my favourite wargames of recent years are hulking beasts studded with obscure units, potentially overwhelming scenarios, and abstruse tactical subtleties. I'm not sure I could wholeheartedly recommend any of them to a genre newcomer. A fellow or fellowess just arrived in the land of hexes, morale checks, and myriad Sherman variants would be far better off starting with... um... errr... sorry, I'm going to have to consult my notes at this point... hmm... be with you in two shakes of a lamb's tail... maybe three shakes.
Identifying the perfect introductory wargame isn't easy. When asked for a recommendation, I rack my brain for a game that...
...doesn't bury you in numbers or counters, or assume you know the difference between a PzKpfw IV Ausf. D and a PzKpfw IV Ausf. F
Helpful combat predictors, simplified armour thickness diagrams, unit info panels that feature tactical advice as well as clearly explained stats... these are the sort of thoughtful amenities that distinguish warm welcoming war fare from red-faced RTFM sergeant majors.
...is blessed with good fully integrated tutorials and a generous supply of tooltips
Extinct in most other regions of gaming, inexplicably - inexcusably - patience-testing pdf-reliant instructional scenarios still cling on in PC wargaming.
...doesn't expect you to remain at your post for hours at a time
A substantial selection of short, punchy scenarios is a must. The weekend-whittling colosso-battles can come later.
...offers competitive artificial opposition at several skill levels
...is cheap or maybe even free
While there are those in the industry that believe that a player's commitment level is directly linked to the scale of their financial investment, personally I couldn't bring myself to recommend a £15+ title to a person contemplating a tentative fact-finding foray into an unfamiliar genre.
...is readily available
The thirty-year history of PC wargaming is littered with good gateway game candidates, but there seems little point in singing the praises of something that is now difficult to obtain or temperamental on modern machines. Sorry, Sid Meier's Gettysburg! Hard cheese Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far.
...doesn't punish campaign failure too harshly
Tongue lashings and toy deprivation are fine. Excluding the unlucky and inept from 70% of your missions, less so.
...doesn't punish slow reflexes or mouse mistakes too severely
If the game comes with turns, I expect to see an 'undo' key; if it comes without them then an issue-orders-while-paused capability is essential.
...doesn't simplify to the point of insipidity
Very subjective this one. The line between admirable accessibility and flavour-sapping blandness is a thin and wavy one. I look for novel mechanisms and clever historical insights in my wargames. If all a design manages to convey about its chosen theme is that 'combined arms tactics are generally a good idea' and 'units with high strength stats are better than units with low strength stats' then I'm not sure that's a design I want to recommend to impressionable proto-grognards.
While there are titles around that tick most of these tickboxes, I can't think of one that ticks all of them.
Unity of Command is uncommonly flavoursome, handsome and competitively priced but its campaign structure combined with its tough victory conditions mean many owners have probably never experienced its later phases.
Loyalty to the Panzer General formula means the popular Panzer Corps and the free Open General (less friendly, far more diverse) though approachable, moreish and well equipped, teeter on the edge of tactical blandness.
The same accusation could be levelled at Battle Academy and its improved, more expensive sequel. Both instalments entertain doggedly but lack the inspired conceptual flourishes that help make games like Graviteam Tactics, Scourge of War and Command Ops so engaging and singular.
Few battle games jam more spectacle onto your screen than the super sleek Ultimate General: Gettysburg. In the pursuit of that sleekness have Game Labs whittled a fraction too much flesh off Sid Meier's Gettysburg's venerable bones? This writer thinks so.
Talking of Mr Meier, Ace Patrol does a very convincing impersonation of my Perfect Introductory Wargame. Some disliked its cheery, indestructible, mixed-sex pilots, and, lately, a few players seem to be struggling with technical issues, but I can't think of a recent offering that blends simplicity, originality, and tactical substance better.
Perhaps I'm looking for elegant enthusiasm-seeding war fare in the wrong place. As Graham observed last week the goblin-infested Battle for Wesnoth is still free and still marvellous. Recently updated, it has the sort of style, soul, and quirk, that many of its historically-based counterparts sorely lack.
Or maybe the game I seek is currently gestating in some cosy code womb. Close Combat: The Bloody First, the upcoming 3D-but-still-top-down CC sequel? Vietnam'65, the novel COIN simulation signed by Slitherine shortly after its appearance in The Flare Path. The Unity of Command sequel recently paraded for the first time on the 2x2 Games blog. The hex-strewn, bamboo-shafted Warring States: Tactics already available in slim Early Access from here?
One day perhaps, I'll be able to respond to a 'Can you recommend a wargame for a total novice?' missive with a clear, unequivocal 'You must play... '. Until that day comes, I'm afraid replies will continue to be lengthy and heavy on the ifs and buts.
The Flare Path Foxer
Running short of space, Roman chose not to include a picture of a Lee-Enfield rifle bolt or a Karloff CG-57 Assault Hovercraft in last week's puzzle. The omissions didn't stop misunderstood genius AFKAMC stitching together a solution (Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) from the clammy clue hunks bodysnatched by the likes of All is Well, Matchstick, Shiloh and P.Funk.
a. Bristol Beaufort (AFKAMC)
b. Geneva Convention (All is Well)
c. Victor comic (Matchstick)
d. Gothic icon
e. Isaak Walton (Shiloh)
f. Seashells (All is Well)
g. SH3 chart, Orkney (P.Funk, SpiceTheCat)
h. Prometheus (Matchstick)
i. Frank N Stein (phlebas)
“The Arctic Foxer, also known as the White Foxer and the Snowidea Foxer, is a small collage-based puzzle native to the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It preys mainly on wordsearches, crosswords, and young spot-the-differences, but in-extremis will also eat typographical errors, onomatopoeia and red herrings. Thanks to a low surface area to volume ratio, a dense pelage , and a generous supply of body fatuousness, the Arctic Foxer seldom needs a hat or mittens.”
All answers in one thread, please.