May 21, 2024

Essential Wargames ~ There Are Many Such Lists, But This One Is Mine

Jim Owczarski, 31 January 2022

A couple weeks ago during one of his clip-a-drink-a-paloozas, our guy Ardwulf, who is righteous and strong, chose as his topic “Essential Wargames”.  My first instinct with topics like this is to dismiss them as coffee-table conversation starters of a piece with “who was the greatest Green Bay Packer of all time?”1 or “who was the better Darren on Bewitched?”2
The subjectivity of it all is the worst, guided as it must be by personal experience, taste, &c.
Damning such concerns, Ardy released the question into the wild and the result was predictable.

From within the cacophony, I was struck by one thing:  Rather than make any attempt to adhere to a definition of what constitutes an “essential wargame” — or even to formulate one — folks just started talking about games that they liked.  I started picturing a crowd of earnest people all holding up the box containing their beloved games and urging others to love them as they do.  It was, in equal measure, both fascinating and charming, and so my grumpy self relented and I asked myself if I could come up with a definition and a list of my own.  Well, I knew I could come up with a list, but I wondered if I could really craft a definition?  I do not know that I have — and I am confident few will assent to it — but here is my shot.

there are many such lists, but this one is mine

For me, an “essential” wargame is one that one ought to play to understand how wargames became what they are today.  It is not necessarily the first to do this thing or that, nor is it the best of its type, but it is one that helped shape the thinking here in our consim cul-de-sac.  As to the list, of course it is not normative.  What could be?  To borrow from Gunny, there are many such lists, but this one is mine.  And, out of courtesy to the original show, I will confine myself to board wargames.  Here are my “Top Ten Essential Wargames”:

10. Napoleon’s Last Battles (S.P.I.)
Napoleon’s Last Battles  You had to know I was putting this on here somewhere.  I place it at the bottom to avoid unproductive arguments about my own preferences.  This is a classic quad game that gave birth to Kevin Zucker’s Library of Napoleonic Battles.  Most revolutionary bit? I think both the scale — the maneuver element is the brigade — and its controversial Combat Results Table that was near bloodless without Zone of Control encirclement and sanguinary with it.

9. Outdoor Survival (A.H.)
Outdoor Survival The one game my wife demanded I throw away.  It is not as bad as all that, but you cannot have a conversation of this type and not understand that this was Avalon Hill’s biggest selling game.  Ever.  Many reasons can be offered for this, a few of them likely true.  My personal theory is that armies of Dungeons & Dragons players were using it to resolve wilderness encounters.  Whatever the case, the way that designers and developers have always been trying to weave more accessible themes into their consims is instructive, even to those of us who turn up our noses at games like Dominant Species and — shudder — Mystery Wizard.

8. Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder)
We, as a species, love toys.  We wargamers love World War II.  Two great tastes were run hard together by Richard Borg and all the games that came before or have come since in his “Commands and Colors” line have been lifted by this grand little toybox.  I, of course, would have preferred to pick Napoleonics or even Ancients — the latter is influential in its own way — but Memoir ’44 has outpaced them both.  It is still probably “the” accessible wargame and the metastasized version of this one really is an impressive table presence. 

7. Gettysburg (A.H.)
I want it noted that, for a variety of reasons, I did not put Waterloo on this list.  This one, however, was profoundly influential and framed a lot of the games that came after it — American Civil War or not — if only in response to it.  And, while I am ever open to correction, I think this is the only wargame to ever appear on a billboard.

6. Panzerblitz (A.H.)
I prefer its little brother Panzer Leader, but this was the first and has influenced every game in this era and at this scale since.

5. Panzergruppe Guderian (S.P.I.)
There are a lot of games that live in the space Jim Dunnigan carved here, but this one deserves to be recognized.  I suspect I might start fights here, but I do not think all the alphabet-soup combat series games exist without this one.  Call it Case Blue‘s aging grand-dad.

4. We the People (A.H.)
I am open to the argument that card-driven games are not proper wargames, though I dissent.  I am also open to the notion that there are better card-driven wargames, a point with which I agree.  Mark Hermann’s 1993 classic, however, really is where you should go to see how this CDG thing got started and to provide a reference for just how far it has come since.

3.  Rommel in the Desert or Napoleon (4e) (Columbia Games)
I hope this will not be taken as a cheat.  I am very fond of both and it really does depend on what your preferences are.  Block wargames seem to be moving from strength to strength of late and these are both best-in-class examples of what can be achieved with those little chunks of wood.  Also, as Ardwulf himself said, Tom Dagliesh gets nowhere near enough credit for his genius as a designer and so I do a little bit to correct that here.

2. Twilight Struggle (GMT Games)
Gripe all you like.  Argue all you like.  This monster set gaming generally on its ear and is my choice for the game non-wargamers most point to and say “see, I don’t hate wargames, I like THAT ONE!” It is not just in the card play, which had been done, though not better.  Rather it was its approach to conflict simulation that was radically different from what had come before.  I, in my narrow world view, do not regard it as a wargame.  The world clearly does and it ushered in a new vision of possibilities for the form — not all of which I care for.  In a few years’ time, I could see see Undaunted in this slot.  Today, however, it belongs to TS.

1. Squad Leader (A.H.)
I cannot think of another game covering any era that has had the impact of John Hill’s masterpiece.  I am no big World War II guy, but this is as obvious as sunrise on a clear day.  Every, single game at this scale owes something to it.


One more thing if I might?  Some will have noticed a lack of fantasy and sci-fi games.  This is not an accidental omission.  I am now more convinced than I was when I said it on “Mentioned in Dispatches” that both these have headed off into the hobby space.  Taking only the most obvious example, Twilight Imperium is an order of magnitude more complex than a lot of what gets fobbed off as a “wargame” these days and yet it is played by many who turn up their noses at consims.  These two genres have adopted the forms and assumptions of hobby games.  Their wargaming DNA is there, but it is far harder to discern.

Send all criticisms or concerns to: ed!t0r@armchairdragoons.com3.


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  1. Bart Starr
  2. Dick York
  3. do NOT send them to the editor; that’s a dead email address

One thought on “Essential Wargames ~ There Are Many Such Lists, But This One Is Mine

  1. Here is my a list from a 72 year old gamer: 10. Broadside (Milton Bradley). 9. Modern Battles Quad (SPI). 8. Napoleon (Columbia). 7. Squad Leader (AH). 6. Chancellorsville (AH). 5. Napoleon’s Last Battles Quad (SPI). 4.Rise & Decline of the Third Reich (AH). 3. D Day (AH). 2. Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder). 1. Panzerblitz (AH). I still play the oldies but goodies!

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