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A quick-and-dirty wargame taxonomy

Most seasoned board game spotters don’t need binoculars to tell the difference between Fantasy Flight-produced Ameritrash and its European cousins, the Caylus family of luck-free games. On the other hand, the dizzying array of wargames can present problems for even veteran gamers.

In this entry, we’ll identify the main phyla of these games – their identifying marks, their habits, their mating rituals – and briefly discuss what makes them tick. Wargames aren’t as daunting as they may seem at first, and there’s at least one out there for nearly everyone.

Card-driven wargames

These games – often called CDGs – come in all shapes and sizes, some easy and accessible and others quite daunting. Typically, players will have a hand of cards that they can use to move armies around or give them actions; this can mean commanding individual troops (as in GMT’s Combat Commander), whole legions (as in Sword of Rome) or squads (Memoir ’44). The grandfather of this genre, Hannibal: Rome versus Carthage, has not only escaped extinction, it’s won legions of fans (and a few reprints) since it was released in 1996. The American company GMT Games is one of the biggest producers of this subtype - they make many (though certainly not all) of the best card-driven games, backed up with a superb attitude toward their customers.

Lighter card-driven wargames include the aforementioned Memoir ’44, its fantasy clone Battlelore, and the complex-seeming but easy-playing Maria, which uses an innovative system based on playing cards.

More complex card-driven games include the squad-level classic Combat Commander; the magnificent, deep World War I game Paths of Glory; and Successors, a truly brilliant and not-overly-long multiplayer game about the ills that befell the Macedonian empire after the death of Alexander the Great.

Block games

Block games can be recognised by the heft of the boxes they come in. Block wargames usually mean moving armies around a map, with each wooden block labelled on only one side and representing a unit of varying strength. Since your opponent can see how many blocks are in an advancing army but may not know exactly what kind of troops you’re moving, block games usually mean making careful decisions with only partial information. These games go out of their way to model the 'fog of war', the notorious difficulty military commanders face as they try to make the best decisions. Columbia Games is widely noted for its range of block wargames (which are usually heavy in more ways than one).

Notable block games include Hammer of the Scots, Bobby Lee and Richard III. Also, keep your eyes peeled in case Europe Engulfed if it comes back into print - it may be the best example of the genre.

Hex-and-counter wargames

If you’ve ever seen a few grizzled board gamers huddled pushing cardboard chits around on a board that’s divided up in to hexagons, this is what they were doing. (For mathematical reasons, hexagons are easily tiled, and offer finer control of movement and facing than would be possible on a mere grid.) While these games can frighten off anyone but the most dedicated grognard, the hex-and-counter crowd harbour a dark secret: these games are easier than they look.

Conflict of Heroes is a common gateway into the world of hex-and-counter gaming, as are most of Victory Point’s budget productions of extraordinarily fun games. For heavier fare, try SPQR or A Victory Denied.

Hybrid wargames

Some designers can’t just stick to one mechanic, and given the breadth of wargames out there, it shouldn't surprise anyone that plenty of mongrels populate the genre – and some hybrids are among the most acclaimed wargames available.
Commands & Colors: Ancients and its sequel, Commands & Colors: Napoleonics both use a combination of blocks and cards, while also behaving a lot like a simplified hex-and-counter game. While putting the stickers on the blocks can be a chore, the games themselves are history-buff heaven. They're an engaging way to while away the hours, picking up strategies from Caesar, Scipio and Boneparte himself without feeling like you're studying for a history A-level.

Many a nerd has engaged in internet fisticuffs over whether GMT’s card-driven Cold War game Twilight Struggle is a wargame at all. Players use cards as events but also to influence different countries’ disposition toward their chosen superpower. While learning TS can feel like a steep climb, it’s easy enough once you grasp your options, it's highly replayable, and as of this writing, users at Boardgamegeek have rated it the best game currently in production.

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