Review: Class Wargames

In 1977, the French artist, political activist and founder of the Situationist International, Guy Debord, published a game called The Game of War. The game was a derivative of chess insofar as it was played on a checkered board and managed without a random element. However, in setting the game in a specific period, namely horse-and-musket, and including a whole set of differentiated troop types, Debord incorporated elements of the then-popular board wargames. Nevertheless, the success of the game failed to materialize and while the political theories of Debord have influenced generations of leftist activists, his wargame has been sneered upon or ignored.

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The aim of the group Class Wargames and the book at hand – which, at the core, is a report of the group’s activities – is to explore what this game meant for Debord and what wargaming in general could mean for contemporary political activism. Class Wargames is a collective of leftist artists, academics and activists, many of them old-time wargamers like Richard Barbrook and Mark Copplestone. Since 2007, they stage wargames in galleries and at art festivals. Apart from Debord’s game, they have played a miniature wargame by Chris Peers set in the Russian Revolution, a couple of specially developed scenarios for Command&Colors: Napoleonics and games of H.G. Wells’ classic Little Wars.

The book is a sort of companion to these activities: It provides a history of Guy Debord’s Game of War and of the political left’s tradition of wargaming, it presents the story of Class Wargame’s own activities, it gives historical background to the battles fought and finally develops a theory of the function of wargaming for leftist politics.

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Class Wargames in action.

So what’s in there for the hobbyist wargamer? Readers interested in the history of wargaming will be fascinated to learn that there is a veritable tradition of leftist wargaming and of games and toy soldiers in art galleries, ranging from the early 20th century avant-garde to the 1960s penchant for performances and pop culture. The historical background to the games is interesting, albeit it won’t present much new to the historically keen gamer.

Where the book shines is in its numerous reflections. Barbrook continually explores the meaning of the games the group stages and draws attention to the narratives they produce. For example, in 2008 they staged a Russian Revolution game at the very place where an important moment of the Revolution happened, namely the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. Using miniatures by Mark Copplestone, Reds vs. Reds presented a critical rereading of what has become the official Russian version of this history. Games such as this, Barbrook argues, can show that historical developments we take for granted were once fiercely disputed. Similarly, the Command & Colors scenario for the Haitian Revolution sheds light on an episode of the Napoleonic Wars that is often neglected. By making the insurgent slaves the heroes of the game’s story, it challenges our perspective on history.

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C&C: Napoleonics in the Haitian Revolution.

Even though I wouldn’t subscribe to all the theoretical analyses brought forward, I enjoyed the plethora of ideas and references. In fact, the only criticism I have is that Barbrook perhaps packs too much into the book’s 330 pages as I sometimes felt like losing the thread. On the other hand, the varied content also makes for fascinating discoveries. And it is never a dry read, as Barbrook succeeds in combining the thrill of intellectual curiosity with the joy of playing a wargame. Highly recommended if you fancy something out of the box.

This review was first published in Miniature Wargames with Battlegames 382.
A digital version of the book is available for free on the Class Wargames homepage.
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Review: The Cousins’ War

When this game was mentioned on the Meeples & Miniatures podcast, I immediately pricked up my ears. I’ve been interested in the Wars of the Roses for a long time and I like innovative games that can be played in a short time. The Cousins’ War, published by Surprise Stare Games, promises just that at a rather low price.

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The game comes in a sturdy and small cardboard box. In fact, the box easily fits into my bag, making this a perfect game for travel and holidays. Nevertheless, the production value is high: The board is made of very sturdy cardboard and the gaming pieces are made of wood. You also get a deck of cards and three dice.

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The game has a built-in turn limit: It will end after turn 5. The objective is to control all areas of England, or, when the turn limit is reached, to control more areas than your opponent. This is done by placing wooden cubes, which can be moved by playing action cards. Each turn, there is also a battle, the winner being allowed to place his surviving cubes onto the board.

Battles are resolved by a clever bluffing mechanics which introduces suspicion and second-guessing – very thematic for a war in which commanders did occasionally change sides right on the battlefield.

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Action cards can be played for the specific action that is stated on them or for their Command Points, which enables the player to do different things, such as move his or her cubes to the battlefield or to a region of the board, or even to try to remove the opponents cubes.

Action cards also have secondary actions which may benefit your opponent, so it is important to watch which card to play at which moment. A surprisingly large number of actions and combinations of actions are possible. This enables strategic planning, but also introduces an element of uncertainty and even chaos, because the other player will do something completely unexpected. Again, all this makes the game very thematic – the Wars of the Roses were full of surprising turns and double-crossing.

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Normally, K. doesn’t like bluffing, but in this game, it is only a small part and it feels right. We are both not used to it, though, so lots of grinning and giggling ensued. We both enjoyed our first game very much. The nasty Lancasterians won after turn 2, but I’m looking forward to a rematch.

Highly recommended if you fancy a quick and portable game that nevertheless has a strong theme and feels like you are playing out an epic conflict.

Currently Reading

Summer’s coming, we’re getting settled in the new house and the whole family is working in the garden. What better time to bury oneself in books?

I’ve decided to start a small new project I’ve been thinking about for a long time now: The French and Indian War. Several of my wargaming chums have started collecting and painting FIW miniatures for Sharp Practice and, what’s even better, they are doing it in 15mm! How could I resist? So, apart from getting a couple of the nice Blue Moon figures, I bought Empires at War by William Fowler.

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Fowler aptly gives an overview of the conflict, setting it firmly into the context of European power politics while still dealing fairly detailed with the actions in North America and Canada. He outlines the quarrels between the different colonies, the role of Native Americans and even the impact of events in Europe, the Caribbean and in India. There are moments when his style almost becomes ironical, but considering some of the whimsical events of the war one can easily understand the temptation and it makes for an entertaining read. Highly recommended if you want a first overview of the FIW.

My main reading diet is still the American Civil War. Having recently finished Noah Trudeau’s excellent book on Gettysburg, I looked for other titles from the author. Trudeau writes very well, he builds up a narrative and tension without getting carried away by his subject. In Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage, he manages to tell an engaging story while still keeping an analytical distance – not something that can be said from all authors writing on battles in the ACW…

 

Trudeau has written a couple of other books, all of which look interesting and most of which can easily be found at second-hand booksellers. I’m now finishing Out of The Storm, an account of the last weeks of the Civil War. Starting with a fairly detailed retelling of the events that lead to Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Court House, he presents several episodes, among them famous events such as Lincoln’s assassination and the capture of John Wilkes Booth as well as less famous but equally dramatic affairs like the sinking of the steamboat Sultana. The book is a bit episodical as there is no real overarching story. However, Trudeau manages to capture the atmosphere of an epoch ending very well, not the least because he is very apt at chosing quotes from contemporary sources – something he also showed in Gettysburg. I’ve already ordered his book on black soldiers in the Civil War.

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In contrast, Earl Hess’ new study Civil War Infantry Tactics looks like a rather dry and scholarly affair. I haven’t had chance to read it yet, but my cursory browsing nevertheless left me looking forward to delving into it. Being very much interested in how small units operated, I hope to finally learn all about the intricacies of infantry drill and formations.

I read most of my science fiction books on my e-book reader. Sometimes, however, I’m in the mood for a ‘real’ book. A trip down to the bookstore got me Andrew Bannister’s debut novel Creation Machine. Although I follow forthcoming sci-fi books on the excellent tor.com blog, this one seems to have escaped my attention. At the moment, I’m about two-thirds through and like it very much. The world-building is great, with some grand and at the same time whimsical ideas, and the main protagonist is engaging.

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The evil guys may be a bit too much over the top for my taste, but the story is developing nicely and I’m curious to find out what’s going on with the strange setting. In some of its ideas and in the general approach, it reminds me a bit of Charles Stross’ early space operas, which for me are still among the most imaginative of the genre. Highly recommended if you fancy a sci-fi adventure with an original background.

Review: Empires in America

My last trip to the FLGS ended with an impulse purchase: I got myself a copy of Empires in America from Victory Point Games. What appealed to me was not only the theme – the French and Indian War – but also the fact that it was a solitaire game. Now gaming is a fundamental social activity for me. However, I thought that it would be nice to have something to play if my regular partners have no time and I fancy a game.

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Empires in America comes in a box with a couple of counters, dice, cards and a board. The design is very nice, although I would have prefered the board to be mounted on cardboard. This is a strategy game where you take the role of the French defending their colony against British attacks. It is card-driven: so-called ‘historique cards’ are drawn at the beginning of each turn and determine events as well as possible actions. The British are controlled by the game’s mechanics and basically advance towards your capital, Montréal. In your turn, you can attack the British armies to throw them back, build fortifications and trading posts and take a couple of other actions from cards.

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My first game in progress.

I lost my first game before the Seven Years War even broke out! There is a very clever timing mechanic built into the game, which escalates events after the Seven Years War cards is played. For the second game, I did better but still couldn’t hold out against the British – in the end, Murray’s army captured Montréal.

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Montréal is lost to the British.

It seems that it was evident how much fun I had playing those games, as K. asked to join in for the next game. We both like cooperative games, so it was natural that we would try to play Empires in America in that way. And it worked a treat! We pondered and planned together but still lost the first game. The second, however, we managed to win! One decisive event was a Battle of Ticonderoga, pitting the army of Wolfe against Montcalme. Both sides had a lot of action cards in the battle so we rolled buckets of dice, making it feel like an epic struggle. We managed to throw Wolfe back and he never really recovered from that blow.

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Victory!

Empires in America works great as a cooperative game. As there are no separate roles, like in Pandemic, it probably won’t work with more than two (or at a stretch three) players, but for those it’s great fun.

I am very impressed by the game. The mechanics are very clever and the narrative is captivating. The short paragraphs with background information printed on the cards are a great idea, as they give a succinct historical context to the event or action happening.The game is difficult enough to require good planning and some hard decisions. It may be more difficult to win than Pandemic, but due to the event cards and the dice rolling there is also more luck involved. Still it always feels as if it’s your decision that matters – for example, I lost my second game due to neglecting Murray’s approach along the St. Lawrence and realising too late that he was at the gates of Montréal. Our victory felt like a real achievement and had some dramatic and memorable events.

Empires in America is a fantastic game and highly recommended if you fancy a solitaire or cooperative board strategy game.