Play This, Not That: War Games

“My horses versus your cannon, let’s roll it off” is not exactly dinner conversation, but if you’re familiar with the game Risk, you’ve probably said something similar yourself. As the most recognizable title in a niche war gaming market, young players often get their first taste of strategic combat by pitting soldiers, cavalry, and cannons against each other in pursuit of world domination.

Risk’s success is no coincidence, though. While war games are notoriously complex, Risk offers simple mechanics set in a familiar world, and resolving combat does not require a master’s degree. This makes for a great introduction to gaming, but after mastering Risk, players often ask what they should try out next.

Today I’ll be presenting two other strategic war games that Risk fans should give a shot. Neither gets into “hardcore” war game territory, but both offer different experiences that build off the Risk model and fix some of its main problems, while remaining accessible to the masses.

For the player wanting a more detailed game: Axis & Allies

Axis & Allies, for a mainstream game, actually has a great deal of historical accuracy built in. While it stops short of full-blown simulation, the initial starting units are arranged to reflect the standing of world powers shortly after the United States entered the Second World War, and the victory conditions are realistic endgame scenarios for the war itself. A game of Axis & Allies is much more engaging than waging a generic battle as you would in Risk.

You don’t need to be a history buff to appreciate this game, though. With the variety of strategies that can be employed, it will be a hit with any player looking for a deep mental challenge. Rather than one generic unit, Axis & Allies offers a wide array of land, sea, and air units. These are all are differentiated by how far they can move in one turn and how easily they can score a hit (for instance, some may hit on a roll of 2 or less, while others hit on 4 or less), and each unit is the perfect counter to another. The balanced variety of units keeps players on their toes, as the optimal strategy shifts due to the purchase of reinforcements.

The quality of a game’s components should not be overlooked, either. You get a bargain for your gaming dollar with Axis & Allies games, because they come packed with literally hundreds of individually sculpted models. German tanks actually look like Panzers and American tanks actually look like Shermans. The same can be said for all of the infantry, aircraft, and ships as well. While none of this affects the strategy or gameplay, these little touches really do make the game more enjoyable.

For the player wanting a more casual game: Small World

Set in a fictional world where all of the classic fantasy races are at war over a few precious territories, two aspects of Small world make it great for casual players right out of the box: it has a short play time, and accessible rules when compared to most other war games. A single game can take up to a maximum of 10 turns, which usually resolves itself within 90 minutes. This means that you won’t be committing to a 4 hour marathon game if that’s not your idea of a good time. The number of turns, as well as the size of the world map, are both different for each possible number of players so you are guaranteed to play the game as intended regardless of how many people are at the table.

Combat is also quick to resolve, as there is no massive dice rolling required. One player simply needs to move in more troops than there are defensive points on a space, and it will be taken over. “I outnumber you, I win”. How easy is that?

Whereas a World War II battle may seem dry to people who are not big on history, Small World has some humorous characters. The 14 armies to choose from are all based on the popular fantasy races, ranging from Orcs, Elves, and Hobbits, to Ghouls, Skeletons and Amazon Warriors. The art for each race is done in a cartoon style, and even provides the occasional laugh, such as the Dwarves with overflowing beer steins spilling onto their beards.

From a strategy standpoint, Small World can be seen as a lighter game because there are fewer decisions to be made on each turn when compared to Risk or Axis & Allies, but the importance of your moves are only increased due to their relative scarcity. Since there are more armies available than players at the table, the game employs a unique system where a turn can be skipped in order to choose a new army. Each is also paired up with a random special ability, so no two games are ever the same. Some armies may be better suited for early, mid, or late game play, so knowing when to switch over to a fresh set of troops is a huge strategic decision, and will often determine the winner of the game.

In short, it’s just flat out more fun to have control over a well-represented army, and more challenging to manage diverse troop types. If you’ve enjoyed games of Risk, now could not be a better time to try either of these games, as the new Axis & Allies 1942 Edition is a low-cost entry game available in almost every major toy store. For an even deeper experience, 1940 Editions of the specific European and Pacific theaters have been released as premium collector’s editions, and feature the ability to combine both maps for a massive battle. Now that sounds like a gamer’s dream. Small World, on the other hand, can be found at your local hobby game store or online. Several great expansions are also available for $10 to $20 that add up to 10 new races and many more special powers to the game.

Do you have a favorite war game that’s not mentioned here? Leave a comment and let’s hear your take.

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