I remember when I was new to the hobby. I owned a handful of euro’s, and I wanted to dip my toe into the very intimidating war game waters. Like a total noob, I made the mistake of jumping on the BoardGameGeek war game forum and asking if there were any war games that weren’t luck dependent. I was laughed off the board. I learned a couple of important lessons. 1. Sometimes people on the internet aren’t nice. 2. War games strive to be realistic, and the idea of war without luck is laughable.
So, I decided to embrace this fact and dive in. I played and loved Memoir ’44. I played classics like Napoleon at Waterloo. I played Tide of Iron. I played Washington’s War. I thought about playing Advanced Squad Leader, then I started reading the rules. I got scared and ran. All of these experiences let me to this truth: There is no more perfect war game than the classic, War.
War is a 2- player, unit-level war game played out in a series of primarily one-on-one skirmishes. War is a brilliant marriage of depth and simplicity. On one hand, there are 13 separate levels of combatant, but their individual roles and abilities are so simply and seamlessly integrated, the player is never overwhelmed.
These different levels of soldier really make the theme shine. The basic premise is that experience will tell the tale in battle for the basic conscripts. In the game, there are 40 of these soldiers, 4 each of 10 different ranks. The greenest, freshest from boot camp are level 2, and the hardened veterans are a very impressive level 10. Rising above these ranks are the aristocracy. The young of these are the Jacks, nephews of the King and Queen, pressed into service to save the realm. They are not abandoned, though. No, the King and Queen themselves are also jumping into the fray to teach the young Jack how to save a life (never mind). So, then after the soldiers, there are 4 each of the ranks Jack, Queen, and King. Now, you may have realized that my earlier list of soldiers only total 36, and I told you there were 40 of them. I was saving the best for last. The super soldier. The Ace. He’s the kind of soldiers that Chuck Norris gets tips from. The kind of soldier that can make a kingdom crumble with one swift move. He cannot be beaten. In total, there are 52 fighters.
The process of army creation is amazingly simple. This is also where War’s take on the “fog of war” concept comes into play. “Fog of war” is the term given to the confusion and uncertainty of participants in a campaign. The designer’s must have said to themselves, “What could be more uncertain than not knowing what side you’re on?” The result was their decision to have players shuffle all the soldiers together and divide them face down between the 2 players. Then, to take it even deeper, those players don’t even get to review their armies before the first battle. How exciting is that! Think of it. It’s entirely possible that you could have all 4 of those super Aces and not even know it! Awesome. Of course, that could mean your opponent has them, but let’s not dwell on the negative right now.
After the cards are divided, each player now has a face-down stack of warriors ready to pounce. Before I get into the ferocity of the attack phase, I think that it’s important to mention that no soldiers are actually physically harmed or killed during this game. Instead they are captured and forced to fight for their captors. I’m sorry if this is offensive, but we are talking about a game that existed long before the PC era, and its cutthroat nature cannot be glossed over to make hipsters happy.
The course of the game takes place over a series of battles. Each of these battles is fought in a series of individual skirmishes. For each such skirmish, players simultaneously reveal the soldier on the top of their deck. The highest ranking of them takes control of the lower ranked card, and both are placed into the victors discard pile. Thankfully, the designers were smart enough to leave the minutiae of these encounters up to the players. Maybe your “2” comes out with a pocket knife and the shredded remains of a survival guide, only to be faced by my “10” holding a bazooka. Like fantasy? Maybe your Paladin “4” steps up with a rusty pike, skewering my Lizardman “3” armed with only his claws, crusted with the dried blood of a “2” he met a few days ago. How about sci-fi? Your king bounds onto the table with his “death star” only to be crushed by an Ace in the hole. How’s that for theme? This game OOZES.
I know what you’re thinking, “What if it’s 2 lizardmen? What if there are dueling “death stars?” Well, in that case, each player pretends that his next 3 soldiers were otherwise preoccupied (Were they scared? Did they have a quiche in the oven? Were they taking a pee? We’ll never know), and sets them aside. Then, both players flip up the next card, and the winner gets all 10 cards! How’s that for a crazy turn of events?
When a player runs out of cards in his draw pile, he shuffles his battle-weary troops up for another round. This continues, ad nauseum, until one player controls all the cards. So, what are you waiting for? Dive right in! Ignore the fact that it’s possible for a game of this to NEVER END. It’s highly unlikely, except for that one time in 5th grade, when my opponent and I just gave up after 4 hours of endless back and forth.
Overall, War is as immersive a game as is possible with a basic deck of cards. Who needs plastic minis? Who needs to piles of chits with their overwhelming amounts of detail and information? NOT ME!