Life & Death of Tactical World War II Games (Part 1)
There are an (over?) abundance of World War II tactical games. Make no mistake, the last 20 years have given us new content and series like:
Advanced Squad Leader
Band of Brothers
Company Scale System
Conflict of Heroes
Fields of Fire
Grand Tactical Series
Lock ‘N Load Tactical
Old School Tactical
Tactical Combat Series
Valor & Victory
War Storm Series
There are probably some others I’ve forgotten, but these are the series that jump off the page at me when I consider tactical (some grand tactical) and World War II.
The question we’ll be tackling today about tactical WWII games is why some of these games thrive (continue with years of releases and new content) and why some fade away. In future articles, I’ll get into the various merits of the systems and how/why folks might choose these systems.
Why is tactical appealing?
I think the first thing we need to discuss is why tactical world war ii games are so more prevalent than any other tactical game genre with the exception of fantasy tactical (Gloomhaven, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.).
I think there are really three main reasons for this:
They allow players to “take part” in the war movies they’ve seen. War movies are RARELY solely about the operational or strategic decisions that get made. Instead, they focus on a human drama that happens to be set against a backdrop of war. Given that World War II occupies this “just cause” moral fiber, telling stories of heroism, depravity, and redemption are magnified by the stakes and setting. Tactical World War II allows us to relive these moments and feel the punches land in a personal way that broader scopes struggle to conjure in our imagination.
Tactical games deliver faster shots of dopamine to the brain. According to an article from the Harvard Graduate School of Science & Arts, our brains crave a steady diet of dopamine. In the article, smartphone apps are created in such a way to optimize the predictive centers of the brain with an outcome in order to engage and maximize the pleasure/reward sensation of a dopamine release. Tactical games offer this steady diet of dopamine. Generally speaking, tactical WWII games put die rolling on charts at the forefront of the resolution of nearly everything imaginable and then pace those die rolls across a turn in such a way that you remain engaged. Consequently, you brain is getting a faster and more steady dopamine injection when “the dice are rolling your way.”
The barrier to understanding what’s happening is much lower than operational or strategic level games. This isn’t to suggest that these games are less complex. I only need to point to the frustration of learning Advanced Squad Leader or Fields of Fire to trigger a negative response from at least part of the reading audience! In fact, this point is related to the first point I made. Anyone who has ever played a First Person Shooter game will understand the dynamics of movement, shooting, cover, and objectives. The skills learned playing a game like Call of Duty or Battlefield ARE transferable to tactical WWII games. This has only become more evident as the first person shooter genre adds greater depth and complexity to the choices required by players.
All Tactical Games Aren’t Created Equally
If the above justifications for the relative popularity of tactical WWII games have left you questioning why everyone isn’t enamored with these games the reasons are many. In fact, too many to list here. Don’t misunderstand my point and think I’m suggesting there is a universal appeal. I only bring up the points above to provide a framework for understanding why there’s a glut of these game systems on the market. In fact, that leads me to my next point…if these games are so great…why aren’t they ALL popular.
Clearly, if tactical WWII games are triggering dopamine reactions and are so easily relatable then it must just boil down to personal preference! You are right…from a certain point of view. Simply ask wargamers which WWII tactical system they prefer and you’re likely to get impassioned pleas from the fanatics of each series. Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll find that some games are thriving while others are not.
What does a thriving game look like?
In order to understand why a game thrives, we must first understand what “thriving” means in the context of this article. Here are some criteria for a thriving game:
The game system receives active updates from its publisher. This means new games, expansions, articles, scenarios, and maybe sponsored tournaments.
The game system is actively discussed across multiple major venues. While most game systems will have their niche haven for conversation, I’m talking about a game system that receives conversation on what I’ll call the “big 3” for wargaming (BoardGameGeek, ConSimWorld, and maybe a generalist Facebook group).
The game system is actively supported by fans. This means new expansions, unofficial scenarios, fan sponsored tournaments, and game nights/clubs dedicated to the game.
The series has demonstrated longevity of support in at least one of the other categories. A game that hasn’t had active development that still receives discussion is the Tank Leader series from West End Games (and soon Compass Games). Plenty of active discussions over the 30 years since release. Another, would clearly be Advanced Squad Leader and Advanced Tobruk which have had plenty of releases in the last 20 years to demonstrate a serious commitment to longevity.
This framework works well for older and newer games because a healthy pipeline of products is a good indicator of future support. In the case of Combat Commander which has been wildly successful, I would suggest that without some “new blood” in the system…it will begin to fade away no matter how frequently the core game is demanded in reprint.
A thriving game isn’t exclusively measured by sales. It’s measured in how actively played the game is in both casual AND competitive play. How many resources are dedicated to supporting the game well after release by the publisher AND by the community. We have a lot of newbies on the list like Old School Tactical, Lock ‘N Load Tactical 5.0, and even Platoon Commander or Combat Infantry which took their first steps in 2019 and 2018 respectively.
Now that I’ve said my piece let’s evaluate a few popular titles and see if they meet this definition of thriving or not! These results are ENTIRELY up for debate because they’re solely from my perspective, but hopefully you’ll find merit in the evaluation. They should, at a minimum, appear even handed.
Advanced Squad Leader – Thriving
This one is almost impossible to dispute. The game is releasing new content from first and third party publishers all the time. There are tournaments on every continent annually and the game has sustained it’s following for 34 years at this point.
Advanced Tobruk – Not Thriving
This one SEEMS to meet a lot of the criteria. There was a new rulebook in 2014, Critical Hit seems to unload a boatload of content (more on that in a moment) and there are definitely people who play it casually. That said, a lot of the “new content” is really just rehashed old content that was either produced specifically for Advanced Squad Leader or that had a different name a decade ago that has now been re-released at a significantly higher price-point to make it APPEAR to be something it is not. This is the opposite of the North Carolina state motto “To be rather than to seem.”
Band of Brothers – Not Thriving
Again, this title seems to check a lot of the boxes above. That said, the product support has been pretty sparse. The last meaningful release for this game was in 2016 with Texas Arrows. Band of Brothers is an excellent system, but it seems like the gameplay follows in waves after the release as new players discover it and existing players work through the scenarios. I can’t recall a tournament setting for this one, but that may be a result of my limited convention expertise.
Combat Commander – Thriving
Here’s where we see how a game can have a lackluster ongoing publication schedule, but a ton of tournament and casual play to keep it thriving. The last release was the 2015 Tournament Battle Pack, but the game, although slipping, has a substantial following still that exceeds that of most other tactical WW2 games.
Fields of Fire – Not Thriving
As much as my bias wants to prevent this…Fields of Fire is not thriving. There was a lengthy playtesting for the new version and it keeps getting kicked down the road. The original release scared people away with a confusing rulebook and a very different approach to tactical WW2 combat. Consequently, Fields of Fire has become something of a cult product rather than a thriving tactical WW2 system. Maybe the new release will help turn that around?
You can get a sense of how I’m considering what is thriving and what is not. I would say that my system is pretty charitable, if not overly so. In the next article, we will look at how a few tactical WW2 systems have found a niche and why they seem to thrive.
Until then, share what your favorite system is and whether or not you think it’s thriving in the comments below!