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Friday, November 7, 2014

A look back at hip-pocket wargames

I just saw the documentary Game On: The World Boardgaming Championships, by Alex Dunbar of Wind-up Films, which featured (among other things) the progress of a young competitor in the Ace of Aces tournament.  And just yesterday, my friend Paul R. just contacted me, now that we are working in the same building, about getting together for a game (which we haven't done in far too long).  It occurred to me that with proper planning, we could play a wargame on a lunch break.  Both of those events reminded me of a post I wrote a couple of years ago on what I called "hip-pocket wargames" - those that you could pull out and play on relatively short notice.  So what follows is a re-post of that blog entry, which might be new for some of my more recent followers.

[Re-post of "Hip-pocket Wargames," 30 May 2012:]

My friend Grant and I had plans to play a three-player round of The End of the Triumvirate (designers 
(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
Johannes Ackva and Max Gabrian, artist Andrea Boekhoff, publisher Z-Man Games) Friday afternoon, but our third player never showed.  Having lost an hour waiting, and me having to leave less than two hours later, we were faced with having to come up with a quick two-player game on the fly.  (We eschewed the idea of playing TEotT as a two-player game, which is possible but which, in our opinion, loses the essence of the game.)  Now, Grant has quite the collection, and I was quite happy with what we ended up playing - Traders of Carthage (which is on my "must have" wishlist) and Oz Fluxx (another in the series of light-hearted Fluxx games by Looney Labs).

Filler games like ToC and Fluxx accommodate this niche perfectly.  But both of us were wishing we'd had a wargame locked and loaded as a contingency to knock out in our hour-and-a-half window of opportunity.  In retrospect, we certainly could have played my miniatures favorite De Bellis Antiquitatis or the quick and dirty card game Down in Flames: Zero!  Even a game of chess might have worked, and I think we considered it.  Grant specifically mentioned he would have liked to have played a Columbia block game, if we'd had more time.  But when you don't have your miniatures handy or can't lay your fingers on the right game on the spur of the moment, we found it hard to whip out something that's both meaty and quick.  

Image uploaded to boardgamegeek.com
by Carlos A.L. de Miranda 
So the situation spurred a conversation on Tuesday among some of us about what wargames would have fit this situation - something at hand on the shelf that can fill a contingency window of an hour and a half or so. "For short wargame, break glass."  Paul R. reminded me that Scenario 3, "Stuart's Raid," from Stonewall Jackson's Way is very quick.  He also told me that just the previous Thursday, he and Frank H. had completed a scenario of the Avalon Hill classic Caesar's Legions in two hours - including set-up, rules review, play, and clean-up.  PanzerBlitz also came up in our conversation. 

So I thought I'd review my own collection and see what candidates I have as "hot standbys" for spur-of-the-moment wargame options.  Here's what I come up with as good options from games I have on hand:

Image courtesy of
GMT Games
  • Down in Flames III: Zero! (designer Dan Verssen):  GMT's clever card game of World War II dogfighting can be knocked out in less than an hour pitting a flight of four American aircraft against four Japanese.  Always fun.
  • Memoir '44 (publisher Days of Wonder):  Richard Borg's fun, approachable World War II game that starts in northern Europe but whose expansions extend to all theaters
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men (designer S. Craig Taylor):  One of my very favorite games, an Avalon Hill classic handling of tactical naval combat in the age of sail, from single frigate engagements to large fleet actions
  • Panzer Leader (designers Dave Clark, Randall C. Reed, Nick Smith) and
    (designer Jim Dunnigan):  Two more Avalon Hill classics, timeless treatments of battalion-level armor and infantry combat on the western and eastern World War II fronts, respectively
  • Battle Cry  (Avalon Hill / Hasbro):  Richard Borg's American Civil War predecessor to Memoir '44
  • De Bellis Antiquitatis (designers Phil and Sue Barker and Richard Bodley Scott):  The only miniatures game on this list, appealing for its small scale and rapid play time.  Our collections are 15mm scale, which means each army fits in a cigar box and the battle can be played on a two-foot-square board with a half-dozen pieces of terrain.  Simple, quick, and still tactically challenging.
  • Richtofen's War (designer Randall C. Reed):  A favorite of mine way back in high school, I haven't touched this Avalon Hill World War I dogfight classic in a long time, but I remember it was a quick play with a lot of tactical maneuver.
  • Saipan (designer Kip Allen):  The only folio game I have from the SPI "Island War" quadrigame, this is a nice treatment of the US Marines' invasion of the very toughly defended island.  Play balance issues need some treatment, though.
  • Image uploaded to
    boardgamegeek.com by
    Andreas Johannson
  • Ace of Aces (designers Doug Kaufman and Alfred Leonardi):  A true "filler" wargame.  This was a fun diversion when I was on a submarine in the Navy.  My department head and I had a decent campaign going during one deployment.
So I think the lesson learned here is that I ought to have two or three of these "at the ready" for any spontaneous opportunity for a wargame encounter.  I wonder if I should carry some of them in my car?  You never know when the mood will strike ... to kill some cardboard!

[I added the following comment after publishing the original post:]

Follow-up: It occurred to me that I ought to see what a boardgamegeek search would turn up. The top five ranked two-player wargames with a max playing time of 1.5 hours are:

1. Command and Colors: Ancients - have wanted to try this for some time. Saw a demo of C&C: Napoleonics (ninth on the list) at PrezCon a few months ago

2. A Few Acres of Snow - got some negative comments at PrezCon as having a degenerate unbeatable British strategy. Also, the grognards looked down on it as a deck-building game with a map.

3. Memoir '44

4. Battlelore - a fantasy entry in the Richard Borg collection

5. Battle Line - a very good Knizia card game, but not the kind of wargame that would have scratched the itch on Friday.

I should also mention that the sixth entry, Up Front, came up on our conversation on Tuesday, championed by Paul R., with whom I've played it a few times (though not in some years, I think).

[And Paul R. further illuminated the topic with some more ideas:]

Congratulations on an excellent discussion on wargames. 

Your list are all excellent suggestions. The only one I can't vouch for is Saipan. I'll add Up Front, which you mentioned. 

In addition, if you want literally "hip-pocket", consider the old Steve Jackson Metagaming classics: 
- Melee
- Wizard
- Ogre
Two experienced players -- who have the basic tables memorized -- can play a one-on-one game of Melee with just pencil, paper, and dice, without a board, counters, or even a copy of the rules, in about 5 minutes! Of course with the exception of Melee, all of these are either science fiction or fantasy games, and thus some may not consider them to be true wargames. 

Apparently Metagaming made a lot more games than I was aware of. I remember when they had only about 6 games. 

Or The Creature that Ate Sheboygan, or Pocket Bulge. [the only references I can find to PB on the net are iphone and computer versions.] 

For really short games, I'd narrow it down to: 
- Down in Flames in all it's varieties. 
- De Bellis Antiquitatis 
- Richtofen's War 
- Ace of Aces 
- Melee
- Wizard
- Ogre
Fascinating that three of them are dogfight games! Perhaps because dogfights themselves are usually small encounters, lasting only about 1 minute. And two are man to man skirmish, for the same reason. 

I extracted the following as "medium length": 
- Memoir '44 
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men 
- Panzer Leader 
- PanzerBlitz 
- Battle Cry (Avalon Hill / Hasbro): 
[you could add a lot of the Metagaming ones] 


  1. Well, you pretty much covered all the ground. I can't think of anything else to add.

  2. Paul,

    Outstanding article! Got me thinking about my own list of "lunch hour" games, and I realized that you omitted some of the best choices in this category: the "Pocket Battle" games from Against the Odds. (http://www.atomagazine.com/freegame.cfm)

    But the games you listed (at least the ones I've played) are pretty awesome too.


    1. Thanks, Mark. I hadn't heard of this series. Unfortunately, the Against the Odds Magazine website link that you provided doesn't work (at least not for me), but I did find a Pocket Battle Games family page on boardgamegeek. I wonder whether these games are available somewhere other than from the ATO website.

  3. Paul,

    The link is good. Apparently they're just having general problems with the web site today. But, yes, the Pocket Battle list you found on BGG are the same games, but I believe there are a few newer ones that are not yet listed on BGG. Hopefully their site will be back up tomorrow.