I was introduced to wargaming at summer (day) camp, in the late 1970’s. My counsellor was in charge of one of the “Hobby Hub” activities which made up the schedule of our week. The game was PanzerLeader. I was hooked. Almost immediately I started buying games, in the hope I would find someone to play them with. But I soon found out: wargaming is a solitairy pursuit. The rulebooks are long—and playing times are even longer. By default, then, I often ended up playing alone: first playing as the Germans (say) and then clamping down my amnesia-hat and switching over to the British. This was somewhat satisfying but definitely easier to do for some games than others. I spent countless hours in “multiple-personality mode”.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, some games had already been published which were specifically for the solitaire wargamer—I found out about them later. Fortunately, for me, Victory Games was founded a few years after I started wargaming, and in their short but brief existence they released two of the most innovative and enjoyable solitaire wargames ever (in my opinion). One was Ambush (and its sequels); the other was Mosby’s Raiders—but the discussion of that game will have to wait quite a while.
It was SPI (where many Victory Games designers migrated from) who pioneered the paragraph-driven format which is at the heart of Ambush’s system. Games like Voyage of the BSM Pandora and The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat (both games from “Ares”, SPI’s excellent s.f. magazine-with-a-game) both took the “Choose Your Own Adventure” format (which I devoured in books like The Cave of Time) as a point of departure.
And Ambush was Choose Your Own Adventure Redux. You took the role of a squad commander with eight men (including yourself) at your disposal. You couldn’t get more tactical than this. Each mission presented you with different situations. In some, you were on the attack, or at least reconnaissance (including one where your squad landed in gliders). In others, you were on the defensive, waiting tensely for the enemy onslaught.
Like warfare, the game alternated between periods of relative quiet (called Operations) and intense combat (called Action Rounds). During Operations, each time one of your men entered a “new” hexagon you stopped to cross-reference the hex with the “situation level” using a peek-a-boo card sleeve, which you were hoping would say “No Event”. Inevitably, however, you were led to a numbered paragraph in a separate booklet. This paragraph usually meant Something Bad—a landmine, ambush, even an enemy unit, tank or airplane. The moment an enemy appeared the game went into Action Rounds. Once all enemy troops were eliminated or captured, you went back to Operations, and quiet descended again—until the next eruption. In the end either your squad completed its mission or was incapacitated trying to do so.
The game is an utter triumph of design. Every decision the player makes is tense and fraught with consequence. But today it would all be done on computer. And yet, no game company has stepped forward to do so (although there is a homemade computer Ambush assistant available here for those with FileMaker software).
Even today, almost 30 years later, I was able to pluck the game box down from the shelf, set it up, and embark on a mission with a minimum of rules review—ok, I did download a good rules summary from BGG.
|Ambush + sequels|
The main downside to this system is that, once you’ve played through the missions, you have to wait a while before playing them again, because even within the limits of this system there is only so much variation that could be built in. In the end, once you’ve read through a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Book, you know all the possible events. That is why the Ambush sequels (all also long out-of-print) are so sought-after: gamers are hungry for fresh conquests.
In the almost 30 years since Ambush, solitaire wargames have generally taken one of two paths: they are either rather abstract operation- or strategic-level games with point-to-point movement (all the better to create a simple AI opponent), or they attempt to recreate the small-level tactics of the Ambush series.
In the first category are games like: West End Game’s classic RAF (recently re-released in an even better version by Decision Games); DVG’s Field Commander series; Der Kessel (simulating the attempted German breakout from the Stalingrad pocket); Barbarossa Solitaire (covering the entire WWII Eastern Front).
|Love It! Hate It!|
In the second category are game like: Raid on St Nazaire (bloody and challenging); the very recent Steel Wolves; and GMT’s Fields of Fire. The latter game is one I have a love-hate relationship with—it comes closest to the intensity of Ambush and has much more replayability but the rules are an absolute mess.
Somewhere in the middle is the recent D-Day at Omaha Beach, which is kind of a hybrid in that it’s not quite at a tactical level, and yet it’s hex-based. Very innovative design—I haven’t played it yet, but I’ve played it’s mini-prequel Operation Jubilee in Strategy & Tactics magazine and enjoyed it very much.
Ironically the main reason I play fewer solitaire wargames these days is that I now belong to a group of gamers and so my ‘splendid isolation’ is mainly ended. I prefer the companionship of playing with An Other to hiding in the basement hunched over my hexes and counters.
NEXT WEEK: ANTIKE, OR A RONDEL AND A RONDEL SHE GOES, WHERE SHE STOPS, NOBODY KNOWS.