At Dawn We Ate Sugar Smacks: Wargaming Newbies Tackle the Monster of Monsters
On a dark and stormy night toward the very end of our mostly clunky relationship, I decided to finally ask my girlfriend Isobel to play a board game with me. The game was Amazonas, which is kind of a light set collection affair with a little twist here and there, nothing very complicated or brain-spearing, and quite colorful and friendly to those not well acquainted with the world we gamers dwell in.
Almost from the beginning, the whining was nigh unbearable. The apartment clanged and echoed with phrases like “I don’t understand how I win,” “What do I do first,” “Why am I doing this,” “What’s the point of this whole thing,” and “This doesn’t seem very fair,” all punctuated by the checking of the smartphone, the shuffling through the music collection, the eating of the SnackWells, the soothing monologues to the disinterested cat, and the researching of the show time and garage parking possibilities for a movie we wouldn’t even be seeing for another week.
A couple of hours after this joyless experience, I lay awake in bed wondering how I was going to most easily extricate myself from this five-month episode of “Seinfeld,” because the deal-breaker had finally arrived--and I don’t mean the fact that Boris, the Siamese dybbuk who’d hated me from the get-go, had once again chosen to sleep with his angry furry butt aimed directly at my unprotected face.
Six months after that, I saw Isobel for the first time since the breakup. All the anger was finally over with--the senseless gnashing of teeth, the demands for the return of her Bissell rug shampooer, the decrying of my very being on no less than four types of social media--but the subtle hostility was still there in her as she tried to corner me over coffee at the National Gallery of Art and maybe extract an all-purpose apology.
Isobel, I said to her at one point, we never really had a chance. You have to understand that all my life, no human being has ever given me an experience to match what I can discover in my aloneness. There’s nothing I’d rather do than be on my own with my imagination. People can come in and out of my world and entertain me in fleeting moments and fragmentary pieces, but in the end, even a woman’s love interests me only until I can be alone again with my mind open and awake and an entire day sprawling out ahead with no obligations, no plans, nothing whatsoever upon me. I suppose when all is said and done, a blank book and a rainy afternoon will for me always trump a smiling face, and if the blank book happens to be asking too much of my overtaxed brain, I have the ideal backups on call: cardboard bits pretending to be a narrative, dice and wooden cubes purporting to decide my fate.
And what will you do, she said, shaking her head pityingly, what will you do when you wind up old and with nobody around, living alone day after day? What will you do when you suddenly realize that’s the worst thing that can happen to anyone, and it’s too late to find somebody to love you?
And I said to her, at the worst possible moment to try to be funny: I think I’d learn to play A World at War.
The European Axis put three RPs in military general research and achieve a breakthrough, while the Western Allies luck out and roll “6” for air range research, scoring an early result. (Later this is balanced by a string of lousy air range research rolls). Given the expected lighter transport losses from this earlier than anticipated research result, Eric is able to indulge his proclivity for building big ships, and Britain lays down a BB5. The German High Command scoffs at the British extravagance, predicting “That BB5 will never be launched!” – from “Slugfest at the Con,” a description of a 2006 convention game, Bruce Harper and Eric Thobaben
It was the box cover that got me in the beginning, the box cover I would return to again and again for mental sustenance, for a sense of purpose and validation in the darker days of the quest which lay before me. The image on the front of A World at War, as I first saw it in on BGG when doing a little fantasy shopping for something out of the ordinary, promised not a game per se but a brutish, almost melancholy experience, a wintry slog through a conflict in which there could be no real winners, and an atmosphere of perpetual twilight. The experience contained within this box would have nothing to do with fun and everything to do with immersion in a place and time far, far away from the concerns of my job and my iffy bank account and the occasional worrisome flash of pain that accompanied a cold beverage hitting my upper left set of molars. This was the marketing copy which all but delivered the killing blow to the purchasing resistance of someone with my type of overactive imagination:
A World at War has it all: armor and infantry slogging it out against marines and paratroopers; army planes and carrier planes crisscrossing the skies with interceptors and bombers and ultra-fast jets; battleships and cruisers and destroyers feinting and jabbing with lethal carriers and stealthy submarines. War is also waged within foreign governments through diplomacy, and within your own skunk works through research. So grab every advantage you can get, every advantage--not just in sortie range and torpedo detonators, but also in drabber things like oil and boots: oil from those rich oil fields to the south, and boots for tromping through those cruel winters in the north.
Oil and boots. Yes. For me, a fan of books and films that trafficked quietly in relentless excavations of the human soul only to produce more questions than answers, this was the kind of board game I could identify with, something that sounded almost literary in its ambition. If I wanted a game, I would play Talisman or Kingdom Builder or Incan Gold. What I was in the mood for in that vulnerable moment of my life was the promise of embarking on an intellectual adventure that would last for...well, however long it took. I had no serious plans for either that day or for the year 2013, frankly. Onto my Wish List it went, though as you’ll soon find out, my level of experience in the war gaming realm left me several inches too short to even get on the carnival ride.
Cut to a drizzly Saturday in the suburbs a few months later, when I was out by myself roaming around and just trying to find a good place for General Tso’s chicken. (Cautionary note: It ain’t House of Hunan in College Park, Maryland.) I happened to wander into a little used bookstore that looked like it would shut down permanently if I even breathed on it too hard, and was delighted to find a shelf bearing a dozen or so hobby games of no particular correlation. And there it was, courtesy of my good buddy Destiny: a very used copy of A World at War, one of the only games I had continued to think about even as I researched several other battle-based amusements in preparation to make the move into a new arena of play. I had to suppress a wide smile when I noted that the box listed WWII’s death statistics on the spine. Wow. Any game that just wouldn’t stop trying to go all Ingmar Bergman on me had to be owned, and had to be owned right now.
I asked the guy behind the counter in the silent store if he had any knowledge of this sleeping Goliath. He shook his head in a desultory way, said that the games being sold here were simply part of the owner’s insistence of flipping anything and everything that could be hocked on the secondary market. Have you ever played a war game? I asked him. He actually had, it turned out. As a teenager he and a friend had played a game called Gettysburg off and on, but as he put it, “That got old kind of fast.”
Unfortunately, the copy of A World at War selling for $35 at the used bookstore was priced that way for a reason. It was missing dozens of counters as well as the core rules, plus the map was partially torn. But I was sorely smitten and I meant to have this sucker, and I meant to devote my life to it. I wanted to barricade myself in my apartment until the middle of the 21st century and become one with all it offered. Later that night I hit eBay and clicked Buy It Now at the first possibility I came across even as I pre-ordered the second edition from GMT. In the blink of an eye I had sent three hundred dollars into the ether in pursuit of a game whose box and flavor text I just happened to have a man-crush on. It’s decisions like these that explain why even silverfish tend to think I’m a mental midget.
Okay, um, now is the part where I mention that I had never played a serious war game all the way to completion. I repeat: I had never played a serious war game all the way to completion. Here was the sum of my grognard experience as I stood beside my mailbox for the next seven days, hopping from foot to foot as I waited for my prize to arrive:
1. Trying to figure out the rules to Napoleon: The Waterloo Campaign 1815 when I checked it out from the public library at age 12, and giving up almost immediately, feeling like someone had slapped me with a loaf of French bread;
2. Playing Risk on snow days with some friends down the street during my high school years, and losing every time, and spitting on everyone whenever I said the word “Irkutsk”;
3. Three games of Memoir ’44--and I think I played it wrong.
Lest you think I don’t have at least a light layer of cred frosting, I will inform you that I was all over Avalon Hill back when you could buy their offerings in toy stores--just not the stuff that involved throwing imaginary grenades at people. And there was one experience which made me believe with infantile optimism that I was destined to become a grognard someday. My mother used to go out to garage sales a lot and she always kept an eye out for board games for me; one day when I was about sixteen she came back from a church fair with a monster war game for which she had paid all of two dollars. I opened it up and had a good laugh at the hundreds of loose counters shaking and shimmying within, at the sprawling maps frayed at the every corner, at the ridiculous rulebook which looked more intimidating than anything Algebra II had ever tried to lay on me. I had no intention of playing this behemoth; back then I was all about Statis Pro Basketball and Football Strategy and maybe a little Facts in Five now and then if I wanted to really, you know, party.
In the bottom of that box, though, I remember there were a few dozen rumpled and yellowed sheets of notebook paper. I lifted them out and found myself shuffling through the notes of the previous owners of the game, rows and rows of densely packed calculations and notations scrawled with great care in letters smaller than a tick’s kneecap. Those anonymous psychos had actually made it through this crazy game, and maybe more than once. Those pages are all I remember of the game which I think now that I may have actually thrown away--yes, into the trash, just as I had done with a copy of AH’s Dune when I was a wee lad. Which monster war game was that? I’m 99 percent sure, based on my memory of the art on the box, that it was World in Flames. Please forgive me; I was young and knew not what I did.
If you’re a grognard reading the above paragraphs, you may have stopped laughing by now at the very notion of a fatuous gaming tourist attempting to tackle GMT’s most ornery title, but I doubt it. If you’re back to reading in bored silence already, let me reboot your guffaws with the image of this same man, who had found the rules for Warrior Knights and Britannia too much to digest, proceeding to download the A World at War rulebook for the first time twenty minutes after sacrificing the remainder of his 2012 grocery budget to own the game. Keep in mind that the copy in the bookstore had been missing those rules, which were replaced helpfully with an index card taped to the box bearing the website where they could be obtained. So I had never even seen them.
Opening the PDF file that stormed my desktop that night in a Higgins boat marked DESTROY THE NEWBIE, I experienced what the Hillsmere Tiger Cats, the 8- to 10-year old touch football team on which I had long ago labored through a 1-win season, might have felt if our coach had one day pointed to the Pittsburgh Steelers coming over the horizon and said, “Oh, I forgot to tell you, you bed-wetters are playing these guys every week from now on.” The rules, whose total word count greatly exceeded that of the Necronomicon and all its sequels, were not just lengthy and complex; to my tiny brain, they were a college textbook on advanced physics, the entire Lexis-Nexis legal case database, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all rolled into one, with a generous helping of How to Put Your New Crate & Barrel Bedroom Set Together in 700 Easy Steps thrown in for good measure. Moreover, they were not written for me, but for the considerably experienced grognard. Some have referred with awe or delicate disparagement to the “boys’ club” that is the cabal of veteran players of AWAW, those who are regulars on the game’s Yahoo forum and who try to make the pilgrimage to conventions like the WBC in Lancaster, Pennsylvania each year to show off their prowess, which has often been developed since the game’s infancy. Nowhere is the shadow of that boys’ club longer than in the rulebook, whose 1-point type, lack of elaboration or extensive examples, and matter-of-fact, stern-Dad prose made me wish that Bruce Harper, the game’s designer, had just cut to the chase and painted a big black NO TRESPASSING, LOSER sign on the front of the box. Flipping through the printout when it finally stopped torturing Tray 5 on the Xerox machine at work, I knew that playing the game was simply never going to happen, ever, despite numerous online resources offered by the AWAW community to at least let people like me dip their pinkie toe into the cold waters of the Nazi-patrolled Atlantic.
“Oh, yes it IS going to happen,” I overruled myself. The rules for AWAW had picked the wrong community college dropout to mess with. Did they realize who they were dealing with here? How much learning time I intended to free up by locking Kingsburg and Witch of Salem away in my closet? I did some quick mental math and decided that my target date for making my first dice roll to resolve the invasion of Chungking would be six months from reading the rulebook’s first pages.
I commenced to slog on and off through the first section or two of the rules, not even thinking about getting into Production, Diplomacy, or Research for now, focusing instead on introductory concepts like Look at the Pretty Pretty Maps and Hey! I Recognize This D6 From Outdoor Survival! The subtleties of the Ultra codebreaking program and getting the Dutch to align with the Allies would have to wait until I understood such basic menu items as zones of control, attrition rolls, and what strategic re-deployment was. I was even unfamiliar with the types of air and naval units I would be dealing with. Interceptors? Bridgeheads? Wha?
It wasn’t long before I felt lost, frightened, and itchy. Rules in the core book are repeated often to make them easier to access later, but for me this made it rough to know what I should be focusing on right now in any given section and what I could safely wait till later to comprehend. The sheer number of exceptions to exceptions I would be dealing with also threatened to leave my cerebellum by the side of a long dirt road, and because I was not even an amateur historian, the reasons for all the loopholes and modifiers would never be clear until I seriously hit the books. Worst of all, I wasn’t even close to getting a sense of the order of things: what came first, what came next, what phases could suddenly pop up between two others. After two weeks of lying in bed after work with cups of chamomile and a supposedly inexhaustible supply of patience, I was mentally worn out. I decided to give myself a Saturday off and spend several hours doing what I should have done up front: punching counters, laying out the actual maps as opposed to consulting my tiny printouts of them, and in general mooshing my face into the cardboard bits that would govern my existence for the time being.
Everyone in this hobby has, in his mind, the image of the perfect gamer’s day. For most of us, it’s having a bunch of friends gather at a familiar house, ordering pizza with the works, and watching dawn melt into morning melt into afternoon melt into night as game after game is played to the sound of laughter and good-natured ribbing. Every gamer has experienced that perfect day, and months before completing an actual turn of A World at War, its contents were kind enough to gave me mine. Imagine, if you will, calling in sick to work on a rainy, unseasonably chilly day, firing up the hot coffee, putting on sweatpants, and sitting before a connected set of card tables on which lie a dozen or so fresh counter sheets, the phone firmly shut off, the wind whining outside. Add to this the sound of a string of old episodes of "Gameopolis" playing on the computer in the background and you’ve set the stage for gamer’s bliss.
Working my way through the AWAW counter sheets and sorting the pieces into ten separate Plano boxes, I was the happiest of men. For God’s sake, I even had breaded pork chops baking in the oven and a new can of Cool Whip ready to blast the homemade hot chocolate that was guaranteed me in the afternoon. When people fruitlessly try to calculate the value of a game based on some impotent price-per-play model, how blind they are to the joy of simply touching all of a game’s components, spreading them out on a table, reading exotic city names on a map, and wallowing in the fantasy that all these things before you are secretly brewing to give you the best time of your life. That day seemed to go on and on and on. I don’t have to tell you that there were naps involved too--three of them, just one shy of my personal single-day record of April 7, 2004.
The joy was short-lived, however; at some point, I had to go back to reading the rules. For a while, I tried making cheat sheets as I went, and more or less totally wore out a new king-sized yellow highlighter. Nothing was clicking, though. One day I was at my friendly local game store (where, in a dozen or so visits, I had never been greeted, asked if I had any questions, or gotten a good answer when I did, so I use the word “friendly” loosely), I picked up Axis and Allies and decided it couldn’t hurt at all to shell out $30 to have this one as a WWII game backup to my WWII game backup, which was the wildly unpopular Blitzkrieg General. I intended when I got A & A home to merely stick it on the shelf and open it only if my AWAW journey came to a skidding halt, but instead I found myself unboxing it right away and marveling at how, um, simple it was. I could get this sucker going in a half hour or so, maybe get a little taste of the sweep of the war...
No, I said to myself. NO. I wanted espionage cells, shifting alliances, bomb research, battles in countries I had barely heard of, stacks and stacks of log sheets, and a gabillion tiny counters. And more obnoxiously, I wanted the achievement of having learned a game that few others could, to wear that badge on my sweater vest, to make the pilgrimage to Lancaster in 2013 to get my butt walloped by a grand master who looked and sounded like Christopher Lee, but who would buy me pie afterwards. I did not play Axis and Allies, not then. Instead I returned it to the closet.
Without missing a beat, I then put everything AWAW back into its various storage boxes, sat down, and out of nowhere, with no planning whatsoever, just sort of quietly...gave up.
I accepted the fact that I wasn’t a grognard in about ten seconds, that AWAW was nothing more than a prize collection piece in another twenty, and that I was a total loser for blowing so much money on a dream in thirty more. “I like simple games,” I announced to the accusatory stillness of my apartment. “I like Galactic Emperor, and Disaster on Everest, and maybe, if I’m feeling saucy, a round of Tigris and Euphrates. What am I gonna do--spend eight hours at a stretch tracing lines of supply from 50,000 different chits? No, no, no. Blitzkrieg General can feed me just fine--it’s got grand strategy in 10 pages of rules, insufficiently proofread as they are. There just ain’t no room in my life to spend twenty years on one game about some war that most people think was faked in a studio anyway!”
And I felt soooo much better. I was free of this madness! I would look at AWAW’s box cover now and again in fondness, kind of like a photo from an old summer fling, and I would move on. “Whew!” thought I. “That was a close one! Now, who’s in the mood for some Defenders of the Realm?”
That night, I made the mistake of watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo on DVD, long a favorite movie of mine. It depicts the quixotic struggle of one borderline broke, barely sane man to cut through poison-spear-infested jungle in a crazy attempt to find a trade route that will bring him enough money to fund his dream of building an opera house in a South American backwater where even the fleas seem to have bedbugs. This was absolutely the worst possible flick to watch when confronted with huge obstacles in real life, and by the time Klaus Kinski stuck that cigar into his mouth at the end, grinning the grin of a man who came, saw, conquered, and dropped a few unsightly pounds during it, I was ready to have another go at A World at War.
This time in the saddle, though, I would not be alone.
I had intended to play AWAW as I far prefer to play most games: solo. For me, board gaming has always played a similar role to the one that doing crossword puzzles or building model railroads fills for a lot of people: a chance to get away from it all, work through an intellectual challenge at my own pace, and spend the evening at my preferred volume: low. I love strolling through a game’s space alone, tweaking it however I feel like, giving up on a whim, creating primitive AIs, and frankly, not having to deal with other human beings. While I definitely enjoy the social aspect of playing a game with a thoroughly vetted handful of friends, my few ventures into unknown group territory had been spectacularly regrettable. It took just two random game club sessions over the course of a single month in 2011 to bring me into contact with every conceivable negative gamer stereotype and frighten me back into the solitaire life for good. My brain wilted at the memory of the people I’d played with and now referred to privately as:
The Fat ‘n’ Angry Judge of All Things
Weird Silent Statue
Loves to Say “Dong”
Fanny Pack Girl with the Random Hair
Dances With Bizarre House Rules
Still Thinks Quoting Life of Brian is Clever
The Snarky Scarecrow
I remember the tense verbal sparring match that broke out over a rules dispute when playing Bohnanza (Bohnanza, for God’s sake), the tiresome folk who didn’t seem to know when to give up trying to work a trade in Settlers of Catan, the guy who couldn’t be bothered to slow down just a little in rushing through the rules to Innovation, and the owner of a copy of Ghost Stories who assured us all in every tight spot that he had things under control and that we should do whatever he said: “Just listen to me, shutup, I can figure this out, just let me THINK.” I do lots of things with friends, but in general gaming is just for me.
However, I needed a brain bigger than mine to lean on if I was ever going to play A World at War. The message boards and session reports I’d read were never going to be enough, and I didn’t want to impose on an experienced player--if I could even find one near me--for hours and hours while I asked stupid question after stupid question, shoveling my poor host’s expensive trail mix into my mouth at a terrifying rate. In the darkness I cried out one plaintive sentence: “Who, who will go through this with me?”
And the darkness answered, in a voice that sounded a lot like Alan Rickman’s: “It’s got to be Troy, you moron.”
This is where things got interesting.
Germany misses its torpedo research result and the Western Allies get an ASW research result. Britain places a spy ring in Spain, which is immediately eliminated by Axis counter-intelligence operatives, and Russia places a spy ring in Turkey. Paris falls with light Axis losses … Humorously, the two Free French AAF will not be built until Fall 1944 due to British construction limitations. More importantly, though, all the French colonies automatically go Free French, giving Britain a strong position in North Africa. – from “Slugfest at the Con”
I really didn’t know Troy Kiddell that well; we had met through a mutual friend about three years before and our association had been limited mostly to outings involving all three of us, broken up by a few trips to Troy’s basement to watch Jules and Jim and Metropolitan and Spirit of the Beehive. He was a film nut and an intellectual dilettante of the highest order, having dropped out of three different colleges before he turned 25. Most of all, he was a little crazy. His wandering path to weirdness began at the age of 12 when he was arrested for trying to start a forest fire, proceeded through an aborted attempt to ride the rails with hoboes for a year in his early twenties, and soldiered on through the only truly freaky act of his I almost couldn’t believe was true: On a May afternoon in a community college library, he had climbed up on a table and, feeling a trifle provocative, shouted “I have seen the face of Narcissus!”, an exclamation which was fully intended to be as meaningless as it sounds. He was quickly asked to leave. And he did so peacefully, having stirred things up to his satisfaction. No doubt he went right home and continued reading Finnegan’s Wake or the diaries of Samuel Pepys or any number of cranially demanding books he owned and would never lend out. For years he had bounced from job to job, not especially seeming to care what he did and never doing anything for more than 20 hours per week. Now 40 years old, he lived with his patient but perennially grumpy father well out in the suburbs, never having had a different permanent address.
I identified with Troy because like me, he was a man who found work distasteful and life itself to be a rather confusing, if not unfortunate exercise. He had never figured out what he wanted to be, even as he wrote--for himself, not for publication--long essays about the Roman empire and why he loved both Tree of Life and Up the Academy, plus a perpetually unfinished screenplay about slum life in turn of the century Manhattan. Of women and other vices he cared little to pursue; all he wanted, seemingly, was the next foreign film, the next volume of Lyndon Johnson’s biography, the next chance to say something shocking in a public place. There was sometimes brutal hostility deep inside Troy, launched freely toward everyone from football fans to pretty girls, and of course this hostility and lack of empathy for people he did not truly understand had led to his alienation from the “normal” world he relentlessly mocked, but damn, he was funny, and damn, he knew a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. He was as good a candidate as any to aid me in fighting the dragon. With just one proviso: He wasn’t a gamer. Not in the slightest.
And yet…there had been a moment. An opening, if you will. Three months before--almost the last time I had seen him, actually--I had lured him over to my place with the promise of lending him my copy of Cobra Verde only to overtly trick him into playing Shadows Over Camelot. I had the gorgeous game entirely laid out on the table when he arrived so that he couldn’t help but take an admiring look at it, leading me to suggest we take it for a spin--“I was just about to play it solo,” I lied, while suggesting it would be a good diversion while we argued for two hours about where to eat lunch. He took the bait and we had a blast, each of us running two knights and debating tirelessly about every move. I left things there, not suggesting he come back for a round of, say, Silverton the very next day; always leave ‘em hungry, I figured. I was content to bide my time and let the memory of our session stew and bubble in his brain before launching another offensive at a later date. Our one game of Shadows Over Camelot, plus the fact that it was Troy who had originally turned me on to reading Dispatches and watching A Midnight Clear, led me to pin my hopes on him as an AWAW opponent. It wasn’t much, and frankly I didn’t expect him to want to spend that much time engaged with any one person whatever the endeavor, but I was desperate. And I realized that subterfuge once again would be necessary to get him on board--subterfuge on an MI5 level.
I e-mailed Troy and told him I had a day off coming up and we should have lunch--I would come to wherever he happened to be on a sunny Tuesday, which, to my shock, turned out to be a place of business: Troy was working again after many months of pure indolence, part-time only of course, in the northeastern part of Washington, DC. I got off the metro train at one of the system’s most moribund stops and walked into a grungy, depressed industrial section of town, passing graffiti-strewn elementary schools and cops dozing in their cars, eventually coming to a building with all the welcoming charm of an abandoned chicken coop, located in a mazelike complex of decrepit loading docks. Troy was standing in front of the unit where he worked, taking a smoke break, dressed in shorts and an Edgar Allan Poe t-shirt.
I pieced together the sad story of his employer over our meal at a local Subway wannabe where lettuce went when it couldn’t afford hospice. The owner of Troy’s company, which cranked out middling-quality keychains, sweatshirts, mousepads and the like for cruddier tourist trap gift shops all over DC, was a Yale-educated gent in his thirties who had once been a lobbyist and a labor lawyer. Tired of dealing with “jerkwads” all day, he had decided to buy a business to support himself and his two children in a fashion becoming his uppity neighborhood of Cathedral Heights, so he now spent his days in the armpit of DC overseeing a sweatshop of immigrants as they fabricated such imaginative merchandise as baseball caps with the image of the Washington Monument on them. Troy was making ten bucks an hour unpacking boxes and silkscreening, “something to do for a while” so he could save up and buy a decent video camera, or maybe an iPad, and keep him in cigarettes so he wouldn’t have to bum so much money from his father, with whom he shared a predictably chilly relationship.
As we gobbled our food and rode the sub shop’s Free Refills policy for all it was worth, we talked about maybe watching A Woman Under the Influence sometime soon, and then I told him I had gotten into a new strain of board gaming. I explained what a monster war game was, putting the best possible spin on it of course, making sure to appeal to his ego by telling him the one I had just bought off eBay represented what was likely to become the biggest intellectual challenge of my life as I immersed myself in the history and strategy of the Conflict of Conflicts.
“That war has so many story lines, it’s almost as if it was dreamed up by some poor bastard just to sell the movie rights,” he said. “How long does it take to play this game?”
“Like six twelve-hour days,” I said. “It suffers no fools.”
“Ahhhhh,” he said, smooshing the bottom of his straw down below the lowest layer of ice in his cup of Dr. Pepper to see if something might surprise him down there. “I think I want to play this game.”
My inner child sat bolt upright in bed, thinking he had heard Santa Claus’ sled land on the roof above. “Yeah,” I said, “I was hoping to suck you into it, because it’s a bitch to learn, but if we were both having a whack at it, it might go more smoothly. Can you imagine late nights defending New Caledonia and planning the invasion of Guadalcanal?”
“I can indeed,” Troy said, adorably having no idea what he was stepping into. “Bring it over tonight so I can look at it. Maybe I can fit it in between all the whores and coke parties.”
And so I did. Leaving behind the extensive Research and Diplomacy booklets, I presented myself to Troy that evening bearing the gift of historical simulation on an epic scale. I even brought along a copy of the June 2005 issue of the magazine Paper Wars, which contained two long reviews of AWAW, both of which I had read a few times when getting into full grognard mode. When the movie was over that night and we were sitting in the limpid stillness of his father’s kitchen at half past twelve, I pulled the rulebook out of my backpack and put it on the table before him as if it were nothing heavier than some player aid sheet for Transamerica.
“All right, when can you have this memorized?” I said airily.
Oh, Troy laughed all right. But he wasn’t laughing at my joke. He threw back his head and cackled at the utter absurdity of what his hands held, the gall, the impudence, the cheek of the designer who would demand that a gamer essentially offer his life to play with his cardboard bits. Paging through it, he wondered aloud again and again what sort of loopy Branch Davidian would play such a game, and why I would want to get involved with it. I mounted some pathetic defense, something about how the game was kind of at the end of a progression of similar ones that true grognards learned before they even cracked the spine on this one, and how a lot of the rules were special cases that rarely came up, et cetera et cetera, but seeing I wasn’t really getting anywhere, I finally let out an exhausted sigh and plumbed the depths of my polluted heart.
“Troy,” I said, “the reason I want so much to play this game is because nobody wants me to play this game. There is virtually no person you could present this to without getting a stunned, pitying look in return, and that ticks me off. It ticks me off because what so freaks people out is the time involved in this endeavor, time. Everything in adult life is designed to steal it away from us, and my God, look how we go along with the scheme so willingly.
"‘I have no time for such things anymore,’ we say, and then we spend our afternoons making our lawns pretty and shopping for junky Ikea furniture and ferrying kids to soccer games and gawking at cable TV, and above all, working at jobs we never really wanted. ‘Sure,’ we say, ‘when I was young and didn’t have all these responsibilities, I could spend hours doing this kind of thing. But that was then, and this is now.’
“Well, Troy,” I went on, “I want to be the guy who suddenly, at age 42, does spend hours doing this kind of thing, if only to feel what it’s like to take back a little piece of the soul I’ve sold to the company I slave for, to the obligatory evenings with people I’m not sure I even like, to daily errands, the lines at the DMV, to tax forms, to tedious family visits. This game is a slap in the face to all thinking creatures who live in such dire fear of the sands sifting through the hourglass. Playing a monster war game on this scale is ridiculous, a waste of energy, a waste of time, and so I want to do it. Let spite rule the day, Troy. Let’s learn and play A World at War!”
My sad little speech didn’t gain much traction at that moment, or so it seemed; Troy changed the subject fairly quickly to a possible future viewing of whatever other semi-improvised salad John Cassavetes had to offer us. But it would turn out that a seed had indeed been planted, because I was talking to a man who knew all about what it was like to be on the wrong side of society’s view of things. When it came to impossible goals that required a lot of work for little result, Troy was a certified expert, having years before produced thirty issues of a literary magazine whose circulation was limited to himself and two community college classmates, and having once read Clarissa cover to cover just so he could bring it up at parties. Hell, this guy sat through seven-hour art films that weren’t even in focus. I left the rulebook with him, “just so you can browse it and check out the historical detail,” I claimed, urging him to approach it as a potentially interesting work of scholarship and how we as the victorious nation view WWII; perhaps it would give him an idea for an experimental novel or something. When I left at one in the morning, I felt like I had pitched a lost cause, but it feels good to do something like that once in a while, to merely try to convince someone intelligent to see the world as you do. I went home and tried to dream of Vichy France and force pool sheets, but probably dreamed of checkbook balances and smartphone upgrades instead.
There are so many neat little moments that come for you when you first get seriously involved in a hobby. I had yet another one the next night when I laid out AWAW’s full map setup for the first time; because the thing took up more space than I had to give, I’d only been referring to miniaturized replica printouts, figuring there was no need to break out the big guns till I was sure I was fully committed. The map itself was nothing terribly special, being comprised of the usual terrain types and hexagons marching off into the horizon. This wasn’t a game about components, after all. But I happened to have a 2’ by 2’ sheet of Plexi-glass buried in my closet, a hand-me-down from my mother, the remnant of an aborted attempt to create a crude night-table a couple of years before. Recalling from forums here and there that Plexi-glass was a war gamer’s BFF when it came to flattening and de-creasing, I laid the piece down over Asia and the Pacific, and in about five seconds it was glistened with my drool. Well, not literally, but laying a piece of Plexi-glass over a war game map is like having someone throw in the full wash ‘n’ wax package for your car when you just pull in for $5 of unleaded and a Clark bar. Suddenly the game looked like a high-end interactive museum exhibit, the counters riding on a shiny cushion of transparent love, and it felt like I should put on at least a collared shirt and loose tie to play. The way the light from my desk lamp struck the Urals just so...oh yeah, I would definitely be laying out the cash to cover all three maps. (Humorous let’s-make-fun-of-the-author note #14: I figured enough Plexi-glass to do this would maybe run me maybe 15, 20 bucks. Oh, man...)
I wasn’t exactly sure when I’d talk to Troy again--he had a habit of dropping out of sight for weeks, even months at a time if we didn’t have a hard plan to hook up again--but to my pleasant surprise, he called me only about four days later and suggested lunch at the cathedral, which was our code word for the Old Country Buffet. Ahhh, talk about wasting time and energy! We’d eaten at that modern day House of Usher more times than we could count, compelled by its strange geriatric awfulness and unlimited supply of green Jello. I swung by Troy’s and picked him up on a Saturday, and I was depressed to see he had the AWAW rulebook in his hands, as if he wanted to return it to me as soon as possible lest he become infected by it somehow. I mean, Troy never returned things--from Childhood’s End to The Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2, once he got his mitts on printed matter I’d offered in friendship, I could pretty much kiss it goodbye. He got in, tossed the rules in the back of the car, and immediately launched into a monologue about how much of a monstrosity the new Lion’s Gate edition of John Huston’s The Dead was. We talked about that for a while, then he moved on to tales of his sometimes frightening co-workers, and by the time we pulled into the buffet parking lot he was deep into a defense of the lesser works of Thomas Mann, which of course I had never read.
We engaged in more award-winning banter over heaping plates of over-salted fried chicken, lukewarm mashed potatoes, stale rolls, and chocolate cake left over from the Boer War. Troy puffed on an electronic cigarette his father had given to him for his birthday, spoke of the horrors of having to call his grandmother to thank her for the $20 she’d sent him for that same event, and talked about women whose geographies he’d coveted recently from a minimum distance of 75 yards. An eavesdropper would swear that Troy was one of the more unpleasant people that Earth had ever temporarily hosted, and yes, maybe they were right. But they were not privy to the times when Troy would speak fairly passionately of his outrage at America’s failure to care for its least fortunate, or his wish to preserve his late mother’s memory by writing her biography, modest as it was. He even had a title for it, which I’d spotted once in one of his many notebooks: All Those Redwoods, a reference to the time when Troy was ten and she insisted the family fly to northern California to see its beautiful forests. And who could truly hate a man who, in the middle of dessert course #3 that day, simply lowered his face onto his plate, completely plastering it with crumbs and frosting, and whispered to no one, with absolutely no context, “I am the Last Emperor. China’s destiny lies in my hands alone.”
Imagine my shock when, as we whittled away our last precious moments at OCB, he lifted something from the vinyl cushion on which he sat. It was something I hadn’t even noticed he’d brought in with him. It was the AWAW rulebook! Opening it, I saw that scores of passages on the first several pages had been highlighted in orange ink. “I was going through this yesterday and this really is going to be a total punk,” he said offhandedly, as if there had ever been any question about his participation.
“Wait...are you on board?” I asked, so flabbergasted I could barely take my eyes off the pudding bar over his left shoulder. “Are you fully down with changing the course of the 20th century?”
“Well, we shall see,” he replied. “There’s already stuff in here that’s utterly baffling. But I’d definitely drive to Lancaster and eat at this weird diner I remember and stare down some dudes with big beards.” Here he was echoing a reference I’d made before to the World Boardgaming Championships and its annual beckoning of AWAW’s heavy hitters, whose big-beardedness I could not actually confirm.
“If we’re gonna do this, you know, we must forsake the pleasures of the flesh for weeks, perhaps months,” I intoned gravely.
“This of course I cannot promise,” he said. “But I need something to do, as cinema is beginning to inexplicably bore me. I mean, this can’t be that hard to figure out.”
I knew this to be a wildly deluded statement--the plain truth was that my ongoing research had revealed that I had chosen possibly the most complex war game ever produced by a major publisher outside of maybe Advanced Squad Leader--but I kept mum in order to keep the momentum going. I was as excited as Josef Goebbels on Pure Evil Awareness Day. “I suggest we retire to the enclave of a local fried-dough vendor of my acquaintance in order to contemplate our learning strategy,” I suggested, and Troy was in full agreement, provided I was buying and he was allowed to hit on the cute no-makeup girl behind the counter who worked there on weekends.
We were at Dunkin Donuts for two full hours as the afternoon gave way to twilight. I had to pinch myself over the way Troy agreed to my every loopy proposal and half-baked plan to get the rules down within, say, two months. As I voiced these schemes, they sounded almost comedic in their demands. I told Troy that while he read the rulebook straight through over the next week or two, I would begin breaking it down by section. Yellow highlighter markings would be reserved for absolutely essential core rules that we would need to keep close and basically memorize; green markings were for the game’s exceptions and finer points which, if forgotten, would not cause undue disaster; blue markings would cover special case rules which we might not even stumble into during the entire course of the war. As I went through each section, I would record a summary of it on audio so I could always be playing it during my commute or shuttles between various homes and errands on the weekends. Troy’s responsibility was just to slowly and methodically understand the context of what we were trying to do in each phase of the game so that we wouldn’t ever be totally flummoxed. I didn’t want to scare him off by having him make player aids or tackle the more complicated parts on his own. He seemed to really be into the idea of approaching it as if he were reading a book of initially impenetrable philosophy which his steely intellect would slowly crack. Twice a week or so he would swing by my place so I could teach him what I’d learned, and vice versa, a process which would theoretically go faster and faster as he and I both read and read and read. The sheer lunacy of the project continued to be its main selling point, but Troy also relished delving back into military history after some years away from it. What he really wanted most of all, I think, was to defeat the lumbering, fire-breathing Smaug which had been placed before him, an enemy that claimed it was smarter than he. That sort of hubris was intolerable to someone like Troy.
I dropped him back off at his house well after dark, feeling infused with purpose once again. I went right home and busted out my highlighters and the hot cocoa.
I recall becoming worried as I read and marked and recorded that this game could conceivably wind up being one gigantic snoozefest; as Adam Starkweather had pointed out in his Paper Wars review, AWAW was process-intensive to say the least. There would be a huge amount of accounting to be done in every phase; to even go on the attack you had to methodically count and expend Basic Resource Points. Every little action had a cost. You didn’t just buy military units and put them on the map; you often had to build them in several stages. Countries didn’t just enter the war on the whim of a preset schedule; you had to numerically track political tensions, just as you had to numerically track your research progress. And someone like me, who often saw the use of mathematical modifiers as somewhat lazy game design, was now wandering into a mouth full of their snapping, biting teeth. Getting through any given turn would involve the sort of dry, methodical calculations I never really had to deal with when playing, say, Pirate’s Cove. My God, what if we spent the next two months learning this thing and it turned out to be laughably dry and tedious, like most of my years between 1988 and 2002? Lying in bed that night, I decided upon a course of action which now seemed necessary to make sure the game’s theme lit a real spark in me from beginning to end, at least a spark hot enough to get me through the slow parts that I feared might make me feel I was back in fourth grade math class with Mrs. Steen towering over me and wondering why I had once again forgotten to carry the 7.
In between bouts with the strategic bombing rules and the Chinese Resistance Table I read The Second World War by John Keegan, my first foray into real WWII history since I was a teenager. I chose it because it seemed to be heavy on the military aspects of the conflict and light on the warm golden fuzzies. What I discovered in this book not only bummed me out about the well-known horrors of the whole mess, it made me angry to boot. It seemed to me that this truly had not been a war of ideologies, religions, economics, or a scarcity of resources. I could be way off base here, but I came away with the impression that all this destruction, this loss of life, this earth-shaking madness, was basically due to the original sin of one crazily deluded dude whom no one had the guts to stop during his decades-long lurch to the top. I didn’t read of anything in the German, Japanese, or Italian character or government intention that was ever initially threatening to global peace; Hitler von Hideous was the one who brought the steaming poison casserole to the table, every shred of hatred and paranoia that lay dormant and controllable, and at every bullying turn, someone lacked the nerve or the foresight to take him out. All it would have taken was one quiet strangling, one gunshot, or, preferably, one organized coalition which would simply out-shout him with rationality and calm. But it just never happened, and Hitler’s madness infected everyone around him and millions of people who had been psychologically weakened at the worst possible moment in history. A depressing number of factors had to come together just so, one after the other, without being jostled by reason or chance, to allow Hitler to wreak his brand of havoc and then bring out the worst in other men of power. It just floored me how it had all come to be, how destiny’s D20 roll had actually landed on the table with the same unfortunate result again and again.
The better news was that in reading the book, I was also able to start making connections between reality and the game produced from it, coming to understand why some cities were more valuable objectives than others, why it was vital to do certain things sooner rather than later, why Barbarossa would be inevitable and Operation Sea Lion a kooky gamble. I got a little thrill whenever I read about a location that was shown on the game’s map, and I emitted a quiet “Cooool” when a battleship was mentioned that happened to have a sister counter nestled inside one of my plastic trays.
Above all, even though my analysis of the war might have been so simplistic, one thing was patently clear: If AWAW ever actually got to the table, I would be playing the motherfu**** Allies, motherfu****!
The days that followed were spent at my irritatingly involved job, and my nights were spent at Starbucks reading and highlighting. Getting through even a single subsection of the rules was to me a daunting task, and even the simple regulation I had made for myself--that I would not progress past any one sentence until I understood what the hell it meant--simply had to be broken sometimes for the sake of my sanity. I just could not quite grasp submarine attacks or counter-air, and I found myself returning to the relative simplicity of ground combat for a sense that I was not a total dumbass. It was a pleasure to decipher the subtle differences between Marines and Commandos, overruns and exploitation; it was not so fun wading into the major power cooperation restrictions or the dreaded naval combat rules. I found myself smacking my head against the latter again and again, anxious to get past them because I figured the stuff about diplomacy, production, and research would merely be a procedural slog rather than a brain-burning test of making connections and piecing together the logic behind each step. I could foresee Troy and I forgetting rule after rule simply because we were so busy trying to remember others, and I thought to myself: Is winning this game over an opponent a triumph of intellect and strategy, or just having the rules down better so you miss one fewer obvious thing, remember one path to victory that the other poor sod just couldn’t hold in his noodle?
Of all the free resources that are made available to AWAW players, the easiest to just roll with, and the juice every grognard needs to get excited about the game, are the 2011 convention videos following all the Lancaster competitors as they progress through their contests, talking about their strategies and laughing at both their mistakes and unexpected successes. Bruce Harper, the game’s no-nonsense designer, is one of the participants shown, obviously having a good time even though his side wasn’t going to come out on top. The others speak on camera with such casualness about every little thing connected with the game that I wanted to keep shouting at the screen, “How the hell did you learn this foul Medusa so you could strut around with such haughty ease??” I believe only a few of the games were played through to the very end due to time constraints, but no one seemed to mind terribly. They had all given up a week of vacation to play AWAW 10-12 hours a day. I wanted to be one of them, speaking with aplomb about how I was having good luck with my research rolls and how if my winter weather results were favorable, I would make a move on my foe’s most tender spots by 1943. I made sure Troy watched these videos with me to see how relaxed others seemed to be with the system, and we found ourselves quickly mimicking their speech and dropping AWAW terminology inappropriately into our conversations (“I’m hopeful that I can finish my French fries by the spring of ’42, and then attrition out the salad if I roll a couple of sixes here and there”).
Troy was plowing onward on his own, just as we had planned, and working individually seemed to remain the best way to go since when we did get together, we invariably got off topic or engaged in ridiculous dramatic vocalizations of the more monstrous parts of the rules, often involving a Scottish accent. The naval and air procedures were as much a killer to him as they were to me, and when I became aware that a “simplified” package of rules for these bits was being tested, I made damn sure to print them out. It helped just a little, just a little. The overarching problem was that I still didn’t really get how it would all fit together, or why I should do any one thing over another. Even after all our study, there would remain the oppressive question: What do we do?
I was fortified by Troy’s apparent resolve but worried it was stronger than mine, which didn’t seem possible or even fair--this was my grand delusion, dammit! What I was witnessing was what happens when the rigors of a regular job are completely removed from someone of higher-than-average intelligence. Not only did Troy have so many more hours in the day than I did (he was mysteriously down to ten a week at the sweatshop), but all his hours were played out at maximum mental capacity, whereas my precious time of freedom was experienced through a smoky, dulling haze of chronic corporate fatigue. I was becoming more and more jealous of his leisurely life, though not being engaged in anything especially productive was of course slowly, inevitably wearing away at his soul. More than that, I was just plain envious of how he was able to grasp rules subtleties that were way beyond me, even though I was the one who had been playing games, sometimes fairly complex ones, for several years, while he had only so recently stumbled into the whole world at my invitation, and still regarded it with general disinterest. He was even able to progress through the rules without the benefit of being able to physically push counters around; I had the game set up at my place and only rarely did we convene there instead of at a coffee shop, the Old Country, or over chocolate doughnuts in some hole somewhere. Once or twice he got irritated with me over my inability to wrap my brain around mobilizations or the restrictions on building partisans, to the point where he would call me “a divine idiot” or “quite possibly the dumbest person alive.” I never left behind the fear that he would suddenly dump the game and me as well, or at the very least float the idea of being paid for his effort--which wasn’t out of the question as far as I was concerned.
Meanwhile, not only was I shunning my regular delightful board game life of poking around with some old favorites, creating crazy solo variants, and engaging in the extreme joy of buying some new hotness twice a month, but I was disappearing from society with ever-increasing rapidity, not wanting to spend more than a night or two away from AWAW lest I lose my grip on learning it. I made excuses to friends, re-scheduled trips, postponed the formation of a couple of groups I had planned for some time. When I found myself spoken to at length by a young woman in an Irish bar where I’d stopped for a Friday night bowl of Guinness stew, I wasn’t terribly focused or interested, but I accepted a ride from her back to my place, a little bummed at the prospect of walking home in the rain and of course always entertaining the remote possibility that I was about to be seduced and then left blissfully alone forever after.
The first thing I thought of when this young woman asked if she could come in for some tea when we pulled up to my abode was not “I’ve hit the jackpot!” but “Oh man, I’ve got the stupid game sprawled across six tables; how am I going to make THIS seem sexy?” When we got inside, this Mattie person, possessing the attitude, tattoos, dark blue hair highlights, and piercings of an indie rocker girl far removed from the board gaming scene, took one look at the setup with all its maps and counters and player aids and log sheets--which had all but completely obliterated the landscape of a once-normal apartment--and offered only a harmless shrug. “Oh yeah, my brother’s into that stuff,” she said. Instead of letting it drop, I succumbed to the board gamer’s natural fascination with my brethren and asked her to elaborate. It turned out her sibling, a lawyer in Denver, was all about Cranium, Apples to Apples, and yes, Risk.
“What is this about, is this World War Two?” she asked, peering at Western Europe.
“Yeah,” I told her. “It’s pretty much like living the whole thing.”
“Does it make you feel weird that all those people actually died and it became a game?” she asked. “There’s names of ships on here and everything. That’s where people were really killed, dead to this very day.”
I sighed more heavily than I meant to. “The whole concept of it is such a mind-bending absurdity,” came my standard and well-worn reply, “and so extremely ridiculous, that it renders it all completely harmless.”
Mattie and I talked for a while about the meaning of games and the meaning of life, she pulling up a chair right next to the map layout, sitting only inches from the strategic warfare boxes and the terrain key and the entire Japanese fleet. Though she was pleasant enough, I would have chosen in that moment to be curled up with AWAW’s Scenario booklet instead, which is exactly how the evening did in fact conclude. Oh, if she could only have remained intrigued long enough to witness my inevitable glory at the 2013 World Boardgaming Championships, carried out of a hotel conference room on the shoulders of those who had dared oppose me, then coming back to take the trophy for Sorry Sliders as well! How she would desire me then! What beautiful children we would raise and psychologically damage with our inability to love!
Troy was much amused at this dark brush with eeeee-roticism which had almost sent our scheme off the rails for a good ninety minutes. We vowed once again to turn our backs on all of humanity as we drove to my office on Sunday morning, where I wanted to print out yet another copy of the rules, this time for the sake of highlighting only the text that referred to the expenditure of economic resources. I now possessed no less than eight bound copies of the rules, each with its own snazzy cover denoting which elements that particular copy emphasized above all others through pretty highlighting. I thought this would be very useful during gameplay--though every word was very helpfully indexed and searchable online, I was a purist when it came to board games, not wanting any technology buzzing and whirring and wanting me to upgrade to the latest version of Firefox while I played. No laptops or apps were welcome in my world of global mid-20th century conflict, no sir. (My brilliant plan to record notes on audio to create a constant sound stream of information had nose-dived quite quickly; it turned out that the absolute last thing I wanted to hear inside my head all day was my own voice, so I had once again populated my commuting time with gaming podcasts instead--at least two a day.)
Once inside the office where I worked fifty hours a week, Troy found himself with nothing to do except send some random texts on his outdated cellphone and spin slowly in my chair. As I ran off the necessary pages, I looked at him from across the hall and noticed how much physically smaller he somehow seemed in this so-called “professional” environment. There he sat, considered one of life’s bona fide losers at the age of 40, a man who could have filled any one of the fancy offices that lined the corridor to the north and south, whose intelligence and creativity outshone virtually everyone I worked with, yet who still received what amounted to an allowance from his father and who responded to strangers’ questions about what he did for a living with a caustic, self-deprecating, or often intentionally hostile remark. He became oddly quiet there in the chair, to which I fancifully attributed his unease at being in a place that seemed to silently judge him for what he had chosen to become--but had he really chosen it, I wondered, or did he feel in his heart of hearts that it was simply too late to do anything different. I would never bring up the subject; it seemed like a line I should not cross.
I was oddly flattered that this misanthrope had apparently come to find me agreeable enough to spend more time with than any other human he knew; it was the kind of glow I imagine reality show contestants must feel when the most ogre-ish of the judges breaks down and says something nice about them. Still, being dudes, we never discussed such noxious concepts as “feelings” and “fears.” Even bringing those up once, I believed, might be enough to send Troy scurrying back to his basement and the comfort and safety of his DVD collection. Our mutual friend Terry, who had introduced us but who no longer needed to be the glue that bonded us, having been suddenly usurped in that role by a flippin’ board game, was likewise in the dark about the frozen tundra of Troy’s inner life. All he himself was certain of was that Troy was chronically depressed. It may have been sad that I temporarily cared more about keeping him bound to this project than learning more about him as a person, but I guess it was true. I didn’t feel much like being someone’s sounding board for profound issues of the id, if Troy really had them. Later, I told myself, when this is all done, I’ll really be this person’s friend. I’ll ask questions, I’ll open up. I’ll forge a real human connection.
Yeah, right. Ever try to stay focused on “forging real human connections” when you bust a new FFG title out of the shrinkwrap?
The Russians rebuild yet again and try to construct a line from near Moscow to the oil fields. Because the Russian line is so long and stretched so thin, a Turkish 2-5 armor and 2-3 infantry are SRed to Leningrad to join a Russian airborne unit in an unlikely defensive formation. The remaining Turks hang out in European Turkey and attrition the Bulgarians. Observers are still ready to write off the Russians. Eric counters, “the Russians will be fine.” – from “Slugfest at the Con”
All this time I was living in denial, really. I was afraid to tell myself that this had all stopped being fun at some point and now felt way too much like work. I escaped my doldrums one weekend by visiting a friend in New York City and scheduling our meeting late enough in the day that I would be able to spend an hour at The Compleat Strategist, one of those mythical game stores that acts as a beacon to us nerd types all across the country. By chance, I had a lesser branch of this store just one mile from my home in Falls Church, Virginia. I was sure it was as different from the New York headquarters as Martian Dice is from Freedom in the Galaxy. I was always the only one inside the Falls Church location, which, despite its nice selection, was a bit of a musty, tired affair. It had definitely improved since my first few visits, when customer service had consisted of disinterested shrugs and irritated glances as I dared shop while the cashier and his 98-pound buddies watched old Pokemon cartoons on somebody’s laptop, but still, the chance to leave it behind and visit an honest-to-god mecca of the hobby had me all a-twitter.
Man, I didn’t know the half of it. When I rolled into Manhattan, walked into The Compleat Strategist, and saw about forty people wandering jam-packed aisles which stretched to the outer reaches of Terrinoth to the east and the city gates of Tempest to the west, I knew my wallet was totally screwed, that I would be unable to stumble out of there without two giant bags full of stuff I would probably never play. Seeing all those games in one place--including a few dozen I didn’t think I’d ever actually ever spot in a brick-and-mortar store--made my head go all skoobly, and all logic abandoned me with the speed of a Kickstarter hawk dropping his doubloons on a new set of mage minis. I just started buying like crazy, buying as I never had before--games I couldn’t possibly make into workable solo experiences, games I didn’t think I would like but which were 20 percent off, games I thought would give me exactly five minutes of enjoyment before being dumped on eBay, games which had the word “The” in the title and that was kind of an innovative and elegant mechanic, right? Right?
I even bought--oh help me Jeebus--Europe Engulfed and Asia Engulfed, both in shrink, the former long out of print but a total steal at $105. The block-induced heft of those games made me forget all about some silly trifle called A World at War. Here, I thought, here was something somewhat learnable. Sure, it didn’t really feature a lot of diplomacy, and sure, it didn’t have spy rings, and sure, it didn’t have 415,212 exceptions, and wasn’t played only by a mysterious, exotic handful of Professor Moriartys who had been revising the rules for years and would never stop...
My God, what had I done? I found myself out on the bustling, sauerkraut-and-shoe-scented New York sidewalk and plunged back into frightening reality. Was I really thinking of having an affair? Was I really going to turn my back on the one I loved just to have a tawdry afternoon fling in some midtown hotel room? Sure, handling the pieces would be fabulous for about an hour, but then where would I be? Could I live with the consequences? What if Troy found out somehow? I stared down into those shopping bags with a perfect 50/50 mixture of lust and revulsion.
When I think of the nightmarish Amtrak ride I endured on the way home, coming so close to opening those prizes a hundred times and having to slap my treasonous hand away again and again, slowly spiraling into a Trainspotting-like withdrawal agony in which I feverishly imagined seeing Richard Berg crawling upside down on the ceiling of the train, I get the shakes. In the end I did something I had never done, and doubt I’ll ever do again--I left a fascinating game in its shrinkwrap and sold it only four days after I bought it, never once having run my fingers through its crispy shiny newness. To this day I do not know what forbidden delights EE and its kid sister might have shown me.
And that hurts, man. It’s never gonna stop hurtin’, neither.
The scariest moment for the Japanese comes when the Yamato is attacked by 22 American fleet factors, but is saved by the Japanese naval nationality DRM research result, which turns a “4” result (damage) into a “3” result (no effect). The Japanese naval scientists are vindicated, not for the last time. – from “Slugfest at the Con”
Imagine a man sitting in the corner of his desolate, wicker-less apartment in the suburbs, dirty dishes piled high in the sink, mismatched socks hanging on various parts of a $40 bicycle for drying, surrounded by maps and counters and player aids and rulebooks. He is doing nothing but sitting and thinking, and more importantly, coming to grips with an all-consuming Truth. He is due at his friend’s house in twenty minutes, where he knows he must deliver some horrifying news. He rises, pours himself a shot glass of Orangina, and looks down at a collection of cardboard military units gathered in central Poland. He picks up a pair of six-sided dice and drops them meaninglessly onto the map. The result is a 4. This too is meaningless.
He goes to his friend’s father’s house, knocks on the door. His friend answers, pleasantries are exchanged, and they retreat to his bedroom. The visitor then opens his mouth to speak words of devastation and apocalypse--namely, that he needs to get off this roller coaster ride, that he misses his old gaming life, that the freaks who oversaw A World at War’s demonic birth just made the thing too complicated for regular, non-Stephen Hawking mortals, and this is too great a folly for adults who have been exposed to the comforts of normality to bear.
Now imagine that about five seconds before the visitor comes out with those words, he is informed by his host that he has quit his job at the t-shirt sweatshop entirely and is now intent on wrapping up his work with the Production rules by the end of the week. Imagine that the visitor now sees for the first time two green notebooks, each filled with handwritten text, sitting on his host’s desk. Notebook #1 predictably bears the word FILM REVIEWS, but Notebook #2 bears the word GAME.
I kept my mouth shut in Troy’s presence that day, although inwardly I felt that the law of diminishing returns had been calling me all night, and now I felt resigned to pick up the phone. Dealing with the rulebook had become actively unpleasant--save for its very occasional doses of refreshing levity and subtle humor, buried deep within--but when I heard that Troy was once again unemployed, and saw the volume of notes he’d taken, my heart sank as I realized I was trapped in a runaway train that happened to only be moving at about five miles per hour. I asked Troy if he would, for the first time, just try to explain the game to me from the beginning as if he were explaining it to someone who had absolutely no experience with it, and I would videotape this explanation for posterity. I still wish I had that footage, because Troy very soon seemed to forget he was speaking to me and went into full actor/professor mode, becoming a kind of Richard Feynman of war gaming. I knew as he spoke for ninety minutes or so without a break that he’d gotten a lot of things slightly wrong, but he also helped to cohere a bunch of other issues in my mind which had been rolling around loose like chipped marbles. We were fairly close, I realized, to being able to have some sort of functional AWAW experience. I might not enjoy it at all or even be able to follow its plot, but I was not about to break the possibility that this had all become something meaningful for Troy, perhaps a temporary ray of sunlight in the grey sky of his futile days.
There followed a little more soggy, trench warfare-type progress, me learning as much as I could without actually having to do any more freakin’ highlighting and memorizing. I almost posted a request on the web for some AWAW vet to give me a single eight-hour training session in return for a hundred bucks or so, but that felt like even more of a betrayal than my temptation with Europe Engulfed had been. I began to fantasize about a mammoth series of instructional videos created by some generous devotee of the game, and amused myself by putting a dollar value on such an unexpurgated, end-to-end teaching course, which would be accessible through a series of easy clicks on YouTube but would preferably also be offered in a nice DVD boxed set. Would I pay $250 for it? Hell, I’d go a little higher. $500? Maybe…maybe. From there it was a small jump to daydreaming about something called The MMP-Decision Games Act of 2013, a Congressional decree obligating all game publishers to create at least 40 hours of instructional content for any product whose rulebook had to use a case numbering system.
The Christmas Eve that came upon us in short order went down in history as one of the great guilty-pleasure Christmas Eves of all time. Since neither of us had any real obligations until sundown, Troy and I went to Home Depot in the morning for more happytime Plexi-glass, then swung by Target so I could grab some last-minute gifts. On our way out, we realized that the upright-and-diagonal positioning of the long awkward gaming table I had bought for myself (the seventh in my now-runaway collection) had inadvertently blocked visual access to several small items I had forgotten I’d placed in the cart’s top rack--and we had checked out without remembering them, giving us about $20 in merchandise for free. Since it was such a lonnnnnnng walk back to the store from the parking lot and since I felt was being totally jobbed on the price of the table, we pocketed that money gleefully and spent it instead on a lunchtime orgy at Carmine’s, a DC restaurant whose portion sizes brought to mind the feeling of opening War of the Ring for the first time and realizing that you no longer even cared if there was a viable game buried beneath all those wonderful plastic bits. We ate like unreasonable and assassination-worthy kings, then topped it all off with another trip to Dunkin Donuts, where we began to plan the final phase of our A World at War experience--the actual attempt at playing the damn thing, which would take place in a setting as epic as we could dream.
The flip side of that Christmas Eve was the night after Christmas itself, the waning hours of which I spent in the company of a businessman friend named Thomas, who was in town visiting his elderly parents, one of whom was quite ill. A straight-A student in both high school and college and a superior mind if there ever was one, Thomas, whom I saw about once a year, disturbed I and another old classmate with true tales of a marriage gone wrong and his mediocre days of tending to a demanding, joyless wife whom he longed to divorce but felt bound to because of their three kids. There seemed no way out, he told us, so he had resigned himself to the hope that maybe he could somehow find a job he liked more (the one he had was quite boring but his wife really wanted a bigger house and he had to stay for the money) and learn to slowly smother any impulses he had toward seeking a life with someone else. He just loved his kids so much, they were pretty much all that mattered to him now. After hearing his collected tales of woe, I thought to myself: Bring on more air rules, AWAW. Bring them on in Latin for all I care.
I remained in the all-night diner after my friends left, peacefully drinking coffee and musing on the mysteries of the world, when a chilling thought struck me. I sent a text to Troy around midnight. It said this:
Um, do you even have a clue about a strategy to use for the Axis?
A return text came within five minutes:
Hell yes. It’s in the bag, Gherkin.
To this I had no response. I sure as hell did not have a strategy for the Allies, no clue what my first move might consist of, no ideas as to what to do. I ordered more coffee and watched convention videos again on my iPhone, trying to pay careful attention to what the Lancaster players were really doing. From there I ventured back into Ultra territory. This was the quarterly magazine published for years by A World at War devotees, another easily downloadable freebie which delved deep into game strategy. Reading an issue was pure rubbernecking pleasure and didn’t feel like real study at all. I doubted I could pull off any of the tricks these seasoned players used, but sitting there at one a.m. in the diner, deciding to go ahead and order a full pancake breakfast for myself, winning the game of course seemed as unimportant as ever. I began to see how true grognards might develop a haughty attitude about their own intelligence; the myriad complexities and possibilities of a monster war game, where a player must juggle so many elements, make so many moves, and keep everything from going even slightly off the tracks lest the shark on the other side of the table take advantage of the smallest slipup, were staggering. We would be dealing with everything from the timely repair of ships in distant ports to deciding how to jigger some minor ally’s entry into the war, everything from slowly putting together the atomic bomb to figuring out if shelling Britain from above was worth the effort, and if we wanted to have a decent experience, we had to make every aspect work together. If I had been about to face a player who knew his stuff even a little bit, I would have been absolutely annihilated from turn one. No wonder this was considered a game that was supposedly played to the exclusion of all others; it would probably take five or six attempts at it, after having a total grasp of all its procedures, just to start to become competitive.
I started making one last round of notes. The heading on the page read, simply, STRATEGY. These notes consisted in the end of fifty words or so, and there weren’t a whole lot of action verbs in the bunch. I didn’t really know what technologies I wanted to research, since I was still scratching my melon about how to get where I needed to go with that game element in order to actually produce jets or torpedoes. I certainly wasn’t sure where I should attack first, since it wasn’t clear to me if I should focus on killing gobs and gobs of infantry or going after precious oil reserves--and who did oil really benefit anyway? What’s the worst that could happen if I let it slide? And partisans--did they have a potency I wasn’t seeing? If I let my mechanized armor get stuck somewhere, would it be the end of the world? Wait--I was the Allies; did I even have mechanized armor? Were there terrain effects that were going to bite me in the butt unless I took them into account from the get-go? And where was this “Egypt” I kept hearing about anyway? It sounded like someone had just made the place up.
Aw, screw it, I would be starting 1939 in pretty much a total haze, and we would just have to see what happened. As I’ve said many times, I didn’t get where I am today by making good decisions.
In China, the Nationalist Chinese are close to collapse because they keep attacking, but the Japanese are unable to see a way of finishing them and restrain themselves in favor of getting all their forces built. The Japanese hope the Chinese will keep attacking and roll badly, but on this front (contrary to the Pacific) the dice favor the Allies. – from “Slugfest at the Con”
On December 30, 2012, Troy Kiddell and I got into my car and drove two hundred miles west toward a cabin in the woods in Glady, West Virginia. I was off from work officially until January 3 and had taken a couple of days off beyond that as personal vacation, while Troy had gone through a slightly less formal procedure to secure his own time off; namely, waking up in the morning. We intended to spend five consecutive days in a decrepit but not Evil Dead-level enclosure owned and often rented out by Troy’s aunt, where we would get through some, but probably not even most, of our first game of A World at War. The car was loaded down with foldable card tables, Plexi-glass sheets, groceries, my laptop computer for DVD-watching purposes, and above all, my copy of the game, which was positioned squarely in the center of the back seat as we rolled semi-confidently into the horizon.
It is at this point in my narrative that I formally accuse A World at War of very nearly leading to my death on a remote country road in the middle of nowhere. If the following incident had never occurred, I’m not sure I would even have bothered with writing down the rest of it.
I had never been to Glady, the shining jewel of the Appalachian Mountains, and Troy had only been to the cabin a couple of times in the past ten years. We had checked the weather before heading up, of course, but what we hadn’t realized, because we were a couple of surrey-riding, top-hat-wearing city slickers coming straight from breakfast at Tiffany’s, and who couldn’t find our butts with both hands and a flashlight, was that the weather that high up was notoriously difficult to predict, and the word “Glady” on an iPhone’s cruddy little weather app didn’t necessarily mean the Glady of our pinpoint destination. As you no doubt know, Glady has many subtle shadings, textures, nuances, and elevations. At about the two-thirds point in our journey into the wild, snow began to fall, mixed with a little ice. It was about seven o’clock p.m.
“Aw crap,” I said to Troy. “There’s nothing I hate worse than driving through this kind of thing. Are we sure there’s not a storm on the way?”
Troy checked the app’s dubious stats one more time. “Light snow, thirty percent chance, ending at around midnight,” he reported.
I cast a baleful eye at the road. “Well, it’s not like we’re gonna turn back, so let’s roll. Where’s my Best of Simple Minds CD?”
We went on. With every mile we traveled the road got more remote, turning from two-lane highway to one-lane highway to one-lane country road. And the wintry mix kept falling, and the number of cars we passed kept declining. The most cultural sight we beheld was a rusted billboard advertising a restaurant chain whose heyday had lasted exactly eleven seconds in 1974.
“Jeebus deliver us,” Troy said from the comfort and responsibility-free luxury living of the passenger’s seat.
“Jeebus don’t care,” I muttered. “This is no good.” Our ongoing conversation about the strangest serial killers we had ever read about tapered off quickly as I honed my usually marshmallow-sharp driving focus into something more serious.
I started to have to reduce my speed about sixty miles out from Glady. Thirty miles later, snow was coming down hard. The road was blanketed, we hadn’t seen anything like civilization in a half hour, and maybe ten cars had gone by in the other direction in all that time. Yelp wasn’t responding to our pleas for information, and there seemed to be nowhere to stop for the night without doubling back or going way the hell out of our way. We kept pushing onward, climbing ever higher into the mountains. We wound up and up, me riding the double yellow line so as to keep as close to the road’s comforting white center as possible, Troy peering out and wondering where the hell the guardrail had gone to as the darkness swallowed us up.
We had a scary 20 minutes of driving arthritically through the storm, which I’m sure would have been considered quite mild to the folk of Glady but which was nevertheless causing my cruddy Toyota to slip a little if I pushed things just a little too hard. My hands gripped the wheel with pointless intensity and I leaned forward, begging God to send along just one other car so we wouldn’t feel so alone.
That car never, ever came. The twists and turns mounted, the car wobbled, and I never once touched the brake for fear this would cause us to skate off into the wild black yonder. If we went off the road here, we were absolutely toast, the first board gamers ever to die for their cause. In the back seat, A World at War laughed and laughed at us, adjusting its monocle to better witness our imminent death. “Damn you, Bruce Harper!” I wanted to cry. “Damn you for getting me into this mess!” WHY WASN’T THERE A GUARDRAIL??
We finally reached the turnoff to the twelve-mile road which would, in theory, take us directly to the cabin. But there was a sheet of snow on that country road, and only empty fields flanking it, and Troy was only ninety percent sure that the way ahead wasn’t a curving, climbing death trap. If we stayed right where we were, we would be safe and warm for a little while, but sleeping in the car was out of the question; it was about twenty degrees outside, and quite windy. If we ventured forward, we might well get royally stuck with no one around for miles, and, naturally, no phone reception. That is, if we didn’t slide off the mountain entirely and promptly commence the dirt nap. We had no chains, no snow tires, no flares, no winter gear whatsoever (see rule 17.5.3, “Killing Off Brain-addled Suburban Lunkheads”).
We went on, driving at ten miles per hour through the area known as the Monongahela National Forest, sometimes a little slower even. The road thankfully leveled out and there were more meadows than crevasses to our left and right, so the sweet embrace of the grave played it cool for now. We did go past a couple of houses where we supposed we could rouse people from their beds if everything went to holy hell, but merely walking down the road in the dark and wind-whipped cold would be a nightmare, frostbite more or less a certainty.
“Where is this accursed shack?!” I would occasionally yell, time spinning out. Troy himself was all out of wisecracks, though not nearly as freaked out as I; for all he knew, he was dealing with a competent driver, which I can assure you I am not.
In the end, we made it to the cabin. I have never felt more relief in my life than when Troy said, with eerie calm, “Oh yeah, this is it.” We abandoned the car just a few inches off the road for fear that trying to get cute and maneuver right up to the front step would strand us in the snow. By that time the road was just a memory underneath it.
Naturally the snow stopped only thirty minutes or so after we had settled ourselves. We set up the card tables and the maps and laid the Plexi-glass down on top of them while the wind blew spinning screens of glistening white powder across the night. We were sitting on four acres of nothingness in the wilderness, alone with our game and some steaks and frozen waffles and two kinds of cereal and three kinds of spaghetti sauce and maybe one or two things which resembled a vegetable. We would not be able to call anyone; phone reception was still a crazy dream, but we had power and water. We collapsed in our bunks and dreamed of the next day, when our grognard cards would be officially stamped and laminated and our chances of coming to an untimely end were slightly less than fifty percent or so. Joy to the effin’ world!
The Western Allies advance and capture Oslo while also invading the Danish beach. American armor overrun a German infantry northwest of Paris, attack over the Seine aided by an airdrop, and exploit and attack into Brussels. This uses all of the Western Allied AAF, so the German line from Paris to Lyon is left largely unmolested. Without AAF escorts, Western Allied bombing also remains ineffective. Such is the cost for tactical gains on the ground. – from “Slugfest at the Con”
Day one was mostly setup, of course. It takes a few hours to lay out the game and put the starting units on the board and get the players squared away with the right log sheets and such. With each unit laid out I got happier and happier, though I was clueless as what represented an optimum placement for my counters, and the toil did start to make me feel somewhat like I was back at the office. Troy had a very good grasp, thank God, of what to do when we ran into a little difficulty right off the bat concerning what exactly was a starting unit and what would have to be built after the first turn. We were pretty much ready to go after a late lunch and a quick walk to the edge of the property to see that naturally, no one had been by to plow the road, which concealed a good half inch of ice under the snow cover. Gack--we weren’t going anywhere. When we sat down back at the maps and picked up the Sequence of Play sheet, the most important journey of our lives began. We were doing it! It was 1939 and the war had begun! There was coffee, apple danish, peace and quiet, and Nazis--oh, so many Nazis! How they darted hither and yon!
Deep breath. Guess what, everyone? When it comes to monster war games, there’s a big difference between knowing the rules and knowing the rules.
Though we had all the player aids laid out before us and months of accrued knowledge, getting through the sequence of play on turn one turned out to be as brutal as I had feared. Set upon the game with no one of experience to guide us, we stumbled our way through dinner and deep into the night taking only baby steps toward getting it all right, fashioning a fragrant bouquet of mistakes and gaffes along the way and requiring more pauses to leaf through the rulebook than I had even expected.
“Exploitations,” I said at one point. “Exploitations. Exploitations.”
“What about them?” Troy asked, scratching his chin, casting a baleful eye at the Maginot Line.
“Well, I could bust out with one at any moment,” I said, trying to convey an ominous tone that would haunt his dreams. “So how do you, like, do those again?” I asked.
“I would call you a catastrophic nifnorf, and a latent pedophile to boot,” he replied, “but I am not totally sure myself.”
While Troy made us Kraft macaroni and cheese for dinner (wow, this whole account has really made me look like a genuine epicure) I pored over combat rules, kind of dreading the moment when one of us decided it was time to strike at sea. Troy had to pause to explain to me once again how some ships needed to be accompanied into play, and how certain kinds of warfare were reserved for certain specific situations and areas, though we were a bit premature on such matters. (We still, by the way, hadn’t even given the Pearl Harbor rules more than a skim. I really didn’t think we’d quite make it to December of 1941 while in Glady.)
“Is it my imagination,” I asked a little later, “or are you getting a little bit scared in France? Shouldn’t you have wiped out all my units by now? I’m looking down at the board and I’ll still seeing dudes named Arnaud scurrying about.”
“Ummm, actually,” came Troy’s reply, “due to your baffling moves, Paris will probably fall way before it did in real life.”
“Not if I eat your armor,” I said. “I mean literally just reach down and put the pieces into my mouth. Would you like that, Troy?”
By midnight we were spent, having progressed through winter of 1939, burdened with the suspicion we’d made more errors than the 1976 Seattle Mariners. We had conveniently overlooked many for the sake of making progress. (I’d had a freakish amount of good fortune resisting the Nazis in Poland, and I wondered how much of that was due to rules misinterpretations.) We turned away from the game to watch a movie, and I passed out about a half hour in.
When we awoke the next day, I was greeted with a somewhat surreal feeling. Were we really going to do the exact same thing today as we had done yesterday, crowding around a bunch of card tables, listening to Abbey Road as morning became afternoon and afternoon became night, with no one to report our doings to, and not even the frolicking creatures of the woods at all interested in our efforts? When was the last time so little had been made of so much time? Not since I was down with the flu, certainly. This was all much stranger to me than it was to Troy, though already he seemed to be losing his enthusiasm. A World at War is a game of multiple procedures and calculations, broken up by the roll of a single die from time to time, after which there is more quiet addition and subtraction. Checking to see if eight or nine different modifiers applied to every damn thing quickly got a little old, though I could see how if you were to truly adopt the tactician’s mindset, even those little bits of business could become infused with the rush of strategic analysis and forward planning. Looking at the list of modifiers that applied to everything from the actions of raider groups to the U.S. elections, you could see the actual history of the war miniaturized with great care. That care just didn’t mean much excitement for either one of us. (If you wanted you run an effective war, you really had to know which modifiers lay in wait to screw your dice rolls, and what would trip them--again, getting to at least third base with your WWII history is huge.)
Our so-called strategies pretty much abandoned us as we focused more on just getting through the required steps for sundry processes without looking down to realize that we had accidentally placed a battleship in downtown Toronto or something. Through it all we tried to let our imaginations run wild, imaging soldiers freezing through a Soviet winter, Winston Churchill getting more and more upset with German aggression, and Japanese generals planning in secret to island-hop all the way to the Statue of Liberty gift shop. Both our minds raced with battle imagery when engaged in the slightest three- or four-counter collision, and we whooped and hollered over results that may not have even really been that much in our favor. It was incredibly rewarding to cause even the slightest variation in the course of history, and almost as interesting when we found ourselves bound to mimicking events quite closely and acting merely as obedient subjects to actual timelines and unchangeable realities. Downtime was never an issue because there was still so much to learn, plan, and think about. Plus, our game was essentially a co-op, as we spent more time helping each other through the confusing spots than shaking our fists at each other in faux bravado. (In retrospect, we were crazy not to limit ourselves to AWAW’s historical campaign scenario, which would have scripted many of the more AP-inducing elements for us.)
Day two got us through spring of 1940. Troy was right; Paris went down way too soon. Fortunately, he had failed to generate enough Basic Resource Points during my blunders to bomb Britain. The nagging feeling that we were skipping and forgetting things did not subside as we worked through the French surrender process. We knocked off after dinner, exhausted from playing, and watched Halloween. Troy wanted to do some reading, so I decided to take a walk down the road a spell to see what was what. We had seen a plow go by a few hours before; perhaps it would be safe soon to go into town and buy some Bubble Yum and Necco Wafers, since we were already down to virtually nothing that could be considered edible.
The sky was absolutely brimming with starry goodness as I walked down the country road toward nothing in particular, giving me the kind of sights I could never enjoy just outside Washington. The wind had fully subsided, the snow puffed and chuffed pleasantly around my boots, and my only fear was, well, bears, which were supposedly everywhere. I didn’t mind. Death by bear would be just kind of comical and comforting somehow.
After about a quarter mile I came across another cabin nestled under some trees--a more elaborate affair, two stories tall, definitely something for the wealthier crowd. Two SUVs were parked in front. Something about seeing the glowing, rustic orange warmth emanating from the upper window made me ridiculously happy. I realized that the journey had already been completed, that all my goals had been met. I had done something I did not think it was possible for me to do, and I had somehow managed to not have to go through it all alone. Above all else, I had for just a little while broken out of the routines that bound me, embarking on a strange and perhaps silly course which would act as a kind of Reset button on my gaming life, and maybe even life in general. And no game would ever, ever give me such memories as this one. Its place on my shelf would be permanent, unswerving, a source of pride and fondness.
Day three was interrupted early, and that was okay. We heard a knock at the cabin door at nine in the morning, just as we were sitting down to start playing again. An ex-Navy seal who owned a few of the cabins around us asked us if we wanted a ride into town with his father, who always made a habit after even a moderate snow to take folks to WalMart in his mammoth four-wheel drive carrier of cowering people. We accepted gratefully, though we were the only ones to make the trip. Everyone else had apparently bothered to do their prep work.
Morris, the man who ferried us nine miles for supplies, was eighty-two years old and about as authentically backwoods as you could ever want. He still occasionally drove a snowplow for money and was only too delighted to take total strangers who hadn’t properly anticipated winter’s bitchiness wherever they wished to go. His prized and admirably rusty vehicle, which mowed through the snow at speeds fast enough to make me utter little terrified “eeks” and “ulps,” brought him into more contact with a wider variety of people than any of our fancy metropolitan Meetup groups could. He was full of stories of foolish folk who had braved the unpredictable weather up here, and of various crazy encounters he’d had operating the plow and going on casual ride-alongs with the county sheriff, who was nearly a half century younger than he. His very best tale was of a local man whose six daughters had all grown up to become prostitutes serving truckers as they passed through Glady. (Did I say “best” tale? Sorry, I meant “spectacularly awful and disturbing.”)
On the return trip, Morris seriously put the zap on our minds when he mentioned his time fighting in Korea. Yes, here was an actual soldier of an actual famous war, a man who had just missed serving in WWII but who had gone on to suffer combat’s horrors elsewhere. He had seen some terrible things in his three months overseas, he told us without any prompting, oh yes indeed. We were left to wonder why he’d been in Korea for only three months--perhaps he’d been severely wounded, or perhaps the war had ended; we didn’t know. We never asked any questions, too impressed and yet too weirded out, considering what we were up to there in the cabin.
“That was an encounter for the ages,” Troy said when Morris drove off down the road after dropping us off back at Chez Mold. That saint of the wilderness had even showed us which snow chains to buy and pointed out a 75-year-old diner we absolutely had to visit on our way out of town.
“I feel edified in a way I do not wish to be ever again,” I told him.
That night as we played on and things became just a little more familiar (though still not terribly coherent), the feeling I had been really waiting for finally hit full-bore: that of being a commanding general involved in an epic struggle against an unrelenting enemy, locked in a grand sweeping multi-faceted clash that demanded my attention seemingly everywhere on the planet as I orchestrated maneuvers that all had to sync up just so in order for me to save the world. I could, if I had chosen and had all the rules down pat, to kick back with a lit pipe before every turn and spend hours just surveying the maps, re-analyzing my production and research strategies, my scheme for distributing resources, my timetables for bolstering my troops, my relationships with my allies, and the tension levels that would bring them into the war or keep them huddled on the sidelines, too wimpy to throw down and fight. There is so much going on in a game like this that you can’t help but feel empowered somehow, suddenly a man larger in intellect and ambition than you were before you started playing. This was, indeed, barely a game; it was a grinding, remorseless simulation for the strong and the hyperaware, for the continuously calculating and the wildly imaginative. It intrigued me that because AWAW is always being revised and tweaked (to the justifiable consternation of many), there are undoubtedly mysteries and avenues still buried deep within, tiny imperfections and imbalances that are waiting to be discovered by accident, some of which will undoubtedly never see the light of day because they get suddenly papered over with fixes and solutions. I was not player enough to find them, but the thought that I could be someday was another subtle draw in a long line of them.
(My scheme, for those who might want to step into the shoes of the worst general in history, had been to lean on lucky dice rolls to buy me enough time in Europe to formulate a plan for Africa and Asia, but Germany managed to stroll through the Benelux countries with zero losses, and Troy’s aggressive play with raiders left me crying in a corner. At that point, terrified I would lose England completely, I abandoned Norway and tried to make him focus on Russia and Russia alone. Which he did. Small victories, small victories...)
We went until about one a.m., when we were stymied by Troy’s catastrophic decision to attack a floaty-thing with a wingy-thing somewhere in the North Sea, and all the naval-air rules came crashing down upon our muddled gray matter.
I woke up at half past three in the morning, freakishly thirsty (the heat in that cabin was more dry than even the most dire ham slice back at our beloved Old Country Buffet) and so groggy that for a minute I wasn’t even sure where I was. Then it all slowly came to me, and I got up and stumbled toward the kitchen. I noticed in the dark that Troy wasn’t in his bunk, and he certainly wasn’t anywhere else in the single cavernous room that represented the entirety of the cabin. Yawning and scratching my various scratchables, I went over to the sink and peered out the little window that looked out on the rear of the property.
Troy was out there, about fifty feet away, nothing more than a silhouette in the gloom. He was standing sans jacket with his back to the cabin, smoking, looking off at the mountains far in the distance. As I watched, he very slowly brought the cigarette up to his mouth, then after a few contemplative puffs very slowly brought it down to his side again, where the tiny ember winked and glowed like a junior Eye of Sauron. The image could have been a painting called The Loneliest Man. I drank some water and collapsed into my bunk again, trying briefly to recall the name of an old high school acquaintance of mine, a talented poet who had been a little like Troy, idiosyncratic, judgmental, and entertainingly crude, but who had supposedly “straightened out” in college and was happily employed and married now. While that man was tonight surely curled warmly in his bed somewhere in some subdivision called Cherrybrook, or maybe in an expensive brownstone in the city, a Labrador retriever snoring in one corner and his wife snuggled up beside him under a comforter bought from Anthropologie, Troy Kiddell stood in the middle of nowhere and smoked, thinking of things unknown.
As a last ditch effort to reconstruct their defensive line, the Germans try a massive counterattack in the east. Using most of the German AAF and jets, the Germans attack and destroy seven Russian exploiters with no (!) German losses. Eric is dumbfounded. Ken cannot believe how hot he is with the combat dice. With the east under control, Germany constructs a solid line from Rotterdam to Switzerland and then from Turin to Genoa. It seems that the Allies may be slowed for another turn. Germany ends the turn with five oil counters in their oil reserve.
With most of the Swedes unbuilt, the Western Allies make a diplomatic die roll for Sweden and it switches sides, becoming an American minor ally. This is more for show than anything else. Not to be outdone, Russia uses a –5 subversion result and a few DPs, in conjunction with all of the unbuilt Hungarians, to entice the Hungarians to switch sides. The only result is that the Russians gain control of Budapest, as every other Hungarian hex either contains Axis units or is already under Russian control.
Crunch time. The Western Allies reveal their second winter preparation result. With the Luftwaffe out of position in the west, the Western Allies pound their way into Kiel.
– from “Slugfest at the Con”
By the beginning of the fourth day we were tired of playing; hell, we would have been tired of doing anything for ten hours at a stretch. Our pace regressed, we got totally hung up on air support rules, and by the time lunch came around, near the beginning of 1941 and Troy’s advance into North Africa, it felt like we needed much more of a break than just the duration of Cries and Whispers or King Rat. We dawdled with cocoa and after we had entertained ourselves by watching the final episode of “The Prisoner” for the umpteenth time in our lives, I decided to walk down the road a bit to a point where I could get just enough of a cell signal to check the weather; the forlorn color of the sky that morning had kind of spooked me.
Sure enough, there was snow in the forecast for the next afternoon. As if there had been any chance in hell of getting more than halfway through the game to begin with, the window was now officially closing. I informed Troy of the imminent nastiness and he agreed we should probably bug out that very night. The road leading down to the highway was still in somewhat ugly shape but at least it was passable, which it might not be very soon. War in the Pacific would have to wait.
Thus, I took on the task of transcribing the position of every unit on the maps, creating a color-coded Word doc on my laptop while Troy organized our production and research sheets. The process, which made it clear at each step that Troy was kind of kicking my tail in the game in every possible way (even if it was only because I was such an awful player), took us through dinner and we decided to roll out of Glady at around eight.
We didn’t talk a whole lot on the way back, being both tired and anxious to sleep in our own beds, though Troy did entertain me with his plans to make a black comedy, which he had already half-written, about God testing out various designs for the universe. When we did speak of the game, it had a real ring of past-tense to it, which was sad but also a great relief. I figured that if we got together every two or three nights for the next several weeks we might actually be able to see things through to the end, but the concept drew only a “We shall see, we shall see” from Troy which sounded pretty bleak. That was okay; I could always solo the rest of it.
We ate a final meal at a suffering Denny’s somewhere outside Front Royal, Virginia, where Troy eyed the barely legal waitress with his typical lechery. When I dropped him off at his father’s house, he ushered me off with this hearty farewell: “Now, Gherkin, I don't want to get any messages from you saying that ‘we are holding our position.’ We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that!” I took the Patton reference as another personal victory, a sign that he, too, would remember this particular vacation, and maybe even the dude who had conned him into it, for a long time to come.
In the end, Steve and Eric decide to roll for the atomic bomb in Summer 1945 and drop a bomb on Germany to secure a tie in Europe. A surrender in the hand is worth two in the bush! The Western Allies will have two more plutonium bombs available in Winter 1945 to be used to (hopefully) secure at least a one-turn defeat in the Pacific, if it came to that. There would be nail-biting when the research roll for uranium separation was made in Fall 1945.
The atomic bomb roll is made, and both triggering mechanisms are a go. One plutonium bomb is tested so that the other one is sure to work.
– from “Slugfest at the Con”
I next heard from Troy four days later via text; he was informing me that Werner Herzog was coming out with a new documentary soon. When I asked him when he wanted to come over next to resume the game, he was evasive, saying that “one night next week” might be good, as if he had suddenly acquired some kind of social calendar which pre-empted us. I sort of figured then that there wasn’t a whole lot of point in taking things out of the Plano boxes and setting up the tables again; I’d already had plenty of time to get the process started but I never had, falling out of A World at War mode with unsettling rapidity. The very next night, I ventured into my closet and brought an oldie back onto my table: Sid Meier’s Civilization, whose comparative simplicity made it seem like Color-Freakin’-Etto. I decided to play two civilizations against each other, playing for both sides equally, to see if I would really be into soloing AWAW, or any classically two-player war game sometime. The answer was more or less a resounding no. Playing against myself rather than devising a crude AI just created too much game, too much schizophrenia, to really be enjoyable for me. I had always intended to play AWAW solo by creating a chart-and-dice randomizer for all turns which would force me to react to factors well out of my control and constantly demand shifts in both players’ strategies, thus causing a pleasingly chaotic narrative and perhaps slightly mitigating the problem of advance planning against oneself, but even that now felt like it would be way too much to be saddled with. When it came to solo gaming, I lost interest if I had to gather up my thoughts and actually move to the other side of the table, either physically or mentally.
And so A World at War remained boxed and on my shelf that week, and for the one after that as well, the precious knowledge I’d worked so hard to gain of it slipping away day by day.
And there it has stayed until this moment, when I slowly finish writing these words. Troy wasn’t too put out by the loss, and he has not seemed interested to joining me for any other sorts of games. It feels like we’re slipping into our pre-AWAW routine of getting together once every few weeks for coffee or a movie, and there will most likely be no further excursions into either war gaming or, say, Alien Frontiers or Tokaido. Troy really does not have the DNA for it, unfortunately, even though his personality seems so geek-ready. Maybe there’s some other trick or psychological angle I can pull on him to get him to join me once again at the table--I’m thinking that the next time I go to New York on the train, I could invite him along and we could kill some quality time in the club car over Acquire.
Or I may just let it go entirely, and try to remain content to discuss movies and books and philosophy--just never politics, which Troy feels, far too sweepingly, is nothing more than a corrupt charade populated with villains and hypnotists. We’ll see how long we can go like that, just chatting about this and that over fried foods and baked goods that will eventually kill us. Sometimes in my darker hours I don’t know if I could hang out with Troy over the weighty course of years; the sameness of his existence and his withering commentary about life and all its shortcomings has a way of wearing me down, making me sad in odd moments here and there, and worst of all, making me feel pity for his frustrated, angry core. That sort of feeling isn’t healthy for a friendship, so if Troy drifts farther and farther away, it might be best to let it happen--though where he will drift to, I can’t help myself from worrying about.
So what do I actually think of A World at War now that we’ve been through the flames together? Frankly, it may have ruined me a bit for the one- to two-hour games I’d been accustomed to, and maybe even the ones with 36-page rulebooks which I traditionally bang my head against for days before I play once and then toss aside. Oh, I’ll be returning quite quickly to that more rational realm, I assure you, but now that I’ve tasted something of such epic scope, it’s going to be hard not to at least become a collector of things like Europa Universalis, Magic Realm, Empires in Arms, and at the more rational end of the spectrum, Twilight Imperium or Paths of Glory. The promise of the truly grandiose has now become intensely seductive to me, to the point where everything else seems sadly incomplete; playing something like A World at War might break you in this way as well if you haven’t entered into it slowly, after years of building up to it. It’s like spending a summer backpacking alone through the wildest parts of Africa as a sophomore in college and then getting as a graduation present a three-day package of carefully arranged tours and lodgings in London. London is fabulous, but memories-wise, you’ve actually witnessed a rhinoceros fight a great white shark while a giraffe made sweet love to both of them, so seeing Big Ben doesn’t quite cut the Grey Poupon. And just think, in our game the Japanese never even got the chance to turn the Pacific theater into a Troy-dominated landscape of chaos.
Despite the loving level of historical accuracy, AWAW to me is just insanely, obsessively detailed to the point where it can only be wholeheartedly enjoyed by a very specific type of person, and I’d feel like a bit of a charlatan recommending it to anyone but the most diehard, history-coveting grognard who doesn’t mind getting completely intimate with the act of micromanagement. AWAW’s pleasures become more and more apparent the less you use the term “game” when you’re in the same room with it; as a thing which offers “fun” via the rolling of dice and the moving of pieces, it’s kind of a dark secret to keep locked in the closet, but as an experience, a challenge, a simulation, and a badge of honor, it’s certainly a stunner and, in the words of Arthur Miller, attention must be paid. Something like World in Flames or Axis Empires looks marvelous as well, but I think if I ever develop an itch to dive back into the world of monster war gaming--and I bet I will, I bet I will--it is A World at War’s sheer mad-scientist ambition that has the edge on ensnaring me once again, the sense that I am playing a board game whose scope can never be equaled without the use of microchips, buggy digital updates, and pop-up ads asking if you’d like to unlock access to the Ukraine for just $2.99. Whether the whole package can be considered good game design or simply game creation by brute force is an issue that can certainly be debated, but it’s an argument that can only be settled by people who know what they speak of far more than me. My advice to those thinking of giving it a try is to read the first two or three pages of, say, the air and naval parts of the rulebook; if you can do it without batting an eye, read five more. If you’re having second thoughts at that point, run for the hills unless you possess a unique patience for minutiae and plenty of the one commodity which will certainly make a go at it worthwhile, but which to life-weary, battle-fatigued adults is so painfully, achingly precious: time.
Time, yes. It’s already slipping away from me again in bits and pieces as I resume the march onwards through life as a harried adult. Just yesterday evening I took down from the shelf my copy of Vietnam 1965-1975, a classic poster child for monster game insanity. This one I’ll probably truly never play, as I’m a purist for full campaigns and this one’s wire-to-wire package can supposedly take hundreds of hours to get through. Yet as I do every few months all the same, I spent twenty solid minutes gently rifling the box’s contents, because to merely touch its counters and hold its rulebook buys me passage again and again into a daydream of that musty cabin in Glady, and of a freak winter storm which cuts me off inside it for months and months--me and me alone, for in my daydream I intend to become the only person in the history of the human race to verifiably play the complete campaign game solo. And yet when I emerge from the cabin with hair down to my waist and dice pips for eyes, I will not have actually lost a single day to the game, because in my alternate universe I never stayed at a job I disliked, never put off breaking up with someone out of guilt, never sat through a bad film or boring dinner just to be nice, never got stuck at a distant relative's house for the holidays, or went to a depressing funeral or a hopeless and demeaning job interview, or done any of the thousand things we tragically feel we must do as grownups but which slowly rob us of our spirit, and also somehow erode the value we place on innocent play. In the daydream my hands possess the ability to resurrect vanished hours, and I’ve collected enough to spread them around like GeekGold. Take them, I say to the gamers I pass as I walk home down that now sun-dappled country road, take them and stay young, count as many hexes and evade as many zones of control as you can dream of, and play as if we're all fifteen years old--back when the still-limitless world seemed to wait humbly, patiently, for our every daring move.
Fans of long-form board game narratives might also enjoy this: http://thosesnowynights.libsyn.com/new-players-welcome-here.
- Last edited Tue May 23, 2017 12:08 am (Total Number of Edits: 5)
- Posted Mon Mar 4, 2013 11:54 pm
- Last edited Thu Jan 8, 2015 5:18 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Mar 5, 2013 12:43 am
"L'état, c'est moi."
Roger's Reviews: check out my reviews page, right here on BGG!
Caution: May contain wargame like substance
So long ...
... and thanks for all the fish.
I have nothing to say that doesn't seem superfluous right now.
Except that if you wrote more, I'd read more.
- Last edited Tue Mar 5, 2013 1:01 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Mar 5, 2013 12:58 am
I couldn't figure out which would be worst, continue reading the ramblings of a manifesto from the latest world crazy or actually playing World at War. Either way it would be HELL!!!
If this session report doesn't get a billion thumbs I am quitting this site.
My God, sir. You are a prophet.
A new code-hero is born. Somewhere, somehow, Ernest Hemingway is smiling right now. Well done sir!
For those interested, this review clocks in at 21,192 words across roughly 32 pages of size 11 Garamond font.
The session report as I knew it an hour ago has died, rotted, and given birth to the finest piece of board game literature ever to exist.
For those interested, this review clocks in at 21,192 words across roughly 32 pages of size 11 Garamond font.
It was originally an even 27,000, but at the last minute I deleted the twelve-page history of counter-clipping.
As I read this, I believe I briefly glimpsed into the Mouth of Madness. And it felt disturbingly good.
The single best thing I`ve ever read on BGG.
Surrey - United Kingdom
ASL - other tactical wargames call it Sir.
Beneath this mask there is an idea.....and ideas are bulletproof.
I'm looking forward to his ASL session report.
"...the art of manoeuvering armies...an art which none may master by the light of nature. but to which, if he is to attain success, a man must serve a long apprenticeship." -- G.F.R. Henderson
Favorably compares with Roberto Bolano's book, THE THIRD REICH...and far, far better than BEER, CHICKS, AND WARGAMES!
All the little chicks with crimson lips, go...
Hey, get your stinking cursor off my face! I got nukes, you know.
Simply brilliant. Thanks for writing this.
There is so much going on in a game like this that you can’t help but feel empowered somehow, suddenly a man larger in intellect and ambition than you were before you started playing.
Be careful about Europa Universalis; that way madness lies.
And if you decide to try another global WW2 monster game, let me assure you that World in Flames is far easier.
As for Troy, I have known a couple of people like this. And sometimes, in some ways, I envy them.
- Last edited Tue Mar 5, 2013 1:39 pm (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Mar 5, 2013 1:39 pm
All kidding aside, this needs to be anthologized somewhere.
The Year's Longest Game Essays That Were Typed Into BGG on an iPhone.
This is a manifesto.
Pablo Garcia Silva
Congratulations sir. As a former AWAW player, that has refused to be sucked in again into that terrible madness, I applaud you.
I also say you should read Bolaño's Third Reich, in case you haven't done so yet.
All kidding aside, this needs to be anthologized somewhere.The Year's Longest Game Essays That Were Typed Into BGG on an iPhone.
This keeps getting weirder.
You, sir, are an excellent writer, and because of this I have begun looking at your webpage, and will surely read more.
A few of my favorite moments:
the deal-breaker had finally arrived--and I don’t mean the fact that Boris, the Siamese dybbuk who’d hated me from the get-go, had once again chosen to sleep with his angry furry butt aimed directly at my unprotected face.
It took just two random game club sessions over the course of a single month in 2011 to bring me into contact with every conceivable negative gamer stereotype and frighten me back into the solitaire life for good. My brain wilted at the memory of the people I’d played with and now referred to privately as:
The Fat ‘n’ Angry Judge of All Things
Weird Silent Statue
Loves to Say “Dong”
Fanny Pack Girl with the Random Hair
Dances With Bizarre House Rules
Still Thinks Quoting Life of Brian is Clever
The Snarky Scarecrow
And who could truly hate a man who, in the middle of dessert course #3 that day, simply lowered his face onto his plate, completely plastering it with crumbs and frosting, and whispered to no one, with absolutely no context, “I am the Last Emperor. China’s destiny lies in my hands alone.”
Reading the report alone was epic, and while I am no monster wargamer, this gave me a glimpse into the siege that it must be to partake.
Thanks for writing this.
Back and to the Left-
Up a Bit, Perfect
An old, liberal optimist.
Denmark. Go big or go home. We went home.
I had always kidded myself about picking up a copy for the very reasons you state. Now, being left bare of excuses, I shall pick up a copy. If I mail you the rule book, would you please sign it? Also...
Dances With Bizarre House Rules
I'm not from around there, so I'm assuming this is just an archetype and we've never met. It wasn't me, ok?
The only other piece on BGG that comes close to this is Joe Gola's Session Report on Amun-Re http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/24697/session-report.
Royal Dublin Fusiliers "Spectamur Agendo"
Friendship, obsession and Minor Ally Diplomacy DRMs.