In an “I never thought I’d see the day” moment, the Wall St. Journal this weekend has an article on the historical genre of board gaming. It’s more of a side bar format, really, than an article. After a brief orientation about how Settlers of Catan is a better experience for adults than Candyland, they recommend five strategy games based on historical events. In the original order:
1. 13 Minutes,
2. Freedom: The Underground Railroad,
3. Memoire ’44,
4. 1960: The Making of the President, and
5. Fire in the Lake.
The article features a nice picture of the Freedom board, set up for play. (I can’t see any of this on line – you may need to have the printed Wall St. Journal to see it at all). What drew my interest most is the first title on the list. I’ve seen all the others at some point or the other, but their #1 was new to me.
On Amazon, 13 Minutes is sold for (at present) $10 and is also suggested as a three game package, together with 13 Days:The Cuban Missile Crisis (this I’ve glanced at before) and a game called Twilight Squabble. Together, the trio offer ways to play Cold War in very short game play. 13 Minutes is described as the time it would take missiles to reach the U.S. from Cuba, and also the typical length of a game. 13 Days is described as a 45 minute game, but online reviews discuss whether it can be finished in 30 minutes. Twilight Squabble offers the entire Cold War in 10 minutes.
While the third may be overdoing it a little, the first two receive fairly good marks on Board Game Geek. In fact, not at all obvious to me until I began reading, the two games are made by the same designers. Further it would appear that the former is a deliberate condensing of the latter (although, remember, I haven’t played these games – I’m just looking at them on-line).
In addition to that bit of enlightenment, the mix of the games in the article is also interesting. First, with the exception of Memoire, the games’ pedigree all flows back to Twilight Struggle. 13 Days is obviously an attempt to streamline the Twilight Struggle gameplay, and 13 Minutes is a further streamlining of that. 1960 was another GMT release, a few years after Twilight Struggle, and (at least at first glance) looks like a variation on the theme. Fire in the Lake is one of the COIN-series games that followed on from Labyrinth, itself and extension of Twilight Struggle mechanics to the war on terror.
The most tenuous connection is Freedom. It is from different designers and different publishers than the children of Twilight Struggle. However, Freedom shares with Twilight Struggle the card-driven mechanics as well as the point-to-point mapboard. I’ll go so far as to say that, appearance-wise, the components resemble those of Fire in the Lake. I suspect that Freedom was also included in the list because it is a cooperative game, a novel concept to those who abandoned board gaming with one two too many games of Candyland.
Likewise, Memoire ’44 is an obvious inclusion. It predates Twilight Struggle by a year. It was not entirely a novel concept at that time. Memoire followed the Battle Cry civil war game using similar mechanics, a game system that would eventually be the Commands and Colors series. Likely the World War II theme of Memoire had a broader appeal making Memoire an entry point into the hex-and-counter wargaming genre for the non-wargaming public.
Seen this way, the list can be examples of various genres, using the American History theme to unite them. The micro-game, the cooperative game, the wargame, and a political game. The only obvious missing element is an economic game (unless the lead-in introduction to Catan counts). In this, the odd man out becomes Fire in the Lake.
Fire in the Lake has the best Board Game Geek scores of any on the list. It is also ranked as the most complex on this list. In fact, even by the standards of the COIN series (themselves something of a master-level gaming experience), Fire in the Lake is one of the more complex of the bunch. The giant leap from Candyland to Fire in the Lake would likely give Neil Armstrong pause. Maybe this game is included for readers like me. While familiar with strategy and historical boardgaming, 13 Minutes was something new for me to ponder. For others already primed for a very deep boardgame experience and interested in Cold War history, perhaps they just never realized that there was such a game as Fire in the Lake. More importantly, one might realize realize that Fire in the Lake is due up for a reprint and is discounted for pre-order.
As a final personal note, while I’ve fairly recently been playing at Candyland, I’ve never played The Settlers of Catan.