Getting into wargaming through boardgaming

Little wars

gaming settings

Wargames are usually big, meaning they're physically large. They're about wars by design, so they're meant to evoke the epic scale of great historical or fictional battles. You play a wargame on a big table, with terrain so elaborate that it qualifies as a diorama, with thirty or sixty or even a hundred miniatures. They're expansive and bombastic and, to the uninitiated, overwhelming. Board games, by contrast, tend to be small and self-contained, with clear boundaries. I've picked 5 board games that can serve as a gentle introduction into wargaming, or as an alternative to wargaming when an experienced wargamer feels like playing something a little different.

I've structured this list as a spectrum. The game that's most like a traditional board game appears first, and the list transitions toward the game that's arguably just a wargame thinly disguised as a board game.

1. Zombicide

A board game about fighting off hordes of zombies, Zombicide is a mix between Survival Horror and Wargame. As in many wargames, Zombicide isn't just about killing the enemy, though. There are mission objectives, gear to collect, places to get to.

The game isn't really about killing, that's just the backdrop. It might surprise new wargamers that the same is true of most wargames. Battlefields in wargames are often overflowing with enemy troops, but there's usually some other reason to be there. Wars aren't usually fought for nothing. Maybe you're fighting over land, resources, or ideology. In Zombicide, the "war" is for resources. You're food for the zombies, and you need better weapons to use against the zombies.

The game is played, as board games usually are, on board. You create the board out of tiles, which includes city streets and buildings. As a Survivor, you move your miniature through the city in pursuit of your objectives, but if you make too much noise or open the wrong door, you're likely to find a bunch of walking corpses hungering for your brain matter.

There are some RPG elements to this game. The more zombies you kill, the more your character levels up. There are blank character cards provided by the publisher so you can create your own Survivor. That's not usually something you find in large-scale wargames, but there are RPG elements to Necromunda, some Middle-earth Strategy Battle Game campaigns, Space Station Zero, and other skirmish-level wargames.

Zombicide is a good introduction to the concept of a wargame for people who haven't played a wargame. You get used to the idea of having special stats and options based on your "army", having objectives, weighing the benefits of moving or attacking or both.

For experienced wargamers, Zombicide is an excellent solo option. It's a co-operative game by nature, so the zombies are meant to move on their own. Zombies are notoriously stupid, so the AI governing their movement is minimal. A zombie attacks or moves toward any Survivor in its line of sight. Failing that option, the zombie moves toward the zone with the most noise tokens in it. It's a pretty effective loop, especially as more and more zombies get spawned onto the board. You can't really go wrong because there are usually plenty of zombies to move around the board. As long as a zombie is encroaching upon your survivors, you're probably doing the AI right.

I'm a big fan of zombie fiction, so I find Zombicide really enjoyable. With over 70 miniatures in the box, it's also a really great source of undead miniatures you could potentially use in some other wargame.

Bonus: Fallout [modified]

This is a cheat, and doesn't count as part of the list. I've already listed Fallout as a board game that's a great introduction to RPG, and playing it as a wargame requires a mod.

The Fallout board game uses a huge Encounter deck for you to find quests. You step through the deck as a sort of pick-a-path adventure story. I've yet to tire of the Encounter deck as a mechanic, but for easy games with less engine maintenance and less decision-ing, I've developed a method of playing with randomly-generated quests. They don't require decisions or NPC interactions, they're just objectives on a tile map, and the journey to an objective combined with the time it takes to complete a quest provides the enemies on the map ample time to hunt me down and cause trouble.

It's a simple non-narrative fix to make Fallout a little less of an RPG and more of a skirmish wargame. You roll the dice to determine where an objective is on the map, and then you move toward that objective. As you move, enemies inevitably move toward you, and you end up fighting. Simple as that.

With this mod, Fallout still isn't really a wargame. There's not quite enough strategy in the mechanics for that, but it's a board game with a lot of combat, and the opportunity to loot and level up. In the end, it feels a lot like a wargame in narrative play mode.

2. Doom: The Board Game

Based on the groundbreaking video game, Doom by Fantasy Flight attempts to evoke the excitement of an FPS ("first-person shooter" in video gaming terminology) on the tabletop. There's no story here aside from the setting itself, and it's very much a one-against-many wargame with the added elements of cards for special abilities and situational bonuses. After you've played the Doom board game, you're basically ready for Warhammer 40,000 Boarding Actions or Deadzone.

The nice thing about Doom is that it uses specialty dice for quick and easy roll results, and it has no defence roll. Combat is a pretty fast loop. That's good, because the game really is practically entirely combat. In fact, the combat loop in Doom is faster than most wargames but it doesn't feel any less powerful. You roll dice, you use bonus powers, you kill demons, take damage, and move around the board for resources and maybe the chance of respite.

As with many Fantasy Flight games, there are a lot of elements in the box. Lots of tokens and markers and different decks of cards and different kinds of dice. There are several rulebooks (one that outlines game play, one serving as a topical reference) so there's a lot of material to keep track of. It's not a complex game, as such, but it is a complex engine, and to be fair that's a pretty accurate reflection of a typical wargame.

Compared to a wargame, the game assets are arguably a little on the simple side. Walls in the game world are defined by the board, but doors are awkwardly 3D so you can track whether they're open or closed. I find this a little confusing compared to a full 3D terrain set, but the rules are flexible enough that you could just buy walls and doors separately and add them into the game (although you'd have to measure for movement instead of using tiles).

The miniatures are really nice and could be a fun first painting project for a new hobbyist. As usual with a boxed game, all the miniatures you need are in the box, and the stats for each one is included, so there's no confusion over what you need to buy to play the game.

Doom is a good skirmish game that uses terrain as an integral part of strategy. The use of cards and tokens makes it look and feel like a board game, but the veil is thin between this and a "real" wargame.

3. Blackstone Fortress

It feels like cheating to cite Games Workshop boxed games as introductions to wargames because Games Workshop is kind of the wargame company. It might seem like if you're buying a game from Games Workshop, then you may as well just buy a wargame. But actually, many boxed games published by Games Workshop are "legitimate" board games, with more than just the move-and-shoot loop of a wargame. Additionally, a boxed game uses cards and tokens instead of a big book of rules to track progress and important mechanics, and maybe even more importantly they come with all the miniatures and dice you need to play. You don't have think about what you need in order to be able to play the game, you just buy the box, push the miniatures together (these are high quality miniatures, not molded as single figures), and play.

Blackstone Fortress is the sci fi implementation of the Warhammer Quest line of board games. It's basically a dungeon crawl in which you delve into an enormous castle that's been discovered floating through the cosmos. You take four explorers in, roam through different chambers, collect loot and clues about the fortress's origins, until you find the inner vault and the mysterious treasure it holds.

The enemies within the fortress are entirely driven by AI. Unlike Zombicide, though, these enemies are clever, and the AI rules follow a combination of a dice roll and a series of conditionals. It's a very good system, and you almost feel like the enemies are being controlled by another player. Even when you roll "well" (from your perspective) and the enemy retreats, they generally retreat deeper into the fortress so you're bound to encounter them again.

Combat is just as dynamic. Each explorer miniature has a unique stat card, and each card has three or four unique attack options, and each of the attacks is affected by distance. There's never a boring turn in Blackstone Fortress, because your enemy is always changing tactics and there's usually either an objective or a benefit to your attack to be gained by movement.

As with Doom, the terrain in this game is all 2D. The walls are, fortunately, very clearly marked. They're solid white lines on the board, so there's never any confusion about what the top-down art is trying to convey to you.

There are lots of miniatures in the box, and it's definitely enough for you to re-use in a simple wargame after you're done with Blackstone Fortress. In theory, you can use these miniatures in your Warhammer 40,000 games, but in practise they're often the odd-man out in terms of what faction they can ally with, and often they're not worth enough points to fit neatly into an army. However, they're great for other games like Space Station Zero or Reign in Hell.

Despite my praise of it being a great wargame, Blackstone Fortress is definitely a legitimate board game. Half the Challenges in your game's mission are more or less party games with no board and no combat. These are little challenges, usually based on either your miniature's stats or on your own tolerance for risk.

After you've done the Challenges you've elected to try, you return to the docking bay where you can heal your wounds and trade the loot you found in the fortress for upgrades. This is technically a bookkeeping exercise (unless your gaming group roleplays it out), but like a skill tree in a video game it does make the game feel a little like an RPG. Your character levels up, and then delves back into the fortress. The enemies get more and more dangerous. Allies die, new allies get brought in. It's a fun game whether you play it as a one-off skirmish or as a continuous epic story.

4. Cursed City

Cursed City is the fantasy implementation of the Warhammer Quest line of board games. It's a dungeon crawl (well, a city crawl) in which you delve into the dark city of Ulfenkarn to defeat its evil overlord, Radukar the Wolf. You take four explorers in, roam through the city streets and buildings, collect loot, and fight the undead until you defeat Radukar the Wolf. It's atmospheric and spooky and, after you've encountered your first few enemies, a little terrifying.

With just a few exceptions to account for the different premise (for instance, there's a day and night tracker in Cursed City), this is the same game system as Blackstone Fortress, and I mean that in a good way. If you learn one, you can play the other. There's no learning curve.

Unlike Blackstone Fortress, though, there's a free expansion for Cursed City that enables "true" solo play (meaning that a solo player is actually controlling just one miniature instead of four explorers). There are further expansions in several back issues of White Dwarf magazine too, so there's no shortage of ideas and plenty of variations on the game's theme.

It's not hard to graduate from Cursed City to wargaming, thanks to a free Warcry scenario called A fool's trove in Ulfenkarn. With this scenario, you can use miniatures from the Cursed City box to play a proper skirmish game, provided you have either a copy of the Warcry rulebook or the $0 Warcry Quick Start.

5. Battle in Balin's Tomb

Battle in Balin's Tomb is a boxed game from Games Workshop, and it's a legitimate skirmish wargame, with all the trappings of a regular old board game. It comes in a box, it's got a board, it's got special die marked with sword and shield symbols, and it's got just 22 miniatures. The rulebook is only 8 pages long, and it's mostly pictures.

In the game, you're playing through the scene of the same name in the Fellowship of the Ring movie, with one player controlling the Fellowship and the other player controlling the goblins of Moria. The principle is the same as a zombie combat game. There are many more goblins than there are heroes, but the goblins are weak by comparison. The real struggle is whether the Fellowship player can hold off the goblins for 12 rounds.

And the Fellowship player gets lots of powerful abilities to make that possible. Aragorn is so powerful he's pretty much guaranteed a kill every time he attacks. But there's only one Aragorn. Gandalf has some cools magic tricks he can do, but there's only one Gandalf. And so on. For every trick the Fellowship has, there are three or four more goblins.

To make the game's pace unpredictable and fun, the goblin player also has a goblin card deck that controls how many more goblins get added to the board. Sometimes it's just a single surprise goblin popping out of a trap door. Other times it's two goblins out of the well. And one time, because once is all that's needed, they have a cave troll.

The game is approachable because it's a simple and intuitive combat game. If you want to get into wargaming, this board game isn't just like a wargame, it's a wargame. There's no "campaign mode" or pretense of an ongoing story. It's exactly one scene from Lord of the Rings played over and over, with infinite variation, and it's a lot of fun.

Board games and wargames

I've included probably too many games from Games Workshop in this list, but I've done that because I think the games are really good. There are several other board games that use miniatures and come pretty close to wargaming, but the games on this list are the ones I've played the most. More importantly, they're the ones I've actually used to introduce friends to wargaming, with positive results.

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