The Twelve Days of Wargames 2020

T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, except for several corps fleeing the catastrophic collapse of German lines in Belgium! How did the French develop tanks so quickly!? Anyway, while the rest of the family is settling in for a (very) quiet holiday period, I’ve decided to go back through a year of digital wargames and, in the spirit of the season, judge them mercilessly.

As is tradition, the twelve days of Christmas will start tomorrow on Christmas Day and continue through to January 6th, which is traditionally held as the day the three wise men arrived. (Sometimes known as the ‘feast of the epiphany’, and also happens to be my birthday-ED). So, to mark the occasion, we shall have 12 days of the best digital wargaming (according to me).

These are games that I’ve particularly enjoyed that were released in 2020 and that I feel deserve a spirited revisit while there’s time for it.

Remember, by staying at home and digging into any of these games this holiday season, you’re doing your part to be a good human.

Hearts of Iron IV: Battle for the Bosporus

I know Hearts of Iron IV isn’t a new game, but this year’s release of the expansion pack Battle for the Bosporus prompted my friends and I to dive back in and try another grand cooperative campaign, this time bringing in Turkey as a player nation. For all its flaws, Hearts of Iron IV remains one of the best ways to get a full game fighting a weird World War Two completed in a session or two.

In these unpleasant times of social distancing, I really cherished the time I could spend conquering the Soviet Union for the umpteenth time with friends in HOI4. Maybe next time we should play as the allies? 

Fantasy General 2: Empire Aflame & Onslaught

Fantasy General 2, released last fall, proved that sometimes reimaging a distant classic can result in a truly wonderful new experience. I reviewed Fantasy General 2 back then, but I’m happy to report that the game continues to see some play time even a year later. The focus on a story driven Panzer General-like experience works well with the finely crafted missions, interesting decisions, and tough combat situations. Both expansions, Onslaught and Empire Aflame add more of the same, giving players new campaigns to put through the paces.

If you feel you’ve grown tired of the Panzer General-like formula, I heartily recommend booting up Fantasy General 2 this holiday season to see if it can change your mind. 

Order of Battle: Red Steel

This year saw the release of the final two expansions in Order of Battle‘s Soviet Union focused trilogy. I quite enjoyed all three episodes, and they feel like a good entry point for people still on the fence about the Order of Battle series. They have relatively easy starting missions and then dive into the best part of a traditional Panzer General-like, piles of tanks.

The Eastern Front provides plenty of opportunity to face down hundreds of enemy tanks across open fields and Order of Battle is good at providing plenty of models to work with. This is still probably my favourite of the ‘new’ Panzer General-like series. 

Shadow Empire

Shadow Empire is amazing. Simple as that. You get the complex interpersonal drama and empire management of Crusader Kings wrapped up in a solid wargame and intricate logistics system. The planet creation system not only helps build an interesting narrative for each playthrough, but the tangible differences in flora, fauna, atmosphere, and resources means there is always going to be a different experience waiting for you on the next planet.

A must play and a gaming experience that can suck up hours at a time.

Carrier Battles 4 Guadalcanal

This may seem like an odd one out, but Carrier Battles on the PC does something unique in terms of games centered around naval battles. The simple user interface is pretty indicative of the game’s mobile roots, but the simplicity translates to ease of play. The main crux of Carrier Battles is managing the timing of your carriers’ operations. Scouting is required, as is getting planes in the air at the appropriate time.

Mess it up and you could find your decks filled by the time the enemy’s bombers are right overhead. It results in a compelling and surprisingly tense gaming experience. 

Winter War

Winter War fits into that growing niche of tabletop-like wargames on the PC, and in the time of COVID, having excellent digital board games to play with friends is important. Winter War is just one of Avalon Digital’s series of similarly structured games in which players fight a modern campaign using cards and more typical wargame fare.

It feels like a much-needed update to the AGEOD formula of games, and as I have a soft spot for AGEOD, Winter War was right up my alley. There are other games in the series as well, so dig around for a conflict that interests you.

Combat Mission: Shock Force 2

Though actually a late 2019 release, the official move to Steam in 2020 opened up Shock Force 2 to the masses. Shock Force 2 can be a daunting experience, but after getting the hang of the system itself, the 80 scenarios across all the DLC can keep you going for some time. Set in a fictional war between Syria and NATO forces, Shock Force 2 really nails the intensity of close-range infantry fighting. It’s a hefty game, but a good one.

Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa

An indie game that caught me by surprise, Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa seems a little obscure at first glance. Taking control of German or Soviet forces, players operate at a very high level. Rather than command individual units or even look at a tactical map, players give broad orders to individual divisions at an army level. You’ll get information about engagements and positions through a text description reminiscent of ’80s RPGs.

This does create a certain ambiguity to the strategic situation that is a joy to try and work out. To top it off, Cauldrons does not shy away from representing the horror of the Eastern Front. How you choose to act will have dramatic ramifications on the progress of the campaign. 

Operation Citadel

Operation Citadel has become a bit of an indie darling for me. Created entirely by one student and his brother, Operation Citadel looks like a fairly standard Panzer General-like on the surface. Digging into the game however reveals that there is not only a fun, light strategy game here, but also one with a surprising amount of breadth.

The gigantic campaign maps, like an entire hex map of the Pacific theatre and all of Europe allow players to get into massive slugging matches across expansive theatres in pretty quick order. The best part about it is the ease with which players can create their own mods and maps within game tools. I’m personally working (very slowly) on transforming Operation Citadel into a platoon level combat game focusing on the Pacific Theatre. There’s a lot to work with if you’re patient and willing to experiment.

Scheldt ’44

Scheldt ’44 is the latest in the venerable John Tiller Studios/Wargames Design Studio collaboration and it proves that both houses have still got it. The Scheldt Campaign is definitely underrepresented in favour of the more memorable Operation Market Garden, but the campaign was critical to the allied success and involved some fascinating battles along the coast and canals of the Benelux region. One of the first of the JTS/WDS games to be built with the new engine, there are several visual quality of life upgrades that make this entry in particular worth getting in to.

The system itself might be old, but there’s a reason it’s lasted as long as it has.

Partisans 1941

A spiritual continuation of the old Commandos games, Partisans 1941 sees players taking control of a plucky band of, you guessed it, partisans fighting against Nazi occupation in eastern Europe. The game mixes stealth and action sequences well and rewards players for taking full advantage of the enemy AI to set up proper ambushes. There is a relatively interesting story to move through, but the homage to a long-gone classic genre of stealth games and the setting make it worth checking out.

Strategic Command: World War One

Alright, you’ve got me. This game wasn’t released in 2020, but I have to mention it only because it has become one of my absolute favourite wargames this year. Taking control of either the Entente or the Central Powers, players can fight out the entirety of WWI, managing everything including research, diplomacy, and production, while also commanding all your forces at the various fronts.

It may sound daunting, but it absolutely is not. This is one of the cleanest and easiest to play wargames I’ve gotten my hands on, and has become a staple of exhausted after-work play sessions. If anyone needs to simply relax this holiday season, I can heartily recommend Strategic Command WW1.

What games will you be playing this holiday season? Let us know in the comments!