There’s nothing quite like the warmth and togetherness of the holiday season. No matter what you’re celebrating, gathering friends and family together to share food, drink, and each other’s company is a joyous occasion. Thankfully, it also gives rise to opportunities to expose non-gamers to the wonderfully wide world of tabletop wargaming!
There is no better time to wrangle friends, family, and especially spouses into trying something new, lulled as they should be by eggnog and a comfy fireplace. But where to start? Wargames can be seen as a little too complicated for most, but when battling for attention against the fifteenth rerun of Rudolf the Casually Abused Reindeer on TV, the right game can work wonders! I, with the help of my lovely (non-wargamer) fiancée have chosen three very different games that all allow for engaging, deep, and visually pretty gameplay that are simple enough to pick up, learn, and complete in under an hour per scenario.
Memoir ’44 is just fun. It is by no means the most detailed or accurate representation of the Second World War you can throw down on a table, but the light and manageable mechanics belie the deep decision making that accompanies the central card mechanic. The variety of quick scenarios, multiplayer team games, and some tactile elements like literally dropping a fistful of figures from a foot above the board to represent paradrops, make Memoir ’44 ideal for getting non-gamers into a scenario or two. There are even kid-friendly rules variations for introducing the young’uns to our great hobby. Just be warned, I’ll not be responsible for angry parents coming at you, turkey leg raised like a cudgel, as their child asks for a late addition to the Christmas list.
The central mechanic of Memoir ’44 has players (teams) playing one card per turn to activate a number of units on one of three sectors of the board. Other cards offer special activations or additions like airstrikes and unit replenishments. All cards are drawn from a single deck, meaning no one side has any advantage beyond the hand size per scenario. Surprised Germans on Pegasus Bridge, for instance, start with a small hand that grows over time. Fighting is represented by dice, the number of which changes based on range, cover, and unit type.
These mechanics are simplistic sure, but deciding where to focus activations, utilizing terrain and managing objectives is entertaining and requires no fiddling. Games don’t take long from start to finish, and the lack of charts or complicated mathematics (beyond adding or subtracting dice) makes Memoir ’44 a joy to pick up and play, even for those whose tabletop gaming experience never evolved beyond a few childhood games of Risk and Monopoly. (Do these games spontaneously generate in new family homes?) It’s never hard to convince my fiancée for a game and I, for my part, am happy to play a light game that tends to result in a few laughs and tut-tuts over poor dice.
GMT Game’s Manoeuvre is the most recognizable ‘wargame’ of today’s list, but its traditional chit and square design hide a more streamlined experience that rewards patience, depth, and, of course, one’s ability to maneuver. It’s a two-player game loosely representing Napoleonic warfare (very loosely) that plays more like chess with extra steps. But after a walkthrough by a knowledgeable player, it flows smoothly for novices and reveals its true face as an ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ game.
Gameplay is comprised of alternating turns of movement, card activation, and dice driven fighting, ending after five casualties are sustained by a side or both player decks run dry, representing the end of the day. Turns are simple, first cards are discarded, redrawn up to a hand of five, then a single unit must be moved, followed by the opportunity for battle to be joined by playing a corresponding command card, and finally unit restoration or fortification building takes place. It becomes second nature after a few rounds, and the 8 (!) step combat process is much simpler than it seems, being a back and forth of card plays to alter the combat score of opposing forces.
The principal way to remove enemy units is by flanking them with multiple of your own and using a rare ‘leader’ command card to draw more units into the fight. This, of course, is easier said than done in the face of a competent opponent, and battles can occasionally stagnate along sections of the line, only to lead to an unexpected reverse as units fall back or crumble under sustained fire.
Manoeuvre isn’t as popular on our table, but it occasionally resurfaces when we get a craving for a more in-depth game to play together. (that still takes only about half an hour to 45 minutes) The only negative we can think of is that components felt cheap, though the 8 included armies, huge variety of terrain boards, and dice make it hard to complain about included content. The visuals help here as well, though a true Napoleonic’s wargame this is not, the radically different armies and decks add replayability. Manoeuvre is great fun, but a much slower paced game.
Fantasy Flight’s Warhammer: Diskwars is a bit of a hidden gem. The basic mechanic, flipping disks end over end to maneuver units and engaging enemies by overlapping each other, is certainly goofy. But underneath there’s a decent layer of strategic decision making that gives weight to each flip and tilt. The game is beautiful, the components are durable and well made, and the inherent comedy of fighting a wargame out by aggressively flipping disks of cardboard around a table means we never really grow tired of it. It can seat 2-4 players, and though we’ve found 2 to be the most comfortable, 4 player games are often quite humorous.
Beyond flipping disks around, game turns work around a rock-paper-scissors command card system. Both players pick a card from their hand with different levels of aggression, unit activations, and special abilities on them, and play them simultaneously at the start of each round. The winner acts first. This calls on players to develop more complicated strategies, ensuring that they are able to react to losing the initiative and forcing them to weigh the pros and cons of taking a less aggressive stance if it means a better special ability for that round.
Gameplay is quick and easy to grasp. Disks deal damage to disks under them, and a different value of damage to those above. Dice are used only for ranged combat and special rolls. Special abilities like impact damage for heavy cavalry or poison for lizardmen ensure each army (and allied divisions) feel different enough for repeated play. Secret objectives keep players guessing until the end of the 5th round, and the variety of command cards and possible army builds means players can get creative with what they bring to the table. (We like to recreate ‘historical’ scenarios from Warhammer‘s deep and storied lore).
The only reason this game found itself on our table was its connection to Games Workshop’s Warhammer: Fantasy Battles miniature game. We’re both fans of the miniatures and world that Games Workshop created and have a couple painted armies each. Yet we found, after putting Diskwars and its two expansions through their paces, that we had here a more strategic and entertaining wargame that what the miniatures rules provided. Having everything one could need for dozens of army compositions in a core set and two expansions was also a wonderful relief to our wallets.
I believe that players need not be interested in the Warhammer world to get a kick out of Disk Wars, the underlying game is entertainment enough (There is also an older version set in a different fantasy universe, if you are not stirred, for some reason, by the thought of Tyrion the Phoenix King driving Goblin Boss Grom the Paunch from Ulthuan’s shining shores) The central gimmick, if we must call it that, can serve to bring otherwise uninterested people over to play while the deep and competitive mechanics will surely keep them there.
I really hope this list has given you some good ideas for some games to liven up a cozy holiday evening with friends, family, and partners. I hope you take the time to try out these games, and I personally would like to hear recommendations for other spouse/family/non-wargamer friendly games to play this holiday season. We’re always on the lookout for more!
Happy holidays wargamers, from our home to yours, and may your stocking be filled with cardboard, steam keycodes, and the free time to use them!