Way, way back when I first began writing for the blog, I did a piece on homemade board games and game design titled, “B.Y.O.B. Build your own Board Game” where I briefly recalled a session of a game called Tactics II. Perhaps inspired by my current project of creating a magnetic version of the game, I feel compelled to explore this fascinating little piece of board game history. I’ve acquired a pretty decent selection of old and obscure games over the years, but Tactics II is one I keep coming back to time and time again. Maybe it's the relative simplicity of the game and its design, but something about it speaks to the playful nature in me and conjures feelings of child-like nostalgia.
The granddaddy of wargames, the classic struggle of red vs blue, the ultimate conflict simulation, the launchpad for a company that would change the way we think of board games, Tactics and its sequel are foundational games widely considered as the first true commercial wargames. Designed and self-published by Charles S. Roberts, Tactics was the first game released by the Avalon Hill Game Company. With a limited run of around 2000 copies, Roberts sold the game out of his garage by mail order. Tactics II would follow several years later and become a staple of Avalon Hill’s catalog, serving as an introduction to wargaming for generations.
What is a wargame? At its core a wargame is a game which seeks to simulate conflict with some degree of realism. The Space Gamer Magazine issue #27 features a great article by Nick Schuessler and Steve Jackson on game design that offers a much more thorough definition and many of the issues are available on the Internet Archive. Nicolas Palmer’s The Comprehensive Guide to Board Wargaming, is another fantastic resource for those interested in the game style and history. Palmer does an admiral job of highlighting the importance of Tactics II to game design in general and provides an excellent look at Avalon Hill’s early years.
Many of wargaming’s common mechanics can be traced back to Tactics II. Units are allotted a set amount of movement points and attack strength, battles are calculated by odds and resolved on a table, and time and scale are designed to emulate reality. While far from an actual simulation level of gameplay, Tactics II feels more like a board game than many of its more hardcore descendants. Further developments in the genre would focus on historically accurate battle simulations with absurd amounts of charts and statistics necessary to track and calculate things as minute as unit morale or water consumption. However, designers would later adopt wargaming mechanics to incorporate fantasy and sci-fi environments like Steve Jackson’s Ogre.
Tactics II may appear dated and quaint to anyone that’s had experience with games in the same genre, but there’s a reason Avalon Hill continued to offer the game for so many years. Tactics II is a great abstract wargame with just the right amount of complexity. Because the game’s theme is so open ended there’s more space for creativity and imagination. The basic premise allows players the freedom to create their own narratives about the red vs. blue battle. The previous owner of my 1958 copy wrote in names for the cities which the game only refers to by map coordinates, and my 1973 edition came with a set of homebrew optional rules and new units.
I’d recommend Tactics II to anyone. You don’t need to be a hardcore wargaming expert to enjoy the gameplay and you don’t have to be a board game nerd to appreciate the game design. With a relatively light set of instructions Tactics II is fairly easy to pick up and play, though your first turn may take quite some time. The depth of strategy and tactical reasoning create a very immersive game that’s easy enough for older children to grasp but still challenging for adults. I think the box says it best by describing the game as “military chess.” If you’re looking to get the game these days it’ll have to be used, but there are still plenty of complete copies selling online for a very reasonable price.
I wasn’t sure if my magnetic version of the game would be completed before I finished this post, but after essentially starting over three times it’s finally done. It was an interesting and challenging project that I may cover in a future post as the design could be applied to a variety of games.