So last year, when I was just noodling around, I posted what was supposed to be the first of a few posts unpacking that game of games, World in Flames. I intended to delve into why I love it so much, though it technically belongs to my third son owing to his 21st birthday. Fortunately he loves the game too, though he admits it's a bit overwhelming and the brain can only take a couple hours at a time playing.
Unfortunately, life caught up with me and I never got back to the posts. Worse, as I was typing in my typical stream of consciousness way, I ended up focusing on a few of the gremlins about the game, especially the convoluted rules manuals and conflicting scales. This might have given the idea that there is something bad about the game, or that I don't like it, or that it isn't worth playing. Far from it. It's more of a hobby than a game, and worth every minute of it.
But to get why on one hand it can elicit no end of fussing and critiquing, while at the same time being such an impressive accomplishment in terms of strategy games, I thought I would bring out two names from my past: John Allen and George Sellios. Game designers no doubt, correct? No, in both cases they were famous for their - model railroads!
Now bear with me. You all know I've written how I wanted a model railroad growing up. I've also mentioned that my dad was never into the idea, any more than he said a person working in an office would want to play around with toy office buildings when not at work. So despite my wishes, we never did plunge into the hobby.
That's not to say I didn't spend many hours reading up on the subject, something I continued to do well into my early marriage. It wasn't difficult finding materials. Through the 1970s and into the 1980s, model railroading was hands down the most popular hobby in America. And I found all I could to study, research and learn about the hobby and those in it.
No names were better known or more celebrated than George Sellios and John Allen. Sellios was the founder of Fine Scale Miniatures, a company that produced modeling kits and supplies, primarily for model railroading. With immediate access to all the supplies he needed, and possessing quite an artistic flare, Sellios built the legendary 'Franklin & South Manchester' model railroad layout.
It is known and celebrated worldwide as one of the best, if not the best, model railroad ever. Not only is it massive, but the level of detail and attention to the tiniest elements of the models makes it almost pass as a real life setting in Depression era New England. Just take a look at these:
Tell me I couldn't convince you at least a couple of those photos are from real life. His weathering (making models look real and aged and dirt covered) and the faded faux ads on the sides of buildings are his trademark. It is a sleek, well oiled, well built and realistic railroad setting that is almost scientific in its accurate portrayal of railroading in 1930s New England.
One of Sellios's biggest influences was John Allen. John Allen is considered by some to be the founder of modern model railroading. A photographer with a similar artistic knack, he constructed the most famous model railroad layout ever, the legendary 'Gorre & Daphetid' (that's pronounced 'Gory and Defeated').
Built over three incarnations in his home, the third version saw him excavate a large area of his yard to accommodate its growing size. Featuring plaster mountains that stretched from ceiling to floor, walk through aisles, matte paintings and mirrors for giving the impression of an even larger layout, it was a fever dream concoction that threw reality out the window. If he wanted seven bridges crossing each other, so be it. If he wanted desert here and pine forests next door, no problem. He built what he wanted and how, but made it work in a spectacular way (until, sadly, his house burned and took the layout with it).
So what's the point? When it comes to historical strategy games, it's a bit like these two fellows and their model railroad layouts.
Most games try to streamline it. They make the rules as tight as possible. They try to focus on a set goal and stay there. The game Empires in Arms, unpacking much of the Napoleonic Era, is an excellent example of this. Some consider it the best strategy game ever produced. It manages to capture the feel, and remain faithful to the basic gist of the time and those involved in the Napoleonic era. The rules are tight and well written, the gameplay is just complex enough for variety but not overwhelming. If it has a flaw it's that you can only get the full impact of the game with several players able to play over endless months of gatherings.
Several of the games I have are like it. Games that focus on everything from the Roman Republic to the Battle of Waterloo to the the American Revolution, are like EiA. They pick a focus and stay there. Some are grand strategic, others are smaller and tactical. Their rules, sometimes a bit overwhelming, can generally be mastered with a few tries. There is enough nuts and bolts for variety, but generally the focus is on playability. Those would be George Sellios games.
Then comes World in Flames. If John Allen designed a game, it would be World in Flames. When it comes to games, the question is how much detail? How much nitty-gritty stat crunching? Generally the broader the scope of the game, the less minutia is involved in the turn by turn play. The Republic of Rome sets to recreate that entire period in Roman history. Much of it is in the abstract, as it would be impossible to account for every small detail in such a broad, sweeping period of time.
On the other hand The Battles of Waterloo is very focused. You distinguish between different artillery types, cavalry types, and how different buildings and structures and terrain impact cover and defense versus different types of weaponry. Single units have specific stats separating them, and everything is boiled down to a couple hundred yards per space on the actual playing maps. In the case of these and similar games, they give, they take.
In most World War II games, it's a case of picking what little to focus on. There are some broad 'World at War' games that try to hit on the entire conflict. In most such cases they content themselves with generic military maneuvers across the various theaters, with only the slightest focus on non-military concerns. Most, however, narrow the focus. They choose a theater (Pacific, European) or a campaign (Invasion of Russia, North Africa) or even a particular battle (Stalingrad, Guadalcanal). That's because trying to account for enough detail to make a tactical wargame plausible, while also accounting for the grand scope of that entire global conflict, just isn't feasible.
Enter World in Flames. It looked at the subject of the Second World War and said 'Yes we can!' We can have a game that will cover, well, World War Two. We can have plenty of detail, down to divisional level. And in some cases, like naval operations, we can make it ship by ship. We can move from mere hex to hex movement, and have multiple objectives spread everywhere that can occupy the map. We can focus on more than just the military. We can bring in intelligence, production, economics, trade, supplies, oil - you name it. In an expanded supplement (called Days of Decision), we can even throw in diplomacy. We can actually do all of World War Two from big to small.
And it looks it. Like John Allen's crazy mishmash G&D, World in Flames is a big, sprawling, overwhelming, beautiful mess. Beyond the poor quality of editing behind the convoluted rules, and the habit of constantly revising the game without necessarily redoing parts of the game impacted by the latest revision, much of the mess is due to its biggest selling point. That is, it tries to be the 'every game'. A game that gives you the world, yet gives you as much nitty-gritty detail as possible.
Yes, it is at time unwieldy. Yes, it is a long haul proposition. The scenario we're currently beginning took over six hours to set up (spread over several weeks). A single phase in one turn can last an hour or more (and there can be fourteen or more phases per turn in a game that could have over sixty turns). Yes, the tape and glue approach to its production output can be frustrating. Yet the whole jumbled mess strives for the impossible and, with only a few exceptions, succeeds in flying colors. Considering what it sets out to do and how it does it, that's not bad at all.
|And that 9'x5' setup isn't everything if you included the DoD game expansion!|
An extra dining room table would be needed in that case.