Crossposted from the Design and Effect blog at GameSquad.

There are games that are tactical in scope, presenting small units (or even individuals) fighting out a battle. There are games with a wider, strategic, scope, where entire wars are fought out.

And then, there are a few game that try to deliver both. I’m not just talking about some of the complicated combat procedures, nor multiple rounds of rolling dice back and forth. I mean games where there is an actual mini-game that allows maneuver and tactics to matter.

This is mostly the realm of computer games, which can handle the switch of scale without overcrowding an already cluttered table, but there are some celebrated board games that use this idea too.

Napoleon (Gamma Two Games, 1974)
The third, and final, of Gamma Two’s block wargames, Napoleon featured all the same base mechanics of the first two, a much more dynamic situation—and the added complication of having to organize and maneuver your troops once battle is joined. Considering that this one was representing a much smaller scale than the previous two games (turns are hours instead of weeks or months), the more detailed combat resolution may make some sense.

The combat is pretty simple, in keeping with a game that is overall one of the hallmarks of design elegance. Units are secretly assigned to either the center or one of the flanks, or the reserve. Deployments are revealed at the start of battle, and the players have options to shift troops around, commit reserves, and advance to the attack. Columbia Games recently did a new edition, and I believe it simplifies the maneuvering process some. The rest of it is pretty standard block-game fare: each unit rolls a number of dice dependent on it’s strength (from 1-4), and 6s are hits that reduce the enemy strength. There are also effects from using infantry and cavalry and artillery together.

Titan (Gorgonstar, 1980)
In some ways, Titan is the reverse of other games, almost being an involved combat resolution with a strategic game sitting on top. The strategic part of the game consists of working around the world board, recruiting creatures into your armies as you go. This is the real heart of the game, as what you recruit when has a complicated system of prerequisites to work through (and the movement itself isn’t the most straightforward thing either).

When battle is joined each player sets their army up on a battle board for that space’s terrain, about 6 hexes across (this is an enhancement of the AH edition, the original battle boards consisted of a mere 5 hexes; one row of 3, one row of 2). I don’t really remember much about the combat, but the boards are just big enough for some maneuvering, and units that come from the type of terrain being fought on get some bonuses.

Master of Orion (MicroProse, 1993)
I’m generally considering all the games of a series together here, however, the tactical combat in each MoO game has been substantially different, so each is examined on its own. A space ‘4X’ game, MoO featured ship design and a tactical space-combat system. While both were well done and fun, the combat system did use a shortcut that has been seen again: combat was between ‘stacks’ of identical units.

For some reason, this last bugged me more here than it did in the later HoMM series (see below). There are two things that made it necessary here, though. First, the player is limited to only having six ship designs at a time. To design a seventh class, you first have to delete one of the existing ones (scrapping all the remaining ships of the type in the process…).

Master of Magic (SimTex, 1994)
MoM is basically a fantasy version of Sid Meyer’s Civilization, with city building, exploring and magic research instead of technologies. Its combat system is one of the high points in what is overall a good game. Combat happens on a square-grid map derived from the terrain the battle is happening on, and each unit is treated separately. The ‘normal’ (non-monster) units generally consist of several people, and as they take damage the number of people (and hitting power) goes down, much like units taking hits in many miniatures systems. In fact, with the isometric view, it was as close to a simple miniatures game as VGA graphics were going to allow.

Heroes of Might and Magic series (New World Computing, 1995, 1996, 1999, 2002; Nival Interactive, 2005)
While the HoMM series has grown a lot, combat has stayed essentially the same. Units can either garrison a castle, or move with a hero, but can’t move on their own. When a hero attacks another hero or a castle, the game switches to a fun combat game.

It’s not much of one on the surface, as while it does use a hex-grid, units merely exist in ‘stacks’ of identical units, with no upper limit on how many units could be in a stack. Despite this, the combat was pretty deep, since there are a lot of different unit types, and there’s a hard limit on how many different types can be in an army. The range of different abilities is quite varied, and with the ability of lower-level units to be recruited faster, there is generally nothing that is truly worthless (with the exception of Peasants in the first two games…).

Conquest of the New World (Quicksilver, 1996)
At first glance this was just another ‘colonize the New World game’, though a well done one. Our interest here is the combat system however.

It actually resembles the system used in Napoleon, with a backfield reserve and a grid of left, right and center areas. Since it’s much the same period, this is nice to see. There’s the split between infantry, cavalry and artillery again. Each army has to be commanded by a leader who determines how many units can attack in a round, which can be grouped or done separately. There are bonuses for grouping combined-arms attacks as well as charging cavalry (moving and attacking). Units have a rating that determines effectiveness and how many hits they can take; also, as they take hits they check morale and may automatically retreat one square (which forces you to waste an action moving them back if they’re still in good shape…).

All things considered, it’s possibly the simplest separate battle system in a computer game. The fact that you could hop straight into a fight against the computer from the opening menu in something of a ‘practice mode’ was also nice touch.

Master of Orion II (Microprose, 1996)
Despite the name, there were not a lot of points of similarity between this game and the first one. (They are there to be sure, but less so than in most sequels.) Ship design and construction were familiar, but had far-reaching differences.

Not only was the limit on ‘classes’ removed, but each individual ship could be unique. Even if two ships started the same, they could be refitted independently, producing two separate designs. Combat of course, dropped the ‘stack’ concept, which each ship operating separately. The hundreds of ships gave way to fleets that usually had a couple dozen ships at most, emphasizing the individualistic nature of shipbuilding.

The battle system wasn’t anything special, but it was solid, and fully featured, with facing, differing movement rates, special abilities, etc. ‘Real’ physics and momentum weren’t present, but that’s rare in dedicated tactical SF games, so not surprising.

Great War at Sea/Second World War at Sea series (Avalanche Press, 1996-present)
Okay, there’s been a lot of releases in these two related series, so I’m not even going to try to mention them all. Of especial note, this is the first boardgame mention since Titan. The general idea is an operational-level game of naval maneuvering across the seas which has a tactical component when two forces actually spot one another. Since most forces have to pre-plot their route in advance (and the exceptions still pre-plot for two turns), this is by no means certain.

The tactical side is something of a mixed bag. For the amount of (potential) detail, it’s a very simplified system. As a quick subsystem of the larger game, this makes sense, but can be very off-putting to naval enthusiasts who are used to detailed treatments of individual battles. The most noticeable lack is any sort of facing rules, allowing ships to go in any direction, or fire in any direction. As each phase for movement and firing is rough a half-hour long, this isn’t as bad as it seems, but it is jarring, as that’s typically one of the major concerns in simulating a naval engagement. On the other hand, the series uses a very lengthy phase sequence to allow for a good range of speed differences, and this grates against the simpler aspects of the system.

All in all, a fairly unique effort, and has gotten a number of Origins awards.

Imperialism series (SSI, 1997, 1999)
The two games in this series tackled different eras, but featured similar mechanics and goals. Balance work in your infrastructure with diplomacy and trade to increase your economy and dominate your rivals through a network of allies and guns and butter spending.

I’ll admit, I like the economics and empire building aspects, but never got into the wars much. It does feature a separate battle system, that was fairly simple, and a bit lackluster in presentation, especially by the late ’90s.

Jeff Wayne’s The War of the Worlds (Rage Software, 1998)
A game just short of being great. H. G. Wells’ classic novel sees one of its few adaptions that are true to the original setting (instead of an ‘update’ to be contemporary). The humans are put on a equal footing with the Martians, and destroy the first cylinder, after which the others are diverted to Scotland where the Martians have more room to build up their strength.

The strategic portion of the game involves a map of Britain broken up into provinces. These have to be individually managed with the construction of defenses and the facilities to create new units and supplies. Units are built as groups of 1-5 vehicles (depending on type; there is, oddly, no infantry, obviously to simplify the job for the primitive 3D graphics engine). When units are moved into an enemy province (or vice versa), the game switches to an RTS game, where the units fight the available defenders and fortifications to try to drive the enemy out of the area by taking out their headquarters.

When looking at the map of Europe for scenario selection in Command & Conquer, this is what I thought the logical next step in RTS evolution would be.

Boy, was I wrong. And disappointed with where RTS did go. Or should I say, ‘didn’t go’?

Age of Wonders series (Triumph Studios, 1999, 2002, 2003)
This series, especially the last two releases, are very much in the same vein as Master of Magic, where you heroes who can cast spells in battle, as a wizard (directly representing you) who can cast spells at a distance.

The combat system is the standard ‘bunch of different unit types, often with special powers. Like most entries (and unlike MoM) each unit is one person, with no partial losses. However, it’s a very nice system, with terrain that blocks archery, number of attacks impacted by movement, and other nice touches. The real interesting part is that the tactical field consists of the hex being attacked and all the adjacent hexes. (This, naturally, includes the hex being attacked from.) This allows for some really large battles, especially for city assaults where the city is well defended, but the attacker now occupies all the surrounding terrain (yes! a real siege—well close enough).

Total War series (Creative Assembly, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2006, 2009)
I have to admit a good amount of ignorance here. Despite being real attracted to the style and subject of the games, I have yet to get any of them. I really need to just go down to Fry’s and spend the $20 for Rome + expansion.

But the general idea is like WotW above. You manage provinces strategically, and when one player invades another, the battle is played out as an RTS. In this case the series is all historical-based, which also attracts my attention.

Master of Orion III (Quicksilver Software, 2003)
The most controversial of the series, and one that I liked more than many people (instead of the other way around on the first two). For our current purposes, the game changed significantly yet again. Ship building is largely akin to MoO II (though the interface is much worse), but ships are easier to build again, meaning that there will be more of them, and having a fleet of ‘unique’ capital ships is no longer practical or desirable.

The biggest change is that ships have to be grouped into ‘task forces’ to be used, and battles are fights between task forces. I really like this part because it allows for a much more ‘epic’ scale of fight than II while avoiding the over-simplicity of the original. The combat in II felt very static and constrained, while the engine here feels more like true space (opera) combat. Sadly, it too had it’s bugs and problems, but I really admired the general feel.

Overall, the ‘perfect’ blend of strategic action and tactical combat can be considered one of the ‘grail quests’ of gaming. The dream of a rich combat experience married to strategic choices that make suicidal charges as unpalatable as in a real war shines golden in many eyes, and has lead to many games not mentioned here. But it is a very tough balance to achieve, and is only rarely truly successful. For my preferences, Age of Wonders II would be the best I’ve seen so far.