Designed by Larry Harris, Jr.
Published by Nightingale Games (2019)
“The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting done by fools.”—- Thucydides
Ladies and Gentlemen, we live in uncertain times. The game of Axis and Allies, beloved for so long, is no longer the sole occupant of that special space in our hearts, reserved for those very special wargames offering a comprehensive experience of the critical conflict between the Axis powers, and those nations represented at the Yalta Conference assembled in February of 1945.
While I confess not to know what the future holds, it is with great relief that I report to the people of the world that this new game is also a creation of Larry Harris, the same designer who gave us the beloved original game of Axis & Allies. While War Room is comparatively new, it derives its strength from the same traditions of hard work and ingenuity that we have enjoyed with Axis & Allies for almost forty years.
Without further ado, your humble correspondent will attempt to explain, summarize, and review the depths of this new game.
WAR ROOM’S SPECIAL FEATURES
- Unique Construction Process: Each territory provides its government with certain amounts of Oil, Iron, and Other Strategic Resources (abbreviated as “OSR”). When new military, naval or airborne units are constructed (or damaged ones are repaired), they must be paid for with these three resources. Any excess resources produced remain available to the owner for future use. Paper currency plays no part in purchase of war matériel, and that’s fine with me. I’ve been playing games with faux paper currency for decades, and the potential shortages of raw materials have helped make player transactions in the post-Depression economy feel more authentic.
- Rail Lines allow land units in friendly territory free movement along unblocked railroads. It makes sense, it’s intuitive, and it’s not confusing.
- Pinning: When you try to extricate your units from a “hot spot”, sometimes your units can’t escape safely all at once. Leaving your troops behind as you safely escape can be downright traumatic. The visceral effect of it is stirring.
- Force Advantage provides a significant edge to attacking players that bring more different types of units into battle. Here it is: defending players do not get to use the Black and White “wild” results from dice rolled in battle. This emphasizes the 20th-century concept of “combined arms” — which encouraged the simultaneous deployment of as many different kinds of military units as possible. Whatever source of fiction you consume about this era showcases this military doctrine — so playing it out here is a real treat.
WAR ROOM’S SIMPLICITY
War Room boasts some impressive streamlining of mechanics.
- Units are STACKED, with other units of the same nation and type. Land units are square, air units are round, and sea units are oblong. The best part of this is that it’s absolutely foolproof! Don’t worry about accidentally stacking land units with sea units — units of different shapes won’t stack together.
- There are no “transport ship” units. Land units crossing the ocean are assumed to have secured transport (though it is advisable for them to be accompanied by an armed naval escort). This necessary component of naval administration is handled as efficiently as I think any game could manage.
- The “battle board” is double sided — one side for land combat, and the other for naval. Either side of the battle board is resolved from the bottom row (infantry) all the way up to the top row (bombers). This battle board’s layout made it consistently easy for me to make a bunch of fun “gut” reactions.
- Moves from land to sea may be into 1 sea region — or 2 sea regions adjacent to each other. This decision can be nerve-wracking, especially if you’re torn between two different destinations.
- While the game has multiple phases, players can execute many of them simultaneously with one another, which means less downtime. Nothing wrong with that!
- Carriers — well, carry fighter planes, which may reach as far as 1 region away from their parent Carrier. At the end of the engagement, carrier fighters go back into supply. The Carrier always has a fighter to deploy, making them a formidable force on the sea.
- Unlike Axis & Allies, where a battle can go back and forth without limit as long as units on both sides remain alive, the battles of War Room each have only one round of combat. This speeds up the process and raises the stakes in a way that makes the game feel more urgent!
WAR ROOM’S PLAY CHOICES
Player decisions are thick on the ground
- The Battle Board looks more complex than that of Axis & Allies, but that’s because most units have two “stances” to choose from — offensive, which inflicts more hits; and defensive, which provides more staying power. Both modes are optimal in some situations, but neither is consistently better. I liked how this effect restricted my theorizing in a way that didn’t waste time.
- Triage: While some of the forces on your battle board are sure to become casualties, you can decide to save some of them — effectively simulating hospital care for wounded soldiers, or the repairing of military vehicles. Managing the supplies and munitions of war, and facilitating medical care for the wounded, are some of the most demanding jobs to be found anywhere.
LIST OF PHASES EACH TURN
Phase 1: DIRECT NATIONAL ECONOMY
Oil, Iron, and Other Strategic Resources (OSR) are calculated for all territories controlled by each player. Even though this phase results in three different totals per player (instead of Axis & Allies’ single total of IPC’s), it is still quite easy because the relevant numbers are not listed only on the game’s board, as in Axis & Allies. Instead, War Room lists all resources totaled on a set of cards (one card for each specific territory controlled by the relevant player).
Phase 2: STRATEGIC PLANNING
Players secretly discuss plans with their allies. (C’mon, what gamer doesn’t like hatching plots against their rivals, and conspiring with their cohorts?) Each player’s orders for Phases 3 and 4 are written down in advance. Players also spend Oil to bid on the upcoming turn order.
Phase 3: MOVEMENT OPS
Players execute their move orders written in the previous phase (assuming those moves turn out to be possible). And if, by sabotage or mistake, those moves end up being impossible, well, then . . . they can’t be done, can they?
Phase 4: COMBAT OPS
Any battles between units of opposing nations are settled now. Players choose the “stance” of each unit type on the battle board. After the battles are over, players may choose to spend resources on repairing units that are damaged (or wounded). Medals are distributed to those players whose nations conquer territory from their enemies.
Phase 5: REFIT / DEPLOYMENT
Active planes still in the air must land in friendly territory, within 2 regions of their current location. Players may reorganize stacks of units (for example, splitting a stack of 10 into two stacks of five each). Newly constructed units are deployed in their nation’s territory.
Phase 6: STRESS
Any military defeats, or loss of territory, may cause a civilian population to suffer emotional trauma; this may be mitigated by medals, or distribution of goods to the population. Nations suffering from too much stress move up the Homeland Status Wheel, inflicting harsh suffering on the civilian population (for military casualties). Civilian stress is important, because in the end a lot of wars were lost because masses of ordinary people just couldn’t take it anymore.
Phase 7: PRODUCTION
All nations manufacture new units with whatever resources are still available, secretly and simultaneously. Some nations may also be able to trade with Neutral countries. Units under construction are vulnerable to strategic bombing. This is a great simulation of the “Fog of War”, when generals lie awake at night. What if your plan to sabotage your enemy’s new battleships somehow leads you straight into a trap?
- War Room will not, ultimately, replace Axis & Allies. . . not entirely, anyway. It’s a different experience that engages strategic challenges — differently than its forerunner.
- The challenges of War Room, of Axis & Allies, and of other strategy games before it, prepare us for the great logistical struggles of the future. Grand schema of exploring new places, managing AI, and sharing our resources with billions yet unborn will require competent management on grand scales as yet unseen.
MY FIRST PLAYTHROUGH OF WAR ROOM
I played this game with two of my fellow Which Game First panelists: Ed Povilaitis and Mike Grenier, both of whom have a reputation as master strategists. Ed, who procured us a copy of the game (as he does with many games we review) made sure to get the expansion pack as well, just for good measure. The expansion comes with a neoprene play map that spanned his entire game table, and was still a pleasure to move pieces across. I played as Russia, starting the game by brazenly dispatching a stack of soldiers to ride the rails almost all the way to Kamchatka!
I was probably too cavalier about the Soviet-Japanese non-aggression pact.
As the months passed, I started invading German territories: Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic States. Wary of Germany’s blitzkrieg tactics, I decided to move slowly and deliberately, taking no more than two territories per turn. Somehow I made this work! (For a while, anyway.)
As the war heated up in Western Europe, I grew bolder at the Japanese border, placing an even bigger pile of my units there (without actually attacking; I was trying to lure Japan into putting more troops there so America could have an easier time in the Pacific.)
Instead of following the conventional wisdom of building only ground units, I risked building the occasional fighter plane, which actually served me pretty well. Despite my early successes, I had still played too recklessly — and yet at the same time, also moved too slowly! Germany’s long decline slowed, finally stopping in time to deal with me as befit an aggressive world power. It soon became clear that a win for me wasn’t in the cards.
I hadn’t moved fast enough.
In retrospect, I was very happy with the effect of the game’s design. There was no time when I felt confused, or wondered what to do next. I was sometimes indecisive about which course of action would be best for me, and this was to my detriment. But I lay that at my own feet, not at the game.
During play, I canvassed all the possibilities of World War II that struck me as remotely realistic, as well as a few genuine flights of fancy: Japan storming the beaches of Alaska, Churchill’s nonaggression pact with the Reich, Italy’s invasion of Russia. And like every game of War Room I’ll ever play, like the games of Axis & Allies before it, I will scan numerous scenarios, endlessly searching for new combinations of the mundane and the unexpected. Because that’s the fun part of wargaming.
But like many other gamers, I’ll also look at what’s actually written in stone, because that’s what happened, and that’s what I find endlessly relevant and fascinating about War Room. The study of historical events — especially the biggest and grandest events — is the discipline that allows us to discern the inevitable from the merely feasible.
And in a world where our actions have consequences, that can be awfully important.
For now, I look forward to one particular consequence: millions of hours of gaming enjoyment for the hordes of enthusiasts who will play War Room for years to come.