Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Epic Fantasy Wargame: Introduction

In the 1970's and early 1980's, the established hobby of board wargaming cross-fertilized with a wave of interest in fantasy literature and adventure. The result? A genre of game largely neglected in the ongoing old-school revival: the epic fantasy wargame.

Below I'll catalogue the central elements of this genre; the ones in bold I think are essential, the other just typical.

Photo by j.mccracken at boardgamegeek
Epic-scale map board. The map takes in kingdoms and even continents, on a grand-strategic scale. It depicts either an invented fantasy world; a fantasy world taken from fiction; or potentially, a real-world area given a fantasy treatment.

Hexagonal map grid. Although this was typical of games in that era, there were some games (like the Elric one, or Greyhawk Wars) that dispensed with this, using movement by areas instead. Arguably, you don't really need the kind of precise rendering of maneuvers and battlelines that hexagons give when gaming large-scale pre-conscription warfare, in which small armies cruised across a huge landscape without much operational subtlety, and clashed at designated battlefields.

Photo by Richard Maurer at boardgamegeek
Die-cut cardboard counters. Another standard feature defining the era's wargames. The success of Axis and Allies in the early 90's would create another related genre of game using plastic figures, but that belongs to a later time.

The counters represent armies as well as individuals ... Without the armies, it's not a wargame, but an adventure or quest game (as in Greg Stafford's King Arthur's Knights). Without the individuals, it's not epic - typically, one of these games would have rules for heroes leading armies, as well as going on quests, conducting diplomacy, and other things that armies can't accomplish.

.. and there is a lot of flavor and color through other means. Counters for monsters, artifacts, special locations; cards, tables, or numbered paragraphs representing events, nations to be won though diplomacy, relics ... all of these are very typical of the genre and helped give each game the special flavor of its world.

With all these elements, the play and objectives of one of these games were fairly similar to the historical equivalents. Armies fought by comparing strengths and a die roll on a chart, and the object of the game was to capture territory; or at least doing so won victory points. Less typical, though, was the "epic" layer in which heroes moved around the board attempting various things, gaining magic items and allies, which in turn could serve as an alternate victory condition or contribute to victory points.

In the next post I'll attempt a catalogue of these games, and ask for your help in identifying any I may have missed.


  1. We use to play SPI's War of the Ring a lot. Lots of fun back then. I sold it a number of years ago. I use to also play a pocket game called SwordQuest. I think it had armies in it but I don't quite remember. That was a lot of fun for a while too.

  2. Having accumulated a few of those beauties they all feel like brilliant trainwrecks to me. Wonderful and inspiring--hell my favorite, Dragon Pass, spawned a whole rpg line--but choking on the playability.

    Both DP and Divine Right have so many variegated rules for so much of that color that they just sag under the weight as games.

    Sidenote, Minaria is just crying out to be made into a campaign setting. What a beautiful S&S map and background setting.

  3. Oh wow, please mention Titan! I used to love the hell out of that game in high school.

  4. Awesome. I look forward to the follow-up!

  5. I just recently played the new Dnd board-game "Conquest of Nerath".

    Though it uses regions rather than hex and plastic figures rather than cardboard, it does seem to fit some of your definitions. It's on an epic scale, there are heroes as well as armies, and there are a decent amount of color.

    Dungeons to loot for magic items by killing their guardians. Different event cards and figures depending on the race you are playing. It's not as rule- or feature-heavy as some of the old-school games I've played, but that would probably be considered a bonus by some.

  6. @ckutalik: I agree, and will mention the issue in my wrap-up.
    @HDA: Titan is great, and certainly of the era, but not exactly in the genre as I've defined it.
    @Rubberduck: Although I'm limiting myself to counter-based games just for sanity's sake, the type has definitely influenced more recent games in other media (computer, figurine) and I'll give some pointers to those in my wrapping-up post.

  7. I wouldn't feel right if I didn't mention PBM Serim Ral here, too. Computer-moderated (but manual data entry, alas), weekly turns: it was ...awesome, actually, although I for one could never plan even one move ahead.

  8. This 'geeklist' on might be of interest:

    Wargames with Questing Heroes

  9. @richard: Oh wow, yeah, PBMs. Absolutely no experience of those though.
    @anarchist: great, lots of fodder for "what's happened to the genre since then?" Funny that Squad Leader made it in. Maybe I should submit a GeekList of my own more limited obsession ... Fantasy Wargames with Cardboard Counters and Questing Heroes :)

  10. Ooh, I still have a boxed game. Played it some but don't think I am likely to again. On the other hand I wish I still had my Ragnarok microgame from TSR....

  11. This looks pretty interesting, though it's not exactly fantasy. It's a computer version of the 1980 game Time Tripper.

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