I did not grow up with war games. By the time my interest in board games had grown beyond the worn-out staples of family games, I had learned enough about actual wars in history class to develop a strong distaste towards the theme. It also didn’t help that the war gamers I had met, seemed to share a certain outlook on life and other people in it, that made me keep my distance.
20 years later this distaste has grown into a deep-seated indifference. The sheer sight of a typical war game reflexively evaporates any interest I might have and leaves behind a strong sense of intense boredom. Since I’ve started playing and dealing with board games more seriously, only a single game of that fuzzily delineated genre has made it into my collection: Memoir 44. Purists and gatekeepers might scoff, but I find that this game manages to find entertainment and a sense of play in a difficult subject. The game’s speed of play, accessibility and sense of tension in each scenario make it a masterpiece of modern game design. Even if its clumsy way of evoking historicity reminds me, why this genre never had any real pull with me. Attempting to present history by reenacting questions of military logistics is at best short-sighted. In most cases it barely manages to not be negligently naive about the causes and consequences of these conflicts.
My point is this: I do not like war games and I don’t have a very high opinion of them.
Which makes it all the more surprising that Mini WWII managed to excite me like only a scant few games have done in 2018. More than that, it manages to say something about war, that the simple unit-pushing of Memoir 44 never could have.
As is often the case in these games, you take on the command of one of the major military forces in World War II. Four nations are facing off here to be exact. On the side of the Axis, there is Japan and Germany, while the Allies are represented by the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom. During the course of play, the US and China join in on the side of the Allies.
The first refreshing peculiarity of Mini WWII is that you play in teams. You win and lose together. At first this may seem like a mere cosmetic detail, but it notably affects the experience. Instead of being left to my own devices, there was somebody at the table I could count on. They might not have been able to influence my turn, but knowing that somebody was rooting for me, made a difference. It’s unfortunate that team play in most board games only comes in one of two flavors: as a source of tension if and when you will be betrayed, or as a mandatory merging of resources and actions. But as soon as you’re playing with somebody who is in the same boat as you, playing that game becomes more inviting. You’re more willing to take risks. You share in each other’s successes, and empathize with each other’s failures.
The rules of Mini WWII also stand out because of which aspects of World War II they focus on. You’re not worrying about your unit’s relative strength, nor do you need to precisely map their position on the battlefield. There are no dice to introduce uncertainty and simulate fog of war. Instead, you’re setting up supply lines and need to uphold them. You’re not fighting on some fields in the Polish countryside, liberating occupied villages in Normandy or taking over a military base on some abandoned fishing coast. Instead of a topographical map of historical battle zones, you are looking at a cleanly structured, albeit unusual map. One in which nations are depicted as basically squares on a board. Those squares serve as both victory points as well as links in your supply line. With each expansion you move one step closer to victory, but also unlock new options for you. If you control Poland as Germany, you can invade the Baltics or Ukraine. From there you can make your way to Romania or the Caucasus.
As long as my supply line remains uninterrupted, I can continue to expand. But once broken, my troops are stuck. I can neither use them nor move them, until the supply line has been reestablished. This rule is as obvious as it is elegant. With each expansion I give my opponents a bigger target to attack. The further I expand in Europe or the Pacific region, the more fragile my presence on the board becomes. Each newly conquered area forces me to take more possible threats into account, which makes sure that all my decisions remain interesting throughout the game.
It’s apparent that a lot of thought went into this game. Its design is precise and well-considered. The number of your units is limited, and composition differs for each player. Half-way through the game, I couldn’t help but carefully weigh my options as to how and where I wanted to be present on the board. My navy was simply not large enough to take on too many battles at once.
Admittedly, none of the individual rules are startlingly innovative. Mini WWII does not reinvent the wheel. But it is so confidently and competently put together, that I can’t help but be enthusiastic about it. It’s like somebody bought everyday ingredients at your local Lidl, and turned them into a dish so delicious, it ought to be awarded Michelin stars.
My decision space in this game is precise and clearly delineated. There are four basic actions I can spend a card on, as well as a special one depending on which cards I have in hand. And yet, at no point did I feel that questions of balance or playability put awkward constraints on me. The number of possible actions each turn is more than manageable. But thanks to the dynamic and layered game state, each round presented me with interesting decisions to make. The cards in my hand had enough variability and offered a number of possible combinations, that left me feeling both flexible and in control of my success.
A strong forward momentum keeps the game going. Each turn gives me clear goals, I can choose to pursue. I have the means to do that in my hand, and every decision forces my opponents to react. That’s what makes a great game: it is made out of the decisions that players take. Everything I do has a tangible effect on the game’s state. All that is down to great game design.
Above all I’ve found that defeats and setbacks always feel like something I can come back from. Conquering a region is comparatively simple. This small boost of confidence meant that we rarely got side-tracked in a tit-for-tat exchange that missed the actual point of the game (cf. Inis). Too many games tend to equate high risk decisions with influential ones. But all that really does is make players defensive, if not outright alienate them.
The social element of the experience is also strengthened, since I know I’m not fighting this alone but as part of a team. While a heavy loss would paint a huge target on my back in other competitive games, here it only leads to my teammate stepping up. A competitive game like this one feels and plays differently, knowing that there is an ally at the table.
But I also note that Mini WWII tries to echo a number of historical events in play. But it doesn’t clumsily rely on using event cards to rattle off singular moments in history (like Twilight Struggle does). Nor does it include narrowly worded rules, that are only legitimized by the fact that that one thing really happened that one time. Instead the benefits and drawbacks of certain historic developments are included in a way, that makes them make sense within the logic of the game itself.
For example, during the game you have the option of developing (among other things) rocket technology, from V1 to V2 up to the atomic bomb. But those do not simply destroy more units, as would be the case in a more simplistic design. Instead you reduce the number of cards in a player’s hand. Thereby limiting their flexibility and possibly hampering whatever they had planned this turn. By placing the effect of an action within the context of the game’s rules, it evokes a response that mere thematic dress-up and prose doesn’t quite manage.
But such an arsenal has to be build up over multiple turns first, using the research action, costing you cards as well. By requiring a bigger effort to pull off, it feels appropriate that it should affect another player more strongly. It reaffirms a sense of fairness within the game, because your opponent worked for it, as opposed to only getting lucky with the card draw.
The game is filled with smart and well thought-out design decisions. In the end, though, they only provide the foundation of the experience. It’s the tactical and strategic decisions players make and the interaction that grows out of them, that give the game an engrossing arc.
One point, that I only realized when I thought about the game and reflected on the experience, emphasizes why I consider Mini WWII something truly special. Beyond the exciting player turns, the tactical depth and elegant design, this game also managed to put me into a particular frame of mind. Since units aren’t numbered in any way, and the differences between mountains, forests or grassland have no relevance to the game, my imagination quickly moved away from armed forces decimating other armed forces en masse.
Troop losses have little to no relevance to my decision-making. All that matters is whether a strategically valuable location has to be controlled or not. I only care whether my supply line holds up (long enough), to prevent my opponent from seeing their plans through. I care only for the most valuable resource I have: the cards in my hand. With those I can start another attack or get new troops. I care only about how effectively I can reach my goal, and not what it would cost.
This is how a small, unassuming game manages to do something that a great many history teachers only succeeded at with a lot of effort and talent. In a vivid and almost unsettlingly effective manner, you are shown how deeply dehumanized the highest ranks of the military looked at the conflict. War was just a game. Nations aren’t invaded because some ideology demands it, but because it was pragmatic and useful to control that piece of land.
While a game like The Grizzled tries to relay the pathos and misery of simple soldiers, this game goes in a different direction. It calmly manages to lay bare how the promise of instant gratification makes us overlook any morally questionable means to get there (cf. Amazon). It shows that the larger the gulf between a decision and the actual costs for it is, the more vain our motivation and the more reckless our attempts to get what we want become (cf. Brexit).
In a way it doesn’t really matter, if this commentary on hierarchical decision-making was intentional or not. Once you take a step back and think about what you’re playing, it’s apparent that decision-making driven by an untamed thirst for victory is a soberingly plausible explanation for far too many things. Thanks to Mini WWII you can find out what that feels like.
But I don’t want to recommend Mini WWII because it makes players look at European history from an unexpected perspective. I want to recommend it most of all, because it’s a game that presents you with a well-tuned challenge and interesting decisions, that culminate in a reliably tense and engaging experience. I want to recommend it because it is a textbook example of what competent and well thought-out game design can do.
This game was not made for me. But it is superb and a must for anyone who is interested in what games can do without relying on a gimmick.