Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 01/05/2023

Top 10 list of games from those who teach game design 

The following article was written by Ed McGrady.

In one of my recent classes someone asked me what the top ten games a person new to the profession should be familiar with.  I realized that my top ten list would be bizarre, so to avoid too much drama and trauma I figured it might be a good idea to ask some others who teach game design what their lists are.   

And thus, a project was borne.   

Upon seeing some of the lists I began to realize that the whole idea was interesting, and that others might like to see the lists.  So, I asked Rex if he would be interested in publishing it as an entry on PAXSims.  He was.   

And thus, a very long PAXSims post was borne.   

I asked a range of people who teach game design (and some who don’t) for their top 10 lists of wargames that those completely new to the field should have experience with.  Some of them answered, some did not, the lists they sent are provided here.  As you can see, Peter and I could not help but go over the top 10 limit…   

As always, these lists are everyone’s person opinion, not endorsed by any organization they are affiliated with.  We note their affiliations simply to provide the reader some context as to who they are.   

A couple of observations: 

  • When you come of age in gaming seems to influence your choices.  Matt, Peter, and I reach back to old-school games a lot more than folks who are more “recent” than we are.  Diplomacy was only mentioned twice, by Peter and me, for example.    
  • Everyone has their own preferences, and their own take on what makes a good game to learn from.   There were a lot of games I’d have never thought of, and I’m sure many would have never considered the games I suggested.  So, I’m glad I asked everyone for their opinions!  
  • Twilight Struggle (and variants) and Risk (and variants) were the only games to be mentioned four times.  D&D, Battle for Moscow, and Pandemic were mentioned three times.  Thirteen others were mentioned twice.  Out of a total of 107 different games that isn’t a lot of overlap.   

So here are everyone’s (personal) opinions! 

Dr. ED McGrady (MORS Wargaming Certificate Program Lead, Monk’s Hood Media LLC, and Adjunct Senior Fellow CNAS Game Lab) 

I tried to choose games that were still in print, and that covered a variety of hobby techniques and genera.  My focus was primarily “these are systems, games, and ideas you should know about” and less “these are games you should use to teach game design.”  However, a couple of the games, like 1960, D&D and Diplomacy are some of my default games to show different design choices.  But this is definitely more “reading list” than “teaching list” simply because in the classes I teach we don’t have a lot of time to actually play games.   

  1. Diplomacy (AH) – This is probably one of the most elegant designs ever done in a hobby game. 
  1. OLD SCHOOL RPG (pick one):  Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, Hackmaster – Professional gaming is a lot more like role-playing than counter-and-hex wargaming.   
  1. STORYTELLING RPG (pick one): Vampire the Masquerade (World of Darkness), ARS Magica, Call of Cthulhu – There have been innovations in the RPG world, you should know what they are.   
  1. Love Letter – A great example of how simple design can be quite captivating. 
  1. 1960 Making of a President – This system has a remarkable number of ways to simulate the effects of information in games.  It is also a very elegant design. 
  1. Conflict of Heroes (Academy Games) – A great example of modern tactical wargame design.   
  1. MARK HERMAN (Pick One):  We the People (Out of print), For the People, Empire of the Sun – Mark popularized card driven games, and you should know how they work.  And also, its Mark Herman for heaven’s sake! 
  1. NAVAL Close Action (Out of Print) Harpoon, Command at Sea, Fear God and Dread Nought (Admiralty Trilogy Group) – Naval gaming is a whole thing in itself, just like gaming air warfare.  Miniatures dominates for mechanical reasons, and within that space the Admiralty Trilogy Group is probably the best place to go for modern (steam and after) tactical game design concepts.  Close Action (age of sail) is so great for so many reasons, but it appears to be out of print.   
  1. Saga (miniatures) – Miniatures gaming is one of the lesser appreciated forms of hobby gaming on this side of the Atlantic.  You should still see how it works and Saga is an example of a modern approach.   
  1. MEGA GAME (pick one):  Advanced Squad Leader, Star Fleet Battles – I love games with low counter density and high complexity.  You should look at these in order to understand the outer limits of what “complexity” really means.   

Ed McGrady:  Others 

  1. SOCIAL DEDUCTION GAME:  Secret Hitler:  – I think Secret Hitler is one of the best in this category of games, which are a really innovative recent addition to hobby gaming. 
  1. Terraforming Mars:  – If you’re going to go Euro go full Euro with something that is long, complex, and difficult.   
  1. Napoleon at Waterloo:  – A hex and counters game designed to introduce people to hex and counters games.  You can find it digitally online.   
  1. Strategy I:  This old-school hex and counters wargame is years out of print, but it represents an interesting way in which a wide range of eras, and scenarios, can be crammed into one wargame.  It’s a weird choice, but it’s an overlooked part of wargaming history.   

Dr. Peter P. Perla (CNA, author, The Art of Wargaming) 

  1. Go—classic pure strategy game 
  1. Dungeons and Dragons—pretty obvious for RPGs 
  1. [Settlers of] Catan—Example of Euro game mechanisms 
  1. Diplomacy (Avalon Hill)—classic strategy and negotiation game 
  1. Panzergruppe Guderian (SPI)—operational level warfare with untried units 
  1. October War (SPI)—culmination of Dunnigan’s tactical armor system 
  1. Storm Over Arnhem (Avalon Hill)—birth of area-impulse 
  1. W1815 (U&P Games)—a battle game without movement 
  1. Wild Blue Yonder (GMT)—card-based air combat 
  1. Midway (Avalon Hill original)—Double blind naval 

Honorable mentions 

  1. Wells’s Little Wars—the quintessential Artist game 
  1. Risk! (Hasbro)—simple global strategy with area map  
  1. Frederick the Great (SPI/Avalon Hill)—one of the best evocations of an era 
  1. The Rise of Blitzkrieg: The Fall of France 1940 (Bonsai Games)—excellent history, tiny box, few pieces but works great 
  1. Terraforming Mars—complex economic style multiplayer game 

Prof. Sebastian Bae  (CNA and Georgetown University) 

I selected the games I often use to introduce my own Georgetown students to a variety of game concepts, mechanics, and player dynamics. I also emphasized games that are accessible and relatively easier to learn while having interesting aspects to their design. Friedrich, about the 7 Years War, is an excellent logistics informed game with elegant rules with a nodal map system and card driven combat. Battle for Moscow features classic wargame mechanics like terrain effects, hit points, differentiated units, and zones of control. Pax Pamir is an excellent card tableau game about the Great Game in Afghanistan with a rich card mechanic. Twilight Struggle Red Sea uses the classic influence mechanic, while Cuba Libre like the other COIN series models asymmetrical advantages well. Citadels — like Love Letter — is a card game with interesting social deduction and character advantages.  

  1. Friedrich by Rio Grande Games 
  1. Battle for Moscow — a free online version against an AI here:  
  1. Twilight Struggle Red Sea by GMT. It is a smaller version of Twilight Struggle 
  1. Undaunted by Osprey Games 
  1. Game of Thrones Risk by Risk 
  1. Pax Pamir by Wehrle Games 
  1. Cuba Libre by GMT which I think is the easiest of all the COIN series, but A Distant Plain about Afghanistan is also good 
  1. Axis and Allies 1942 
  1. W1815 by U&P Games 
  1. Citadels (2016) by Windrider Games 

Prof. Rex Brynen (McGill University) 

This is a different sort of list than “classic or important games you should know about” since the criteria include playability (and accessibility for new gamers), adaptability to classroom or online play, utility in demonstrating different game mechanics, born-at-McGill-so-you-can-design-games-too, and other considerations relevant to my course in conflict simulation. 

  1. Battle for Moscow  (to teach classic hex/chit/CRT wargames. There’s an excellent online module and bot too). 
  1. Unity of Command (excellent digital implementation of a hex/chit/CRT game—I prefer the older version for teaching, since the underlying game model is more visible) 
  1. 1812: Invasion of Canada  (highly playable, elegant area movement wargame that doesn’t use a CRT for combat resolution, includes a card mechanism) and/or  Shores of Tripoli  (rather similar to 1812 in the mechanics it demonstrates, also highly playable and engaging) 
  1. Twilight Struggle  orLabyrinth  (card-driven design) 
  1. We Are Coming, Nineveh!  (blocks/fog of war/event cards, plus it was originally designed by students in the class) 
  1. AFTERSHOCK  (multiplayer semi-cooperative gaming, non-kinetic topic, also “born at McGill”) 
  1. A matrix game of some sort (Usually  ISIS Crisis  or  Reckoning of Vultures), from the Matrix Games Construction Kit).
  1. A seminar game of some sort (usually online).
  1. A miniatures skirmish game of some sort (usually zombie apocalypse game that is used as a fun introduction to procurement/investment games, by forcing players to allocate scarce resources to survival equipment and weapons).
  1. Various digital browser choose-your-own adventure or RPG/storytelling games (This War of Mine,  Through the Darkest of Times,  Mission Zhobia,  Outbreak READY, etc). I also recommend Rebel, Inc (an excellent digital/mobile stabilization game, because of its intuitive user interface, excellent use of scarce screen real estate, and the elegance of its basic game model). 

Mr. Peter Pellegrino (Tabletop History) 

For games that are not difficult to explain, play in under 2 hours, illustrate a particular principle or mechanic well, and are all on my shelf.  OK, so I only came up with 7.  I’m picky. 

In no particular order -   

  1. Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal.  The Battle Box for resolving salvo fires is as close to operational fires I’ve seen in a war game. 
  1. Memoir ’44.  Good introduction to mini gaming without going all Warhammer or Bolt Action. 
  1. The Shores of Tripoli.  Historical gaming can be beautiful and need not be confined to hexes! 
  1. Flamme Rouge.  A deceivingly simple path and card game, it is so well balanced that losers want to play again, since they missed winning by such a small margin. 
  1. Pandemic.  The granddaddy of cooperative play.  The disease-spreading mechanic shows up in other games where some antagonistic force is not controlled by a player.  
  1. Zombicide.  Yes, Zombicide.  Another good example of how to automate the adversary in a cooperative game. 
  1. Escape the Temple.  It’s a bit wild and silly, but the frenetic energy is the point!  A co-op game that completely shatters the idea of IGO-UGO and lacks any sense of a traditional “turn.” 

Dr. Justin Peachey (CNA game designer) 

The goal is to have a broad base from which to draw on. I’m missing some of the older wargames here mostly because I don’t have time to play anymore with 2 kids, etc. Some of these games “define” their genre. Others are just my favorites. 

  1. Diplomacy 
  1. D&D 5e or Pathfinder 2e – Modern RPG 
  1. Catan – Eurogame 
  1. Pandemic – Cooperative 
  1. Twilight Imperium – “American-style” (since I don’t like the term Ameritrash) game. 
  1. Dominion – In Game Deck Builder 
  1. This War of Mine – Storytelling/Adventure 
  1. Magic: the Gathering – Collectible Card Game (CCG): (at least read Mark Rosewater’s articles on design) 
  1. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars X-Wing – “Miniatures” (I really want to say Warhammer 40k but sometimes that comes with baggage so…) 
  1. Twilight Struggle 

MAJ Tom Mouat (UK Army game designer) 

  1. We are coming Nineveh. Divisional level game of Urban Warfare, playable in 90mins, intended for two players. Uses blocks for limited intelligence, and has strategic choices (time, casualties, collateral) and capability choices to support them. Simple gameplay and great conversations. 
  1. Black Orchestra.   A cooperative game of the plot to kill Hitler. The players choose historical characters and try to put together a plot to kill Hitler, while avoiding the SS and choosing their moment against a backdrop of WW2. Rich in historical detail and creates compelling narratives. 
  1. The Shores of Tripoli.   A cooperative game about the USA’s efforts at dealing with the Barbary Pirates in the Western Mediterranean. A simple game, with clean, stripped-down mechanics, perfectly balanced and rich in historical detail. 
  1. Watergate.    A short 2-player game, playable in 60 minutes, on a subject that, on the face of it, would be difficult to design a game about. 
  1. Root.   Many people go on about the idea of asymmetric games, but this 2 to 6 player game manages to generate genuinely different gameplay styles for each of the factions. It also does it in a way where the game play accelerates through the game to ensure there is a winner in a relatively short time – and the game is beautiful! 
  1. Risk  and  Warlord (republished by Game Workshop as  Armageddon). These two are games about world domination, the first,  Risk, is truly awful and suffers from the fact it is boring and that that a clear winner is obvious a long way before the end of the game and doesn’t really provide any helpful lessons. Warlord, on the other hand, while looking visually similar, has nuclear weapons, terrain effects, an innovative mechanism for combat resolution, and can be aimed to be played for different lengths of time by choosing the number of game-boards to use. 
  1. Pandemic.   This is a multi-award winning cooperative game of pandemic control and eradication. It works very well but suffers greatly from the “Alpha player” problem, where experienced players will understand the best actions to take and therefore suggest to more inexperienced players what to do, removing agency from them and reducing their enjoyment of the game. Pandemic Cthulhu and a couple of later editions make efforts to reduce this and make the experience better all around. 
  1. MaGCK The Matrix Game Construction Kit.   A boxed game version of the Matrix Games concept, generating game play merely from structured verbal arguments, with some counters and maps merely there to visualized the progress of the game and assist in sparking imagination. 
  1. Lasers and Feelings  RPG (or  Tactical Waifu).   It is essential to have a role-playing game in any list of Top 10 game designs – and I choose Lasers and Feelings, because it is an award-winning game that is stripped down to the bare essentials of narrative gameplay. The rules fit on a single side of paper, so don’t need tedious explanations and mechanisms. It also avoids the “fantasy dragons and wizards” tropes (and “murder-hobo” behaviors) of D&D-like games. 
  1. Ace of Aces.   A two-player game of tactical air combat in WW1, using paired books of illustrations of the situation each turn, and choices of maneuvers. You don’t need a map, game-board or any system or record-keeping. You don’t even need dice, although you can introduce them for the advanced version. A totally underappreciated work of genius. 

Dr. Jeremy Sepinsky (CNA lead wargame designer)  

In my view, professional gaming is about coming together with a group of knowledgeable experts to tell a collaborative story. Ideally, that process is made interesting to the players through a series of interesting choices. So I used my list not to represent what professional gaming looks like (it doesn’t look like anything in the hobby community from my experience; except maybe LARPs, and that only some of the time), but instead to highlight games that give me design insights or inspiration, things that I think provide interesting case studies for design. I think, with the toolkit below, you have the bits and pieces that can create a large fraction of the kinds of games we create as professional wargame designers. 

  1. Chess. I’m not a chess pro by any means, and I’m honestly barely any good at it. But the evolution of complexity from fairly simple mechanics on a small board is excellent. And it’s a simple enough game for novices that can illustrate to novices the need to think more than one turn in the future. 
  1. World of Darkness RPGs (Vampire the Masquerade, etc.). What sets these apart from the more popular D&D in my mind is that the character creation rules applies to every person you meet. They attempt to describe everyone from the special to the mundane within the same framework, reminding me as a designer to not treat my players as too much of special cases in the world. 
  1. Catan. Its ubiquity and ability to bridge the novices and the hard-core games has a utility of its own. Plus, it has a good negotiation aspect that ensures people don’t focus solely on the crunchy aspects of the rules. 
  1. Risk. Yes, you can get more complex and realistic battle simulations. But Risk is a territory control game that teaches you the basic mechanics. Plus, the places where Risk fails (statistics and win probability) are good illustrative examples of what not to do. 
  1. Mafia/Werewolf.  A game where interpersonal interaction dominates the rules. Understanding the hooks that force people to talk and contribute, and how those rules might force some people to stay silent to protect their interest/information makes those rules interesting. 
  1. Twilight Imperium.  Look, it may not be the most classic wargame, but it’s fun. And it creates a self-consistent ruleset from the diplomatic, commercial/trade, strategic, and tactical that interacts in an engaging manner – especially if you max out the number of players and can set aside half a day to do it. 
  1. Bridge.  Another game with emergent complexity. It’s a game played in teams, with hidden information and a requirement for subtle communication. Players must understand each other’s mode of play and be able to capitalize on another player’s hand without seeing it. And counting cards helps. 
  1. Tsuro.  This game is just fun. It’s simple, replayable, and scalable to a large number of players. The choices are limited, but the game design is beautiful and unique, and shows designers that not everything needs to be extra detailed to be effective. 
  1. 7 Wonders.  The pass-and-play mechanic is good, and the game works by giving just enough player interaction (mostly by watching what other people are playing) to make it not quite a 1-player game. Understanding that dynamic, and ensuring players have meaningful interactions with each other in the confines of your game, is key to a good design. 
  1. Candyland.  Not every example needs to be one that you should replicate. This is the classic example of a “game that’s not a game”, and people should know and understand it. And they should be able to recognize it in the games that they create as well, even when it’s not quite as obvious. 

Mr. Mark Leno (Wargame Designer and Wargaming Instructor, U.S. Army War College) 

Game design is best learned through playing and analyzing lots of games with different themes, genres, and mechanics. Here are some of my personal favorites for training wargame designers and facilitators (hard to choose just 10!).  

  1. Go: classic abstract game of both strategy and tactics, complex play without complicated rules:.
  1. Eight Minute Empire: grand strategy in simple(st) form.
  1. Balance of Power: introduction to negotiation games (“Diplomacy”-light) and deterministic combat models:.
  1. Memoir ’44: introduction to tactical wargaming, stochastic combat models, and modular game design:.
  1. 13 Minutes: introduction to card-driven political-military wargames.
  1. Captain Sonar: real-time adjudication with role-playing elements.
  1. Concordia: introduction to Euro- and resource-allocation games:.
  1. Evolution: tactical card-driven wargame:. 
  1. Twilight Struggle: Red Sea: introduction to heavier card-driven political-military wargames and hybrid combat models.
  1. War Room (Larry Harris): one of the best grand strategy wargames, models so much with relatively simple rules and simultaneous orders.

CAVEAT: These are the author (Mark Leno’s) personal views and not an endorsement by the U.S. Army or any other organization.  

Dr. James Sterrett (Chief, Simulation Education Division, Army Command and General Staff College) 

A lot of how I use wargames as examples is strongly driven by student  projects – I try to have them play games that are relevant, in theme or mechanics, to whatever they are creating. 
My course starts with playing Battle for Moscow, and then has a series of “petting zoos” in which I show off 10 or so games per class, but zero in specifically on approaches to modelling command and control (which often means sequence of play); modelling space or using spatial mapping to model things; ways to model the assets players can control; and ways to model getting outcomes from actions, which mostly means approaches to combat resolution. 
So I’ll try to note, below, how these get used. 

  1. Battle for Moscow is a superb introductory game.  Simple, easy to teach, engaging, and has a lot of really good examples of mechanics used elegantly.  My favorite of those is the sequence of play, which makes the Soviet forces somewhat unwieldy, and makes the German armor outrun its infantry in mobile fighting, without any other special rules. Battle for Moscow is free as a print and play via:!/C3i-Nr25-eBook-Edition/p/136922625/category=33205167 and also has an excellent free online version at 
  1. Strike of the Eagle is often the second game, providing an introduction to blocks for fog of war, cards with multiple uses as is common in card-driven games, point-to-point maps, and a very clever orders and initiative system with lots of bluffing.  Strike of the Eagle is the game most frequently cited by my students as providing mechanics inspiration. 
  1. 1944 Race to the Rhine and SupplyLines of the American Revolution  are our go-to games to demonstrate ways to put logistics at the center of a game. 
  1. Napoleon 1806/1807/1815: In addition to using blocks for fog of war, these are good for introducing uncertain movement rules, another example of cards with multiple uses, custom dice for combat resolution, and units with more detailed composition than what’s shown on the map.  Frequently cited by students as a source of mechanical inspiration. 
  1. Sicily (Operational Combat Series) and Sicily (Fast Action Battles Series) are two games on the same topic with maps at the same scale and size: but OCS uses hexes and FAB uses areas. This is great for discussing the different feel that hexes and areas bring to a game. In the petting zoo, I use the party trick of putting the OCS Sicily hex map over top of the FAB Sicily area map before students arrive, so there’s the surprise factor of revealing the very different second map. 
  1. Triumph & Tragedy does a great job of integrating all aspects of DIME (Diplomatic, Information, Military, Economic) into a single model, beginning in the competition phase and potentially moving into conflict.  The minor nation diplomacy system, in particular, is outstanding. 
  1. 1824 Kriegsspiel.  We run this as a Free Kriegsspiel.  Kriegsspiel isn’t just of historical interest; run well it’s an excellent wargame, and introduces issues of adjudication, written orders and their interpretation, and fully double-blind play. 
  1. Wings for the Baron does a great job of focusing on technology development without losing sight of the economic and military pressures at work. 
  1. Squad Leader, Combat Commander, Conflict of Heroes, Band of Brothers, Last Hundred Yards: five games on squad-level combat in Europe in WW2, but each with a completely different approach to the sequence of play and thus to command & control.  These are a core exhibit in the petting zoo to discuss the impact of different approaches on player decision-making. 

Mr. Matt Caffrey (Air Force Research Laboratory and author of On Wargaming) 

  1. Across SuezOne challenge in teaching about wargaming is that many in the military have the perception that wargames are all million-line programs that take a year to learn and run.  With only three and a third pages of rules, Mark Herman’s depiction of the Israeli counterattack on the Egyptians during the 1973 war provides confidence that wargames are learnable. Being set after WWII helps the perception of relevance to contemporary warfare. 
  1. Drive on Metz.  The section on it in James Dunnigan’s Complete Wargame Handbook increases the learning value of this World War II wargame. 
  1. House Divided. Frank Chadwick’s great design of the military dimensions of the American Civil War introduces players to an area and transportation line style map and demonstrates that even strategic level wargames can be easy to learn and play. 
  1. Axis and Allies.  Larry Harris’ World War II wargame demonstrates area movement and that an all domain, global wargame can be executable.  This title’s many simplifications make the truly strategic decisions easier to see. 
  1. Origins of World War II.  Introduces Pol/Mil wargaming in an easy to learn and execute way. 
  1. Fortress Europa.  This is my favorite wargame.  It depicts the WWII campaign by the Allies to liberate Western Europe, from selecting a site for D-Day through (if successful) entering Germany.  It provides operational level choices for the employment of airpower and elegantly demonstrates the impacts of logistical capacity. 
  1. For The People.  Mark Herman’s design on the American Civil War depicts all dimensions of that conflict and demonstrates the use of cards can add significant depth with a moderate increase in complexity. 
  1. GDW’s Third World War Series.  This Frank Chadwick series of wargames use a common set of rules to depict the Cold War of the late 1980s turning hot in four different theaters. Each illustrates the air/land nature of operations during that era while the final title in the series, Person Gulf, adds a pol/mil element.  
  1. Stellar Conquest/Master of Orion.  Wargame practitioners need to decide when to apply manual methods of a computer-based design.  An entire book could be written in the pluses and minuses of each choice.  As these two science fiction games are essentially the same game executed manually and as computer code, they help the practitioner decide for themselves how the medium shapes the final product. 
  1. Civilization.  For over two decades this computer wargame depiction of the rise of civilizations has been at or near the top of best sellers lists. It somehow combines a nearly comprehensive depiction of societal development with ease to learn and play. An achievement we can all learn from. 
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