Wooden Block Games

From Columbia Games, GMT Games, Worthington Games, and Simmons Games

These remarks copyright 1993, 2001 Steffan O'Sullivan (sos @ panix.com)
This page last updated May 31, 2005

Page down for a short description of wooden block games in general, or go right to an individual game:

Columbia Games

   Independent Games                   The "Front" Series 
     Quebec 1759                         EastFront          
     War of 1812                         VolgaFront
     Napoléon                            WestFront
     Rommel in the Desert                MedFront 
   Victory & Derivatives
     Victory                           USA vs CSA
     Pacific Victory                     Bobby Lee
     Wizard Kings                        Sam Grant
     Hammer of the Scots                 Gettysburg
     Crusader Rex

GMT Games

Europe Engulfed

This is very well received by many gamers, though not to my taste. It does have an absolutely brilliant mechanism in the Special Action chit, though: during production, buy a special action chit for a fairly hefty price, and put it in your home country. At some point during the strategic phase, you use it to represent one of 11 different possible special actions. You don't have to decide in advance what it does, so your opponent never knows until it's gone if you'll use it for a breakthrough blitzkrieg or shoring up a hole in your line or something else. Brilliant! Steal it for any wargame with a production phase!

Worthington Games

Victoria Cross

I haven't played this, so can't comment on it. They have another game, Clash for a Continent, that was supposed to be released as a block game, but instead they made it with wooden versions of cardboard pieces: they don't stand up and are always exposed to view. This doesn't qualify as a block game in my view.

Simmons Games

Bonaparte at Marengo

I own this but haven't yet played it. It's very different from any other wargame I've ever seen. The blocks are shaped more like the road pieces in Settlers of Catan than as in Columbia games. You don't rotate a piece as it takes losses - you use a substitute block with a lesser value on it.

-- End recent update - the rest of this page is older material --

Columbia Games, makers of board games, collectible card games (Dixie and Eagles), the roleplaying game Hârn and all its supplements, and miniatures rules (Battle Lust), makes a series of war games using wooden blocks as pieces. These are, IMO, some of the finest war games ever made.

So what's special about wooden blocks?

The wooden blocks are roughly 1" by 1" by 0.5" - like half a domino that can stand on end a little easier. (You can see pictures of blocks on their website - the page for Victory, for example, shows blocks on a game board.) Only one face has unit information on it. Normally, that side is kept towards the owner of the piece. This means that you can see all of your units, and what they are, and how strong they are, but you can only see the backs of your opponent's pieces. You can tell where he has units, but not what they are nor how strong they are. (Sometimes not even that - Quebec 1759 uses decoy blank units, for example!) Thus the wooden blocks create a "fog of war" effect without any bookkeeping or hassle.

There are numbers around the edges of the side facing you. The number on top represents the current strength of the unit. As the unit takes a hit in combat, it is rotated to the next lower number, one step per hit until eliminated. In combat, you roll a number of six-sided dice equal to the current strength - every 6 rolled hits (there are exceptions: in EastFront, for example, Armored units hit on a 5 or 6, and some terrain allows the defender to take two hits before being reduced one step, etc.). ("Oh, ShadowRun," you say. Well, yes, but these games introduced the concept in 1972, before there were any RPGs at all, let alone ShadowRun.)

Thus the wooden blocks create step reduction effortlessly. These two factors - easy fog of war and step reduction - mean that a wooden block game can achieve very sophisticated simulation with a minimum of strain on the gamer. This means the rules can be simple, but the simulation doesn't suffer.

Consequently, even the most complicated wooden block game is still on the low side of moderate complexity by wargame standards. But the satisfaction of play and simulation is very high - a good combination!

As of this date (February 23, 2001), the wooden block games are (dates of publication are in parentheses):

Quebec 1759
(1972). Revised edition in print. The simplest wooden block game, this recreates the battle of Quebec in 1759, rather obviously. Wolfe vs. Montcalm. A very good introductory game, both to war games in general and wooden block games in particular. I usually play this one with beginners - the replay value for grognards is a bit low for a wooden block game. There are only ten spaces (towns) on the board - movement is point to point along the road network, or across the St. Lawrence river by ships. Simultaneous movement.

War of 1812
(1973). Slightly revised edition in print. This game covers the entire three years of the War of 1812, but only the theater between Lake Champlain and Detroit. (Despite such famous actions as the burning of Washington and the Battle of New Orleans, over 80% of the action in this war occurred along the US/Canadian border shown on the map.) Still fairly simple, this is a much more detailed game than Quebec 1759. Movement is still point to point along the road network, or by ship across Lakes Ontario, Erie, or Champlain. Ship units are more important than in Quebec 1759. High replay value - especially if using the optional simultaneous movement.

(1974; 2nd ed. by Avalon Hill, 1977; 3rd ed. by Columbia Games, 1993.) Third edition is in print (Q&A file). This is a recreation of the battle of Waterloo. Movement is again point to point along the road networks. This game introduced a separate map on which battles were fought when opposing troops enter the same town. The troops are set up in three columns (and a reserve), and can only fight those troops in an opposing column. There are three different armies in the game: the French, the Prussians, and the English-Rhinish Allies. A very well-balanced game, there is much argument in the gaming world about Columbia's rules changes from the AH version, however. Some say they broke it, some say they improved it, some say they did a little of each (my own view). I'd love to try to hammer out the best compromise between 2nd and 3rd edition rules on this game!

Rommel in the Desert
(1984). Back in print, 2005. This marked a breakthrough for wooden block game evolution. Tom Dalgleish (with others) was largely responsible for the design of the first three point-to-point wooden block games. Craig Besinque took the basic concepts and merged them with a hexgrid to create this game. Craig added supply cards to give the game the North African feel, and the system works very well. An excellent game of WWII, it has a high replay value. The only flaw is that you must always be very careful of your supply lines - the game is unforgiving of mistakes. One mistake and the enemy cuts the supply of your entire army, which then starves to death.

(1991). In print. Won the Origins Award as best WWII game for that year. Another breakthrough, also by Craig Besinque. This game covers the entire Eastern front in WWII: Germany's invasion of Russia to Russia's invasion of Germany. Craig added HQ units, and created, IMO, brilliant rules for them. In order to move any pieces, you must activate an HQ. Each HQ has a number around the edges, as a combat unit. The top number is the current strength of the HQ. Only units within a number of hexes equal to the current HQ strength can be activated by that HQ. (Each side also has a supreme HQ that can activate units anywhere on the board.) In addition, the HQ provides an Air Strike equal to its current strength. There are two turns per month, then a production phase to rebuild units and HQs. Thus, command control and logistics rules are abstracted, relieving the gamer of any need to keep written record of supply, or move little supply chits, but still simulating reality very well. This game is amazing - replay value is very high, due to the eight different scenarios provided (plus the campaign game). It is, IMO, the best wargame ever made. Period. More detailed review.

(1994). In print. This does not contain any new pieces, but has a map to extend the EastFront map to the Urals. The German objective in 1942 was not a winter vacation in Stalingrad, but an attempt to hit the industrial area of the Soviet Union in the Urals. This extension allows you to try this strategy. More detailed review.

(1992). In print. The sister game to EastFront, it covers the war in western Europe from 1943 to the end of the war. It can be linked with EastFront to create a very large game covering most of WWII - I haven't tried it yet, but may someday - but see EuroFront, below. New rules for amphibious invasions and paratroopers, since those were of vital importance in the Western Front. Not as fluid a game as EastFront, by nature of the geography, it is still a gripping, well balanced game.

(1994). In print. Spanish Civil War and WWII North African campaign, covered separately, with two different maps and sets of pieces. In effect, two different stand-alone games in one box. However, the maps not only fit together, but also fit with WestFront and EastFront to allow you to play:

(1995). In print. No maps, but it has rules, scenarios, and 50 additional pieces that allow you to combine EastFront, WestFront, and MedFront into a monster complete WWII-in-Europe game, including "what-if" scenarios. This is the only wooden block game I don't own since I don't really have the mind-set for monster games, let alone time and opponents.

Bobby Lee
(1993, 2nd Ed. 1995). In print (Q&A file). The American Civil War in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. This game merges EastFront's hexes and HQ command control rules with Napoléon's 3-column battle resolution, and adds its own flavor. With the second edition, Bobby Lee has joined the ranks of very playable wooden-block games - it was a bit awkward in the first edition. This game works best as a campaign game, however: reserve time to play out the whole war! The individual scenarios, unlike EastFront, are not as satisfying.

Sam Grant
(1996, in print). The American Civil War in the West. Contains rules to move units between Bobby Lee and Sam Grant via rail, as they actually did in the war. Uses the Bobby Lee system, with river warfare added.

Victory : The Blocks of War
(1998, in print). Victory is a generic version of WWII. It is simpler than the Front or ACW games, but more complex than Napoléon. Four geomorphic maps are included, but more are available, as well as more units, even of different colors allowing four players. Ten unit types are included, but more are available in the expansion sets. Excellent game to introduce beginners to the hobby, it's readily customizable with optional rules for the experienced gamer - should be a solid winner. More detailed article, including my house rules.

Pacific Victory
(2000, in print). Pacific Victory is a variant of Victory with map and units historically accurate for WWII in the Pacific (except the war in China is not modeled - China is simply off-limits). The grand strategic scale is very different, however (600 miles/hex as opposed to Victory's 50 miles/hex; one turn is three months instead of one), so they've had to modify many rules:

  • Units move only 1 if by land and 2 if by sea (but Paul Revere's not in the game ...). A unit can move farther if not attacking.
  • Each side also has a single strategic HQ that allows you to make very long moves, such as long-distance attacks or recalling a front line unit to a home base.
  • Different units cost different amounts of Production Points, ala the Front games, and units cost double to build up outside of home bases.
  • Combat occurs only after both players have moved - not after each side's movement.
  • The first player in a turn can attempt to pin enemy units during his movement phase.
  • You may move through an opponent's naval force provided you leave at least as many units in that hex as he has there.
  • A victorious attacker can reorganize his units among the spaces he came from and the space he captured - a rule that should be ported to Victory.
  • Carriers have planes implied in their combat strength, and not physically represented in the game - the plane units supplied with the game are all land-based aircraft.
  • Planes can land at bases in the same turn you capture them, which makes sense given the time scale.
  • The only ground units are marines, infantry, and garrisons.
  • Submarines have some advantages over their Victory counterparts, largely to do with supply.
  • Supply is via a chain of supply centers no more than three hexes apart - the Japanese taking Fiji or Samoa can really hurt the Allies in this game!
  • An interesting three-player variant allows the Allies to model the Nimitz/MacArthur dichotomy - who gets the supply?
At this point I find it one of the best block games - somewhat balanced and tense, though I think the Japanese can't really win unless they have either great luck or an inexperienced opponent. Still, it's great fun to play - time will tell if it still holds up to that promise.

Actually, the game requires an interesting collection of both offensive and defensive skills in order to win. The Japanese player must be very good at offense early in the game, and very good at defense later in the game to have a chance at winning. The Allied player must be skilled at both, but in reverse order. I think the Allied player has a slightly easier job, to be honest - I think most games are likely to end in an Allied Marginal Victory when the clock runs out in 1945. But it sure doesn't feel easy early in the game ... lots of tension in this game for both sides.

Wizard Kings
(2000, in print). Wizard Kings is the first block game with a non-historical setting. It's a fantasy game, with many elements of Pacific Victory and Victory. It's simpler than either game, however: there are no supply rules, for example. Wizard Kings uses the sequence introduced in Pacific Victory: Player 1 moves, then Player 2 moves, then one combat phase handles all battles that turn. While the game has much promise, I feel it needs a lot of tweaking - it still suffers from the trench warfare problem that original (untweaked) Victory has. My first tweaks are to reduce the number of units per hex to 3 (+ 1 wizard) unless attacking, in which case it's 4 + 1 wizard; and to use twice as many maps without doubling the number of units used. Still needs work, but an interesting and attractive game ...

Hammer of the Scots
(2002, in print). I have now played this game a fair bit, and consider a solid, excellent game suitable for newcomers to the block system yet with enough replay power to interest grognards. Congrats, Columbia! Vastly superior to Wizard Kings. The game covers the Scottish William Wallace, Andrew de Moray, and Robert the Bruce against the English Kings Edward I & II. If you've seen the movie Braveheart you have a rough idea of the setting.

It has some very interesting (though not necessarily unique) features:

  • Each side plays very differently, with different strengths, weaknesses, abilities, goals and even rules.
  • The victory points (VPs) in the game are part of your forces. There are 14 Scottish Nobles in the game, and all but one are represented by two pieces, a red piece (English-controlled) and a blue piece (Scottish controlled). Only one piece for each Noble can be on the board at a time. If you inflict enough damage on one in battle to knock it down below one step, instead of removing the block from the game, you replace it with your own color piece! This represents either convincing the Noble it's better to fight for your side than die, or simply that you did kill the Noble and the new clan leader - brother, or son, or nephew, etc. - now joins your side.
  • Every year consists of one to five turns - you may or may not know exactly how many. Each year ends in a winter phase: blocks are built up during winter, but no regular movement or combat takes place. Lots of units go home, though, which can have enormous repercussions. Winter is so powerful a factor in the game that each year is its own mini-game: you set goals per year rather than long term, and those goals can easily change year to year. Thus your strategic objectives are always shifting.
  • It's card-activated. There are 25 cards consisting of
    • 20 cards numbered 1, 2, or 3; and
    • 5 different event cards: Sea Move, Herald, Victuals, Pillage, and Truce.
    Each year you shuffle all cards and deal five cards to each player. Each player chooses one secretly and players reveal them simultaneously. The number cards show how many groups you can move that turn. (A group is all the blocks in a given area.) The player with the higher card moves his groups first, with the English winning ties. An event card means you activate no groups, but may perform the event specified. If both players play an event card at the same time, the events occur and the year is then over even if players still have cards left.
  • As in Pacific Victory and Wizard Kings, combat is resolved only once per turn, after both sides have moved. Thus the player who goes first has a certain advantage in being able to reach empty areas first and can also pin key blocks of the other side. The player who goes second, however, can make moves the first player cannot react to and can reinforce battles the first player initiated. A good trade-off.
  • It uses the Wizard King system of combat ratings: A1, B2, C2, C3, etc. All defending "A" troops roll to hit first, then attacking "A" troops roll to hit. Then defending "B" troops, followed by attacking "B" troops - etc. The number after the letter determines whether or not a given roll hits: an A2, B2, or C2 will hit on every 1 or 2 rolled on a d6. Likewise, a C3 will hit on a 1, 2, or 3. King Edward's unit in the game is a B4: he hits on anything from 1 to 4, ouch! Mel Gib... William Wallace is an A3: he'll roll to hit before Edward on offense or defense, but probably doesn't pack as much punch. As usual in block games, the number showing at the top of the block represents how many dice are rolled.
  • There are some very interesting decisions that need to be made regarding the use of troops. The Nobles, regardless of who controls them, always winter in Scotland, as do all Scottish (blue) blocks. For the English, however, only the English-controlled Nobles and Infantry winter over in Scotland. All the English "A" and "B" troops (except your Nobles, who are "B" rated) go home each winter (with one exception, explained below). All infantry are "C" type units in combat - meaning everyone else rolls for damage before they do. This means that the English player has a tough decision taking combat losses: do you take your losses on your worst troops (the infantry) thus saving your superior forces for the next combat, or do you take the losses on your better troops, thus saving the infantry to survive the winter in Scotland? [The only exception to the English wintering is when Edward I winters in Scotland himself. In this case he makes sure there are enough supplies to feed all troops in his area, regardless of quantity and type. But he can't do that two winters in a row - he has a kingdom down south to rule, too.]
  • During winter, Nobles go home automatically - no actual movement need be counted out, and they can get there even if their home is surrounded by enemy troops. But if his home is occupied by enemy troops, a returning Noble switches allegiance! Thus your goals each year depend on which Nobles you already control and which you can try to convert to your side either through battle, event card, or by occupying their home territory come winter. (Nobles are VPs: if you ever control them all you win automatically. If you control the majority when the scenario ends, you win.)
  • Unlike other recent Columbia block games, it does not use hexagons, but uses areas instead. It works well, much better than hexes would for the terrain and time period. Certain borders between areas are black, and others red: the red ones represent very rough terrain and limit the number of blocks you can bring across as well as stopping further movement that turn.
  • There are two scenarios (Braveheart and The Bruce) which can be played seperately or combined into a campaign game.
All in all a fine game, much lighter in rules than any of the WWII or Civil War titles, and only a bit more complex than Napoléon. My only complaint so far is the possibility of a cheesy win or draw through use of the Herald card on the last turn. There is simply no defense against this play if your opponent is lucky enough to be dealt the card, and a game kept very close for three hours can suddenly be decided by a 2/3 chance of a single die roll. Bleah - what a let-down!

I'm tempted to use one of the following optional rules to counter this. (The first rule is simpler, but the second allows for normal odds of being able to crown a Scottsh King on the last turn. I can't imagine you wanting to crown a King on the last turn, but just in case you do, I've provided it. I'll use the first rule, myself.)

  1. Remove the Herald card from the deck before dealing cards for the last year.
  2. Leave the Herald card in the deck in the last year of a scenario, but if a player is dealt it, he may discard it and draw another card before playing his first card. It may not be used in the last year of a scenario as the Herald event as written on the card, but the Scottish player may retain the card to use as a coronation event card.
Here is a link to my player aid. It's a bit opaque, sorry - not the clearest player aid I've ever made, but it works for me.

By the way, the latest version of the rules and a sample first turn can be found on the Columbia web page, linked below.

(2003, in print). I haven't played this game at all, sorry. I only list it here for completeness.

(2003, in print). I haven't played this game yet, sorry. I only list it here for completeness. I hope to play it soon!

Crusader Rex
(2005, in print). I haven't played this game at all, sorry. I only list it here for completeness.

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