Absolute War Board Game – Easy? Not Really

I was sort of ‘out’ of wargaming after this summer, too busy in my head with several important life events and activities, not hobby projects, like looking around and getting a new job, community activism, my public speaking club etc. Didn’t paint, only bought a few board games, including the acclaimed ‘light’ WW2 strategic East Front board game Absolute War. It’s one of the few games that includes German and Russian war crimes and atrocities as game concepts (I like games with moral choices) and first reviews were very positive. My first game, on Boxing Day, however was a disappointment.

I planned to play it against a good old friend who is interested in wargaming but no wargamer himself. So I brought Absolute War with me, an easy game according to GMT-games, the publisher:

“This game is not overly difficult to play, even if at first the learning might feel daunting to a person not well-versed in conflict
simulation games. The mechanics have been streamlined so to let the player make the big strategic decisions without being muddled in an endless series of computations and bothersome procedures. Have no fear, there is a full section about tactics
and strategies in this Playbook, combined with the extensive examples of play to help you make sense of it all. It should
make the initial experience a breeze, especially if you try the “no-frills” Basic game first.”

Honestly: I expected Risk, with cards. It wasn’t.

The main rules are written like a computer manual, 1.1, 1.2, 2.4. You need to grasp the full rules until you understand the slimmed down ‘basic rules’. We tried to play a quickstart Basic Game, and failed. My friend and I, we studied several hours before we felt more or less able to play the first turn. BGG reviewers write:

[NatX 17] “Special mention deserves the misleading marketing campaign by GMT, always advertising Absolute War as an entry game for newbies, or as a short and simple version of the Russian Front. Even applying only the basic rules, it is a complex game to understand without having some experience in this hobby; and in no way it can be labelled as a short wargame.”

[Louis Wardlaw]  “The first turn took about three or four hours because I was flipping through the rulebook a bit and my friend had a good number of questions that needed answering while he formulated his strategy. My first Soviet turn went a good deal quicker, since Soviets mostly just stand in the way and do some feeble counter-attacks. However, I did need to spend some time getting my replacements set-up. I would say my first turn was a bit over an hour.”

[@borsook] “This is the reason why so many reviewers ignore the basic game. There is a 4 page basic rules booklet, but it tells you to familiarise yourself with the main rules and use them when you need details. The problem is that those rules contain a lot of thing that you don’t need and don’t always tell you what the differences are. Generally the game suffers from rules that should be tighter and clearer, this dual-rules situation increases ambiguity. This means that while the basic game has really simple, streamlined rules, learning them is anything but. Also there is a mistake in basic game rules, it seems it was supposed to use War Objectives (there are even tokens to tract those) but in fact uses War Support Points as the normal game, whereas the rules suggest there is a difference. Small confusion, but not great in the rules that are supposed to be simpler.”

We quit the game after 4 hours, unfinished. I was disappointed.

I will study the rules again and play it solo before I try it a second time with a newbie. I’m still intrigued by the concept. As Column Shift Left wrote:

“The infamous names of the Holocaust and Nazi slaughter are on the list, like the death camps at Auschwitz and Treblinka,(…) By placing these locations on the map, the Axis/German player is acutely aware that when they push their front line to Babi Yar, they are not simply advancing soldiers to gain a victory point or seize some territory, it is enabling the mass murder of innocent people. By taking Babi Yar as the Axis player, you are by no means carrying out an atrocity yourself, but you are helping the side that slaughtered well over a hundred thousand people in just a few days there. It is uncomfortable and sobering, but it also quite real – you can have a lot of fun playing the wargame, but you cannot ignore the history, the real suffering and horror of it. (…) It was not enough to make us stop playing, but we did have an uncomfortable moment of reflection in an otherwise pleasant and fun play experience, which is perhaps appropriate for a game simulating this conflict. Maybe we should be forced to recognize, even if it is unpleasant, that, as I said in the last piece, these counters, these actions, these occupations, are not neutral events.” 

Probably a good game, Smart resource management, focus on strategic war goals, grand strategy and ‘points’ that you can keep in reserve or add to combat. Not just another amoral dice rolling WW2 game. An easy game? I don’t think so.

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