The late Colombian author Roberto Bolano once wrote a novel about a young man obsessed by the Avalon Hill wargame Third Reich. In it, the German protagonist, or what hobbyists might call an ubergrognard, goes on holiday with his girlfriend to the Costa Del Sol, but decides to spend most of his time locked in his hotel room with a degenerate local playing the game and ruminating over his next moves. Unsurprisingly, exasperated by his behaviour, the girlfriend sods off back to Germany to leave him befuddled both by his opponent and the nature of the female species. It is this sort of myopic mania that games of this nature can really induce – immersing you to the detriment of your social life in a world of mind-boggling detail and strategic quandaries as you attempt to replay the world’s most destructive conflict.
I’ll put my hand up and say, well, whisper – yes, I really would like to play this sort of game because, well, a quick overview of my bookshelves shows a large number of books devoted to subjects such as the efficacy of the Il-2 Sturmovik on the Eastern Front and a detailed analysis of what went wrong for the Wehrmacht at the Battle of Kursk. But at the same time I’m a little bit frightened by this, and perhaps a little bit by the sorts of people who play these games as well. There’s no doubt that it takes a certain kind of motivated individual to say “I will dedicate my whole weekend to consulting myriad tables on tank damage and moving around little chits with a tweezer.” Yes, a tweezer. There are, of course, games replaying the strategic nature of World War II that don’t approach the levels of crazed immersiveness that the old Avalon Hill games did (A World in Flames is recommended at taking a whopping 1440 minutes on BGG), like Axis and Allies for example, or some made by the seminal manufacturer GMT, but ultimately you are still looking at an entire day, and, well as I get older, trying to justify to my wife that I’m off for the afternoon to recreate World War 2 in a dining room in Tunbridge Wells doesn’t really go down that well. So, in reality, I pore over these games and come close to buying them on many occasions, but am scuppered by the fact that the chance of them coming to the table is unlikely.
Ignore the prosaic name, which in all honesty makes it sound like you’re hoofing tents, corn beef and old army trucks around a euro-style board with measly brown counters for half a victory point. This is a card game that condenses a simulation of World War II into around 75 to 90 minutes. It plays from two to six players, has a medium-sized board and a minimal amount of playing pieces, and yet somehow manages to instill the flavour of the grander strategic games with a lean, efficient rules base that is very easy to grasp. Perhaps more importantly, the system replicates the tactical and strategic concerns of each nation involved in a manner that will please historians of the subjects. So, yes it has accuracy at the core of its heart.
So to the game itself. Even if there are just two of you, all the countries (Britain, USA, Soviet Union, Germany, Italy & Japan) are used. They are represented individually by a deck of cards, all of which are unique to that country alone. The deck represents a country’s economic and military might; so in keeping with realism, Italy has the smallest deck whilst Germany and the US have larger ones. In the main though, the difference between the sizes isn’t much. These cards are then divided into certain types. Each country has the ability to build either an army or a navy and fight a land or sea battle, play an event, a status, a response or an economic warfare card. And it’s in these latter ones that the flavour and theme of the game really begins to emerge. For example, The Soviet Union can play a card that simulates the devastating power of a Russian winter, or the USA can cripple another player’s deck with bombing. Status cards are mostly used by the Soviet Union and Germany, replicating the totalitarian nature of their regimes by enabling them to chain attacks or build more armies, but at a significant cost to their deck. Response cards, which are a symbol of a country’s defensive measures and are triggered by certain actions, are played face down so that an attacking player doesn’t know what exactly they’re facing, but that there’s something there which might affect you if you decide to attack them. Japan in particular can make very decisive use of these cards if attacked. From the outset with Quartermaster General what is apparent is that these cards have to be used very carefully. You never have enough cards for what you want to do, producing a wonderful abstraction of the choices that these regimes and countries had to make during the conflict. It is here that you can really start to feel the problems and agonising decisions that permeate this game.
And crucially, as you might expect from a game titled as such, it’s all about supply. Combat and all that jazz is blisteringly simple. Play a battle card against an army or navy in an area and you defeat it. No rolling dice, nothing. But without a build card in your hand, you’re not going to be able to take advantage of that victory. This might cause horror amongst military aficionados who erupt when their Soviet army is crushed by an Italian one, but this isn’t about grognard-level detail, it’s about theme and strategic choices in a manageable timeframe. Your armies and navies, when they begin to stretch across the board, must be in supply (i.e linked by regions where you have another army or navy) otherwise they are removed at the beginning of your next turn. This part of the game is particularly important for the participants that rely on naval might to get involved – ie. Japan and the USA. The latter is helped by the fact that its allies can more readily support their fleets, so when the inevitable invasion of Africa and Europe begins to take shape, the British can play a major role in facilitating it. Similarly, Japan has to do so in order to spread its tentacles over Asia and Oceania, but helping in this theatre are supply centres in India, China and Australia that can keep both its and Britain’s forces going. And like in the conflict, control of the major straits like Gibraltar, Suez and Singapore, which start the game under the Allies, is strategically important. For example, if Britain manages to hold onto Africa, it seriously limits Italy’s chances of wreaking havoc on a US build up of forces in the Atlantic.
The game itself is played over 20 turns with a scoring system where players accumulate points for how many supply spaces they occupy (including their home territory) each turn. Sudden victory can be achieved if one side has armies in two of the player’s home territories, or if one side is more than 30 points ahead of the other on the point track (which can go up to 400). In gaming terms, this favours the Axis forces to start with, as it can conquer enemy territory more easily. Japan in particular, can expand into Asia and try to grab China, India or Australia if not stopped by either Britain or the USA, helping to keep their score relatively high once the European theatre becomes more contested. In order for the Allies to start making a dent in the Axis score, it has to start knocking out the Axis forces and their supply centres in a coherent, co-ordinated manner. Players proceed in a pre-determined order which mirrors their entry into the war – I.e Germany first, the USA last.
Well, as a game for two to six players, Quartermaster General is really best played with the maximum numbers. Although countries are allied to one another, the rules infer that no detailed consultation of cards a player holds and the like can take place, which again begins to mirror the communication issues that occurred during the conflict. As such, when played with fewer numbers, the frisson of drama that occurs when you don’t really know what your supposed allies either can do or are going to do (apart from moan about the fact that they can’t do anything) doesn’t really happen. This is a large part of the game’s sweet spot and it is hard to get away from the fact that with any less than six the game’s intensity and slightly chaotic feel begins to ebb away. That’s not to say that it can’t be played with, say, two or three, but it doesn’t deliver quite the same level of enjoyment.
As in any card game, hand management is crucial. But from the off, you are having to make very tough decisions. The start of the game requires that you draw 12 but then have to discard 5 immediately, which makes for an agonising start. Card deck sizes are between 35 and 40 and with only 20 turns where you can play just the one card (unless you have status cards that enable you to play more), the feeling of having to make very tough strategic decisions about what you can do is gloriously tangible. Furthermore, with countries like the Soviet Union and Germany where status cards can enable you to fight and build armies by sacrificing cards from your deck, there is a real feeling of huge risk (and also reward if you get your strategy right!). As the game nears the end, countries who cannot draw cards are weakened considerably to a point where they start scoring negatively. This all helps to manufacture a situation where trying to build a strategy that might help you play a major part in the war is complex but exciting. If you don’t have the resources (i.e the cards) to win more than say 1 or 2 battles and crucially, to build upon those victories by expanding into your enemy’s territories, then you may have to rethink your approach. Only the Germans and the Soviets were able to marshal resources on a titanic scale and more crucially, the ideologies, to be able to fight conventional warfare almost endlessly, and it’s the same here.
For a game that tries to be as historically accurate as possible, it is perhaps only natural that the “experience” of playing each nation differs somewhat. Japan in particular cannot really call upon either Germany or Italy to do anything materially to help them apart from perhaps see Italian naval pressure on Britain, and must expand into China and SE Asia to grab supply centres, thus aiding the Axis victory point total. In some games I’ve played, it was precisely this that helped the Axis side win as they built up a 30 point margin. It requires Britain to expand into India and America to hopefully take China (via a particular card than can be played to build an army there) or launch what can be a somewhat perilous island-hopping campaign. Germany and the Soviet Union square up to each other in the contest for Europe, with the former having to make a tough decision about whether to use its navy to stop the British. Britain and Italy have more complex strategies that, if you’re not aware of what is in the deck can make for more challenging gameplay, and in all honesty, can be more than a little off-putting. The Italians have to try and hold Africa and prevent the Allies from taking it as they have cards which enable them to score extra points by holding certain territories. They can help the Germans in Europe as well, but do not have quite the same offensive power and have to choose their battles more wisely. Britain has the opportunity to fight both in the European and Asian theatre, especially if it manages to hold and build in India, but has to hold the Atlantic in order for when the Americans bring their economic might to bear. Finally, the USA, which starts isolated and probably has the hardest decision to make in the game about what theatre it will support. It has devastating economic warfare options that can decimate its opponents, but needs to be within relative range to make it effective, requiring a tense logistical plan that needs the help of the British (either in the Atlantic or by pinning down Japan in continental Asia).
So does it pan out like World War 2 then? Well, if you’re a stickler for this sort of thing – in that a game about global conflict shouldn’t probably be about the US and Italy scrapping it out in Teheran – then yes, it does. The heavy abstraction that is required to make a game like this play in less than two hours or so means that there is a level of inevitable sacrifice about detail, but I would argue strongly that the cards carry a level of theme that goes a long way to overcoming that issue. After a number of plays the game does carry a similar narrative – in that the Axis start strongly and that the Allies, if they get a toehold in Europe, will probably win. However it never feels inevitable that this will happen; Germany in particular, if it has certain status cards in play, can produce devastating attacks to overwhelm its opponents in Europe. In one game as them I managed to produce a perfect blitzkreig that annihilated the Soviet Union by the middle of the game and the Axis won quite comfortably. Quartermaster General also provides an opportunity for alternative scenarios; Italy taking over the Middle East and potentially India if it can stave off Britain, or the Soviet Union taking China and threatening Japan. The most satisfying moment I had with this game was one session when everything looked very bleak for the Allies. Britain managed to stave off the Italians in Africa and allowed the Americans to land an army there, simulating the “soft underbelly” scenario Churchill had envisaged. By drawing off the Italians from Eastern Europe to meet the threat, the Soviet Union was able to launch a counter-attack against Germany that had a decisive effect on the game. It’s this sort of thing that makes the game so enjoyable.
I will add a short note about the quality of the rulebook and components; in that they are functional and clear. The rulebook is relatively short and well-written, whilst the card art is functional without being exceptional. There is also an expansion, called Air Marshals, which does provide not only the ability to build airforces (which essentially provide your army or navy with the ability to spare its life) but also introduces some more cards. Playing with this extra expansion does improve the game in terms of being able to defend your conventional forces and I would probably not bring it to the table with just the base game now.
In conclusion, if you can bring six players who are even vaguely interested in World War 2 to the table then Quartermaster General can be an immensely satisfying experience. The victory conditions and relatively short playing time produce a game that, whilst heavily abstracting the more tactical aspects of the conflict, is bursting with detailed theme and tough strategic choices. Furthermore, replay value is increased by the differing game plans offered by each country, ensuring that it will be a regular feature at your gaming table. Those without that player count however may have to think twice about a game that loses its dramatic flavour with anything less than the maximum.