Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ambush 25 years later

Ambush! was quite a breakthrough when it appeared. In the 1980s there developed a demand among wargamers for good solitaire play options. A lot of us were moving out of the high school and college environment where we had a lot of time and people to play with and into the working world and starting families, both of which cut into gaming opportunities.
Compared to other gamers, wargamers have always played a lot of games solitaire. Unlike most games, it can be rewarding to play a wargame by yourself because you're more interested in seeing how the historical battle could have developed or trying out different strategies to see how they might have affected the outcome. Indeed, most magazine wargames are played solitaire if they get played at all. It's the rare wargamer who has regular playing partners willing to try to keep up with six new magazine games a year along with all the other choices.
But playing a two-player wargame solitaire introduces problems of its own because of bias, misunderstood rules and the general schizo feeling involved in trying to play both sides in a competitive contest.
Players and designers wondered if there was a way to provide a solitaire wargaming challenge. It's not a coincidence that all this development in board wargaming happened in the 1980s, before the widespread availability of computer and video games. The dearth of titles similar to Ambush! since is probably because computer and video games can do this better than paper-based games.
Many games created a game system that the player could struggle against, such as B-17, RAF, Patton's Best and Mosby's Raiders.
Ambush took a different, story-telling approach, with it's paragraph based system. The player's movements across the map and other actions would trigger looking up specific paragraphs in a "paragraph book" which would describe events. Paragraphs would dictate how enemy soldiers acted, what scouting would see and the impact of various special events. Some would trigger "Condition" changes, which would bring entirely new sets of paragraphs into play.
The disadvantage of this approach was that it was a lot of work from the design point of view and it reduced playability somewhat. During repeated playings of the same mission players would necessarily learn what was possible, reducing the surprise effect.
That surprise effect is one the game's real strengths. Unlike most tactical wargames, where the players have an unrealistic level of knowledge about what the other side is bringing to the table, in Ambush! it's possible to be really surprised by developments. This makes it one of the more realistic tactical wargames ever, despite some "Hollywood" elements in the missions.
Times have changed and it's hard to imagine anything like Ambush! ever being published again, but it's still worth pulling out now and then. One advantage of advancing years is that it's easier to forget what you saw before and if you haven't played a mission in a decade or so it's like you never played it at all, trust me.

1 comment:

  1. Such a great game, I have both solo titles (not Open Fire, which was a mess), and expansions. In fact, I've just pulled the box out now that I'm living somewhere that I can leave games set up for very long periods of time.

    By far the worst part of solo play is that you don't have someone else there - I'm a very social gamer, but the fact that no one is there to make sure that you are playing with the correct rules or showing you the massive holes in your "strategy" is also a big problem, at least for me.

    However, while I enjoy a lot of video and computer games, wargames just aren't the same unless they're on a board with pieces to push around. Perhaps it's because of nostalgia or that tactile activities are more rewarding in some way for me than cerebral ones (online gaming doesn't have the same feel for me, even with VASSAL or Cyberboard), I will play a ftf game any time it's possible and rarely play on computer. I'm fortunate to have several excellent opponents in my area, more fortunate still that none of them make incoming round noises when they fire their artillery or roll dice. ;-)