Transcript of our podcast from 01 November 2009

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Games with Gimmicks

by Moritz Eggert

Surprisingly I can continue my series about Solitaire Games while at the same time adhering to the theme of "games with gimmicks", and that is because the game I'm going to talk about it has a gimmick, a gadget unique to the game that has not been used to my knowledge in any other game.

That game is "Ambush!", a solitaire individual skirmish level wargame published by Victory Games and designed by the legendary John Butterfield and Eric Lee Smith in 1983.

"Ambush!" is one of my favourite games of all time and is a very unusual wargame in that it is completely story driven and more related to Adventure Gamebooks than normal wargames. I bought it a time when I didn't play wargames at all and it was simply the only new game at the games store, so I purchased it out of boredom. And how surprised was I to find a game that most excellently portrays the excitement and tension of the very best war movies combined with a fully-fledged role-playing-system and scenarios with complete fog-of-war and surprising turns and twists. It literally turned me into a wargamer, simply because I didn't expect it to be so much fun.

All this is made possible by combining the best of adventure gamebooks and the best of tactical wargames and using a gadget that simply consists of a sleeve with slits in which you insert a large card covered with mysterious numbers depending on the scenario you are playing.

This ominous sleeve works this way: each scenario of Ambush! Is played on a relatively small hex map, where each hex is keyed with a letter and a number. Now each scenario also uses a scenario card that is inserted so that you only see part of it through the sleeve.

Each of these slits can now be keyed to a certain hex that you want to explore on the game map.

An important element of Ambush! is the freeform exploration system in which there is no strict turn order and in which you simply declare which soldiers of your squad move where, and if they are crouching, lying prone or standing (the latter is rarely a good idea). Now part of the excitement of each scenario lies in the fact that even though you see the full map from the start (though in some scenarios even the map would change while you were moving about) you don't know the contents of each hex. German soldiers, tanks, minefields, snipers etc. could be encountered virtually everywhere.

To not spoil the suspense the sleeve was used to move the scenario card through it in such a way that you would only see the contents of the hex you were moving into, mostly represented by a number that you would use to look up a certain paragraph in the adventure book. Sometimes this would trigger combat, as you would discover German soldiers laying a trap for you for example (note: in this game it was only possible to play on the US side). The game would then switch to action rounds, a free form combat system that made ingenious use of Initiative Ratings of various soldiers, so that you never could predict in what order they would act. Even more, the sleeve came again into play as it regulated the movement of German soldiers and vehicles. You would look up a hex with a German soldier in it and check the red number under the entry which would then direct you to the next hex he is moving to. Even though of course this meant that the paths of enemy soldiers were predetermined you would never really know where they moved to. In addition the scenario card itself could change when certain alert levels in the game changed, and this could mean that a panzer making a right turn on one action card would make a left turn and come towards you on the next action card.

All in all the system worked very well in simulating an unforeseen surrounding very close to the one portrayed in tv series like "Band of Brothers" - more than that, the scenarios were actually playable in an hour or 2, and you could advance surviving soldiers like in a role playing game, their skills would advance and their experience would rise, making them more formidable in the next scenario.

An often repeated criticism was its slight tendency towards bravado and unreal movie heroism, but this felt refreshing compared to drier and more realistic systems like ASL. In Ambush! often the only way to take out a panzer was to run towards it and throw a hand grenade in the hatch. Sometimes this worked very well!

Another criticism was that the scenarios - once played - lost their surprise, and this is of course true, as it is true for adventure game books. But you know what? There were 3 large expansions published for Ambush!, as well as a companion game about the Pacific War, "Battle Hymn" with yet another expansion, all using the same system. To simply play through all scenarios in these modules and games you would need several weeks, weeks in which you never would encounter the same situation twice. I think this is more than enough material to counter that criticism. Also, after a couple of years, the memory of the scenarios becomes hazy, and you can enjoy them again, just as I am doing right now.

If you have any love for extremely innovative and ingenious games you should definitely check Ambush! out, it is one of the best wargames ever done. And even better - the game can be found for reasonable prices second hand - you don't need to shell out hundreds of bucks. A propos shell - there was even a 2-player version called Shell Shock!, which featured randomly created scenarios and was in many ways the forefather of contemporary systems like "Combat Commander", with which it shares some similarities.

Have fun - get ambushed!

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2009, Westpark Gamers