Get to know a game: Ambush!

I was going to write up Bargain Hunter next, but in an effort to prove that I'm not actually obsessed with trick-taking games, I'm going to go in a very different direction instead. It might be harder to get further away from a nice, lightly-themed trick-taker than this game: Ambush!

Ambush! is a World War II boardgame set at the individual soldier level, published by Victory Games in 1983. It was designed by Eric Lee Smith and John Butterfield, both of whom have reached new levels of hobby fame as two of the folks behind Shenandoah Studios, producers of what is still probably the best iPad wargame, Battle of the Bulge. But both have been veteran wargame designers for quite some time, and Ambush! is one of the very best games either has worked on.

Ambush! holds a special place for me, being the first serious wargame I ever played, unless you count Axis & Allies, which I don't, not really. I bought it during a family trip to New York City from the Compleat Strategist (which is amazingly still there) when I was probably roughly 11. I devoured the rule book in the hotel that night and set up a scenario on the floor. My family all thought I was totally bananas, but I was riveted. For a kid who had mostly played RPGs to that point, it opened a new world.

Ambush! is, in some ways, pretty close to an RPG. To start a game, you create a team of 8 soldiers, spendings points on Initiative ratings (and commander ability) and rolling for a bunch of other statistics, such as marksmanship, perception, and morale. You also then equip your soldiers using your equipment points, subject to some fairly restrictive encumbrance rules. They even gain experience and improve as you play through the campaign. After generating your squad, you then select which scenario to play from among the eight in the box. The scenario will give you some special rules, setup instructions, and what your victory conditions are for the scenario.

The game presents like a standard hex and counter wargame, with one major exception: the paragraph booklet and sleeve. Each mission has a set of sheets of numbers that you slide into a sleeve, which has little windows in it. That allows you to slide it back and forth and check certain columns at certain times, which will reveal different paragraph numbers. Those, in turn, will reveal things that happen during the mission. Terrain events, triggered events, random events - they're all driven by this opaque system. And surprises abound in it. I'd love to talk about specifics, but they'd be unfortunate spoilers, and I hope people get to experience them properly.

But it gets even better. Each mission has different "conditions", which change based on events during the mission. A condition might change when particular units show up or are defeated, when the player's soldiers perform certain tasks, or other things that happen on the board. Here's the nifty part of conditions: you change the sheet inside the sleeve. That, in turn, changes all the event triggers and what the reactions of the bad guys are. So if something momentous happens on the board, the game responds to it.

When you combine all that stuff with intelligent rules for how the Germans behave, you get this amazing solo experience. It really at times feels like there's another player you're struggling against, even though the game is purely solo. I've actually had some of my best times with the game playing it as a team game, since you then have a friend there to share your triumphs and failures.

Even with all of the recent interest in cooperative and solo play in board games, I've still never played anything that generates quite as convincing a narrative, that feels more alive, and that can be as gripping as Ambush! If it has a drawback, it's that the missions aren't super replayable. Once you've seen the surprises, you're going to be able to plan for them. But what a ride! And, wait a few years, and it'll all seem fresh again. Plus, there are expansions as well as a Pacific Theater version (Battle Hymn, which is really hard), so there's plenty of gaming available in the system. This game is such a unique experience, everybody with interest in WWII gaming should track down a copy.