1974: Warlord

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


If you are of a certain age, then you will remember Apocalypse. Not the ‘Apocalypse’, but Apocalypse: The Game of Nuclear Devastation, a board game published by Games Workshop in 1980 in bookcase format along with Valley of the Four Winds and Warlock. It saw generals fighting for territory in a near future Europe in conflicts that would quickly escalate into nuclear confrontations and inevitably, nuclear devastation. The rules were simple and to our fourteen-year-old minds, the fun thing about the game was that every time you won a conflict, you were awarded a stage for your nuclear missiles. The game included little plastic missile stages that clipped together to form slightly wonky nuclear missiles and when you fired them, each missile devastated several regions on the board and destroyed whole armies. It was in my late English teacher Mister Peter Rolfe’s opinion, when we explained it to him, very poor taste.

The truth of it was that Apocalypse was produced on a low budget. The map was quite small, the missiles were of cheap plastic, the armies of thin card, and the six-sided die included in the game was arguably the worst die I have ever seen. Fortunately, this did not matter. The die was never intended to be rolled in Apocalypse. A couple of years later I got to play again, but not Apocalypse, but The Warlord, the original version of the game that was not quite as simplified as Apocalypse and had better components—although the copy I was playing used Lego blocks as missile stages. What was interesting was that I was playing with the designer’s nephew. I never did get to meet the designer—Mike Hayes—then, but by chance I met him at UK Games Expo 2013 where he had a new edition of the game available. Not of Apocalypse: The Game of Nuclear Devastation, but Classic Warlord – The Holy Grail of Wargaming, a new version of the original game first self-published in 1974.

Classic Warlord, a game of bluff, conquest, and nuclear confrontation, is designed for two to seven players—Apocalypse was for between two and four. Classic Warlord retains the same simplicity of rules as Apocalypse and is designed to be modular. Its eight map boards sit together to cover Europe, the Near and Middle East, and North Africa. What this means is that a short game can be played out over a small theatre over two maps—for example, the Madrid and Rome maps to form a Western Mediterranean theatre—in an hour or two with two, three, or four players. With all eight maps and all seven players, a game could last several hours.

Classic Warlord comes richly appointed. In addition to the eight full-colour map boards—each marked with mega-cities, key urban areas, rural regions, mountains, deserts, and sea regions, the big box includes two sets of the three-page rules sheet, seven separate red cloth bags full of small coloured discs—these represent the players’ armies, a black bag of thick squares used to mark irradiated regions, two sets of missile stages—red for A-Bombs, white for H-Bombs, and a large die. Also included in the box is a twenty-four page combined FAQ and set of Designer’s Notes. What is missing from the box is a cup under which to hide the die during battles, but that is easily supplied.

Once the map boards have been selected, players take in turn to place a single army on an unoccupied and unconnected mountain region until they have all been filled. What this means is that the players begin the game with unconnected forces, each conducting the near-future conflict in a balkanised fashion as a mini-empire of its own. Then on his turn, a player conducts three phases. The first phase consists of firing and detonating missiles—this occurs later in the game after a player has won a few battles against his opponents. In the second phase, a player receives more armies, the number based on the number of separate empires he owns, as well as the number of mega-cities, key areas, and rural regions he controls at the start of his turn. These are placed within the empires they are generated from.

In the third phase, he can move his armies to occupy empty regions and he can also attack enemy-held regions. Classic Warlord’s combat mechanics are where the game begins to shine. The attacker selects a number on the die not greater than the number of armies he is attacking with and hides it under a cup. The defender now has to guess the number selected. If he does so, the attacker loses that number of armies from his attacking forces. Essentially, the attacker is staking a portion of his forces on the defeat of the defender. If on the other hand, the defender fails to guess the number correctly, he loses one of his armies and the attacker gains a single A-Bomb missile stage that he can place anywhere within his empire that he attacked from, to be launched in the first phase of subsequent turns. Attacking mega-cities, mountains, and from sea onto the land are difficult to stage.

For example, it is Dave’s turn. He has already reinforced the Apennines in Italy so that it has six armies. He wants to capture Milano to the north which Niamh defends with just two armies. Dave as the attacker takes the die, selects a number between one and six, and hides it so that the number cannot be seen or changed. Niamh has to guess the number, which must be between one and six. She selects three, but Dave chose two, so Niamh loses an army. Dave also gains an A-Bomb missile stage to place anywhere in his empire in Italy. He also continues the attack. He again selects three, thinking that Niamh will not choose that, but she does! Dave loses three armies from his forces and decides not to press his attack.

Once a player has a missile, he can launch it during the first phase of his turn. A missile’s range is determined by the number of its stages. When it strikes, the targeted region is irradiated—marked with one of the game’s black squares—and rendered unsafe for the rest of the game. In addition, all of the adjacent regions are devastated and any armies in them destroyed. These regions can be reoccupied. H-Bombs are more effective. They not only irradiate the targeted region, but also all of the adjacent areas. Of course, all of the regions adjacent to the irradiated regions are devastated.

If any missile—A-Bomb or H-Bomb—is stationed in an area that is devastated, it will also detonate, having the same effect as if it had been launched at a region. It is thus possible to set off a chain-reaction of missiles is they are placed too close to each other. (It should be noted that our fourteen-year-old selves would look upon this with unbridled glee!). Although missiles do permanently remove territory from the game, their devastation effect is an efficient means of removing enemy armies from the map.

For example, Niamh wants to stop Dave from staging further attacks from the Apennines, so on a later turn she launches a two-stage A-Bomb from the Tyrol on the Apennines. It irradiates the Apennines and devastates Emilia, Milano, Torino, the Ligurian Sea, Toscana, Umbria, and Marche. In the next phase, Niamh will receive more armies and not only reinforce her armies in the Alps, but march south into northern Italy. For launching an A-Bomb, Niamh also receives an H-Bomb to place in her empire in northern Italy...

Play continues like this until there one last survivor who is declared the winner of the game.

In the process, irradiated and devastated areas will ripple and grow across the map. This will affect further battles as players’ forces are channelled around irradiated areas. H-Bombs exacerbate this issue. As this happens and players are eliminated from the game, battles are likely to become bigger and bigger, but more tightly focused on certain terrain.

By modern standards, Classic Warlord shows its age—after all, it is more than forty years old. It is a brutal wargame in which no prisoners are taken; it is not a balanced Eurogame in which the play is competitive rather than combative; and it is a game in which the players are eliminated from play one after another. Its subject matter has also dated—we no longer live in fear of imminent nuclear annihilation. That said, there is a simple elegance to the design of this game and there is a complete absence of luck—Classic Warlord is not Risk with its reliance on dice rolls. The mechanics in Classic Warlord rely purely on player decision, bluff, and deduction. Selecting how many armies to commit to a battle is a tough decision for the attacker and deducing how many the attacker is prepared to risk lies at the heart of the game. A larger number of armies means that the attacker has greater choice in how many he can risk, but risking too many means that his attack can fail more spectacularly. The defender of course, has to gauge just how many the attacker is prepared to risk…

In comparison to the earlier Apocalypse, the new edition of Classic Warlord is bigger, bolder, and better presented. It has been streamlined in places—there are fewer mega-cities and it is not possible to reconstruct irradiated areas. As much as they are destructive in their effect, the addition of H-Bombs from earlier iterations of the game—they do not appear in Apocalypse—actually speeds play because they knock territories out of the game and reduce the need to battle over them.

In larger, multiplayer games, one issue is that the players are sat around doing nothing when it is not their turn. Of course, there is nothing to stop them enjoying the tension of the confrontation between the current combatants or indeed involving themselves in attempts to form or break alliances. This diplomatic aspect to the game is not discussed in the rules, but it is implicit with this kind of multi-player wargame.

What then of Classic Warlord as a simulation? It certainly does not simulate actual warfare, its scope and mechanics being too broad and too abstract for that. In a sense, it is more like Diplomacy or Risk in terms of its scope and mechanics, but given that its setting is that of a then near-future post-Cold War conflict (the game having been long developed and published before the end of the Communist Bloc at the end of the 1980s), what it does simulate is a conflict that never came to pass. It is thus a ‘what if?’, although loose parallels can be drawn to certain post-Cold War conflicts in Classic Warlord’s set-up of small empires jockeying for power and territory combined with the post-Cold War fear of post-Soviet states and factions gaining control of nuclear weapons. Certainly though, it models the brinkmanship of nuclear conflict.

Given its set-up and its expanded playing area with the extra maps, it is disappointing that Classic Warlord does not entertain the possibility of scenarios to simulate possible conflicts. Given the game’s age, the obvious would be a Warsaw Pact/NATO confrontation in Germany, but the collapse of the Balkans could also be played out, as could numerous conflicts in the Middle East.

Physically, Classic Warlord is nicely presented. The maps are well down and mounted on sturdy cardboard. The plastic pieces are sturdy, though the armies are a little fiddly to handle. Although a nice touch, the inclusion of bags for all of the plastic pieces does seem a little redundant given that they come in ziplock bags. Lastly, the rules sheet is nicely done. At just three pages in length, it points to the game’s simplicity and elegance.

There is no denying that the premise behind Classic Warlord is unwholesome. Indeed, it may even be unpalatable to some, yet there is an undeniable pleasure—a guilty pleasure perhaps—in seeing the game back in print, but a pleasure nonetheless. Even though its premise has dated, there is no denying the sheer brutality and elegance of Classic Warlord’s design.

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