Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Retrospective: Rise and Decline of the Third Reich

It was the Spring of 1986 and I was sitting in the back row of my Grade 11 history of music class. Sitting next to me was the only other guy I knew in high school who was still involved in roleplaying and wargaming, which, I think, tells a story of its own about the hobby. Rather than paying attention to our teacher as we ought to have been, we were poring over the rulebook to the 1974 Avalon Hill wargame, The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich. Eventually, our lack of attention was noticed by the teacher, who kindly asked us to "put that history book away."

I've said before -- many times by now -- that I was never much of a wargamer, but I wanted to be, at least of the hex-and-chit variety. I'd played a number of such games over the years and many of the people who introduced me to the hobby were wargamers. I, however, simply lacked the stuff from which wargamers are made, not that that ever stopped me from continuing to try, typically in vain, to turn myself into one. So it was that, one Spring day a quarter of a century ago, I decided that I'd take a swing at the biggest, baddest wargame I knew at the time -- Third Reich. In my addled adolescent mind, if I could play Third Reich, I could play any wargame.

Alas, I couldn't play Third Reich and never did, despite the best efforts of my friend in the back row. Over the course of many weeks, I tried desperately to understand the rules to John Prados's Charles S. Roberts Award-winning game but to little avail. There was simply too much to keep track of and too many nuances of play that eluded me. It's a pity, too, because, from what little I could understand, Third Reich is exactly the kind of wargame that I'd enjoy. You see, I'm not actually all that interested in battles or military operations as such. Rather, what enthuses me is what might be called "grand strategy," which is to say, the politics and economics behind wars and Rise and Decline of the Third Reich seemed to share my enthusiasm. Its primary mechanics, after all, were based around resource points and victory or defeat depended just as much, if not more, on decisions about the production and allocation of resource points as they did on specific military engagements.

Despite this seeming concord between my own interests and those of Third Reich, I simply couldn't wrap my head around the rules and, after several false starts, eventually gave up. I never managed to play a single game and that failure marked the last time I made a serious effort to get into hex-and-chit wargaming. Consequently, Third Reich holds a strange and bittersweet fascination for me, being both "the one that got away" and the game that once and for all killed any illusions I had of joining that fellowship of gamers older and more exclusive than that of roleplayers. There are times, even now, when I think I ought to acquire a copy and again pick up that gauntlet from 25 years ago, but why? Even if the rules now made sense to me, I lack both the time and the fellow players(s) with whom to indulge in a game of this sort. No, I'm not a wargamer and never have been and it was Rise and Decline of the Third Reich that sealed my acknowledgment of this fact.


  1. Have you ever tried WWII-themed computer games, such as the Hearts of Iron series?

    I'm asking because I feel a strong connection to those words of yours about the fascination for hex-and-chit wargaming (I've played a few games of Advanced Squad Leaders back in those days, which I still remember fondly) and Hearts of Iron II (and, to a lesser extent, III) were a big hit for me (especially for my productivity).

  2. I had a similar experience with Third Reich, and I am a wargamer. In my case I just have a low crunch capacity. Third Reich, along with ASL at the opposite end of the scale spectrum, were always two games that I so *wanted* to be able to get into, but just never could.

  3. I'm in pretty much the exact same boat. I used to love the Avalon Hill stuff back in the 80's. Played some Tobruk, and there was a game called Richtofen's War that I remember enjoying a lot. But ftmp my intentions were always better than my commitment to play them. I have made the attempt with PC games over the years to (I've owned several of the games produced by HPS Sims over the years) but have had a similar result - just never seem to be able to really dig into them...

  4. Phutt! DMs are the ultimate wargamer. They handle the hordes of individual foes that PCs deal with in every D&D game. You need to get together at a big family gathering and get every one to play this as a one off.

    The fact is the only flaw you have as a wargamer is a lack of millitary experience (which was a requirement for all referees managing the original Kriegspiel wargame as part of real millitary training). In the End you are playing Kriegspiel and All Wargames are defined by four laws defined during Kriegspiel's development. You will find out what they are with time. I'm not going to deny you the pleasure of the discovery. They will take your DM ability to a whole new level of campaign management.

  5. Interesting. I used to be a roleplayer (which is why I read this blog) but am still a wargamer. And it was Advanced Third Reich that got me into that hobby. It's never occurred to me that someone wouldn't be able to grasp the rules - and to be honest I'm still skeptical of that. D&D has a vast number of rules, once you think about spell list and so forth. I think you might have been okay if you'd had a "teacher" who allowed you to learn the game gradually by playing cooperatively.

    Did the original 3rd Reich have introductory scenarios? They are a great way of picking up a wargame, you can ignore large slabs of the rules (eg: production) and focus on the strategy and combat.

  6. Third Retch was never a game that I enjoyed playing, despite being a wargamer (or at least pretending to be one). There was just something about that game that didn't appeal to me, whereas I have never got the same feeling with any other strategic wargame. It simply wasn't fun. Or interesting. I felt there was a definite disconnect in there somewhere, but never bothered to try and find out why I didn't like it, whereas I quite enjoyed almost every other grand strategy game I've played (and numerous tabletop miniatures campaigns). It's interesting to hear other people seem to have had this problem.

    It's definitely not a good game to introduce someone to the hobby.

  7. James, you did the wargame equivalent of picking up Traveller 5th as your first rpg. If anyone is not familiar with T5, it is literally the crunchiest rpg ever made, and an unplayable mess.

    While Third Reich is far from unplayable, it will certainly seem that way to a newbie. Avalon Hill ranked their games from 1-10 in complexity. Third Reich was the first and one of the only two games ever to receive a 10 rating (GI the Anvil of Victory was the other). In other words, this a game that you work your up to with other, less complex games.

    If you ever feel the itch for a grand strategic level WWII game, I highly recommend Hitler's War. It was originally released by Metagaming, and was later purchased and re-released by Avalon Hill. It is much less complex than Third Reich, but still manages to be comprehensive and deep. Plus, it's tons of fun.

    Don't worry about finding someone to play with. I played all of my wargames solo at one point, and always had a blast. Nowadays, there's the Vassal Engine. It's a free application that allows you to port your tabletop games to the PC. It handles the map and all the counters. You still have to have the actual game for the rules, but it will automate many tasks for you. You can either play real time with someone online, or PBEM. There are already hundreds of modules out for it (including Third Reich and Hitler's War).

  8. I always enjoyed Third Reich, but I would definitely concur that it isn't a great choice for a "first wargame".

    Any idea what edition you were fiddling with then? The first edition was kind of a mess, but the later versions improved the rulebook immensely and would have made it easier to get into.

  9. I'll throw in my two cents and second what Reverance Pavane said, but for me I'll extend the comment to include all wargames I tried: I never found any of them to be fun. Yes, "fun," the key word. And if I did see a game that looked interesting, all I would have to do is look-up the Estimated Playing Time in the Avalon Hill catalog, read "20 hours," "40 hours," "60 hours," "the better part of the rest of your life" and think, let's try something else.

  10. Don't give up yet! You can play Third Reich and just about any other war game online using Vassal, an open source program that acts as a virtual table handling the board and pieces. I glanced at the Third Reich page for Vassal, and there are more than fifty players listed there. I'm sure you could talk one of them into a teaching game.

    I'd be glad to teach you to use Vassal myself, but it will have to be over a shorter game. Perhaps Battle for Moscow, we could play a round of that in about 30 mins.

  11. Have to admit that I too was fascinated by Third Reich and all its complexity. Unfortunately attempts to play the game never quite worked out. The closest we came was foiled when the German player invaded Poland and on a fluke roll (1 in 36) the battle resulted in the Polish army with its horse drawn carts and troops armed with rifles and pitchforks repulsing the cream of the German military. This was quite a blow and while many of us were eager to see how this would play out the German player. Instead, Hitler took this as a sign, committed suicide 6 years early and the game ended somewhat bitterly and we never could muster the enthusiasm for another attempt.

  12. @Soren

    Well, many wargames do have long playing times, but it's best not to think of them like a game of Boggle, but more like a DnD campaign.

    I doubt too many people will get upset if they don't finish James' "Dwimmermount" in 2 hours.

    But, I agree, if you're not having fun, then they aren't for you and any length of time spent on them will be too much.

  13. To clarify: Third Reich wasn't my first wargame; I'd played a handful in the past, though not very successfully. I think the closest I ever came to regularly -- and enjoyably -- playing a "wargame" was Diplomacy and I'm sure many would (rightly) balk at my classifying it as such.

    I have no idea which edition of Third Reich my friend owned. Since it was 1986, I assume that it was one of the later editions, but I can't say that with certainty.

    As to computer wargames, I played a game called Close Assault, I think, which reminded me a lot of Squad Leader. I can't recall ever playing any others, though it's possible I did and have simply forgotten.

  14. @Coldstream

    No, I don't expect to finish any RPG campaign in one session, but the added problem with carrying over a wargame session-to-session, unlike an RPG, is that you have to keep the board open, keep the chits on the board, and hope nothing comes along in the week-long down time that knocks over the board, scattering the pieces--which is a tall order for any teenaged player sharing a house with brothers, pets, etc.. With an RPG it's nothing to pick up the game where you left off last time (especially since I've never found the need to use miniatures or these battle-mats that are out now, or whatever they're called, so there's no pieces that will get knocked over). So, it's really not the same comparing an RPG to a wargame in that respect.

  15. My first wargame. I was 11 when my brother brought it home on leave from the Air Force. He had seen me making up new rules for boardgames I had liked and he had already gotten me into chess.

    Every other game after this was a breeze :)

    (The next he brought was Starship Troopers...damn good game)

  16. Third Reich is terrible on a rules-density-per-hex metric. Many historical games have a few hexes covered by special cases which have to be looked up; in Third Reich most of the map feels that way. Every move involves a long rules consultation until you have memorized it all.

  17. Interesting post given some strange symetry. Despite being about the same age as you James (I think I'm a year or two older) I started as a hex and chit wargamer before I got into D&D. My uncle had Kingmaker and Starship Troopers and taught me to play. I got SST and later SPI's Star Force and World War Three and I was off and running.

    The last wargame I seriously invested effort in before D&D took over my gaming was Third Reich. I had been playing D&D for a year or two (I bought Holmes and GW the prior Christmas). I was a seriously into SL and had bought Cross of Iron. Then I spent a summer playing Third Reich everyday.

    But more and more my friends were D&D oriented and when the time came to choose between the second SL expansion (Crescendo of Doom) of AD&D hardbacks D&D.

    So, I find it interesting that TR was your swan song trying to be a wargamer because it pretty much was mine being a wargamer. I've bought and played hex and chit since but that's very much a sideline compared to RPGs.

  18. Yellow Dingo, go ahead and "spoil" the Four Laws of War-Gaming for us.

  19. I concur with the Hearts of Iron recommendation for a strategic level wargame of World War II. I recommend going with Hearts of Iron 2 Armageddon or one of the value packs. I recommend Darkest Hour as the best of the successors. Hearts of Iron 3 is a real beast of a game.

    One hallmark of Hearts of Iron is that you can play ANY country including places like Luxembourg.

  20. Does Axis and Allies count as a war game? If so, that's as close as I've ever gotten to one.

    If there's no THAC0 involved, my mind goes blank and I am quickly defeated.

  21. Hey... I am a war gamer and yet I never got to playing Third Reich... there were simply too many rules. Alas, that was the norm at the time.
    You should try Memoir 44 (, which is a much more 'user friendly' war game..

  22. Of course when you stack the rules for AD&D next to Third Reich, the role-playing game is an order of magnitude more complex than the wargame. I suppose the difference is that the RPG rules are more fluid, with room for fudging and misinterpretation, without breaking the game. They’re also easily compartmentalized and it is not necessary to know them all in order to successfully play a game. Wargames on the other hand, require you to memorize all of the rules in detail in order for the game to work.

  23. Third Reich was the first wargame I ever bought. A friend and I devoted two evenings to trying to figure out how to play it, then gave up in disgust. Then I bought Tobruk, and we were enthralled. Many thrilling evenings were spent blowing up one another's tanks, and we went on to buy and play dozens of other AH and SPI games.

    3R's rules were not just dense; they were hideously organized. Years later, having digested the rules of many, many wargames (including all of ASL), I looked at the 3rd (4th?) edition rules for 3R and was astounded that they didn't look any better. I have to believe they'd been improved somehow, but they were still just as impenetrable as ever.

  24. Wonderful to see so many comments (and your blog post, James) with similar experiences to my own - I also had 3R as one of my first wargames, and really really wanted to understand and play it. But it just never materialized. The rules I owned (I think 2nd?) were pretty dense, and even if I would have really tried and gotten my brain around the rules, none of my friends would have.

    So, I share your fascination.

    I think it did get me to wanting to design a better WW II simulation, and I did - although I left that somewhere in the beta stage. Perhaps I should ask around if anyone wants to beta-test after all, and pick it up again. Waht do you think, anyone here interested? ;-)

  25. This was updated and released again in 2001, though now is out of stock:

    It now uses a "buckets of dice" mechanism (similar to Chainmail) instead of a CRT. I think it is less complex than previous versions, but still outside of most people's accepted complexity range. I managed to play a couple of turns against a total noob.

    This post makes me want to get out the game and set up one of the short scenarios.

  26. Jeez, James, you sure did jump off the deep end with this one! What a magnificent game it was and is. I still have my copy in pride of place amongst the others. Played one game against another and a couple of solitaire versions, and the Amiga had a passable adaption with the official AH imprint on it. I could go on and on, but might just go and load up 'Hearts of Iron' on the comp as maybe closest easiest accessible analogue to this gold standard classic.

  27. Don't feel badly, James. I played many SPI and AH games, and Third Reich was the only one that bested me. Hideously complex.

  28. Hi there, 3rd Reich was my favorite games it is not that diffcult to paly, once you are use to it. It is a long game may play over 2 to 3 days. You have to paln your move, and my my it was exciting. I use to paly it with a few friends.
    However, we paly it over a few sessions of 4 hrs each. Even after the sessions, me my opponents kept thinking of the next move.
    We had lot of fun contracting each other threatening each other.
    I itching to teachs new player
    However I live in the Far East in Singapore.......