A series of tabletop war games published by Milton Bradley in the '80s. Each has in common a roughly historical setting (one is set in the future), a large game board, sizable plastic figures depicting military units, and dice-based combat rules. Generally speaking, gameplay is deceptively simple, allowing for quick learning but complex situations.

  • Axis & Allies--This one seems to have retained the longest popularity. It's based on World War II and has up to five players vying for world domination in teams: USA, UK, and USSR vs. Germany and Japan. A nice variety of land, air, and sea units combine with a quasi-realistic economic system to present a good historical feel. That's not to say that the Axis powers can't win: they often do, especially when the Allies don't cooperate properly.
  • Conquest of the Empire--Set a bit simplistically after the reign of Marcus Aurelius, the game features up to six competing caesars who each start with a fortified city and a small army in various Roman provinces around the Mediterranean. Each caesar has six generals to lead his troops--a nice system that places real value on this limited resource: captured generals can be ransomed or executed. Other neat features are an inflation system to increase the cost of units and a system for building roads between your cities. Ultimately, the catapult unit is too powerful, though; in the end, most games turn into an arms race with each player stockpiling catapults for a final, massive showdown.
  • Fortress America--Arguably the weakest of the series, this game is a Red Dawn-type scenario that has the cold war heating up with a communist invasion of the USA from three sides. While gameplay is nothing serious and relies on a hoaky card system to give the Americans a random peppering of advantages, Fortress does feature a cool supply-line system. Commie units can be destroyed if their lines back to the coast are severed...nice touch.
  • Shogun--Rereleased in the '90s as Samurai Swords, this one takes place in feudal Japan. Each player is a power-hungry warlord who must use a decent variety of units (archers, peasant spearmen, musketeers, ronin, and samurai) to win the shogunate. The only thing missing is the Jesuits, for anyone who's read James Clavell's novel. Cool features include an experience system for your generals, so they fight better as they win battles, and a hidden deployment system to enable sneak attacks. You can also hire a ninja to do in pesky enemy leaders.

I spent more time playing games from the Gamemaster series than I care to think about. They were among the best beer and pretzels wargames ever made. That's not to say that they were necessarily particularly good games; a couple of them definitely were not. Still, they were great excuses to get together with your friends and goof off for an evening because they were more engaging than, say, Risk, yet not so complex as Civilization or (heaven forbid) Supremacy, so they didn't distract from important activities like socializing, telling dirty jokes, reciting Monty Python quotes, and other staples of nerdly gatherings.

My take on the games themselves:

  • Axis and Allies: The only thing that matters in this game is the inevitable conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union. What's that,Japan captured Australia? No big deal, so long as the USSR has more infantry than Germany has tanks. As a result, Germany and the USSR each have a fairly obvious best practice, but everyone else is free to indulge themselves with wacky ahistorical antics secure in the knowledge that they will have little if any real impact on the outcome of the game. FDR and Churchill should have had it so easy. Grade: B+
  • Conquest of the Empire: The forces available in this game are limited (explicitly in the rules) to the number of plastic pieces available for each unit type. As another writeup observed, catapults were by far the most important unit, and hoarding them so nobody else could build any was a viable strategy. Games frequently devolved into a stalemate where nobody was willing to commit the all-important catapults to an attack for fear that if they lost one one of their rivals would rebuild it, tipping the balance of power. Grade: F
  • Fortress America: Arguably the best of the series, contrary to what you might read elsewhere. The backstory is admittedly cheesy, but the gameplay is superb. Many, perhaps even most, observers insist that the game favors one side or the other, but they seem to split nearly evenly over whether the favored side is the US or the invaders. The invaders initially outnumber the US, but the US continues to get reinforcements indefinitely, while the invaders receive only a fixed number of them. Therefore, the invaders must accomplish their objectives before the ever strengthening US forces outstrip the dwindling invading forces. Because the US reinforcements are determined by random card draw, it is hard to come up with a best practice beyond some basic rules of thumb. Nearly any ``perfect'' plan can be derailed if the wrong card comes up. Consequently, being able to adapt to the changing fortunes of war is paramount, and that's what keeps the game fresh. Grade: A
  • Shogun: I only played this installment in the series once. The only things I remember about it are that there wasn't that much difference between the best and worst troops in the game (a couple of pips on a 12 sided die), and that it was hard to gain a decisive advantage in the game because recruitment was so restricted. Still, after a single game it's hard to get a good feel for it. Grade: Gentleman's B
Of the series, Axis & Allies is the only one I remember seeing in stores recently. Still, if you see any of them, and you like beer and pretzels wargames, these are some of the best. Except, Conquest of the Empire, that is. I wouldn't inflict that one on my worst enemy.

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