Russian stamp commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Moscow
The first wargame I ever played was James Dunnigan's Drive on Metz, which I constructed following the instructions in his Complete Wargames Handbook. It was... kinda boring, actually. The game was limited to a very small map with very few units, and as a simple, introductory game, it had very few rules. But there wasn't all that much going on; it was too constrained, too simple, too blah. It didn't feel like much of a game; it was more like an exercise.
I was, however, somewhat casually intrigued by wargaming despite this, and started casting about online looking for free print-and-play wargames I could use to dip my toe in the pond. Next up was SPI's Napoleon at Waterloo game, also by Dunnigan, which was certainly more interesting and, yes, fun, but didn't give me a great sense of the history. It was too vanilla, too generic. Maybe wargaming just wasn't my bag. Maybe it just would never quite click.
"Battle for Moscow", an historical wargame by Frank Chadwick, simulates the German struggle to defeat the Soviets and take Moscow in 1941.
But then I found Battle for Moscow, and hoo boy, did it click. The map was small enough and the number of units few enough that I could wrap my head around it as I took my first few baby-steps, but there were enough hexes and enough dudes fighting over them to create an interesting situation. (It was, if I recall correctly, my first encounter with two-step units, and I found that to be much more satisfying then the simple "retreat or elimination" mechanism that powered the two Dunnigan games.)
German tanks approaching the Polish border.
The beauty of the game, however, is in its sequence of play. Each player has a four phase turn: replacements, a special move phase, a combat phase, and then a general move phase. Pretty straightforward stuff, but the kicker is that each player's special move phase is unique. The German Player moves only his tanks during his Panzer Movement Phase, while the Soviet Player moves by rail during his Rail Movement Phase.
Soviet armored train getting some last minute TLC while awaiting departure from a Moscow rail depot, 1 Dec 1941, Ivan Shagin photographer ww2dbase
This simple, subtle difference packs a lot of punch. The German Player is going to rely heavily on those Panzers to do his attacking, since the rest of his units (along with the panzers a second time) are only going to move after his Combat Phase. The Soviet Player in turn is going to be keeping to the rails when he can so that he can pull back from the front, out of danger, while still maintaining a wall of units to slow the German advance. In a lot of games, roads and rails are convenient ways to get from A to B, but I'm not under any particular pressure to keep my guys on the roads. Not so here; the rails are crucial.
Muscovites dig anti-tank ditches outside city in 1941 in preparation of German advance towards the city.
I was really bowled over by how these very simple wrinkles significantly dictated strategy, and gave the game the historical "feel" that I felt was lacking in the two Dunnigan designs I had played. Battle for Moscow was the first game that showed me the potential of wargames. I played it over and over again. Such was my devotion to the game that I even made myself a "big" copy of the game, with two-inch square counters mounted on cardboard and a hand-drawn hex-grid map, that I could use to try to entice and indoctrinate others into our little cult. It turns out that my skills as an evangelist for wargames were somewhat limited - I guess I'm much better at preaching to the converted.
I haven't played the game in years - I've since graduated to other titles - but it doesn't lessen my esteem for it, or for its designer, Frank Chadwick, whose A House Divided is equally revelatory.