Direct conflict is my favorite attribute for a board game to have. The more violent the better. I seek out and gravitate to titles that feature fighting/battling/war. This is a list of the most interesting methods of resolving those fights. This isn’t necessarily a list of the best games that feature battles, but a parade of some of the most interesting ways those conflicts are executed.
Nexus probably is among the simpler battle resolution systems to make it on this list, but it earns its distinction from the decision point it poses when you have to choose casualties. There are six different units. Each unit has its own special ability, probability of hitting, and initiative value. The more expensive and powerful the unit, the earlier it will fight. The weaker and cheaper the unit, the later it will fight. All units are equal in one regard: defense. The lowly and weak human absorbs only one hit, and so does the monstrous Rubium Dragon.
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Units will toss dice in order of their initiative. Losses have to be taken before moving on to the next initiative. When your opponent rolls high enough to hit (which is different for each unit), you have to decide which unit to lose. It may seem like an easy choice to lose a cheaper, weaker unit. But invariably you’re going to find yourself in a position where your powerful units have already attacked and are sitting on the sidelines waiting for the battle to be over. Meanwhile, your cheap weak units haven’t thrown their dice yet. The only way to have a chance to win the battle is with the cheap weak units. So it becomes a tough choice between saving your expensive powerful units, or keeping your little guys alive in order to have a hope of finishing off your opponent. This decision point is brilliant, and for this reason Nexus makes the list.
The single best word to describe Runewars is epic. Epic empires on an epic scale involved in epic battles. The fights in Runewars are sufficiently involved so that it makes you feel like there’s a lot going on.
Each faction has its own set of unique units (with a nice unique set of sculpts). Each unit has an initiative value. Units with initiative of 1 go first, and then 2, and so on. So when a group of units fight, you draw 1 card per unit. There are no dice. Cards are instead the randomizer. The base of each unit has a particular shape. The shape indicates which quadrant on the card you must consult. For example, a triangle unit checks the triangle section of the card. This allows for differentiation between units in regards to their bludgeoning potential. There are 4 possible outcomes on the card: a total whiff, you could cause a unit to rout (which means you didn’t kill it but it has no strength), you could score damage, or you could trigger a special ability. Each unit for each faction has its own special ability. After all units have drawn all their cards, strength is totaled. Each figure is one strength. Highest strength wins.
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Because of all the different units and all the different special abilities and all the different cards and all the different outcomes of routs and damage and strongholds and neutral units and all sorts of other possible variables, battling can be an involved affair. Bonus points goes to Runewars for having a rather elaborate system to resolve battles. Arguably it’s the most elaborate on this list. However, Runewars doesn’t earn big points for interesting decisions within the battle. While this game is otherwise very strategic, battles can be just a matter of going through the motions. The only decision to make is assigning wounds and routs. However this is often a pretty easy decision, and it’s not nearly as interesting a decision as it is in Nexus Ops.
City of Remnants
City of Remnants is a patchwork of area control, deck building, economic engine building, and face punching. Your deck represents your gang. Before a battle, each side commits cards from their hand and/or blindly off the top of their deck. Strength of gang members are summed and special battle abilities kick in. Then you add in a time honored tradition: Buckets of Dice. Each figure you have in the contested area or adjacent to the contested area adds a die roll to your attack total.
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The biggest determination in winning a battle is the number of committed gang members from your deck. Your deck is pretty small. It starts at 10, and if you get it up to 20 that’s fairly large. In one round alone you could commit 4-7 cards. Many fights are 3 or 4 rounds long. All committed cards go to your discard pile. Your discard pile does NOT automatically shuffle back into your deck when it’s empty. So if you are not careful, you could easily find yourself drained of cards halfway through a battle.
You have to burn a whole turn just to get your discard pile back. Your deck represents a finite resource. If you commit lots of troops in one fight, you might find yourself with an empty deck and your pants down in the next fight. So in each round of each battle each player has a very interesting decision that can impact the outcome in a meaningful way. And on top of this, there’s the visceral excitement of dumping buckets of dice onto the board.
Shogun is the only game to make this list with zero decisions during conflict resolution. However, Shogun has the best battle randomization gimmick I’ve encountered. Troops are represented by cubes. Cubes for both sides are cast into a tower. The tower has latticework that sucks up and eats cubes. Some cubes will get stuck and not make it through. Some cubes previously lodged in the tower get knocked down and spit out. The most cubes that make it through the tower wins.
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This is actually an extremely chaotic battle resolution system. Dice have probabilities, cards can be counted, but the battle tower has no such graces. Large forces could disappear. Small armies can become bigger after an attack. This makes battles very unpredictable and very risky.
It’s just a really cool gimmick.
War of the Ring
War of the Ring is a game of epic scope, based on an epic story, and to go along with that it has epic battles.
At the start of each foray each side may select a combat cards. All cards are dual purpose. Using a card in battle has an opportunity cost of playing its alternative text. This builds in an interesting hand management decision each battle. Each side has regular dudes, leader dudes, and elite dudes. There’s just enough differentiation to make it interesting without the burden of too much complexity.
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Most of the battles are sieges. In siege mode, the attacker will typically have double the troops, but the defender is twice as likely to score a kill. Each individual onslaught costs one of your precious actions. However, the attacker may optionally self-kill in order to press on the attack without spending an additional action. Another challenging, brilliant decision point. The game successfully recreates the feeling of a larger force stacking bodies as it relentlessly grinds down upon the smaller defensive force that’s fighting beyond hope to stay alive long enough.
Battles are pretty simple in Kemet. Each player starts with a hand of six identical battle cards. Each card has a value that adds to your strength, a value of how many dudes you will kill, and how many blocks you have. For each battle, you pick one of your cards. Winning the battle is determined by dudes plus strength on the card. The dude limit is 5, so it’s pretty easy for both sides to max out their strength from sandals on the ground. So winning the battle often comes down to card selection. You have to pick one card to play and one card to discard. Both the played and discarded card cannot do not come back until you are fully depleted of battle cards.
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Essentially, your card selection boils down to focusing on either saving your dudes, killing dudes, or having strength to win the battle. You can’t focus on the same thing each battle. And there is a definite distinction between winning battles and killing dudes. I can win a battle with more strength, but not kill any of the defender’s forces. That means the enemy army is still sitting there with full lethal potential, while I may have suffered some losses. This could lead to winning the battle but losing the war. So each battle balancing killing, defending, and strength is a very interesting decision. Beyond that you have to deal with long term hand management of those battle cards.
Beyond the cards, there’s also creatures that are added into the mix that can pack some heavy punch in the battle. There’s also Divine Intervention cards that can be played into the battle. These add an element of surprise so that the outcome isn’t completely predictable.
And the most awesome thing about Kemet, is that for nearly everything I mentioned above, there’s a tile that grants the player a power to break the rule.
Sid Meier’s Civilization: The Board Game
There’s 3 main types of units. They have a definite rock paper scissors relationship between them. Only it’s not so straightforward. A tiny little rock cannot defeat a huge enormous pair of scissors.
It might be fair to say that winning a battle in Civ is like having to win a rock paper scissors campaign. Except you are not at liberty to always choose rock. You’re selection is limited to the units you’ve purchased and drawn for this battle. So there’s a bit of hand management going in each battle as you manage your hand of rocks, papers, and scissorseses.
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While the base game conflict resolution is good and has meaningful, it really jumps ahead with the Wisdom and Warfare expansion. For the base game, all units have just 1 value – and this serves as their attack, health, and strength at the end of a battle. Even if 4 out of 5 of its health is hit, it still contributes 5 strength at the end of battle. With the expansion, each unit has two different values, attack and health. And if a unit takes 2 wounds, it has 2 less strength at the end. This is actually much more intuitive, and makes both the hand management and the rock-paper-scissors match up decisions much more interesting.
It truly takes meaningful decisions in order to win a battle. And battles have plenty of variables that translate into meaningful decisions in how you upgrade your civilization. You’ve got troop figures, standing forces, travel speed, upgraded units, stacking limits, and attack bonuses.
Half the game in Titan you are spinning around the master board, gradually recruiting creatures in a fashion comparable to ascending through a tech tree. The other half of this game is resolving the battles when creatures collide.
When you battle, you pull out a whole separate board matching the terrain and move your guys over there. It’s like the main game pauses, zooms in on the battle, resolves the battle, and then zooms back out on the main board and resumes.
Players engage in a skirmish with a level of complexity comparable to Heroscape. There’s important decisions regarding positioning onto favorable terrain, lining up the creatures in optimal fashion, and getting guys locked into combat. Individual face punches feature buckets of dice. It’s pretty easy to be throwing 9 dice in one individual face punch, and if you work your way up you could be hurling 18 per shot. Titan definitely wins the dice bucket challenge.
Each creature has just two values. But just those two numbers serve to determine number of dice tossed, result needed on said dice, hit points, movement, and points scored when slaughtered. That’s downright elegant.
In Spartacus gladiators fight in the arena. This game is another proud member of the Bucket of Dice family. Each gladiator has 3 attributes: Attack, Defense, and Speed. The value of each attribute corresponds to the number of dice thrown. For example a gladiator with 4 attack rolls 4 attack dice. The other player with a defense of 3 rolls 3 dice to block hits. Speed is used to determine how many spaces you move. Players roll their speed to see who attacks first.
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To resolve hits, a player has to discard dice. For example, 2 hits means 2 dice have to go away. This represents the fighter losing prowess as he takes wounds. So while there are buckets of dice, these dice are actually the foundation of the interesting decisions.
For example, you may want to keep your speed, but it may come at the expense of defense dice, which means you may then actually lose further dice at a faster rate.
And to make it more interesting, each gladiator has a special text ability. You can also pimp out your fighter with weapons, armor, or other special items that give modifiers or powers. Another interesting feature is that all players can bet on the outcome. So that means even if you’re not in the fight, you have skin in the game. This keeps all players engaged even though only 2 of them may be participating.
There are virtually no random factors involved in battle. Each player secretly and simultaneously commits troops, a leader, and cards. All troops committed will die, whether you win or lose. And if you lose, all troops will die, regardless of how many you committed. This alone can make your brain burn figuring out the right level of troop commitment.
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The leader you commit involves risk, since he may be a traitor or die from an opponent’s card. And the cards form somewhat of a five way rock-paper-scissors. None of the factors in totaling strength in battle are random, and are completely decided by the players. You win or lose battles due to your wits.
Because these elements are secretly selected, the outcome is uncertain. There’s no randomizer added to the process but it maintains surprises and drama. There’s enough uncertainty that even attacking with an overwhelming force can be a tense, tough choice. Rex gets the honor of my favorite conflict resolution mechanism because both attacker and defender have multiple meaningful decisions, and it manages to still have a very unpredictable and exciting outcome.