By the late 1980s, GDW was elbow-deep in both the roleplaying and wargaming business, pumping out an impressive volume and variety of award-winning titles. The wargaming end of the business around that time saw the release of games like Stand & Die: The Battle for Borodino, Team Yankee, and Test of Arms, which were all part of the company’s new (at the time) “First Battle” series. This series was an attempt at producing wargames that were accessible to new wargamers, boasting an easy-to-learn basic rules set that allowed new players to get the game home and start playing right away. This was quite a shift in GDW’s previous approach to wargames, which were often quite complex and meant only for hardcore wargamers (see Assault, for example). One game, “Last Battle”, was released in 1989 as part of the “First Battle” series and I’m going to talk about how and why I bought this obscure 25 year old game and the circumstances surrounding its recent intersection with my life.
Chicks, Cars, and the Third World War – Twilight: 2000
To provide some background for the uninitiated, Twilight: 2000 was a roleplaying game about World War III and it was released by GDW in 1984 at the height of the late Cold War, right in the middle of Reagan and just before the arrival of Gorbachev when things were tense and it wasn’t at all odd to wake up wondering if today was THE DAY when either side would push the button and the human race would finally have the distinct pleasure of kissing its collective ass goodbye. So this game was really a product of its time and it shows through its basic premise.
The players take on the role of US soldiers who are part of this last failed NATO offensive and the game starts with the group of player characters caught behind enemy lines in Poland (around Kalisz) and they must break their way out of their predicament in order to…well, do whatever the hell they want. Some groups of players tried to get back home while others conducted guerrilla warfare or turned to looting the countryside while others simply tried to survive. The characters are given access to modern weapons, vehicles, and other assorted toys and let loose in a post-apocalyptic warzone to create their own destinies. It was this freedom in particular that appealed to many players and the rules were broad enough to support the players in trying to create their own life paths through the rubble of World War III.
Anyway, you open up “Last Battle” and you get about 15 pages of rules along with a scenario book that has about 10 scenarios in it featuring forces of various size. The scenarios are all based on battles from various Twilight: 2000 published adventures, from classics like “Armies of the Night” and “The Ruins of Warsaw”. I couldn’t help think about how all of these various scenarios with different forces would probably never make sense to someone with no background knowledge of Twilight: 2000 (“Why are the French fighting the Americans?” Why is a street gang in New York fighting the US Army?”) but would be instantly recognizable to anyone who loved the roleplaying game.
When Doves Cry – My First Impressions of “Last Battle” as a Wargame
Playing through my first game of “Last Battle”, the U.S. Army faced off against the Los Diablos gang in New York City. The Diablos had an advantage in numbers but the Army had veteran troops and better weapons so the New York street gang managed to take out one or two soldiers before getting completely wiped out. So far, so good – but it was nothing too exciting.
The second scenario I played through was based around a particular scene in the excellent adventure module, “Going Home”. In the adventure module, the players are trying to make their way through war-torn Germany to get back to a ship that will take them back to the States. Unfortunately, the Americans need to get through the French “neutral zone”, which has been declared off-limits to all combatants. So in this scenario, the US soldiers fight against the French. This scenario had vehicles in it, an M2 Bradley and 2 Fast Attack Vehicles. The French had some support weapons as well as a tankbreaker anti-tank missile launcher. This is where things got pretty ridiculous.
|American M2 Bradley advances on the enemy position after getting hit twice by anti-tank missiles.|
The M2 Bradley made it to the top of a hill and the French fired their tankbreaker and hit the vehicle. I rolled on the damage table and got…a “radio damaged” result. Wait a second. An anti-tank missile managed a direct hit on the M2 Bradley (on the top of the IFV) and the radio got broken? The French fired again in a subsequent turn and this time, the turret was completely destroyed but the vehicle was still able to drive around no problem with all crew members alive and inside. Something was wrong here.
Another problem soon hit me too. Since your troops have different levels of experience, they all get different modifiers to their “to hit” and save rolls. Keeping track of which of your guys had what experience on a crowded map became an exercise in frustration, especially when their were no counters to show experience and guys kept moving around, getting killed, replaced with other counters, etc. So I really started to dislike this game…and then something wonderful happened.
Don’t Worry Be Happy – “Last Battle” as a Roleplaying Supplement
I had a couple of beers.
I came back to the gaming table, a bit reluctantly, and threw caution to the wind. I guessed at experience levels, I guessed at damage tables, I even guessed whose turn it was. And I had fun! Lots of it. I could suddenly sense that this game, played around a crowded table by a group of teenagers in 1989 with pretzels and bad music in the background and the occasional conversational diversion about how much the latest Miami Vice episode sucked, might work alright provided no one worried too much about following the rules to a tee or fretted over achieving realistic outcomes. After I stopped approaching “Last Battle” as a serious wargame and looked at it as a roleplaying supplement or a beer and pretzels kind of game, it actually became somewhat enjoyable.
As part of the “First Battle” series, “Last Battle” doesn’t measure up to the other products in the lineup. As a way of resolving large battles in a roleplaying universe using some quick and easy rules, however, it’s a pretty decent effort. As a Twilight: 2000 fan, GDW deserves some praise for offering a product that solved a problem in the game but it’s easy to see why it probably didn’t get much love from wargamers despite trying to cast itself as such. I don’t know how often I’ll be putting this game on the table, but I suspect that when I start to get nostalgic for that time and place, “Last Battle” might scratch the itch for a fun evening of mindless gaming – beer in hand, of course.
(Update: In the original post, I incorrectly stated that Frank Chadwick was a Vietnam veteran. In fact, it was Marc Miller who served in Vietnam. My sincere apologies to both men.)