Nearly 50 years ago, in our very own Bar 1, a young lecturer started a gaming revolution. The owners of Games Workshop rate it the second best board game in the world, after only their own. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Classic Warlord.
Classic Warlord is a game of strategy, betrayal, bluffing and double bluffing, playable by 2-7 people. It’s a game that turns Europe into a battlefield, friends into enemies, and students into masters of war. Whilst the rules may take some time to get your head around, you’re guaranteed to have great fun destroying armies and nuking regions of the Middle East that even Geography students can’t pronounce.
Mike Hayes, former University of Sheffield lecturer, created the original Warlord as a post-grad student at Southampton. “We started off with the underground culture of doing the game in Bar 1; it was a great success that everyone could enjoy. I wanted to show with Warlord that there were very clever scientists who were sending us all to nuclear destruction because of their faulty understanding of statistics and uncertainty, and their weakness in emotional intelligence. You see, some very clever nerd who’s magnificent at logistics is not necessarily going to win if he’s outmanoeuvred by being ganged up on. It was a refuge for people who couldn’t use their brains in classes, who could go down and do things in the union.”
Classic Warlord features eight boards that fit together to form a multi-continental battlefield. The boards account in total nearly 600 regions, stretching across three continents. Players spawn armies and attempt to wipe their opponents out using nuclear missiles and general warmongering tactics. A-bombs piled high can attack at close range, whilst H-bombs cause devastating radioactive waves.
Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, founders of Games Workshop, liked the original Warlord so much that they bought the copyright for a time. Once Mike got his hands back on his creation a few years ago, he and his wife Mary have re-vamped it into the new and improved, Classic Warlord, which is very pretty and a nice addition to the board game pile.
Unlike many board games which involve rolling dice, this gem flips the stereotype. Instead, players have to gamble against each other, secretly selecting the number on the die which represents the number of regiments they’re going to attack you with. A nice twist to many ordinary board games. “I’m against so many board games these days which involve either just throwing dice or picking yet another card off of a pile. Monopoly is a great game, but somehow I wanted to do away with the endless supplies of Community Chest and Chance cards.”
Whilst Classic Warlord involves blowing countries away with nuclear weapons, both Mike and Mary were active members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Ironic, yes, but this doesn’t stop harmless strategic fighting. I wanted to design a framework where people could come to their own conclusions. I mean, they’re playing it in young offenders institutes – on one letter I have, a friend wrote: ‘any riots will be your responsibility.’ The whole thing isn’t about being pro-war, the message is that it’s futile.”
Once it gets going, Classic Warlord is exciting, past-paced and brutal. There’s a pretty hefty FAQ booklet included for more complicated queries new players may face, which can also be downloaded from the website in PDF format. The booklet was inspired by players who wrote to Mike saying they had invented house rules or conjured Doomsday Bombs, simply to avoid counter-bluff rules. ‘Hey, we’ve invented anti-ballistic missiles which can bring down the A-bombs’, one letter reads. Like any board game, players can inevitably strike deals with each other for safe passage, or sell on empires for weapons.
“It’s important nowadays for kids and students to not be looking at screens all the time; the speed some games are played at is incredible. Interaction is so important and the kind of mental stimulation you get from playing board games with friends and family can’t be matched. They offer paced, thought-provoking strategy and problem solving that can be enjoyed with a pint in one hand.”
“I found Bar 1 a very liberating place. It was the sort of place where you could be inspired by meet people that you couldn’t meet in the Senior Common Room. We used to start on those tables just opposite the bar, and gradually stretch out. At a maximum we’d have about six or seven tables spread all over the place. We used to play Warlord on a quiet night because we didn’t want to be in the way on a Friday or Saturday evening. The bar must have thought, ‘jolly good, we’re generating business!’
“I wanted to design something, like Risk or Diplomacy, and I wanted projects for the students where I didn’t have to talk. In my most successful lecture, in the theatre just off of Crookesmoor, I said no more than a dozen words at the beginning. They were a load of crap, but they were accepted.”
“Downstairs, amazing things were happening. At the time, the chess club contained people like Tony Miles, who eventually went on to become the UK’s first ‘over-the-board’ chess Grandmaster in 1967. He never finished his degree, but instead was awarded an MA for his achievements in Chess. These days we’d have the sense to give them an honorary degree, like Jessica Ennis. At the time this wasn’t recognised. The definition of excellence was very much within the confines of academia. Sheffield at this time, Bar 1 especially, was an amazing place. In the early 60s onwards, students were getting very stroppy. This was leading up to the 1968 revolutions in Paris; The Beatles and Lady Chatterley’s trial and other liberating things were going on. You were allowed to have a beard! It was a different era.”
“There’s this schizophrenia between concepts of advanced mathematics, and playing a game, and students love it. I’ve had letters from students who find subjective work study like operations research and statistics utterly boring, whereas they found playing a game involving the same principles fantastic.”
“I want my game to have a receptive culture. If students see this mad ex-lecturer hanging around the union, sitting at Bar 1 playing the game, hopefully they’ll see that this is a fun thing to get involved with and join in. After all, it beats the Hell out of Monopoly!”