When I was first getting into solitaire boardgames a few years ago I kept hearing that one of the best of them all was Ambush! from Victory Games, so I dutifully tracked it down, set it up on the table, and after playing one mission decided it wasn’t for me.

Boy, did I miss the ball on that one. I think the reason I didn’t appreciate it was because I hadn’t ever been exposed to heavier boardgames, and I didn’t give myself a chance to get used to the play. Now that I’ve been getting into more and more detailed tactical games, I got to questioning my earlier judgment that Ambush! had been fiddly and tedious. Chris Hocking, whose taste I agree with upwards of 95% of the time, kept telling me it was a great game and how he couldn’t believe I hadn’t liked it.

I found myself in the middle of a shelf purge of games I wouldn’t be playing anymore, and with that gaming cash in the ‘ol e-wallet chanced to mention to a gamer I sold one of the games to that I wanted to track down Ambush! again. He had the game and most of its expansions and happily sold them to me. They’re just in fantastic shape (thanks, Glen!). You see, Ambush! has been out of print since some time in the ’80s and it’s unlikely it will ever be reprinted, so the used market is the only place to acquire it.

Like a good modern gamer I went to BoardGame Geek and looked up errata and rules clarifications, even printing out an updated rulebook that included a lot of the extra rules and errata added over the years. And I read through a lot of posts detailing best tactics and strategy.

When I set it up last Saturday morning there was, naturally, some rules confusion, but the play was also compelling and completely immersive, and I could hardly wait to finish the scenario Sunday morning. Now I’m dying to play the next mission this coming weekend.

So what’s it like? Well, Paul Dean over at Shut Up & Sit Down described it very well and pretty much summed up my own feelings. Read that and you’ll get a sense of how the game plays. If you don’t want to make the jump, you’re commanding a squad of soldiers in WWII and are sent on various missions on a variety of maps. If you can lead them through, then they improve in skills and combat acumen. The enemy is controlled by the game with pre-programmed instructions that are also randomized to some extent, and there are random events that can take place as well. It’s all governed, naturally, by dice rolls, but there’s a sort of choose your own adventure/paper computer aspect as well with a card sleeve with hidden results and a paragraph booklet… and like I said, go read the article at the other end of the link. This sentence of Dean’s really brings home the truth of the matter: “Each game isn’t merely a series of random events, it’s a vignette, a coherent story that you step into one hex at a time.” Last weekend’s mission was a GRAND story. And for me, experiencing a great story is an addiction.

The main Ambush! box comes with eight missions, and the others have either four or six additional missions. There’s also the Pacific war variant, Battle Hymn, and its expansion, Leatherneck.

If you visit the BGG forums you can see the love for the game just pouring out in pixels. You also see the occasional odd criticism about how the missions aren’t that replayable. Well, yeah, because it’s hard to be surprised when the German sniper pops up in the same hex next time you play. But I don’t see that’s a fair reason to downgrade a game’s rating. It’s like complaining that you can’t read the book again and get surprised. When you play a mission in Ambush!, it’s like playing through an episode in a WWII miniseries where your characters are the stars. And that’s certainly worth the price of admission.

If my future plays were as much fun as last weekend’s, I have a lot of boardgame fun in my future. And judging by what the fans say, I probably do.

Here’s a great review of the whole system.