The Kaisers Eastern War - A Review of East Prussia '14

By James Cobb 30 Oct 2014 0

John Tiller and his team jumped the gun on the centennial of World War One by releasing France '14 in 2010. This over-eagerness is made up for in the second release of the First World War Campaign series, East Prussia '14. The switch between fronts makes sense as the early Russian advance had effects on actions in France and surely sent psychological tsunamis through Berlin. However, is an operational game of this series of operations necessary, given the plethora of recent strategic World War I games?

Take Your Graphical Choice

The game's view function gives gamers five choices of unit and map depictions: magnified 2D, zoomed out 2D, zoomed in 2D, zoomed out 3D and zoomed in 3D with an additional option for 3D counter on a 2D map. These counters look the same as the regular 2D NATO counters but with information and factors on each corner. The choice of views is, of course, up to the player but most grognards find the magnified 2D best. The unit icons on the 3D views are a bit crude but the terrain features: forests, villages, roads etc. are fine. The relation between the 3D icons and 3D terrain present a paradox in that the terrain is so overwhelming that the icons seem almost immaterial. The 2D terrain isn't as outstanding but the information in the info bar makes up for any discrepancy. The 2D NATO counters are very clear especially with the 2X magnification. A new option is graphic counters with silhouettes of unit types. 

The info bar is, as with all Tiller games, not only ornamental but functional.  Uniforms and weapons are shown in delightful detail with movement points, fatigue, morale and combat status such as disrupted, fixed, out of command and low ammo. With fog of war, unit strength is approximated with Xs while the strength is shown exactly when fog of war is disabled. The reverse shows chain of command as well as offensive and defensive capabilities. Larger font here could make things easier.

On-map graphics include arrows for movement and combat results as they happen. Different shading shows HQ's command range, reachable hexes, and different unit statuses such as fixed, disrupted or broken. These functions can be called from the menu bar or the icons on the tool bar where a mouse tool tip explains the functions. Functions can also be called with hotkeys but the user manual doesn't have a complete list. Instead, users can find a list can find a list by hitting F1 to bring up a help file. 

A unique situation exists with the game: over documentation. No less than twelve PDF files explain the game, the editor, maps, OOBs and scenarios. Long-time Tiller fans know where to look but beginners need a guide. Putting an appendix of PDFs and what they explain in the user manual would help. Learning is aided by a Getting Started scenario and accompanying text. The campaign notes (F3) will also help beginners.

Combat and movement sounds are nice with stomping hob-nailed boots, clattering hooves, booming artillery, chattering machine guns and the puny roar of early airplanes. The background sounds of distant artillery gets old fast but can be turned off. The music accompanying the victory screen is quite nice. 

The Cossacks are Coming!

The general image of the East Prussian campaign is that, after some initial minor Russian successes, Hindenberg and Ludendorf arrived on the scene and smote the Russian bear back into its den. As usual, such gloss is extremely oversimplified. The situation in the East is complicated and fascinating. The Russians, given even mediocre leaders, could have taken Koenigsberg; the threat they posed had monumental impact on the Western Front. East Prussia '14 represents the situation and possible ramifications very well.

Game scale is one kilometer per hex, two hours per turn depending on the scenario and infantry or cavalry regiments, artillery batteries and companies of machine gunners and battalions of engineers. The two most important factors for unit efficiency are morale and fatigue. Therein hangs the tale of Russian defeat.

To support Serbia, the Tsar ordered an early partial mobilization, not giving his army time to properly equip or train. To meet obligations to France, he ordered a quick attack into East Prussia. The plan looked good with two Russian armies making a pincer movement on the woefully outnumbered Germans. Historians tend to blame the failure of the offensive on the respective army commanders, Samsonov and Rennenkampf. Indeed, these two fumbling, hard-headed gentlemen who hated each other carried much blame. Yet, the lack of preparation of troops caused by the hasty mobilization and the fatigue created by forced marches made the Russian troops less battle worthy than they could have been. The game's nineteen standalone scenarios (both historical and variants), four campaign scenarios with two variants and the overarching Grand Campaign series reflect the Russian steamroller's deficiencies in detail. Also looming over players is the sheer size of many scenarios. Maps can be huge, taking up several screens with many regiments and other units. Although most scenarios average around forty turns with some smaller clashes, campaigns run into hundreds of turns. Finding formations and gaining a view of the whole situation can be had by using the incredibly helpful Jump map. These sizes and lengths can cause something of a disconnect with the interface if the User Manual is not closely studied.

Movement is either select and right click or drag-and-drop. Distance per turn depends on the unit being in travel mode as well as terrain and weather per the scenario's parameters (F4). In the large scenarios, this mechanic becomes tedious when moving large columns. The developer should have incorporated the column movement function found in other Tiller games. This omission can be overcome by issuing orders to the formation via the Intermediate AI Order for a division. Whole corps can be handled similarly through Deferred AI Orders. The downside of AI orders is that players cannot react immediately to surprises. The Germans can be spared some clicking by using rail movement but the Russian masses are denied this due to the difference in rail gauges. 

Combat is very similar to other Tiller games. Infantry and cavalry, mounted or dismounted, must be adjacent to enemy units to fire with CTRL+right click if they have sufficient movement points. Machine guns and field guns work almost the same: machine guns have a range of two with field guns having a range of around five hexes. Both weapons must be out of travel mode, an operation taking a turn, and have a clear field of fire. Howitzers can fire indirectly but require spotters and an indeterminate amount of time to set up. Assault is simple moving units onto an enemy hex. Assaults are penalized when troops of different types and divisions are combined. Combat results include fatigue, loss of strength and morale, disruption and breaking. Of course, terrain and fortification also affect all combat.

Two other factors have an impact on unit efficiency. Being in the proper chain of command assures efficiency and increases the likelihood of becoming undisrupted and reducing fatigue.  Supply increases the ability of HQs to control units and gives units necessary resources. Supply comes from hexes innate supply values and from supply sources.

Russian forces are deficient in all of the above factors except numbers. They face the qualitative superior Germans tired, demoralized, badly led and undersupplied. However, as a certain Russian would say a few decades later, quantity has a quality all its own. Well-placed artillery and machine guns give the Russian a chance to swarm the Germans. Also, the large number of Russian cavalry gives them an edge in reconnaissance. Given the sparse air assets and sparser wireless intercepts, ole Dobbin is still the best spy in this era. A very clever Russian player can pull the Tsar's chestnuts from the fire although the AI isn't going to accomplish that feat.

Icing on the cake is a powerful editor and great hot seat/PBEM systems. The editor can even the score for the Russians by jiggling values while human opponents can make up for the mediocre AI.

The World War I Campaign Series system comes together with the Grand Campaign Scenario Progression Tree. Here, East Prussia '14 is played with France '14 and guided by a progression tree. Depending on the type of victory, the tree directs players to specific scenarios after starting with the first French scenario. Different levels of victory yields Campaign Victory points on a sliding scale; the first side to hit a threshold wins the war. 

Like most Tiller games, East Prussia '14 is for serious students. Gamers looking for a quick Great War fix have other choices. If players want to understand the East Front in 1914, this game is the place to start. We hope for expansions to include the Russian/Austro-Hungarian clashes in Poland and Galicia. In the meantime, this game will keep players occupied for months.

East Prussia '14 is available for purchase via the JTS official webpage here. 

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