The Wargamer's Guide to... Operational/Tactical WW1 Videogames

By James Cobb 21 Mar 2017 0

After looking at strategic wargames, operational and tactical levels games of World War I deserve attention. The war was decided strategically but the high commands’ learning curves started when the boots and hooves started to hit the ground. Working this angle reveals why nobody could halt the war militarily and why the fighting was so horrible.

Interested in some table-top WW1 games instead? Check out our strategic and operational/tactical guides to The Great War-era boardgames.

Operational Games

Operational games cover a period of weeks or a few months with a scale of many kilometers. Units can be as small as regiments but are most effective within a divisional or corps framework. So far as we know, John Tiller Software has produced the only credible computer games at this level and even they have only done two, both concerning 1914 although later periods are promised.

France ‘14 (John Tiller Software)

Tiller’s 2010 offering, France ’14, covers the first five months of the war with graphics and mechanics taken from his other games. The 3D icons are too small for easy use but the 2D counters and the meticulously detailed terrain provide a satisfying experience enhanced by the colorful uniforms in the info boxes. Weapons include early reconnaissance aircraft, German siege guns, the French 75s and the full range of machine guns. Fortifications like Liege show the difficulty in taking chains of strong points.

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British and French forces attempt an envelopment of Kluck’s left flank.

The key lessons to be taken away from the 32 scenarios and four linked campaigns, ranging from six hours to several weeks, are more esoteric. Going from travel to combat mode takes time even for the ubiquitous cavalry units. Most machine gun sections can only be moved in travel mode requiring at least two turns to come into action. The fast movement required by the plans of both sides means more and more HQs go out of the chain of command as campaigns continue. Movement to contact requires the use of roads creating traffic jams when more than one division has the same destination. All of these factors are seen in the First Marne scenario where they accumulate to almost destroy the German right flank spearhead. The reasons for the front’s slowness become clear.

East Prussia ‘14 (John Tiller Software)

The 2014 companion piece to Tiller’s Western Front game has the same mechanics and scale of the earlier game but its twenty scenarios and six campaigns have a different feel to them. Manoeuvre, be it the Russian steamroller, the German premature counter attack or Hindenberg’s decisive forehand-backhand riposte, is faster and more fluid. Not having the resources given to the west, the German player depends on the offensive defense while the Russian attempts to coordinate their two armies. This game also contains Austro-Hungarian troops.

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A zoomed-out view shows German deployment of their premature counterattack at Gumbingen.

Tactical Games

Tactical games are played on platoon or individual soldier level. More attention is given to personal weapons with time and map scales being small. Graphics should represent the terrible conditions at the front.

World War I (1C Company)

1C Company and Dark Fox got the jump on everybody in 2005 with this variant of the Blitzkrieg engine. Terrain and animated units are beautifully done in 3D for the linked Entente, German and Russian campaigns. The missions have an historical flair with units like the Spahi specified. Most of the war’s weapons are used but the atmosphere is spoiled when French tanks appear in 1914.

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French cavalry scout a bridge early in the war.

Squad Battles First World War (John Tiller Software)

John Tiller Software addresses turn-based small unit tactics in this 2014 offering. The 2D graphics show the troops’ heads while the 3D figures stand on bases. Unit scale ranges from individual leaders to sections, platoons or companies depending on the period of the war. Terrain ranges from the shellscape of the Western front to the beaches of Gallipoli. The 67 scenarios including two linked campaigns cover the entire war so that Turkish, ANZAC and Canadian troops are portrayed. The full panoply of weapons is shown from trench knives to grenades to poison gas and tanks. Seven separate campaigns follow field officers including Major Whitlesby of “Lost Battalion” fame.

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Tanks lead the way at Cambrai.

Company of Heroes: The Great War 1918 (Mod)

This game is a mod of Company of Heroes done in 2013. Using the parent game’s mechanics, the action sees British and German forces in the more fluid tactical conditions of summer, 1918. More nations and equipment were promised but have not been done. The game was meant as multiplayer but traffic seems dead. The skirmish mode will allow solo play as British. The terrain is largely a copy of the parent game.

One hopes that the mod will actually be finished at some point.

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Royal engineers improve defenses.

Battle of Empires 1914-1918 (Best Way)

Best Way’s 2015 entry into the World War I RTS arena has an interesting twist. Whole companies can be managed by the usual lasso technique but a single particular soldier of the group can be ordered to use a multitude of tasks like manning guns, driving tasks and throwing grenades. Six story lines with several battles each cover the French, British, Germans and Turks on all fronts with great terrain and unit details. Solitaire and on-line play is supported. Cohesive unit tactics are rewarded.

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Early British tanks support the infantry.

Verdun (Black Mill Games/M2H)

Black Mill Games and M2H’s 2015 Verdun represent the first FPS entry in WW I games. Multiplayer only, the game has a twist to the genre. Players join either a German or Entente squad. Each squad has a leader who gives orders, calls in air and artillery support and serves as the re-spawn point. Action takes place in the dark trenches of the Western Front with forays into No Man’s Land. Graphics are extremely detailed with a host of infantry weapons from clubs and spades to BARs provided. Gas masks can be donned during chemical attacks. The pace is appropriately frantic and gruesome.

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Germans step over French bodies in a trench raid.

Battlefield I (Electronic Arts)

Not surprisingly, EA and DICE came out with this FPS marvel in 2016 and has outdone themselves. Players can fight as infantry, cavalry, pilot, tanker or support troops on all fronts including the Alps. Terrain reflects the gloom of the trenches or the “green fields beyond”. Campaigns are done solitaire and multi-play includes the concept of leaders. The number of weapons available is staggering. Fighting is fast and bloody.

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A sniper takes position at a monastery window.

Valiant Hearts (Ubisoft)

Ubisoft swam against the tide with this anti-war wargame. Eschewing the intricacies of combat, this game stresses the emotional side of war with families torn apart and personal vendettas to be completed. The graphics are well-done cartoons with action being done via puzzles. Games like this serve the purpose of putting the tragedy of war front and center.

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German planes strafe Entente troops.

More in the Works

The games listed above provide a wide scope of investigating the events of 1914-1918, especial for tactical combat; gamers can’t go far wrong with any of them. However, the industry isn’t done yet. Gallica Game Studio’s FPS The Trench and jbracin’s Revolt 1917, dealing with Lawrence of Arabia, look very promising. John Tiller’s crew is churning out the rest of their World War I campaign series. We anticipate more interesting games of The Great War.

Got any suggestions of your own? Post about them in the comments below!

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