The Wargamer's Guide to... The Best WW1 Strategy Games27 Apr 2018 6
Since we're nearing the end of the centennial of World War I, a look at videogames for the 1914-1918 period is definitely in order. And given many meaningful concepts of the war were strategic in nature (vice operational or tactical), that area will be the focus of this compendium.
You'll note a few entries normally deemed operational rather than strategic. The difference? Operational art involves campaigns to bring friendly forces into battle under the best conditions possible. Strategy involves the management and deployment of national level resources to achieve objectives. Indeed strategic games are more logistics and production than fighting, but with World War I there was a unique fusion of the two echelons into a hybrid that creates a grey area in some cases.
Guns of August 1914-1918 (Matrix Games)
Frank Hunter of ADANAC Studios jumped the guns by releasing this game in 2007. The graphics represent the basic approach of the period and the mechanics are clunky but capture the crucial problem of the combatants: a war in which the resources and military thinking of the coalitions were outstripped by industrial warfare. In the four scenarios marking each year of the war, players must choose which HQs to activate given the limited number of activations. Points are used to research tanks, gas and trenches as well as to influence or declare war on neutrals. Ships are assigned orders and areas while subs starve Britain. Air units are assigned to fronts.
Play uses two-month composed of impulses with orders resolved simultaneously. The map covers most of Europe, the Middle East and some of North Africa. The units are corps and individual ships. Each nation of a coalition must be handled separately. National morale and exhaustion determine victory. If players can master the interface and turn sequence, this game replicates the attrition aspect of the war well by having actions paid by gaining abstract currency. All of these games do the same but with different names; production points, recruit points, etc...
Strategic Command Classic: World War 1 (Matrix Games) (Review)
Hubert Cater of Fury Software and Battlefront first entered the fray in 2010, although this was recently re-published by Matrix Games. The base game is derived from the popular Strategic Command series with its hallmarks: terrain is bland but functional while the 3D units are entertaining. The normal IGO/UGO turn system is here with clicks ordering movement and combat. A row of buttons gives entree to research, diplomacy and the like. Events, different weapons and even more emphasis on national morale set this game apart from its World War II stablemates.
The British blockade eats away at Central Power morale while research allows simple growth in air, tank, infantry and gas tactics. Creating havoc to British supplies is made easier by clear convoy routes and silent sub modes. Domestic policy is handled abstractly. How players react to events can change the complexion of the game. The first campaign covers the entire war while adding two shorter campaigns, seven operations and even a World War II campaign. The 2012 expansion Breakthrough adds spice to the game by providing an alternative 1914 campaign twist, a look at the First Balkan War 1912-1913 and the Franco-Prussian War, nineteen more operations and battles covering all theatres of the conflict.
Commander: The Great War (Slitherine/Matrix Games) (Review)
Slitherine’s 2012 game shows how the Commander engine could handle World War I. The terrain and unit graphics are very good, combining simplicity with enough detail to make them interesting as well as informative. Mechanics are simple with tabs bringing up panels for research, diplomacy, production, and selection to show unit stats.
A management panel shows countries’ overall status. Submarines are always submerged and can be attacked only when an enemy stumbles into their hex. Air, artillery and infantry capabilities grow through research. Commanders are attached directly to units instead of separate HQ units. A unique swapping function allows units to easily exchange places. The five campaigns cover each year of the war. Research focus on broad topics instead of individual concepts and a simple supply system makes this game accessible to new gamers and still captures the essence of the topic. Also available on iOS.
Making History: The Great War (Factus Games)
Factus Games continues Muzzy Lane Software’s tradition of academic games with this 2014 title. Unlike the other games in this article, the scale is grand strategic where players deal with the intricacies of building specific factories and institutions in cities in their countries given present resources. Choices to play are the eight major powers or any other country in the world. An in-depth economic and trade system will take up most of player’s attention with many panels and screens providing a flood of data.
The graphics are very simple and mechanics are the usual clicks. The three scenarios are 1912, 1914 and 1918, the later concentrating on making peace rather than war. The military depends heavily on the economy and research with battle being handled automatically when opponents inter the same province. Many events requiring player decisions appear in the week-long turns. This product elevates play from the war itself to the conditions that started the conflict and allows an alternative line of events.
To End All Wars (Matrix Games)
AGEOD took another swing at the cat with this 2014 entry using a better engine. Using two-week turns, the main map covers Europe with off-map boxes for the rest of the world. Units begin as single armies but can be broken down by increments to regimental level. Leaders can be attached, promoted and demoted under certain circumstances. Lists and map filters lay out the many factors of play. Movement is the AGE click-and-drag engine with a battle mode for selecting tactics.
Weather affects movement and supply. Success on the field and triggered events yield diplomatic points and decreases or increases the all-important national morale. Players can use regional decisions to accomplish operational goals where diplomacy is a matter of alignment. Submarine warfare is more abstract than in other games. This entry is a nice compendium to the many factors of the war.
Supreme Ruler - the Great War (Battlegoat Studios) (Review)
This game is probably the newest entry into the fray, yet traces its roots back 35 years to a Canadian in high school. Typically, the software is concerned more with logistics and resource management as opposed to putting rounds down range, but there are several areas which make play unique. There is a full-fledged weather system, while movement is a simple process of drawing a line from start to destination, then allowing the AI to figure out the best way to get there. And believe it or not, all of this is done in semi-real time.
The detail in the game is fantastic, and doesn’t simply allow for the production of things like heavy artillery. No, the player must choose the type of gun – 130 mm vs 152 mm for example – for his rubles based on what was historically available. But the really BIG draw of the game is the scope. While most games define World War I as East Front, West Front, Italian Front and Lawrence of Arabia, this game takes the term “World” literal. The game covers the entire globe, so if Japan invades China, you actually move to that real estate and fight/produce it out. And you don’t stop in 1918, but can continue the game on well into the 21st Century.
Hearts of Iron – Darkest Hour (Paradox Interactive) (Review)
The Hearts of Iron franchise needs little introduction as one of the most famous strategic World War II games ever. Darkest Hour is actually a variant of HOI Armageddon created by a group of dedicated modders in love with the series. It is a stand-alone game with two scenarios, one beginning in 1936, but the other in 1914 covering WW1.
It's a typical strategic logistics and production fare, but using the HOI engine and overall design as the selling point. Often called the best of all HOI add-ons, the game has outrageously high reviews on Steam. Trust me, if you like Hearts of Iron, you will like this.
The Operational Art of War IV (Matrix Games) (Review)
Although an operational level game, what this really means is that the software takes one step away from logistics and production and one step towards combat and manoeuvre in its emphasis. This is probably a better approach for 1914 and the Russian Front where smaller armies and YUGE parcels of land did not mandate a stalemate and factory management to see who could produce the most machine gun bullets.
TOAW4 has 20 scenarios from or related to this conflict, and some are so large that they could never be considered operational in decision making scope at the very least. One, for example, covers the entire Eastern Front in 1915 while another covers the entire war, all fronts, down to the Mosen-Nagant level, from 1 August 1914 to whenever. If you like more military oriented decision making vice logistics, this game is a good choice
France 1914 and East Prussia 1914 (John Tiller Software) (Review)
These two games are sisters, and this is a good thing. Based on the firm’s Panzer Campaigns model, the two simulations are similar to TOAW4 except one step further removed from logistics and one step closer to combat detail and manoeuvre, as befitting products only concerned about the first year of the war. Yet given the large amount of physical turf covered, even at this early stage of the conflict, decision making morphs into something more strategic than operational. Pressing home the point, the two games can be played concurrently.
As our own review of the game noted, “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 to get enough wins.”
World War I was extremely complicated, arguably more so than World War II. No single game can do equal justice to all aspects of the conflict. However, the games mentioned above contain all the critical aspects when taken as a group. Every level of play, from beginner to hard-nosed veteran, is represented by them. Players should begin with the level they’re comfortable with and then try more complex games.