The Great War - A Table-Top Compendium01 Feb 2017 0
For those who have forgotten, 2014 began the 100th Anniversary of World War I, with this year’s remembrance embracing the ill-fated Nivelle Offensive splinter French army morale (and given the 2d Colonial Division were veterans of Verdun, this was impressive), the decisive Italian defeat at Caporetto, the campaign in Palestine and American’s Declaration of War. From a tabletop perspective, however, you’re likely not to see a lot outside Dreadnaught volleys and 1914 skirmishes where French pantaloon rouge – c’est France! – at least brought some color to the carnage.
The reasons are twofold. Firstly, tabletop tactics for this war are usually termed DIP, or Die in Place, with game objectives primarily counting who loses slightly less men. Fun is rare. The second reason is that the concept of battle, the mainstay of the tactical level, was redefined. Strategy was still strategy and concerned the allocation of national resources to achieve victory. Here digital games are still the venue of choice given their ability to manage logistics, manpower and industrial production. Instead, the operational level, normally concerned with campaigns within a war (or technically the art of bringing the enemy to battle under the most advantageous of conditions), is where fusion occurred. Railroads, a short battle front in the West and the adoption of the Prussian flow thru reserve system by just about everybody, effectively merged battle and campaign into a single entity.
Consider the Battle of Waterloo saw 78,000 French and 118,000 Allies fight over a frontage of six miles for a single day. At a grand tactical tabletop scale of one inch equal 120 yards, you’ll need a table about 8 feet wide. Compare that to the first Battle of the Marne (7 – 12 September 1914) where 2 ½ million fought over a front of some 160 miles for six days. That’s a 200 foot table, and here even Historicon turns tail. You could try a corps on corps action, but recall above while noting the French army alone went from two machineguns per battalion to 54 in 1918.
If you want any chance of sweeping flanking movements or rupturing the enemy’s battleline, it has to be done at the operational level, which for the Great War, is also the de facto level for individual battles. Tabletops are out and digital gaming takes care of strategy, so that only leaves us with hex and counter games. Fortunately, if you act quickly enough, that’s not a problem.
What follows are my recommendations for operational boardgames on the War to End All Wars Before We Fight The Next War, games that simulate entire “battles” with emphasis on combat, not supply. I have listed games currently in print, as well as a few classics, but by no means should you count this as a definitive list. I know only too well that there are other smaller companies doing fine work, so apologies in advance if someone is excluded. Just remember, this is an ailing part of the hobby, so print runs are short making the time to buy now.
Games in Print
Decision Games - Folio games series where in general you receive a 17 x 22” map, 100 counters and two four page rule books. The game is played at brigade level and each hex is three miles. Titles include Lettow-Vorbeck in East Africa, Loos the Big Push, Vimy Ridge, Meuse-Argonne, Massuria, Tannenburg, Suez 1916 and Gaza 1917. The price is $19.95 US each or $12.95 for Lettow-Vorbeck.
Decision Games - Over the Top! This is really a redo of the older SPI game Great War in the East Quad, but with new battles to include the Brusilov Offensive, Riga 1917, St Mihiel 1918 and Damascas 1918. The game is $50.00 US and contains rules, two 34 x 22“ maps and 560 counters.
Decision Games/SPW - Die Weltkrieg (the World War) This is not a single game but a series of hyper detailed, operational level games each with individual scenarios as well as a complete campaign game. Graphics for both maps and counters are spectacular and unique. The details for one of the games, The Eastern Front 1914 – 1917, include 1680 backprinted counters, four 34 x 22” maps, two 17 x 11” maps with a scale of 20 km per hex, four days per turn and brigade or division level units, all for $119.95 US. The rest of the series counts Tannenburg Intro Game ($19.95), Ottoman Front ($79.95), Western Front ($69.95), Italian Front ($49.95), the Grand Campaign (adds logistics and production, $79.95) and The Complete Series (all of the above, $399.75). Most games have updated editions, and yes, you can combine all the games into a single monster simulation.
GMT - 1914 - Offensive a outrance (Attack to excess) This monster game covers the Marne Campaign and Schlieffen Plan, costs $115.00 US and contains seven and ½ counter sheets and three full color map sheets. Scale is 8 km per hex, two to four days per turn with division and brigade size units. A sister game by GMT, 1914 – Twilight in the East, is currently out of print but still listed on the GMT Website.
GMT - 1914 - Serbien muss sterbien (Serbia must die) Although part of the same “1914” series, this is a smaller game due to a smaller campaign, the Austrian invasion of Serbia. The game costs $55.00 US and contains 540 counters plus a single 34 x 22” map. Scale related information is the same as above.
GMT - 1914 – Glory’s End & When Eagles Fight This game is actually a reprint of two earlier simulations by well-known WWI designer Ted Raicer and published by Command Magazine in the 90’s. As such the games are far less complicated than the 1914 series, with units being corps and armies, a scale of two months a turn and 25 km per hex. It includes two 34 x 22” maps, four counter sheets and costs $59.00 US. Playtime is advertised at 3 hours.
Avalon Hill - 1914 This, is many respects, is the game that started it all, introducing a young designer named James Dunnigan to the wargaming world with his second design for Avalon Hill in 1968. The game featured a beautiful painted map, lots of detailed historical data and the first set of Avalon Hill counters that were not rendered only in baby blue and prissy pink. It was unbelievably realistic, wryly noting that to triumph as Germany, be where the French weren’t, and be there with everything you’ve got. The CRT was brutal.
SPI - To the Green Fields Beyond This 1978 game simulated the first mass tank attack at Cambrai and has always been a favorite of mine, not only because of its realistic and easy play, but also because of the day glow orange British counters afforded gaming during a blackout. Each hex was 1250 yards, each turn a single day, all represented on a single 34 x 24” map sheet with 400 counters.
Oregon ConSim Games - The Cossacks are Coming This is a companion to the game below covering the Tannenburg campaign, first published in 1982 by Peoples Wargames and now reprinted today by Oregon ConSims for $60.00, but according to the Website, currently out of stock.
Clash of Arms - Home Before the Leaves Fall This is the only game I know that can rival die Weltkrieg series in terms of detail and accuracy, and then some. This 1997 release had over 3000 counters, two 34 x 22” maps and 37 pages of charts, aptly declaring itself “designed for the serious student of history.” Well, no kidding. It had personality counters representing every commanding general corps level and above, individual fortress counters sporting unique combat factors, even a rule for the Eifel Tower degrading German radio communications for units too close to Paris. And I’ve actually played it.
There are other games not listed, of course. Some of these are still in print, but more strategic in nature (for example, Compass Games own WW1 version of the classic World in Flames World War II game), some have simply come and gone like the wind. But I do own and have played all the above, and more because this is one of my favorite historical periods. So as we remember the millions who perished in this tragic conflict, I’m making a point to try at least a turn or two in a couple games to better understand why and what actually happened. Hopefully you’ll join me, wearing a red poppy of course.
Want to promote a game we haven't listed? Post in the comments below and provide a link + some information. We'd love to hear about more games on WW1 that you like playing!