To End All Wars: A WW1 Megagame AAR22 Nov 2018 3
This weekend past I had the pleasure to attend another megagame. As a recap, these are essentially scaled up game experiences, often derived from board or war games (at least in the UK), that involve large numbers of people.
To (almost) coincide with the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, the game was titled War to End War, and was a largely strategic military, political and economic simulation of the war from 1917 onward. The Americans had just declared war on Germany (but no-one else), and it’s largely believed that the result could have still swung either way at this point.
The rules and components were designed and created by Jon Casey.
There were several maps representing different theatres of the war, and the space was broken up into individual sectors with a point-to-point movement system. Think Paths of Glory although the axis of advance were a bit stricter, and movement in general wasn’t that fluid: You were either attacking, or you were retreating.
The main unit for movement purposes was the ‘Army’. Several armies were grouped together into Army Groups, which each had a player acting as the Commander-in-Chief. The Army counters themselves were more abstract representations of formations and could be considered largely administrative.
Each team had a ‘deployment chart’, however, where the actual material of their armies were located. Armies were made up of Divisions (the only combat unit in the game), although one individual block could represent a formation of anything from 1 – 5 Divisions, adding an element of Fog of War.
Whenever a battle would occur, Divisions, Munitions (a catch all resource for operations and production) and any other relevant game element (tactical cards, air units etc…) were moved to a separate ‘Battle Board’. Combat factors were counted up and there were also several modifiers that could be applied.
There was no rolling, you simply consulted a table, with different sections depending on odds – 1:1, 2:1, 3:1 etc… and then you counted up how many factors more than your opponent you were. Depending on that number and which odds column you were on, you’d get your result. Rules significantly favoured the defenders, even in ‘Attacker Success’ results, so mounting offensives was meant to be both a major logistical effort and a costly exercise, so you had to make sure you were targeting your attacks carefully.
The Scenario & Dramatis Personae
The aim of the game was to explore the relationship between military strategy, national war aims and operational capability, while also dealing with top level economic/political subjects like collective action/alliance warfare and managing a war economy. It also wanted to look at how entities committed to total war might try and extract themselves from the situation by finding a military or political end to a conflict that had dragged on far too long.
I was part of the French team as General Ferdinand Foch, acting as the Chief of Staff for our military players. This was a slight game fudge on behalf of the designer, as at this point of the war Foch was actually in exile in Italy, although he didn’t stay there long.
There were a lot of changes that happened across many governments and polities during the war, but since players had to role-play as specific characters, historical shifts in jobs and personnel were not closely followed. If someone had done very badly, they may have gotten ‘fired’, but at most it just would have meant a rotation of jobs as the person found themselves playing another person. At worst they were kept in-situ pretending to be another person, but thankfully there were no staff changes on the French team during our game.
At the cabinet level we had Prime Minister Alexandre Ribot & Minister for War Pail Painleve. They were joined by General Robert Nivelle, who was Command-in-Chief of the French military. The Nivelle player very early on decided to stick to military logistics and production as well as fielding high-level military discussions. Planning, coordination and strategy across various theatres was left to me as Chief of Staff.
Under me were the Generals in charge of the army groups & theatres the French were involved in in 1917:
- General Sarrail was in command of the Allied Army of the Orient, a two-Army formation group that was manning the Salonika beachhead in the Balkans/Northern Greece.
- General Franchet d'Esperey, CnC Army Group North, which held the line from Paris to just west of Verdun (Armies 7th through 11th).
- General Petain, CnC Army Group East, held the line from Verdun south/east to Vesoul at the Swiss border (Armies 1st through 6th.
We also had a French Team Umpire, who was there to represent the French people and various NPC elements, deal with some of the economic stuff, as well as facilitate between other controls and try to reflect our actions and overall performance.
I figured the Western Front would be rather deadlocked for most of the game, but I also had to make sure they were adequately supplied and that objectives and strategies were put in place so that they could work towards a specific goal and/or compensate in the event of a German breakthrough. My hopes on a ‘war-winning’ move, however, were pinned on a different front altogether…
As part of the French national briefing it was mentioned that one avenue open to the Entente was to go ahead with a proposed plan formulated the previous year which involved a greater commitment to the Balkans. In 1915 the ‘Allied Army of the Orient’ was deployed to try and help Serbia, but they were too late to stop the nation from falling to the Austro-Hungarians. Still, the western allies were invited into Greece by the pro-allied Prime Minister, and a new front was created roughly along the northern Greek border.
Historically, nothing significant happened here until 1918 (apart from a brief Greek civil war), but I wanted to change that – the original Chantilly plan was abandoned because the architect was sacked, and the new French CnC (General Nivelle) proposed his own ambitious attack that focused on the Western Front.
I don’t know if you’ve read up on the Nivelle Offensive, but it was… err, “special”, and I’m glad our own version of Nivelle wasn’t inclined to repeat history in that regard.
My own plan was to try and get a greater commitment to the theatre and strike an early blow to Bulgaria and the CPs at large. The strategic goal of the plan was to knock Bulgaria out of the war completely and cut off the Ottomans from their allies in Europe. My theory was most of the Central Powers would be engaged in more high-profile theatres of war – such as the Western Front, the Eastern Front, or even the Italian Front. The Ottomans had Mesopotamia to worry about as well, and as far as physicality goes, the Balkan theatre was right at the bottom of a map that covered the whole of eastern Europe as well.
France sent 10 divisions in total, although I was dismayed when my counterpart on the British team told me he thought the plan was a waste of time. We just about got the three divisions their briefing said they’d promised, so we had to make do with that, 2 pro-allied Greek Divisions, and 8 divisions of Serbians
On the northern side of the Balkans was a Russian Army and a Romanian Army. I figured the Romanians would want to try and take their country back and our political leader had said the Russians were still committed to the Chantilly plan. The Romanians were NPCs controlled by the Russian players, so a lot was riding on them attacking at the same time as us.
My orders to General Sarrail then were to try and strike early, before the central powers could really think about the theatre and reinforce to block our advances.
Turns out, they’d already thought of it. Despite my above point, I suspect having the theatre on the same map as a primary theatre (The Eastern Front) actually meant the Germans were perpetually aware of what was happening the Balkans. There’s a certain psychology to megagames, especially one involving multiple maps that try and split a player’s attention – had the Balkans been on it’s own map, we might have gotten away with it.
But as it was, our ‘First Strike’ was a failure – it didn’t help that Russians didn’t attack when we needed them too, so the German player running the Balkan armies was able to concentrate his resources all in one place.
From what I understood from Sarrail, that initial push was our best chance at the plan succeeding, and we were just shy of transitioning into a more favourable results table. (I think we almost hit 3:1 but were only at 2:1) odds. For this I blame the British – if they’d just sent one or two more divisions, we could have actually pushed the Bulgarians back and been on Bulgarian soil, which would have justified the point of the whole theatre.
Sadly, after Turn 1 more and more German reinforcements were sent, reducing our combat odds even further until it got the point where they outnumbered us by a significant margin. Apart from a probing attack by Sarrail mid-game (which went horrifically badly), the Balkan theatre remained quiet for the rest of the day. Although the Italians got pummelled as well.
Still, the whole affair had caused some long-term strategic consequences that wouldn’t be felt until much later – more on that below.
Flame of the West(ern Front)
The Western Front was an altogether different beast, in ways we both did and didn’t expect. This is where the rules really came in to play: I’ve always felt that when designing a WW1 game, it’s easy to design something that caters more for the Western Front than anywhere else. Other ‘active’ theatres were vastly different, after all, so how well WTEW’s own rules applied to the Eastern Front, or even the Middle East, I don’t know.
Still, it was hard in the trenches. A successful attack on a position can still lose you half your men (With the defenders only losing a third, even though they lost), and there were plenty of other elements that would bleed offensive armies of manpower and material. We weren’t expecting to make huge, sweeping gains, but I had a number of operational and strategic objectives in mind:
- Push back the Noyon salient to secure Paris.
- Cut off the Strategic Railway anywhere along the section running from Charleville-Mezieres to Longwy, on the border of Luxembourg.
- Turn the German Flank at Mulhausen (or the North Sea coast, if the British thought they could handle it).
- Make sure the line guarding the Aisne river (Between Soissons and Reims) was secure, as it was the French army’s weakest point.
The salient oddly proved to be the most difficult objective, especially for us. Early attacks across the river to Noyon were repelled, to the point where our team control was agitating that the French people were fed-up and wanted General Franchet to resign.
But his attacks, however fruitless, had managed to facilitate gains by the British further north. The 5th BR Army had managed to advance one step forward along the Somme, and gains were being made across from Ypres. The German A Army Group swept from the north sea, all the way to Verdun, meaning that the controlling player had to fend off attacks from up to three different Entente Army Groups, plus try to mount any offensives of his own.
We only managed to cut off part of the strategic railway, and not enough to make a huge difference to the supply/logistics game. The FR 7th Army crossed the Meuse river and took Sedan, creating a bridgehead that could have allowed us to advance deep into the Belgic countryside if we’d managed to press our advantage.
Unfortunately, many French divisions were lost in that assault and despite heroic foresight and production efforts by General Nivelle and the War Minister, we struggled to bring that many divisions online turn-to-turn. Luckily, by this point in the game the Americans had managed to deploy 10 divisions to Europe, so we managed to send them on to the bridgehead to prevent us being pushed back.
We were also prevented from advancing further by diversionary attacks across the Aisne river at Soissons and Chateau-Thierry. I figured one of these could easily be a dummy feint, and generally it was a move to divert our attention. At the same time I didn’t want Franchet to overreach and suffer a retreat, or even worse, not guard the river and have Paris and/or central France exposed to enemy movements. Keeping the Americans in place with a few support French divisions, we largely re-deployed men from Sedan to the FR 10th and 9th Armies.
There was a lull after this – heavy rain put paid to any serious advances on either side, although Franchet did capitalise on an opportunity to counter-attack back across the Aisne. The 9th GE army at Laon took many losses in their failed assault, and because by that point we possessed the ability as an army to prepare for offensives more rapidly (declaring them the prior phase, instead of prior turn), he attacked and took all but one objective. Franchet paused to wait for reinforcements before pressing on, but the game finished before he could finish the capture.
By this point the British had advanced as far as St. Quentin, forcing the German 7a Army to withdraw from Noyon (thus allowing us to partially close the salient). Our capture of Laon would have completely surrounded the 7a & 8th armies, which would have been a major blow.
The final objective, which I honestly wasn’t expecting to achieve (not due to ability - I figured more important things would come up) was actually one of France’s crowning successes. The Eastern Army Group had a relatively quiet time all day – as they did in history. I’m not entirely sure WHY little happened along the south/eastern trench lines beyond Verdun, but it didn’t. Facing no real pressure from Army Group B, General Petain was able to slowly, but surely, make key gains and advances.
First was turning he German flank at Mulhausen. It took a couple of turns, but we took it eventually which meant for the first time since 1871, France was in ownership of part of Alsace-Lorraine. I tried to make the claim that French troops were on German soil, but Control wouldn’t really go for it because Alsace was contested. At worst though, we’d retaken French land, which was the whole point.
Petain would later press his advantage to take Kolmar, decisively changing the frontline in a way that freed up an entire Army’s worth of divisions to redeploy elsewhere. The fact that the Army (2nd FR) was comprised of only two divisions and a bunch of decoys was mere details – it was a great victory.
If the game had gone on one more turn, Petain was confident he could have taken Strasburg itself. He also (nearly) took Longwy, across from Verdun, managing to dig-in and take all but 2 of the objectives. It was around this time though that the Russians signed and Armistice, ending their involvement in the war. With German divisions freed up to join the Western Front, that area between Sedan and Metz was getting crowded with German reinforcements, so we were never in a position to fully take Longwy.
The German Grand-Strategy
The Germans were very passive on both the Western and Balkan fronts, and the forces in France especially seemed under-manned at times. They definitely didn’t get fresh divisions as quickly as the Balkans did, not until the Eastern Theatre wound down and both army groups got a massive influx of new divisions.
We learned post-game from Ludendorff, the leader of the German team, that the Balkan commander kept asking him for more men, making the Allies seem like a big threat (which we weren’t). Ludendorff also forbade that same player from making any attacks on the allied positions (something I was worried about as a genuine concern) which is probably why he never pressed his own advantage later in the game. In one of the closing turns of the game I had ordered General Sarrail to pull back all forces to Salonika to try and defend the beachhead, just in case the Germans did try to advance.
Ludendorff also admitted that the Western Front was a deliberately undermanned, because his plan was to focus on Russia and get them out of the war as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the Russians held on s bit too long, long enough for us to make strategic gains on the Western Front. If Ludendorff had been more aware of what was going on in the Balkans, I have a strong feeling he would have either stripped that theatre of men to send West, or perhaps overrun the beachhead as soon as possible to remove that as a concern.
By the end of the game, perhaps 30 or more German Divisions were propping up the various Balkan armies, from the Austro-Hungarians to the Bulgarians themselves. As I’ve mentioned, it completely negated our ability to make any kind of head-way, but it also drained critical manpower from the Western Front.
It also allowed the Austro-Hungarians to focus solely on the Italians, since even their own army counters in the area were largely filled with German divisions.
Analysis & Reflection
It was a great day all round: the French team ended up working really well together, and all my Generals managed to learn the rules quickly and did an excellent job both reacting to my orders and making their own snap decisions on the ground.
I think especially the Generals managed to coordinate quite well in terms of focusing on single Army Groups, especially German Army Group A, to drain that player’s resources and facilitate the gains made by both ourselves and the British.
One thing that probably could have gone better is Coordination. At the strategic level, there wasn’t a lot of cooperation between teams. The Americans put their general and troops under French command, so there was a close working relationship there but it took most of the day for them to get a decent sized Army deployed in Europe. They made a grand-total of ONE offensive, and it was a disaster (they lost half their divisions I think).
Beyond that, we didn’t really work with anyone. Massive miscommunications between us and the Russians meant we were never able to coordinate a strategy In the Balkans, and as the Central Powers got stronger in the area, there was less incentive to cooperate. The Italians were always coming to us asking for help, and all we could really give them was munitions. I wasn’t going to deploy troops to Italy because to be honest it sounded like a shit-show, but they also had an army in the Balkans. Unfortunately we were separated by mountains, so neither party was really able to help the other in that area, and eventually the Italian position was overrun.
The British… well, to be fair, General Haig himself (The BEF Commander in the Western Front) was very nice, and there was some decent co-operation between himself and General Franchet. I remained a bit salty about the Balkans thing pretty much most of the day, so I was never that interested in working too closely with the British High Command. They seemed content to do their own thing regardless and never came to us asking for help or advice from what I recall. I managed to get them to help us coordinate a strike on the salient later in the day, which proved very successful for them as that was when they pushed all the way through to St. Quentin.
As far as map performance goes, the British team had more breakout successes than we did. They also lost ground (which they admitted they didn’t care about because it was French ground), but in terms of raw performance it was hard to deny the progress they made. To be fair they had a smaller front to commit resources too, and as mentioned above the German commander facing them also had to deal with General Franchet, who made plenty of attacks of his own. There was even a cross-over with General Petain, who I made sure (provided nothing more important was happening) made diversionary attacks to further drain resources.
This is just a single snapshot of the day, and it doesn’t even cover everything that went on even in my team let along the rest of the game. Prime Minister Ribot was an unsung hero, moving heaven and earth to try and reach the necessary political agreements to try and bring the war to an end.
It must also be stated once again that the War Minister and General Nivelle were excellent at running the nation’s economy, producing as many divisions, munitions and special units as they could, as well buying new tactics cards to use on the front.
To finish off, here is a random selection of snippets of events I heard about from the course of the war:
- We almost got the Ottomans out of the war early, and possibly even on our side, except the British PM wouldn’t give them back Baghdad (bloody brits).
- The Austro-Hungarians came early with an armistice offer, as they had learned the Germans were negotiating behind their backs to sell them out. The Italians were being stubborn though.
- Finland revolted, and the Germans sent an army there to back them up, putting added pressure on the Russians.
- There was a Bolshevik revolution in Russia, but it was crushed ruthlessly. They actually held on longer than they did historically, I think (in terms of peacing out early anyway), which I think had a massive strategic effect on the Germans.
- The British landed Canadians at Ostend on the last turn of the game, behind enemy lines.
- The Italians were planning a bold offensive to skit across the Adriatic and land at Trieste, taking the Austro-Hungarians from behind.
I hope you enjoyed this ‘brief’ debrief of a War to End Wars, the WW1 Megagame.