WW1 Abridged: One Grog's short history of Great War table-top games16 May 2018 1
World War One has a terrible reputation, especially when placed next to World War Two with its sweeping Panzer campaigns, technological developments and dramatic finale. Indeed, only five strategic level World War One games were released prior to 1996 and their gameplay largely reflected the popular understanding of the conflict as being a dull slog rather than a tense multi-front wrestling match with constantly changing political situations and force capabilities. If you were a strategic level World War One fan the games were neither historically plausible nor particularly fun to play.
The first notable game was World War 1 – 1914-1918 (Decision Games, 1975) that came with a markedly flawed combat system that made offensives pointless in a war defined by huge offensives. Conversely, Avalon Hill’s Guns of August (1981), had no fog of war or relevant political structures, removing any meaningful decision-making.
A decade later will see the arrival of a WW1 modification of the monster World War Two game World in Flames (ADG, 1985) with Fatal Alliances (Canadian Wargamers Group, 1992). However, this took a rather traditional wargame that relied on movement as a measure of 'fun' and applied it to a war where half the action involved static trenches. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t work very well. Another old school monster game The Great War in Europe (XTR Corp, 1995) suffered from the same problem. In fact, nearly all monster games suffer from the same issue; it’s very hard to iron out balance flaws in such huge games in playtesting.
The First World War is remembered for being a tactical stalemate, yet military historians tell us that by mid war crossing no man’s land wasn’t the difficult bit and that an attacking force could routinely inflict superior casualties on and push back defending forces with the correct application of light support weapons, artillery and logistical preparation. Indeed, dislodging successful attackers from a section of the front was really when the main battle began. Political pressures could compound the operational challenges turning relatively small offensives into much larger battles that neither side had really prepared for or particularly wanted. Yet by 1996 there were still no games that reflected the operational complexities, fog of war or the political framework. All we had were a series of math quizzes dressed up as games that were predictably dull.
Just as breakthrough moments in World War One are few and far between the same is true in wargame development. So the odds of a seminal card driven area movement wargame being based on World War One seems highly unlikely but that’s exactly what happened in 1999 with Ted Raicer’s grand strategic level World War One game Paths of Glory. Overnight World War One gamers, indeed all gamers, had something worth playing. Nineteen years later Paths of Glory, now on its 7th reprint, remains rated the 3rd best wargame ever.
Paths of Glory succeeds as a game for a number of reasons; it added a plausible political context, a fog of war, military decision making not based around movement, agonizing decisions and the full game can be played in a single session. The game covers almost the entire war although Africa, the Far East and the Naval game are reduced to events. This means that you have multiple fronts throughout the game to concern yourself with, which in turn allows for multiple strategic options and levers to pressure your opponent. In Paths of Glory players always face a potential crisis somewhere and are almost continually assessing whether and how to feed into a potentially attritional battle, give up ground or respond on another front in an attempt to divert pressure.
The card-play structure forces players to constantly make tough decisions because whilst there are 16 issues to address they can only address 6 per season. That some cards played as events are lost for ever can lead to agonizing decisions that will haunt you as the war progresses. Yet with perhaps the harshest supply rules of any game there are occasions when holes must be plugged, regardless of the wider situation, further compounding the cost of a single card.
Cards can be used to accelerate political decisions in your favour, raise or move formations, or conduct operations, but critically only one of those options may be chosen. The nature of the game is that even when you are losing, your opponent remains under the same agency to act, so there is no release.
Since Paths to Glory showed everyone the way, there have been a large number of strategic level WW1 games of different genres and complexities released:
For the hard core traditional hex war gamers there is the Der Weltkrieg series (SPW, 1997-2011) that combines 10 expansions into a single game with lots of attention to historical detail but without the fog of war or political elements that obstruct the 'perfect' strategy. La Grande Guerre 14-18 (Azure Wish, 1999) () is equally heavy but with more progressive mechanics including a fog of war and an innovative combat system.
For those players who seek a relatively light evening game then there are some recent options. The First World War (Phalanx, 2004), although this was not widely regarded as having a particularly strong gameplay. Axis & Allies: WWI 1914 (Hasbro, 2013) uses the rather dated traditional Axis and Allies format. The Lamps Are Going Out (Compass Games, 2016) is a simple game for two to four people and can be played in an evening. Whilst it has a fluent gameplay system based on a deck of events, it could be argued that the game is repetitive and not complex enough to reflect the late game decline in capabilities.
The best light option by far is Quartermaster General: 1914 (PSC Games, 2016) a tremendous deck management game that provides plenty of decision making for up to five non-war gamers. It adds to the Quartermaster World War Two system by allowing players to pre-prepare attacks and defences in a manner that creates the conditions for simple offensives to spiral into unintended, exhausting battles with just one last push.
Whilst the Western front was the primary front during the war it’s only during the last decade we have seen strategic level games that do it justice. To The Last Man! (Nuts! Publishing, 2009) was the first game to cover the Western Front at a strategic level; a solid innovative card game attached to an area movement system and a proper fog of war. Unfortunately, it was somewhat spoilt by a very confusing list of optional rules that would have been better off as part of the core game. More recently Fields of Despair: France 1914-1918 (GMT, 2017) is the first block game covering the Western Front. It expands on the traditional block system by adding blocks with different strength ranges that allow for greater fog of war beyond strength one to four. It also allows mass front re-organizations, that bring air power to the fore, in order to tackle the resulting operational uncertainty or surprises.
To scratch that Eastern Front itch Illusions of Glory (GMT, 2017) uses the Paths of Glory system but builds on it with a mechanic that decreases troop quality relative to the number of reinforcements called up. The result is your units degrade over time reflecting some of the brittle formations involved. Alternatively there is the Kaiser’s War in the East (Decision games, 2016) that covers the Eastern Front, a very 1980’s hex and odds-based combat system.
The excellent Pursuit of Glory (GMT, (2008) covers all of the Ottoman fronts. Building on but regarded as slightly more complex than Paths of Glory it was also considered as being a more balanced and play tested game when it went to print.
For medium weight Path of Glory alternatives there are a few options. Death in the Trenches: The Great War, 1914-1918 (Compass Games, 2005) is a low complexity but very lengthy game with mechanics that include an innovative, attritional combat system with no combat results table and a multitude of semi-random events. Storm of Steel (Decision Games, 2007) a truly global, hex based game that includes a large number of cards. Unlike Paths of Glory they are not the central driver of the games although they provide an awful lot of chrome if that’s your thing. The downside is that the game is complex. Last but not least , there is the 2 day monster game Balance of Powers (Compass Games, 2015) that simulates all aspects of the game in some depth. It has an interesting economic system, a tense breach system that allows for more effective defender counter attacks, and an innovative mechanic that simulates force capability improvements through casualties.
Looking forwards we have Empires & Alliances (Compass Games, 2018) which re-implements Guns of August, although I am at a loss to understand why. Personally, I am really hoping for some innovative operational level games on some of the long neglected but huge Western Front battles of 1916 and 17.