JTS’ First World War Campaigns: Serbia '14 review

By Bill Gray 01 May 2020 2

Even retired, quarantining at home has allowed me to do a bit more wargaming than usual, and that means John Tiller Software’s new game Serbia ‘14, the third offering in their First World War Campaigns series. The more esoteric the better, and this is one of many reasons why I enjoy World War gaming, and especially enjoy the campaigns within this conflict. I’m happy to say that once again, JTS did not let me down.

So what's new? Concerning gameplay and related issues, not a whole lot, and that's not a bad thing at all. The game is a follow-on to East Prussia 1914 which itself hails from the HPS original title France ‘14, now also Tillerware. In fact, the entire series is really an extension of the Panzer Campaigns product line and plays pretty much the same albeit a few significant differences to reflect the lack of (what else?) Panzers. The late Jim Cobb did an exceptional review of the East Prussian game, so take a look if you want to learn about the nuts and bolts of gameplay. The scale is still one kilometer per hex, two hours real-time per turn with units, normally either battalions or batteries with 30-man machine gun sections, thrown in.

Otherwise, most of the new features really have to do with the combat units on the board, not actual play or game administration. By this I mean you are going to see odd units such as irregular partisans from Montenegro and Austrian Alpine troops. I did not come across these doughty lads while playing the game last weekend, but they are there, as are features like river flotillas and naval monitors. 

JTS Serbia 14 strategy

Of greater interest, however, is the presentation of the Austro-Hungarian military forces. Because of the 1867 compromise the Dual Monarchy actually operated three different armies. These were the Common Army under the Ministry of War, the Austrian Landwehr under German control, and the Honved under Hungarian control, all backed by the Landsturm reserve forces. Underneath this was a plethora of different nationalities, ethnic groups, and cultures, all theoretically owing allegiance to the Kaiser. This included both Germans and Hungarians to be sure, but also Moslems from Bosnia-Herzegovina. It made for a hodgepodge military force of inconsistent quality and in Serbia '14 each Austro-Hungarian unit has had its combat values adjusted to reflect this.

Rounding up changes to the game is a new victory determination system which treats military objectives somewhat differently in some scenarios. By this I mean objectives that disappear if they are not secured in time by one side or the other. It’s a neat idea. Most games will give victory points to whatever side controls a piece of real estate by game’s end, but to actually have said piece of turf lose its objective and victory point status if its not captured fast enough? Well, that’s unique and certainly makes military delaying actions a bit more attractive for game play.

JTS Serbia 14 units

“Seasoned, war-hardened men” is how Winston Churchill described the Serbian soldier, and take it from me, play Serbia ’14 and you’ll understand why. The game map is incredibly detailed and looks like somebody – with a LOT of time on his hands – took one of those comprehensive Austrian Military Map Surveys and dropped a hex grid on top. This granularity produces one of the most rugged and brutal places anyone would ever want to fight in, and the shivers start just by eyeballing the thing. Yes, this part of the world is still too large compared to its armies to mandate the construction of opposing, machine gun laden trench lines. But by its sheer makeup, movement becomes painfully slow and rapid, sweeping maneuvers rare.

Comparing it to say, the Charleroi map in France ’14, shows territory that's uncultivated, hilly, and mountainous, covered by thick forests and swamps. Clear terrain and crop fields are hard to come by, but even worse is the lack of hard-surface roads, especially railroads. This ain’t Flanders, not even Tannenberg. It’s a logistician’s nightmare and a defender’s paradise. Exacerbating this are the opposing armies themselves. In both the two previous First World War games, the armies tossing bullets at each other were reasonably, if not totally, equal in regards to the number and quality of troops and equipment fielded. Run into a French, German, or Russian infantry regiment, and you can be pretty sure it's gonna behave about the same way, regardless of whether it’s the 15th Infanterie or the 121st.

In Serbia ’14, there are two things out of whack from this norm. First, while the Serbs own high quality, patriotism-infused soldiers, their equipment suite is older and less numerous than that of their adversaries. But the enemy actually has it worse. Remember that melting pot of nationalities the Austro-Hungarians must deal with? This not only results in an army of lower quality than the Serbs, but how bad often varies from unit-to-unit depending on whether they are part of the standing Common Army or the Hungarian or the Bosnian or something else. While the Austro-Hungarian army in this game looks menacing, if I had to use one word to describe it overall, that word would be 'brittle'.

JTS Serbia 14 map

Altogether there are 28 stand-alone battle scenarios, four multi-scenario campaigns, a small multi-scenario campaign on the Serbian invasion of Bosnia, and three grand campaign scenarios for those who really want to flip off the Coronavirus, combining Serbia, France, and East Prussia ’14 into one huge, quarantine-breaking conflagration. Plus, Serbia ’14 doesn’t cover only the initial 1914 invasion as other games do a la GMTs Serbien Muss Sterbien, but instead also includes the two additional Austro-Hungarian offensives that followed, and the final 1915 invasion which finally crushed the Serbs and forced their army’s evacuation. 

For those unfamiliar, this was an Austro-German-Bulgarian affair under the tender eyes of one of Berlin’s best, Generalfeldmarschall August von Mackensen. Play all 389 turns (not kidding) and you’ll not only see Bulgarians and Pickelhaube, but Russians, British and French as well. It makes for a ponderous battle of attrition, but one that plays far differently from what you will see on the Western Front, or even in the swamps of the Masurian Lakes in East Prussia. 

There's one more thing that deserves mention before you grab your shekels and head for the Web browser to grab Serbia ’14. It's about a secret that hides in plain sight, but one that is key to understanding what makes Serbia ’14, and most JTS campaign level games, tick with the precision of an atomic clock. This is the fact Serbia ’14 is a TACTICAL game. It is NOT a campaign or operational level game. Hear me out on this. Serbia ‘14’s cardboard competitor is the aforementioned Serbien Mus Sterbien. Here the scale of each turn equals 2 – 4 days, each hex is 8.8 kilometers, and units are mostly divisions. That’s pretty common in the wargaming world for a campaign level title, but that’s not how it works in Serbia ’14. To repeat, two hour turns, one-kilometer hexes, 30-man machine gun sections, and four-gun artillery batteries, the latter having ranged fire over more than one hex.

JTS Serbia 14 world war one

Digital power has done what paper could not, and that is to allow you to play the entire theater of operations, as in all of the Balkans, on the tactical level if you want to. That means playing smaller scenarios straight tactical or using the AI’s order and objective process to assign entire friendly divisions and corps to conduct tasks in lieu of the player doing it manually. Then the player can pick certain parts of the campaign where he can start changing ammo loads for howitzer sections. Or play all 389 turns from Belgrade to Greece with nothing but battalions and batteries if you really need a hibernation break or forgot your meds. Your choice. 

Call it a tactical-operational hybrid, but along with the unique nature of war in this overlooked First World War campaign, tis' yet another good reason to pick up Serbia ’14. It’s not only another solid entry into the product line, but perhaps the best of the three so far. For serious players, but highly recommended.

You can find Serbia '14 on John Tiller Software. This article was kindly donated to Wargamer.com by the author

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