By Paul Comben
The first was of me, sitting in a railway carriage in the spring of 1998, reading the designer’s notes for The Schlieffen Plan and being utterly dismissive of the statement that this was but the first part of a series which would eventually cover the entirety of the First World War. I simply could not see it happening – I had just bought this game as a curiosity more than anything else, and prided myself on having far too much experience of how the hobby had been over years to take grandiose claims of massive things to come at face value.
The second image, or rather, set of images, were those photographs posted from games clubs where the series I was so certain was going to fizzle out after one or two titles, has been lovingly set up in all its stunning immensity by teams of keen players.
The third is of Enrico Viglino, “Calandale” on YouTube, engaged and frustrated in something like equal measure by his solo playing of The Western Front, but nevertheless producing an informative performance of high and low notes before calling it a day in mid-1917.
The fourth is a memory of long ago, with a much younger version of me pondering how to answer a key exam question, and in the midst of my uncertainties, opting for the easy way out:
“Why was it Germany looked likely to win the First World War in 1914, and seemed likely to lose in 1918?”
I wish I had had the guts to say the question was either a trick or based on a flawed premise, but I did not, and instead wrote a load of safe and orthodox twaddle. Reading the sort of Great War histories that are produced today, I could kick myself…but then, we all learn by our mistakes.
And finally, I recall my visits to London hobby shops in those precious, halcyon days of the 1970s, where you could buy titles from just about every era from antiquity to the far-off future…but not from the First World War.
Perhaps that last piece of remembrance is something of an exaggeration, but in all honesty, there were precious few Great War titles around compared to the output dedicated to other subject matter; and, what is more, the few games that were produced lapsed into obscurity depressingly quickly. The only real exception to that rule were air combat games, where the lure of jousting with the Flying Circus had a more obvious and saleable appeal than experiencing the halting offspring of Avalon Hill’s 1914 inviting you to taste the tedium of two tepid game turns before putting it all away and pulling the panzers out.
Given that, several decades on, the land campaigns of the First World War are very much in vogue within the hobby, we are entitled to ask: what has changed? Is it better design? Is it a change in player tastes? The approaching centenary perhaps? Or maybe it is a little of each of these, and then something else besides – like the internet or a certain Ted Raicer? It is a question worth asking, as I for one am somewhat doubtful that Der Weltkrieg would have been viable as a project forty or more years ago. SPI, of course, had their World War 1 module riding on the back of their War in Europe design; but that rather makes the point – it was not a design built absolutely from the ground up; and one can add to that the plain fact that SPI’s simple little folio game on the same subject was better known and almost certainly far more played than its monster of a brother.
Whatever the answer is considered to be, Der Weltkrieg, in its various component titles, is a major presence among the current range of Great War designs. And the reason why I introduced this article with my own memories and recollections is because they are integral to how I view and assess this range of games. The Great War has a fascination for me as a simulation subject today because I want to keep answering that exam question the way I should have; because I have heard other gamers, keen gamers like Enrico, speak well of this game, but then, like me, voice a frustration over some issue with it; because pictures of enthusiastic societies with the whole thing set out must speak volumes; and because I am rather glad I was wrong in my first assessment almost twenty years ago.
The structure of this review, therefore, is as follows:
- A look at the components, and obvious issues linked to how the system presents itself and how players work with what is before them.
- A run through the key systems of the series – movement, combat, supply, replacement, etc.
- How the series deals with issues of mobile and static warfare, and the introduction of new method and weaponry.
- And finally, the various aspects of the Grand Campaign rules and how they marry with the rest of the design.
Outside of the range of informational markers or combat assets such as gas, the counter sheets are largely dominated by the infantry divisions of numerous nationalities, along with smaller numbers of infantry brigades (these tend to crop up more on the more distant or “sideshow” fronts), cavalry divisions, artillery formations, various unusual or special units, such as German bicycle formations and river gunboats, headquarters units and fortresses.
It is important to note that the distinctions between the capability of one nation’s forces and that of another tend to be expressed not only by the obvious means of differing movement and combat values, but also by various functional distinctions located within the rules. In that sense, what a counter presents in itself is often just part of its story – to offer a few examples, beyond their printed numbers, British and German units are more resilient when faced with encirclement; Serb infantry all have an inherent mountain unit ability; Ottoman units have mountain characteristics except in winter months; Austro-Hungarian units have restrictions on the use of column movement in the presence of enemy forces; and so it goes on.
If this range of characteristics does seem likely to confuse, it is worth remembering that most players will be handling a one front game, with more limited nationalities involved. As for the unit designs themselves, “functional” might be one way of describing them, but they offer no confusion over colour range pertaining to nationality, and what information they do present in themselves, numbers and symbols, is clear and free of any noticeable ambiguity.
The one issue with the units which has been regularly commented upon by players is the side-mounted aspect of many series counter sheets produced prior to the Grand Campaign. They do detract just a little from the appearance of the game, as well as making the units themselves that bit harder to prepare. However, with the first of the multi-game front packages (Eastern Front), as well as with the range of extra counters supplied with the Grand Campaign set, this is no longer an issue. On the other hand, if you are still collecting the full range of titles as of today, you are going to receive counters that are side mounted.
There are also some other issues connected to how the series presents in its current state. The maps (more on those in a moment) were not printed on a consistent stock type – some maps are on a semi gloss type of paper, others are of a plain, matte type. Whether you find this bothersome when combining games, is, I suspect, simply a matter of personal taste. It does not bother me in the slightest, and I will not be buying any of the new front packages in order to address what I personally regard as very minor issues.
It is rather a different matter with the scenario specific rules and reinforcement schedules. There have been six editions of the series rules, including the final, “sterling” edition, and as a result, on building up the revisions, the base set of rules is in good shape and is well presented. However, the earlier versions of the scenario specific rules for many games often had noticeable issues, and with these the “sterling” versions are not freely downloadable. In contrast to just pointing and clicking to access the standard rules, you have to prove you own the game by scanning or photocopying the game box. Why SPW/Decision Games have done this I really do not know, and given that anyone can access any rules set/manual pertaining to any game from the GMT site, or from just about any other company, this is just plain inconvenient as you really do need these scenario sterling versions to get the final version of some key rules and appropriate and very necessary corrections to the reinforcement schedules. To put it bluntly, several of the scenarios in the Osmanli Harbi game require serious fudging without these corrections – and there were also problems with key rules pertaining to logistics in this remote and oppressive theatre. The other games also have the occasional rule issues, but perhaps nothing too dire, though what makes this all the more galling is that the sterling versions were originally free to access, but for whatever reason there was a change of mind. Not helpful, and certainly I would much rather be talking about the positive qualities of the game system than having to write about having to jump through hoops to get your game corrected.
Returning to the maps, many people have commented on the unusual depiction of terrain within the individual hexes, with a certain opinion arising that the division of many hexes into a number of radial sections containing terrain specific to a particular line of attack or movement, make the maps look ugly. I simply cannot agree with this. On the contrary, this is a bold stroke of design, which not only allows more terrain to be depicted within a hex; it also means that on congealed, attrition-ridden fronts, you have the slugfests over portions of front being realistically shaped by the actual lines of attack. In short, these are imaginatively presented, highly detailed maps, which have suffered in appreciation for being novel rather than in any sense being ugly.
The only issue I had with the maps was with that for the Italian front, where the mix of terrain hues and patterns around the Alps made it difficult for me to discern the borders in places – I felt the distinct danger of inadvertently wandering into Switzerland! As for the sheer size of the full set up if playing the traditional (non Vassal) way, as impressive/daunting as that may be, it is important to remember that the whole series contains plenty of one map scenarios (including the entire Western Front) as well as eminently manageable and attractive mini monsters. Among the combinations that work well are combining the opening stages of the war on the Western Front (the Schlieffen scenario) with the Tannenberg scenario, or, for the even more ambitious, Tannenberg and Galicia. Alternatively, Tannenberg and Galicia working together give a very playable view of the mighty events occurring in Eastern Europe in the August and September of 1914. These are just some of the potential combinations; and whilst, with supply and other displays, they will take up considerable space, these are not impossibly large setups to be put together outside of a club setting.
The remaining components consist of the various charts and displays with are either absolutely integral to play, such as the combat charts, or else are semi optional play aids. These all lean towards functionality over aesthetic appeal, and might, in certain cases, be readily described as very basic. But they all do a job, and the combat charts are very easy to use. One thing I feel has to be stressed is the need to use the corps displays. These provide a means to replace large stacks of units (as often as not divisions on the Western or Italian Front) with a corps unit linking to a display space on a separate sheet. These really are a must for ease of play (doing the maths for combat and finding particular units for scheduled withdrawals), and I just wish Enrico had used them when doing his filmed play-through as they would have made his experience that bit less frustrating.
Playing the Game
This is a series about what was the most brutal and appalling man-made disaster to have befallen the planet. It is about industrialised warfare, chemical, biological and moral destruction; a war of poisons and genocides, of the primal forms of weapons and stratagems that we still witness in the refined slaughtering mechanisms of today; in many respects, a clumsy, faltering war made of nascent science and prototype materials, presided over in many lands by Napoleonic monarchies living out their last under skies filled with airships and flying machines.
In my experience, this is not a system where you can look for the finesse in unit handling one might see in a game of Third Reich. Here, it is pure numbers that make the difference – what you are able to put into the grinder one turn, and then what you can then feed in the next. This might not sound particularly inspiring, but it is the cold hard truth nonetheless. Recalling that exam question, the First World War was not the linear experience the Second World War turned out to be – one side in ascendency, then the ebb, then the other side moving on to victory. In 1918, both sides had chances for victory, because by that time both sides had inflicted enormous hurt on each other, and at the same time had each finally produced their own solutions to break the impasse on the front of decision – the Western Front.
One way of depicting the events of 1915-17 on this front is as a ghastly attritional exercise in trial and error. Neither side could hope to win until it had landed enough blows on the other, and coupled this with a way of breaking the trench impasse – the Germans by the Stosstruppen concept allied with the intricate artillery doctrines of Bruchmuller; the allies, and dare I say especially the British, by the tank, the armoured car, and their own intense artillery preparation.
This is one area where the series really shines. Capturing a chunk of territory, or a city here and there will not do much. What the series insists you do is inflict Demoralization Points (DMs) by hitting the enemy time and time again. The most obvious way to inflict such points is by degrading the enemy army – as Haig said: “We cannot hope to win until we have beaten the German army on the Western Front.” Adding to this design imperative, each nation has a different level of both economic collapse and surrender, linked to which year of the conflict you are in. To reflect historical realities, some nations are in a more precarious position than are others. Germany is seriously resilient, Britain relatively so, and France to a somewhat lesser degree. But Russia, for all the size of her army, is not in a position to withstand repeated massive losses, and both Austria-Hungary and Italy are quite literally disasters waiting to happen.
Helping to encourage the appropriate offensive ethos is the rule: “We gave you an army, we expect you to use it.” In essence, no nation can accrue more than a certain number of supply points without the owning player forfeiting the game. Burning supply points in offensives will keep those totals down; but it can lead to the feeling that a game process is distorting and driving the play. It does not feel right to launch an attack through what comes across as a contrived means to deal with overly passive play. I personally think this is a flawed process, but it will work, or at least do its job, if players are ready to enter into the spirit of what they are meant to be doing. What is still likely to occur, however, is players conducting itty bitty attacks at random places along the line just to burn off excess points. This is hardly the Somme, Verdun or Passchendaele, with combats lasting for months on end on fronts, in game terms, of one or two hexes. Nor is it any of those umpteen battles of the Isonzo. To my mind, the game could have benefited from a little colour in this area, with the option to launch “Big Push” or “Gericht” style offensives over fixed frontages and with appropriate DM awards or penalties for casualties inflicted and ground gained.
The issue of the want of realism in random bits of attacking is perhaps not so much of a problem on the less crowded fronts, where geographical objectives might have greater attraction, or in Russia, where the sheer size of the front and the stretch put on the lines will mean you are not going to burn off the requisite supply points by attacking one location with a couple of units in one hex. But in reality, the best way to avoid the distortions this rule can create is by attacking as you are clearly meant to, and not letting the situation arise in the first place.
If finessing does appear anywhere in the combat process, it is learning how to spend your supply points, and when to be that bit more thrifty. Attacking and defending in the game is supply expensive if you wish to go in at full strength. Supply points are allocated to army headquarters, which then make them available to units in combat – providing they are in range. Major offensives will burn up supply at a considerable rate, though the design logic makes defending more expensive in supply point terms than attacking, the premise being that the defenders are already in place, firing with everything they have got, whereas the attacking force is moving up and therefore not in a position to have every weapon fully in use.
The actual combat mechanism is attack followed by counterattack, with the results expressed in a simple statement of strength points lost. Retreats by the defender may lessen these losses, but also weaken the strength of the counterattack. But with defending forces tripled in strength when it comes to the counterattack, combat is a very bloody business,
With forces being ground down to fractions of their original strength, the need inevitably arises for reinforcement and replacement. Replacement is done via units which represent new manpower ready to enter the line, and which have no purpose other than to strengthen units of the appropriate type – type is further refined by a full strength “type” numerical indicator located on the top right of most units. These replacement units are in no way combat units in themselves, and will be destroyed if attacked.
Arriving reinforcement units, or forces called upon to withdraw from a front, can be a bother to players if the corps displays are not fully utilised or if players become overly determined to put the exact right division (the one with the matching unit designation) in the right place. This really is not necessary for arriving or departing forces providing you are using a unit with the correct strength and nationality. After all, the force that was historically due to depart may be miles away from its real life location, and have an utterly different tale to tell within your game’s unfolding narrative. In fact, one can question the insistence, in many a game, not just this one, of withdrawing/adding the same old forces at the same old time irrespective of what else is going on. Few games ever dare to do otherwise. In fact, I can only think of Guns of Gettysburg in recent times as a game that tore all that old dogma up.
And inevitably, there are certain issues where the designer has gone with a broader brush to stop things bogging down. British divisions of the new armies historically arrived green and naively eager…but in the game they arrive with combat strengths averaging higher than combat experienced French forces. There are no penalties for first use of the new British divisions, which ideally there might be given the unique nature of the British forces; but as always there is a fine line between a good bit of chrome and a tedious bit of clutter.
A good friend of mine recently expressed the opinion that while he really liked the series, the caveats of the combat resolution system could prove a bit wearing. Indeed, there is much going on within the combat hex, depending on force ratios to losses, force composition, terrain, supply, weather and nationality. As is often the case, repeated sessions should accustom players to the finer details, and on balance, I doubt if many players would want a severely pared down combat experience.
But having mentioned the lack of distinction of very new “new” British forces, it is worth adding some of the other pieces of colour/hassle (depending on your point of view) the games keep away from.
- Bolshevism and the general turmoil in post-Tsarist Russia is assumed rather than portrayed, with the Germans simply required to leave a garrison.
- There is no provision for the French army mutinying.
- There are no Spanish ‘flu effects.
- The infamously harsh winter of 1916/17 is just a normal winter season outside of the Eastern Front – which it certainly was not.
Weather is one of those aspects of the series where there is not one rule in one place which does all, or nearly all, the job. There is a general weather rule, linking supply to command range and hurting combat in winter months; but then, in addition to that, there is there aforementioned Eastern Front rule, as well as various factors which come into play via the harsh realities on at least some of the Osmanli Harbi campaign maps. What you will not get is a Passchendaele experience, of summer and autumn downpours hammering down on an ongoing offensive effort. That said, the weather rules work perfectly well, and I suspect we really are in one of those states of less being more – you cannot drive games by via a plethora of exceptions without ending up with an unwieldy nightmare of a product; and as already mentioned, combat has enough factors going into the equation already.
All but one of the titles in Der Weltkrieg can be played as a stand-alone design – the exception is the Brusilov/Gorlice-Tarnow expansion which completes coverage of the entire historical Eastern Front. Therefore, not only can you pick a game to go with, you also have the option as to actual scenario choice within each design. Unsurprisingly, certain scenarios will probably work better and be better enjoyed than others – Schlieffen, Tannenberg, Galicia, Brusilov and the 1918 “peace” offensives each have a sense of drama and decision about them, coupled with fronts that are at least in a partial state of movement along broader fronts. The Verdun and Somme scenarios do not work for me because there is nothing to really lock you into that moment in those places. The Italian Front scenarios, on the other hand, are helped somewhat by their geography given the stark contrast between combat around high mountain passes and the battlegrounds of the Isonzo region. The Strafexpedition and Caporreto scenarios are interesting and contrasting challenges and well worth looking at.
Moving Around and Standing Still
Barring catastrophic play, you are likely to experience static fronts in France and Italy, and various degrees of movement and volatility elsewhere.
Of course, the Western Front begins in motion; but the Italian front is not likely to be going anywhere fast as the terrain there is replete with speed bumps along the entire region. I suppose the question to ask is: Do these many and various fronts behave within historical parameters because of a realistic progression of events, or because the rules go out of their way to “make it happen”?
Looking especially at the Western Front, if you are playing from the start, it seems to me that there is a natural inevitability that the front will eventually congeal. Modern thought on the realities of the early war period has largely dispensed with the notion that Germany’s leadership realistically hoped and believed it could win outright in 1914, and that the means to such an end was the supposedly infallible Schlieffen Plan. Moltke the Younger had no such illusions. Even allowing for his rather gloomy state of mind, he understood that the best that could be reasonably hoped for was gaining some “positional” advantages before the leaves fell, and then thinking anew from there.
In game terms, fronts congeal and become static because the initial stocks of supply points will inevitably run low after the first rush of battle, and that crowded lines manned by forces enjoying the historical advantages of the defence are not going to be shifted by worn down divisions lacking the tools to lever them out. The surest way to hold on to what you have is to dig trenches – they impair attack rolls by -2, negate many retreat results, and if constructed in good defensive terrain, make their garrisons near impossible to shift without massive effort. The Germans may also construct The Hindenburg Line in the qualifying period, which increases the adverse attacking die roll modifier to -3.
At any representation of the series below its Grand Campaign level, the design tends to concentrate more on effect than cause. Although I will be looking at the Grand Campaign in the final section of this review, it is worth pointing out here that, below the decision making catered for at that level, the assets and tactical method that will break a trench line are basically handed to you via rule provisions and reinforcement listings. In the scenarios, right up to the duration version of various fronts, the tanks just arrive and the necessary artillery provisions are stipulated by rule – in other words, you do not invest in research and better/new versions of weaponry as you do in other big scope games. You cannot in any real sense hone the prowess of any army – they are what they are, and they get what they are given.
It is a somewhat different matter at the highest level of the design. You do not research, but from the available pools of weaponry you can choose what rolls out of the factory gates. As the Germans, you may end up with a far bigger tank force than was deployed historically if you spend your production resources that way, and other nations may produce tanks when none or only “borrowed” versions were historically available.
The wonder weapons are only going to work if you have set your opponents up to receive the intended killer blow. As said previously, hammering armies, and therefore the resilience of the home nation, with hurt inching towards economic collapse (affecting supply and replacement) and the fearful drift towards capitulation has to precede getting the tanks out or unleashing the force and elan of the Stosstruppen.
Regarding the Stosstruppen, there are a couple of comments worth making. Firstly, although the effect they have on combat is realistic enough in itself, it is only applicable against any given nation’s forces the first turn that enemy is attacked. In real world terms, this rather suggests that these elite troops and their sophisticated tactics only get four days of absolute effectiveness against any enemy – who presumably have then largely worked out how to deal with them. I do not feel comfortable with this, given the push after push made by the German assault units through the spring and summer of 1918. Personally, I am leaning towards a simple die roll process, where each attack by the Stosstruppen increases the chance that their tactical advantage is lost.
The other issue with these units is simply a warning to players not to put these men into the line until they are ready to be used. As the rules state that Stosstruppen in combat (attacking or defending) are the first to take losses, it is probable that many opponents will not wait to be attacked by these fellows, but will try and spoil their advantage by getting a degrading attack in first. Avoid!
Turning now to the east, the nature of the lines there is a different matter. The Russian and Austro-Hungarian forces lack the resilience to man a long static front – with far weaker divisions, the obligation to retreat because of loss ratios is likely to occur rather more often. And in the Middle East, where there is a lot of space and not much by way of forces and supply to defend it with, periods of manoeuvre are likely to be punctuated by periods of combat for some nodal point.
1914 – 1918/9
It is clear that a very considerable effort has gone into the Grand Campaign rules, and that the last thing they could be described as being is decorative and there “just for the sake of it.” The frustrating thing is that, having produced some very elegant rules for matters such as the advent of unrestricted submarine warfare, the surface naval rules (which I headed for full of hope when the title arrived), just do not match them. The submarine rules are abstract, though they do a good job in both affecting Britain and putting some element of doubt into US entry. Those were the salient aspects of that part of the war, and you do not need anything else.
When it comes to the dreadnoughts, leaving them out of things altogether save for the curiously hidden away and rather small Blockade rule is a real shame. I can understand not wanting another game within a game, but a simple abstract of sweeps and raids would probably have satisfied most players who would like to picture a Jutland even if it is not appearing on the map. Of course, the series was originally envisaged to have a full set of naval rules (why else does all that water have hexes on it?) but intentions often have to be tempered; but there is a difference between doing something differently, or in reduced form, and knocking it out altogether.
Fundamentally, what the Grand Campaign rules are about is production. The Grand Campaign package contains a sizeable pack of worksheets designating the various national resources of the belligerents. This is a serious amount of paperwork, and requires application from members of a dedicated team…or a computer to do the hard work for you. You are looking at everything from agricultural resources to coal production to factory output, and to young men marching out of their country’s town and cities and heading “to the silent dwelling.” There is a smattering of politics here and there, but not much. The series is about the fight, and what feeds the fight. This is best illustrated by comparing Osmanli Harbi to Pursuit of Glory – PoG was full of provision for tribal and religious influences on events, intrigue against empires and rumour of insurrection coming out of faraway lands. Osmanli Harbi is about killing by shell and occasionally by starvation – and of course, although the setting changes, the same applies from France to the Russian forests.
Der Weltkrieg is not perfect, and given its scope, it never could be. Any game designer has an empty box at the commencement of a project, and choosing what to put in it inevitably means that there is less room for anything else. Try and pack too much in and the bottom will fall out – and with a project of this size, there is much players will expect the design to cater for.
Whatever the game lacks or has broad-bushed, it is still a stupendous piece of work, playable in more forms and combinations than I can readily count up. In terms of ground combat, the only things missing from the entire package are events in Africa and China – areas the scale of the game is not suited to. What it is suited to is depicting near everything that either did occur, or might have, from Basra to Boulogne. The combat system works well across all theatres, and with the swap to an even bloodier version in the latter half of the war, there is one further example of how a simple process conveys the steady improvement in weaponry and tactics towards the moment of ultimate decision.
Ultimately, it depends what any player looks for. Enrico may have had a bad time with the reinforcement schedules, but I also recall him admiring the “curve” of his very own version of the Western Front, and, as I recall, being reluctant to withdraw German forces from a massive salient that had long been threatening Paris. That is what getting things more right than wrong can achieve, and is one reason I was so wrong in what I thought in a railway carriage more than fifteen years ago.
About the Author
Paul is a landscape artist living in the north of England. He has been
involved in the hobby for more than forty years, and has a particular interest
in Great War and naval titles. He has recently ventured into game design, and
has several works awaiting development with Victory Point Games.