Surveying World War I Tactical Ground Games

Given the explosion of tactical level squad games for World War II, it's only natural that some of this would "bleed over" into World War I. Thought it was time to talk about some of the more common/widespread designs covering that era!

In the beginning, there was SPI's SOLDIERS. Vintage 1973. Each piece was a company and the scenarios were all early in the war before trenches came into the picture. Our favorite way to play was double-blind with new players who didn't know the rules (and were told only the minimum information on sequence of play, how to move, how to shoot). Back in the 1970s, this game introduced some concepts that are considered common now but were groundbreaking back then, particularly regarding how to calculate defense strength of units when attacked and how machine guns worked. For those of us raised on PANZERBLITZ and PANZERLEADER, it was a real discovery to play the game in a double-blind game this way; units got mowed down in pretty much the historical fashion. And we even understood that was the nature of warfare during that time. Didn't matter. When you don't know how combat adjudication works, you go with what other games did. And you learned as you went. MOVES magazine also had a variant introducing armored cars and other vehicles, which was fun to mess around with. Not that you needed much more variety--you had Brits, Belgians, French, Germans, Russians, Austro-Hungarians (and those were wild to play with), and even one Japanese versus German scenario in Tsingtao, using the Brit counters for the Japanese. This was THE WWI tactical game for years....

GDW's TRENCHFOOT came out in 1981. It was not anything like SOLDIERS--it's closest kin was to SPI's venerable SNIPER! and PATROL! as each piece was a single individual. On top of that, the time period was different--the board showed a piece of trenchline. It wasn't really a very popular game, even though it was something unusual. But since the actions had such a small time scale and presumed one side got into the other side's trenchline, you didn't have machine guns, you didn't have tanks. And yes, the game felt a lot more like the SPI man-to-man combat games.

Clash of Arms LANDSHIPS! 1994 was the year this Perry Moore design came out, and it was gorgeously produced. The infantry game was abstracted but still good--but it was a framework to hang all the "bells and whistles" technology would bring to the war to break the stalemate of the trenches. Units are infantry platoons or single guns/vehicles/planes. The game had it all--early war battles to the last offensives, flamethrowers, gas, artillery techniques, tanks (in loving detail) and aircraft (also done in loving detail). This is definitely a game for the technologists; treatments of German infiltration tactics, while there, seem much fuzzier in coverage than the "toys." Still, this was the best game on the subject out there and has generated one expansion (with one more on the way). The Rick Barber maps are still incredibly gorgeous, the counters lovingly illustrated, nice and thick, and still colorful enough even by today's standards. You just want to play it once you look at it. Right now, this is the "standard" in my judgment--all that follows this game will be trying to knock it off it's well-deserved perch!

Jeux Grenier Games's IN THE TRENCHES series is relatively new. OPENING ENGAGEMENTS is perhaps the closest to the original SOLDIERS in terms of coverage. It's all early war situations--the mapsheets are generally pretty open terrain and not generic but based on real world terrain where the actions were fought. But the units are platooon-sized. You get Austro-Hungarian and German troops for the Central Powers, British, French, Russian, and even Japanese for the Allies (oh, there's that Tsingtao scenario again, only this one gives you the historical terrain on its own mapsheet!). Only three scenarios (dubbed "operations") though, but they are representative of the battles typical to the period. THE LOST GENERATION focuses on the stalemate/trench warfare battles for both the Eastern and Western Fronts and is bigger--four mapsheets and nine operations (seven Western Front and two Eastern Front). As you might imagine, there's lots of artillery, some flamethrowers to be had, and "long, hard, slogs" across no-man's land! THROUGH MUD AND BLOOD covers the later war battles with the "toys" showing up--notably tanks. It's even bigger than it's two predecessors--five mapsheets of historically accurate terrain depictions. Six operations cover the Western Front with one on the Balkan/Salonika Front (and has the most evocative mapsheet of the series). If there is a downside to this game series, it's in the physical production. While the graphics are gorgeous, there's some assembly required for the counters as they are not die cut. Does it stack up to LANDSHIPS? To me, it's a matter of taste. They are different games even despite the similar scales. If you aren't a war machines buff, you probably will like this series better. If you are into the details of the "toys," you'll like the Moore design better. Graphically, they both look good.

Avalanche Press's AUGUST 1914: BATTLES OF EAST PRUSSIA is now out and appears to give all the earlier titles a taste of the new INFANTRY ATTACKS series, based on the popular PANZERGRENADIER system covering World War II armored combat. Believe it or not, it works pretty well. Units are companies (hmmm, the throwback to SPI's SOLDIERS), unlike all the other competition out there. There's a lot more rules covering artillery, as you might expect--and despite this being a game on the early war (and focused solely on the Tannenberg campaign battles), it plays a big role in the scenarios that have it. The maps are functional and better looking than most other AP tactical game efforts (terrain graphics has generally never been an Avalanche Press strong suit, with some notable exceptions). Oh, and they are compatible and can mate up with those in PANZERGRENADIER! Best of all, there are LOTS of scenarios. LOTS. One can wonder about play-balance, but if you know anything about PANZERGRENADIER, that's not on the top of the priority list in AP's tactical games. Historical coverage and "feel" is what matters here. There are likely finely balanced scenarios in the set, but for those who want the heavy doses of historical coverage, look no further than this. What separates this game from all the others is that this "drills down" deep into ONE single campaign. All the rest constitute broad, "representative" treatments, more or less. Next in the lineup is FALL OF EMPIRES: BATTLES OF GALICIA, 1914.

You may have some other, less-well-known favorites, so please share what you know about them. Do any of you have some memorable stories about playing any of these games? Which ones are your favorites? Why? What do you wish for in tactical WW I historical board wargaming?

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Comment by Éric Grenier on June 4, 2010 at 7:05am
Thanks for including In the Trenches in your survey. Just a note - In the Trenches: Through Mud and Blood has die-cut counters, unlike the two previous modules.
Comment by Eric Duckworth on May 20, 2010 at 12:21am
I am getting ready to receive August 1914 from AP and believe I will be satisified with the product as I like the Panzer Grenadier series a lot, although I agree maps ae not APs strong suit. I do not have a lot of experience with tactical WWI board games, but for miniatures I have enjoyed a few different sets. This was a great post.
Comment by Eric Martin on May 17, 2010 at 10:49am
Also, Legion Wargames is coming out soon with Tanga about the British amphib operation against German East Africa.
Comment by Dennis L. Bishop on May 16, 2010 at 5:09pm
No one mentioned "Jassin 1915." It is a company/platoon level game in East Africa.
Comment by Pelle Nilsson on May 16, 2010 at 12:04pm
Red Poppies is from the same designer as In The Trenches (see below). There is a csw forum with some photos and rules to download.

WW1CC sounds interesting indeed. I have never played CC, but I have it on my list of games to check out sometime when time permits.
Comment by Eric Walters on May 16, 2010 at 10:56am
Think we'd all be interested to hear about either of these games. Am imagining the Red Poppies game to be using blocks, but I note that some recent efforts of Worthington are hex map and counter efforts. Hmm--a World War I Combat Commander game? That I'd have to see!
Comment by Eric Martin on May 15, 2010 at 11:25pm
Worthington Games is coming out with their WWI tactical game called Red Poppies. I also have info on a WWI version of Combat Commander under development for a possible release by GMT. I actually played this a few times at WBC last year and found that it worked really well and was a lot of fun.
Comment by Eric Walters on May 14, 2010 at 2:00pm
Pelie, I guess I better check that out over in the Forum! I think it's the best way to do what you suggest. Oooh, and I like the artillery time tables you link us to!
Comment by Pelle Nilsson on May 14, 2010 at 10:47am
I have suggested that in the csw tcs forum at least twice, but no luck so far.

BTW here is a site/book that has some excellent scanned artillery time tables:
Comment by Eric Walters on May 14, 2010 at 8:57am
Great post Pelie! Maybe what you want is something more akin to MMP's/The Gamers TACTICAL COMBAT SERIES for WWI, where you have to execute Op Sheets with objectives and failure instructions. You'd have a separate Op Sheet for the Fire Plan/Program, which is either executed or can be cancelled--but if it's cancelled, you never get it back! Battalions are issued orders and they keep executing them until the succeed or fail...and in either case they are pretty much out of the fight for the rest of the battle. The TCS makes a lot of provisions for the kind of frictions that you describe, and bad intelligence/maps might be handled by some sort of special events/cards (although I'm not sure CDG systems would work very well here, given the lack of initiative field commanders at this level were allowed to exercise). Hmmmm.

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