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 Pelle Nilsson on May 14, 2010 at 12:26am
Great post! I have played and/or playtested all these game systems except for the old SPI games. There are some things about all of them I like or do not like, but I don't want to get into any details.

There is an interesting game from Schutze Games called Hamel 1918 that has an interesting system. I'm not sure if it has been used also in other games. Unfortunately it has been unplayed in my collection for several years. Scale is company counters plus some tanks. Rather than the old defensive fire mechanics, which doesn't work so well with a large number of units moving across the open imo, each mg has a pin counter that is placed in a special phase each turn on any unit within range. A pinned unit is only affected, and has to roll for morale, if it attempts to move. Should speed up play considerable, especially if used for a bigger game, I guess. Artillery has a similar effect, plus it is nicely handled as a row of rolling barrage counters that move across the map (no individual targeting of specific hexes allowed).

I am still looking for a game that gives me the feeling of ww1 battles you get from reading for instance the ww1 official histories, especially for the "typical ww1" trench warfare period (1915-1917, mostly) that makes ww1 so special. All the planning, time tables, almost impossibility to call for artillery or any other form of communication, the confusion (almost in every battle there is some battalion that is believed to have reached its objective while it is in fact pinned in no man's land, or some battalion that has in fact reached beyond it's objective, or an entire battalion that is lost and attacking the wrong woods etc etc), overall bad intelligence/maps, planned defensive fire barrages (and the limiting of most artillery fire to various barrages overall).

Movement in ww1 tactics, trench warfare period, isn't very interesting. It's basically straight forward if you look at anything from platoons and above. I would like to see some of that feeling of "fire and forget" - once a player has committed a unit to attack in one sector it should 99 % of the time just keep going forward as far as it can (or until it reaches its objective... which rarely should happen). Artillery being slightly more restricted even. And with the number of units involved fire combat should ideally (imo) be abstracted in some way either like the pin counters mentioned above or maybe some sort of "volume of fire" mechanic (ie Fields of Fire, Cold Harbor), which basically leaves planning, command & control and overall limited intelligence as the factors to simulate in some detail and play with.
Comment by Jim Werbaneth on May 13, 2010 at 4:43pm
The two with which I'm most familiar are Soldiers and Landships. Full disclosure too, I was a playtester on Landships.

Systemically, Soldiers remains my favorite SPI game from the early seventies. The only major weakness in my opinion is a lack of terrain variety, as it has one map, and no geomorphic panels or overlays. Secondarily, there's no allowance for command and control. Despite these, I think it stands the test of time rather well.

Landships is exactly as you say: Abstracted infantry, provided as a backdrop for all those cool antique tanks. I've had a lot of fun with this too.

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