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World War I and Game Design

April 16th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 12 Comments · Design, History, WW1

My homeland is going through another spasm of celebration of its grand nation building moment. For Canada, this isn’t the 1867 Confederation or even the completion of the transcontinental railway that linked East and West. Instead, the First World War is oft cited as the point when a Dominion with no independent foreign policy took its place alongside the powers of the world.

The 90th anniversary of Canada’s victory at Vimy Ridge is the occasion for this celebration. For Canada – a nation largely free of military adventures – Vimy is sort of Valley Forge, Tours and Marathon all wrapped up in one glorious package. A German outpost that resisted both British and French attacks succumbed to a Canadian assault. Victoria Crosses were passed out and Canada had a clear victory to balance the Pyrrhic moments of Passchendaele and the Somme. At Versailles, Prime Minister Borden could point to Canada’s role in the Great War and demand a seat at the peace table, joined by the other Dominions who had paid so much to support the Empire. By 1931, Canada was freed from British control over its own territory and foreign policy. Future triumphs on Juno Beach or liberating The Netherlands have much less weight in the Canadian consciousness than the Vimy victory, mostly forgotten by the rest of the world.

The Western Front of World War I has resisted good game design, for a couple of reasons. First, the front was largely devoid of what one could call “battles”. For every major moment like the Miracle on the Marne or the Spring Offensive of 1918, there are dozens of identical pushes using the same failed strategy over and over again. The first few years of World War I in the West defy the conventional wisdom that most battles are tremendously lopsided affairs. Your choices are to model the beginning of the war, or the end.

One of the biggest true design problems is the players already know what not to do. Trench warfare is the classic wargamer dilemma where the historically proper option is immediately ruled out because only an idiot or a Haig would send hundreds of thousands of troops into a machine gun kill zone. You can model D-Day by having the German order of battle reflect the diversion of resources to Calais. You can model Cannae by accurately reflecting the mobility of the Numidian horsemen. But if you give a gamer an historically accurate posture where the attacker suffers overwhelming losses in the first action phase, the first thing he/she will do is look for another way.

To some extent, the resulting stasis models the Western Front quite well. Both sides sit and wait for their moment – either the rolling barrage or reinforcements from the East. Or, if it’s a strategy game and research is an option, they put everything into tanks or air power. In short, knowledgeable players think they know what they need to win, so they play the system until the solution shows up.

If you limit the scope of the battle to just the trenches of 1915-1917, you avoid this sitzkrieg mentality, but the resulting game isn’t much fun. The manpower needed to push more than a few hexes away is not available without weakening the entire front. Victory becomes a matter of who killed the most clueless volunteers or hasty conscripts. Maybe there can be bonus points if you manage to rub out Corporal Hitler.

Could the best alternative in this case be a more stylized wargame? The introduction of card game mechanics (like those in Koios Works’ Tin Soldiers games) could see “weather”, “political interference” or “inbred general” force the player to deal with historically appropriate mechanics without removing them from the game altogether. A board game like timer could coerce the player into attacking at least once every so many turns, making the choice about when and where to attack even more important.

The emphasis on realistic postures and OOBs in most wargames, I think, can detract from the power of the medium to represent not just what things looked like on a map before the shooting started but also to capture the logistical, tactical and micro-political factors of the time.

Fill the comment space with any ideas you might have.


12 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott R. Krol (Shrapnel Games)

    WWI is just a terrible war to attempt to game, at least when it comes to the land battles. You can have plenty of enjoyment with WWI aerial or naval combat, but I don’t think there’s an easy solution to making the land war palatable to gaming.

    The problem is if you introduce too many ‘gamey’ elements into it, and give the players much more freedom than was historically available, you end up with a game that just happens to have a WWI theme. That may be fine if you want to get into the Harry Turtledove universes of games like ‘Making History’ and ‘Hearts of Iron’, but it defeats the purpose.

    Having said that, perhaps you’re onto something when you talk about introducing card mechanics. How about a port of GMT’s ‘Paths of Glory’? I’m not quite in love with it like a lot of folks (but that’s also because I don’t find WWI to be an interesting conflict to begin with) but it does manage to capture both the historical realities of the time while giving players plenty of options thanks to its cards.

  • Darius K.

    On the other hand, I think that WWI is a *fantastic* environment for an adventure game or pencil & paper RPG. The Last Express did this very nicely on the PC. But I’d like to see more.

  • Alan

    I suspect that the only way to really make a WWI game would be to abstract out the battles to the point where it’s mostly a resource issue. The tradeoff is manpower for territory. Sure, it’s a really sucky tradeoff, but wars are pretty horrible to being with. The interesting part of WWI is probably the political intrigue and strategic machinations borne out by commandos, spies, and diplomats, not by the hundreds of thousands of bodies manning the trenches.

  • Andrew

    The board game Paths of Glory is supposed to be good.

  • Toby Hede

    This is a very interesting problem.

    Perhaps tying the outcome of the game to resources would be one way to do it?

    So, you assume that loses will be massive (and pointless) and load it so that whoever loses the ~least~, wins.

    I think you definitely have to make it so that you have to launch an attack every {time period} or face political upheaval on the Home Front (or some similar flavour) …

    Actually, that may work nicely … the player, with the benefit of hindsight, knows any attack is doomed to failure, but is forced to regardless … this captures some of the futility of this kind of warfare. The actual attack becomes an attempt to minimise losses.

    Or, of course, you could do the opposite and play to see who loses the most.

    And as an aside:
    Australia has a similar relationship to World War 1 … our first war as a nation and marked by the landing at Gallipoli. We didn’t win, however.

  • Karl

    World War I really isn’t limited to the so called Western Front.
    What about the Eastern Front? What about the Middle Eastern theatre? And what about the colonies – e.g. the “guerilla warfare” in German-East-Africa?

  • Michael A.

    My first thought on this post was also GMT’s Paths of Glory – proof that WWI can be made highly gameable, despite the “nay-sayers”. ;)

    IMO, the trick with making a good historical game on WWI – as with all historical simulations – is to find the right things to abstract. Most importantly – NOT to allow the players to ignore the politics. Almost all games place the player as the omnipotent ruler of his country, but in the real world, even dictators have to act according to certain expectations (or risk assasination from his supporters). Model the pressures of the period, and making a historical game becomes much more feasible.

    Paths of Glory got this; for instance, each turn has a “Mandated Offensive” roll, if the roll results in a MO, well, then its over the top and at them… or lose the victory points. Add in the problem of inexperienced armies, inadequate supplies, and no tanks… and I suspect most players will gain a new understanding of the difficulties Haig faced (and will probably perform worse).

    Regarding the massive losses, it is worth considering that on a unit-by-unit basis, the losses in mass-scale warfare in WW2 (Normandy/Eastern Front) were at least comparable. If players don’t get scared away by this, I suspect they won’t have much of a problem with WWI either.

    And as Karl says, there is a lot more to WWI than just the West Front and you do have a very important aspect in the Naval war. If done with an eye to the problems/possibilities, I don’t see why a WWI game should be any less interesting than American Civil War games (though I don’t have a lot of love for the genre). Both were essentially wars of attrition.

    There are also many ways WWI could have looked very different than it did. A game like “Victoria” – with the right abstractions (more Imperialism, less Paradox’s trademark game mechanisms) – could no doubt have done the job. Start the game in the 1870s (or 60s) and let history take its course to the (almost) inevitable conflagration.

  • Troy

    Absolutely acknowledge that WWI is more than the Western Front, but saying “You don’t have to do the Western Front” isn’t much help when my question is “How do you do the Western Front?” ;)

    Selling a game about the Russian defeat at Tannenberg or the Arab rebellion could be an even harder proposition, I think. In those cases you run into the traditional history dilemma of making one-sided affairs interesting combats. I fondly remember an old PC wargame about Tannenberg from a company called “Forgotten Fronts”; they also made a game about a hypothetical 1938 invasion of Czechoslovakia. That shows where their interests lay. For both the weaker sides, the issue was more survival until off map events could fire.

    And, like it or not, for most people the Western Front *is* World War I. The Southern Front was Italy versus Austria (not exactly headline stuff). At least the Russian front has the quality vs quantity line-up. Lawrence of Arabia would work on a strategy level, fomenting revolt faster than the Turks can stop it, but wargaming guerrilla struggles risks making only one party fun to play.

    WWI as a strategy game on the Victoria level isn’t too difficult because of the time abstractions. I’m mostly writing about wargames here.

    The big difference, Michael, between the American Civil War and World War I is the fact that battles of maneuver were still possible in 1860s America in a way they weren’t in 1914 Flanders. Much of the land was undeveloped so forces could sneak away if necessary. You have foreshadows of the trenches at the wall of Fredericksburg and the fortifications of Petersburg. But you also have Gettysburg, Manassas, Chancellorsville, the Peninsular Campaign…all types of encounters where movement and concentration of force matter on a level they didn’t in the Great War in the West.

  • Michael A.

    I blame Scott – his post diverted me into thinking of the war as a whole. :-)

    Regarding the AACW, I both agree and disagree. Battles of maneuver was possible to a certain extent, but realistically supply considerations meant large armies were tied down to very narrow corridors of movement especially in the eastern theater. And if movement was less important on the Western front, reconnaisance and response was that much more so.

    Still, my thoughts remain pretty much identical. Model the pressures on the commanders, and the Western front becomes anything but uninteresting.

    For the Germans, you have the Schlieffen plan to start off with (good traditional strategy fare), followed by the need to stabilize the front until the fall of the Russian empire allows the Germans one last shot at victory.

    For the Western allies, you have the political pressure of having to demonstrate progress, while dealing with developing technology, changing doctrines, inexperienced troops, poor supplies, and international “cooperation”.

    Ted Raicer (of Paths of Glory) has done a whole bunch of boardgames on the Western front and is fairly well thought of, so I wouldn’t even say the Western Front has resisted good game design. I suspect WWI’s problem is more that its not as “interesting” a period as WW2, Napoleon’s age, and the American Civil War.

  • Michael A.

    Thinking back, I actually have very fond memories of “Historyline: 1914 – 1918” from Blue Byte. Sort of a “Panzer General on the WWI Western Front” game – hampered by the kludgy interface – but one of the better strategy games I spent my time on in my “youth”. ;)

    Bottom-line, anyway – I don’t see any reason why there don’t exist more good WWI games, other than that game designers don’t bother to tackle the period. Of course, it’s easy to talk… with my backlog of projects I’d like to do, there isn’t much chance I’ll ever have the time to put my money where my mouth is. :D

  • Troy

    Yeah, you have a different game to make. Get on that! ;)

    As I’ve said, strategy games for the early part of the century are relatively easy compared to the wargaming end of it. Yes, you can have a game that models the Schlieffen Plan and the tradeoffs in the East, but again you are modelling the beginning of the war when things moved as people expected them to; grand Moltke maneuvers that would end the war pretty quickly. Once you introduce larger strategic questions, there is really little issue with capturing any period with a simple system. It’s the senselessness of the trenches and the costs of Passchendaele that interest me though – typically Canadian, I suppose.

    Modelling decision making pressures could work, which is why I suggested a card mechanic that could force action instead of stasis.

  • GyRo567

    In the end, I think there’s a reason why we romanticize the pilots, but pity the trenchfoot-riden soldiers.