CAMBRAI, 1917: The First Blitzkrieg is an operational-level simulation of the first major armored offensive in history. In the early hours of 20 November 1917, 378 British tanks and eleven infantry divisions smashed into the German defensive positions in the Cambrai sector of the Western Front. Although the tanks were slow and mechanically unreliable, this stunning new type of attack nonetheless came within a hair’s-breadth of breaking through to the open ground behind the last line of German trenches. The German counterblow, when it came, was just as stunning as the British attack that had preceded it. In the space of a few days of heavy fighting, the counterattacking Germans were, in their turn, able to wipe out most of Byng’s hard-won gains and drive the British almost back to their original starting line. The supreme irony of the Battle of Cambrai was that it showed that both the British (with technology) and the Germans (with doctrine) had each independently developed a partial solution to the deadly stalemate of the trenches; unfortunately, in little more than a generation hence, the Germans would demonstrate the devastating effect of ‘tanks’ and ‘infiltration tactics’ when used together. CAMBRAI, 1917 was the fifth title of Volume I of the ‘Command Series Games’ — in all nine different games — offered by Rand Game Associates (RGA) during the first year of the company’s entry into the conflict simulation market. The game was designed by David C. Isby and published in 1974.


Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig
 Before dawn, on 20 November 1917, the British Third Army, under the command of General Byng, began a major assault on the Siegfried line southwest of the French town of Cambrai. This surprise British offensive was the brain-child of Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig; this assault was also — despite Haig’s distrust of military innovation — the first large-scale tank attack in history. Preceded by a violent but brief artillery barrage and spearheaded by almost four hundred British tanks, the Third Army’s divisions achieved complete surprise. Over the next few days, Byng’s advancing troops tore a gap ten miles wide and six miles deep in German General von der Marwitz’s Second Army’s front. After the initial shock of the tank-supported attack, however, the Germans regained their equilibrium and, as reinforcements steadily poured into the threatened sector, were able to stabilize their line. Gradually, the Allied drive lost momentum as the advancing infantry outran their supplies, and as more and more of the British tanks were either knocked-out by German artillery or suffered mechanical breakdowns.

General Paul von Hindenburg, Kaiser Willhelm II, and General Erich Ludendorff

On 30 November, Hindenburg’s chief deputy, General Erich Ludendorff, ordered a counterattack against the British salient. With British troops now under almost constant artillery and gas barrages and pressed steadily by specially-trained German Stosstruppen infantry, Haig finally ordered Byng to pull his forward units back to shorten their defensive line. This movement began on 4 December and was competed three days later. In the end, despite the promising initial British gains, very little ground actually changed hands. The British, however, lost 44,000 killed and wounded, and 6,000 captured; the Germans lost 50,000 total casualties and 11,000 prisoners.


CAMBRAI, 1917: The First Blitzkrieg is an operational (battalion/division) level simulation of the first British offensive to make extensive use of tanks on the attack, and of the German counterattack to recapture ground lost during the first days of the British attack. The two-color game map represents the Cambrai sector of the Western Front over which the historical campaign was fought in November-December, 1917. The game counters represent the actual military units that either participated or that could have played a part in the historical campaign. Two numbers are printed on the unit counters: the first is the Offensive Combat Power (attack strength) of the unit; the second is the Defensive Combat Power (defensive strength). CAMBRAI, 1917 is played in game turns each of which are equivalent to twenty-four hours of real time. Game turns are further divided into two symmetrical segments: a British Commander (BC) and a German Commander (GC) player turn. The British player is always the first to act, and each player turn proceeds in a set sequence: BC Reinforcement Segment; BC Movement Segment; BC Combat Segment; and BC Tank Attrition Segment. Once the British commander’s Tank Attrition Segment is completed, the German commander then performs the same sequence of actions, except for the final Tank Attrition Segment. At the conclusion of the German player turn, the game turn marker is advanced one space, and the turn sequence is repeated until the game ends. A complete game is seventeen turns long. It should be noted that along with the new units that both players receive on certain turns as reinforcements, the British player may also bring back into play — after five complete game turns off the map — previously broken-down tank units, so long as these tank battalions were removed both while in supply and as a result of Tank Attrition, and not because of offensive or defensive combat.

British Mark IV tank at Cambrai

The game mechanics of CAMBRAI, 1917 are both relatively easy-to-learn and intuitively logical. They are also, despite Rand Game’s penchant for using alternative terms for conventional simulation concepts, comfortingly familiar. The movement rules are, on the whole, quite familiar fare: all infantry and tank units have a basic movement allowance of four movement points (MPs); all cavalry units have a basic movement allowance of seven MPs. Moreover, the terrain rules are also both reasonable and easy to manage. As might be expected, terrain presents different movement costs to different kinds of units and comes in eleven different types: Clear (one MP for all units); Road (one MP for all units, if moving directly from road hex to road hex); Town (one MP for all units); Rough Terrain (two MPs for infantry and tanks, four MPs for cavalry); Woods (one MP for infantry and tanks, three for cavalry); Trench (same as Woods hex); Wet Canal Hexside (one additional MP for all units to cross); Dry Canal Hexside (one additional MP for tank units to cross, no effect on other units); Bridge Hexside (all units treat as Road); Ridge (one MP for infantry and tanks, three MPs for cavalry); Minor Road (no effect). Terrain effects on combat are also very straight forward: Towns, Woods, friendly or consolidated enemy Trenches, and Ridges all double the defensive combat power of any units defending in these types of terrain; All units attacking across Wet Canal hexsides are halved, and tank units (only) have their attack strength halved when attacking across Dry Canal hexsides.

British Mark V tank stuck in a ditch

The Concentration (stacking) rules differ slightly for the two players: the German player may never have more than one unit in a hex; the British commander, on the other hand, may stack up to three units in a single hex, so long as at least two of the three units are tank battalions. In addition, stacking limits apply at all times during the game turn. The British player’s ‘concentration’ advantage, interestingly, does not apply when one of his stacks is being attacked; thus, in cases in which a hex containing more than one unit is attacked, only one unit (of the BC’s choice) may defend, but all units in the attacked hex must suffer the effects of the battle’s combat result. As an odd little rules-writing wrinkle, unlike the zone of control (ZOC) rules found in traditional games, CAMBRAI, 1917 makes use of a game concept called a ‘range of influence’ (ROI). However, only infantry units in CAMBRAI, 1917 exert a range of influence; neither tank or cavalry units ever exert a range of influence. ROIs essentially behave just like ZOCs: all units — except for German Stosstruppen divisions using infiltration movement — must stop upon entering an enemy ROI and may not move directly from one to another hex over which the same unit is exerting an ROI. Also, just like ZOCs, ranges of influence block supply lines and paths of retreat.

The rules governing supply in CAMBRAI, 1917 are important, but simple to use. Supply lines for both players can be of any length, so long as they are unlocked by enemy units or enemy ROIs, and are traced from the supplied unit to a viable national supply source. The British commander traces supply from the west map edge, and from those parts of the north and south map edges to the west of the initial British trenches. The German player traces supply from any hex of Cambrai; also, German supply can be traced from the east map edge and from any north or south map edge to the east of the initial German trench line. In addition, the German player may not use Cambrai as a supply source if it is completely surrounded by Allied units or their ROIs. Unsupplied units may not attack and do not exert a range of influence; in cases, however, where an unsupplied unit or units are required by the CCC to counter attack, they do so at half strength.

General Sir Julian H. Byng
 Combat between adjacent units in CAMBRAI, 1917 is voluntary and, as previously noted, units must be in supply at the instant of combat in order to attack. Moreover, British tank units must be concentrated (stacked) with an infantry division in order to attack at all; this means that the ‘offensive combat power’ of units in a stack may not be directed at different target hexes. Combat in CAMBRAI, 1917 — depending on the goals of the attacking player — can take one of four forms, each of which makes use of its own ‘odds differential’ type Combat Computation Chart (CCC). These different types of attacks are: the Standard Attack; the Probing Attack; the Mobile Attack; and the Surprise Attack. The use, by the two players, of the various Combat Computation Charts, however, comes with several important restrictions. Thus, although CCCs #1 and 2 may always be used by either player, CCCs #3 and 4 may only be used when certain specific conditions are met. For example, CCC #3 can only be selected by the BC if more than half of the attacking units are concentrated with tank battalions, and by the GC if more than half of the attacking units are Stosstruppen; CCC #4, on the other hand, can only be chosen by the British player during the first three turns of the game, and can only be selected by the German commander for use during any three consecutive game turns of his choice (typically when he is ready to launch his counterattack with Stosstruppen). The possible outcomes from the various types of battles vary widely; these are: attacker or defender retreat (one or two hexes); no result (everyone stands fast); counterattack (defender must either retreat or immediately counterattack); exchange (smaller force is eliminated completely and larger force loses combat strength equal or greater than that destroyed); and attacker or defender eliminated. In the case of retreat results, the owning player determines the retreat hex. However, units may never retreat into impassable terrain, an enemy occupied hex, or through enemy ROI’s; if such a retreat is required, the retreated force is eliminated instead.

12th Irish Rifles, Battle of Cambrai,1917

In addition to the basic rules that underpin the CAMBRAI, 1917 game platform, the designer has also included a number of specialized rules which add significantly to the ‘historical’ feel of the game, but without unduly impeding play. These rules include: Armored Overrun (British units attacking with tanks which destroy a German unit may advance an extra hex after combat); Tank Attrition (essentially, mechanical breakdowns); Infiltration (the ability of German Stosstruppen to slip past enemy strong points); French Participation (poor coordination between French and British headquarters postponed the timely participation of French forces in the battle); Cavalry Raids (British cavalry units, as well as participating in combat, may also exit the game map in certain areas to gain victory points); and Consolidation (enemy trenches that have been repaired by the attacker can be used defensively by the ‘consolidating’ force).

The winner in CAMBRAI, 1917 is determined on the basis of control of certain geographical objectives and the destruction of enemy units. In addition to victory points for units directly eliminated by combat, a player — at the end of the last game turn — may count, for victory points purposes, any enemy units that have been unsupplied for five or more game turns. A player wins a ‘tactical’ victory through the accrual of more victory points than his opponent. However, each player can also win a ‘strategic’ victory if certain critical geographical objectives are captured by the end of the game. This means, oddly enough, that it is completely possible in CAMBRAI, 1917 for one player to win a tactical victory and for his opponent to win a strategic victory.

German artillery,  Battle of Cambrai
 CAMBRAI, 1917 offers the Historical Game and twelve Optional Scenarios. The various optional scenarios cover a broad spectrum of different historically plausible possibilities and include the following player options: (A) British Develop Infiltration Tactics; (B) Germans Fail to Develop Infiltration Tactics; (C) General Harper Fragged; (D) British Communications Problems; (E) Variable Commitment of Reserves; (F) Limited Supply; (G) Raid; (H) Improved Tanks; (I) Germans Forewarned; (J) French Participation; (K) British Launch Full Scale Offensive; and the (L) Cavalryman’s Fantasy. These different optional scenarios may be used individually or in combination; in addition, the selection by the players of various optional scenarios can be by mutual consent or via the use of ‘Tac’ Cards and the Variable Historical Options (VHO) matrix. Finally, for those players who want to heighten realism by introducing the ‘fog of war’ into the game, the designer has included a ‘Hidden Movement Rule’ which allows unit counters to be inverted until an enemy unit moves adjacent.


Battle of Cambrai

Of all of the Rand ‘Command Games Series I’ titles, CAMBRAI, 1917: The First Blitzkrieg is, hands down, my personal favorite. Moreover, according to its surprisingly good ‘Geek’ rating of 6.66/10 over at http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/13800/cambrai-1917-the-first-blitzkrieg, it would appear that at least a few other players agree with me. Granted, the game is painfully plain looking and its mechanics of play are comparatively simple; nonetheless, despite its low piece density and the starkness of the two-color game map, it still manages to deliver an interesting, “nail-biting” contest, time after time. Another factor in the game’s favor is that the map is unambiguous, and the rules — at least for a Rand game — are logically organized and relatively glitch-free.

British cavalry enters Peronne, after the Battle of Cambrai
 CAMBRAI, 1917 is, needless-to-say, far from perfect. It still makes use of all of the same distracting (and pointless) alternative terminology that was introduced with the earlier Rand ‘Command Games Series I’ titles; but, somehow, these terms don’t seem quite as irksome as they did initially. Perhaps, by this point in the series, the designer had, through dogged repetition, finally ground me down to a sort of grudging acceptance of the newly-coined terms. The biggest fault of the game — in my view, at least — is that the productions limitations imposed by the Rand game ‘formula’ prevented a very good game from becoming a truly great one. CAMBRAI, 1917 literally cries out for more than seventy-two units (artillery and regiment/brigade-sized formations rather than divisions, for example), and for a somewhat larger and more detailed game map. Granted, David Isby revisited this subject four years after this game’s appearance with his larger, carefully-crafted SPI design, TO THE GREEN FIELDS BEYOND (1978); unfortunately, the newer game, better simulation or not, just didn’t work all that well for me. I personally believe that something between the two — in terms of scale and complexity — would probably have been better received by players like me, than was the much-larger SPI version. It may be tantamount to “comparing apples to oranges,” but having played both titles, I still prefer the smaller, less polished Rand version to the SPI mini-monster; it is simply more enjoyable to play than its larger counterpart.

Finally, it may be trite to say so, but a wargame really succeeds or fails based on the intrinsic drama and dynamism of the situation that it seeks to simulate. Some battlefield situations, whatever their historical importance, are simply more interesting than others. In this respect, CAMBRAI, 1917, is a winner. This plain little game simply has all of the elements that make for a great contest: a stunning surprise attack that puts the defender on the ropes; followed by a devastating counterattack from a shattered force that, only a few game turns earlier, had seemed on the verge of complete collapse. As gaming situations go, it doesn’t get much better than that. For this reason, I strongly recommend CAMBRAI, 1917 to virtually any type of player. It may be graphically-challenged (okay, a little on the ugly side) and comparatively simple, but it makes for an excellent introductory game; moreover, with the addition of the ‘Hidden Movement’ rules, it also makes for an interesting, often nail-biting challenge for the more-experienced grognards among us. Granted, CAMBRAI, 1917 can probably best be described as a “beer and pretzels” game; but like John Young’s BORODINO (1972), it is a really good “beer and pretzels” game, and all things considered, that is no small compliment.

Design Characteristics:

  • Time Scale: 24 hours per game turn
  • Map Scale: 1 mile per hex (estimated)
  • Unit Size: battalion/division
  • Unit Types: infantry, cavalry, tank, and information counters
  • Number of Players: two
  • Complexity: average
  • Solitaire Suitability: average
  • Average Playing Time: 2-3 + hours (depending on whether optional rules are in use)

Game Components:

  • One 17’’ x 24” hexagonal Grid Map Sheet (with various Combat Computation Charts, Allied and German Order of Appearance Charts, and French Units Chart incorporated)
  • 72 ⅝” cardboard Counters
  • One 8” x 8” CAMBRAI, 1917 Rules Booklet (with Terrain Analysis Chart incorporated)
  • One 8½” x 11” back-printed combined Rand Game Associates Customer Letter and Order Form, and Errata for NAPOLEON’S LAST CAMPAIGNS
  • One 8½” x 11” Gamut of Games, ‘The Armchair General Series’ of games, Ad Insert

Universal ‘Command Series’ Components Required:

  • Universal Turn Recorder
  • ‘Tac’ Cards (Optional rules, only)
  • One six-sided Die

Recommended Reading

See my blog post Book Review of this title which is strongly recommended for those readers interested in further historical background.

THE WEST POINT ATLAS OF AMERICAN WARS (Complete 2-Volume Set); edited by Brigadier General Vincent J. Esposito; Frederick A. Praeger, Inc. (1959); ASIN: B000MTBTEU


  • Yep,Little Cambrai is a great game for something simple and fast yet thought provoking.Mr Isby did a good job on this first game on the battle and his later To the Green Fields Beyond-still "The" best two games on the subject.

    another gamer over on Consimworld did some nice variants for the game to does add to the game.

  • Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

  • Greetings Gerald:

    Thank you for visiting and for your kind words; I appreciate both.

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