HISTORICAL BACKGROUNDIn the winter of 1915, the German General Staff, headed by General Erich von Falkenhayn, hit upon a diabolical and utterly ruthless plan to defeat France and end the bloody stalemate on the Western Front. The German Army would attack a strategically unimportant section of the Allied line with the goal of capturing the ancient French fortress of Verdun. The fortress itself had no military significance, but the sacred monument that it protected had enormous symbolic importance both to French history and to French honor. Inside Verdun was housed the tomb of the Emperor Charlemagne. To allow this national shrine to fall into German hands, General Falkenhayn knew, would be unthinkable to the French High Command; to allow it, once lost, to remain under German control would be unendurable for the French people and their leaders. Thus, at Verdun, the German General Staff had decided to break the French army through a battle the only goal of which was pure attrition.
General Erich von Falkenhayn
Originally, the German plan was to launch the offensive on 11-12 February, 1916. Fortunately for the French, the weather unexpectedly turned bad and, after some deliberation, the offensive was postponed until weather conditions improved. This postponement probably saved Verdun from German capture. Aware of the large-scale German buildup, the French High Command rushed reinforcements to the Verdun sector. They arrived just in time; on 21 February, the Germans at last began their offensive with a devastating nine hour artillery bombardment of the French positions in front of and around Verdun. This storm of steel and high explosive fell on an area less than ten kilometers square. And this bombardment — the largest ever up to this point in the war — was only a portent of the ferocity and unbelievable carnage that was to come. The fight for Verdun would become a soldier’s nightmare: a meat-grinder of a battle that would cause over 700,000 French and German casualties and would continue, almost without a halt, from 21 February to 19 December, 1916. Verdun would not fall to the Germans, but the battle to save the sacred city would, just as General Falkenhayn had predicted, come heartbreakingly close to destroying the French Army’s will to continue to fight.
Battle of Verdun
One of the most novel features of THE FIRST WORLD WAR is the use of the concept of ‘National Morale’. This is probably my favorite aspect of the game platform. National Morale affects play in two important ways: tactically, by conferring a combat (die roll modifier) advantage to the side with the higher morale; and strategically, by serving as a Resource Point multiplier for the different belligerents during the quarterly ‘strategic turn’ production phase of the game. Interestingly, the various belligerents begin the game with different National Morale ratings (ranging from 3 to 0), and these ratings can ONLY GO DOWN as the game progresses. For example, Germany starts the 1914 Scenario with a National Morale rating of 3; however, as soon as Germany accrues 300 demoralization points (typically as a result of combat losses), its National Morale is reduced to 2; if the Kaiser loses another 300 demoralization points, Germany’s National Morale is reduced again down to 1, and so on. This means that the steady attrition (for all participants) that inevitably results from the game’s combat system gradually erodes the war-making capability of the various belligerents as the game progresses. The beauty of this ingenious little design feature is its broad applicability; hence, I am surprised that it did not make its appearance in other titles. [As a momentary aside: when I first examined this game, I couldn’t help but ponder what effect the use of National Morale might have had on WAR IN THE EAST (1974, 1976). I never got around to actually retrofitting this design feature to the older title; nonetheless, I can’t help but feel, even today, that it would have been a better design solution than Dunnigan’s use of multiple CRTs to reflect the changes in German and Russian combat effectiveness, as the war dragged on. Who knows, I may yet try it out?]
German trenchline, WWI
Combat between opposing units in THE FIRST WORLD WAR occurs at the discretion of the phasing player and is resolved using an odds-differential Combat Results Table (CRT). The attrition-based combat results — shades of Dunnigan’s 1914 — usually require both sides to take step losses and are represented numerically (for example 2/1) on the CRT. Combat losses are important for two reasons: first, they deplete the combat power of the affected units; second, strength point losses are recorded (on a 1 for 1 basis) on the affected country’s National Demoralization Track. Thus, combat tends to penalize offensive operations because the attacker must always take his losses in steps (strength points). In the case of a supplied defender, however, his unit losses can be taken either by eliminating the stipulated number of steps or by retreating a like number of hexes, or even by mixing together some combination of the two. There is, however, an important exception to this rule: when the point loss required by the CRT exceeds a belligerent’s National Morale level, then the affected unit must retreat at least one hex. Other combat rules are more familiar. For example, terrain effects are, in the main, conventional and relatively straightforward. The combat effects of various types of terrain are typically represented as Die Roll Modifiers (DRMs) and thus, are easy for players to keep track of and use. As might be expected, trenches and fortifications represent a special case: these improved positions confer a powerful combat advantage on the defender and — until the arrival of the German Stosstruppen and Allied tanks — players will find that entrenched units are well-nigh impossible to dislodge.
Destroyed, French city, WWI.
Every nine game turns, regular play is interrupted at which time a special (quarterly) ‘strategic turn’ is executed. The ‘strategic turn’ consists of four segments: the Political Stage; the Attrition Stage; the Naval Warfare Stage; and the Production Stage. It is during the strategic turn that Political events (for example, the entry of new belligerents into the war), seasonal Attrition, Naval operations (i.e., fleet actions), and Production occurs. Interestingly enough (or perversely, depending on the player’s biases), many of the players’ most important decisions are made during this phase of the game. This is, for example, the game segment during which fleets can sortie and, if these fleets are intercepted by the enemy at sea, naval actions can be fought. Most importantly, it is during the ‘strategic turn’ that new Resource Points (RPs) are accrued, distributed, and/or spent to construct or rebuild units. The role of Resource Points, as noted previously, is absolutely central to the operation of virtually every element in THE FIRST WORLD WAR game system. New Resource Points are produced by each National actor on the basis of two factors: the country’s National Morale and its Production Multiple. For example, at the beginning of the game, Germany has a National Morale of 3 and a Production Multiple of 50; therefore, at the start of its production phase, Germany would receive an infusion of 150 fresh RPs at its Supreme Headquarters Depot. In and of themselves, these Resource Points are immobile; to be used to supply offensive or defensive operations, Resource Points must be moved by rail (a maximum of thirty hexes per game turn) to appropriately-sited satellite depots positioned across the game map. Sticking with our previous example, Germany has about eighteen depots; so to move RPs from Central Germany to the various frontline depots requires a network of transit stations spaced no more than thirty hexes apart on connected friendly rail lines. For optimal combat effectiveness, Supply depots should be located within three movement points of the friendly units that they are supporting; supply paths longer than three movement points impose increasingly onerous DRM penalties on the affected units the farther away from the depot they are. This Depot/Supply system, in and of itself, is relatively easy both to manage and to keep track of. However, the baked-in limits on the belligerent’s rail capacities impose serious restrictions on the different players’ options. Again using Germany as our example, the German National rail capacity is limited to fifteen divisions per game turn; since one division is equivalent to six supply points for rail movement purposes, a maximum of only 90 supply points may be transported by rail during any one game turn. At the risk of “picking nits,” this appears, at first blush, to be a bit low. The timing and scale, for example, of the massive pre-war mobilization of German armies on the French frontier is virtually impossible to duplicate in THE FIRST WORLD WAR. Also, it seems beyond the German player’s reach both to match the rapid, large-scale transfer of troops from the Eastern to the Western Fronts, and, at the same time, to bring up the supplies necessary to launch a major offensive in the west, as the Germans historically did in 1918.
THE FIRST WORLD WAR offers five comparatively short yearly scenarios: 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918. All except for the 1914 Scenario begin with the winter strategic turn of the designated year and conclude with the autumn strategic turn of the same year. The 1914 Scenario, like the Campaign Game, starts on the August 2nd 1914 turn. The campaign game begins just like the 1914 Scenario, but continues all the way to the political stage of the 1918 autumn strategic turn.
A PERSONAL OBSERVATIONItalian alpine troops at work, WWI.
Over the years, there have been a number of attempts, by different designers, to simulate the “War to End all Wars” in a reasonably historical, but manageable monster game format. WAR IN EUROPE MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR certainly falls into this category; unfortunately, it is also a major disappointment. The sad fact is that this game, as designed, is essentially unplayable. The reasons for the failure of THE FIRST WORLD WAR to work as either a game or as a simulation emerge almost as soon as players move beyond the first few game turns: the combat and production subroutines conspire to make any kind of significant offensive progress by the Central Powers virtually impossible. The depot system, because it reveals enemy supply build-ups as soon as they occur, completely eliminates any prospect of offensive surprise. Moreover, opportunities for genuine strategic and/or operational cleverness are, barring utter incompetence on the part of one side or another, pretty much nonexistent: the Entente forces, for example, need only to entrench in a double line and then sit patiently back as the Central Powers — obliged by the victory conditions to attack — gradually fritter their combat power and resource points away in costly, largely ineffective frontal assaults. And because offensive operations are almost always more costly to the attacker (in terms of demoralization points) than they are to the defender, there is rarely an incentive for the Entente player to counterpunch. This pretty much means that, in the game version of THE FIRST WORLD WAR, unlike the actual conflict, no rational Entente player is ever going to cripple his army, pile up demoralization points and risk lowering the National Morale of his forces by refighting the battles of Verdun, Ypres, and the Somme. Even the late game appearance of German Stosstruppen and Entente tanks — although these special units do negate the defensive effectiveness of trenches — do not seem to significantly affect the ultimate outcome of the war. Note: There is, admittedly, some disagreement about this last point: a few players argue that if the Central Powers go over to the strategic defensive in the west in 1914 and hoard their supply points by not attacking in France for most of the war, then the arrival of the Stosstruppen in 1918, along with their surfeit of Supply Points, should allow them just enough time to batter their way to Paris and a Central Powers’ victory before the end of the game. This Central Powers’ ‘wait until 1918’ offensive strategy, by the way, seems to attach itself to World War One games with monotonous regularity. In the case of MODULE 1, it may work, or it may not; but, in any case, a Central Powers’ game strategy based on standing pat in the west for 100 + game turns, even if it is successful, somehow seems like a prodigious waste of everyone’s time. Regrettably, a ‘prodigious waste of time’ is also a term that — after several personal attempts at actually playing this game — perfectly describes my own opinion of THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
Russian cavalry, WWI.
Although it might not seem obvious from my comments, I really wanted to like this game; thus, the most irksome aspect of all this is that the game’s most significant design flaws are not buried deep within THE FIRST WORLD WAR game system. Instead, these problems tend to surface surprisingly quickly during regular play: which is almost always a sign of a rushed, slipshod development process, and of little or no serious play-testing. What is even more personally frustrating in this particular instance, however, is that THE FIRST WORLD WAR was — in my opinion, at least — co-authored by one of SPI’s most creative in-house staffers, Frank Davis. Thus, despite the fact that the subject of World War I has stumped more than a few designers over the years, I ordered my copy of the game from SPI because I had every confidence that Davis would be able to pull it off. After all, Frank Davis had designed the wondefully-crafted WELLINGTON'S VICTORY (1976), and it had been Davis along with Ed Curran who had designed the truly excellent and very innovative, FREDERICK THE GREAT (1975). Sadly, in this I was wrong. There are a number of really interesting concepts (National Morale and the logistics subroutine, for example) contained in this design, but, unfortunately, they utterly fail to coalesce into an enjoyable or even a playable game.
Battle of Jutland
Finally, given the several serious problems baked into MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR game system, I am hard-pressed to see who, besides a collector, might actually benefit from owning this title. All things being equal, most players with an interest in the First World War would, I think, be far better served if they were to pick up a copy of SPI’s folio game WORLD WAR 1(1975), Avalon Hill’s THE GUNS OF AUGUST (1981), GMT’s card-driven PATHS OF GLORY (1999), or Phalanx Games’ fast-playing THE FIRST WORLD WAR (2004). While none of these other games are perfect, they, nonetheless, offer players a much more enjoyable (and playable) treatment of the “Great War” than Frank Davis’ seriously-flawed THE FIRST WORLD WAR.
- Time Scale: 10 days per game turn
- Map Scale: 33 kilometers per hex
- Unit Size: divisions/corps and ships/fleets
- Unit Types: infantry, cavalry, shock infantry, army depots, fleet and information markers
- Number of Players: two or more (teams highly recommended)
- Complexity: average
- Solitaire Suitability: average (if pushing around 2000 unit counters doesn’t bother you)
- Average Playing Time: 8 + hours (assuming experienced players and depending on the scenario; for the campaign game: think in terms of weeks not hours)
Version presented here:
- The hexagonal grid Map Sheets required for play were NOT INCLUDED with this edition of the game (see description above for which maps to use from other games)
- 2,000 ½” back-printed Cardboard Counters
- One 8½” x 11” Rules Booklet with Scenario Instructions
- One 8½” x 11” Game Turn Track (with Abbreviated Sequence of Play)
- Two identical back-printed 11” x 11” Combined Terrain Effects Chart/Land Combat Results Table/National Characteristics Summary/ Demoralization Schedule/Expansion and Conversion Cost Chart/ U-Boat Warfare Table/ U-Boat Attrition Table/U-Boat Reinforcement Table/Naval Reinforcement Schedule/Naval Combat Probability Table/Naval Combat Results Table
- Two identical back-printed 11½” x 21½” Combined Entente National Resources and Fleet Level Track/Central Powers National Resources, Fleet and U-Boat Level Track/Entente Demoralization Level Track/Central Powers Demoralization Level Track/Entente Morale Level Track/Central Powers Morale Level Track
- One small six-sided Die
- One SPI 12” x 15” x 1” flat 24 compartment plastic Game Box (with clear compartment tray covers) and clear plastic Box Cover