SPI, THE WAR IN EUROPE MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR (1977)

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

In 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.

DESCRIPTION

WAR IN EUROPE MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR is an operational level simulation of World War I in the European Theater of Operations, including all of Europe and the Middle East. The design, although it draws on some elements of WAR IN EUROPE (1976), is actually based very loosely on the KOREA Game System, with a bit of Jim Dunnigan’s 1914 (1968) and WORLD WAR 1 thrown in for some additional flavoring. The edition profiled here, by the way, is NOT a complete game: SPI published two versions, one with game maps, and one without. In order to play this version of MODULE 1, it is necessary to possess at least four of the nine map sections from WAR IN EUROPE, or alternatively, those same sections from WAR IN THE WEST (1976). Other than maps, however, all the other game components necessary to simulate World War I (1914-1918) are contained in this version of the game. MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR was designed by Frank Davis (Land War) and Mark Herman (Naval War) and published by Simulations Publications, Incorporated (SPI) in 1977.

THE FIRST WORLD WAR is an historical simulation, at the division/corps and ship/fleet level, of the conflagration that ignited in August 1914, and then quickly swept across Europe to devastate, in the space of four bloody years, an entire generation of Europe’s young men. As previously noted, to play MODULE 1: THE FIRST WORLD WAR, it is necessary to use game maps from WAR IN EUROPE or WAR IN THE WEST and to alter the printed national boundaries on the borrowed map sheets to reflect the borders of Europe in 1914. The geographical scope of the simulation is enormous: the war rages from the trench lines in France and Flanders, to the bloody fields of Galicia and East Prussia, to the snowy mountains of the Tyrol, and even to the deserts of Arabia. Each map hex represents 33 kilometers. Fourteen differently-colored counters are used in the game to represent the various naval and ground units of the Major and Minor countries that ultimately played a part in the war. Like WAR IN EUROPE, the core of the MODULE 1 game system focuses on the land war, although naval operations do play a supporting role in the simulation. Because of the game’s scale, individual ground units typically represent corps, and most corps-sized units are composed of six or fewer divisions. This last is important because stacking is limited to a maximum of fifteen divisions per hex. What this actually means, in game turns, is that most stacks will be composed of four or fewer units. Zones of control (ZOCs) are semi-active, but not sticky: units must stop upon entering an enemy ZOC; however, combat is not mandatory and units may exit an enemy ZOC during a subsequent movement phase.

Each Game turn represents 10 days of real time, and there are 36 game turns and 4 strategic turns in the course of a year. A single game turn is composed of two player turns: the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and allies) player turn, and the Entente (France, Russia, England and allies) turn. Each player turn is further divided into three phases: the Initial Movement Phase; the Combat Phase; and the Second Movement Phase. The KOREA-style move-fight-move game system permits some exploitation of combat gains, but because basic movement allowances are low (3 movement points) and because full movement during the Second Movement Phase is severely restricted, major breakthroughs followed by deep penetrations into enemy positions are virtually impossible.

As the game turn sequence suggests, THE FIRST WORLD WAR is primarily a land warfare game. Naval actions are possible but the potential opportunity cost (in lost demoralization points) should any capital ships be sunk, usually guarantees that the Central Powers’ fleets will spend most of the game, as they did historically, hiding in port. The U-Boat sub-routine is also moderately interesting. However, unless the German player is keen to accelerate America’s entry into the war, U-Boats usually have very little real impact on the game. In any case, like its World War II counterpart, WAR IN EUROPE, the flow of the game is heavily influenced by economic (supply) factors. Supply is represented in the form of Resource Points. These points are critical to play because they must be expended to support both offensive and defensive combat, and to build or rebuild units and fortifications. Any supply points that are not used for unit construction can be funneled to the various advanced depots via friendly rail lines. When supporting attacking or defending units, these points are spent on a 1 supply point per combat factor basis. This means, for instance, that an attacking force composed of two ‘6A12’ corps would require the expenditure of 24 supply points (12 for each corps) to conduct a single attack. Obviously then, sustaining major battles is extremely expensive, and because the supply reserves of the all depots are clearly visible to both players, large-scale surprise offensives are virtually impossible to execute within the confines of the game system.

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 OBSERVATION

Italian 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.

Design Characteristics:

  • 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)

Game Components:

  • 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

4 comments:

  • I still remember the old gaming club I was in and we played the full war.I was Britian and the game master allowed things that weren't really in the rules. We had adiplomacy phase in which each power could make treaties.The darn Itlian player would get resource points from both major power blocks until he finally entered on the German side.Well that saw a prompt French invasion near Rome. Me,Well I got my BEF units trapped in Holland/Belgium and the German player allowed me to evac the whole force and game master let me re-land them behind the Turkish main line on the suez canal(German player didn't like the Turkish player so was happy ).Well I but the full Turkish army out of supply and they fell apart.

    Combat was a little different. I remember a massive battle that seemed to have the entire Serb army surrounded in Belgrade against the Romanians(yes they even turned on the French/UK)

    I solo played the game a year or so later(must be around 1989-90) but haven't returned to play it since.

    Our club went on the make a WWI full war version based on AH's Empire in Arms which ended up being very good I must say.

  • Greetings Kim:

    This title, not to put too fine a point on it, was a BIG disappointment to me; particularly as it was the brain-child of one of my favorite designers, Frank Davis. The one element that I really did like about it, though, was the concept of National Morale. This was a clever design concept that, unfortunately, just never really went anywhere in subsequent games: even in those games where the designers attempted to do something similar.

    Best Regards, Joe

  • Sadly, I have to completely agree with your review. What an enormous waste of time this game turned out to be. Heck, if they'd just gone with a more massive version of their Folio Game "World War I," it would have been a better game. In fact, the only way I was ever able to get any play value out of this thing was to do exactly that -- revise the production to more or less "match" the WWI CRP rates and treat Resource Points as CRPs. Then, merely equipping your HQs with CRPs seemed to be less of a signal, and the use of them as CRPs gave a better feel for the attritional nature of the war (eventually resulting in the destruction of your combat forces if you continued to attack in the face of having burned off your CRPs. Plus, I used the World War I CRT to allow for the differences. Oh, and only the GHQ could actually burn CRPs to produce new units. Unfortunately it was and remains a condemnation of the Module that I had to basically reinvent the game in order to find any play value at all. I so had hopes for this one....

  • Greetings Jeff:

    Thanks for taking the time to comment; I appreciate your interest.

    Oddly enough, like you I toyed with the idea of doing a massive overhaul of this game because, in spite of its many defects, there were a few elements that I actually found intriguing. In the end, however, I gave up on the idea as not being worth the investment of time and effort.

    I suppose, to be fair, even designers as gifted as Frank Davis are entitled to a "whiff" every once in awhile; after all, both Chadwick and Dunnigan have a few real "oaters" to their credit. I only wish that SPI had spent sufficient time on development and play-testing to recognize that this title had VERY SERIOUS problems.

    In any case, thanks again for visiting and

    Best Regards, Joe

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