World War I (SPI/Decision)


Playings, 3 (5 hours), 2 Central Powers wins, 1 Allied.


With the current trend in retro gaming an interest in older games suddenly merges with an eye towards what's new on the shelves. My copy of World War I is the SPI version minus magazine and a good few of its counters. Praise to the glories of DTP for fixing the counter problem and a warning about buying 2nd hand games (if possible count the playing pieces). The Decision version boasts an extra map section and counters for the Caucasus but if it keeps to the old rules this addition should not affect the gameplay.


World War I belongs to the game a week period from SPI, nevertheless its mechanisms would be regarded as novel if it were have just been designed. It is not another oversimple Napoleon at Waterloo game, although simple and using a scale that relegates the Franco-German border to 8 hexes it packs in a lot of play value and feel for the period. Broad features of the war have been picked out to give a game that plays something like the real thing in 1 1/2 hours. The scale chosen means that a lot of detail is lost, most advances and retreats are of a scale that will take up less than 1 hex so most units sit in the same hexes for most of the game steadily pounding away at each other.


Units are armies rated for attack and defence, combat is differential based making a difference of 1 significant, the 2 Turkish armies are 1-4s handy for holding Thrace but not the sort of unit to send off marching into Russia. Combat losses can be taken from a central pool of resource points (CRPs) for each nation. Locking ZOCs (combat is not compulsory) ensure that there are enough units to pack the Western front and hold a line of locking ZOCs in the East. The map does not cover Palestine nor does the SPI version extend to the Caucasus, the Allies can land in the Balkans or Gallipoli but neither will have a big effect on play. There is no ability to land Allied troops in North Russia, the historical route for aid and foreign legions. To get troops or CRPs to Russia then the Dardanells must be forced in true Churchillian fashion.


Winning will be by grinding down the opposition's manpower and will to fight in France and or Russia, players emulate Haig in "Oh What A Lovely War" hoping to win by reason of having a greater manpower base. Combat losses can be taken as retreats (defender only) eliminations or CRP losses, with countries having fresh issues of CRPs each turn the CRP loss becomes the normal choice, even Russians stand and die much as they did in the early years of the war. Generally units are prevented from using CRPs to remove losses on 2 occasions, when they are out of supply or if no CRPs are available. The density of units and inability to move from 1 hex of an enemy ZOC to another will save most units from ever being out of supply, common exceptions are Russians in the Russian part of Poland which juts out between the Central Powers and any Allies which might be cut off by other units retreating in Northern France. When a nation has no CRPs then it must satisfy losses by retreats or eliminations hence the grind them down ploy. Each turn (6 months) consists of 3 separate combat phases for each player, if a single nation is targeted in every phase plus if they are dumb enough to counteratack there is a chance of breaking that nation's CRP bank.


Nations are replenished with CRPs every turn, some more than others, lending is allowed between turns to build up nations (there are limits on who can lend to who, some nations, Austria, cannot lend but may receive) but not once the fighting starts. If France is pushed into the red then an advance on Paris becomes reality. Russia suffers double loss when attacked by Germany only but is the recipient of huge new resources each turn, Russia will need pounding every turn to stop it from building up a massive surplus. Nations can rebuild lost units (except those that were cut off from supply) for a paltry 5 CRPs each. There is no limit to the number that can be built each turn except that set by the countermix, this allows holes in the front line to be patched up pretty quickly. The Eastern front stabilises rather too fast because both players build the necessary units to form a blocking line at the 1st opportunity (game turn 2). The Allies should build some British units in France early on to hold some of the line and prevent Germany from being able to attack all along and solely affect the French manpower base (reasonable enough). Players can conserve CRPs lost by nation's in attack by using units from 2 nations in the same attack. In the East, German and Austrian units become intermingled as Germany uses his Austrian units to take casualties versus the Russians while saving his Germans for the West. Imagine hordes of Austrians leaping out of the trenches to stop machine gun fire while our Germans leap over the edge while Ivan is changing belts. Every other turn is a Winter turn which gives every unit a +2 in defence, attacks are not possible at a -ve differential so Winter will drastically cut the number of combats and allow everyone to catch up on CRPs. With Winter attacks being costly, Winter turns get to be a bit of a bind, count up the CRPs (always a chore), move (best bit) and then flash through the few combats unfortunately still in 3 separate phases.


Early in the war before nations have built up a backlog of CRPs countries can be ground down to zero and retreats brought about, neatly allowing some advance in the West on turn 1 and possibly some success against Serbia although with Austria's combat strengths that is unlikely. The Central Powers need to hack away as much as possible on turn 1 for maximum effect. Unfortunately the Allies move before the Central Powers so any gains which are not taken up by advances after combat will be lost on turn 2. Later in the war Germany is allowed to build 1 Stosstrupen unit a turn (to a maximum of 4), if these attain a good combat result then the defender is forced to retreat at least 1 hex. It is tempting to use these in Russia to isolate some Russians or Italy where nothing much happens but best place for them is France where 1 hex is a lot more important than anywhere else.


The initial issue and future supply of CRPs determines the course of play. Russia has a huge income for most of the game, only when it drops off later will the Central Powers have some chance of knocking Russia out. Later in the game all countries' CRP income drops to reflect war weariness but the Allies gain USA with combat units and more importantly another source of CRPs, best use of Americans is to shove them into the front line and save a few French and British lives.


Victory is in theory based on occupying resource hexes, these hexes do not represent resources per se but become goals for advances on both sides. The Central Powers receive victory points for knocking Russia out of the war, an aim satisfied by occupying Russian cities. The sooner this is done the more points brought in. It is not easy to knock out Russia because its CRP base is hard to eat into, it is still possible to win as the Central Powers without knocking out Russia provided that gains are suitably spectacular. The Allies get an automatic 75 points, ostensibly for their naval blockade but in reality to offset the points that the Central Powers will get for occupying Belgium and parts of France. There are no resource hexes in Russia so to gain any points in the East Russia must be totally knocked out, it is possible to lose resource hexes in the Central Powers' home countries to Russian advances but this requires some pretty poor play. Resource hexes in Northern Italy encourage the Austrians to attack here but no nearby Austrian hexes are designated as resource leaving the Italian little incentive to reclaim Italian speaking parts of the Empire. With the Austrians dug in the mountains plus their pretty poor offensive ability Italy will be quiet unless German units are diverted to do some attacking. Violating neutrals will gain the opposing player victory points so there is not much point in so doing. The Central Powers gain points if the Allies land in Salonika, so they will have to land in the Aegean coast of Bulgaria instead. Belgium begins the game already violated although there is a variant leaving it neutral with points awarded to the side which does not walk in, in this variant the Russians also get an extra army to make up for that destroyed at Tannenberg. Generally the ease in blocking up fronts with ZOCs and the ability to lend CRPs to minor countries means that after the initial turn of marching in another front stabilises just like all the others.


Although a decent simulation which gets to the bone of the matter in minimum time it is not a game that will see a lot of playings. The limited options available, 2 main fronts plus some shuffling around in the Balkans and Italy leads to all games being variations on both sides pouding away at each other and keeping a steady line. This is what should be expected from World War I, no solutions are offered to trench warfare until the Stoss units arrive. Bumping up the combat differential may destroy more enemy CRPs but tends to also increase friendly losses, both sides fare worse at high differentials. This is the lesson from Verdun and again it may be of use for maximum reduction of a single nation's CRPs at heavy cost to your own, Verdun was supposed to bleed France white. With practice certain optimum strategies should turn up, rumour has it that a skilled Allied player is advantaged, even so the game is good for a few plays and is pretty quick. Full marks for a simulation of a difficult subject.