This week we’re looking at The Great War: Western Front, a hybrid turn-based/real-time strategy game about the First World War developed by Petroglyph Games, a renowned maker of real-time strategy titles. Petroglyph generally tend to do games set in science-fiction or fantasy settings, so when this product was announced I was immediately interested to see how they would handle what was clearly intended to be a grounded approach to a historically authentic strategy game. In the end, I think this is a worthy first attempt that has a lot to recommend it, though in a strange sense I think the places where it falls short are the most interesting.
Before we go ahead and dive in, I want to note that I’m not going to give a full primer on trench warfare in this post, both because it’s long enough, but also because we’ve already done that in two posts. In addition, the last post in our series on fortifications covered trench-system design as well. So if you missed those, it may be helpful to refer back to them for some of what I’m going to talk about here.
As with my other treatments of video games, what follows isn’t a review, per se; we’re focused here on what this game says about history and how well it communicates things about the past. If I were to give a review for this game, it would go thusly: The Great War: Western Front takes on the hard task of creating an enjoyable war game that is largely accurate to the First World War. In that goal, I think it largely succeeds. I don’t think the gameplay here will be for everyone – it really demands a kind of player who likes to be methodically attritional and has some tolerance for repetition, but mostly because that is an unavoidable part of making any vaguely accurate treatment of World War I. For that sort of player, this is a pretty good game and its ‘mostly positive’ Steam rating is well earned, despite the niche appeal. The tactical and strategic puzzles its systems create can be quite deep and there is satisfaction to mastering them. At the same time, as we’ll see, I think this game succeeds fairly well at capturing a degree of authenticity, though I don’t think it is a total success on that front, as we’ll see. But while the game has its historical shortcomings, this game – unlike some others – feels to me like a product that strives hard and manages to deliver on its promise of a historically grounded experience.
If you are a fan of strategy games with a slower pace which demand a bit more care and don’t mind fighting effectively the same battle several times over (so, you know, Dwarf players in Total War: Warhammer), I think you’ll enjoy this game. It’s well made (though I should note, its performance is fine, but worse than you’d think given the graphics, so be aware of that if you have a very low end machine) and executes the concept well. I have to admit, I really want this game to succeed, in no small part because I want to see the concept iterated on and I want to see Petroglyph turn their talents to more games of this sort.
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War Has Layers
The gameplay in TGW:WF is split into two parts, the first being a strategic (mostly operational, really) map that covers the whole of the western front, from which the player or the AI can move units and launch offensives at specific points on the front line; this level works in month-long turns. Once that offensive is launched, the play shifts to a tactical map where the player commands that particular part of the front in real time (with a paused preparation phase before the fight begins). The game is thus pretty strongly split between the turn-based strategic layer and the real-time tactical layer. We’ll start by looking at the strategic layer.
The strategic map breaks the western front up into a hex grid, with units (representing army corps) occupying a hex, though an infinite number of units an ‘stack’ in a single hex without any real kind of penalty (we’ll come back to this). And to start with the map is a pretty faithful rendition of the western front; each hex has a name (typically a town) and these are where you’d expect them to be. Likewise, the snaking front line from the Alps to the Sea is more or less accurate. The game itself starts immediately after the conclusion of the Race to the Sea, so the lines begin already being fairly static and hard to disrupt.
There are a few fudges on the campaign map, mostly in how the hex-layout and the relatively large size of the hexes distorts the line of contact, making some of its curves more pronounced and others less so. In particular, Verdun is placed in a remarkably exposed salient with just two hexes at its base, making it a no-brainer for a Central Powers player to try to strike the base of the salient rather than the forts at Verdun; in the actual geography, the ‘base’ of the Verdun ‘salient’ was around 35 miles wide, whereas the ‘salient’ was only 10-15 miles deep, which would make striking at the ‘base’ rather silly. On the other hand, an actual salient in the line, the German position at Saint-Mihiel, is ‘buffed out’ by the hex layout, as is the larger German bulge around the Chemin des Danes. Still, the basic shape is more or less correct.
One the player or the AI decides to launch an attack, they pick the friendly hex the attack originates from (and the units involved, although this is generally going to be ‘all of them,’ which we’ll come back to) and launches the attack, which triggers a real-time battle. The real time battles begin with a setup phase where the two sides place their starting troops and more importantly design their trench networks. Reinforcement troops may be called in after a battle begins, but the trench system is fixed once the shooting starts, so trench design (for attack or defense) is the main focus here. Then the battle takes place; the two sides have 20 minutes to duke it out, a time limit which matters as we’ll see.
The battles then bring us to the main resources in the game. The key battle resource is supplies; every trench built, every artillery shot fired or every unit reinforced into the battlefield costs supplies. Each battle has a set number of supplies, with the baseline supplies being provided by the units (each unit involved adds a bit more supplies to the pile), plus an amount of supplies drawn from the ‘global’ supply stockpile based on how much logistics infrastructure you have built up.
Meanwhile at the strategic level you have gold and national will. Gold flows in every turn and is used to buy more global supplies as well as certain special units (air assets and siege artillery), but losses in battles are also subtracted from the gold supply (with the units automatically restored to full strength and the cost automatically billed to the treasury), meaning that high casualty battles can constrain the player or the AI moving forward. National will, meanwhile, is essentially the ‘victory meter’ – first to run out loses; it is technically possible to win the game by seizing the enemy HQ, but I have never seen that actually happen as national will is almost guaranteed to run out first. National will does not replenish automatically, but is instead impacted by the results of each real time battle; victories can restore small amounts of national will, while defeats sap it. Oddly casualties have no real direct effect on it (there is a small boost for winning battles cleanly with relatively low losses) only winning or losing, which is primarily determined by how many key points on the map you control when the shooting stops (and to a lesser extent, how many casualties each side took getting there).
And that’s the game, in a nutshell. These elements are competently executed, the feedback between the two layers is clear – indeed, clearer than many games. One nice thing here is operational planning matters because there is a big difference between launching an offensive with 4 corps and no supply depots and doing so with 8 corps and several depots built. Going into the latter battle, the player is going to be able to use a lot more artillery and other special abilities (because you have more supplies), which make it easier to win with low losses. Consequently, unlike in, say, the Total War games, where ‘massing’ force at the operational level is rarely necessary (with single-player success depending more on your ability to pull off an unbroken string of miracle victories with a single stack), in TGW:WF you need to plan an offensive for it to succeed. Because units cannot move and attack on the same strategic turn, that means massing a month ahead of time, building up supply depots, and thinning the line elsewhere before launching a big attack.
But of course this is an analysis so we need to get into the details. We’re going to proceed from here in two movements: the things that I think work to express some of the historical realities of the First World War, and then a number of things that I think don’t quite manage to hit the mark.
Winning the Race to the Parapet
Let’s start with what works. Most of this analysis is going to be about flaws because that’s just how this works, but I want to note at the beginning that I actually like this game and think it succeeded rather better than I expected at capturing some of the nature of the First World War. This is clearly a really hard task and one that is rarely attempted; WWII games had a lot of iteration before they stumbled on Hearts of Iron and Company of Heroes (and the latter still can’t get its strategic layer to work right). For what is effectively one of the first efforts at simulating the trench stalemate in a combined RTS/TBS setup (really, real-time-tactics, turn-based-strategy), Petroglyph has done a good job. In particular, the game manages to capture the race to the parapet and the overall attritional nature of the war very well.
Let’s start with the tactical battles. One thing they nail quite well that we’ve discussed is the ‘race to the parapet.’ To recap a longer post, trench assaults relied on artillery to suppress enemy artillery and machine guns, but because friendly artillery was just as lethal as enemy artillery, attacking infantry had to ‘race’ the defenders. The defenders tried to get out of their fortified dugouts in time to set up their machine guns on the parapet – the raised firing step on the trench edge – and attackers rushed to get there first. If the attackers won the race to the parapet, they’d arrive in greater numbers with grenades and bayonets on the lip of the trench and the defenders – at a huge disadvantage due to being below the attackers – would lose badly. Alternately, if the defenders set up their firing positions while the attackers were still out in no man’s land, they could shoot the attackers to pieces while taking minimal return fire, safe in the protection of their prepared firing positions. This tactical reality created a very ‘all or nothing’ set of combat conditions, which led to a lot of effort being expended to help your side ‘win’ the race – barbed wire, rolling barrages and so on.
The way that is expressed in game is that infantry in trenches (especially upgraded ones) are very resistant to artillery fire, but all units taking artillery fire are suppressed, preventing them from firing back. As a result, players will quickly learn that the standard way to attack a trench is to use a lot of artillery to suppress all potential enemy fighting positions just as friend troops are hitting the edge of rifle and machine-gun range. Done correctly, the barrage lifts just as friendly infantry reach the lip of the trench and then overwhelm the defenders in melee combat in the trench, safe from rifle fire. Later in the game, you get access to a ‘rolling barrage’ tactic which allows light artillery to fire a rolling barrage that advances forward, shielding infantry advances more effectively. And at least some times the AI is able to pull off these kinds of assaults too, though I think some refinement here may be necessary; on the attack the AI was very polarized between effective assaults and bafflingly ineffective ones.
Now while the basic idea of that attack sounds simple, the game makes it tricky to pull off in a few ways. The most obvious is that infantry is your primary type of unit for the whole game – basic rifleman are going to be what 95% of your army is from beginning to end – and infantry is vulnerable and slow. Even a fairly slight error in your artillery plan – one or two enemy companies or a machine gun nest not suppressed at the right time, with no artillery off cooldown ready to fire – can turn an otherwise effective assault into a messy bloodbath very quickly. And because infantry is slow, it can rarely retreat effectively once committed, so the difference between a successful attack and an almost successful attack is enormous: the former, obviously, succeeds, often with fairly low casualties, while the latter achieves nothing, often at the near total loss of the attack force.
Meanwhile, the game does a good job of making the player think hard about supplies and supply throughput as well. Artillery is crucial to sustaining attacks (less valuable on defense than it should be, but still useful) but every shot of artillery burns supplies and placing the artillery has a big up-front cost. The temptation (as it was historically) is to try to simply blast out enemy positions with buckets and buckets of artillery fire, but in terms of supply cost infantry in basic trenches are cheaper than the amount of artillery it takes to remove them. Meanwhile, big pre-battle barrages can degrade enemy defenses, but they can also, by obliterating enemy trenches, create situations where valuable footholds for the attacker are lost, complicating assaults. That’s not quite the same as the problem of artillery churning the battlefield, but it is similar enough to force the player to think in those terms – there is a ‘right’ amount of artillery and it isn’t ‘all of it,’ but it also really isn’t ‘none of it.’
And that supply picture then shades nicely into the strategic level game. While army corps each have some supplies they bring with them, getting enough of a supply advantage to win almost always requires drawing on your ‘global’ supply. That means burning gold reserves to build supply depots, which then enable that hex to pull up to a certain amount of global supply. As your tech improves you can build larger supply depots which pull greater amounts of supplies, which are good for your attacks and defenses, but also mean that the global supply can rapidly become constrained. The result is that you have to think carefully about where and how to attack and you do so knowing that every shot of the artillery, every infantry unit pulled into the battle, is depleting your ability to attack or defend elsewhere. The game thus forces a lot of hard trade-offs which are true to much of the operational planning on the western front, where sustaining an attack in one part of the line often meant thinning positions everywhere else (which in turn meant an enemy offensive at an inopportune moment could derail months of planning, as happened with the German offensive at Verdun).
And that ties into the general attritional nature of the conflict. For reasons we’ll discuss below, moving the front lines in TGW:WF is very hard, but also not necessary for victory. Achieving favorable casualty exchanges can sap enemy gold reserves (because they are forced to replace losses at cost) and victories where ground is taken but the hex isn’t moved can still damage enemy national will, slowly sapping it down until they are defeated. Through all of that at the same time you are trying to husband your supplies and gold reserves. The latter can purchase the former, but of course your losses also toll against your gold reserves, with national will penalties if you are forced into the negative. The player is thus, over time, forced to think in terms of what can be accomplished in short advances or attritional exchanges, which leads towards the sort of doctrinal posture at the end of the war which eventually became French bataille conduite – ‘Methodical Battle.’
Most importantly for me in terms of the design of the attrition factors, there are reasons to launch offensives in this game. A good offensive, backed up with plenty of supplies that achieves even incomplete success can buy you a favorable balance of casualties and positive movement in national will. Meanwhile, by forcing an enemy to shunt supplies and reserves to an attack that might succeed (see below), you can knock the wind out of an enemy offensive that looks dangerous by attacking somewhere else more favorable. The game correctly identifies that casualties were high on both the attack and the defense, that the solution to the stalemate was not merely going on the defensive and waiting the other party out.
Meanwhile, good trench design works in the game, which was a delightful surprise. I realized, in part talking with the folks at Three Moves Ahead that I had a fair bit more luck with trench design because, as I put it, I came ‘from the future’ and so started the war building three-layer Hindenburg-line style defenses, with light advanced positions that were easily taken or retaken backed up by a heavy second line, with final reserve positions in the rear outside of most enemy artillery range. The nature of the RTS maps does tend to compress this structure, putting the successive lines closer to each other (within rifle range, typically) than they would normally have been, but the basic concept of defense in depth, taking advantage of the fact that anything short of total success in an assault mostly ends up as failure, was neat to see. Defense in depth is a concept most games fail to effectively simulate, so success here is notable. One problem with this that doesn’t go anywhere else is the fact that all trenches in the game fire in both directions with roughly equal effectiveness; actual trenches were built with only one firing step, facing the enemy, making them much harder to defend against counter-attacks since attackers who took a trench could not then use it as an effective fighting position against a counter-attack coming from ‘behind’ the trench.
And so before I transition into where I think the game could improve, I really want to note that I do not think these successes are small things. Most video-game treatments of WWI avoid the years of stalemate or stay safely up at the strategic level for a reason: it is really hard to get these elements into a game that is both fun and feels authentic.
But that’s not to say everything works, so let’s discuss where I think TGW:WF‘s fire falls short of its intended target.
Most of the issues I have with the real time tactical battles mostly come down to issues where the developers have managed to produce the right results – difficult assaults, high casualties for both attacker and defender, difficult to hold gains, etc. – but not via the right causes.
As I quipped when we discussed this last, the public tends to see the problem as machine guns, when in practice it is machine guns, artillery and barbed wire, but most correctly it would be expressed as artillery, machine guns, trenches, artillery, barbed wire, artillery and then artillery. The capabilities of fast, breach-loading artillery with modern explosives and all of the advances in ballistics of the previous century are, perhaps even more than the machine gun, the defining technological feature in the war. That strong controlling impact of artillery isn’t really expressed in the game.
To recap briefly, the majority of casualties in WWI were produced by artillery. It was the devastating potential of light, direct-fire artillery (and machine guns) which forced infantry into trenches in the first place (to avoid that murderous direct fire). Then, in order to permit attacks over no man’s land, heavier, longer-ranged indirect-fire artillery was required to force the trench machine-gunners into their dugouts and also to silence the defender’s artillery (which otherwise would obliterate any attempt to cross no man’s land, since attackers moving in the open would be extremely vulnerable to bursting shells. But the more of that heavy artillery one used, the more torn up the ground became, turning into a mudpit the moment it rained, making logistics and reinforcement to support gains over no man’s land harder. The trap then was that the heavy artillery which enabled assaults was the same thing that made them indecisive.
Artillery, to put it bluntly, does not function like this in TGW:WF. I think the culprit here is a desire to compress some concepts for game purposes and also get more kinds of units on the map, also for gameplay purposes. In practice there are three kinds of artillery in TGW:WF: light, heavy and siege. The first two are on map (they must be placed in the deployment phase and have limited range depending on their position) whereas the last is off-map artillery. All of them seem to fire indirectly, whereas in practice light artillery was generally direct-fire. Instead in game, light artillery does low damage but has great suppression, suppressing a wider area and for longer, with a shorter cooldown, while heavy artillery does higher damage in a smaller area with a longer cooldown, making it inefficient for suppression. Light artillery can get smoke and rolling barrage special attacks which are better at suppression, while heavy artillery gets gas and bursting shells to double down on doing damage.
Now, light artillery doing low damage to units in trenches makes perfect sense, but it also does low damage to units in the open, making it perfectly viable to use light artillery to fire ‘danger close,’ charging your infantry into melee-combat in a trench in your own barrage, something that in the real world would just murder all of your own infantry who, moving in the open, would be terribly vulnerable to that light artillery. Meanwhile, one of the things heavy artillery was very much supposed to do – suppress enemy defensive direct-fire artillery – it does not do effectively at all. Meanwhile, standard artillery fire from either type is generally not cost effective to use against an infantry assault in the open; in practice opening up with an artillery battery of either kind on advancing infantry in the open should more or less be the end of that attack – part of the reason barrages were so important is that they were supposed to destroy all of the enemy artillery (which had, you hoped, been spotted by aircraft or balloon-based observers).
The more basic problem with artillery is very much a gameplay problem and that’s responsiveness. And here I understand the dilemma: players want their artillery to be a button they press when they need it. But in the First World War, with limited communications technology, artillery fire needed to be scheduled and coordinated either with aerial spotters or moving barrage tables; it wasn’t something (except for very short-range direct fire) which could be improvised ‘live’ in this way. In TGW:WF, if you are advancing and suddenly realize that, say, a key enemy machine gun nest wasn’t knocked out, you can just quickly order your light artillery to fire on it, suppressing it, ‘on the fly.’ That kind of responsiveness wasn’t available to WWI commanders; that’s the entire reason the rolling barrage existed. But the result is that the player, even without the ‘rolling barrage’ technology, can execute far more precise and complex bombardments than even the most sophisticated late-war barrages, starting in 1914.
Meanwhile, artillery is also a bit too good at destroying certain kinds of emplacements. There is one kind of trench which is a concrete blockhouse which is immune to artillery, but otherwise infantry in a trench just take generally reduced damage from artillery; they do not flee the trench into deep dugouts to avoid a barrage. Meanwhile, machine gun nests and mortar pits are treated like buildings, incapable of taking cover from artillery fire, making them very easy to knock out with pre-attack fires, whereas historically when a barrage started the machine gun crew would grab the gun and rush into their deep dugouts with it (and then rush to set it back up again once the barrage ended). Ironically that means in practice in TGW:WF the most lethal thing on the battlefield are rifles, since infantry are better protected from artillery barrages than machine guns and artillery itself is so cost-ineffective against infantry in the open. Needless to say, that’s not quite right.
Meanwhile, the impact of artillery in turning the battlefield into a difficult mess isn’t well represented either. Siege artillery can have this effect, but in an odd way. If you have siege artillery available for an attack, you can barrage prior to the beginning of the assault; this barrage has a random chance of destroying enemy trenches (and anything in them) when the battle starts. Where this can foul up an attacker is that trenches destroyed this way cannot be occupied, and so a barrage can end up breaking up a trench line into smaller, disconnected pieces. That’s actually bad because the best way to gain a line of trenches is to identify the one weak spot, suppress it, get your troops to it and then begin pushing down the line by running through the trenches in a series of melee combats. So oversized barrages can hurt you, but not in the way that they did historically.
That leads to a final oddity, which is that it’s a lot easier to hold trenches once taken than it ought to be and this goes down to a very simple design decision: trenches allow infantry to fire effectively forwards and backwards. While the trenches do display a direction on placement, if there is a firepower penalty for a trench faced the wrong way, it is slight. That makes trenches vulnerable from the sides (though mutual protection here is very easy to accomplish) but formidable from the rear. It will not surprise you to learn that actual WWI trenches were designed so that you could not do this. The actual trench was too deep to fire out of; to shoot out you needed to step up to the ‘fire step’ and only the side of the trench facing the enemy would have a fire step. That meant that to take a captured trench and turn it into a new defensive position required time and energy to reshape parts of the trench to create firing positions facing the new direction. I’d love to see that featured in game, where a unit that takes an enemy trench needs some undisturbed time to ‘turn the defenses around’ and make for an effective fighting position.
Given those problems, why am I still OK with these tactical battles? Well, because they still produce decently historical results. Artillery barrages suppress creating a race to the parapet and it remains tricky to actually hold enough gains to make a difference (see below). At the same time, it seems to me that there is a lot of space to improve these mechanics to make them more historically authentic. At the same time, I understand that a lot of these compromises were probably in the interest of making accessible and approachable gameplay.
What I suspect most players will actually find the most frustrating about the game is how it accounts for victory. After each real-time battle, the game assigns a level of victory to it based on the balance of territory held and casualties taken when the battle ends (usually by the 20 minute timer running out). Significant victories can add to national will, while defeats or even minor victories will sap it away. And if the player’s aim is purely attritional, that will be good enough, but most players are going to want to actually move the front lines rather than succeed by running their enemy out of sons slightly faster than they run their own country out of sons.
Here’s the system for actually taking ground: each hex on the strategic map has a number of victory stars (from 2 to 5) assigned to it. Achieving a ‘great victory’ attacking a hex depletes one victory star; depleting all victory stars forces the enemy to retreat from the hex. A hex with depleted stars which is not attacked in a given turn regenerates those stars.
Now I get parts of the idea here. One is to provide an incentive for the player to ‘keep at’ attacks that seem to ‘almost succeed’ just as historical commanders did. As I noted when we discussed trench warfare, the nature of the fighting meant that it generally seemed – not unreasonably! – like attacks always failed just on the verge of success, since attackers generally carried the first trench line. Consequently, generals on both sides often prolonged battles far past the ‘culminating point’ (the point at which the attacker has run out of steam and the assault will gain no more ground) because they thought they were so close to the promised breakthrough. And that’s simulated neatly by a player who gets a province down to, say, one victory star left continuing to try to pound it into submission and failing (usually because the province has been heavily reinforced).
It also simulated the ‘infantry on foot lose the race to infantry on trains’ aspect as well. One of the problems in making offensives matter on the western front is that attacking infantry had to attack on foot, whereas defending reserves arrived via train. Consequently, the defender’s reserves always arrived faster than the attacker’s reinforcements could. By making sure that all but the most shattering of victories take more than a single turn to move a hex, the game essentially guarantees the player or the AI time to move reinforcements in. Since each corps brings its own supply which allows for more artillery fires, more trenches, more machine guns and so on, a few extra corps can make a huge difference in the chances of actually taking a hex. Meanwhile, trenches persist over battles, so a defender who allots some of their supplies, each fight, to trench improvements, is going to have a truly formidable network of upgraded trenches by the end of a long offensive.
The frustrating problem with the system is that the only way to remove a victory star is effectively through a ‘sweep,’ where one side controls all of the victory points on the map at the battle’s end. I think, technically, any ‘great victory’ will do it, but I don’t think I have yet managed to get a ‘great victory’ without a ‘sweep.’ That means that in order to actually move the front line even a single hex, the player has to achieve two or more complete victories in a row, overrunning the entire map in a fairly sharp time-limit (20 minutes). Now, it can be done; indeed, I have done it, you may take a look at my my-heavens-I-actually-pulled-off-an-encirclement-on-the-western-front screenshot below for proof. But it can be more than a little frustrating to have a battle in which you walloped the enemy, took three of their four capture points on the map and inflicted disproportionate casualties only for it to not count.
And I think the main problem here goes to what is and is not persistent on the map after a battle. The developers made a big deal when the game was coming out about how trench networks would be persistent and incrementally improved from one battle to the next and that’s true, but what seems like a missed opportunity is that the trench networks are the only things that are persistent. And therein lies what I think is one of the great missed opportunities of the game. When a battle ends, all of the units involved immediately reinforce to full strength (at a gold cost) and the two armies effectively reset on the tactical map back to their starting point; control points captured in one battle are not kept in the next. You must start over from square one each time, aiming for a sweep to remove that victory point. And so while the game is brilliantly attritional on the strategic level, it effectively removes the impact of attrition at the operational level. Indeed, even combat fatigue is a passing thing; units morale goes down for every battle they are in, so multiple attacks on the same province in the same turn can make for easier battles, but this too resets at turn’s end (as far as I can tell).
For the player, I suspect this will prove frustrating: to almost have a sweep counts for nothing.
But for the historian it is doubly frustrating because it removes some of the key elements in the actual planning and execution of offensives on the western front. Quite a lot of subsidiary actions in these larger, month’s long offensives were about seizing positions from which to launch other offensives (in particular a focus on key ridge lines because of their implication for lines of sight and observation; the Battle of Passchendaele/Third Ypres was all about this sort of thing), but this is something the player cannot really do – launch one attack to seize a key enemy forward position in order to put them in a bad position for the follow-up attack, because of course those positions reset once the real-time battle ends.
It also denies the player the opportunity to discover one of the tactical responses to trench warfare: the bite-and-hold attack. The idea of bite-and-hold tactics, developed by the British in 1917, was that instead of aiming for the ‘big breakthrough’ which would punch ‘into the green fields beyond,’1 an assault might aim to just take the enemy’s forward positions and then stop, digging in to repel counter-attacks. The artillery and reserves could then be brought up, a new offensive planned to make another short forward movement, slowly but surely levering an enemy off of one prepared position after another until the line itself became untenable. The player cannot do bite-and-hold tactics because all gains are forced to be given up between battles unless a ‘sweep’ is achieved.
And that more broadly disrupts one of the core rhythms of the western front which was attack and counter-attack. German counter-attacks in particular were predictable like the rising sun, but all armies on the front functioned like this. After all, an enemy attack was very likely to take your own forward positions and while you expected to lose those positions,2 you also want them back or your main fighting position has to become a new forward position. So once the enemy attack has run out of steam, you counter-attack to retake those forward positions and anything else the enemy may have seized. This cycle of attack and counter-attack is how you get battles like Verdun running for the better part of a year.
And one can see how the combination of the victory star system with the demand for managing to pull off ‘sweeps’ in order to shift the balance of the front is designed, in a very abstract way, to simulate a war in which gains were often ephemeral, the results of one attack swiftly lost in the next counter-attack. But something very substantial is lost in how the game does not force the defender to make that counter-attack. A cycle whereby the attacker, with an incomplete victory in their first attack, compels the defender to reinforce and then counter-attack in order to reset the board to its starting position (or risk having to defend in a battle starting with only one or two control points) would have been more accurate to the concerns which motivated a lot of the action on the western front.
As it stands now, once a player figures out the mechanics, it starts to feel like it is not the inexorable logic of the trench stalemate which holds them back but the grind of mechanics designed to make them re-fight the same battle multiple times before they’re allowed to win it. In practice perhaps the ideal solution would have been much larger battlefields – ones large enough that no attack would be likely to carry the entire field in one go – with persistent point control and scrapping the ‘victory star’ system entirely. I suspect that route may have been considered and was probably avoided because the game struggles a bit performance-wise with the battlefields at the size they are now.
Meanwhile, the lack of real durable operational (rather than strategic) attrition robs the game of some much need operational complexity. In practice, the balance between filling out old formations and creating new ones was a real and pressing choice both sides had. Likewise, unit rotation was also a choice: rotating units in and out of positions allowed them to recover, but it meant that expertise and local knowledge might be lost, as well as the potential vulnerability such rotations created. Notably the allies tended to rotate units fairly aggressively. Something like three quarters of the entire French army rotated through the Battle of Verdun at some point, for instance, moving along la Voie sacrée, “the sacred way,” named for the via sacra, the route Roman triumphs and other religious rituals took through the city of Rome to the Capitoline Hill (in part grimly on the assumption that it was the route Roman sacrifices took on their way up the Capitoline). The Germans, by contrast, generally did not rotate units; front-line formations slowly wore away under the pressures of combat, to be replaced with reserves when they were no longer effective.
But the player isn’t forced to make any of those choices because it is all automatic. Units lose battle fatigue rapidly and automatically and instantly recover losses (at a cost in gold reserves) after a battle. And I do mean instantly – if you launch two attacks against one hex on the same turn losses from the first battle will not carry over to the second. In short then the game transfers all of the attrition frictionlessly to the strategic level, expressing it as losses in national will, gold and supplies, when it should at least be an option to accrue some of those losses operationally, by not replenishing diminished formations or not rotating exhausted ones to the rear (where their exhaustion might toll on army morale more generally).
Most of these suggestions would, I suspect, require fairly substantial rebuilds in order to implement and I want to stress again that I am quite impressed with the achievement of the game we got. The First World War gets substantially less attention in our popular culture and public memory (especially in the United States) than it ought compared to its more famous younger sibling. If The Great War: Western Front was, say, the third game in its series, I’d be a lot more disappointed, but in practice it is one of the first efforts to translate this conflict at a tactical level into game systems (and to be frank, many of the efforts to do so at the strategic level also leave something to be desired) and from that perspective I think it is a worthy first effort.
I do have one smaller suggested change which is this: the addition of an even more strictly historical campaign. In TGW:WF, the two side’s strategic resources, particularly unit counts, remain relatively static, with major reinforcements coming via tech upgrades and losses automatically replenished. But those weren’t the conditions that generals on the western front actually fought over; of the three major powers in the theater, only France remained single-mindedly focused and committed to victory on the western front throughout the war. Germany, focused on a victory in the West in 1914, turned East in 1915, then west again for the failure at Verdun in 1916, and then East again in 1917, before once again returning its focus to the western front for the terrible passage of arms of 1918. Britain, meanwhile, was almost always operating on multiple fronts from 1914 onward with operations in Salonika, Gallipoli, the Levant, Mesopotamia. Consequently, the Haigs and Faulkenhayns had to deal with shifting amounts of available resources. Combined with that, building up for an offensive took time, all of which combined to create a sort of rhythm to the fighting on the western front, with objectives needing to be tailored to the resources that were present.
What I’d love to see then would be added events whereby the forces or reinforcements available to the player are raised or reduced (ideally with some warning) to match the ebb and flow of the war. The allies should be on the back foot in 1914, on the attack in 1915, caught perhaps off-guard by greater German resources in 1916, spotting a window of opportunity in 1917 and then bracing to try to withstand the sudden German manpower superiority of 1918 (given the fall of Russia) before the arrival of Americans in quantity tips the balance the other way.
But for all my critiques, there’s something to be learned here and there’s also some enjoyment to be had mastering the mechanics. For a first effort at such a difficult task, I’m not sure there’s much more to be asked. Perhaps most importantly I think the game captures some of the important ‘big picture’ information about the war: how it started, the intractability of the stalemate and its resistance to easy solutions and the terrible cost of it all. Every battle reports your casualties and it should strike the player quickly that even ‘easy victories’ often come with thousands of losses (the little fellows on the map clearly represent larger units than are displayed), while a miscalculation can get tens of thousands of men killed in just one twenty-minute real-time battle.
The vast, overwhelming waste of it all is something that The Great War: Western Front captures to its great credit. As you play, you convert green fields into brown moonscapes and men into corpses, all to slowly grind down another country slightly faster than they can grind you down. You, as the player, look for ways out, ways to shorten the war, solutions to the trench stalemate just as historical commanders and politicians desperately searched for a way out of the colossal mess they had made and just as then, you find there is no way out but through. I’m sure it was a tremendous risk to pick this war to develop a game about and then to commit to rendering the intractable deadlock as intractable (or to simply submerge it below a strategic level where the player does not experience the effort to try to grind through it). And I think, for all of the shortcomings, for all of the features I hope will be iterated on in this game or the next, capturing that element of the war makes this game valuable and worthwhile.