All Dice on the Western Front

Quite a few Thursdays ago, Chris Harding and I sat down to Clash of Empires: August 1914. This was in fact our second go at this title, with our first attempt back in early August.

This Kerry Anderson title has 2¬†iterations. The first was during the final issues of Wargamer Magazine (number 58 back in 1986). The second was with the now-defunct Microgame Design Group in the early years of the 21st century. Our first game used the Wargamer-issue map with¬†home brew¬†counters courtesy of Chris. I urge you, should you try this game (and you should, it’s good fun) do NOT use the counters that came with Wargamer, especially should you play the Western Allies. The French counters in particular (black on dark blue) should come with an OHS&W warning label due to the potential damage to your eyes. They are diabolical, folks, and we pronounce anathema upon them!

The Wargamer map, though also difficult to read is at least pleasant to look at and we found it serviceable. The MDG map is certainly clearer, but has little carto-aesthetic appeal. What we did in the second game was use the MDG counters on the Wargamer map, which worked out reasonably well (though you will need to use the fortress markers from the original game should you do this).

Clash of Empires employs a point-to-point map along which units are moved, the nodes of which are cities, towns and fortresses. Sometimes referred to rail lines, they really represent transport routes. Rail movement does indeed exist for both sides – a discrete number of units per side can be railed anywhere within France (for the Allies) or Germany (for the Central Powers), but then it’s time to hop out and employ the shoe leather. This really works rather nicely. The Germans in particular (who advanced the farthest) found that troops and supplies could be moved rapidly to their railheads, but then had to be marched to where the action was.

Units may move from one node to another in a single turn, or two for units with equine auxiliars (that’s cavalry to you). Not a glacial pace, as each turn is about three days, but you get a sense of reserves and replacements being left behind as the advance gathers pace (should you get your units to do so).

The turn structure itself is quite simple: move your units (stopping them when you enter an enemy-held node), and engage in combat where opposing units share a node. Units have 1-4 steps, with the old one-dice-per-step-and-six-to-hit resolution (which, by the way I think is a perfectly valid alternative to a CRT). Some terrain types cause units to reduce their dice, one (slopes, for example those in front of Verdun) allow the defender to inflict losses first (losses are simultaneous otherwise).

Fortresses (the map is dotted with them) both reduce dice for attackers, and allow defenders to hunker down and thus avoid fighting in the open. These take time to wear down and can slow down an attacker considerably.

There are no stacking limits, so you could in theory place everyone in a single city, though I would suggest this would not be a game-winning strategy. Lest you recoil in horror at the buckets of dice that two armies¬†colliding¬†into each other would produce, the¬†game¬†takes mercy on our poor wrists by allowing only three units from both sides to take part, and there is but a single combat round. If neither side is eliminated, the attacker must first decide to stand or return from whence he came. If the attacker stays, the defender my then choose to stay (in which both sides remain in contact), or withdraw to another adjacent node. Should the defender stay (and don’t in their own turn move out) then they must in turn attack.

Units need to trace lines of supply along lines of communications free of enemy units back to to a valid supply source, with pretty hefty penalties for failure to do so (each unit that cannot loses a step). However, lest this be thought too harsh, supply can be traced through contested areas. For the French these are cities along the east edge of the map (Orleans, Chartres and so on), and for the Germans the cities of the Rhine.

So far, nothing unusual and nothing to make you sit up and take notice. What makes the game shine for me is that it tries to avoid as far as possible the hindsight inevitable in any historical game. We know that the Schlieffen Plan was unlikely to succeed (particularly once von Moltke the Younger got his maws on it). We know that We know that Plan 17 was likely to fail on the firepower of German machineguns. But the generals of 1914 knew no such thing. So anything that can lessen this for me is A God Thing.

The first thing is that units are inverted, so you don’t know whether that unit coming down the road is a German Guards division or a second-line Landwehr formation. Both sides also have unit holding boxes, so that single unit could be just that, or it could be a 12-division juggernaut. So there is a certain amount of guesswork, and you can do things like use your cavalry as probes (they can retreat before combat, so move them into an area and you’ll get an indication of what’s there).

The second thing is the chits (or cards in the MDG version) that both sides draw at the game’s start (5 for the Central Powers, 4 for the Allies). Neither side knew that machine-guns would be so murderously effective on the defence. The British were not necessarily going to intervene in a continental war (unless Belgian neutrality was violated). The German High Command feared that there would be Russian troops sent to aid the French. These and other possibilities are built into the cards/chits. For example, both sides have a ‘Machine Gun Defensive Tactics’ option. If this is pulled and played, then the defender (for the side that pulled it) hits on a 5-6, which then applies to all defenders three turns later.

So all sorts of things may or may not happen. If neither side draws MG tactics, they don’t occur. The Russians may appear. The British may turn up, even without the beastly Hun invading Belgium (and their troops may not have the professionalism that they did historically). So both sides are a bit in the dark about how the war may proceed.

The chits/cards also affect victory conditions. Players gain victory points for holding large cities and cities (not necessarily fortresses РVerdun,  being only a town, is worth no VPs). They are lost for chits/cards played. Most are 1 or 2 VPs and need to be played if you have them. However, some like the Russian Reinforcement and British Intervention chits are worth quite a few VPs and players may have to think about whether these should be played.

So the game plays like a pair of boxers wobbling across the canvas, neither quite sure of what to expect. What we can expect is that the Germans will be on the offensive (with superiority in combat strength points this is not surprising). The only question is where.

I played the Central Powers in our first game and tried to replicate the Schlieffen Plan with even less success than Moltke the Younger. Though I had both the Fortress Capitulates (allowing me to take Liege on turn 1) and Fortress Artillery chits (giving me the big fortress-busting guns) movement through Belgium proved painfully slow (Brussels eventually fell, but Antwerp never did).

For our rematch I defended la Republique against les Boches and thought that it would be fun to try Plan 17. I left a screen of units in the north to slow any German thrust through Belgium, and left a reserve to either send north to defend, or east into Germany as the situation dictated. Otherwise the big divisions were piled up against the German frontier.

I also drew the Russian Intervention, British Professionalism and British Armoured Car chits. I wanted to avoid using the former, but thought that the latter two would certainly be handy should Belgium be invaded.

Chris, dastardly fellow that he is, decided on a thrust though and south of the Ardennes 1940-style. I was taken rather by surprise (it was the weakest point in my line) but of course shouldn’t have been. It was, after all where the Prussians came through in 1870.

So Luxembourg was taken in short order. I was surprised that the Germans also invaded Belgium, but his play of the Fortress Artillery chit meant that Liege was in trouble. My planned invasion (nay, liberation) of Alsace-Lorraine hit a stumbling block with the MG Tactics chit coming up. Merde! My troops got a right hosing, scotching Plan 17 on the spot.

What resulted was a limited German push through Belgium, and a rather better German push in the south than managed historically. Verdun, for example came under heavy German attack (at one point surrounded) and at the end of the game still in danger.

Two things helped stem the tide. One was that the British troops that arrived proved to be as professional as their historical counterparts, but also had an armoured car unit. Though only 2 strength points it fires first in any combat. The second was that the Russians arrived, and not before time as at one point a large hole was ripped in the front near Sedan.

We ended the game on the Sept 22 turn (game turn 14) giving the Allies (that’s me – yay!!!!) a close victory. The end of game positions:

Final Positions - North

Front line – north

frnt sth

Front line – south

The two salients were the positions around an almost cut-off Verdun (tracing supply through a contested node).

While very clever the game is a little long for a single evening (we got through about half the game in 3 hours). The buckets o’dice don’t help, and I wonder whether the engine would work with less polyhedral propulsion? I also wonder about the loss rates. In just over a month the Allies had about 38 divisions hors de combat, the Germans a similar number. If we reckon that a strength point is roughly a battalion, then both sides had about 65 battalions along the western front after about 39 days action. This means that the Allies lost about 125 battalions and the Germans about 80. This seems a little high though this could simply reflect our individual playing styles (I was much less inclined to give ground than perhaps I ought to have been, leading me into a couple of costly counter-attacks).

According to the designer fortresses in the original were rather too powerful (we played the Warg’s version because we both had it), and I would be interested in seeing how game play changed between editions. On the whole, quite clever, and fun for makers of cunning plans.