August 1914 – Boardgame Review
August 1914. Boardgame. Avalanche Press. Designed by Mike Benninghoff and Douglas McNair. $49.95.
Passed Inspection: System is easy to learn; scenario-specific rules provide great simulations of various WWI combat situations
Failed Basic: Artillery pre-plotting and execution add to game complexity and playing time
World War I gets little attention as gaming simulations go, due to the perceived static nature of the war and the limited (to put it kindly) grasp of tactics displayed by staff officers who plotted massive offensives in order to move the commander’s china cabinet six inches closer to Paris or Berlin. But look at the war on the Eastern Front, particularly in the early days, and you have a fundamentally different war of maneuver. This was the secret behind the classic SPI game Tannenberg, and now Avalanche Press steps in with August 1914, simulating the "opening salvo" of Russia’s invasion into Prussia.
The scenarios book has forty (40!) different battles from the first year of the Eastern Front.
This is the first entry in Avalanche’s new Infantry Attacks series, based on their WWII Panzer Grenadier system. There are similarities between the two systems, but this game reflects the slower-moving weapons systems and the archaic command-and-communications structures, so there are still plenty of nuances to pick up on. No blazing your way across the map to victory.
This game has excellent components. Open the box to find it crammed with four full-color countersheets (418 unit and commander counters, 165 game markers), six full-color mapsheets, five player-aid cards, the series rulebook, scenarios book, and two six-sided dice. Make photocopies of that Artillery Plan Card, though; you’ll be using it a lot …
After setting up their forces on a combination of maps (the maps are tactical, a mix of terrain features that can be used to represent pretty much any Eastern Front battlefield) and plotting their artillery fire for the game (more on that later), each player rolls a die and adds his army’s Initiative (varies for each side from battle to battle). High roller wins and can begin activating his units—possibly several units if the difference between initiative rolls is high enough.
Anyone who has played other Avalanche games knows the activation sequence: choose one unit or stack of units to activate; commanders can activate units in their own hex and all adjacent hexes, etc. Activated units take one action, either movement or attack (though there are a variety of actions such as dismounting, close assault, unlimbering artillery, etc., under those two broad categories). Commanders can activate subordinate commanders, who can activate units and other subordinate commanders; placed right, you can use your leaders to activate an entire "front" of units and move wall-like towards your opponent. Activations are automatic—no additional die rolls are needed—and continue until both players pass.
The movement rules are your basic "movement points based on terrain." Stacking is easy: three combat units (no more than two company-sized units) plus three transports along with any number of leaders can be in each hex. Artillery units have some movement restrictions (see more on artillery below). Enemy units can take Opportunity Fire during movement to make Direct Fire (rifles, pistols, machine guns) attacks. Machine guns get to make two Opportunity Fire attacks each turn. Artillery units are virtually immobile, either crawling along at one hex per turn or requiring wagon transport.
Combat comes in three forms. Direct Fire is your usual small arms and machine-gun fire. Any unit with its combat strength and range in black can use Direct Fire. Units stacked in the same hex and adjacent units that have been activated by a single Leader can combine their combat strengths against one hex. Add up the total attacking strength, locate that number on the Direct Fire Table to find the column you use, and roll 2d6 to determine the effect. Assault combat is similar to Direct Fire, but each player makes simultaneous attacks (both forces can suffer loss) and rolls one die.
Combat Effects are either Morale Checks or Step Losses. The combat table is structured so that both high and low rolls are bad; on most columns, 2 is the same as 12, while 5 through 7 are either "missed me" or Morale Checks only. Column Shifts apply to some targets—if you attack a mounted cavalry unit with a strength of 5, for example, you can jump one column up and be treated like you’re attacking with a strength of 11. Column Shifts apply only to an individual unit, not the entire attack, so it’s possible to have two or even three different combat results in the same hex from one fire combat.
Indirect Fire is, as would be expected with a World War One simulation, a big part of the game. There are two types of artillery, off-map and on-map. The big guns are the off-map artillery and are pre-plotted fire missions, set up before the game and executed each turn. On-map artillery units and mortars begin the game with either Planned Fire (pre-plotted attacks turn by turn), Move, or Open Sights (can attack spotted enemy units, no pre-plotting) missions.
The artillery rules are the sole dark spot in an otherwise smooth game design, though I’m not sure how it could be handled differently. The pre-plotting of artillery is a game in and of itself. Even a medium-length scenario of 20 game turns can have as many as a dozen guns on and off-map; that’s 240 plots. (Even if you don’t fire guns on specific turns, you have to record that fact for each gun!) And maybe it’s just because I’m no Napoleon, but it sure seemed that halfway through most of the games some of my artillery plots might as well have been aimed at the moon for all the good it was doing for my current battle plan, forcing me to abort them (and wasting all that magnificent pre-game plotting).
The scenarios book has forty (40!) different battles from the first year of the Eastern Front, beginning with some short introductory scenarios that are light on artillery and moving through some mammoth 40-turn monsters with so many guns you’ll swear your ears are ringing at the end of the game, with a full spectrum of battles in between. Many scenarios have special rules that definitely give you the "feel" for that particular battle and the unique weapons and tactics of the First World War. I especially enjoyed the Rising Sun scenario’s limited visibility rule, increasing from two hexes at the start to 12 hexes by the end to simulate the dawn.
Add in a variety of minor but important rules such as Friendly Fire, Drumfire, and Decapitation (if you lose your highest-rated Leader, your army suffers massive demoralization affecting activation and combat for at least three turns) and August 1914 is an excellent simulation of the First World War.
World War I games are few in number, and Avalanche makes a solid entry into the Great War with August 1914. I look forward to seeing how they will handle the more static Western Front with their Infantry Attacks system. Until then, I’ll just keep rattling my gaming table with this well-done game. And remember, Prussians never dig in!
About the Author
Sean Stevenson started wargaming with SPI and has spent the past 35 years as a freelance game designer and playtester. When not playing any of the 1000+ games in his personal collection, he can be found reading a book on Colonial America when not running several Pittsburgh area bookstores.