John Tiller’s France ’14 – PC Game Review
France ’14. PC Game. Developer, John Tiller and Edward Williams. Publisher, HPS Games. $49.95.
Designer’s notes by Edward Williams give copious insights not only into play but also the history of the first five months of the war.
Passed Inspection: Superior research; fine system adjustments; many scenarios; relatively under-studied topic
Failed Basic: Bland graphics; handling the multitude of units in large scenarios is tedious
The question nobody asked is whether a game engine developed for World War II can work with World War I. The answer, provided by HPS and John Tiller’s France ’14, is “yes,” but only if the player loves the period and the engine. The most redeeming aspect of the game is that it illustrates how mobile the first months of the conflict were before the trenches were dug.
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The graphics, interface and mechanics will be familiar to players of the turn-based Panzer Campaign series. Maps can be either 2D or 3D with three levels of zoom. Overlays showing contours and various unit functions such as sight, movement limits, unit organizations and command range can be toggled using a tool bar, menu or short cut keys. A jump map helps with larger scenarios. Units are either battalions or companies shown in standard NATO symbols, 3D counters revealing more data or small, almost indistinguishable, icons. Players with high-resolution graphic cards should set resolution down to 1280×800. Better representations are shown in the left-edge unit box that also has values for fatigue, movement points and morale; more combat information and chain of command is displayed with a right-click. Right-clicks also bring up more data on terrain. Movement is done with left-and-rig`t clicks or click-and-drag. Non-artillery fire is done with CTRD-right click. Artillery and air missions are plotted via a dialgg. All actions are functions of movement points. Combat results as shown onscreen are men or guns lost, disrupted, broken or routed. Supply depends on the local terrain or a chain back to headquarter units, with movement and assault penalties for being low on supply or fuel. Morale is also dependent on the proximity of commanders.
The learning curve is smoothed with the usual “Getting Started” scenario. The 54-page PDF help document and the 94-page PDF user manual explain mechanics clearly; the 168-page PDF designer’s notes by Edward Williams gives copious insights not only into play but also the history of the first five months of the war and the organization of every army involved. Parameter notes for each scenario are available from a drop-down menu. Music is charming and sound effects add to the ambience.
Still, France ‘14 isn’t a Panzer Campaign in a spiked helmet. Unit types have been remade significantly to fit the period. Cavalry units do not have to leave travel mode to fight effectively and their charges can be crushing, although they will suffer heavier than usual losses when going up against machine guns. Cavalry units are distinguished by type, with some being mounted infantry while other function the same way as Napoleon’s Cuirassiers.
Recon units can have larger sight radii when movement points are spent to activate this ability. Heavy machine guns are represented as separate companies and require all their movement points to set up, meaning they can’t fire until the next turn. Only certain artillery pieces can fire indirectly and then only during the enemy’s turn after fire has been plotted. Artillery that will be able to fire indirectly in 1915 can only fire on targets in their line of sight in this game. Bicycle units, though vulnerable, are useful for certain terrain. New field fortifications have been added with the powerful fort position and their lesser kin such as redoubts. Air units can always fly recon missions and, in later scenarios, conduct strikes although the effects are not stupendous. The devastating siege guns can set up in half the probable time but can only fire once per turn. Only corps and cavalry, not divisions, can be switched to and from armies.
The changes in France ’14 go beyond tweaking units. New approaches in the relationship of movement and time create a different pace for the game. Foot movement has been reduced from about 4 km/h to around 3 km/h. Days are thus eight turns instead of ten, slowing operational exercises. Rail movement can speed things up strategically but rail capacity is limited. Communications, too, are less effective than their World War II counterpart. Thus, headquarters’ command radii are smaller, making more subordinate units lose command control. The effects of lack of control trickle down to the line units, which become less effective. The whole dynamic of play becomes very different and less mobile as the “teeth” must wait for the “tail” to come closer.
A Surfeit of Units
France ’14 has 33 stand-alone scenarios and six campaigns, covering the period from August to November. The smaller scenarios play fine with an adequate if stolid AI. Where the system will lose some players will be with the larger scenarios and campaigns. Even stacked, moving so many units individually is time consuming and tedious, especially when so much movement is moving to contact. The developers seem to realize this by breaking the overall campaign into six separate campaigns from the march to the Meuse to the Race to the Sea to the bloody thrusts in Flanders. This compartmentalization reflects the changing nature of the war and, yet, playing a campaign can be absolutely mind-numbing to players not soaked in Great War history. Players will have to play for hours to see if the Germans can “make the right wing strong” enough. This problem is alleviated to some extent with A/I orders, which give directions to all units in brigades, divisions and corps. However, so many of these organizations exist that even this method becomes cumbersome and unwieldy when contact is made.
The research displayed in this game has no equal and will be enjoyed by cognoscenti of World War I, whether in solitaire, PBEM of TCP/IP play. The scenario editor will offer opportunities for development. All this notwithstanding, France ’14 is for students of the Great War, not the general public.
Armchair General score: 83%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online, Ganesquad and Gaming Chronicle.