Squad Battles: First World War – PC Game Review
Passed Inspection: Incredible historical detail, fine portrayal of tactical evolution
Failed Basic: Mediocre graphics, dated interface
John Tiller’s Squad Battles series usually deals with specific, limited periods and areas. If the player likes the mechanics and interface, he receives insight into the specific conflict portrayed. Designer Edward (Volcano) Williams takes the series one step higher with First World War. Using ten years of research and work, he has created a document via a game system that shows the evolution of tactics from the late nineteenth-century to the embryo of modern small-unit doctrine. The fact that this history lesson is very entertaining is an added value.
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Beyond the User Manual
Reading a game’s designer’s notes is always a good idea but reading First World War‘s notes is an imperative. Veterans of the series may be lulled by the apparently familiar scale, graphics and mechanics. The almost-generic user guide may enhance the “been here before” feeling. A few paragraphs into the fifty-page designer notes it becomes obvious this game is quite different from the rest of the series in scale and game play. Williams tracks in detail how organization, tactics and weapon systems changed to an incredible degree over four years of horrific bloodletting. In doing so, he debunks some myths about the war while explaining game concepts and abstractions that aren’t in the user guide.
Red Kepis and Spiked Helmets
Mind-boggling graphics have never been a hallmark of Tiller games, but the graphics get the job done, imparting essential information to players. Four map views are offered: 2D zoomed in or out and 3D zoomed in or out. 2D unit icons show the heads of soldiers or silhouettes of heavy weapons, while 3D has figures on bases. Infantry shows up well on 3D, but equipment and tanks tend to blend into the terrain, so players will want to use the mouse wheel to easily switch views. NATO symbols can be chosen as an alternative for unit appearance. Terrain is fairly good from a top-down view, and improved positions such as trenches look nice. 2D barbed wire hexes, though, seem like old shingled walls.
Smoke lingers and is useful for cover. Barrages come in, showing shock rings and cratering the landscape. Poison gas spreads in green clouds. Sound not only has the usual booms and rat-a-tat-tats but the scream of incoming, the click of rifle bolts, officers’ whistles and an occasional rumble of an airplane engine. Many options to show company markings, organization and shadings for more actions and information are available. Dropped weapons can litter the field (there is an option to turn this feature off for clarity’s sake). Bold letters mark pinned and demoralized top units in a stack while small tabs on a stack edge denote the status of the other units and the presence of an officer.
The most interesting graphics are in the hex info area. This area gives the usual data about terrain protection and elevation, as well as information on the units and weapons in the hex. Unit information includes strength morale, status and stance; a right click will show the chain of command. Weapon data includes weapon status (a rifle or machine gun may start jamming), reliability, range, lethality and penetration. A fascinating aspect of this area is how it changes from 1914 to 1918. In 1914, French soldiers have red kepis and blue coats while the Germans have the iconic spiked helmet; British units have soft caps and Aussies have their jaunty up-turned brim hat. By 1918, Germans wear the familiar “coal scuttle,” the French the Adrian and Commonwealth troops the “soup bowl” helmet; nobody wore bright colors anymore.
Refining the Organization of Death
The mechanics of the game remain simple and a bit tedious. Left-click on soldiers’ pictures in the hex info area for one unit or double-click on a hex for all units there. Right-click to move a hex or CRTL+right-click to fire. This hex-by-hex system is the bugaboo of the system and needs changing. Nonetheless, players can overlook this, due to being enthralled by the game. Other commands such as choose high explosive, smoke, shrapnel or gas ammunition for artillery, pick up or drop weapons and put on gas masks can be ordered through the menu bar, tool bar or hot keys, as with other Squad Battles entries.
The scale in the series is the starting point for the evolution of the game’s tactics. At forty meters per hex, a squad or two usually fits nicely into a hex. However, the maneuver unit in the first half of World War One was a large platoon that covered a much larger frontage. For game purposes, units have been broken down into half-platoons and even these are abstracted, with the unit’s icon in the hex representing only the nucleus of the troops, in keeping with the limited flexibility of the period. The size of units gradually decreases in scenarios as the war progresses, first to sections and then to units generally resembling the modern squad. The end result is the late war German Stosstruppen, although Allied units become smaller and more flexible also. Representing this progression within the game is complicated by how special weapons were handled. Heavy machine guns required upwards of nine men to operate and were administratively separate from platoons. The light machine guns developed later were also handled first as independent entities but were slowly integrated into movement elements.
The weapons available to troops also reflect tactical evolution. Hand grenades are separate items, not inherent to a squad. Grenades are given to special sections, separate from regular infantry. Officers are given pistols as personal arms, not as something limited to assaults. The uses of some weapons such as spades are left to players’ imaginations.
Flamethrowers appear toward the middle of the war, and gas masks come shortly after the advent of poison gas. Gas is limited in quantity and is fired primarily from large on-board mortars. The effect of gas is not so much its lethality as its effect on ability. Gas spreads and is persistent, so attackers must don masks and suffer an efficiency hit. Of course, tanks make a significant impact beginning in 1916. The Allies have both “female” (machine guns only) and “male” (cannon and machine guns) versions; the huge German machines have both kinds of armaments. A nice touch is that tanks’ status can drop as they move, reflecting their mechanical problems.
Other innovations in First World War go beyond tweaking of the basic engine. “Inspirational gear” includes regimental colors and officers’ kit. Colors are used only in early battles and must be used standing up, not “on ground.” The casualty rate in color guards is enormous. Kits represent maps and compasses for selected officers and, late in the war, some NCOs. Both kits and colors provide morale boosts to troops who can see them. Use of them draws fire, however, duplicating the high officer losses in the war.
Other innovations are beyond the control of players. Rolling barrages are coded into battles, starting the first few turns. Each barrage has a different start line to limit friendly casualties. These barrages are the best way to clear wire if the scatter pattern is right. Some artillery and air support are completely random with players having no idea if, when or where this support may occur.
Over the Top!
The progressions of these innovations and abstractions can be seen in the sixty-six separate battles spanning the war. Although most of them are on the Western Front, Gallipoli is represented by eleven scenarios, and three Eastern Front battles are present. Battle sizes are a nice mix of company, battalion, regiment and brigade level, with Verdun having one monster scenario. Most battles have more than one scenario reflecting not only the scale of the game but that these clashes took place over weeks. Seven campaigns follow South African, Australian, British, Canadian, US Army and US Marine officers over a series of four to ten consecutive battles. The American officer is the historic Major Charles W. Whittlesey of “Lost Battalion” fame. The German campaign follows one officer who may be promoted over a seventeen-battle stint covering the entire war. A French campaign was planned but fell victim to the production schedule. Battles are won by capturing objectives and maintaining favorable kill/loss ratios. Campaigns are won by keeping the officer alive.
In the early days of the war, troops run crouching over open ground into massed machine guns and rifle fire. If a unit and officer make it to a demoralized enemy, a small breakthrough may occur. The middle years have the attacker advancing under cover of smoke and hopping into craters toward an enemy suppressed by bombardment and light machine guns. If the randomizer gods smile, the attacker may clear the first trench. Game play in the late war shows two different tactical approaches. The Germans concentrate on small, elite infiltrator units. The Allies also incorporate smaller units and rely on massed tanks to smash defenses. The AI is fairly good at defense but cowardly in attack. Replay is assured through PBEM and hotseat possibilities. A scenario editor allows modification of existing scenarios and the creation of new ones.
Criticisms over the Squad Battles series’ graphics and interface continue. With First World War, players who look past these elements will be rewarded with a fine example of how gaming can handle the evolution of tactics over an extended period. The research, linkage of mechanics to scale, and the breath of topic is magnificent. This game should be a shining example for designers and players everywhere.
Armchair General Rating: 89%
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 dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Grogheads, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad