World War One – La Grande Guerre – PC Game Review
World War One – La Grande Guerre. AGEOD / Matrix Games. PC game. $59.99 (physical) $49.99 (download)
Passed Inspection: Captures the sweep and scale of WWI.
Failed Inspection: Poor documentation, interface issues, occasional freezes and CTD.
Like the war itself, AGEOD’s World War One is sweeping and complex, but also confusing and not for the squeamish.
World War I was a man-made catastrophe that is only eclipsed by World War II. Europe, coming out of the 19th century, was full of hope and optimism but also unchecked nationalism. The horror to come was made worse because quaint ideas about warfare were out of touch with what technology could do to the legions of European youth. Elan and chivalry quickly gave way to the grim reality of water-cooled machine guns, horrific artillery barrages, and rolling clouds of poison gas. Within the course of four years, the industrial meat-grinder of war would sap Europe of its vitality and change the world forever.
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AGEOD, the game company that burst onto the strategic game universe with great titles such as Birth of America and American Civil War, now turn their talents to the Great War. The result is World War One – La Grande Guerre, a computer version of a board game by Philippe Thibault, the designer of the original Europa Universalis. Like the war itself, AGEOD’s World War One is sweeping and complex, but also confusing and not for the squeamish.
In terms of scope and features, WWI is aimed squarely at AGEOD’s strategy fan base. The game tries to be everything that wargamers look for in a grand strategy game. The concept is wonderful; all the game play elements we want are there. WWI certainly gets an A for effort. But the execution is less than stellar, and even after vigorous patching, WWI is still a rough ride.
This is a massive game. It is the first computer game that portrays WWI as a truly global conflict: the map details Europe, the Mideast, Iraq and Russia, but also represents Asia, America and Africa. The region-based map has many hundreds of regions, and is so large, that players will be forgiven if they sometimes get lost. The occasional disorientation is not helped by the map’s 90-degree, counter-clockwise orientation, though that is something that does grow on the player with time.
Military units are infantry and cavalry corps, artillery units, air squadrons, and ship flotillas. Each unit is rated for factors like attack, defense, movement, support value, moral, and (for ships) gun range. Like other AGEOD games, these units also have nicely done portraits that depict the correct uniform or equipment.
Units are organized into armies or fleets. Headquarters are essential for units to move and fight at full capacity. Armies may spread out over several regions on the map and include both front line units and a set of reserve corps. Historic commanders like Paul von Rennenkampf and Paul von Hindenburg are assigned to the HQs. These commanders are rated for their ability to not only attack and defend, but also to coordinate their moves with other armies and to react to enemy moves. There is a political price to pay for replacing commanders, so sacking a sluggish general must be done with care.
The game is turn-based, with each turn representing one or two months of real-time depending on the season. For the first turn of the 1914 Grand Campaign, there is also a pre-turn that is used for Germany’s surprise overrun of Belgium in August of 1914.
Even with the basic unit being a corps, WWI has hundreds of units on the board at once. The army organization makes movement and combat for this large number of troops manageable, but still, playing a major campaign like 1916 gives the player a wonderful appreciation for the sweep and scope of the Great War. Fighting in the deserts of Iraq, the mountains of Serbia, and the trenches of France all convey just how massive the war was.
WWI is not just huge, it is also complex. The player is hit hard by a learning curve that the documentation, tutorials and interface could do a much better job in easing. Even after many hours of playing, this reviewer still found himself stumbling to understand all the nuances of basic things like the turn sequence. Sometimes, it feels like just getting through a year in the game is an accomplishment, never mind what you were actually able to do on the field.
The game’s turn-sequence phases are borrowed directly from the board game. The phases are events, diplomacy, redeployment, reinforcement, military and siege. There are also some sub-phases like breakthrough that only occur in special circumstances. While these are logical, the interface doesn’t really lead the player through them as well as it could. The information is there but is often hard to find, cryptic and not intuitive.
In the events phase, the game deals a handful of event cards to the player. These are tactical or turn based cards that can be played anytime. Some give bonuses in combat; some offer strategic advantages such as Mata Hari stealing the enemy’s plans and lifting the fog of war. This is also the phase where historic events play out. In the beginning of the war for example, the British can make the historic decision to keep or release two warships they were building for Turkey. Like all of AGEOD’s previous games, there are plenty of history lessons in WWI.
The game also sports a diplomacy phase where the player deploys diplomats to neutral nations and attempts to sway them into the player’s camp. Even changing a country’s attitude just a bit can have positive consequences. If Sweden warms to Germany, for example, it can help with getting around the French and British blockade.
Interestingly, research and recruitment don’t fall into a phase. The player can pull up the screen to buy new units at almost any time. Of course, it will take three or four turns for these new units to show up on the battlefield. The research screen can also be accessed at any time. Here, the player can fund new technologies that might improve air units, introduce tanks, or introduce poison gas. The game does a great job in showing how the progression of technology affected the tactics on the field.
Movement and combat occurs during the military phase. The player has an option to play an innovative army-by-army activation rule that, once mastered, adds a great deal to the period feel of the game. As the player starts his military phase, he activates and moves one army at a time, starting with his main army. If he can try to move another army, a special coordination check is made. As this first round of armies completes its move, the enemy player checks for reactions or interceptions. Combat is resolved, and then the player activates the next set of armies until he has no more movement. This rule feels very historic, particularly on the early Eastern Front, where lack of good portable wireless sets made coordinating the maneuvers of large armies especially challenging.
Combat is resolved in a series of rounds played card-game style. As the game progresses and tactics improve, the player is given options like defense in depth or a chlorine gas attack prior to combat. The player selects a corps and its artillery or tank support to lead the attack. The defender likewise selects a corps to defend. Once the Engage button is pressed, fighting corps might be destroyed, damaged or disrupted. The players select the next group of corps and fight again. This process is repeated until one side runs out of units or decides to retreat. If the winner manages to keep reserves in the rear, a breakthrough or counterattack round can occur. Sea combat is slightly different in that range is tracked, and the player can fire all of his units that are in range at once.
While this card-game style combat does not realistically reflect movement of corps on an army front, combat is still fun and gives the player a great sense of involvement. In later stages of the game however, when there are ten combats in a turn, minor fights can become tiresome. Fortunately, there is an auto-resolution button.
One complaint about combat is that there is no feedback to the player on how results were achieved. So based on tactics and the units chosen, the player has only a vague idea of what his odds are. Even after many combats, players really have little understanding of what is working and why. You just press the button and hope for the best.
While there are some issues with combat at the detailed level, WWI does a great job with the overall strategic feel of the war. In 1914, maneuver and breakthrough are the keys to gaining ground. But tactics quickly shift to trench warfare. By 1916, corps after corps dissolves when attacking enemy entrenchments. Just as in the historic battle of the Somme, where there were over a million casualties, such slaughter begins to sap national will. But by 1918, tanks and specialized assault troops give attackers a real chance of victory.
The AI player in WWI is better than your average AI but not brilliant. It has an uncanny ability to exploit the player’s mistakes. If the French human forgets to beef up a weakened army defending Soissons, the result will be German cavalry ordering schnitzel at some of the finer cafes along the Champs Elysees. The AI is capable of performing a dumb AI trick now and then, however. In Palestine, for example, the Turkish AI often leaves its flank open, ignoring Lawrence’s Arab cavalry.
For those players tired of the AI, WWI does allow for multi-player online play. While this aspect of the game was not reviewed, it is pretty clear that both you and your human opponent should really understand the game mechanics before you attempt this.
The game comes with a broad mix of scenarios. There are long campaign games like 1914, 1916 and 1918 that use the entire board and all nations available. One nice feature of the 1914 scenario is that the player can choose a strategy that will radically alter the initial starting positions. For example, the Hindenburg plan will shift armies to the East and concentrate on knocking Russia out early.
Then there are shorter scenarios like Tannenberg, Serbia, Coporetto, and Palestine. While the large campaigns take several sittings to complete, the shorter scenarios can be played within an hour. The Jutland scenario is just one turn, takes ten minutes to play, and really only amounts to a demo of the sea combat system.
WWI stands its ground well in the graphics and sound department. The map and menus are colorful, and sepia toned, giving a nice period feel. Like previous AGEOD titles, units have historic uniforms that change with the technology of the war. For example, German units start the war with the spiked pickelhaube, move to the distinctive M16 steel helm mid-war, and by late war Strosstruppen sport camouflaged M18s. Sound effects are mixed; ranging from the good (air-combat) to the not-so-good, like the wheezing "charge" that is played with each round of combat.
The game’s sound track stands out for special mention as being a real highlight of the game. There are an amazing 85 mp3 tracks of WWI–era songs; that’s four hours of music, for those who spend their day plugged into an iPod. Most songs are either contemporary recordings or played by military bands.
This review was completed on version 1.05f. This is one game where installing the latest patch is required for the players’ sanity. While AGEOD has aggressively exorcised the worst demons of the initial version, there is still some more work to do. Most frustrating will be one or two CTDs/freeze ups, per sitting. Frequent saves and restarts get you past this; curses and pounding on the desk will make you feel better.
The interface is in need of improvement as well. While much of the game is streamlined, there are functions that require far too much clicking. Reinforcements are a good example. The player has a display with new units coming in and a scroll-down list of armies to assign them to. But since the number of corps in an HQ varies by commander, the player does not know if the displayed HQs still have capacity. The result is a trial-and-error approach where the player picks up the new corps, drops it onto a HQ, is told there is no more room—and so tries again elsewhere. Furthermore, the player must develop a delicate and nuanced mouse technique to do basic things like attach and detach corps to armies. Get it wrong, and the game patiently waits for the player to keep trying until his technique is just right.
The other major frustration with WWI is amount of time it takes to learn how to play the game. The manual seems to have been thrown together quickly, and rarely offers enough detail for the player to really understand game mechanics. The best documentation is often in very long tool-tips but is sometimes cryptic. The tutorial has its good moments but ignores major elements of game-play, like what to do with your navies. Overall, the player has to concentrate too much on learning how to do things, rather than plan and execute a strategy to win the war.
While World War One – La Grande Guerre has many issues, there are also plenty of moments where AGEOD’s magic touch does shine through. The game is filled with history as well as some good wargaming. This reviewer really likes WWI, and can’t wait for it to mature and reach its potential. But until some more of the kinks are worked out, the game is really only recommended for those dedicated strategy gamers who can find game-play pay dirt in a sometimes frustrating experience. So if you are one of those dedicated strategy fans, synchronize your watch and ready your men. The whistle blows at oh-six-ten, and we go over the top …
Armchair General Score: 70%
Larry Levandowski has been a wargamer for more than 30 years, and started computer gaming back in the days of the C-64. Until he recently discovered the virtues of DOS box, much of his computer game collection was unplayable. A former U.S. Army officer, Larry has done his share of sitting in foxholes. Since leaving the Army, he has worked in the Information Technology field, as a programmer, project manager and lead bottle washer. He now spends his spare time playing boardgames, Napoleonic and WWII miniatures, as well as any PC game he can get his hands on.