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    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    The first world war has had an uphill battle to be recognised as a gaming period, partially rooted in the “lions and donkeys” historiography in England in the 60s and 70s. Historians in the field have mostly abandoned that in favour of the “learning curve” but the minds of wargamers seem slow to change.

    To this day, despite ample evidence to the contrary in both miniatures rules (like Through the Mud and the Blood, Blood and Valor and Price of Glory) and board games (like Paths of Glory, The Lamps are Going Out and Imperial Tide) when I discuss WW1 wargaming, I still get people incredulously opining that WW1 is “unplayable”, that it is “only lining up men and moving while the other side guns them down” or that it is only gameable in Palestine.

    I’ve even seen it at convention games where there is literally a game being put on, so it should be self-evident that it is indeed quite playable.

    The tide is slowly turning when you look at things like replies on askhistorians, but good grief, John Terraine penned “The smoke and the fire” in 1980 (and he had been fighting that battle for years). Paddy Griffith (a fellow gamer no less) penned his polemic on the western front in 96.

    I have some thoughts and ideas for a future project but I wanted to hear from other WW1 gaming enthusiasts.
    Do you run into this? Did you give up arguing about it? Show and tell to win people over?

    Avatar photoMartinR

    No, I can’t say I’ve found any great issues running WW1 games, nor have my pals who do the same. The war itself is very different at the beginning, middle and end though, across all theatres. Even more so than WW2.

    We do mainly play grand tactical or operational games though, which allows you to abstract some stuff out.

    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke

    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    What rules do you use for operational stuff?

    Avatar photoPatrice

    I still haven’t tried to do it, but there are certainly many ways, including small skirmish. I heard that a great-great-uncle of mine (KIA one month before the end of WW1) had been a “nettoyeur de tranchée“ (“trench cleaner“)…


    Avatar photoGeneral Slade

    I think I am one of the people you are complaining about.  WW1 has never really appealed to me as a period to game though I have toyed with it from time to time and do possess a fair number of 15mm figures waiting to be painted.  Funnily enough, it is the terrain that really puts me off.  Trenches just seem really hard work to make (and let’s be honest, if you haven’t got trenches you’re not really doing World War One).

    That said, Paths of Glory is one of my favourite boardgames (possibly even my favourite boardgame – it’s a toss up between that and GMT’s Blue vs Gray).  What I really like about it is that you never quite have the resources to do what you want to do and your plans unravel even as you make them.  I think it is a game that all politicians should be caused to play before they are allowed to send their nations to war.

    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    Paths of Glory is absolutely teeth grinding to play because as you say, you need to do a number of things each turn and the resources add up to about half of them 🙂

    If you are into board games, check out “The lamps are going out” from Compass games.

    Avatar photoGeneral Slade

    If you are into board games, check out “The lamps are going out” from Compass games.

    Thanks.  I just checked it out on Boardgame Geek and it does look interesting.

    Avatar photoMartinR

    OP14 by Richard Brooks. The units are brigades and Formations are Corps, we typically deploy multiple Corps. Although aimed at 1914/15, they work fine for the entire war. I ran Amiens with them a couple of years ago. I’ve also run a few games with Megablitz, which is easy to adapt to WW1.

    Grand tactical rules are ten a penny, although I generally prefer Great War Spearhead. We had a brief diversion via the Pz8 WW1 rules, which are actually really good. Battalion sized elements with a heavy emphasis on artillery ammunition.

    The Machine Age rules in Neil Thomas’s One Hour Wargames work well for a quick game.

    Naturally, I write my own too. “Drumfire”, my Corps level trench warfare rules are on my blog.



    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke

    Avatar photoDarkest Star Games

    Not that long ago I played in a trench raid game that used Skirmish Sanguin as the basis.  It was quite detailed and there was a time limit put on the activation of each soldier so you really didn’t have time to plan, just keep pushing on.  It felt hectic and frenetic and was very brutal.  I was exhausted by the end, but well satisfied even though I technically lost (a well placed grenade got 3 of my guys right at the end as I was withdrawing with an officer as a prisoner).

    I have not yet played out an actual large attack across no-mans-land, but it would be interesting if there was some sort of pre-battle stuff that could make help make a difference or modify the action.

    "I saw this in a cartoon once, but I'm pretty sure I can do it..."

    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    Ive kicked around ideas for dealing with wire (where do you cut it the night before, where do you shell etc.) but the issue is that if the wire doesn’t get cut, the attack just isn’t gonna succeed.

    I’m sure the idea could be built out though. I read a book recently on raids and they were fantastically elaborate affairs with fires in different areas, decoy fires, men assigned to a number of tasks etc. You could definitely turn that into a whole pre-game sequence, maybe with the othyer side having a limited number of precautions.

    Avatar photoMcKinstry

    For naval gamers WW1 is pretty popular. Big guns and big ships with no annoying airplanes and mostly ineffective torpedoes to intrude on the fun.

    The tree of Life is self pruning.

    Avatar photokyoteblue

    I always wanted to do The Great War but never really got to do much of it with FOW.

    Avatar photoGuy Farrish

    I’m not sure you can treat a World War ‘unfairly’.

    There are however lots of reasons why it is not as popular amongst wargamers as some other periods, some good some bad.

    Colour. The panoply of war has gone. Nobody, except the French briefly in 1914, retained colourful uniforms.

    Did anyone ever get any prizes for the look of WWI uniforms regardless of colour? They look ‘modern’ yet not. No Hugo Boss style here, nor ridiculously tight waistcoats or feathery hats. Not catwalk material. Not ‘sexily’ butch like modern Special Forces kit nor decadently foppish like sixteenth century landsknechts or eighteenth century cads.

    Scale. Units of decision feel like they have moved up several gears. Battalions are ripped through in minutes and if you aren’t commanding a Corps you won’t have a side to play with after a few minutes. (Not necessarily true but it’s a potent feeling). This is tied to:

    Mud Blood and Interminable Poetry. Sassoon, Owen, Brooke have a lot to answer for as do Alan Clark, Oh What A Lovely War! and Blackadder. These aren’t history books (even Clark’s works which are often made up for effect) but they constitute a lot of people’s sole knowledge of the war.

    That leaves us with the technical games elements. There is a feeling that designing a game that reflects the conditions of the Western Front cannot provide a game experience. You either ditch the reality of pointless mass slaughter and make a game of it, or you spend the game like Haig in Blackadder sweeping hundreds of your own model figures up with a dustpan and chucking them away.


    Panoply of war – no corrective, it’s true.

    Uniform design? You could put them all in early 1914 dress uniforms I suppose – it works for a lot of Napoleonic and Seven Years War gamers. Otherwise no corrective available.

    Scale – all sorts. You need to select time and place and command level you are representing. Eminently correctable.

    Pointless horror – Step away from the poetry please Sir and place your brain cells where I can see them.

    Game – see scale as well – There are all sorts of fascinating games to be had, you just need to be sure what you are playing.

    You can play interesting platoon level games. Possibly not on the Somme 1916 so much but 1914 and 1917 on. Even Western Front trench raids mid war provide opportunities. These are often portrayed as small, section affairs, sneaking into enemy trenches at night and kidnapping someone or taking maps etc. Which can be fun. There were also large set piece affairs designed to keep ‘dominance’ of the sector and cause major disruption without being around long enough to get hammered with pre registered artillery and counterattacks. Other fronts retained more mobility – but don’t blame me if the ‘oblique approach’ in the Dardanelles or Salonika feels more like a pointless meatgrinder than the Western Front. Wishful thinking strikes again. The rush to the mountains and the sea period of the Western Front, as trenches step sideways to occupy space in 1914 has more mobility and impact of smaller units before the front stagnates.

    The development of infiltration tactics by the British and their pay off in the late war is a great opportunity to return that human scale if that’s what you are looking for, with figures on a tabletop. No line of doomed youth walking into machine gun fire kicking a football here. Britain developed the ‘Stormtrooper’ before Germany, more effectively than Germany and eschewed frenzied hyperbole about it. (We won don’t forget). Well worth exploring on a tabletop near you, at company level say.

    Operational level, with maps, fog of war and frustrating missed opportunities might be the welcome corrective to the idea of low intellect toffs sat safely miles behind the front quaffing champagne throwing thousands of lives away for no reason. The scale of battles had finally completely outstripped the technological ability of the day to control them. A well designed game will leave you shouting for information from the front, giving orders based on reports hours old and wondering why your cunningly angled exploitation appears to be landing in empty air or worse yet being smashed by a counterattack.

    Players like decision points we are told. That’s what makes a game. A lot of WWI operational action is about the planning. Not a favourite of gamers seeking a fun afternoon rather than an extension of their day job. WWI lies tantalisingly on the cusp of the era of one man being able to direct the battle he can see (at least in theory) and a fully informed command post receiving remote input from a battlefield covering hundreds of square miles and being able to get messages in and out in real time to affect proceedings. It is perhaps the ultimate high frustration game, although a commander from any period in history might laugh at the idea they had it easy.

    Avatar photoNot Connard Sage

    Feckin’ trenches.

    Anyone who’s ever done any serious digging by hand with a shovel will tell you what a ballache it is.

    If you ain’t got trenches, you ain’t doing the Western Front. Apart from the first few months before everybody started emulating moles.

    Unfortunately, creating trenches in miniature, while less physical, is just as big a ballache.

    You need a lot of trenches. And barbed wire.

    Then there’s the moral aspect. While it’s true that there were more military casualties in World War II, the numbers were skewed by the Russians and Japanese emulating lemmings.

    And tanks. There aren’t enough tanks.

    Plus what Guy said, as usual. Except that we wouldn’t have won if the Doughboys hadn’t arrived to save our asses*. Though what donkey sanctuaries have to do with it is a mystery to me.

    *according to every American, ever.



    Obvious contrarian and passive aggressive old prat, who is taken far too seriously by some and not seriously enough by others.

    Avatar photoIvan Sorensen

    Trenches as models do suck. I use flat “mouse mat” terrain so it looks less goofy.

    As far as casualties, when I am given a minis army, 80% casualties are typical. Im also told some of these dice do have 6s on them but apparently that’s not in the sets I have bought 🙂

    Joking aside I got curious: One of John Terraine’s observations is that the big casualties are to an extent a function of battle sizes.
    The Somme sees something like 50 German divisions take part.
    Franco-British losses on the Somme is 620k in 137 days. So something like 4500 a day.

    Whats the biggest scrap in the west after France 40? The Bulge with 20ish German divisions?
    Allied losses were about 2000 per day, so about half the losses, fighting about half the German divisions.

    Monty rocks it at 750 casualties per day at 2nd El Alamein. He was facing what seems to add up to 12ish Axis divisions, so half the strength of the Bulge and a bit under half the losses per day.

    Avatar photoGeof Downton

    If you pick up the dice and turn them upside down you will find the sixes…

    One who puts on his armour should not boast like one who takes it off.
    Ahab, King of Israel; 1 Kings 20:11

    Avatar photoMartinR

    What Connard and Guy said. Yes, you do need a lot of stuff to game the bigger battles, terrain, figures, fortifications, and if you are a masochist like me, all the artillery, logistic elements and those shiny cavalry divisions waiting to exploit.

    My main trench systems are made out of poly filler on MDF bases, I score out the trenches then paint the insides a dark contrast colour so they look deeper than they are. They look 3D but are actually very flat, so easy to store. I made several yards of them 20 years ago and they have proved very useful, along with many, many feet of barbed wire made from florists wire.


    "Mistakes in the initial deployment cannot be rectified" - Helmuth von Moltke

    Avatar photoAdmiralHawke

    I’m not sure you can treat a World War ‘unfairly’.

    This. Nothing about war is fair.

    For naval gamers WW1 is pretty popular.

    And this. I often play naval battles from the Great War.

    I think what your question boils down to is: “Why aren’t games set on the Western Front between 1915 and 1917 more popular?”

    In addition to all the great points made above, I think there’s one simple reason. Prepared defences with trenches, barbed wire and machine guns could not reliably be overcome by artillery alone, severely punishing any attack with horrendous casualties creating a stalemate at the tactical, operational and strategic levels on the Western Front. That removed any useful power of decision from Lieutenants, Lieutenant-Colonels and Lieutenant-Generals. What could Joffre, Falkenhayn, Haig or Foch have truly done differently between 1915 and 1917?

    Wargames are interesting when different decisions lead to different outcomes:

    • Could King Harold have won at Hastings?
    • What if Desaix hadn’t arrived when he did at Marengo?
    • Could Villeneuve have avoided defeat at Trafalgar?
    • Could Ney have won at Quatre Bras?
    • What if Samsonov and Rennenkampf had been more competent at Tannenberg?
    • What if Mustafa Kemal hadn’t been in command when the Allies landed on Gallipoli?
    • What if Stopford’s troops had moved faster at Suvla Bay?
    • What if Jellicoe had made different decisions at Jutland?
    • What if Nagumo had taken different decisions at Midway?
    • Could the Germans have reached the Meuse in December 1944?

    Perhaps you have been looking too narrowly at the Western Front, rather than the Great War as a whole. To Guy’s point about the colour, just look at Richthofen’s flying circus.

    Each of us finds our imaginations captured by different periods of history. Trench warfare on the Western Front was a particularly awful and largely pointless form of warfare until the tank (and more intelligent infantry tactics) broke the stalemate. I don’t think Western Front warfar is unplayable; it’s just that trench battles like the Somme or Verdun are so far down the list of even First World War battles that I would like to play that I know I will never set up a game. Tannenberg and the Marne are far more appealing, and that is just the land battles.

    Perhaps there’s one more thing. I am sure I’m far from alone on this forum in, like Patrice, having lost numerous relatives in pointless offensives on the Western Front. The futility of their deaths further limits the appeal of gaming trench warfare.

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