Whoa! Now this is different.
It’s the last day of the Fall In 2019 convention and I notice a vendor selling the newest Compass Games title covering the Great War. This 2018 release is named Empires & Alliances (or EA for this review), a strategic level monster game or close to it. But heck, it had a 30% discount tag and since I’m a nut about all things World War I – especially this year – I forked over my plastic shekels and picked up a copy. When I got it home and cracked the box, I was a little more than surprised. Its large size could put the game into the monster category, but usually this means the rules thereof follow suit – long, detailed and complex. EA takes the opposite approach. Just consider something like any of the old Europa series or SPI’s War in Europe (with the Soviet production spiral from Hell – yeah, that one), but with no more rules than Avalon Hill’s France 40. Yes, it’s different.
Does it work? Yup, sure does, and here is how designer Rob Beyma did it.
EA has a retail price of $99.00 US, but there is a lot of stuff in the box, all full color and lavishly decorated in typical grand Compass fashion. There are, of course, rules, maps, counters and players’ aids, and the game certainly doesn’t shirk in the latter category. There are three order of battle charts that list initial forces, reinforcement schedules and replacement point allocation. One of these is for the Central Powers, one for the Allied Powers on the Western Front, and the last for those in the East plus the United States. There are two other charts x 2 so that each player has his own copy. One of these includes the War Weariness Tables on one side, the other having Weather, Rail and Sea Transport Capacity tables. The final chart has your usual combat tables on one side, and the terrain effects chart on the other. This last chart has one of the few shortcomings I found in the game. While combat results (such as EX or Exchange), as we shall see, are pretty simple, the definitions as to what they actually mean are missing and the rule book must be consulted. Given there is a color picture of infantry advancing at the bottom of this page, the room was certainly available.
The maps are 22 inches by 34 inches and there are three of them, plus a 22- by 11-inch add-on. This combination covers the entire landscape of the war save Palestine and the Caucasus, where deployment boxes account for forces fighting with Lawrence of Arabia and the lads. Each hex equals 30 miles and there is not an overabundance of terrain types. For example, there are no roads, but there are plenty of railroads. There are not different types of forests and the like, just forests. As a nice and helpful touch, the names of all the countries are rendered in their army’s counter color, outlined in black. In fact, all of the player charts noted above also follow this regimen as well. The result is a very large playing area, forcing me to use our formal dining room table for set up, my wife gleefully snookering me into clearing said table off after Thanksgiving dinner or it wasn’t gonna happen (cute).
There are 896 counters in the game, most being combat units using standard NATO symbology with three numbers, including attack strength, defense, and movement. About the only exception seems to be air units, which are top-down views of a SPAD XIII, Sopwith Camel, and a Fokker DR-1. Units represent historical corps, with a few independent divisions. There are no HQ units in the game, and the back of the unit counters have only a flag symbol, meaning complexities like step reduction are absent in the game. Other counters are more administrative, such as marking the number of replacement points, current weather, victory points and the like. Some are not, however, and include operational considerations such railheads, city fortifications and trenches, both hasty and long term. Traditional colors are used, such as scarlet for British units and light grey for German.
The rule book is a whopping 32 pages long of which two are the front and back cover, 11 are reserved for scenarios, two for optional rules, leaving 16 for the actual rules themselves, and all in big print. The rules are simple, with things like zones of control rating no more than four short paragraphs and a small image – barely a quarter page. The optional rules are mostly variable entry times for the various combatants with everything else minor upgrades to existing rules vice brand new game functions. The 11 pages for scenarios cover three different setups, one being the entire war from 1914 to 1918 (+), the other being a 1914 scenario with six turns, and then 1918 with nine turns. Each turn represents one month of actual time except for August 1914. This month is broken into two turns, a nifty way to simulate the high-speed operations that characterized the first month of the war. Victory is determined by the control of enemy cities.
Over the Top!
The sequence of play for EA is decidedly old school. There are five phases as noted below:
- Reinforcement Phase – Reinforcements and replacements are added to the board.
- Supply Phase – The supply status of all units are checked.
- Movement Phase – Units may entrench, and those that do not may move.
- Combat Phase – Units adjacent to the enemy may attack them.
- Admin Phase – Railheads are advanced, the supply status of unsupplied units are checked, and Demoralization Markers are manipulated.
Combat is easy to get into but bloody, as this is World War I after all. The table uses a 10-sided die to adjudicate traditional odds with familiar results such as Exchange, Defender Eliminated, Attacker Eliminated, etc., though there are some unique to the war such as No Result. Modifiers come in two flavors: strength modifiers (i.e., Unsupplied Level 2 x ½ strength points) and die roll modifiers (-1 if attacking into a swamp). Overall, the results seem to be keyed towards Exchange, No Result and similar conclusions. Absolute victory has been made harder. While traditional theory has always dictated 3 to 1 odds for 50% chance of success, you’ll need 5 to 1 odds for an even chance in EA.
Logistics is also simple. Units must trace a path no more than five hexes long to a supply source, usually a city, or to a railway that connects to a supply source. If this cannot be done, nasty things happen such as reduced movement, loss of zone of control, and reduced combat power. As a bit of chrome, sea supply is allowed, and different sizes of cities do have limits on the number of units they can support. In the reinforcement department, nobody builds anything in EA. Instead, reinforcements appear on the order of battle chart and are automatically deployed. Other units appear on the same chart but are not deployed. Instead, they are added to the country’s replacement pool. When enough replacement points are available, said unit may be deployed onto the map. The replacement points are automatically allocated per turn by country and, in a neat twist, these replacement points cannot be used to resurrect destroyed units.
There are of course some unique rules specifically inserted to make the game more Great War-ish. These include things like national morale, German Stosstruppen, siege artillery and one of my favorites, corps breakdown. The game allows certain countries to take a limited number of corps and break them down into divisions. This in turn means that if I have an area that warrants really no more than a division’s attention, I am not forced to deploy a full corps regardless. Otherwise, the author generally has opted for World War I realism via the modification of traditional wargaming processes as opposed to an entirely new way to do business.
And it works. I chose to play the first year of the 1914–1918 campaign scenario because I found the counter density just a little too light in the shorter scenarios for what I wanted to investigate for this review. I found the game easy and very quick-playing because of the streamlined nature of the rules and what they do not try to replicate. The complexity of the game comes from the sheer volume of forces one needs to manage and the size of the area in play. Yet this large parcel of real estate also allows for sweeping maneuver because outside the Western Front, there is always an open area to exploit somewhere. Consider the possibilities such as massive Italian collapse at Caporetto in 1917. Could the Austro-Germans have swung west through Northern Italy to attack southern France? The fusion of simpler, tried and true old school game theory with monster components makes gameplay like this realistically possible, because seriously, has anybody ever heard of anyone actually completing a game like Drang Nach Osten? No, me either.
Perhaps this has been done before, but my gaming history has always identified monster game components with monster game rules, and you can translate that into English as “unplayable.” Thus, my initial experience with EA has been a very nice breath of fresh air. I do wish, however, there might have been some extra scenarios, each covering the other three years of the war.
Indeed, there is so much good about this game, it is difficult to talk about any shortcomings. Alas, there are 99 of them, each with a dollar sign. Yes, I still have trouble playing games like this on a PC because I can’t look at the entire map in one shot and scrolling just doesn’t work for me. But is it $99.00 US worth of trouble? Would it be for a British gamer with the Pound Sterling so low, not to mention any Vampire Added Tax? My gut tells me that with PC wargames getting better all the time and covering the same subject matter, it might be a hard sell.
Nevertheless, if you can get pass the sticker shock, then EA is definitely one deserving a space on your shelf. The hybrid of monster components with simple rules is an experiment I would rate as a resounding success. I think you will as well.