Ein Fuhrers Befehl from our friendly editor was received recently, so it looks like I will be alternating tabletop duties with some computer gaming. No problem and actually fun as, much to the chagrin of my accountant spouse, I am very much a wargaming Renaissance man who also does a lot of digital play. And given we continue to honor the 100th anniversary of one of my favorite military eras (World War I, or simply WWI), I’m a happy camper.
So expect some digital Great War goodness the next several months, starting with a relook at one of my favorite games on the subject, the HPS/John Tiller Software computer game France ’14 (or F14), covering the Guns of August period. But if you’re looking for details on how this software works, it’s not here. With one exception (targeting units with indirect fire one turn in advance, very realistic BTW), the game is really a slower clone of the Panzer Campaigns series in both look and play. Only internal combustion engines are missing, and besides, colleague Jim Cob has already done the deed with sister game East Prussian ’14.
Instead, let’s highlight a couple other reasons why this game mandates a space on your shelf, the most important being this WWI game is nothing like the Great War at all.
Through the mud and blood – not
In wargaming, not to mention cinema, WWI means the Western Front, 1915 – 1918, trenches, machine guns, barbed wire, Fokker DR-1s and so on. Many like the challenge of doing what the original generals could not, end the slaughter and stalemate. Additionally, techno weapons such as tanks only appeared later in the conflict. While the east had a similar environment, German disinterest plus a huge but ineffective Russian army (General Aleksei Brusilov noted) equals boring, and exceptions like Gallipoli are just that – exceptions. People know Ypres, not Lodz. Yet most (not all, to be sure) games on the war are strategic, and the reason is profound. Operational warfare – and to a large extent. tactical – had ceased to exist.
Here strategic is defined as national level resource management, operational the conduct of campaigns and tactical, battles or below. Formally, however, operational art concerns “maneuvering friendly forces into battle with the enemy under the most favorable conditions possible.” The key here is “maneuver” and by 1915 that concept no longer existed. While machine guns and railroads share blame, the real culprits in the west were lack of real estate and the German reserve mobilization system adopted by most armies after its success in the Franco-Prussian War. This allowed maintaining huge armies that could cover every meter between Switzerland and the Channel several ranks deep. Open ground for movement, and the flanks created, vanished until tanks and Stosstruppen appeared as viable replacements. The only option left threw huge, ever growing masses of soldiers and material headlong against the enemy. This is resource allocation, strategic warfare, not operational (or tactical).
Not being like this is the primary strength of F14 , one of only two or three truly operational campaigns of WWI. Flanks existed because open ground existed and thus large scale maneuver remained reality. One could conceivably “be where the French aren’t and be there with everything you’ve got.” To this end F14 portrays one kilometer per hex and two daylight hours per turn. Units are infantry battalions, cavalry regiments or squadrons, artillery batteries or battalions with machine gun companies. The maps are, however, the big draw, due their openness, not only for terrain, but the paucity of combat units therein. Tabletop wise, there is nothing with this level of detail on a scope so large. Remember the 1914 battle of Ypres stretched 100 km, while the entire 1815 Waterloo campaign was but 68, then garnish that salad with movement that ebbs and flows vice remaining trench line static. Using the computer’s inherent data mining horsepower is really the only way to make battalion level play manageable, and this also makes F14 a better choice than comparable tabletop fare.
A lead connection
I play this game a lot, but my entry point is using it to research my own upcoming tabletop rules with scenarios in support. Yes, now I’m behind schedule. But with Google digitizing the world, why do I need F14 as a resource? Because the way the Great War ended – the Germans lost.
Post 1815 saw the birth of official military histories, and nobody did it better than the vaunted 2d Historical Detachment, Imperial German General Staff, followed by the Austrians and Russians. These chaps produced information that seems specifically keyed to wargamers, both designer and player. This includes color maps showing detailed terrain and precise unit locations. It includes equipment manifests and hyper detailed orders of battle for the armies involved, not only at specific battles, but also at crucial times outside the battlefield. Most importantly, the coverage not only included friendly forces, but enemy armies to boot. Hell, some of the best studies were on conflicts between other nations, not their own.
But post 1918 – zip. The Ottoman and Russian empires fell, so no history was ever written. The Austrians managed to produce official documentation (Österreich-Ungarns letzter Krieg 1914–1918), but it is short and strategy oriented. The same can be said for the German (Der Weltkrieg 1914-1918), where the Reichsarchiv replaced the old 2d Detachment. There was an unofficial supplementary series (Schlachten des Weltkrieges) that looked at individual battles, tho incomplete and inconsistent in quality. Indeed, some volumes seem diaries, while coverage is limited to friendlies only. And unlike other participants – Italy’s L’Esercito Italiano nella Grande Guerra 1915-1918 gives daily ammunition stats by battery – detail is lacking. The information still exists, but now it must be found and compiled from dozens of sources.
F14 offers a complete one stop shopping substitute. The game gives both unit and terrain data to the same detail level as official histories, but with maps tailor made for miniatures wargaming as there is no doubt what terrain is where, or which of a bazillion roads to include. Units come with location, strengths weapons data and just playing the game can reveal the impact of obstacles, weapons ranges, % of hit or movement rates across various types of ground. A detailed order of battle for everything is available as a separate screen, and do not ignore the Parameter Data link on the Help pull-down menu from the top menu bar. Here awaits a plethora of scenario information such as precise foot or rail movement, sunset time or stacking limitations for troops on a road or towed artillery.
Some hearty sole has done what official historians could not, so take advantage of it.
F14 is certainly not a perfect game. Like most PC games, for example, it suffers from not being able to see the entire map in detail as one can on paper. This flaw still drives me a bit nuts. However, the good discussed above heavily outweighs little nits like this, and there are additional small pluses as well. The game can be modded, and my own copy has two free mods long installed. The first came from one of the designers, (Volcano Man; yes, a designer modded his own game), the other a more comprehensive patch called End of the Belle Epoque. The changes are mostly cosmetic such as more accurate portraits, but as such some are quite nice. Belgian counters changed from orange to dark grey to better mimic their actual uniforms, while the terrain was retextured in old Talonsoft style. The images with this article reflect these changes. This makes it easy on the eyes, and low hardware requirements make it easy on the keyboard. It plays on Windows anything, and only requires a 1 gig processor, 1 gig RAM and 1 gig storage to run.
In conclusion F14 is an excellent game all around, one of my very favorites and an absolute must for any gamer interested in The War to End All Wars. F14, however, raises to the top of the class due as much to the subject it covers as it does to the game play supporting it. This is a good thing, as it reminds us that just as World War I was not all about trenches, computer games are not all about the banal mechanics of how well software processes run.