Take cover, lads!
There can be no denying that, from a purely visual perspective, the tragedy of the First World War holds a macabre allure. Think of those three characters ‘WW1’ and a plethora of powerful and hellish imagery springs to mind; wastelands of mud and shell holes, snaking trenches of duckboards and sandbags, barbed wire, machine gun nests, pounding artillery and the haunting vision of gasmasked soldiers advancing through a choking miasma. As senseless a slaughter as it was, the imagery of that time makes fertile ground for a boardgame.
Chronologically, The Great War is the ninth game to use the Commands & Colors rule system from designer Richard Borg (other famous entrants include Memoir ’44, Battle Cry and Commands and Colors: Ancients). The system is as simple as it is elegant, and each entry in the series has added its own slight twists and variations to the formula. In essence Commands & Colors games revolve around dividing a hexagonally gridded board into three columns – right, centre and left – and ordering units of troops into battle by way of a hand of command cards. Players draw from a communal deck of these command cards and play a card each round. With some exceptions, most correspond to one or more of the columns on the board, and specify a number of troops that can be ordered in that column. For example, one card may specify that three units may activate in the left column, whilst another may say that a unit from each column may activate. A unit’s actions are simple, but cover the basics – move and fight. Troops also count as being in two columns if the grid in which they are placed straddles a dividing line, and can move from one column to another.
It’s worth pointing out how enjoyable this basic system is on its own, even without any fancy extra rules to add flavour to the core experience. Each turn a player has to prioritise which units need to do what, as they can never activate all their entire army at once. Moreover, their choices are constrained by the hand they hold – if a crucial unit is in a column for which they have no card, they’re straight outta luck. Another feature worth mentioning is the casualty system. Whatever the particular Commands & Colors title, a unit is typically constructed out of about 3-4 models; if that unit takes a wound it loses a model. Units are never simply expendable grunts, as losing one will confer a victory token to your opponent, a certain amount of which are needed to win a game (typically 8). By this system Commands & Colors games provide a natural morale system without actually having to make specific rules for it. If a unit is down to its last model, any sensible general will prioritise getting them out of harm’s way by engineering a retreat.
The Great War’s principal spin on this system is the inclusion of that iconic feature of the Western Front – the trench. As is standard for Commands & Colors games, combat is resolved by way of special-faced D6s. Instead of numbers, dice bear several symbols – an explosion (insta-kill), a soldier (a kill under certain circumstances), a skull (a kill under fewer circumstances), a flag (retreat one grid) and a victory star (gain a command point, a sort of in-game currency spent to activate special Combat Cards). Trenches allow you to ignore two soldiers and two flags on a roll. It may not sound like much, but the difference it makes to the game is profound. Keeping units in the dugouts is essential to keeping units alive, as each side is armed with deadly artillery, machine guns and mortar teams that can quickly decimate an unprotected squad. Movement outside of a trench is always a calculated risk, and shows what a bleak prospect going ‘over the top’ is. One of the things that makes the Commands & Colors system so brilliant is that each entry into the series never feels like a cheap reskin, and it’s this trench system that really sells the WW1 theme and sets it apart from its stablemates. The rulebook comes with a decent number of missions with different terrain set ups, and each one makes the most of the environment to offer unique tactical experiences.
The Commands & Colors games have always straddled the line between boardgame and wargame, and The Great War comes with miniatures for each side (brown coloured British and Germans in grey), which gives it a big fat tick in this reviewer’s opinion. Originally, the figures were rather brittle hard plastic minis that were prone to snapping when removed from their sprues. This was mercifully rectified with the release of a centenary edition, which replaced the figures with more flexible, sprue-less PVC plastic versions instead. The game also had two expansions – one for tanks and another for the French army – that extends the game’s replayability without unbalancing the core experience.
Even if you’re not a history buff, The Great War is absolutely worth your attention if you’ve even a passing interest in military games. If the period does appeal, meanwhile, you owe it to yourself to try it out.
PLAY IT? YES
Designer: Richard Borg
Artist: Peter Dennis