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Board Game: In the Trenches: Opening Engagements
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Eric Grenier
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Here are two reviews originally posted on Consimworld. The first is by Joe Oppenheimer and the second by Paul Aceto. They both gave me permission to re-post them here.


On the table: In The Trenches – Opening Engagements. This is Jeux Grenier Games first in a planned series of World War One tactical games. The units are platoon level but frequently function as companies of three or four units stacked together or moving abreast.

I was initially skeptical about this game because it requires the player to glue together strips of counters to make double sided pieces. Designer John Gorkowski saw my comments and asked if I’d consider giving the game a try if he sent me an evaluation copy with the pieces already assembled (so please consider that a disclaimer as to what motivations I may have in posting about this game). I’m really glad he did because I’m impressed with the games physical presentation and playability, and I intend to buy the follow up games as they are released.

The game uses two unique activation mechanisms. First both players roll two dice and calculate the differential; the player with the higher score gets to take that many activations and then his opponent does the same (if the rolls are the same then the turn ends unless this is the first activation). This mean the players will get equal numbers of activations but one of them will get to take a number of actions first. Units are activated as individuals or as formations and essentially get to do two things per turn --- a unit that hasn’t activated is called “free” and can move, dig in, fire, or initiate close combat; once it does one of these things it is marked as “engaged” and can still activate to fire or close combat before being marked “spent”. The exception is units which use indirect fire which move from free to spent when then range, fire indirectly or move. Engaged machine guns also have the special ability to continue firing at moving units without becoming spent unless doubles are rolled (this nicely models the deadly effects of advancing towards machine guns). One of the most common combat results is to increase a unit’s activation status so there is an interesting sub-game of when to activate units, how far to push them and when to risk using opportunity fire or return fire (which allows a sort of duel between two firing formations.

I played the short “Cavalry Eclipsed” scenario which pits Austrian and Russian horseman against each other in an August 21, 1914 that looks a little like something out of the Napoleonic Wars. The scenario is only six turns and plays quickly. The two sides enter a mostly open map with forces building up over the first few turns. There are ridge lines on each side which make a great spot for artillery and machine guns (since units on a hill can’t be subject to a cavalry charge unless the charging unit starts on the same hill) and one side of the map is dominated by grain fields which provide limited concealment from spotting but no real cover when fired upon.

This is the rare World War One battle that actually featured cavalry charges. In the game they can be a powerful tool, but can also fail miserably under enemy fire. The cavalry units have a very limited fire so the initial turns saw charge and counter-charge as company sized formations of three cavalry units activated and tore into each other. Much depended on die rolls with some attacks being halted or mauled by opportunity fire while others stamped in and smashed up the defending cavalry units.

The activation mechanism means that after those cavalry charges some units will find themselves able to carry out close combat (an odds based attack) against a seriously weakened foe and others will use direct fire to attack enemy units in their hex or to attack adjacent units that tried to charge but were stopped by opportunity fire. Other units will find themselves already spent and unable to respond to further attacks and will make excellent targets for charges. I really liked the interaction between the system of multiple activation levels and the combat results that include changes to activation status.

In my playing the Russians tried to overwhelm the Austrian defenders while the Austrians sought some concealment in the grain fields. While the first two turns saw much swirling cavalry action, by turn three there were machine guns and 75mm artillery setup on the opposing hills. The Austrians initially ignored the 75mm and were nearly obliterated by direct fire from the artillery (the guns more commonly use indirect fire but that is a two step process and one that doesn’t work well against moving cavalry so I setup the guns on the hill with a direct line of sight.

The Austrians realized they were too exposed and moved into the grain fields where they could avoid the heavy guns. The Russians went after them but their early enthusiasm waned as they took more and more step losses. The more open part of the map was now dominated by machine guns and 75mm and neither side wanted to expose their cavalry to the devastating direct fire these can deliver (there is a direct fire modifier against cavalry and an additional one against moving units so riding those horses in front of the guns is not recommended).

As the Austrians slowly moved into the lead on steps killed they took up a mutually supportive defensive posture in the grain fields that the Russians didn’t dare to charge.

The final two turns saw the first use of indirect fire in this scenario. The system has (as you’d expect in a WW1 game) an interesting indirect fire system. In the first turn an artillery unit places three markers indicating the potential target. Two of these markers are dummies while one is the real strike. In all cases the firing unit or an observing unit must be able to spot the target. The next turn (assuming the targets are still spotted) the artillery unit can fire by choosing drum (which hits one hex at full strength), barrage (which hits a cluster of seven hexes at a modified strength), or hurricane (which puts down a line of seven impact markers at modified strength). Next there is an accuracy roll which will likely move the target one or two hexes. Finally the actual impact is put down and stays in effect for the entire turn.

In my play the Russians had a cavalry unit that could spot the hill the Austrians had placed their machine guns, 75mm and a supporting cavalry unit. They targeted the three units with the real marker against the machine guns (since I was playing solo I placed the markers without knowing which one was real but that isn’t a standard rule in the game). One nice trick about the three artillery markers is that while you opponent knows that two of them are dummies they still have to worry about what damage they will do and this may cause the defender to move units that are not the real target but are threatened. The Austrians reacted to the attack by moving units away from the target hexes, but the artillery and machine guns move slowly (even when transported by wagon) and neither wanted to move forward since that would expose them to opportunity fire from the Russian machine guns. The Russians chose the hurricane barrage and while the blast didn’t hit its intended hex, the line of impact was still enough to reduce a 75mm, a wagon unit and two cavalry units. All in all I found the artillery process fun and not too complicated.

In the end the Austrians pulled out a victory. They destroyed 48 steps to the 39 step losses they took.

I really enjoyed this game. The map and counters are very attractive. It’s pretty easy to play but has enough depth to keep it interesting. The system is similar enough to other games you’ve played to make it easy to dive into but there are some interesting twists.

I’m looking forward to trying the other two scenarios: “Elan” which features French and German infantry clashing at Neufchateau during the opening week of the war, and “Rising Sun” which has a combined Japanese and British force executing a night assault against fortified Germans in the city of Tsingtao.


On the Table over last weekend was In the Trenches: Opening Engagements (ITT), Jeux Grenier Games’ new release featuring platoon/company-level combat in the early stages of WWI. Later installments are planned for the mid- to late-war. The game is designed by John Gorkowski, whom I discovered not only lives near me but also works at the same place as I do. John graciously played host (and rules-explainer-in-chief) at his place last Saturday, and we did the first scenario, a meeting engagement between French and German troops at Neufchateau. I enjoyed the game a lot, and can recommend it strongly with one and a half caveats noted at the end. I eagerly await the next games in the system.

As the game is about tactical WWI combat, some might wonder how it compares to David Isby’s 1973 company-level game from SPI, Soldiers. In one important aspect, it is similar. Defense against fire is based on terrain, meaning if you are caught in the open by artillery or machine guns, your men will die in large numbers. In one smaller aspect, it is also similar, in that in contains a scenario featuring the Japanese/British assault on German positions at Tsingtao, China. But that’s about it. ITT reflects that many design developments that have occurred in the hobby since 1973, most notably by including command and control elements and by featuring a variable activation system that reflects the ebbs and flows of combat.

Command and control is represented by the need to activate units or formations, using a limited amount of orders. There are no leader units; they are factored into the system. Basically, you can use an order to activate a single unit, or a formation of 2-4 units from the same company. We’ve seen this before. ITT adds a twist, though, by forcing activated formations to give up 1/3 of their movement allowance to reflect the time needed to confirm orders, coordinate movements, etc. So at times you will face the choice of getting a single unit forward with speed, or moving up several units more slowly. In addition, activated formations that fire give up their terrain advantage – their commanders have ordered them up to the front of the woods to form firing lines, thus denying them the defensive die roll modifier they would usually get. Another choice you often have to make.

ITT also adds a twist to the usual variable activation mechanic. I’m a big Panzer Grenadier fan, so am familiar with having both sides roll for initiative in the first impulse, and then alternating activations after that. In ITT, each side rolls two dice for initiative each impulse, with the winner getting orders equal to the difference in the dice rolls (i.e., anywhere from 1-10). The loser then gets an equal number of orders in his half of the impulse. What’s more, in any impulse but the first of each turn, if you roll doubles the turn is over. So you get great swings in actions, with the uncertainly of knowing when the turn will end. I like this a lot, and wonder if it has been used before. Note this also makes the game great for solitaire play, as there is a good deal of variation in each turn.

The movement rates for infantry and MG units are low (usually 3 and 1, respectively), meaning it takes time to set up attacks. Given that most of the time you will be moving in formation, it slows things down even more. But the feel is right. You get masses of troops lumbering forward, finding cover when they can, often dying in large numbers when they can’t, and attempting to form firing lines to degrade the enemy.

Which brings up combat. Let’s start with artillery. It is deadly. You will learn to fear it. In our play, John inadvertently left two stacks of infantry close together after entering the map. I had to ask, “Can my observer see those guys?” John, to his credit, answered truthfully. Next turn, a hurricane barrage descended upon them, wiping out half the guys in one stack. Ouch (to paraphrase John’s response). Artillery fire takes two turns to execute. One turn is used to place target markers (more on why this is plural in a bit), within spotting range of an observer. Next turn, you roll to see if the target is hit, or whether it scatters to an adjacent hex. Once you determine where it hits, you place impact markers to reflect whether it was a drumfire barrage (hits only target hex, with full force), hurricane barrage (target hex and six adjacent hexes, with a negative modifier to firepower) or barrage (a line of seven straight hexes centered on target, also with a negative modifier). A couple of times John and I were able to lay down seven-hex barrages that had enemy units in five or six of the hexes.

Note I said you place target markers. You get three markers for each off-map battery, two dummies and one real. When you place them, you do so inverted, so the enemy does not know where the real fire will take place. In our game, it usually seemed obvious where the hurt was going to be applied, especially since the markers were always placed adjacent to each other. So near the end of our game I asked John what the point of the dummy units was. He reminded me that you can place the markers anywhere on the map that an observer can see, they do not have to be next to each other. I then imagined a situation where you had two enemy MG units (a frequent artillery target) in separate locations. If you plunk a marker down on both, the other guy has to decide whether to try to move both out of harm’s way before the hammer comes down in the next turn. So the threat of bombardment can disrupt the MG’s ability to act. Another interesting mechanic.

Fire combat took a little bit to get used to. You total your firepower factors (which can be added together if firing by formation), and then divide by three, rounding down. The result is the basic fire combat modifier. Terrain can add a negative modifier. Then roll two dice and apply the net modifier. If the result is greater than the unit’s resolve value (in our game, 8 for the French, 7 for the Germans), it degrades in status (Free to Engaged, Engaged to Spent, Spent remains Spent). If the result is 10 or greater, then the unit loses a step (either flipped, or if already flipped, wiped out); survivors retreat and are marked Spent. All the division, addition and subtraction eventually becomes second nature, and the net modifiers are computed quickly.

There is also provision for close combat, which is basically odds-driven based on the number of steps involved. It came up only a couple of times in our game, primarily in the woods where fire was limited.

I mentioned above Engaged and Spent status. This another thing I like in the game, although it requires a lot of markers placed on units which eventually will clutter the board. Units start out each turn in Free status. Performing most actions will degrade them to the next status, Engaged. Engaged units can still fire and conduct close combat (with a penalty), but cannot move. If Engaged units fire they become Spent, meaning they are essentially done for the turn. Ordnance and MGs go directly from Free to Spent status when they move, meaning they cannot move and fire. All units recover to Free status at the end of the turn. Another interesting twist: when MGs fire defensively against moving units, they move from Engaged to Spent status only if they roll doubles. So a well-placed MG unit can potentially dominate the terrain around it during an enemy’s entire turn.

(For the Neufchateau scenario) Victory is based on which side controls more woods and level two hill hexes at the end of 12 turns. The French start in the hills, with some units in the northwest corner. The German have some units to the east of the woods, near the town of Neufchateau. The French will get reinforcements in the northwest, while German units will enter to the east of the hill.

Our game revolved around two main efforts – dueling fire and artillery barrages in the hills, and a race to occupy woods hexes. The second and third pictures below show the situation at the start of turns 3 and 7.

In the end, the Germans managed to throw the French out of the hills, helped by some deadly artillery barrages, and they were able to occupy enough woods hexes to get a victory. I honestly did not who would win until we finally started counting up the hexes.

I mentioned one a half caveats above. The big one is that the game does require some assembly. The units are mounted, but in two-column strips. The strips must first be cut in half vertically, and then glued back to back to be double-sided. You then cut the strips to produce individual counters. There are 30+ strips, so it does take some time to do this. I used a glue stick for the mounting, a rotary cutter to split the strips and scissors to chop out the individual units. The result is a nice set of thick counters, but they can be just a tad lopsided depending on your cutting skills.

The half caveat I have is that the game comes with only three scenarios: a French/German meeting engagement at Neufchateau, a Japanese/British assault on German entrenchments at Tsingtao, and a cavalry clash between Russian and Austrian forces in Jaroslawice, Poland. On the plus side, you get units from six countries, fighting in three very different types of situations. And Neufchateau (the only scenario I’ve played so far) did seem like it would be replayable. Still, though, it is only three scenarios, and one hopes that Jeux Grenier Games or dedicated users might be able to post some new scenarios to download.

Bottom line: am I glad I bought this game? Absolutely.
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