Fabian Mainzer
Germany
Freiburg
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Cross-posted from http://www.firstworldwartoday.net: Encountering WWI in modern life and media

Introduction

Phalanx Games’ The First World War (2004) is a board game designed by Ted Raicer, author of many acclaimed games on World War I such as Paths of Glory, Clash of Giants or The Great War in Europe. These titles, while considered classics, are quite high in both complexity and game length, so with The First World War, Raicer decided to do things radically different.

The result was a game that enables 2-4 players to play the whole of the Great War in Europe in about 60 to 90 minutes and only requires eight pages of rules. This was achieved by sacrificing most of the details (a.k.a. chrome) his former games were famous for. Naturally, this decision was quite controversial, as those changes were certainly not for everybody, and the lamentations of those who felt the game lacking the minutiae of WWI gave the game a somewhat bad reputation. Deservedly so? Let’s see.

Components

What is in the box? The components of The First World War are top-notch. The box cover features a martial collage of images of Sturmtruppen, tanks, aircrafts, and a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm II, providing a certain period feel. The big, thick, colourful 1″ square counters are easy to read, nice to pick up and handle and beautifully illustrated. The map, 22×34″ large and mounted, is illustrated with period maps and sort of muddy-looking, but this is quite thematic, evoking images of the trenches of the Western Front. Moreover, there are a rulebook (colour), one player-aid, two dice and some cardboard combat chits in the box. The rule book is for the most part an easy read, although a few more examples could have been helpful. The only disappointment is the player-aid, which is not helpful at all, but thankfully not really needed.

How to play

The first thing that comes to attention when looking at the map is its composition. The map is divided into 11 fronts in total, consisting of a linear chain of spaces which are named after important locations. Players fight over control of these locations, which can either be (normal) victory point, resource or base cities. Battlefield success shifts control back and forth on those chains, with armies advancing or retreating as they go. Loss of supply sources affect the faction’s ability to replace previously destroyed units. If things go very bad for one side and the enemy wins a battle at a base space, surrender points are inflicted, which can force a surrender of one of the powers and thus end the game. A surrender happens when a faction fails to roll higher than the number of surrender points inflicted, regardless of what happens on other fronts.

At start, only eight of the fronts are active. The Italian and the Romanian theatres are opened later. The Ottoman Empire and the action on the Middle Eastern Front are left out altogether, as are events in the rest of the world. Players do not have any power over political events (with the one exception of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, which the Central Powers can declare unilaterally during the last two turns of the game, thus freezing the Eastern Front and effectively ending the war in the East), the entry of the neutral powers of Italy, Romania, the United States and Bulgaria as well as reinforcements happen on a fixed time table.

Every year has one turn (except 1914 has two), starting with army placement. Placement of armies is completely in the discretion of the players (the rules provide an optional historical set-up). Moreover, each faction can place up to six dummy armies, which provide a great deal of uncertainty concerning enemy deployment (the so-called fog of war).

During a game turn, the factions execute actions in a fixed order until all factions have used four actions. These can either be combat, move, strategic transfer or pass. The move order moves troops to adjacent fronts while strategic transfer can move up to two units anywhere on the map. If one player initiates combat, he/she declares the number of units participating in the battle and the lead unit. The defender has to reveal all units in the front and remove dummy counters. Then, the values of the lead armies are compared. Units can have a combat value between three (Germany, Britain) and zero (Romania, Montenegro). The calculated combat value differential is modified by a +1 drm for the larger number of units taking part in the battle, optional play of combat chits and the result of a six-sided die roll each.

The dice used in The First World War are special: They feature the results 1-4 and zero/no surrender (two times). If the attacker wins, the defender loses his/her lead unit and has to surrender the next space on the front track. If the defender wins, the attacker’s lead unit is eliminated. If the result is a tie, both lead units are eliminated. Combat is thus highly attritional. This governs strategy. The superiority of German units vis à vis the Russian or Italian units means that the presence of a German unit in those fronts can make a huge difference. The goal of Britain and France must therefore be to tie those units in the Western Front, making them unavailable for greater exploits on other fronts.

The logic of combat and the geography of the map - in spite of having no geographical characteristics per sé - make for a strategic picture that resembles the actual war very well. The proximity of the German bases and supply sources to the initial front line demands offensive opening moves in the West to gain the breathing space required to send troops to the East to save Austria-Hungary from defeat and eventually conquer territory in Russia and on the Balkans or Italy.

Moreover, the comparative freedom of deployment allows for many alternative strategy attempts. The importance of supply sources and the danger of losing the game to a failed surrender roll mean that no front can ever be neglected for too long.

Conclusion

The First World War is a highly playable game which simulates the Great War very well for a largely abstract game. Without straight jacketing the players into certain strategies, the restraints of the unit strengths, the geographical circumstances and the nature of the attritional combat confront the players with problems very much akin to the concerns of those in charge 1914-1918.

The alleged play time of 60 to 90 minutes is a fair assumption - although games can be much shorter depending on the aggressiveness of the players and their willingness to take risks. Unfortunately, this review cannot comment on the 3-4 player options. The possibility of exciting inter-faction dissent not prominent when commanded by one person may provide an altogether different experience. However, I fear that the Austro-Hungarian player, especially, may sometimes not have that much to do except cry for German help; because of the scarcity and brittleness of their armies, the Eastern Central Powers are the only faction likely to use the pass option quite a bit.

In conclusion, I think that the frequent criticism towards The First World War is largely unjustified. The omission of many details of the war is offset by its easy rules and short play time. The often criticised surrender roll is within the spirit of the game - do not neglect a front or suffer the consequences, or try your luck and just push on one front, seeking to win the war quickly while risking eventual quick defeat.

I recommend the game to anyone who wants a fast, playable game that provides the anxiety, paranoia and need for calmness in the face of horrible losses of the Great War. Unfortunately, the game is out of print and a reprint by Phalanx is unlikely. There are still mint copies to be found and the game should be attainable in used condition for a reasonable price.


http://www.firstworldwartoday.net/2011/10/the-first-world-wa...
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Blazing Apostle
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Thanks for this great review of a game that gets too little attention.Agree with all you say.meeple
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Richard Nelson

Annapolis
Maryland
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Great review. I too enjoy this game. It has a major advantage: given the lack of time so many of us have anymore, it's still possible to play clear through in a limited amount of time, but it still gives a great feel for the sweep and scope of the war.
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Piero
Italy
Florence
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Life and death come and go like marionettes dancing on a table. Once their strings are cut, they easily crumble.
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I'm a fan of his bigger cousin (PoG), and I still have to try this little game! Can't wait! laugh
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Fabian Mainzer
Germany
Freiburg
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Hope you'll like it! Better though not to think of it as PoG's little cousin as these two games have little in common except for the designer and the theme. I think a lot of the negative opinions on TFWW derive from expectations because of Raicer's other games. One really has to take the game for what it is: a largely abstract, but short and intense game that despite its abstractness resembles WWI quite well.

Thanks for the tip, btw!
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