The First World War
AKA World War I
List Price: $45.00
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In The First World War, the players control the armies that battled for control of Europe's destiny. Deploying the forces on a game board of Europe from Constantinople to the English Channel, they must fight for control of key cities to gain victory in an age of Total War.
August 1914: For two generations there has been no war between the Great Powers of Europe. Now, following the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serb nationalists, the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) are at war with the Allies (Russia, France and Britain). The cheering crowds in every nation expect their armies to return victorious "before the leaves fall". But there will be no easy triumph, and as more nations are drawn into the conflict, the bloodletting will continue on a massive scale for four more years. Finally, on November 11, 1918, a defeated Germany will sign the Armistice, ending what we know today as the First World War.
The First World War can be played by 2, 3 or 4 players. In a 2-player game, a player represents either the Central Powers or the Allies. In a 3-player game, one player takes the Allies, another Germany, and the third the German Allied nations of Austria-Hungary, and Bulgaria. In a 4-player game, one player takes the Western Allies, one takes the Eastern Allies, one takes Germany, and another the German Allied nations.
When I first received the First World War (Phalanx Games, 2005 - Ted Raicer), I was more than a little leary. The last game I had played about World War I by Mr. Racier, Paths of Glory, was certainly a good game but had a level of complexity that just was something that I didn't find very enjoyable in games. Still, the buzz on the internet promised that The First World War (FWW) was a simpler, easier game - almost a mix of war game and Eurogame in nature. Reading the rules made the game sound simple - almost too simple - but I was encouraged to give it a try.
And I found that I enjoyed myself somewhat during the game. While not necessarily a theme that I would want to play often, the game was certainly a good (if slightly abstract) depiction of World War I. The combat system works very well, and the game flows easily. I have a few quibbles: the surrender system is a bit drastic, the game seems like it could become fairly scripted, and in a four player game - the German Allied player doesn't seem to have a lot to do. But these are minor complaints from a "Eurogamer", the war gamers I played with were pleased and considered this an excellent "light" war game.
Rather than explaining all the rules of the game, so let's skip to my comments on it...
1.) Components: Phalanx makes some of the best looking games on the market. The art on the box, by Andreas Adamek, is absolutely stunning (I hesitate to use the word "beautiful" when it comes to war) and certainly gives the feel of the times. The board is clearly defined, showing the eleven fronts of the war spread across three different maps. The map is superfluous, as the game is basically one of area control but still helps keep the theme of World War I alive in what is a fairly abstract game. The tiles are nice, chunky beautiful bits, with pictures of soldiers on them, and the three numbers that are needed for gameplay. My only criticism was the dummy tiles. The game uses the same art on the dummy tiles front as it does for all the tiles back, so a player who is not watching extremely carefully can accidentally lay their dummy tiles down face up. If their opponent looks carefully, they can see if a tile is face up or not (the face has slightly rounded edges), and the dummy armies can be identified. This shouldn't be a big problem, but we noticed it almost immediately, and an identified dummy army is no good to anyone. The plastic insert in the box is clearly made for another game, but the tiles do fit in the racks well, if leaving massive amounts of space. The combat chits have various illustrations from the war and are easy to distinguish from the other tiles. All in all, it's a very impressive looking war game. There are quite a few less components than other games of the genre, but the ones used are quite well done.
2.) Rules: The rulebook is only eight pages long, and that includes color illustrations and examples. I did have to read it several times to wrap my head around some of the concepts, and I think that some of the rules could have been explained better. Don't let me give you the idea that the rulebook was complicated - on the contrary, the game is fairly simple. Some of the concepts just weren't things that I was used to, and some of the rules I simply had to play the game to figure out how they actually worked.
3.) Surrendering: One concept that was very interesting was the Surrender Points mechanic. On each front, players could be pushed all the way back, forcing them to gain a point on a surrender track. At the end of each turn, players roll a die (with numbers one through four and two "s" markings.) If a player rolls a number (not "s") equal to or less than their surrender points, their army surrenders, and they immediately lose the game. This makes defending these bases (last line of defense on each front) critical. Taking even one surrender point gives a player a 1/6 chance of surrendering, and who wants that! Having lost the game through a surrender, I accept that they are part of the game; but it is certainly not a way I want to lose. Probably the most important thing that the Surrender track does is keep a player from ignoring a front on which they are being overrun.
4.) Dummies: I already talked about some component problems with the dummy counters, but they did add an interesting aspect to the game. Each player has six of these "dummy" armies, which are discarded upon revelation. That means that their main goal is disguise initial setup, for which they do a good job.
5.) Combat: Combat took a unique format, one I haven't seen before in a game... When armies attack, each player designates the army that will be the "lead" attacker or defender. Each player may also set aside one combat chit if they have one for the battle. The player who has more armies gets a "+1" bonus. Each player uses the combat value of their "lead" army and rolls a die. The combat value, plus die roll, plus any bonuses for more armies or on the revealed combat chits forms a player's total. If the attacker's total is higher, then they eliminate the lead defender army and capture the next city in line on that front (or inflict a surrender point). If the defender's total is higher, then the lead attacker's army is destroyed. Either way, the battle ends. If either player rolls a "S" result, it counts as a "0" for combat, but they receive a random combat chit from a bowl. This allows players who do poorly to still get some benefit (although not always - there are some negative combat chits which MUST be played in the next battle.) Battles/wars are thus rather quick, and therefore keep the game moving at a reasonable clip. They do have a degree of randomness, but the more powerful armies do seem to win more often, so I can't really complain about it.
6.) Action points: On a player's turn, they have four different actions that they can take. Since these actions include fighting in battles, moving armies from one adjacent "front" to another, etc. - it simply felt like an area control game that was a bit "gussied" up to make it a war game. Now, I personally didn't have much problem with this - I like area control games much more than war games, but people coming in looking for a straight war game may be disappointed.
7.) Nations: Playing each nation offers a completely different experience. After the games I've played, I want to think that the player who is Germany probably is the most critical player in the game, simply because they have the most choices and powerful units in the beginning. The Russian and German Allied player feels like secondary players to the Germans and Western Allied player - who feel like the "big boys". I think the game is better as a two player game because of this, as no player is thus relegated to a diminutive role. On the flipside, however, when there are four players, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk is possible, which allows an alliance, and players won't cooperate quite as much. The game has a system by which a solo winner is determined from the victorious side, but each game that I've played no one really cared about this it was either the Germans winning or the Allied.
8.) Optional Rules: There are some optional rules, which make the game more historical - a historical set up, and restricting the German's initial attacks. While this might make the game a bit more of a simulation (which it's really not), it takes a bit away from the "game". The only optional rule that I enjoy is the variable deployment, which randomizes turn order each turn, adding a degree of unpredictability.
9.) Fun Factor: I'm not sure how much fun I had when playing the game. It was interesting to step back and take a look at World War I from a very abstract perspective, but the game was simply one of area control. Randomized combat and area control don't seem to be the most interesting combination that I've come across - although I DID enjoy the combat.
So if you are looking for a very abstract, "Euro"-type war game with a light feel, then perhaps The First World War I is for you. The game feels like it wants to be a war game, but it's the smaller brother of a war game. My friends who enjoyed war games had a good time, although I doubt that the game is super high on any of their lists. I won't deny that the game is good, but it does seem like the strategies are limited - due to few pieces and choices - and the combat's randomness clashes a bit with the area control parts of the game. This is certainly a "try before you buy" game; perhaps you'll love it, I merely thought it okay.
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