05th Jul2019

‘The Great War: Centenary Edition’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

great-war-box

No matter how hard I might try, there’s no way that I would be able to list the number of different implementations of Richard Borg’s Commands and Colors to date. We’ve already covered one such iteration in the form of Command and Colors Napoleonics and no doubt there will be others in the future. Under the spotlight today, however, is The Great War from PSC Games. Whilst this game doesn’t take the Commands and Colors name, it shares the system and the designer, as well as numerous other elements.

Synonymous with the Commands and Colors system is the idea of the fog of war. Thematically, the fog of war is the idea that in the heat of battle, orders go astray or are ignored, whilst on other occasions, soldiers become cut off and begin to act without the direct control of their superior officers. Mechanically, this is the driving force of every Commands and Colors game. The players will draw cards (with a hand limit that is set at the beginning of the game but may change based on their standing in the battle) and use them to deliver orders to their units, but with the battlefield split into thirds, you won’t always have all of the options that you’d like and you’ll need to work with what you have.

The battlefield is hex based and the armies face each other across the horizontal plane, making the fight fairly wide and very visceral. In The Great War, the board will feature one or more networks of connected trenches, as well as sporadic stretches of barbed wire, forest and pockmarks made by shelling that is rolled randomly at the beginning of the battle. The layout is determined by each scenario, and there are battles as iconic as those at The Somme and Loos and it is these scenarios that set special rules such as how many cards each player has, or how much off-board artillery they can call upon.

The players will setup their armies in accordance with the scenario instructions, placing units onto the board as shown. Usually, a unit will include four model soldiers, although there are some exceptions depending on the unit in question. In the base game, there are numerous standard infantrymen, as well as machine gunners, mortar crews and grenadiers, each of which has its own characteristics, strengths and weaknesses. Several expansions already exist for The Great War, including a set of French troops and a tank expansion, although I have not seen or played with them at this point. The key thing is that in the base game, you’ll have more than enough to sink your teeth into in terms of unit variety, but the good news is that the rules for each one is relatively straightforward.

As I mentioned earlier, the action is driven by the cards dealt to each player. Broadly speaking, each card will affect one or more of the sections on the board, with some exceptional cards affecting all sections or providing some other effect that allows the player to do something special, like bring in artillery. On a typical turn, the active player will play a card from their hand and simply take the action shown on it. As an example, cards that say “Flank Left” or “Flank Right” will allow the player to activate a number of units on the respective portion of the board, as stated. “Assault” cards (and some others) might allow the player to activate a small number of units in every section.

When a unit is activated, it will usually move, take a combat action (either ranged or melee) or do both. Units like mortars can usually only do one or the other, whilst infantry can do both, although if a unit moves before firing, it will usually suffer a penalty to the effectiveness of its attack. All combat in The Great War is dice based, with dice showing symbols such as bursts, infantrymen and flags, as well as misses. Depending on the range, the cover in the space being attacked and the unit doing the attacking, the outcome of these dice rolls can mean various things.

As an example, rolling infantrymen or bursts will often mean a hit that can take out one unit of infantry, assuming no effect says otherwise. A burst can mean something special for weapons such as mortars or grenadiers, whilst in general, rolling a flag means that the affected unit is pushed back one space (without suffering a wound, unless another dice showed a casualty roll.) The real meat of The Great War (which isn’t true of all Commands and Colors games) is that hitting units holed up in trenches or under other strong cover is very challenging – forcing at least one of the players to go “over the top” in order to force an advantage by getting close to the enemy line.

This thematically accurate requirement is managed not only by the mechanics, but also by the special rules of each scenario. For example, some missions place one or the other side in a clearly defensive posture, but the attacker will likely have more troops to press their attack with. Other rules might swing the battle in favour of either the Allies or the Axis depending on how long it goes on, effectively making the side that will inevitably lose if nothing changes have to press on.

If these scenarios were not so well thought out and balanced, then The Great War could have been either boring or frustrating – but as it turns out, it feels like a very strong representation of what combat in World War I must have been like at a strategic level. Simply put, sometimes, you’ll need to sacrifice a lot of men to meet your objective, and there’s no room for subtlety.

The Great War is also one of the most eyecatching representations of the Commands and Colors system that I’ve seen. I do love the block and sticker approach taken by GMT Games in products like C&C Napoleonics, but the huge number of sculpted plastic soldiers in The Great War just looks so much more impressive, especially against the backdrop of the finely detailed board features. The board itself is fairly plain, but that’s intentional since almost every mission will be set up to feature a large number of overlaid hexes – with everything from trenches, barbed wire and forest to small hamlets and other buildings. The final visual impression is excellent, and the cards, instruction manual and other supporting material are all of a theme that feels authentic and well finished.

In concluding, I have to say that I’ve played relatively few war games that focus on World War I, and among them, The Great War is by far the most straightforward. But, it’s also the most enjoyable among them, not to mention perhaps even the most thematically appropriate. I find the fog of war mechanic that Commands and Colors games uses begins to stretch itself with combat from around World War II onwards, but here, it feels absolutely spot on. World War I was a war in which outdated tactics and modern firepower collided with horrendous consequences, and as macabre as it sounds, The Great War demonstrates this reality with frightening precision.

Not only does The Great War feel accurate and satisfying to play, it’s also consistently entertaining. With scenarios that create desperate back against the wall heroism to others that are simply huge firefights, it is very well balanced no matter which side you play as, and whilst there are elements of luck in the cards and dice, the outcomes always tend to be fairly balanced. The Great War may not be the heaviest wargame available, but it does sit at the perfect apex point between accessibility and interest, making it a superb proposition for any would be armchair general.

**** 4/5

A copy of The Great War: Centenary Edition was provided by PSC Games for review.

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