One of my recurring gyps about computer wargames is focus: they tend to pick out wars that Americans don’t feel conflicted about. World War Two is extremely popular, because it forms the essential basis of the how modern America sees its military and because nobody needs to feel qualms about killing Nazis. World War One, the war that makes the idea of war difficult to justify, is largely neglected; the only games I’ve seen that deal with it in particular (as opposed to an interlude between the Napoleonic era and WW2) are about biplane aces. The core of my recurrent gyp is that I want to see a horribly accurate WW1 wargame with a focus on logistics and morale-maintenance, in which your main enemies are despair, High Command and the cowardly bastards in the next regiment down the line.
Warfare: 1917 doesn’t quite do this, but it does deal with the trenches of the Great War directly, so I can hardly not talk about it.
It’s a creep game. Which is to say, you recruit units at one end of the screen, your opponent recruits them at the other, and they walk steadily towards the opposite end and fight when they run into each other. Steam Brigade and Bowmaster 2 are recent examples. The trick of a creep game is that different units are stronger in different situations, so you have to recruit carefully.
Because creep games feel pretty low-interaction when your only tool is recruitment, there’s usually a further way to tip the scales. In Steam Brigade you fly a dirigible over the battlefield and fine-tune your battle plan by ferrying troops back and forth. Warfare: 1917 allows you to (vaguely) target artillery and gas. There are a few other important changes. First, you recruit in squads, which range in size from six riflemen to one sharpshooter, officer or tank. Recruitment isn’t based on cashflow, but on time: each unit type has a countdown that has to run out before you can recruit it, and when you recruit anyone all the clocks restart.
Trenches are a key feature of the battlefield: units in a trench are considerably safer from enemy fire and light artillery, and some (machinegunners) also become much more dangerous. A trench can only hold three squads at a time; if more troops show up to a full trench, they automatically go over the top, but otherwise – crucially – you get to choose when units leave a trench. Defence is much stronger than attack, but units are forced to attack unless they’re in a trench. Thus, your immediate goal is almost always to take and hold the next trench.
There are various tactics for doing this. The ultimate aim is to overwhelm the trench with numbers, but this is rarely practical on its own. To depopulate the trench, you can wait for the enemy to attack first and counterattack against the few survivors; pound the trench with artillery and hope you get lucky; send in assaulters behind a wave of riflemen, and hope that the former manage to throw enough grenades into the trench before they get mown down; send foward a valuable sharpshooter and hope that he doesn’t get killed by artillery/gas/counterattack/mines; gas them out; or recruit a slow, very expensive tank. Usually you’ll need to manage several of these at once.
But learning these strategies costs lives. Lots of them. Even if you have the basic historical awareness to know that defence is probably going to be a lot stronger than attack, there’s a lot of floundering. You can’t always prevent your soldiers from running into your own artillery barrage or gas cloud. You don’t know if you should sacrifice a squad of riflemen to deal with a sniper, or if you should wait until you’re ready to launch a full-blown attack and hope he doesn’t pick off your vital machinegunners in the meantime.
Morale is another important element. When a lot of units die, it damages morale; if morale drops too low you surrender. This is one of the best arguments against tanks: if yours gets destroyed, the effect on morale is devastating. Morale recovers slowly, and can be boosted by officers. If this wasn’t just a Flash game, you’d want a much more sophisticated morale system with far more wide-ranging effects, but just having it present feels like a big deal in a creep game.
The other thing is luck. Artillery, in particular, is game-changingly random – and the sound-effects emphasize the unnerving uncertainty of this, with occasional booms and CRUMPs and rattles of gunfire that don’t correspond to any in-game effects. Sound-effects are generally good: the cry of ‘Gas! Gas! Gas!’ is genuinely chilling if you’re familiar both with its game effect and its historical use. (Gas is a much more reliable weapon in the game than in real life.)
Killing enemies and winning battles gives you experience, which is gained as a military unit rather than by individual mooks; you use it to buy upgrades along the lines of ‘more rum before the attack’ or ‘nastier gas’. This is decent, but doesn’t feel precisely right; surely commanders learn things like ‘helmets would be a really good idea’ as a result of their own men dying. I wonder if anybody’s ever done this…
The game doesn’t really do anything to pick out individual stories; everyone’s a faceless drone. In fact, the art strongly emphasizes this anonymity. There are no wounded, no corpses left hanging on the wire, no shell-shock – and no veterans of multiple battles, for that matter. But then, you have to sacrifice something to a) make a game playable as a game, b) get one point across reasonably well and c) fit it into Flash. To its credit, the game manages to do gruesome death (using what looks like 2D ragdolls) without making it comic. And a final nice bit of rhetoric: you play the English campaign, and the map involves pushing the enemy back over a succession of narrow stripes on a very small-looking area. And then, that accomplished, you go and play the German campaign and fight all the way back across the same ground.
One last thing. The game effectively suborns you into the role of the heartless High Command continually feeding men into the mincer, but the motivations for this seem a little off. You’re doing this because it’s how you win, and your murderous fuckups are purely a matter of weak strategy – which you can only improve through trial and error. There is not really an equivalent of the ideological and cultural commitments of the leadership. You are simply trying to win as best you can, which doesn’t quite encompass the awfulness of WW1 leadership. (Again – I know I’m a broken record, but one of the really brilliant things about Crusader Kings is the way that the honour mechanic illuminates medieval motivations.) But it’s a fine start.