Making History Come Alive
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
"So just how does a pacifist become a military historian?" one of my friends
from graduate school, Yaël Fletcher, asked me one day. She would go on to
become a driving force in Historians Against the War, a group opposed to the
American invasion and occupation of Iraq. "Because your grandfather was an
Austrian general, right?"
Not exactly — though I have no love for war, at the time the memory of
brutally murdered friends and their toddler was fresh and raw, leaving me
adamantly in favor of massive and violent NATO intervention in the former
Yugoslavia. Principles are a lot harder to hold once they lose their
abstract nature. This many years later it hasn't really faded.
Anyway, it's actually because of my grandmother, an American holding pretty
staunch anti-war views of her own. My grandmother believed that I needed
culture and learning, making sure I was exposed to art and music — she
belonged to the Chautauqua Institution and
early on I knew the classics. And she thought I needed to read much more
broadly than the children's literature and science fiction available to boys
in the 1970s. It would be my grandmother who introduced me to The Lord of
the Rings, and later to Monty Python and the X-Files. In the summer when I
turned 11 (I think; I'm not clear on this) she pressed a pair of fat
paperbacks into my hands: The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman, and August
1914 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I still have the copy of Tuchman here on my
desk, but seem to have lost the Solzhenitsyn.
I sat underneath her willow tree that summer and read them both cover to
cover. I didn't know real stories could be told that vividly. As she
intended, a new world had opened to me. As she probably did not intend, the
course of my life had been determined.
Over the years I would lose my infatuation with Tuchman; I still like her
work. But Solzhenitsyn's book, a slightly fictionalized account of the 1914
Tannenberg campaign told from the Russian point of view, stayed in my mind
ever since. Solzhenitsyn did not simply tell his story, he showed it. War to
Solzhenitsyn was not simply the movement of men and cannon, but a
complicated dance of violent emotions. Two scenes stuck with me for decades:
a boy in Rostov charting the advance of the German armies by penciling in
the front lines on a map, but promising his parents that "they will never
reach Rostov," and the Narva Regiment lining up in the forest for a
close-range firefight with the Germans, described in riveting detail.
Solzhenitsyn made history come alive; and maybe even more impressively, even
in translation his prose came alive. I knew that I wanted to write stories
Despite that early influence, once I became a professional designer of
military history boardgames I don't think I ever seriously thought about
designing a game on the Tannenberg campaign until just before I actually did it. I'd long
wanted to do a First World War sequel to our Panzer Grenadier series, and
decided to open the series with a large volume on the Eastern Front in 1914.
Originally, this game would have covered the entire front, but to keep its
price reasonable and physical size manageable, we cut it in half. And so was
born August 1914, the game.
Throughout the design process, I wanted to craft a game that brought the
events to life for players on the game board just as Solzhenitsyn had for me
so long ago on the printed page. That's a very tall order, and probably not
even possible. But nevertheless I'm still very pleased with the results.
Previous printers shipped the cardstock maps we use in Panzer Grenadier and
now Infantry Attacks to us flat and we had to fold them ourselves. The new,
local printer handles that step for us, so the process of running every map
through someone's hands is gone, but at least we get to handle them when
they're assembled carefully into stacks. Under our Andy Angel method, maps
are sorted into game sets of six each.
I like the look of them. The maps are by industry veteran Christopher West,
who did a lot of map work for Wizards of the Coast and Hasbro. They're a somewhat different look than we've had in the past,
but that was what I wanted for this game series: the maps should be
interchangeable with those of Panzer Grenadier games, but they shouldn't
look exactly the same. You can see a preview of them here.
Since the playing pieces have the same basic information as a Panzer
Grenadier piece (direct fire, bombardment fire, movement) we decided they
should have those figures in the same places so as not to confuse players of
the other system. But at the same time, we didn't want them to look just
like Panzer Grenadier's distinctive counters either.
When we first brought out Panzer Grenadier, the initial art director thought
all the counters should be colored in earth tones, and that's why the
Germans and Soviets have the color schemes they possess in that game series.
But it wasn't long before we ran out of earth tones, and now we're starting
to run out of colors. So for Infantry Attacks, we applied that knowledge and
planned ahead a little bit.
The counters keep the concept of the earth-toned background, at least so
far. Once we move on to other theaters we may need to broaden the palette.
They sport a bright stripe across the top for ease of national
identification: Germans have their black-white-red tricolor and Russians are
green. In the upcoming Fall of Empires, Austrians are imperial yellow. Since most of the units represent companies rather than platoons, they have
more figures on them. At one point we were going to completely change the
look, but decided
to stay within the graphic bounds laid down by Panzer Grenadier and - in honor of Kaiser Franz Josef - avoid
innovation for the sake of innovation.
Each copy of the game has a rules package much like those in Panzer
Grenadier games: a set of series rules, a sheet of 165 marker pieces, two
chart cards and a time record card. The rules themselves — the core of any
game design — are pretty solid And much like the games in its sister series, August 1914 has a weighty
scenario book. There are 40 of them, and they're presented in a
similar fashion to Panzer Grenadier scenarios. They're concentrated on a
very narrow slice of time: the battles of Gumbinnen, Tannenberg and the
Masurian Lakes, fought over a period of about six weeks. Keeping that narrow
focus allowed me to construct a campaign narrative out of them, something
I've always wanted to do in a scenario-based game. Despite taking them all
from just those battles, there is a pretty wide variety: cavalry battles,
cavalry raids, meeting engagements, frontal assaults, delaying actions and a
lot more. Including the Narva Regiment's fight in the Jabloken Forest, that
stood out to me in Solzhenitsyn's work.
Infantry Attacks: August 1914 TODAY!