Fall of Empires:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
As a publisher, there are many reasons to publish a game. If you’re doing it right, they boil down to an indication that you can sell a reasonable number of them. If you’re not, you publish the game because you designed it and you really want it published. Sometimes you know all of that, and you pick the second option anyway.
That’s the story of Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires (and its expansion, Franz Josef’s Armies). They’re based on the August 1914 Battles of Kraśnik and Komarów between Austria-Hungary and Imperial Russia – and that right there should explain why it wasn’t the best choice of topic.
You can, sometimes, get away with publishing a game based on battles of which very few of your audience are aware. But only if the game meets every other test: easy to learn, fun to play, beautiful to look upon and in our case, filled with history. And that’s how we got away with publishing Fall of Empires/Franz Josef’s Armies.
In the actual events, both sides went on the offensive immediately after mobilizing, leading to a massive clash of armies. The Austrians won the Battles of Kraśnik and Komarów thanks to concentration of force at the point of attack and the reckless, suicidal bravery of their small-unit leadership (thereby assuring, thanks to the “suicidal” part, that this formula could not be repeated and ultimately dooming the Austro-Hungarian Empire). And in spite of logistical breakdowns, overall numerical inferiority, out-dated artillery and incompetent-bordering-on-lunatic strategic command.
Infantry Attacks, our game system for World War One-era tactical combat, is derived from our Panzer Grenadier series of World War Two games. The Second Edition rules (which appear in both currently-available games, August 1914 and Fall of Empires) follow Panzer Grenadier wherever possible, to make it easy for players of one to transition to the other.
At the tactical level, where the Infantry Attacks system focuses, the odds were fairly even. Austria-Hungary had better-motivated infantry, better small-unit leadership and superior cavalry. The Russians countered with immeasurably better field guns and artillery (both their materiel and their doctrine for its use) and better adaptability to the tactical realities of 1914, entrenching against Austrian attacks well before the Imperial and Royal Army allowed its own infantry to do so (the cavalry dug in from the war's very first days). The Dual Monarchy’s motivated, intensely loyal and multilingual officer corps perished leading brutal bayonet charges.
In August 1914, artillery had not yet come to dominate the battlefield as would be the case by the end of the war. In Fall of Empires/Franz Josef’s Armies, most artillery appears on the game board instead of firing from some secure location behind the leftmost beer can. Most artillery pieces in this campaign were classed as “field guns,” which meant exactly that – they were expected to accompany the infantry into the field. In game terms, they would usually fire over open sights.
In 1914, that category included all Austrian artillery – even the heavier pieces could not engage targets with indirect fire. Therefore, in the game the Austrian player never has to deal with what Panzer Grenadier terms “off-board artillery” (in Infantry Attacks, it’s just called “artillery”). Every Austrian artillery unit is there on the board, and so are most of the Russian ones. This has the added benefit of terrifically speeding game play.
To better reflect Austrian tactical doctrine of 1914, the Austrian player has the option of forming storm columns, stacking three rifle companies together in a hex (usually only two are allowed) with an appropriate leader and charging the enemy, accepting the likelihood of higher casualties for the chance to inflict greater damage on the defenders in close combat. For their part, the Russians receive bonuses to their field guns if they start a scenario Dug In (Russian artillery doctrine stressed pre-determined fields of fire, and they made great use of this during the campaign).
I wanted to keep Fall of Empires easily playable (at least to those familiar with our tactical games). When you keep a game design on the table for years, it's tempting to keep adding stuff to it. But in this “golden age of wargaming” when most titles are briefly collected and then sold far more than they are kept and played, I wanted people to play my game, many times.
With that said, the Fall of Empires/Franz Josef’s Armies combination still looks good enough to look at instead of play, if you wanted it for that reason. Austria-Hungary fielded multiple armies: the Common Army (the actual Imperial and Royal forces), the Austrian Landwehr (a first-line professional army, not a militia as in Imperial Germany) and the Royal Hungarian Honvédség, likewise a first-line professional army. All of those armies appear in Franz Josef’s Armies their own colors, with their own weapons and leaders, as do the Bosniaken, the tough regiments recruited in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
First-line Russian and Austrian infantry are pretty much equivalent, but the real difference is quickly apparent in their artillery: more guns and better guns. The Austrian gunners are determined, long-service professionals (in game terms, their morale is almost always very high) but there's not much they can do with steel-bronze weapons that were already outdated when introduced against the superb Putilov 76.2mm that would still claim Nazi tanks during the Great Patriotic War.
The core of Fall of Empires/Franz Josef’s Armies, like any of our games, is the scenario set. Between the game and its expansion there are 68 scenarios, divided into ten chapters. Each chapter tells part of the story, through the accompanying background text and the scenario text itself. And then to link the scenarios together, there’s a battle game with broader operational goals for each player (for the Fall of Empires/Franz Josef’s Armies pairing, the battle games are found in Franz Josef’s Armies, since each battle game includes scenarios from both the game and the book). You can play Fall of Empires just fine by itself, but it’s a richer experience with both the game and Franz Josef’s Armies together.
I took a very long time with the Fall of Empires/Franz Josef’s Armies combination; we likely could have cranked out 10 scenarios shot-gunned all over the front, with no background or context, and wrapped the project in six months. That might have been the wiser business decision, to keep feeding the beast, but that’s not why I do this. I’m proud of this work, both the game and the book, and it’s the combination of history and game play that I always wanted our products to be.
You can order Fall of Empires right here.
Gold Club members can score an extra 20 percent off.
You can order Franz Josef's Armies right here.
Gold Club members can score an extra 20 percent off.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children.
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