Fall of Empires:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
If you wait long enough, on very rare occasions wishes can actually come true. Usually they don’t. But sometimes . . .
I’ve waited a very long time to publish Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires. By any rational measure, I should have chucked it overboard with the old Avalanche Press. Instead I brought it along to the new company. It’s what we used to call a “Holy Grail game,” one pursued by the game designer not for any rational economic motive, but rather out of obsession. Back when the old company sold 10,000 copies of a new game, making one that might do half of that with a great deal of luck and heavy promotion was a fairly stupid idea. These days, when we have to work hard to sell 2,000 units, I’m not sure the distinction matters much.
Fall of Empires is a game based on the 1914 campaign in Galicia (that’s southern Poland, the part ruled by Austria-Hungary at the time). Three Austro-Hungarian armies, eventually joined by a fourth, took on four Russian armies. Out-numbered and out-gunned, the Austrians of course attacked, and unfortunately for the Dual Monarchy they had initial success, which only led to a more ambitious offensive, which in turn led to disaster.
Infantry Attacks is a company-scale game, based on our long-running Panzer Grenadier series of World War II tactical games. Units are infantry companies, cavalry squadrons, and field gun batteries; with the bigger guns firing from off the edge of the game board. Fall of Empires, like its sister game August 1914, includes the completely new Second Edition series rules, with full-color play aids and a revised system heavily influenced by Panzer Grenadier’s Fourth Edition (the system rules were the hard part by far).
Fall of Empires includes 517 playing pieces, just like a standard Panzer Grenadier game. The Imperial Russian Army is very much like that of August 1914; with good leadership and the outstanding Model 1902 76.2mm field gun to support the very solid infantry. Since August 1914 we’ve added Reserve infantry companies to allow scenarios to extend deeper into 1914, including the second-line Russian divisions that arrived at the front and joined in the fighting after the first battles.
The Imperial and Royal Common Army has a number of real strengths: the infantry is usually very good, and the leadership insanely brave. The elite regiments are nearly unstoppable. “Nearly” is the key word here.
Austrian artillery is weaker than that of the Russians, and usually outranged by them. It can in practice offer only direct-fire support, which means it can be spotted by the Russians and engaged by the Tsarist guns with their longer range. And those incredibly brave officers won’t sit back and plan careful flanking attacks – they charge right at the Russians, whether the artillery’s softened them up or not.
This last point touches on what I consider one of the great unanswered questions in the historiography of 1914. Why did the Austro-Hungarian infantry so often limit itself to brutal frontal attacks just like those of 1866, when nearly a half-century of training and doctrine had preached their bloody futility? The Imperial and Royal generals were truly horrified to see the casualty lists and the battle reports explaining how the butcher’s bill came to be totaled. They knew better. Yet the field grade officers did not. What went wrong in the army’s preparation for war? The explanation offered by a recent study on the topic, boiling down to a claim that they were all stupid, doesn’t satisfy me.
While wargames actually can offer some historical insight as to what happened on the battlefield, on this sort of issue they’re not very helpful. Fall of Empires models what happened and explains the direct causes, and does so pretty well. But it can’t answer what went wrong in the social construction of the Austro-Hungarian officer corps to make them, as though in the grip of a remorseless mass insanity, act against decades of well-honed analysis. The principles of flank attacks and artillery preparation were well-known, but simply discarded. At least in 1866, Austrian commander Ludwig von Benedek issued orders to stop murderous bayonet attacks as soon as he realized what was slaughtering his brigades. His counterpart in 1914, the ridiculously inept Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, never even visited the front and simply ordered more attacks – which would soon claim the life of his beloved only son.
That action is included in the scenario set, which has 40 scenarios broken into nine chapters. Unlike August 1914, there are no battle games to link them together - those are found in the expansion book Franz Josef’s Armies, which introduces the Dual Monarchy’s two separate national regular armies, the Imperial-Royal Austrian Landwehr and the Royal Hungarian Honvédség. Austro-Hungarian practice mixed the two national armies’ divisions with those of the Common Army, and so the sequence of battles almost always involves both Common Army and National Army divisions.
The scenario book is a thick one, as it includes plenty of background information as well to tell the story of the 1914 campaign in Galicia. Fall of Empires doesn’t come in a box, but instead has a full-sized book with a color cover and all of the pieces and six maps.
The scenarios include a variety of actions, but are heavier on cavalry battles than was August 1914 (which had more than you might expect), though the proportion of cavalry actions dwindles as the fighting progresses. Austrian cavalry commanders, in sharp contrast to their infantry comrades, quickly figured out that mounted cavalry charges could only be successful in certain circumstances. They not only dismounted their men, usually operating in “half regiments” (half of the men mounted, half on foot) but embraced entrenching and flank attacks far sooner than did the infantry. That leads to a truly odd situation, where the dismounted cavalry are actually more effective foot soldiers than the infantry, and also hints strongly at some problem of institutional culture affecting the infantry officer corps.
The six maps are also found in Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe, which covers the Brody-Dubno tank battles of June and July 1941 that took place over this same ground. The new maps I sketched while designing the game weren’t significantly different, since they represent the same terrain types, and I didn’t want to wait even longer to create new artwork.
This is probably not the best title to be releasing in the midst of a global pandemic, but we do have a lot of orders for it from our hard-core Gold Club, and eventually (not immediately, not ahead of current orders) we’d like to gift a copy to those still holding orders for it from the old Avalanche Press, as a gesture from the new company. Make sure you’ve signed up for our newsletter down below, which is where we’ll make that announcement when the time comes.
Fall of Empires is a really good game; years of gestation allowed me to prune away the excess common to Holy Grail games and focus on what players will really want (I gave up on Grail satisfaction long ago). We’ll support it excessively, with expansions like Franz Josef’s Armies and Edelweiss Division already in the pipeline, and a few more I’d like to do. We made World War One naval battles fun to play with Great War at Sea, and now we’ll do the same with the war on land.
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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 an uncountable number of books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold enjoys eating bugs and editing Wikipedia pages.