Fall of Empires:
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I’m probably going to regret publishing this game.
Infantry Attacks: Fall of Empires is a “Holy Grail game,” based on the Austro-Russian campaign in Galicia and Poland in 1914. Originally proposed many years ago as part of our failed “Classic Wargames” program, Fall of Empires continued to grow over the years since. It grew a lot. Fall of Empires is now a very large game. The idea was that it would be the physical and thematic twin to August 1914; it has six maps just like August 1914. But it has many more pieces and half again as many scenarios.
A Holy Grail game is one pursued by the game designer not for any rational economic motive, but rather out of obsession. A guy who used to work here left us with the phrase, using it to sneer at another publisher, but he of course was himself about the worst practitioner of grailism on this planet. Such a project is usually expensive to make and difficult to sell, so it’s bad for the publisher, but those sharing the designer’s interest get a box full of wish fulfillment.
Fall of Empires comes with a full box. Austria-Hungary goes to war with five separate armies, each with its own color scheme. The largest contingent is from the Imperial and Royal Army, also known as the Common Army. There are two more complete regular armies, the Imperial-Royal Austrian Landwehr and Royal Hungarian Honvédség. These were not militia or reserve forces, but the regular armies of the two halves of Austria-Hungary, officially on par with the Common Army but in practice not as proficient. There are the tough Bosniaken, the troops recruited in the jointly-ruled territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina. And there are the Kaiserjäger, the mountain troops from Tirol who are part of the Imperial and Royal Common Army but recruited on a different basis.
Austrian practice mixed these troops together: the Empire’s sixteen field corps each went to war with three divisions, two from the Imperial and Royal Army and one from the Landwehr or Honvédség. So while I was tempted to exclude the two national armies from the game’s scenarios (and provide them later in a book supplement), they often turned up together on the same battlefield with Imperial and Royal troops. Since their morale usually differs in the scenarios, just using one type of Austrian piece didn’t feel like a good solution. Plus, I really wanted to see the colorful variety of the Austro-Hungarian Army on display (that Holy Grail thing again).
The Russians aren’t a whole lot different than they were in August 1914, but now have the Reserve infantry companies that we should have included in the first game and did not for some reason. That allows 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.
There are some differences in artillery, which is deadlier in Fall of Empires than it was in August 1914. Probably the most obvious change is that light artillery (Russian 76.2mm, Austrian 8 cm) is always on the board and never available as off-board artillery; Austrian field artillery (10cm) is also usually on the board instead, and at times prohibited from indirect fire.
That’s all part of showing, rather than telling, why things went so wrong for Austria-Hungary in 1914. In many ways the Imperial and Royal armies are very good: their officers, particularly in the cavalry and elite infantry regiments, are crazy brave. The troops range from solid (Landwehr and Honvédség) to very good (Imperial and Royal) to very high (Kaiserjäger and Edelweiss Divisions) morale.
But then there are the negatives. The artillery is weaker than that of the Russians, and usually outranged by them. It’s usually reduced to direct-fire support, which means it can be spotted by the Russians and engaged by those 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 60 battles. The presentation’s somewhat different than we’ve done in the past, closer to The Habsburg Fleet in that they’re grouped to tell the story of each part of the front and the larger battles/campaigns in which the individual scenario is set, though unlike The Habsburg Fleet these are events that actually happened. It makes for a much thicker scenario book, so much so that we may have to put more than one book in the box to contain all the material. It’s a more satisfying way to tell the story, from the designer’s perspective anyway, and after all a Holy Grail game should satisfy the designer’s whims. If the story’s mostly told from the Austrian point of view, well, that’s another one of those whims.
Those scenarios include a variety of actions, but are heavier on cavalry battles than was August 1914 (which had more than you might expect). Those include the huge clash of cavalry at Jaroslavice, where my great-grandfather was wounded by Russian shrapnel. And a number of others as well, 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 new maps are fully compatible with those from Infantry Attacks games, as well as with the maps from Panzer Grenadier and Panzer Grenadier (Modern) games. There are two river maps, designed to reflect the odd geography of Galicia where the western bank of rivers is usually higher than the eastern (making for fine defensive terrain, if your high command isn’t ordering relentless attacks instead). There are two maps with good-sized forests, and a great deal of field terrain. And in none of the 60 scenarios are there any special rules that order you to pretend that one type of terrain is actually something else.
Fall of Empires has been lavished with attention, and it’s a really nice package. We’re really unlikely to recover the costs that have been sunk into it, another sign of a Holy Grail game. It’s not going to have a very large audience, but I do think that audience will like it very much.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold likes to eat lizards.