By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
While the Second World War gets all the cool movies and video games, the true drama took place a generation earlier. The Great War would determine the course of the next century of world history, with effects still felt today and into the future: Ukraine, Iraq, Bosnia, Israel and more.
The battlefields of the Great War told a story of drama and pain, as the old world gave way to a new, frightening industrialized future. And that’s the story I wanted to tell with Infantry Attacks.
Infantry Attacks is our series of games based on tactical battles of the First World War era. Units are infantry companies, artillery batteries and cavalry squadrons, plus individual leaders and machine-gun platoons. The map scale is 200 meters across each hex; each turn represents 15 minutes of actual time.
It’s a game system that lends itself well to telling stories, which is what I like to do with our games. A game can’t possibly take the place of a real historical study told in book form, but it can lend some insights that the book can’t. And that’s what I’m looking to do.
Infantry Attacks games are an exercise in story-telling. They’re built around scenarios, each of which represents a small slice of a battle involving perhaps a regiment or so of troops (3,000 to 4,000 men) per side. They generally last between 20 to 30 turns, or five or six hours of real time (which should also be about the length of real time it takes to play them).
Those scenarios follow one after another, telling the story of what happened between the units involved over the course of several days (or sometimes even longer). There’s historical background to tie them together and put those battles in context, and then there’s a battle game that ties the scenarios together, so you can play them with a broader operational goal in mind.
You don’t have to play them all; you can go through and pick out the ones whose size or action seems most appealing. But you can read them and trace out the action on the game maps, and follow the story in a way that a book can never do.
So far, Infantry Attacks includes three complete games: August 1914 is all about the opening battles in East Prussia in August 1914. Fall of Empires covers the Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Army’s battles against the Russians at Kraśnik and Komarów that same month; Franz Josef’s Armies is an expansion book for Fall of Empires adding the battles of the Austrian and Hungarian national armies (separate regular armies maintained by the two halves of the Dual Monarchy). Black Mountain is a small but complete game exclusive to the Gold Club, which covers the August 1914 campaign between Austria-Hungary and Montenegro.
I’d love to expand the series further, to make it the Great War equivalent of Panzer Grenadier. But that’s for the future. For now, what is Infantry Attacks all about?
Infantry Attacks is on its second edition of series rules; I disliked some of the changes wrought on the first edition during its development and so, in my role as publisher as well as designer, I decreed that it would receive a complete rewrite and re-design. And so it has.
The game engine is based very closely on that of Panzer Grenadier’s Fourth Edition. I wanted it to be familiar to players of that game, and for every similar game function (like line of sight, or morale checks) to work exactly the same way, to make it easy to shift one’s thoughts from one game system to the other.
The rifle company is the basic unit in Infantry Attacks; in any given scenario, almost all the units on the board are going to be rifle companies (excepting the scenarios where a cavalry outfit is in play). They’re rated for their firepower and range, and their movement (almost always 2). They’re supported by machine guns, which have more firepower and range, but are cumbersome to move and don’t stick around very long if the enemy infantry reaches them. And there are field guns, which are the light artillery pieces that fight right there on the board. They fire at the enemy just like other units, but have to limber and unlimber to move or fire (respectively) and are fantastically vulnerable to enemy infantry.
You also – rarely in games set in 1914 – receive off-board artillery increments to conduct bombardments. They can’t attack together with your units on the board, but they usually have much more strength. It’s just harder to control.
The game’s core concept is activation. The side with better initiative (in general, this reflects better command and staff at the higher levels not shown on the game board – divisions and corps) has a better chance of taking multiple activations before the other side gets to; after that, the two players trade activations.
In its most basic form, “activation” means selecting the units in one hex and letting them do stuff: move and fight, or rally if they’re demoralized (more about that later). A leader can activate leaders and units in other hexes, and if you set it up just right, a whole chain of activations can take place at once.
Leaders are vital: units won’t move closer to an enemy that can hurt them without a leader telling them to do it. In Infantry Attacks, you’re going to have to close with the enemy, and they can inflict pain on your troops.
There are three types of combat in Infantry Attacks: Direct Fire (shooting at the other guy), Assault (close-range combat) and Bombardment (in Infantry Attacks, only off-board artillery increments can perform bombardments). They can inflict damage in a couple of ways: step losses and morale checks.
Rifle companies and cavalry squadrons have two “steps” of strength, full (the front side of their playing piece) and reduced (the flip side). Combat results can inflict a step loss on a unit; if it’s at full strength, it slips to its reverse side. If it’s already there (or only had one to start with, like a machine-gun platoon), it’s eliminated.
A morale check just means you roll two dice and compare them to the unit’s morale (which varies by scenario, so it’s listed in the scenario instructions, not on the playing piece). If a unit fails, it becomes disrupted and its activities are limited. If it fails again, it becomes demoralized, and is really limited. If it fails a third time, it loses a step.
Meanwhile, you as the player are trying to push your forces forward to achieve your objectives (described in the scenario instructions) or stop the other side from achieving theirs. The better-organized, better-trained and better led army (in short, the better army) shows its qualities in all of the above. It has better initiative, meaning a better chance of multiple activations at the start of a turn. It has better leaders and more of them. It has better morale.
In short, the pieces only tell part of the story. The invisible factors reveal which army is better equipped for victory – which doesn’t always mean that they win a given scenario. A supposedly weaker foe is still dangerous.
Individually, all of these concepts are pretty simple. Infantry Attacks is an easy game to play; the sophistication comes from these different concepts interlocking. And if we did this right, that should show you something about the battlefields of the First World War.
You can order August 1914 right here.
You can order Fall of Empires right here.
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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 eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.