By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
I find the battlefield environment of the First World War fascinating, at least in a historical sense – I wouldn’t want to live there. It’s a time period caught in transition, with the introduction of modern ways to kill other humans, and the vestiges of 19th Century warfare still readily visible.
Infantry Attacks: Winter’s Battle is what we call a Campaign Study, a small booklet with additional scenarios for one of our core games (in this case, Infantry Attacks: August 1914). Winter’s Battle is based on the February 1915 Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes (known to the Germans as the Winter Battle of Masuria), with 11 scenarios taken from the German offensive.
In the actual battle, two German armies (the Eighth and Tenth) tried to encircle and destroy the Russian Tenth Army. They had great success in their initial attacks, but most of the Russian Tenth Army slipped away and only part of the Russian force (XX Corps) would be encircled. That still was enough to inflict 150,000 casualties on the Russians at the cost of 20,000 German losses.
There’s not a lot of English-language history written about the Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes, but that’s the sort of challenge I like to take up – that’s why I have those letters after my name up above. There’s a popular history of the entire Eastern Front in 1915 that has some errors in it, and a much better work that can only spare a few pages for this battle. There’s a good bit more in German, though much of that was written in the years just after the Great War.
But the internet is filled with a rich trove of primary-source materials. Many German records from the period burned with the Prussian state archives in 1945, but online you can find reproductions of Russian unit war diaries from Tenth Army on down through many individual regiments. They’re typewritten, badly scanned and of course in Russian with Cyrillic text, but that’s why I went to grad school. I actually enjoy poring over old records and dragging out relevant information.
German soldiers show off their home-made snow suits before the battle.
The battle developed as a race, with the Germans having to move along the outside of the track and the Russians having the inside, shorter lane. That allowed most of the Russian Tenth Army to escape, but the corps with the longest escape route and weakest leadership was left behind and bagged by the Germans. Some attempts to break into the cauldron and get XX Corps out failed; the units making the attempt were not really ready for action and had been left in the rear for that reason.
All of that took place at slow speed: both armies were on foot, and slowed even more by snow and mud. That dictated the pace of the battle, and so it does for the game as well. I like the slower pace of an Infantry Attacks game, compared to its World War II sister series, Panzer Grenadier. Without vehicles, the action develops clearly and methodically. In some ways, it’s very much like a Napoleonic battlefield. In others, it’s not: for one thing, the magazine rifle, the machine gun and quick-firing artillery yield exponentially more firepower than the regiments of a century earlier. Unit formations are much more flexible, though they’ve not fully accepted the open order necessary to protect themselves from that killing power. These armies are capable of dishing out enormous punishment.
Like Panzer Grenadier, an Infantry Attacks scenario set unfolds in a series of chapters, each chapter covering one segment of the battle or campaign. Each chapter is then wrapped up with a battle game that ties the scenario together.
That story-arc structure just makes scenario design flow so easily; as the designer, you’re already thinking in terms of how one action leads to the next. The scenarios usually come together pretty logically in my mind, with the next scenario showing the consequences of the prior scenario’s outcome. The battle game structure also really helps in putting the scenarios together, since you (as the designer) are already thinking about the outcome and the action’s context in the wider campaign.
In game design terms, I’ve come to look for ways to keep the victory conditions (the part that tells you how to win) as similar as possible between the scenarios. Not the conditions themselves, which obviously are going to be different each time out, but how they’re presented. Most of those in Winter’s Battle give the player with who’s driving the action (usually the one having to attack) a list of objectives to meet; the other player wins by frustrating these. That in turn makes the battle game’s victory conditions a logical outcome of those in the scenarios.
The game rewards planning – you’re not going to win thanks to a sudden insight that lets you rampage around an open enemy flank with your tanks. You’ll need to prepare the way with artillery, try to work your infantry around an open enemy flank, and then concentrate your force against an enemy weakness.
That’s not the sort of play style that suits everyone, but it works for me. I love crafting and executing a plan, keeping a poker face while the other guy tries to figure out what the hell you’re doing. Infantry Attacks doesn’t make you write down your plans; you have to carry them out through forethought and self-discipline. Again, it’s not for everyone.
The Second Battle of the Masurian Lakes is perfectly suited to that mindset. The battle took place in heavy snow and freezing cold, followed by a sudden warm snap that turned everything into mud, and then another wave of cold and snow. Together, that meant that the armies couldn’t move very fast, nor could they easily dig in. The weather alone makes the scenarios play very differently than those from the other Infantry Attacks games. Combat is just as deadly, but moving up to fix and engage the enemy is harder (fortunately, if you’re the one attacking, the scenarios are generally longer than those in August 1914 or Fall of Empires, because the battles lasted longer).
Roads become even more crucial in the snow, as marching across the open fields is a slow endeavor (it’s not impossible, just way slower than normal). That makes artillery even deadlier; in Infantry Attacks, you have to plot where your artillery will fall ahead of time (most scenarios have no long-range artillery). Those road lines are exactly where the shells are going to strike.
The pressure is on the German player, who’s trying to enact an encirclement maneuver to rival that of Tannenberg the previous August. That’s a tough order to execute on foot, and even harder in the snow and mud. But it does make for tense game-play.
You can order Winter’s Battle right here.
Infantry Attacks Package
Fall of Empires
Franz Josef’s Armies
Retail Price: $212.96
Package Price: $170
Gold Club Price: $136
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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. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.
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