Despite its size and historical significance, World War I has never been a popular subject for wargamers. There is a perception that compared to the wars that came before and after it, World War I was a conflict filled with drab uniforms, little unit variation, and few tactics other than sitting in a muddy trench and the occasional suicidal charge into machinegun fire. Thus, when Warhammer Historical announced their next game would be The Great War, they set themselves quite a challenge.
Anyone who has even a passing interest in historical wargaming, has probably heard of Warhammer Historical. An offshoot of Games Workshop, Warhammer Historical crashed onto the scene a decade ago with their popular Warhammer Ancient Battles. They have since followed up this success with a number of other games including the mega-popular Legends of the Old West. Their methodology is simple. Take the tried and tested Games Workshop rules systems and modify them to fit an historical period. Then add in top-notch production values, including lots of photographs of beautifully painted miniatures.
In this sense The Great War comes as no surprise. It is 160 super-slick pages, crammed with big pictures of large terrain layouts and hundreds of miniatures (mostly Great War Miniatures). The rules comprise the first 64 pages of the book; the rest is given over to scenarios and army lists.
The rules themselves are based very closely on the latest edition of Warhammer 40K, with one very important difference. In The Great War, each figure represents three men. This allows ten figures to represent a platoon, and 30 to represent a company. This clever move allows the game to remain essentially a skirmish game, but allows armies to believably contain battalion, regimental and occasionally even divisional level attachments. Thus standard armies are mostly infantry but can also contain a smattering of machine-guns, artillery pieces, and perhaps even a tank. (There are also rules for the British to field a full tank company).
But how do these rules escape the perception of boring trench warfare? Well, simply by ignoring the middle of the war! The game clearly states that it is designed to recreate the action of World War I in the years 1914 and 1918, thus before and after trench warfare. It distinguishes these two years with a simple but far-reaching rule. In 1914 all figures in the same unit must be within one inch of another figure in this unit. In 1918 this distance is increased to two inches, and a bonus is given to figure survivability.
Happily, in either year the machinegun is still king and charging straight forward will quickly result in a unit evaporating from the table. However, armies are balanced so that there are more men than machine guns, and the game obviously calls for tables that are very crowded with terrain, significantly limiting fields of fire. With standard armies containing 100-120 models, expect games to take up a full evening.
Although they are not the first company to put out a World War I rules set, Warhammer Historical should still be given credit for tackling a very difficult topic for wargaming, but one that certainly deserves more attention than it gets. In the final analysis, they have created a fast, simple, and bloody game that manages to capture some of the flavour of the Great War without getting too bogged down in the mud.
Warhammer Historical has already announced that there will be two supplemental books. The first dealing with the years of trench warfare (and giving army lists for the USA) and a book dealing with the campaigns in the middle east.
By the way, if your order The Great War from Gripping Beast, you get a free vignette including a figure of the Red Baron.