Sunday, August 24, 2014

Gumbinnen - August 20, 1914 : A Review of East Prussia '14

A little over 100 years ago, the advancing troops of the Russian 1st Army met Maximilian von Prittwitz's 8.Armee at the town of Gumbinnen in East Prussia. It was the first German offensive of the the war in the east. Strategically, the battle was a German defeat. Tactically the Russians certainly didn't shine, but they held long enough, and did enough damage to the German XVII Corps to make von Prittzwitz lose his nerve and retreat. His corps commanders did not generally agree that they had been beaten.

Courtesy of the new World War I Campaigns game from John Tiller Software. East Prussia '14, I'm going to try my hand at managing a better outcome for 8.Armee.

8.Armee positions the morning of August 20th, 1914. IArmeekorps and XVII.Armeekorps are already in contact

Aside from being very interested in the time period right now due to the centennial of the start of WWI, I'm very impressed by this latest John Tiller offering. France '14 was a great game, particularly once Jison's MapMod had been applied to make it look more appealing. East Prussia '14 takes the France '14 engine and updates some key mechanics to make the gameplay even more engaging.

I.Armeekorps is already a bit battered from their recent engagement at Stalluponen. My intent is to attack the objective at Mallwischken with 2.Infantrie-Division (light blue symbol background) while conducting a breakthrough of the Russian line north or Brakuponen to surround and isolate the village with a brigade of 1.Infantrie-Division.
Beyond that, East Prussia '14 is the first Tiller game I haven't immediately sought out graphic mods for. JTS have evidently recognized talent when they've seen it and hired Jison to do the artwork for this title. The result is impressive: East Prussia '14 is about as graphically appealing as a chit shuffler can be. The maps are lovely - and very large, ultimately covering all of East Prussia and a good bit of Poland, providing lots of room for the sweeping campaigns of the Eastern Front in the first year of the Great War.

XVII.Armeekorps is in a bit of a jam. Von Mackensen ran his troops straight into some strong Russian positions without good reconnaissance and now I need to deal with it. An attack towards those (apparently) undefended objectives on the Russian right by the 36.Infantrie-Division (purple counters) seems a likely gambit.
JTS has provided the same engine and graphics updates for France '14. There's more to the update though, than just bringing the engine and graphics up to snuff - there are now a series of Grand Campaign scenarios allowing players to experience the entire war on both Western and Eastern fronts at battalion scale. This is accomplished through a series of linked scenarios in a scenario tree dictated by the results of previous battles. Players can make strategic decisions to move units between fronts that will impact the forces available in the scenarios. The game supports multiplayer PBEM and online play to facilitate three, four, or more players controlling the massive armies on the map for these huge scenarios.

The engine has also been updated to support the 2x zoom 2D view that's been showing up in other recent JTS games and updates. This increased zoom is essential for these games when played on modern high-resolution displays. The 3D views still exist but are as unattractive as ever. There must be someone that plays using these, but I'd appreciate a means to turn them off complete so I don't unintentionally zoom too far in and have to endure the 1990s graphics.

Reserve units from the Konigsburg garrison. I plan to use these troops to hold the center and guard my artillery.
The game engine, through careful attention to combat values and a command and control system that reflects the tactical rigidity of early 20th Century armies does a fantastic job of simulating the challenges of WWI combat. This series more closely resembles the JTS Napoleonic Battles series in terms of maneuver and Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence (C3I) factors, while introducing the lethality of modern weapons systems.

von Below's I.Reservekorps. This corps is currently fixed, but will be released soon after the battle begins. Until I have a better idea of what the Russians have toward Goldap, I'll keep this corps as the 8.Armee reserve.
Casualties can be crazy bad in this game - the reality of WWI combat. Machine guns and artillery, particularly on the defense are lethal. Understanding how to attack effectively and when to assault to take a position is essential. There's some excellent advice on both in the Designer's Notes.

Both I.Armeekorps and XVII.Armeekorps have made headway on the flanks.  Mallwischken has been taken and 1.Infantrie-Division has broken the Russian line north of Brakuponen as planned. 36.Infantrie-Division has taken one of the VLs on the Russian left, but the enemy has rushed an infantry division into place to avoid being flanked.
Speaking of the Designer's Notes, for those who take issue with the price of JTS/HPS games, where else today do you get not just a comprehensive manual for the game, one for the engine/series, a manual for the campaign engine, planning maps and then an illustrated volume of designer's notes that runs to nearly 200 pages? I've paid nearly as much for Osprey Press volumes that didn't contain as much information as the Designer's Notes for this game as I paid for the game. Combined with a large number of scenarios, all of which are suitable for PBEM, and a massive campaign game, there is real value for the money here.

2.Infantrie-Division moving to flank the Russian positions in the north.
Definitely read the Designer's Notes. Not only are they full of very useful gameplay tips, they're chock full of great information on the armies of 1914 and how they fought at this phase of the war. If you have France '14 as well, you have the similar information for the Western Front.

The trick with XVII.Armeekorps will be to avoid bleeding it white against the dug in Russian positions.
If you are familiar with other JTS/HPS Operational Campaigns games, East Prussia '14 will feel familiar in terms of basic mechanics. Unlike those who claim that "Tiller has made the same game over and over for the past 20 years" I'm a fan of this similarity. The First World War Campaigns games amply illustrate that while the UI and basic mechanics for doing things like moving, firing, and conducting assaults are the same from game to game, the details of how the game plays can be very different. Command ranges, particularly for the Russians, are very tight. Movement of guns and machine gun units strongly favors their defensive use and handicaps them for a-historical offensive play. Cavalry is modeled beautifully - effective use of your mounted units in this series is an art, and one that is difficult to master.

Definitely some Russians toward Goldap. I'll move one division to fix them while the second, northern division moves to secure the nearby VLs and hopefully flank the Russian position.
I've played several scenarios now if East Prussia '14, both solo and PBEM. I'm confident that this game is one that will see hundreds of hours of gameplay from me. The addition of much improved graphics to the extremely well-researched and tuned game system make this a winner for anyone interested in the challenges WWI commanders faced on the Eastern Front at the beginning of the Great War.