Saturday, August 11, 2007

Guns of August 1914-1918 Review

Guns of August 1914-1918, developed by Adanac Command Studies and published by Matrix Games.
The Good: Unique use of headquarters units, sort of different setting, initial setups can be saved for future use, compact scenario lengths
The Not So Good: Extremely tedious gameplay since you must control all allied nations at once resulting in a lot of management, no tutorial and a vague manual
What say you? Although it has some innovative gameplay features, this World War I grand strategy game is too big and too bland: 5/8

Finally, a strategy game not set during World War II! Granted, it’s World War I, but baby steps are still progress. Hot of the heels of the recently released Commander: Europe at War, Guns of August takes the grand strategy game to the original World War, replacing yummy tanks with yummy poison gas (yeah, I know there were tanks in World War I, but they weren’t yummy tanks). Now that’s old school! The grand strategy games have become quite popular, letting you take control of an entire nation’s military and economic strategies. In the case of Guns of August, you will guide the Triple Entente or the Central Powers to victory in Europe (well, hopefully). Will Guns of August use its unique focus to produce a must-have title?

The graphics and sound of Guns of August are typical for a wargame: very basic. The game features the same hex-based maps and unit tiles that have been around for many years in countless other titles. These derivative graphics work OK in the game and the graphics never hinder the gameplay, but the graphics lack any excitement. They are just there to show the game and nothing more, which I suppose is fine for a wargame setting. The user interface is OK: everything is accessible from the main screen, but the subsequent interfaces take up a lot of the screen so you can’t see the units referenced in the screens. The minimap doesn’t show unit locations, but the overall map (which takes up about half of the screen) does. Overall, the graphics are underwhelming and typical for the genre. The sound is also exactly what you would expect: decent music and a handful of sound effects. Sure, it has a wargame pedigree so you don’t expect cutting-edge graphics and sound, but it would still be nice to see some improvements made from the standard presentation.

Guns of August takes place during World War I, when the Central Powers and the Triple Entente were fighting over who could eat the last cookie (or as best I can remember from History class). The game offers single person play against the capable AI opponent, play by e-mail, or hot seat games. Like Commander: Europe at War, you will have to control all of the nations aligned with a particular side; as you will see, this quickly becomes a micromanagement problem. There is no tutorial in the game and the manual isn’t the greatest: it leaves out basic commands like ordering units to move (left-click) or selecting units in a stack (right-click). Not helping things is the fact that you can’t do much the first turn, so you may think the game is broken, not allowing you to activate units or issue orders, when in actuality you are not allowed to do much of anything right out of the box. Victory is gained with surrender by Germany or Russia and France. If this is not reached by the end of the time frame (one year or six turns for each scenario, although you can continue until the end of 1918), other methods will be used to determine the winner. Each of the yearly (five from 1914 to 1918) scenarios takes place over a year, and since each turn is two months long, all of the scenarios (with the exception of the first, which is half as long) are only six turns long. This might not sound like a very long game, but a single turn of Guns of August will take very long to complete due to the high level of micromanagement. I actually like smaller scenarios rather than extremely long campaigns (regular readers will know I complain about 100-turn long scenarios early and often). You can grant a production bonus to either side to increase the difficulty, or make Romania and Italy pro-Germany for a more balanced game (good for multiplayer affairs).

The first thing you’ll do is deploy your troops. Actually, the first thing you’ll do is just stare at the map and wonder why you can’t do anything, until you realize that you need to press the “next turn” button to reach the deployment phase. Troop locations are preset, but you can move them around (somehow…I can’t seem to do it on a consistent basis and the manual is no help) and even save your initial placement for future tries at the mission: pretty cool. Next comes the activation phase that introduces a neat way of representing the order of battle. Units must be activated by their headquarters unit in an adjacent hex before they can attack enemy hexes. This allows you to spread out a set of units to cover a line, but still requires you to keep units together in a realistic manner. I really like it and it’s probably the most unique innovation in Guns of August. Activated units can then be issued movement orders in the orders phase, results are calculated during the resolution phase, and results are displayed in the drawn-out playback phase.

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll have to keep track of the economy and military of a number of countries at one time, and all of the settings and production in the game is independent for each nation in an alliance. Good thing each scenario is only six turns long. Each nation has manpower that is used for reinforcements and morale derived from domestic opinion, political and naval victories, and food supply. Casualties can also contribute to war exhaustion, which will cause reduction in the amount of activation a headquarters can use and eventually force HQs to retreat. Guns of August has superficial diplomacy: you can use diplomatic points to alter when nations will enter the war (their allegiances are fixed). Declaring war on neutral nations can anger other neutral nations, provoking them to war sooner. There is also research that can improve your units in several areas: artillery, trenches, poison gas, assault troops, tanks, aircraft, and anti-sub warfare. While the diplomacy and the research is simplistic, they are nice abstractions that give you just another thing to keep track of.

Guns of August puts a lot of emphasis on food production (food is good): if you don’t have enough food, national morale and production will drop. Most of your raw materials and food will come from locations inside the country (good places to attack, by the way), but you can also trade resources between friendly nations. Production will create economic points that can be used to purchase new units and diplomatic or research points. New units are purchased from a large menu and available a couple of turns later. The support operations in Guns of August are mostly automated: air and naval units can be given commands such as recon mission to improve artillery accuracy, shipping trips, amphibious operations, and anti-sub patrols. This is meant to reduce micromanagement and automate the naval aspects of the game, but I wish the game showed where the units were located as you issue orders (this is a user interface problem).

Units move one hex at a time, and they can move into enemy territory if they have been activated by their headquarters. Thankfully, you can move an entire stack at once, but there are still a whole bunch of units scattered all over the map to deal with. Moving units will reduce their readiness; along with trenches, this gives and advantage to defending units (which parallels the real war). They did have railroads back then, so units can quickly be brought up to the front lines from where they are produced. Guns of August only allows you to see enemy units in adjacent hexes (makes sense), but you can gain more information from airplane recon. When units collide, combat takes place automatically, taking into account the relative strengths of the units, their quality, readiness, and firepower. While the basics of the game are solid and there are a couple of neat features in the game (like HQ activation), Guns of August is very tedious with too many units to control scattered over a large map. Not only do you have to deal with all of the units, but you also need to set research, diplomacy, naval orders, reinforcements, force queues, and airpower usage for every country under your command every turn. Guns of August tries to occasionally reduce the micromanagement buy automating the naval and air support and letting you save setups to reduce repetitiveness at the beginning of a new game, but it’s still a lot to keep track of. Even the real alliances had one head of state for each country; why should I be expected to handle the economics and military of multiple nations at once? Guns of August does prompt you before ending each turn to make sure you didn’t forget anything important during each phase of the game, but the game doesn’t suggest which countries you forgot about. You really need to methodically deal with each nation individually in order to successfully play the game. Although it doesn’t approach the level of confusion of Great Invasions (where your multiple countries made no sense), Guns of August is simply too cumbersome to enjoy, at least for me.

Guns of August suffers from Hearts of Iron-like confusion: too much is required of the player to keep track of, so all except for the most dedicated players will become frustrated and quit. I do like the unit activation through the HQ and the basics are fine, but the scale of the game is too large for me to enjoy. I just never got to relax enough to have fun, having to keep track of the units and the economic aspects of multiple nations all at the same time. I think the ability to guide just one nation would result in a more manageable game; can you imagine controlling, say, all of the Holy Roman Empire in Europa Universalis III? No thanks. The game’s “unique” time frame really just feels like World War II, since the setting is still in Europe and most of the units are essentially the same with some minor alterations to accommodate gas and trench warfare. With all of the grand strategy wargames available, Guns of August is too unwieldy to be a recommended title. I submit Commander: Europe at War as a more simplified and enjoyable grand strategy experience as Guns of August demands too much of the player.