PC Game Review of Squad Battles: First World War

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A review by Boggit, 17 February 2013

Developer and Publisher: John Tiller Software

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The recent surge in wargames set during the First World War is leaving Wargamers spoilt for choice. With Squad Battles: First World War, Boggit takes Grog’s view of whether it is a “Breakthrough” or is “Caught on the Wire”.


Squad Battles: First World War John Tiller Software’s latest addition to their series of Squad Battles games. Hitherto John Tiller’s Squad Battles have focused on the Modern and World War Two timeframe. The First World War is a new departure for this series so what has changed and does the Squad Battles Engine “work” for the First World War?



Pins and casualties everywhere as the first wave break against the British line

John Tiller’s Squad Battles games have been around for many years and will be familiar to many Grogs. Gamers unfamiliar with the series will need little explanation about the game engine itself.

Squad Battles is a turn based tactical wargame, with most units representing a squad, a leader, an individual tank or gun. Each turn represents the passage of five minutes and each hex some 40 metres across.

The unavoidable criticism I have of the engine is that the single player AI tends towards passivity on the defence and doesn’t handle a dynamic battlefield situation well, leading at times to strange unit behaviour or a failure to seize opportunities. For example, in one test scenario played, reinforcing German troops under the AI preferred to advance in the open/cratered terrain under heavy fire despite the nearby cover and trench systems available to cover their approach to reach their desired fighting location leading to heavy and unnecessary casualties. This seemed odd particularly since moving along trenches in Squad Battles: First World War is as if moving through clear terrain regardless of the terrain in the hex, which would have a mobility bonus over cratered terrain and more protection to boot. AI leaders can also find themselves unsupported in the front line. In another test scenario, “Enter the Guards” as French troops fell back demoralised, they left their officers to bravely fight on singlehandedly, often in open terrain so leaving them extremely vulnerable to being eliminated by assault.



Counters can be replaced with 3-D sprites as an alternative unit representation

To a large extent the shortcomings of the AI is generally offset by excellent scenario design, and John Tiller Software has been fortunate to have had some extremely talented scenario designers over the years. The multiplayer experience of Squad Battles is much more challenging. It is extremely PBEM friendly and for many playing this way, Squad Battles is a thought provoking and challenging medium for a wargame. Finding an opponent isn’t as difficult as you might think. I can personally recommend the Blitz Wargaming Club for some excellent opponents, but there are a number of active digital wargame clubs worth joining, which support a variety of wargames including John Tiller’s.

The game graphics are very dated. However, maps, hex and unit information do not lack for clarity and the graphics for town, village and shell crater hexes have been improved over earlier Squad Battle games. Graphics can be substantially improved to some extent by some excellent mods that are available. Squad Battles are extremely mod friendly and there a number of game and scenario editors supplied with the game. There are a few good mods sites for Squad battles out there, in particular Task Force Echo 4, and Volcano Mods spring to mind.

That’s pretty much the worst of it though. If you can see past that, you’ll come to appreciate that the good with this game far outweighs the bad. The game is remarkably easy to learn and the learning curve is supported with a tutorial scenario and a comprehensive set of manuals dealing with almost every aspect of the game. The user manual is particularly good and highlights the real depth that the game engine has. It deals with a vast array of weapons and equipment and has lots of special rules varying with the effect of wearing gas masks to the use of searchlights in night scenarios.

The game engine is extremely stable. It should be, since it has been around for quite a few years now. That is a benefit for gamer’s since John Tiller software has always been well supported over the years and the any kinks in the game have been sorted out, and many new features and special rules have been added. One of the great aspects of buying games from John Tiller Software is that they very stable so patching is rare, but the game series are regularly updated as new games come out with new features free of charge. If like me you have or intend to acquire a number of Squad Battle titles, this is a big saver for gamers given the recent debate in several wargame forums over charging for updates. There are a few extra rules that this author would have liked to see such as vehicle crew bailout and re-crewing of vehicles, but for the most part the rule set is very comprehensive.

Whilst the interface is fairly simple, the game engine hides a lot of depth and is unforgiving when the pixel bullets start to fly. It’s no accident that Squad Battles has acquired a strong fan base and with it long term survival with Wargamers.



The British line is breached, but all the attackers are now pinned and over stacked making a lovely target at short range for the adjacent British

So what’s new about Squad Battles: First World War from other Squad battles games? In game engine terms there are a number of neat features added, which are particularly relevant to a First World War era game. Key improvements include the ability to define ‘Rolling Barrages’, Gas, Trench Clearing, Inspirational Equipment (like Banners, Regimental Flags, although strangely no inevitable bagpipes for Scottish units) and all these regularly feature throughout the scenarios provided with the game.

For those unfamiliar with the game concept ‘Rolling Barrages’ are pre-arranged artillery bombardments. In game terms these are either focused at a single point for a given time, or as a creeping barrage which starting close to the front line then receding into the enemy rear lines to permit friendly troops to advance under the cover of artillery fire but without being in the beaten zone. Generally speaking assaulting troops did not have the luxury of radios to call in fire support and even with telephone lines they were not really geared up to call in spotted indirect fire. It had to be planned in advance and timing of an advance was important then and likewise in this game.

On the subject of artillery the game also provides persistent gas to be delivered to the battlefield. Quite reasonably the focus on gas is to model the general effect of gas on a unit although Chlorine rather than Mustard seems to be the JTS gas of choice and is depicted as a swirling green cloud. Either this starts on the battlefield as part of a pre-game bombardment, or via a Rolling Barrage or as specialised trench mortar fire. It’s nasty stuff causing casualties and disruption to the unprepared, and a loss of command and control to those who put their gas masks on. A nice feature is that if a gas mask equipped unit with is gassed they automatically put their gas masks on, and their unit picture automatically changes to reflect this. Depending on the scenario parameters set, it can also spread or dissipate which is a nice touch. Off map Artillery sound has improved with addition of the new “whizz bang” sound adding to the period immersion.



The Aussies make a dawn landing at Ari Burnu, unaware of the watchful Turks

One of the more brutal aspects of trench warfare after troops had crossed no-man’s land was close quarter trench clearing and John Tiller Software has made an elegant rule change to facilitate this. This rule reduces protection and movement cost between adjacent trench hexes. As attacking occupied trenches head on is pretty suicidal – since they give a huge defensive bonus – this gives a side that does actually break into a trench line a chance as they fight their way along a trench. It’s a good rule reflecting reality, since at very close range there would be relatively little cover available to either side within the trench, yet they still get the trench benefit for outside fire or fire at more than very close range.

“Inspirational Weapons” feature in addition to “Motivational Weapons” for morale purposes. Whilst they can be very useful for encouraging the troops, they are also a bit of a poison chalice for those, in that they must be carried by non-prone (i.e. upstanding) troops. It’s a dangerous job, but someone got the short straw… Unfortunately, captured colours, despite being a battle honour have no effect on morale.

There are some other minor improvements too adding to the period flavour – new rally “voices” have been added – including whistles, and a “Don’t Panic!” voice reminiscent of Corporal Jones of the BBC Dad’s Army series all adds to the period flavour. A really neat feature is that HMG’s are also now capable of long range arching fire. Essentially this is a historically used ability relying on elevating the HMG and gravity. The gunners watch the angled fall of shot (tracer usually) to get onto target. In game terms this gives the ability to fire over intervening friendly troops at long range. It is a bit like indirect fire, save that the gunner has to be able to see the target. Also, artwork based upon Andrew “IronX” Glenn’s nifty tab feature has been included with the game engine which identify stacks with leaders and pinned units at a glance.



After a bloody fight, the “Diggers” reach Plugge’s plateau, getting a major victory

The essential difference between each Squad Battle game is the design of the scenarios. The question is whether a generic game engine works for a number of different combat environments which now range from the First World War to the contemporary modern era. When I first heard about Squad Battles: First World War I did wonder how a squad based game would actually play out, given the rapid evolution of small unit combat doctrine over a mere four years. Essentially the lead designer Ed ‘Volcano Man’ Williams had quite a challenge before him.

Squad Battles: First World War ships with 66 non-campaign scenarios covering the period 1914 to 1918. For the most part they cover the Western Allies involvement on the Western Front or at Gallipoli, with three 1914 scenarios set on the Eastern Front. The scenarios vary considerably in size from company to Brigade size actions.

The larger scenarios can take a lot of time to play out due to the numbers of units. For example, when playing the Germans in the Charleroi 1914 “Enter the Guards scenario”, a regimental sized action, the French turn could take up to 7-10 minutes to play out due to the high number of units – and some people complain about the turn processing of 4 or 5 minutes as with Pride of Nations! Similarly due to the high number of units on my own side, there was a lot of micromanagement to do in my own turn, with each unit requiring my personal attention as to its stance, rally needs, weapon management etc… not that I minded, I was having fun, but it is time consuming leading to very long turns in the larger scenarios. That said Fast AI processing is an option, albeit at the loss of being able to follow the detail of the combats, which can sometimes cause a lack of situational awareness for a play if they don’t make an extra effort to subsequently identify units that have taken heavy losses. On the up side the larger scenarios have often larger maps giving more tactical options and generally with more troops involved you get a better perspective of the scale of the fighting. Needless to say the body count is staggering compared to most other Squad Battles games, but it reflects the times.



Pure bloody carnage! Charleroi 1914 – is that any victory? You don’t see bodycount like this in other Squad Battle games.

The scenarios and unit organisational structures have been well thought out to reflect the changing military doctrines during the First World War. Moreover, this has been researched for all the major protagonists. At the outset of the war units did not fight as squads like you find for the Second World War or later, but as platoons as the manoeuvre element. Each unit represents a half platoon to permit some flexibility to permit a skirmish line and abstractly assumes that the frontage of the said half platoon will actually occupy the hex the counter is in and those on either side. This actually works very well until units start to bunch up (effectively forming a line similar to those in the American Civil War or the Franco-Prussian War) at which point carnage tends to ensue if those units come under heavy fire. As the war progresses, the OOB changes to reflect changes in doctrine, so that by the time of 1918 units tend to resemble Second World War units, although without the relative preponderance of automatic weapons.

The varying OOB and the terrain issues cause Squad Battles: First World War to play out very differently to all of the other Squad Battle games. Second World War and Modern tactics can lead to disaster and a player needs to use tactics appropriate to the First World War environment. It has to be said that Ed ‘Volcano’ Williams has done a superb job of creatively tweaking the game engine in to replicate the changing tactics and style of warfare during the First World War. Fortunately, the Designers Notes shed a lot of light on the historical organisation changes, scenario issues and helps a player learn the proper tactics to use for the time.

Over the years I’ve seen plenty of historical deployments at the Division, Corps and Army levels in maps and books, but virtually nothing at the other extreme of Companies and Platoons. Given that Squad Battles: First World War deals with tactical battles, the lack of detail at the Company/Platoon must have presented quite a problem for anyone trying to make a battle scenario to replicate a historical situation. Some tactical level research would give insights into making sensible tactical deployments, but bear in mind that there was a huge evolution in tactical doctrine in a relatively few years to complicate the matter and the approach varied with each combatant nation. Despite that design hurdle, in my opinion the scenarios themselves are believable, well balanced and appeared to have had a lot of thought put into them. Reading the designer notes supports this, and I recommend this document, not only for the interesting research it discloses, but for the practical guidance it gives to understanding and playing well Squad Battles: First World War scenarios.



The Somme 1916. Through the wire and about to assault the trench line, I cringe at the thought of a Hun Barrage on my crowded Tommies

In addition to this, there are 7 Campaign games, where you play the role of an officer (In this instance you have a choice of six Commonwealth or American and one German) in a series of scenarios. Winning battles is important, but getting killed or incapacitated means that – for you – the war is over. These campaigns are well thought out covering a range of key actions of a Battalion, Brigade or Division during a given year or years (For example, the German Campaign runs from 1914-18, the British from 1916-1918) and can range from four scenarios (the Canadian Campaign) to seventeen scenarios (the German Campaign). Having a “personal” stake in the outcome adds to the interest and provides a more long term involvement than by playing a one-off scenario. Some of the longer campaigns are also very interesting because of the organisation changes that occur in the timeframe of the campaign meaning that the player must adapt to the changing battlefield environment – a very nice touch.



Panzer’s West! In the red corner the Mk-IV (Male & Female) stands ready to duke it out with an A7V. Check out the size of that monster – 18 Crew!


Inevitably there will be some criticism that there are not more East Front scenarios, or more should have been done on Verdun, that there’s nothing on the African Campaign, the capture of Tsingtao etc., but in my opinion that would be totally unfair. One person has been the primary driver behind this project over several years and after significant research has produced a very generous selection of stand-alone scenarios, together with another substantial batch of campaign scenarios, as well as a number of maps for Beersheba, Passchendaele, and Palestine etc. as a starter for budding designers. Taken together it is a huge amount of work and at some point the game has got to get released.

In summary, this is a good game to have on your hard drive. This game is definitely is not for the faint of heart, but it takes the Squad Battles series to an altogether new level. It is challenging, varied and immersive. The research that went into the game is evident as you play scenarios from different periods of the war and as well as being enjoyable, it is also an educational experience. I highly recommend it.

The Grumpy Grog says “Okay Boys. Fix Bayonets! We’re taking this one!”


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