GrogHeads Reviews Making History: The Great War

Before they made the sequel, there was the original World War.  Muzzy Lane’s take on World War I was recently released after a lengthy beta period, and our review teams gives it a go.

Jim Owczarski, 28 February 2015

Designing global strategy games in a digital environment  requires a commitment to both craft and art.  It requires an acute sense of what information, which details, can safely be kept hidden from the player — unless he really wants to know — and those which, if hidden, will leave players screaming at their monitors because they can’t figure out how to do something they really need to do.  More, it requires a careful understanding of how to communicate events going on in the world around the player in ways that don’t introduce absurd tedium — I’m looking right at you Europa Universalis III — while simultaneously preventing head-slapping aggravation when the player suddenly realizes that the Sudan sued for peace in its war against the Anglo-Egyptian government 12 turns ago and he never noticed it.

My respect for what Muzzy Lane attempts in its “Making History: The Great War”, then, is great.  I only wish I could say they’d done a better job in the event.

The topic isn’t a surprising one given the centennial observations of World War I and a number of other developers have offered their takes.  If nothing else, Muzzy Lane’s is familiar as it uses the Sandstone engine previously seen in “The Calm and the Storm” and “The War of the World”.  Players are the now-commonplace nigh-omniscient rulers of nations charged with the building of infrastructure, armies, technologies, and economies, and then guiding those they lead into the tempest of Europe in the years after 1912.  Units are typically “division” sized (more on that in a bit) and the game. which one should note up front is turn-based, runs in one-week turns.

“The Great War” (hereafter TGW) does not skimp on the choice of nations to control.  Every strategy guide you read for games of this type tells you that it’s a bad idea to try and learn a system from some remote corner of the globe, but I already know a great deal about this history of the British, French, German, American, &c., empires and definitely fancied the notion of playing out the first half of the 20th Century from the Emirate of Jabal Shammar

Caption:  You thought I was kidding?

Caption:  You thought I was kidding?

Here and elsewhere, I greatly enjoyed the developer’s commitment to sharing the history of this era, even, again, the stories of those not often remembered.   Muzzy Lane has received awards from educators for finding innovative ways to sneak up behind disinterested students and whack them with a history stick and I can understand why.  I will say, however, that, in the case of TGW, the warning of those strategy guides proved accurate.  Having rolled through a half-dozen or so of the smallest powers, I found the history and the research fascinating, but these micro-nations don’t make for a compelling game.  Their resources are acutely limited — both in terms of manpower and raw materials — and the diplomatic system, such as it is, has little use for them so they wind up with little leverage.  Unless I was really missing something, the Emir of Jabal Shammar did not enjoy his time during the Great War.  And that was only in part due to its combat penalty which I will wager sets some sort of record for combat penalties.

MHTGW-Penalty

Assuming one would prefer to play as a Great Power, then, TGW has two scenarios and a tutorial.  The latter, weighing in at about 45 minutes of time, is a strong tour of the camera controls, user interface, and information screens, but it shares a fault with many other games of this type in that it fails to connect these screens to one another in ways that help the uninitiated figure out how to do things.  Taking only one example, I wasn’t long into a number of games when my preset trade agreements began to falter due to lack of shipping capacity.  I had been told by the tutorial where the shipping capacity number was so I was confirmed in my certainty that it was bollixing my trade agreements, but it took a tour through the manual (hint: page 31) to find the correct industrial track to remedy matters.

The other two scenarios allow the player to begin either immediately at the outbreak of hostilities in August of 1914 or a few years before in June 1912.  The latter scenario is an interesting one as you begin to realize that TGW is far more about economies and the sinews of war than it is about the minutiae of warfare.  Development takes a substantial amount of time under the best of circumstances — heaven help you if you’re one of the peripheral nations — and better preparing your nation to confront war when it comes presents opportunities for those powers that the game’s mechanics grant that sort of flexibility.

The game is played out on a map of the globe that reminded me of nothing so much as sixth-grade social studies.

MHTGW-world

This actually isn’t a criticism on my part as I had a terrific time in sixth grade.  I still mourn Ms. Anderson who was one of the few teachers to ever indulge my love of reading about military history.  But I digress.  A closer look reveals the world divided into provinces which are themselves populated by identifiable larger cities.  If I may permitted one brief further digression, I have long wondered where people come up with the names for these regions.  Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the Fox River runs just a bit west of where I’m sitting, but TGW doesn’t take place back  in the hoary reaches of time when the Menominee ran the show hereabout.  There are no less than three perfectly viable cities — I, of course, have a preference — after which this region could have been named, but, well, there it is.

MHTGW-Fox

The map can be viewed at a range of angles running from top-down to something in the area of 30 degrees.  Far enough back, this all works reasonably well, but up close matters turn into a bit of a mush.  Things are not made better by the 3D icons chosen for units, workers, cities, and development.  I am no aesthete.  My preference in games will probably always run to hexes and chits.  This has developed in my, however, a strong desire to see and understand what a map is trying to tell me.  This is particularly important if you’re going to demand the kind of micro-management that TGW does.

MHTGW-muddle

Terrain is reduced to a handful of broad categories which are in turn applied to the entirety of a region.  This can prompt a certain amount of operational maneuver, but I honestly never felt any particular advantage to being conscious of terrain other than obvious things like attacking into forests or marching over mountains.

MHTGW-terrain

As suggested earlier, you will go well astray if you start your planning by thinking about microscopic military detail.  The key to victory in TGW is determining your country’s economic strengths and weaknesses and working to develop the former while compensating to the extent possible for the latter.  And while technological development is important — a tech tree that most will find as comfortable as an old shoe is present — the real secret is the matrix of factories and resources that are to be found in the more useful regions.  Making certain that you have the various bits of war in place and ready to be turned out when the conflict comes (presuming you’re not starting right at the brink of the abyss) will determine whether you win or lose.  This, of course, isn’t a bad characterization of the nature of war in the modern era.  Would, however, that setting up your factories, developing your resources, and, in a measure, managing your trade in- and out-flows wasn’t the soul crushing exercise in micro-management that it is.  This is, at times,  spreadsheet-as-wargame at its worst.  Others may enjoy this.  I did not.  In fact, one of the weird bits about starting my play-throughs with the smaller powers was that the true magnitude of this problem was hidden by the limitations of these nations.   After all Jabal Shammar only had so many talents of gold to share with the rest of the world.  Great Britain, on the other hand, well, I do not jest when I said I caught myself dreaming about managing the empire on which the sun never set.  These were not good dreams.

The game flows under the gentle guidance of a series of events, some major, some minor.  I love event-driven gameplay as it can create a variety that, even though the broader arc of events is retained, permits one to imagine and even pursue radically different outcomes.

MHTGW-Events

Each turn begins with an update on national and international goings-on — particularly, it always seemed to me, those relevant to the nation in play — as well as possible problems with trade and other agreements.  These latter usually involved inadequate levels of shipping (cf. above) and market demand for certain commodities either increasing or decreasing.  I also enjoyed, as is the case in the Europa Universalis series, the sense that I was acting in a larger world where things were happening that I couldn’t even see much less affect.

But what happens when the hitting starts?  Honestly, a great deal of what this game is trying to simulate militarily is a black box to me.  I understand that each unit is notionally a “division” (the manual says so and even places the word in quotation marks for reasons I don’t understand) and that unit types get walked up through levels like “Infantry I”, “Infantry II”, and “Infantry III”.  Every game must, of course, make its choices about scale and representation, but this notion of upgrading a unit solely, it seems to me, for the purpose of having an upgrade path, is a poor one.  I also have a very hard time wrapping my head around the concept of a “division” of “Engineers”.  Who are they supposed to be?  I am unaware of engineer units at above the level of the regiment in this era, and certainly not this many of them.  World War I is not my area of expertise, but design of this kind from a company that does history this well is strange.  More, one gets little sense of the evolution of military technology that was characteristic of this era from units like “Tank I” or “Fighter III”.  It’s not that there aren’t good ideas here — I like that Stormtroopers are taken as an admixture of Infantry and Engineers — and artillery steps through six well-considered stages, but much still left me scratching my head.

Movement to combat, resolved during the weekly turns, also took some real getting used to.  Terrain, again, is abstracted and movement rates seem to be merely relative, i.e., “x is twice as fast as y which is half as fast as z”.  Figuring out just when a given “division” will arrive at a particular point, then, can be difficult.  Strangely, this caused me to have greater regard for the continuous-time system used in the “Europa Universalis” series (something a “play while paused” EU player such as myself would previously never have thought possible).  At a minimum, that system gives you fairly prompt feedback as to how quickly your troops are moving and will permit an interruption and re-route if things aren’t going according to plan.

If, however, I expect too much from a game that intends to manage its combat units as abstractions, there’s still the matter of the land combat model.  I can’t say that it’s broken because I’m not sure whether it’s working as intended or not.  I do know it’s based on points and the outcome is modified by a few factors including terrain (notably river crossing and mountains), morale, and national mobilization.  I also observe that over time — give me just one second more on that — the results seem to come out as one might expect.  But as to time, please take a look at the below:

MHTGW-Month

I think I’ve done a fair job of capturing in the screenshot what’s going on in that battle.  Frankly, I re-started one of my very first games just to see if I could get something that had happened game-months before to happen again so I could get a picture of it.   I’m back fighting for the glory of Jabal Shammar; I just can’t seem to quit the place..  What you’re watching is two very small aggregations of horse having it out in the middle of the desert.  The modifiers are straight-forward and the circumstances couldn’t be more clear.  This fight took nearly two months to resolve.  Bigger fights seem to resolve better, but their timing is still well off.  This has a dramatic effect on the pacing of the game as one is little disposed to continue with other plans until the outcome of battles is known.  More than once, I found myself hunting for the button that would let me auto-resolve in a fashion similar to that in the Total War series.

Perhaps the strangest thing in all this is that the A.I. puts up a reasonably good fight.  It builds well, prepares well, and is certainly aggressive, even overly so at times.  When I played the British, it often proved too easy to anticipate Central Power thrusts and offer them a bloody repulse, but that’s certainly preferable to a passive approach that could easily result in two countries notionally at war that never get around to fighting one another as the computer realizes the only way to win really is not to play.  .

Overall, there are things to admire in “Making History: The Great War”.  I honestly learned some things about the history of the era and the participants in a conflict that eventually consumed not only so many lives but entire cultures and world views.  Given all the foregoing, however, I cannot offer it a recommendation.


 

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