The Great War: Western Front is a practically unique strategy game. Sure, there’s plenty of games like Total War that will cast you as both a ruler of an empire or theatre commander and the field general in battle, and this game has a familiar blend of turn-based campaign map and real-time battles. However, where it then stands out is with its depiction of the trench warfare of the Western Front.
Keen strategy fans might be able to muddle their way through and learn on the fly, but for most players the first port of call should be the tutorial. This thematically follows a US regiment arriving late in the war and joining the Allied forces, bolstering the defences in a key area and letting you sample the troops management, espionage and tech trees of the campaign map and some of the more advanced elements of trench warfare, with planes, different types of artillery barrage, and the general principles of trying to protect your troops, while also being willing to send more companies into the fight, and knowing when to call an end to an assault.
From this tutorial to a fresh campaign, it’s start just how pared back your options are in battle. WWI saw great leaps forward in technology and marked a real turning point in how wars were fought, and that’s represented here by the completely empty tech trees. You don’t have planes, you don’t have rolling barrages, you have nothing but the most basic of trenches as your options. Each turn (depicting one month of the war) will reward you with research points to spend, as will completing certain optional objectives.
The ultimate goal of the campaign is to force the other side to capitulate, whether that’s by inflicting enough defeats that the public perception of the war forces them to give in, or managing to progress the front line to, and capture their headquarters in Paris or Kreuznach.
That’s easier said than done, because moving the front line will be a gruelling affair, with multiple battle required to drain a hexagonal space on the line of its defences. They’re represented by stars, and you’ll have to knock all of the stars off a hex before you can capture it. That could require multiple turns of persistent combat, or you could launch assaults from multiple adjacent hexes, though that would naturally require a lot of troop build up, constrained by your supply to the front and leaving you weaker in other areas. It helps to use espionage to try and clue in on what the enemy is up to in nearby spaces, the first of these a guaranteed success, but later attempts able to fail.
While you can auto-resolve battles, you’ll likely want to take command to try and ensure the best outcome in key battles. There’s a pre-battle phase during which you can set out a trench network – at the start of the war, there’s maybe half a dozen isolated trenches, but with persistent changes from battle, you’ll have a well-established trench network to expand and enhance. You will have to place new artillery, machine gun nests and barrage balloons, though, and can call for days of pre-bombardment and undermining.
Once the whistles blow and troops go over the top, what follows is an unsparing depiction of the war. Entire companies can be wiped out in seconds by defensive fire from manned trenches and machine gun nests, especially if artillery fire is used to suppress as they approach. Attackers will need to soften the approach with suppressing fire of their own, use rolling barrages and smoke to obscure an advance, tanks to bolster an attack (though they are far from impervious, and make the most of the natural environment for cover. You need to get into the enemy trenches as quickly as possible, and then back them up with reinforcements. There’s also the possibility to use fighters and bombers to take out enemy artillery and barrage balloons, gas artillery to try and flush enemies from their trenches (which can be countered by gas masks), and more.
The objective is to capture the enemy HQ, but there’s also control points that can give you a more modest victory. Importantly, you need to know what to call for a cease fire, to avoid losses becoming too great.
There’s a chance for The Great War: Western Front to be used as an educational tool as well. Alongside the campaign, you can also play through historical scenarios. This time around we took command of the Battle for the Somme as the Central Powers, defending on a map absolutely littered with defensive positions and trenches from wave after wave of onrushing British soldiers.
It’s just a small slice of the full breadth of the battle that was waged, but as you defend against the clock and try to recapture a previously lost control point, it really gets across the extent of the infamous battle and some of the bloodiest days of the war. While some will revel in the strategic and tactical challenge, for me, there’s a somewhat sombre tone to parts of its depiction of the war.
The Great War: Western Front will be coming out for PC on 30th March 2023. Frontier & Petroglyph are also releasing a demo as part of Steam Next Fest, available from 6th February.