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Posted on Oct 11, 2005 in Boardgames

Grand Illusion – Boardgame Review

By Johnny L. Wilson

boxcover.jpgOffensive a outrance!*
GMT’s Grand Illusion Offers New Perspective on WWI
By Johnny L. Wilson

For many of us, our first thoughts of World War I involve trenches and bi-planes, the Flying Circus and mustard gas. We rarely think of maneuver, bluff and counter-bluff as part of the strategic planning for this costly debacle. As a result, the war offers few titles of gaming interest as hobbyists find themselves more likely to pursue the unholy trio of Nukes, Nazis and Napoleon (during the Cold War, NATO was more popular than Napoleon as a gaming subject, but we think that has changed since the demise of the Soviet Union).


One exception to the dearth of interesting World War I titles was Ted Raicer’s Paths of Glory, a card-driven game that features the most brutal supply rules ever, as well as an incredible replay quotient because of the randomness of the cards and the historical constrictions and events depicted on those cards. In a very real sense, Raicer has created another fresh approach to this neglected conflict with Grand Illusion (GMT Games).

Grand Illusion has two godfathers. The first godfather was Norman Angell, author of a pre-World War I book called The Great Illusion that argued that war was no longer profitable and that no modern nation would be foolish enough to initiate an unprofitable war. This Great Illusion proved to be more delusion than illusion. The second godfather was Jean Renoir, the brilliant French filmmaker who created an anti-war masterpiece entitled Grand Illusion that does not seem dated, even today.

Taking his cue from both godfathers, Raicer has created a gaming experience that shows the horrible cost of war in bold, vivid strokes. Like Renoir’s film, the game has a look that will cause a double-take in even the most experienced wargamers. The map is hex-based, but the hexes are huge (over 2" across in any direction and over an inch along each hex side) to accommodate huge stacks of forces (though Racier’s experience caused him to create force markers and holding boxes so that one does not HAVE to manipulate huge piles across the map) and represent 30 miles of frontage in each hex.

FRONTAGE LOAD The map hexes for Grand Illusion are in excess of two inches across to accommodate the counter load.

Why? Because a large part of the strategy in World War I was dependent upon the fact that Germany’s army of a million and a half needed more room to maneuver than could be accommodated inside France’s boundaries.[1] So, a plan was made to send the army’s sweeping right arm through Belgium and outflank France (presumably, preoccupied with Alsace-Lorraine). Even at the outbreak of World War II, the Schlieffen Plan was considered iconic and cited by Churchill as being potentially more successful in its updated form where the Netherlands were occupied, as well as Belgium.[2]

Reconnaissance: Physical Components and Rules

As noted above, the map and counters are resplendent. They offer a fresh perspective and feel for the gaming experience. Plus, the designer’s experience make handling large stacks along a front representing massive armies much easier than is found in many games. The counter set includes differing shapes of counters to keep track of combat modifiers (for terrain, partial encirclement, entrenchment, fortification and more), the map contains a spacious turn record track (for handling bookkeeping counters for CAPs (command administrative points), reinforcements, mandated attacks and victory points), and there are separate playing aid cards for handling some of the rules mechanics and limitations related to each specific turn. Plus, the unit counters themselves offer a variety of shades to reflect the composition of the armies. For example, light blue French counters represent units with overseas (colonial) experience, marking them as elite troops. In the same way, dark gray German counters represent Bavarian troops. By the time the map is set-up, it seems almost like a Napoleonic era game in that it is so colorful.

ALPHA FORCE Even with the large hexes used by Grand Illusion, many players will find it more handy to stack their forces in the force holding boxes and use force markers on the map than to stack all the counters in the hexes.

Unfortunately, even as revised per the Living Rules (GMT is very gracious to provide updates of their rules in PDF format via their website.), the rule book is not up to GMT standards. Fortunately, the Living Rules do eliminate some of the initial set-up confusion by moving even the general set-up instructions to the section of the book for each scenario. In the original release, one had to look at Section 3.1.3 for the general set-up parameters and then under the scenarios themselves for more specifics. However, there is still some room for improvement.

For example, the instruction for placing a German End of Rail marker was buried in 3.1.4.f and followed the direction to place the Trench Level One marker in Metz. We missed it on the first set-up. Even now, it is buried in a compound sentence in 13.1.3.f after the Metz entrenchment or in the specific instruction in Section 8.4.3.h of the Living Rules (It is placed on hex 56.). In addition, while most counters have a specific set-up hex listed on the counter, the set-up hex for the Heavy Artillery (HA) units are on the flipped side of the counters. It would have been helpful to see that in print. To be sure, it makes sense. The guns were presumed in Scenario #1 to be used in the "Guns of August" siege of Liege. Unfortunately, in our first game of Grand Illusion, the German erroneously assumed that these were "off-board" units and had near infinite range until he flipped the counters after firing and discovered the #72.

Obviously, the material is there if one digs for it hard enough, but most gamers would rather be using their shovels to entrench their positions than to dig through the rules. It simply hasn’t been our experience with GMT games to have to work that hard at set-up. Making matters worse, there are so many rule changes, limitations and waivers tied to specific turns that every playing of the game has required constant thumbing through the rules on our part-in spite of the amount of detail on the separate Turn Record Track playing aid card (there is both a track on the map for various counters and bookkeeping aids, as well as the separate reference sheet with specific data on it).

For example, on game turns 1-4, the defenders against an Allied Mandated Attack get an additional negative die roll modifier (hereafter DRM) to their combat rolls that is equal to the terrain DRM for the contested hex. The information is found at the end of 9.3.2 and in 9.3.5.b and there is definitely a good reason for the mechanic (to be discussed later). It is simply a fact that such situation specific modifications does not make for fast and easy play in one’s first few games. Grand Illusion is not the fast playing game that it looks like it would be at first glance.

Strategic Briefing: Game or Simulation?

But the good news in all of this kvetching is that the reason for all of this detail is that the game design incorporates historical details and insights that are absolutely fascinating once one realizes what Raicer is doing. The game design is beautifully illustrative of command limitations and the consequences of an inflexible strategic doctrine. Yet, the game will be less appealing to some players because there are several game mechanisms that are true to the strategic philosophies operative during the conflict but take the control out of the player’s hands.

From the perspective of realism, one is tempted to say, "Get over it!" Friction and politics often take command decisions out of the hands of the generals. Anyone who has read how Hitler and Stalin overruled the counsel of Guderian and Zhukov respectively during the Second World War will not be surprised to realize that Prime Minister Asquith (U.K.) ignored the strategic analysis of General Henry Wilson [3] and that the French general staff ignored the exhortation toward the defensive by General Michel and his early perception of the German’s eventual intent.[4] 

To demonstrate this lack of control, Grand Illusion forces the allies to make attacks on the first four game turns. Called Plan 17 attacks after the famous plan created by General Ferdinand Foch, these attacks are the equivalent of the title of this review-offensive to the limit. In fact, they are so offensive that rule 9.3.5 gives the defender extra die roll modifiers (equivalent to the terrain modifiers) in order to kill that many more units. Even worse, if the German player still doesn’t cause any losses by the end of the battle, he gets to flip an Allied unit of his choice. There are no battles without the loss of life during the mandated battles. The loss of human lives in mandated offensives was horrific and Grand Illusion’s mechanics recreate it on the game map. Players who refuse to make those wasteful offensives lose victory points just like generals who would have refused to make those offensives would have been relieved of command.

To make things even less popular with the "control-oriented" player, these Plan 17 hexes are further reduced (because of adjacency) on the first turn to a choice between: a) Hex 85 (a suicide attack against Luxembourg City, a huge number of German regulars and a +1 terrain bonus); b) Hex 86 (the intended focus of the French offensive in Metz with less German regulars to face, but two fortifications and a +1 terrain modifier); c) Hex 96 (a concentrated force at Saarburg and +1 modifier); d) Hex 103 (limited forces, but a +2 modifier and stacking limitation because of the Vosges Mountains); or e) Hex 107 (easy pickings, but with a very real possibility of weakening the French right flank). The "history-oriented" player will be fascinated with the command dilemma as the map comes to new life through unpleasant choices, but the pure gamer will be frustrated.

But this isn’t the only loss of control that the player faces. A key mechanic in Grand Illusion is the Fortunes of War (FoW) Table. Prior to every offensive, the active general must roll on this table, representing battlefield friction and luck/morale. This table can force the Allied commander to fight to the death with his disrupted units, put everything on the line with the possibility of a rout, reduce the possibility of a decisive battle or give advantageous options to the defender (fortunately, some of these disadvantageous fortunes are ignored in Allied Mandated Battles on Game Turns 1-4). For the Allied player, there is tremendous relief when a 9 (giving an extra CAP to a nearly always impoverished Allied force) or an 8 (ignore all terrain modifiers except entrenchment or forts) is rolled. Often, a successful defense can be negated by a counterattack roll (10) or a routed roll (2 or 12). The FoW rolls are critical.

BATTLEFIELD CRAPS The FoW table can cancel an attack (3), limit casualties (4), add resources to the Germans (5) or Allies (9), force the French to fight with disrupted units (6 and 11), give options to the defender (7), allow the attacker to disregard terrain modifiers (8), force the defender to counterattack (10) or force the losing side to rout at the end of the battle (2 or 12). Click above for full list.

Finally, the game follows history so closely that other decisions are taken out of the player’s hands. Should the German player reach the "Paris in Danger" hexes, this requires the Allied player to make a general withdrawal to reflect the crisis. This changes commanders (and potential CAPs), cancels remaining mandated battles, and costs 3 victory points. If the Belgians elect to hole up in the fortress in Antwerp, the Germans cannot enter the hex with Givet until Antwerp is destroyed. This reflects an actual corridor of retreat, but simply because it was a historical possibility for the Belgians does not mean it should be possible in a game situation.

In these and other points, the game defers to historical color versus the player’s right to "what if?" This is usually unpopular among gamers. We prefer the way Grand Illusion handles the eastern front equation. Faced with a two-pronged attack on the eastern front, the Germans attempted to hit the first army they engaged as hard as possible.[5] This strategy is reflected in Grand Illusion by removing 9 combat points from one of the three initial armies or taking a reduction in victory points. Since this color is presented as a true game decision, it is preferable to the arbitrary instructions and exception-based restrictions.

[continued on next page]

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1 Comment

  1. There are a couple inaccuracies in the Colmar attack example. First, a “mandated attack” must involve 4 attacking infantry corps, which exceeds the Colmar stacking limits. Therefore an attack against Colmar cannot qualify as a mandated attack.

    Secondly, impassible hexsides do not count for the “concentric attack” bonus. So in the example the French do not have 3 hexsides and therefore it is not a concentric attack.