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Posted on Oct 11, 2005 in Boardgames

Grand Illusion – Boardgame Review

By Johnny L. Wilson

Tactical Doctrine: Game Mechanics

Game play is built upon a mechanic called CAPs (Command Administration Points). CAPs are spent to activate (supplied) hexes prior to movement and attack, replace dead units, entrench hexes, use strategic movement and undisrupt (flip) disrupted units in a given hex. No player can spend more than 2 CAPs in a row (unless the other player has foolishly used up all available CAPS per turn), so there is a flow back and forth between forces during each game turn.

When combat units enter a hex that contains enemy units or fortifications, a battle may occur. The subjunctive is used here because a battle may not take place. Before a battle can take place, the attacking player must roll on the Fortunes of War Table. A roll of 3 on two dice will cancel the battle and any other scheduled for that turn. A roll of 7 gives the defender the option of canceling the battle (at a cost of 1 CAP), reducing the potential casualties of the battle by reclassifying it as a Skirmish (at the cost of 1 CAP). A roll of 10 immediately surrenders the initiative to the defender for a counterattack.


Assuming the FoW Table allows the battle to take place, the next die roll is for German heavy artillery (assuming they are in the hex). HA can only assault fortifications, but they get to fire first and they get to keep firing until they miss or all of the fortifications are destroyed. (See below for a historical note concerning German artillery.) Finally, battles are fought in a manner that reminds us of combat in Rob Markham’s Give Me Liberty! (3W). In the Markham game, players activated boxes on the map instead of hexes. When opposing forces occupied the same box, a battle marker would be placed there and the counters moved to a separate combat display at the side of the map. The difference was that the combat display was 7 boxes wide in Give Me Liberty! and the number of the box represented the total die roll needed to succeed in hitting (by rolling equal to or less than the number of the box). The battle board in Grand Illusion only allows 4 units across on the front, but the attacker can place reserve units 4 across the back.

Separate DRM counters are placed for terrain, entrenchment and the like and these modifiers are applied to each die roll (by the attacker). Players roll a die for each unit separately, needing a modified roll equal to the offensive number or less to get a hit.

Frankly, the combat process reminds me of a miniatures battle where you are firing by unit. The mechanic gives one a better sense of having multiple units involved in a battle with varying degrees of effectiveness. This idea of effectiveness is even more explicit when you have special units like the mountain capable French XIV Corps or Chasseurs Alpins Brigade attacking in the Vosges Mountains (Hexes 102 and 103) and reducing the terrain advantage. It is even more vivid when using the 305mm guns from Skoda and the 420mm guns from Krupp to reduce fortifications before one even rolls on the battle board. (Note: The guns, of course, were key to the German offensive. They used 1,051 guns (329 of which were heavy artillery) in the Verdun assault of February 12, 1916 and 5,263 guns at Chemin des Dames on May 27, 1918.[6] Though both of these battles took place long after the opening hostilities simulated in Grand Illusion, the optional rules allow for this increased German productivity at Skoda and Krupp by letting the Germans add more artillery for a cost of 3 German victory points.)

Again, the use of cavalry is interesting within the Grand Illusion context. Though the combat strength is relatively insignificant, reflecting the loss of accuracy when firing from horseback,[7] and the defender gets to fire first against cavalry, reflecting the necessity of closing range in order to become effective, the game does have an interesting wrinkle. Since the British effectively used cavalry screens to confuse the Germans and cause the Germans to believe that there were main lines of resistance where there was mostly cavalry, Grand Illusion allows Allied players (during the first two game turns) to automatically reduce battles involving British cavalry to Skirmishes (reducing the number of potential casualties) whenever British cavalry units are engaged in a battle hex.

Once all of the attacking and defending units have fired, the disrupted units have been flipped and the eliminated units removed, the units are returned to the hex on the map (unless, of course, the FoW roll was a 2 or 12, meaning that the side with the least undisrupted units must retreat). Again, the weakness of the game is observable in its exception-based rules. There are two exceptions to the rout roll on the FoW table. No one must retreat from the Vosges Mountains (102 and 103) and no one must rout if the number of undisrupted units is the same for both sides. Of course, the exceptions are intended to reflect the situation accurately from a geographical and historical perspective, so even though they sometimes keep you flipping back through the rules and player aid charts, they do simulate real factors.

battleboard1_s.jpgROLL ‘EM Colmar (Hex 103) is a likely candidate for a mandated attack because it only has a couple of defenders, due to the Vosges Mountains stacking limit. So, the hex is marked as a Battle Hex and the relevant counters are moved to the battle board (as per black arrows). The concentric modifier (French control three hexsides surrounding the battle hex-see small blue arrows) helps the attacker get rid of one of the +2 DRMs due to terrain (TEM = Terrain Effects Modifier-see white arrow), but the Mandated Plan 17 Attack gives the defenders a greater opportunity to hit (see larger blue arrow).

battleboard2_s.jpgTOLL ‘EM Rolling for the attacker first, each roll with be at a +1 DRM modifier. But, since the first counter represents a mountain capable unit (represented by the yellow triangle in the white circles), the roll is not modified and a 5 or less (which the attacker received) would hit. The non-mountain unit (no triangle) must add one to the roll, meaning only a 3 or less will hit (+2 TEM -1 Concentric attack = +1). Rolling a 2, both front line attackers hit and the blue markers are placed. Then, the Germans fire back. They get a minus 1 DRM because they are facing a Plan 17 attack and defenders ignore the terrain effects. So, the first attacker hits on a 6 or less (automatic). The second hits on a 4 or less. Both units hit. Finally, the reserve unit (mountain capable) still hits on a 1, but failed.

battleboard3_s.jpgFOLD ‘EM As a result, the units which were hit must be flipped to their disrupted side (white movement boxes) and returned to the battle hex (see white arrow).

Tactical Doctrine: Notes for Germans and Allies

For the Germans, we like the idea of using the disparity in CAPs at the beginning of the game to harass the French in Charmes (although it isn’t worth any VPs, it is lightly defended at the start and has no terrain modifiers, so it is possible to attack from Strassburg and take it out quickly. Then, one can reinforce with cavalry from Saarburg and either threaten Nancy and Toul (Hex 87) with a concentric attack or send a portion of the force through to Epinal (Hex 98) to besiege the forts and possibly (especially with a lot of die rolls of "1") take the forts and gain the victory point. Either way, it will cause the French to slow down from their expected onslaught of Alsace-Lorraine and might allow you to turn the French flank. We recommend not doing a lot in Belgium on GT1. The heavy artillery has already fired and the German will need that HA to bring down the Antwerp fort (Hex 52 is a key geographically, in terms of rules constraints AND as a victory point hex). It is highly likely that a German who bring both HA counters into Hex 52 will kill the Antwerp fort in the very first turn. This forces the Allies to spend precious CAPs to try to contain the Germans and, with a few fortunately outcomes to battle, may open wide the way to Paris.

For the Allies, we like to take the relatively easy victory points (VPs) in Hex 107 in our first activation. It does not award the VPs for a mandated attack, but it gives the Plan 17 VPs from a marker draw (you draw a random chit to determine how many VPs you receive). When the initiative returns, the French can spend another CAP to assault 103 as their mandated attack. After the first activation, however, the Allies are more likely to find themselves reacting as opposed to assaulting. We also suggest the judicious use of that 2 CAP expenditure to "resurrect" any unit in a friendly, uncontested space can often turn the tide by creating an emergency reserve that can counterattack at the appropriate time.

After-Action Report: Conclusions

It took several games to learn most of the exceptions and special instructions within the rules. Though there are several checklists (and thank goodness for the annotated turn track playing aid) in the documentation, there almost needs to be one comprehensive checklist. Unfortunately, the number of rules that only come into play in limited circumstances would make that a huge checklist. An index is most needed in the documentation.

KAISER PERMANENTE The Kaiser’s forces had a huge CAPs advantage in almost every turn, allowing them to reinforce and undisrupt units far more frequently than the Allies could do so. As a result, the Germans were able to sweep the board, as illustrated by their black marker symbols (including the vital one in Paris).

Once we attained a minimal comfort level with the rules, we were able to blitz through the turns fairly quickly (though a full campaign game usually lasts at least 4 hours). The experience is fascinating. The die rolling can break your heart. And, because of the mandated attacks, it isn’t the kind of game where you can hedge your bets very well. It’s all or nothing on occasion. As a learning experience, Grand Illusion is simply unmatched. As a gaming experience, the thrills are simply too hard to grab hold of, even for those who are open-minded, and it is definitely not a game for "control-oriented" players.

Armchair General Score — 80%

31/40 — Gameplay
15/15 — Components
13/20 — Rules/Documentation
13/15 — Replay Value
08/10 — General’s Rating

Grand Illusion page at GMT Games.

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Author’s Information

Johnny L. Wilson is the former editorial director of Computer Gaming World and publisher of Dragon, Dungeon, Star Wars Gamer, Star Wars Insider, TopDeck and Undefeated magazines. He is the author of The Sim City Planning Commission Handbook and co-author of Sid Meier’s Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day. His most recent game-related book is High Score: The Illustrated History of Electronic Games, written with Rusel Demaria. Today, he balances his game playing with his work as a freelance novelist and author of multimedia study guides for the books of the Bible. His passion is any game that causes him to study more history. Not the strongest player, he is nonetheless an avid player. Johnny and his wife live on the shore of Castle Lake in Tyrone, Georgia.

*French: Offensive to the limit!
1 Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August (New York: Ballantine Books, 2004 (Original, 1962), p. 24.
2 Winston Churchill, The Second World War: The Gathering Storm (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1948), p. 664.
3 Tuchman, p. 61.
4 Ibid., pp. 41-42.
5 Ibid., p. 81.
6 Manfred Kuhr, "Artillery" in Franklin D. Margiotta (ed.) Brassey’s Encyclopedia of Land Forces and Warfare (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2000 (Original, 1996), p. 98.
7 Johannes Gerber, "Cavalry" in Franklin D. Margiotta (ed.) Brassey’s Encyclopedia of Land Forces and Warfare (Washington, D.C.: Brassey’s Inc., 2000 (Original, 1996), p. 166.

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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.