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Posted on Dec 27, 2020 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

One Last Big Push to Victory. “1918/1919: Storm in the West” Board Game Review

One Last Big Push to Victory. “1918/1919: Storm in the West” Board Game Review

Ray Garbee

By Ray Garbee

1917/1918: Storm in the West. Publisher: GMT Games. Designer: Ted Raicer. Developers: Ty Bomba and Chris Perello. Price $49.00

Passed inspection: An excellent update to a proven design. Good coverage of a pivotal year in the war. Excellent expansion covering the ‘what if’s’ surrounding the strategic decisions on both sides.

Failed basic: A solid design that’s had all the kinks ironed out over the years, there’s nothing to not like about this game!

GMT’s recent release 1918/1919: Storm in the West dropped onto the game table in December. This is a game with a storied past, dating back to its initial release in 1992 with Command Magazine. 1918/1919: Storm in the West was Ted Raicer’s first game design and it was an immediate success, earning a Charles S. Roberts Award nomination. Its popularity inspired the design of a Plan 1919 variant which assumed a German defensive strategy in 1918 with an all-out Allied assault to win the war the following year. GMT’s release presents this classic magazine game in a new boxed version with new artwork and updated counters.  

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Storm in the West covers the last year of the World War One detailing the conflict across the breadth of the Western Front from the North Sea almost to the Swiss frontier. It’s a classic two-player IGOUGO game pitting the reorganized German Army against the British, French and their new ally – the United States of America. While both Britain and France are running out of manpower, the fresh divisions of the United States promise the opportunity to take the offensive, if they can just hold on until the Americans make it to the front. For the Germans, this is the final roll of the dice as it’s either victory in 1918, or starvation collapse in the face of a resurgent Entente offensive.

Cracking open the box, the bouquet of fresh ink and new paper fills the nose. Inside the box we find the following components;

  • One back-printed 22″x34″ map
  • One full-size sheet of counters
  • One half-size sheet of counters (specific to the 1919 game variant)
  • Two player aid cards
  • Rules booklet
  • Two 6-sided dice

The map is a thing of beauty. For Storm in the West, the map received a thorough overhaul from its Command Magazine version. When looking at the map, I was reminded of the map from Revolution Game’s “Kernstown”.  This should not be a surprise as Charles Kibler participated in the artwork for Kernstown as well as oversaw the new map for Storm in the West. The original map was a product of its time 28 (twenty-eight!) years ago with solid colors depicting terrain types. But the new map – wow! The new map shows landforms within each hex in a manner that’s very evocative of a topographic map. Mountains, hills, woods, rivers cities and towns and of course, the trench lines, are all depicted with the detail of a true artist.

The game’s counters also received an upgrade. While the basics of unit type and combat factors look unchanged, again an artist’s eye (and maybe access to more modern printing equipment?) has yielded counters that are visually attractive. The color palette leverages traditional color assignments for the various nationalities. An experienced gamer will quickly relate the colors of each nation’s troops with no trouble. The gray Germans, tan British, olive drive Americans and blue French are all very traditional choices that meshed with my expectations for national colors.

In addition to the counters used in the basic game scenarios, there’s a half sheet of counters that add units for the 1919 variant scenario. These counters represent units that were being formed up in the expectation the war would continue. These include more formations of tanks, a separate US Marine division and an expeditionary corps of Japanese infantry. Offsetting this are German anti-gun units, and a ‘panzer corps’, along with limited help from Austria- Hungary and a German alpine corps to make campaigning in the Vosges Mountains more interesting.

There are two, double-sided player aid cards – one for each player. One side is taken up with the terrain effects chart and the tables specific to the 1919 variant, the other side holds the combat results table and the replacement chart. There’s plenty of space which allows all the information to be easily read.

The rule book is a 28-page saddle-stitched paperback. It lives up to GMT’s standards with a heavy weight of paper that give the book a bit of heft and the pages a sense of durability. Don’t let that page length intimidate you – the core rules are maybe fifteen pages, with the remainder being the front cover, the back cover (which has the sequence of play nicely detailed), optional rules, three additional scenarios and two pages of designer’s notes.

Speaking of the designer’s notes, these make for an interesting read with Ted Raicer providing a concise ‘how and why’ regarding the design while Ty Bomba and Chris Perello give an irreverent guide that speaks to the player with strategy tips on how to actually play the game to win. 

Game play is straight forward. This is a classic IGOUGO hex and counter war game. Set up is somewhat free form as each player has a lot of latitude in setting up units within a nation’s defined front-line sector at the start of each scenario. The defender generally sets up first, followed by the attacker. It’s a nice little mini-game as the defender needs to try and either predict where the attackers big push will come, or structure their defense as to draw the attacker’s attention to a specific area. 

Once set up is complete, the game is played in two player turns. Within each player turn, the active player checks their supply, receives reinforcements and replacements, conducts strategic movement and then operational movement and then combat. Combat is done in the traditional form of summing attack factors and defense factors, generating an odds ratio and applying all the relevant die roll modifiers for terrain, encirclement, tanks or tactical genius (i.e., the German assault troops).

What sets Storm in the West apart from other games covering the Western Front in the Great War is the way it models the tactical innovation central to the late war, specifically the German Stosstruppen and the use of tanks by the Allies. Each player turn has two combat phases. While a unit may attack in both phases, between these phases sits an ‘infiltration phase’. This allows either the German assault troops, or later the Allied units with attached tanks the opportunity to exploit openings and gaps in the line which they would normally not be allowed to enter. It’s a clever way to integrate the capabilities of these tactical evolutions in a way that easily demonstrates their value on the battlefield.

You should invest time before starting to play by studying the tables and charts. To be successful you will need a solid appreciation of how the terrain impacts combat operations and what the costs of those operations are in terms of casualties. Before you dismiss this thinking ‘yeah, yeah, terrain has an effect on combat’, look at the map and look at the charts. Space is regulated with the hex grid. Each hex has a basic terrain type, but there can be multiple terrain effects and they are cumulative.  A hex can be rough ground and bounded by a river. In the north, low flat ground can be dry, but if the weather turns rainy, that ground transforms into a muddy marsh. Overlaid on that are the trench lines, fortresses, towns and desolate destroyed areas.  The game threw into sharp relief why the Northern flank held by the Belgian Army didn’t shift much during the war – the terrain is hideous and the negative die roll modifiers quickly add up!

And those die roll modifiers are applied on a brutal combat results table. There’s a conventional wisdom in gaming that the higher the odds the less likely the attacker will take casualties. Well not so fast, Mr. Hindenburg!  The Storm in the West combat model operates on a ‘step loss’ system. Combat results are expressed as the number of step losses that both the attacker and defender incur. Without a goodly number of positive die roll modifiers, the attacker will suffer as great or greater casualties than the defender. At the higher odds, the attacker suffers a proportionally higher number of casualties. While it seems counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom, in practice it does a superb job modeling the meat grinder that was trench warfare during World War One. It captures the feel of an older sense of combat in which more attackers suffer more from defensive fire and as a result suffer more casualties.

Storm in the Wests clearly a great game. You don’t get a Charles S. Roberts award nomination for nothing! But even the classic original design still had room for improvement.  We’ve talked about GMT updating the counters and the map, but wait – there’s more! 

Scenarios? You want scenarios? We got your scenarios right here! Storm in the West has four different game scenarios. These range from the “standard game” (i.e., the entire 1918 campaign. This is the classic with the Germans on the offensive with the promise of an Allied counter attack if they can just hold on until the Americans arrive.) Then there is a “short form” campaign. This is also a historical game, this time focusing on the Allied counter offensive in later 1918. This is an excellent choice for when you don’t have time for the full 1918 game, but still want that Great War experience.

In addition, there is an alternate 1918 German plan. In this scenario the Germans don’t attack in the West, but dig in deep while they attempt to achieve victory on another front. But they still need to hold in the West!

Lastly is the 1919 variant. This originally appeared as a variant in Command Magazine and it’s good to see it included as part of the revised game. This scenario covers a hypothetical Allied Blitzkrieg that might have happened if the war had continued on into 1919.  This explores the impact of a stubborn German defense and the intersection of full American intervention, the industrial production of aircraft and tanks, coupled with dwindling manpower reserves in Germany, France and Britain. It’s a game that sets German determination and grit against the Entente mechanized assault as both sides scrape the bottom of the barrel for replacements. It’s a great snap shot that reveals the extent to which American mobilization would have impacted the war had it continued.

One thing that really worked with this release was the inclusion of a dedicated map for the 1919 scenario with specific setup boundaries, turn track and starting marker locations. While this does result in a double-sided paper map (of which I’m generally not a fan) it works in this case as it allows cleanly defining the geography and starting values between the two games.

And I cannot say enough good things about the maps! The maps do an excellent job conveying the grand sweep of the Western Front from the North Sea to almost the Swiss border. The maps cleanly convey that importance of the physical geography as well as the impact man has on the landscape. Trying to push through the devastated zones on the map was an eye-opener for how badly the landscape could be scarred. (Even today, a century later, the ‘Zone Rouge’ persist along portions of the former Western Front.)

Storm in the West is a well-crafted game that captures the feel of the period. It’s bloody. As the attacker, you WILL take losses. While a high odds attack increases the degree of damage you inflict, it also increases the casualties you will take. This is a case where more is often NOT better.

The game feels like World War One. It’s bloody. Playing the standard game, you won’t feel it as much on the first two or even three turns as your replacement pool is deep enough to cover most losses. But by turn three that pool runs low and the German and French players start to feel the loss of each unit. That continuous front starts to get thinned out…and then it starts to clump around a couple of corps exerting their zone of control to hold the front together.

While I’m a big fan of the map, I wondered if some of the terrain around Verdun be represented with the ‘devastated’ terrain type. The fallout from the 1916-1917 battle resulted in a barren landscape that still bears the scars of the battle to this day.  It’s a minor thing, and the geography around Verdun is such that it’s not a huge issue. (The German trench modifier already make it a daunting task.) A little digging show that the devastation was confined to a bit under an eight square mile area. That’s not small, but in the content of the game, it’s basically a hex.

The dead pile graphics have attracted some criticism. Apparently, some folks think it’s okay to game a conflict where tens of thousands are dying, but to actually show a glimpse of that horror somehow crosses a line. The choice works here.  There are two pictures on the map. It is well to be reminded of the true cost what lies beneath the game’s antiseptic cardboard and die rolls.  Sam Mendes didn’t shy away from the horrors of war in his film, “1917”.  Peter Jackson’s documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old” was almost more shocking in how it transformed jerky archival footage into a relatable vision that brutally portrayed the horrors of combat on the Western Front. So, ponder the dead the next time you have to remove four step losses, from your units on the map.

A lot of folks suffer from a lack of opponents for face-to-face games. This has been increasingly true over the past year. An important feature for this population of gamer is how well a game supports solitaire play. “Storm in the West” merits a ‘you can do it’ rating for solitaire play.

What’s that mean? Out of the box, there is no solitaire support for the game. No ‘bots, flow charts or other form of an AI to automate the performance of one side. Lacking that, you are forced to play both sides, making all the attendant decisions. This is not the end of the world and is a common compromise we make with a lot of board games. But the nature of the IGO UGO design mean you can easily hot seat both sides. You may not be able to ‘fake out’ the other player, but the nature of the game is about grinding down each side. (I want to note that I still managed to lose units to being stupidly out of supply when I should have known better, so it is possible to surprise yourself.)

But in addition to playing the tabletop version against yourself, you’ll find that a module for Storm in the West exists on VASSAL. Maintained by Tim Porter, I chuckled at the note that says that the playtester was “Some Guy”. Humor aside, Vassal has seen an explosion in use in the past year as a substitute for live face-to-face gaming. While this module does not support solo gaming, it does makes it easier to find an opponent, so I recommend checking it out.

Should you buy the game? Of course, you should buy the game!  It’s a good, classic two player wargame. The updated presentation takes a solid design and cloth it in the flashy dress uniform of upgraded rules, maps and counters. This edition of Storm in the West feels like an homage to the classic hex and counter wargame, but that is in part because it *is* a classic hex and counter wargame. Storm in the West is a refreshing change of pace embracing a traditional IGOUGO style of game. As a gamer with decades of play behind me, this game feels like putting on an old, comfortable jacket. Storm in the West has the same sense of comfort in relearning familiar mechanics and ways of viewing the battlefield through the overlay of the hex grid.

As importantly, Storm in the West is a fun game.  It’s a solid choice for someone new to tabletop wargames. You won’t scare them off with overly complex rules. The rules are not dense and you won’t spend a lot of time with your nose in the rulebook. They can easily pick up the mechanics and start to focus on solving the strategic puzzle the game poses.

Did I mention that it’s like two games in one?  You get twice the fun for the same price! Okay, its actually more than two games as the scenarios give you four different situations to play. Couple that with the array of optional rules and Storm in the West has a lot of replay value. It represents an excellent value for your gaming dollar. Grab a copy today!

Armchair General Score: 100%

Solitaire suitability (1–5 scale, with 1 being virtually unplayable as a solitaire game and 5 being completely suitable for solitaire play):  4

Ray Garbee has been a gamer for the past four decades. Ray’s interests include the Anglo-Sikh Wars through the conflicts of the 20th Century and beyond, but his passion remains American Civil War naval gaming. His past works include Iron Thunder, Anaconda, Anaconda: Capital Navies and articles in a number of defunct hobby magazines.

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