I was recently given the opportunity to play the latest in the Commander series of turn-based strategy games. While turn-based strategy games are not my usual type of game to pick up and play, I was drawn to this one based on the setting – The first World War, also known by many as The Great War. I find this period in history particularly fascinating for many reasons, which I won’t get into, but one of these reasons is the intricate web of treaties and alliances that were in place leading up to the Great War. This is explained in the opening video for the 1914 campaign I played in the review build of the game. These treaties and alliances were actually the cause of the war spreading so quickly in Europe and making it the first true, World War.
Before you can get going on your plan to dominate Europe and crush all the countries that dare stand in your way, you have to select between playing as the Central Powers and the Entente Allies. You also have three difficulty levels to choose from: Handicapped, Balanced and Privileged.
The 1914 scenario starts off slowly with just two countries fighting: Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Every few turns more and more countries join the fray until pretty soon all of Europe is involved in the Great War. The 1914 scenario starts off with the Austro-Hungarians facing off against the Serbians who are outnumbered but dug in along their North-Eastern border. I should mention that with this being a game set in the First World War, entrenchment plays a very important role in defending against any sort of attack. A couple of turns later Germany invades Belgium to outflank the French army which is at the ready on the Eastern border of France. The Germans attack and capture the Belgian stronghold of Liège and continue Westward following the Schlieffen Plan.
The next country to join the war is Russia who moves in and attack the Germans on the Eastern Front, and the Austro-Hungarians to the South. The Russians start the game slowly, but with their almost unlimited supply of manpower, they are soon pushing unit after unit to the front lines to add to the chaos and carnage.
I have already mentioned that you choose a side rather than a specific country which is very different from my time playing games such as Hearts of Iron. At times I wished I simply had to look out for one country’s units rather than the fate of a whole side in the Great War. The flip side to this argument is that because you control all the countries of your respective side in the war, you have more control of where to push the attacks. Do you think the French could have broken through the German line in the South? Give it a go! In one play through, as the commander of the Central Powers, I decided that I would follow the Schlieffen Plan to the letter instead of doing what Moltke did. This strategy paid off until I made a tactical error in Western France (and the AI made me pay…big time).
The user interface for the game was nicely designed and I did not encounter any issues trying to find anything. It is easy to navigate, informative and well laid out. The UI is broken down into 5 different tabs, each with a purpose, and each is fairly simple to figure out. I found that I spent the majority of my menu time in the Production and Research tabs. The “Production” tab enables you to produce units to replace the ones your unforgiving enemy has no doubt destroyed, and the “Research” tab allows you to unlock new technologies for your units. There is a tech line for each type of unit: Land, Artillery, Naval, Air, and Armoured. Each tech line has several different technologies you can research that will upgrade your units in various ways. Once a tech upgrade has been researched, you can purchase an upgrade for units that are already in the battlefield, and each new unit built after the new tech has been researched will be equipped with it.
The research system is just one part of the game you will have to master to ensure that your side has a fighting chance of winning the Great War. There are other intricacies to Commander – The Great War that you will have to pick up on. I mentioned that entrenchment plays a vital role. The longer an infantry unit stays on a hex tile, the more “dug in” the unit becomes. Each hex tile has other advantages and disadvantages besides the entrenchment value a unit gets by digging in. For instance, grassland tiles are a good place to set up shop to hold a defensive line because they offer a greater line of sight than a forest tile would. Mountainous terrain has movement penalties, rivers have attack penalties or defensive bonuses depending on which side you are on.
Commander – The Great War gives you a variety of units to build and deploy in your campaign to win the Great War. There are the basic units you would expect like infantry, artillery and cavalry, but there are also some other units that when used properly, could turn the tide in your favour. Air units can be very useful and there are three to choose from. Fighters can be used to break the morale of enemy units to “soften” them up before you launch a ground attack. Bombers can be used to do damage to ground units as well as damage to infrastructure and play more of a strategic role. Bombers have a larger range than fighters, and tend to do more damage. Airships (Zeppelins) can also be built, and can be used to bomb enemy units and have the greatest range out of all the air units in the game.
While artillery units are costly to produce and use resources to use, they play an integral role in grinding down your opponent’s morale and manpower, which is an important tactic to use before launching a ground attack. Railguns can become available for purchase in the game and can be equipped with some huge guns which can have a devastating effect on whichever unlucky unit is on the receiving end of a barrage.
True to history, tanks can play a vital role in giving your side the upper hand in the Great War. They are one of the units that should be researched in the research tree. They can often break through enemy lines and when followed by infantry units, can be quite an effective tactic to use to win the war.
The naval warfare was a part of the game that I felt was somewhat neglected, or not fully utilized in Commander – The Great War. There are naval units such as the Battleship, Cruisers, Submarines and Transports. These units play their expected roles in Commander – The Great War, but for me, the naval combat felt lacking. The naval units are costly to produce, which I think is realistic, but you don’t truly experience the epic naval battles that you might hope for. German submarines should be a nightmare for shipping in the Atlantic, but that never came to be. The British fleet should be a force to reckon with on the high seas, but they just seemed fragile. The enemy AI deploys a hit and run sort of tactic and you would often see enemy ships flash by when you can do nothing about it, but when it is your turn, you are simply unable to chase them down or figure out where they went. The naval units can move several tiles per turn, but you either have to use all of the movement or some of it. I would like to be able to move a couple tiles at a time to be able to “hunt down” enemy ships. With the production cost of these units being so high, the frustration in the movement and the overall fragile nature of the naval units, they just don’t seem like a worthwhile investment to make in Commander – The Great War.
The other part of Commander – The Great War that had potential but ultimately fell on its face was the Diplomacy portion of the game. There is no real use for this in the game because everything, other than winning or losing the war, follows a historical timeline. There is no way to entice countries to not attack you, or to even ally themselves with you. This can be good in that there won’t be any surprises, but this also puts limits on the game in that you will never be able to explore other options for this period in history. While many people (myself included) play this type of game because we find this period in history interesting, we would also like to have the choice to play the game outside of the strict constraints of a historical timeline.
Commander – The Great War offers something that all great games offer – a strategy game that is easy to pick up and play, but difficult to master. You can jump right in and figure out what you are doing without the need to dig through an ultra detailed manual beforehand. On the flip side, to prevent from getting thoroughly trounced, you will need to become familiar with the finer points of the game, and yes there is a manual to help you with this.
The fact is, I found Commander – The Great War to be a fun and considerably challenging game. I enjoy a good turn based strategy game even though they are not my forte. With Commander, I found myself drawn to this one to the point where I would want to play “just a few more turns” to see if I could further my cause in the Great War. Even after getting beat up by the AI, I would start a new game to see if I could improve upon my mistakes. I think that aspect alone says something for a game like this – to be beaten, but still want to play. To summarize my summary, if you are a fan of strategy games, I believe this is one that must not be passed up on. Play it, learn it, then dominate in Commander – The Great War!
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