Thursday, December 20, 2007

Featured game: 1914

1914 holds an unusual post in the annals of wargaming. It was never terribly popular, as such. It was never reprinted or updated after its original appearance. It didn't spawn an extensive line of sequels or imitators. It wasn't designer Jim Dunnigan's most famous or successful design.
For a while in the 1980s and 1990s it was highly sought after by collectors, with good copies fetching several hundred dollars at auction. But that, too, seems to have passed, and copies can be had on eBay for well under those peak prices.
But 1914 was, and is, an important milestone among wargames because it pointed out the potential for wargames as not mere games about war, but a new way to explore history in an interactive way. In 1914 one really got the impression that you were truly exploring ways in which history could have been different, has different decisions been made.
There have subsequently been interesting and entertaining discussions that have exhaustively explored how much a manual wargame can truly be a simulation of a historical event, given the many and inevitable compromises necessary to make it playable by human beings. But those discussions were made possible and necessary by 1914 and similar simulation-oriented designs that came from Dunnigan and Dunnigan-mentored game designers in the 1970s and afterwards.
More than any wargame that had gone before, and most that came afterwards, 1914 aimed to be a simulation. The game contest was clearly secondary to the history. Both players were really cooperatively working to see how the events of the Summer and fall of 1914 might have developed, instead of competing against each other in a test of wits and strategy. The game system did not reward clever gamy tactics. The overall strategies were rather obvious and not easily adjusted. Indeed, the game, when played, seemed to march inexorably forward into bloody tragedy with little ability for the "commanders' to change much at all. It was more than a little bit like a boardgame version of Tuchman's The Guns of August. No Zones of Control, no 3-1 sure-thing attacks, no D-elims, it was a break from convention in most respects.
The use of step reduction provided a graphic illustration of the grinding attrition of 1914-era fighting. More so than simple eliminations would have, watching your powerful "A" corps slowly attrit down to impotence drove home the character of the fighting.
Particularly when played with all the advanced and tournament options, 1914 was a "monster" game before monster games were conceived. The game took a long time to play, several sittings at least or a weekend. In the end, history was most likely to repeat itself, because the game depicted the forces working against changing history as very powerful indeed. In the game it's easy to see how little chance there was that the Germans could score their hoped-for knockout blow. That failure set the stage for the rest of the tragedy of World War I. As that war's centennial approaches interest in the war has grown. The passage of time allows us to see that the Great War was the pivotal event of the 20th Century, affecting everything that followed. World War II, totalitarianism in all its forms, genocide, nuclear war, post-colonialism and so much more followed in its wake. Only with the fall of Communism in 1989 and the post-Cold War reordering of affairs have the ripples of World War I started to fade away.
I wonder if interest in 1914 will be revived as 2014 nears.

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