Mention the word ‘Borg’ and many a geek’s ears will prick up with interest. Most will be reliving the assimilation of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard by the cybernetic Borgs. However, there will still be a select few whose first thoughts will turn towards renowned war game designer Richard Borg. Mr Borg is best known for creating the commands and colours system. A system that has driven an array of immensely popular board games recreating battles across a range of periods from the dawn of military history, including feudal Japan, the Napoleonic era and most famously his Second World War epic Memoir ’44.
The commands and colours system condenses wargames into more manageable bite-sized chunks, significantly reducing the time it takes to play and the overall fiddliness . In The Great War players are dealt hands of command and combat cards and given a supply of HQ tokens. Command cards are used to move your troops, for instance an assault left card allows you to move all units on your left flank. By expending HQ tokens players can also use a combat card, these are usually modelled on actual events and tactics to give a sense of realism and historical accuracy.
There is the carrier pigeon card, for instance, which enhances communication to allow you to move extra units, or the charming lice card that infests an enemy unit. After movement, any active units that are within range of the enemy get to roll a bunch of dice with various different icons. The effectiveness of the rolled icons varies depending on such factors as range and terrain. Overall, it is a simplified system that doesn’t appeal to all war game purists, but for the rest of us it is a chance to play soldiers without it becoming a lifelong endeavour.
On one side we have the German forces who usually have to hold on to a defensive position. On opposing side are the British and allied forces, doing their best to reach their objectives, often within a turn limit. The game begins with two non-historic introductory scenarios, followed by a series of 15 missions set in Loos (1915), The Somme (1916), and Vimy Ridge (1917). These scenarios can be tackled in any order. You win by earning a specific number of points by destroying enemy units and for controlling key strategic points on the map.
The crux of The Great War is trench warfare that makes for a game of attrition as you bombard your enemy with heavy artillery attacks and rake them with machine gun fire before even thinking about giving the order to go over the top. The setting isn’t going to be to everyone’s taste as there are no heroic cavalry charges or rumbling tanks corps. The only units available to either side are infantry, grenadiers, machine gunners and reserve artillery, which fire from off the board. The result is that there isn’t a whole lot of variety between the different scenarios - bring on the tanks! The game requires a fair amount of patience as trying to wear down entrenched enemy units is a slow process and initiating an assault too early is a recipe for disaster. Expect to spend an hour or so on each scenario. With the choice of playing as either side, the opportunity of winning extra medals and a decent AI opponent (that can be set at Lieutenant, General, or Field Marshal level), replay value is high.
Start playing the introductory scenario and it will come as a bit of a shock to discover that The Great War does not offer a tutorial. You are immediately thrown into the thick of the action and raw recruits, unfamiliar with the command and colours system, will have no other choice than to immerse themselves in the hefty and rather intimidating rulebook. Even those familiar with the system will struggle to come to grips with the game’s interface, which isn’t explained and so becomes a matter of trial and error. This isn’t helped by the fact that the controls feel as muddy as Flanders Fields and the information icon appears to do nothing at all.
To find out the strengths of a unit or features of a terrain type you don’t just tap the screen but have to also hold your finger down. This results in a range of frustrations when trying to gather information. Tap a unit and you often get information about the terrain type instead, or you can accidently cancel a unit’s movement when all you wanted to do was to check its statistics. Consequently, you find yourself endlessly having to exit the action to refer back to the rulebook. There are other concerns too: most worryingly, there were a few occasions when a combat card didn’t seem to work. I would say that when the original PC version was released the developers were quick to patch some bugs but there are still reports of the ‘Big Show’ and ‘Counter Attack’ cards not working correctly.
The maps scroll smoothly and allow the action to be viewed from overhead or zoomed-in to a forced 3D close-up perspective. The screen doesn’t centre to show battles so if you opt for a closer viewing point you will have to manually scroll the screen to keep up with the action. The dice animation is annoying since the dice bounce across the battlefield and take longer to settle than a class of five year olds on a windy day. Thankfully, I discovered that the animation could be switched off. Sadly there are no online options so if you want to battle a human opponent the only choice is face-to-face pass and play.
At every step the PC origins of The Great War are plain for all to see - it is obvious that the game hasn’t been optimised for smaller touchscreen devices. The fonts are tiny, the controls unresponsive and the graphics messy and indistinct. The Great War isn’t the first Richard Borg game to be converted to mobile formats, indeed the fantasy themed Battlelore received an impressive five star rated review way back in 2014. Battlelore still looks great and plays smoothly. In comparison, The Great War is shown up as a lazy conversion, with no real thought or effort made to fit the game to a mobile format. As mentioned, the game has a great pedigree and a real solid design. However, the numerous interface problems and steep learning curve means that you have to dig so deep to get it to the action, that you end up doubting if it was worth all the effort.