Waves of infantry calmber up a hill with a pair of parallel trench lines on it full of infantry firing back. The scene is from an overhead, real-time strategy game perspective.
The Great War: Western Front screenshots courtesy of Frontier Foundry

‘The Great War: Western Front’ Gives World War 1 a Total War Treatment

What could be more Western Front than a game that opens with some strong ideas and tons of promise, but loses momentum late in the game?

The trenches of the Western Front in the First World War are among the most indelible and enduring scenes in the historical imagination. Even if you know next to nothing about the war, you probably get the same set of images that I do when I hear phrases like “no man’s land” or “The Somme.” Muddy trenches, barren moonscapes of shell-scarred earth, men being cut down in rows by machine gun fire, or choking on poison gas. American schoolchildren used to be taught “In Flanders Fields” in elementary school; by middle school there would be a unit on All Quiet on the Western Front. Via poetry especially, the war looms large in any survey of English literature, which forms the subject of literary historian Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Writing back in 1975 he argued that the trenches had not just defined the the war’s legacy, but had also reshaped how subsequent generations of English-speakers engaged with the world. Fussell wrote: “...there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic, and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.” 


If that position seems overheated from the vantage of almost 50 years later, I suspect it still has more truth to it than we might expect. The imagery and metaphors or World War 1 have been adapted to countless other settings, a shorthand for war at its most industrialized extreme and brutally irrational. Its imagery is summoned by Games Workshop almost every time its wants to depict the way that 40K’s Imperium wages war. When 2018’s Solo tried to capture the senseless horror of Imperial military service that young Han Solo wanted to escape, it went straight to a disorienting and doomed “over the top” attack that owed more to Paths of Glory than to the battle of Hoth.

While trench warfare easily lends itself to the kind of grim metaphor and spectacle that made it irresistible to artists, particularly of an antiwar or dissenting bent, it has proved an elusive and perhaps unappealing subject in video games. It’s no accident that Valiant Hearts has probably been the most successful  World War 1 game of the past two decades, as it operates comfortably in the same impressionistic mode that a lot of literature and film about the war does. After that, from a more explicitly ironic direction, comes the turret-shooter tower defense game Toy Soldiers, which combined vividly beautiful depictions of the trenches with the conceit of the armies and all their horrible weapons as toys in a child’s playset. Shooters like Battlefield 1 and BlackMill games’ trilogy of Verdun, Tannenberg, and Isonzo (those latter two are not Western front games but they are definitely “trench” games) found a less ironic compatibility between the grinding stalemates of the war’s great battles and the looping, respawn-driven action of a multiplayer shooter.


But what of wargames and strategy games? Here your choices might be even thinner. World War 1, or something like it, is a culminating event in grand strategy games set around the late 1800s and early 1900s, but it is not their subject. Slitherine’s Commander: The Great War is a pretty great game about the war as a whole, but as such the Western Front is only a small part of it, one of many battlefields demanding the overstretched resources of a global war effort. You might need to go back to Armor Games’ 2008 Flash game Warfare 1917 (which was just salvaged via emulation a month ago) to find a video game depicting both the pitched back-and-forth nature of the trenches and the development of new tactics and technologies to break the stalemate.

Into this relative void comes Petroglyph Games’ The Great War: Western Front. With a turn-based, hex-map strategic layer that serves up simple RTS-style tactical battles in the fashion of a Total War, it attempts to capture both the mythologized spectacle of the trenches and the often overlooked dynamism that was, ironically, such a key component of the long stalemate. Like its Flash predecessor Warfare 1917, it is trying to do all this while remaining easy to learn and fairly undemanding to play.

A hexagonal map of the Western front of World War 2 with little figures depicting armies standing on each space. A green arrow indicates an impending attack from one space into another.

The Great War: Western Front is not a complicated game on either its strategic or tactical level, but its simplicity contains tensions that tie its two halves together and factor into every decision that you have to make. On the strategic layer, whether you play as the Allies or the Central Powers, you have just three resources: money, supply, and research points. Research points come in at a fixed rate throughout the campaign, so you can’t unlock much of the total tech tree in a given playthrough and must therefore choose your upgrades carefully. Naturally, the most tactically transformative technologies, like tanks, require a ton of points so they represent several turns’ worth of investment, which has a huge opportunity cost. However, if you only take the low-hanging fruit, you run the risk of having a generalist army with no particular advantage in any area.


Supply is really the heart of The Great War, a catch-all resource that stands in for the huge demands that trench warfare imposed on the combatants, from stocks of artillery shells to the additional military infrastructure required to maintain large numbers of soldiers in striking distance of the front. The clever thing The Great War has done is it has created two sources of supply, one “free” and one very, very expensive. The free supply source is your units themselves: each infantry corps, for instance, brings about 180 supply into each tactical battle. That isn’t very much: placing a single span of advanced, concrete-reinforced entrenchments on the tactical map might cost 50 supply. The more units you pack into a hex, the more supply you will have available for goodies like artillery and fortifications, so a large stack of units has way more defensive and offensive flexibility, but that also means leaving other sections of your line more vulnerable. This is where global supply comes in.

On the strategic level you have a global supply value that is shared across the entire front. Say you have a total of 1,000 global supply. That means that if someone attacks a weakly held section of your front, you could potentially still dump a ton of defensive firepower into that space to moot whatever numbers advantage the enemy has. Here’s the catch: your global supply has to be purchased with money, which is the same resource you are charged to replenish lost units in combat. A single turn of intense combat might cost you several thousand gold, which is bad news considering your base income is 1,000 per turn. Furthermore, you have to build depots in order to allow territories access to a larger share of your global supply. If you don’t have any depots, you’ll only get a few hundred extra supply points regardless of how many supplies you might be hoarding, which likewise means getting only a fraction of the flexibility that extra supply could provide.

A planning screeen in Great War Western Front showing white outlines for proposed trench and equipment locations.

These concerns feature prominently in the tactical layer. Every trench, weapon emplacement, fire mission, and additional infantry company has a cost in supply and once you have depleted your supply for a battle, that is it. You just have to make do with whatever you have on the map. However, as these battles go on and consume more supply as reinforcements are summoned and artillery is called-down on enemy targets, and as your units suffer losses, those expenditures are going to be felt on the strategic map. So if you have an attack stalling partway through an enemy trench network, is it worth pouring in a ton of extra troops and firepower to maybe carry the day, or should you bide your resources and look for an easier battle down the road?

It’s not hard to read your tactical situation during these battles. You and your opponent can only have 30 units on the battlefield at a time but as units are cut down in combat you order fresh replacements into the meat-grinder. Artillery suppresses targets, making it impossible for machine guns or soldiers in a trench to fire on approaching enemies, which is why have multiple lines of trenches becomes so important. If the soldiers at the front can’t get any shots off, soldiers behind can open fire on approaching enemies. Obviously, the more artillery you have the wider an area you can suppress but that consumes a lot of supply. When tanks show up they have an incredible ability to smash through trench lines, but if they are not supported, they will get bogged down in the middle of the enemy trench network and slowly chipped to nothing. When bombers are researched, they can inflict devastation on enemy artillery but they are expensive and vulnerable to fighters so, again, their benefits come at a cost.


Sometimes, The Great War sits closer to tedium than fun as battles can devolve into spamming artillery barrages and infantry assaults into the same territory, on the same maps, over and over again, and the too-short soundtrack more than wears out its welcome sometimes in the space of a single battle. Building trench networks is fun, but a good defensive battle can sometimes feel like a mediocre tower defense game as waves of enemies get pulverized by the same array of defenses again and again. On the attack, despite all the new technologies you get access to, it rarely feels like your tools and tactics change very much. This is a game where you attack in waves no matter what, and whether those waves are comprised of nothing but riflemen in the early war or involve tanks and trench raiders later in the war, the tactics don’t feel substantially different. You have a few more units to micro, but overall battles with starkly different weapons and units don’t feel as different as I want them to.

Infantry advance across a colorful grassy landscape as they cross a railroad line while puffs of dirty smoke indicate artillery falling nearby.

But for the most part its core concepts work: cracking enemy trench lines or defending your own naturally involves a lot of brute-force attrition but the more I played the more I realized how the game punishes tunnel-vision and impatience. I was shocked the first time, midway through an attack churning toward the final enemy control point, they launched a massive assault on my own lines and stormed through my own control points and artillery park before I could react. I’d let myself get my whole army bottled up with a small force of defenders while the AI built up a counterattacking deathball beyond my vision. I wish it was similarly smart in how it supports units like tanks and bombers, but it can still put up a good fight.

Still, The Great War’s presentation lacks the grandeur its subject matter desperately needs. While it’s certainly neat to see the green and forested battlefields of the early game churned into scorched and scarred webs of crumbling entrenchments and thickets of old barbed wire, there’s very little in the way of animations and sound effects that really bring the battles to life, despite the fact that it causes every fan on my computer to spin so hard I expect the thing to start levitating my desk. That it plays like an old Flash game or a 90s wargame is one of its great charms, but the fact it also looks and sounds like one of those can’t help but be disappointing.

Whatever their spectacle and however hot they make your PC run, the chief impact of these battles is the way they move each side’s “national will” up or down. This is the real win condition of The Great War: Western Front. As soon as one side has lost belief that a victory is possible, the game is over. So you may find yourself launching attacks against easy targets not because they will yield any important ground, but simply because you need to put a few more points of National Will on the board. Whether this is an accurate rendering of strategic dynamics of World War I is debatable, but it serves to make the game into a good tug-of- war that goes all the way down to the wire. I won my first game with 8 National Will points remaining out of the 700 I’d had to start, having launched a desperate series of attacks at the end of 1918 to put Germany behind in the score.

The Great War: Western Front is a small game about a big topic that uses clever abstractions to keep things simple to understand and quick to play. It achieves a lot with a couple good ideas, but as the game goes on and it attempts to show how the war evolved even as its stalemate persisted, it needs more ideas and better execution than it brings to the table. Implying more evolution and development than it truly depicts, The Great War: Western Front ends up being a pleasant and convenient wargame but falls short of being a great one.