On the afternoon of August 3, 1914, two days after declaring war on Russia, Germany declares war on France, moving ahead with a long-held strategy, conceived by the former chief of staff of the German army, Alfred von Schlieffen, for a two-front war against France and Russia. Hours later, France makes its own declaration of war against Germany, readying its troops to move into the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, which it had forfeited to Germany in the settlement that ended the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.

With Germany officially at war with France and Russia, a conflict originally centered in the tumultuous Balkans region—with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife by a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the subsequent standoff between Austria-Hungary, Serbia and Serbia’s powerful Slavic supporter, Russia—had erupted into a full-scale war. Also on August 3rd, the first wave of German troops assembled on the frontier of neutral Belgium, which in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan would be crossed by German armies on their way to an invasion of France. The day before, Germany had presented Belgium and its sovereign, King Albert, with an ultimatum demanding passage for the German army through its territory.

This threat to Belgium, whose perpetual neutrality had been mandated by a treaty concluded by the European powers—including Britain, France and Germany—in 1839, united a divided British government in opposition to German aggression. Hours before Germany’s declaration of war on France on August 3rd, the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, went before Parliament and convinced a divided British government—and nation—to give its support to Britain’s entrance into the war if Germany violated Belgian neutrality.

“The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime,” Grey famously remarked to a friend on the night of August 3rd. The next day, Britain sent its own ultimatum to Berlin: halt the invasion of Belgium or face war with Britain as well. A reply was demanded by midnight that night. At noon that day, King Albert finally made a concerted appeal for help to France and Britain, as guarantors of Belgium’s neutrality according to the Treaty of 1839. To do so earlier, to call in the French and British too soon, would have risked violating his country’s neutrality before Germany had done so. When London received no answer to its ultimatum—the first German troops had in fact crossed the Belgian frontier at Gemmerich, 30 miles from the fortress city of Liege, that morning—Britain declared war on Germany. And so commenced one of the largest conflagrations in Europe, that lasted from July 28, 1914 to November 11, 1918 in which more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, were mobilized. The Great War was purported to be “The war to end all wars!”

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Fields of Despair: France 1914-1918 from GMT Games

Where do I start with Fields of Despair. I love it, and after our first play in January this year, I made the bold prediction that it would be Wargame of the Year in 2017. I have not seen nor played anything since that has changed my mind, although Pericles is pretty damn good!

Prior to playing Fields of Despair, I had always had this incorrect stigma with World War I games that they were slow, stagnant, trench to trench warfare, with very few interesting aspects. Well, after playing, that image was shattered for me forever and I have a new paradigm about World War I. The reason that my mind was changed? Well, I would start with the fact that the use of blocks as the units is fantastic and adds that element of Fog of War that prevents you from ever truly knowing the strength of the enemy forces arrayed against you. FoD uses a very unique and revolutionary block system designed to maintain the confusion and uncertainty of the Fog of War throughout the entire game. The reason that I consider this system revolutionary is that in most block games, the combat values of individual blocks usually range from one to four, so as you scan the battlefield and after a quick calculation in your head you can come up with a pretty good guesstimate of what force power is arrayed against you, while in FoD the combat value of blocks ranges from zero (dummy blocks) all the way to a maximum of twenty. This difference in value ranges alone has completely changed the block wargame and has created a very strategic game that can be quite deceptive and difficult to play well. The reason for this deception is that you can build up one block in a hex to 20 when in other block games this would require 4 or 5 blocks that have tipped your hand and help your opponent to gauge your strategy and react more effectively to counter that.

But, this deception does have its limits as air reconnaissance, one of the best parts of the design, allows players to scout out the strength of units and remove that deception. But, you cannot simply scout with no opposition as your opponent can place his air units in that hex you are scouting to initiate aerial dogfights that will ruin your recon attempt. This is a glorious thing makes this version of World War I very interactive, strategic and most importantly fun to play.

Fields of Despair Setup
One of the glorious points of the design is the use of blocks, which creates a Fog of War that hides the power of the enemy forces against you. The blocks can also be exchanged with other blocks and dummy units and built up to a power of 20 to further confuse your opponent.

Movement in the game is also very straightforward and simple and can be used as a deceptive tool as well in addition to the use of dummy blocks. Players are allowed to “make change” during the movement phase, which means a larger block can be broken apart into 2 separate blocks or can even be done in reverse by consolidating a few smaller blocks into a larger force.  So after the movement phase, you will not be 100% confident in your enemy’s strength and will have to sometimes just throw your hesitancy out the window and attack. Breakout movements is also a great innovation to this design and helps to shatter any preconceived notion of a plodding and slow stalemate.

Fields of Despair Breakout Move
Breakout movement can be used to push your advantage after a key victory. This element is a great addition to the design as it helps in shattering any preconceived notion of a plodding and slow stalemate.

I also really liked the abstracted ways of handling the Naval Warfare and the Eastern Front.  Before playing the game, I was a little bit worried about this but after playing and seeing how they work in person, I have to say it is one of my more favorite parts of the design. I love how the CP and Allies have to focus on these elements and how they can detrimentally affect your effort if ignored. I have tried to focus on them when playing by using some of my EPs to buy cubes to put into the bags but also as I mentioned before, I just love the gamesmanship of the whole idea. We take the bags and hide them under the table in order to hide whether we are investing in the bags as we really enjoyed this element. I think this was a very elegant design method to incorporate this important and impactful part of World War I into the game play without bogging it down. It is quick, it is fun to do and adds another level of gamesmanship to the whole process.

I loved Fields of Despair and since playing this game, have taken a keen interest in several other World War I titles, including Paths of Glory and At All Costs!.

If you are interested, I was able to do an interview with the game’s designer Kurt Lewis Keckley that gives some great insight into the game and his thoughts on the war and we also shot a quick Video Review sharing our initial thoughts after our first play through of the game. We also did an unboxing video as well so you can get a clearer look at the various components.

Finally, we also like to do what we call Action Points after our plays of new wargames by creating fake headlines using an online headline generator to share insights into our play with highlights of certain gaming mechanics and strategy. Here are Action Point 1 and Action Point 2 for Fields of Despair.

I hope you have enjoyed this edition of On This Day in Military History and I encourage you to give Fields of Despair from GMT Games a try.

-Grant