Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-1915

While this website has focused its attention on games below company-level, it is making an exception on early tactical level games that included company-sized units. Soldiers is a natural exception and seems to fit in well with early squad- and platoon- level games for several reasons, the most important being that in the period from August 1914 to May 1915, the period of warfare being covered by the game, the company was in actual fact the lowest basic unit of maneuver in the European armies. The development of squads and platoons is discussed briefly in this article. With that in mind, it compares in some ways to Squad Leader or later games which also sought to portray combat at the lowest tactical level of the time being portrayed. Soldiers is also notable for being such an early entry into the field of tactical-level board games, and also for being the first such game in which combat in the 1914-1918 war was portrayed. In all then, a worthy topic of consideration among the earliest of the tactical wargames despite the squad- and platoon-level focus of this website.

The first year of the Great War was a period of mobility and maneuver at the strategic as well as tactical level. Armies were able to outmaneuver other armies largely because the individual units of which they were comprised had outmaneuvered their counterparts. Soldiers is a tactical scale game of these small unit actions. With unit counters each representing infantry companies of 250 men, squadrons of 150 cavalry, or batteries of six guns, all of the units on the mapsheet do not constitute more than one whole division.1

The game was first conceived of in the spring of 1970, when Simulations Publications Inc. was still known as Poultron Press, located in a tenement basement in New York, and in its first year of existence and full scale game production. There were some heavy hitters as far as researchers went in that basement; Dunnigan's bonafides are legendary but Soldiers developer David C. Isby went on to write 20 books and 350 articles on national security, contribute to Jane's Intelligence Review, testify before U.S. Congressional committees on Afghanistan, and appear frequently in the media as an expert on national security, including CNN, VOA, C-CPAN, MacNeil-Lehrer, the McLaughlin Group, Fox and Friends, The Washington Times, International Defense Review, Military Intelligence, Field Artillery Journal and others.2 Dunningan's question to Isby was casual: "Dave, how would you like to do a tactical game on World War One?" The research and design took two years, albeit on a relaxed schedule, and in March 1972, Lenny Glynn, who had been on staff as SPI for only four weeks as a proof reader and copy editor, was brought in to assist with game development.3

The map underwent at least four different very different drafts, though playtest (by what SPI called the Friday Night Crew, the name they gave to their game department and other "interlopers" they managed to find to volunteer to playtest) was done on the original draft of the rules.

At the time, each hex on the map represented 50 yards, and the basic maneuver units were platoons. The idea was that on a higher level, (i.e. company) the battlefield dominance of artillery and machine guns would be diluted. As we soon found out, the Soldiers prototype certainly avoided this problem: the game was a duel between opposing artillery and machine guns. These duels were often resolved by a single roll of the die. Infantry units which attempted to advance were butchered. Realistic but unplayable? No, simply unrealistic. There was not that much artillery and machine guns in the first phases of the war. We were showing their power in mini-tactical situations which exaggerated their impact on larger battles (Soldiers is set in 1914, not 1918).

So the first thing to change was the scale: Hex size doubled to 100 yards, turn time to ten minutes and the basic units became companies rather than platoons. One thing that plagued us in these early games was the use of cavalry units as Kamikazes. A player would send his cavalry unit charging up to an Artillery or Machine Gun unit and wipe it out while losing the cavalry. While this reflected the illusions of cavalry commanders in 1914, it far exceeded their operational ability. Surprisingly we didn't find a simple way to fix this for a long while.4

The use of low value units to draw fire or launch suicidal missions and preserve one's friendly infantry will be familiar to players of more modern tactical games; the problem has been discussed in such recent titles as Combat Mission (the "gamey jeep rush" was often discussed on the official forums).

The final product was successful, if a biased source like SPI's own house organ can be believed.

Soldiers...is probably the smoothest playing of SPI's lengthening tactical series, which includes such diverse games as Centurion and AH's PanzerBlitz. One reason for the difference is the relative simplicity of the Soldiers weaponry. There are only five different types of units: infantry, cavalry, machine guns, field guns, and howitzers. Another reason for the smoothness is the map - unlike most of the tactical games, the map for Soldiers is not overly cluttered with terrain. Finally, a great deal has been added to the play of the game by having simultaneous firing. The game provides six sets of counters to simulate the armies of seven of the states involved in the early months of World War I. There are 14 suggested situations, including one that is designed for solitaire play and worthy of being so played. Several of the situations are, as usual, designed to teach lessons rather than to give each side a chance to win, but most of them seem to be even. All situations show clearly, if the participants are careless, the devastation that could be inflicted by the weapons of the time. They also show that a cautious attack still had a good chance to succeed without extreme losses in the period before the trench lines.5

If one doubts that SPI could be impartial in reviewing its own game (and there is no real reason to suspect it could not), a reviewer writing in Wargamer in 1990 could still report that

Soldiers is both a very good simulation and a fun game to play. The large number of scenarios allows for great flexibility in the number of units involved and the length of games. The situations are most fluid in these days before elaborate trench systems and massed artillery. There are ample special condition counters which streamline play.6

Packaging

The game was sold in four different modes; as an envelope game, in the white box both with and without tray (as described in the Red Star/White Star article), and - presumably most commonly -  in the familiar "black box" shown here.7

Articles

Moves

Nr. 4 Aug 1972 ►"Game Profile: Soldiers" by Lenny Glynn and David C. Isby (Analysis & Designer's Notes)
Nr. 7 Jan-Feb 1973 ►"A Guide to Conflict Simulation Games and Periodicals" by George Phillies and Martin Campion (Review)
Nr. 10 Aug/Sep 1973 ►"Vehicles in Soldiers" by David C. Isby (Variant)
Nr. 11 Oct/Nov 1973 ►Errata
Nr. 77 1993 ►"Soldiers: Tactics in the First Months of World War I" by James Werbaneth (Review)

Wargamer

Vol. 2 No. 23 Oct-Nov 1990

► "The Grandfather of Modern War: The Great War, 1914-1918: World War One Games Anthology: Part 2 - Land Games" by Eric Lawson (Review)

JAGDPANTHER Magazine

Issue 7   ►"Chaco-Soldiers Link" (Variant)
Issue 12   ►"Soldiers Morale" by  Clifford L. Sayre, Jr.(Variant)
►"American Soldiers" by John Anderson (Variant)

Line of Departure

Issue 26  

 ► "Marching to Die: Great War Tactics in SPI's Soldiers" by Jim Werbaneth (Strategy)

Phoenix

 Issue 25  

► "Prelude to the Marne: A New Scenario for Soldiers (SPI)" by Rob Gibson (Scenario)

Issue 31  

► "The First Battle of Ypres: A Scenario for Soldiers (SPI)" by M. Barres-Barker (Scenario)

Battle Flag

Vol.1, No. 25  

►"Surviving in Soldiers; Some Hints and Advice on Tactics" by Gregory J.W. Urwin (Strategy)
►"Soldiers" by Gregory J.W. Urwin (Review)

 Notes

  1. Lawson, Eric. "The Grandfather of Modern War: The Great War, 1914-1918: World War One Games Anthology: Part 2 - Land Games"  (Review in Wargamer, Vol. 2 No. 23)

  2. http://world.unomaha.edu/cas/staffs/bibilo/David_Isby.doc

  3. Glynn, Lenny and David D. Isby. "Game Profile: Soldiers" Moves Nr. 4

  4. Ibid

  5. Phillies, George and Martin Campion. "A Guide to Conflict Simulation Games and Periodicals" Moves Nr. 7

  6. Lawson, Ibid

  7. Data on boxes come from Greg Costikyan's website at http://www.costik.com/spicom/gamess.html.

 

Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-1915

Developer: David C. Isby and Lenny Glynn
Publisher: Simulations Publications Inc.
Date of Release: 1972
Scale: Company
Players: 2
Campaign Type: none
Components: ►22" x 28" unmounted map
►400 1/2" counters
►8 page accordion folded rules & scenario folder
►errata sheet (after August 1973)
►Box (see article)
Add-ons: none

Infantry companies as depicted in Soldiers.

 

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