Sunday, September 8, 2013

Review of Great War Spearhead II

World War One has always been one of those ‘gaming periods that many ‘gamers have been reluctant to play, typically for one of two reasons. They may see nothing more than relentless and pointless advance across muddied desolate landscapes with little or no gain, and even fewer tactical challenges for the player. Or they think that in some way they should feel some sort of moral repugnance at playing a game based around the ‘war to end all wars’ where human life is seemingly of so little value that it could be thrown away without even the merest second thought. The ‘Blackadder’ portrayal of the war seems to be their authoritative source on the conflict. This was after all an horrific war, as if others weren’t. And often such players would then turn around and play a World War 2 game fielding Waffen SS troops, or even a small Vietnam skirmish, oblivious to the contradictions inherent in their seemingly moral stance.

Both points of view have held ‘gaming of the period in check, and it is perhaps only with the distance of time, and the review and revision of seventy years of purported historical writing, that some of these views seem to be changing.

It is in this context that Shawn Taylor’s revised wargames rules ‘Great War Spearhead II’ should be viewed. Shawn’s original conception of a rules set that sought to face ‘gamers with the grand tactical challenge of refighting the momentous battles of World War 1 using Arty Conliffe’s Spearhead rules mechanisms was in my opinion quite frankly inspired.

I should insert a warning here: I am an unapologetic Spearhead fan, and a brief explanation of why I am may help to explain a lot about these rules. I lost any liking of skirmish wargames some decades ago. Representing the subtlety and nuance of human response at the individual level is in my opinion just too hard. I have yet to read or play a skirmish wargames rules set that in my opinion captures anything like a genuine 'fight'. This is a very personal perception, I have to agree, but that's my viewpoint. I hasten to add that this is not meant in any way to criticise those who do like skirmish games. “All ‘gaming  is good ‘gaming”, as one prominent local retailer and ‘gamer would say.

I am a great fan of the concept of analysing 'meta data' and such analyses show that as much as we might think that our behaviour is random or self determining, it is much less so than we might like to believe. In fact en-masse we tend to conform more closely to behavioural patterns than we would most probably like. Consequently the very idea of playing a game that represents behaviours at a larger level or scale conforms much more closely to my own paradigm. That's just a personal thing.

The Spearhead rules system takes away much of the small scale micro-management that I know so many gamers like, and instead puts the player firmly in the shoes of a commander planning and running a battle. The player is presented with resources that accurately reflect the OOBs historically available to a commander operating at a specific level in a military command structure and presents him with a problem to be solved within a specific time frame. This is the 'meta data challenge' that I enjoy.

Shawn has taken this framework and applied it to WW1, the first war waged en-masse. It is a fascinating period where rapid technological change demanded equally rapid tactical change. The problem in reality was that the two didn't change in synch. Shawn represents vital aspects of the period with subtle changes to the mechanisms that, put simply, just work extraordinarily well, placing the player in command at the Divisional or Corps level.

This second edition represents the results of 10 years of ‘gaming with the first edition and the input of players from around the globe, and in both respects it is a masterpiece of collaboration. A key player in the revision has been Robert Dunlop, bringing a voracious appetite for research to ensure that the rules reflect as much current research as possible.

The original 'mad minute ' rule is a great illustration of this. The contention that the 1914 BEF exhibited superior musketry skills was challenged with one simple demand: where is the evidence, where is the data? The work of recent researchers/writers such as Zuber and Sheldon who have brought to the debate research into the surviving German records revealed that the 'mad minute' is most probably little more than a myth, and so the rule was removed. Oh what a joy it would be to have other rules writers apply the same rigour to their own work rather than stick dogmatically to their 'first flush idea'.

So how else does this second edition differ from the first? Here is a summary from Robert Dunlop:

“The whole content, including the changes, has been extensively vetted by contributors from Britain, USA, France, Germany, Italy and New Zealand for example. This process has ensured that 'national' characteristics have been considered and addressed appropriately. The input from these contributors is reflected in the revised TO&Es for example. ...... new TO&Es and datacards for the Russo-Japanese War.

There are some important summary sections. GWSH by Year provides a handy table of rules that pertain to different theatres at different times. This helps in knowing when to introduce gas, extra MGs, etc. The other section is the summary of artillery use, with historical evidence or anecdotes. The QRS sheets have been updated.

Three new scenarios have been added: Belleau Wood 1918; Mons 1914; and Brusilov's Offensive 1916. The latter was generated from Robin Sutton's adaptation of Keith McNelly's scenario generator. The GWSH version of the scenario generator is available online.

Naval gunfire support has been updated. This is very useful for Gallipoli, Operation Hush, and other related historical scenarios featuring amphibious landings or the use of NGFS for operations near a coast, such as the northern-most actions in First Ypres.”

Perhaps the most significant change has been the melding together of the World War 1 rules with the original World War 2 rules set. Players no longer need to own, or find, a set of the original World War 2 rules. Instead, on purchase they receive the complete rules set ready for play.

This second edition is not a radical rewrite. It is a testimony to the robustness of the original edition that after ten years of play, the rules simply required update and a little tweaking around the margins.

Probably the most profound impact of a rules set such as this is the fact that even western front battles can be played in such a way that they are not some sort of pointless and boring advance against unreachable and unbreakable trench lines. The rules mechanisms allow a player who has planned and prepared well to breach the front line, only to be presented with the classic 1915-17 dilemma of how to exploit that initial breakthrough.

This is a superb representation of the ‘reality’ of the Great War on the western front. My own national interest in the actions of the New Zealand and Australian forces provides plenty of evidence that those battles in which commanders planned and prepared well were most often successful, and those where planning or preparation were lacking most often ended in failure. I have only to compare the first and second attacks of the New Zealanders at Passchendaele to provide evidence of both situations.

If you like playing skirmish actions, this is not the rules set for you. But if you are attracted to the idea of planning  and running a battle, then you almost certainly won’t be disappointed by Great War Spearhead II.


  1. Thanks for the review, I have been tempted by the rules to try it in 6mm (Solo due to time and space) so will think a little more on it.

    1. I would suggest a set piece action using GWSH would work extremely well and be actually very interesting to play out.

      A number of programmed defence plans could be drawn up. Then an attack plan determined without knowledge of which defensive plan will be used is completed. The attacker would have some intelligence of course, such as general strengths, trench lines etc. The actual positions would not be known and there would be variation on strengths.

      Once the attack plan is completed the actual defense plan is determined, from the several available by die roll. At this stage the models deployed.

    2. What is the base sizing for GWSH2? The same for all troop types? I may give this a go in 6mm also, but concentrate on the less manuever friendly sectors and periods.

  2. An interesting review Robin.

    I am sure that GWSH II will be popular as it is now a self-contained set of rules, avoiding some of the confusion of Version 1.

  3. What is the base sizing for GWSPH2? Applies to all troop types? I am also interested in giving it a go in 6mm, concentrating on more maneuver friendly sectors and periods of the war in the East and Balkans.

  4. Great review and advert for the rules Robin :)