Trench hopping ludological activities are few and far between these days. Doing no favours to this interest is the fact that the unpopular Olympics of 1914-1918 cemented themselves in the mind of strategy-gaming-enthusiasts as a crazy “100 meter no man’s land dash”. Sure, Battlefield 1 gave it asucessful and romanticized go in 2016 but the spark of muddy-holes-in-Flanders warfare failed to ignite the flames of game developers everywhere. In fact, while doing research for this piece I 100% blame EA and DICE for the subsequent downfall of WW1 gaming.
A less than memorable game title and even less than stellar visuals and an overall lack of polish can deceive even the most open-minded wargamers in the wild to trow out Battle of Empires 1914-1918 deep into the the nearest rat-shit-filled trench. But a brief two week scuffle with COVID had me locked up, unable to work and wishing for a familiar, conforting formula in real-time-stratego. I had bought BoE a couple of years back but never gave it a fair shot. A boring first mission that has you, the commander taking control of a french detachment ambushed by germans while riding a train doesn’t do much to sell the great game that lies beyond the deep layer of first impressions.
French poilus will go on to have great (mis)adventures across the four years of World War 1. BoE excells in depicting the tecnological advances that ocurred across the conflict. It does not lose itself in details nor it tries to force it down your throat (Cough! Battlefield 1! Cough!), it’s surprisingly organic. In the early-war missions french units are sporting their iconic red trousers and blue coats. Give a couple assignments in the poilus are now dressing the horizon-blue tinted tunics and trousers. The red, white and blue cap has given way to the M15 Casque Adrien. Besides the visual candy, the campaign also introduces new weapons and equipment that range from more bolt action to semi automatic rifles, the chauchat light machine gun and even the Renault FT, the first tank to flaunt a rotating turret.
If you know a thing or two about Men of War (whose engine this game clearly borrows and takes it for a long, afternoon stroll across early 20th century Europe) then it will come as no surprise that every single units is important and there is no such thing as cannon fodder. I was intrigued to see how BoE would deal with the massive slaughter of World War 1 while trying to keep the focus on small scale units tactics in which this engine eclipses any other. If one wishes to ignore the really extremely minuscule scale of one or two single soldiers mission and focus more on 15 and plus then usually BoE hands you the command of a section of the map and tasks you with very specific tasks. All the while the massive scale of World War 1 rages around you, making you feel a part of a greater conflict. Missions usually are lenghty and multi-phased affairs, with general staff constantly updating mission objectives and always keeping the CO on their toes.
Unpredictability is not a good thing when you’re making tough decisions on how to tackle a hard objective. Sure you can rush your infantry forward getting everyone killed but the single hero that hoists the flag, capture the point and be done with it. Shit hits the fan if you’re then tasked with fighting off the undending waves of huns rushing your strongpoint and no reinforcements are expected. While I’m not a fan of pulling the rug from under the player in strategy games as a whole, the way it’s implemented here asks the player to treat their pixeltruppen with some special care, and I’m unapologetically okay with that.
Battle of Empires might not be love at first sight but it carries some endearing qualities that will keep you coming back to it after those temporary trench-hopping surges have passed. While I’ve focused on the french in this small article I can assure you that both the British and German campaign pack the same love and attention from the developers. You can buy it on Steam for its regular price of 7,39 euros or wait for a sale and get the entire compendium in a sale.