Field Marshal Owen's Guide to Commander: The Great War (for Noobs)

By Owen Faraday 26 Jul 2014 0
Home by Christmas, they said. Home by Christmas, they said.

So you've decided that you're not waiting for my review, and now you're embedded into the couch, a cold drink within arm's reach, and the recently released iPad edition Commander: The Great War loaded up. Good choice. I'm terribly fond of this game, and non-wargamers need not be intimidated by it.

Commander is a turn-based, grand strategy-level wargame based on the First World War. It is an admirable attempt to do justice to an enormously complex, globe-spanning war -- so while not a terribly complex game, it still has a number of different levers one must learn to operate to get the most from it. Your experience might also suffer from the fact that World War I has been completely eclipsed as a topic of popular understanding (and as a subject of wargames!) by its successor. Going into Commander without a working knowledge of the historical context is a handicap you don't need to suffer. Owen's got your back, baby.

So with this guide, I'm going to attempt to give you a quick grounding in how to get started with Commander. I'll also try to color in enough of the history so that you feel the weight of what you're trying to do.

When you start a new game of Commander: The Great War (using the earliest 1914 campaign start date), the first thing you may notice is that you're not fighting in those famous Flanders fields, marching towards (depending on which side you picked) Paris or Berlin. No, you're off in Europe's south-eastern corner, fighting in Serbia. Why is that, exactly?

Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. He was a jerk, by all accounts, but ironically an anti-war jerk. Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Duchess Sophie. He was a jerk, by all accounts, but staunchly anti-war. Great moustache, anyway.

Franz Ferdinand's Sunday Drive: The war kicks off

You know those nights when you go to bed with your partner, and you know that she's quietly steaming mad about something you did (what exactly? you're not sure) and you start pre-emptively preparing defenses against any number of accusations while you lie uncomfortably in the dark staring up at the ceiling, getting increasingly agitated as you wait for the inevitable fight to start? This is basically Europe in 1914.

There were six countries in Europe who claimed to be (and acknowledged one another as) "Great Powers": Britain, France, the recently-unified nations of Germany and Italy, the serpentine confederacy of duchies and kingdoms known as Austria-Hungary, and the enormous (and enormously backward) tsardom of Russia.

Joining and dividing these countries was a mess of formal treaties and secret gentleman's agreements forming a crazy web of alliances based on hypothetical future events. "If X invades Y, I'll join that war on your side within 15 days." All of the powers expected that some enormous European war was just around the corner.

And they got one. When Austro-Hungarian heir to the throne Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated on a Sunday drive in Sarajevo by a teenage Slav nationalist in June 1914, Austrian-Hungary declared war on tiny Serbia, starting a domino rally of triggered alliances and treaty clauses which culminated in a general European war -- and soon, a world war. Shoulda stayed home, Franz.

Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right.

Who's fighting whom?

The alliances end up shaking out like this: Germany and Austria-Hungary form the Central Powers, fighting a multi-front war against the Entente Allies: heavy hitters France and Britain, plus scrappy Serbia, Belgium, and Russia.

But that's not the end of it: you have to prepare for other countries to enter the war and complicate matters. Not every historical entry into the war necessarily happens in every game (a country will sometimes stay neutral if your game breaks significantly with history) but you need to prepare for certain eventualities.

The Ottoman Empire will join the Central Powers in 1914. This means that Russia has to watch its back in the Caucasus and Britain has to be ready to defend Egypt -- or go on the offensive into the Middle East.

Italy will join the Allies in mid-1915, and sometimes earlier if the Entente is doing well, which means Austria-Hungary will have a new long border to defend.

Outkast's advice about attacking prudently: Don't pull the thang out unless you came to bang. Panzer Corps, where the best thing to do when in doubt is to fix bayonets and start sticking.

  • Attack carefully with as much preparation as you can muster. If you're going to try and take your opponent's trenches, make it a proper offensive. Position your forces a turn in advance, with strong infantry (not garrisons!) and cavalry next to the hex you intend to attack. Use artillery bombardments and aircraft spotting to lower the organisation of the enemy forces. It's not in the manual, but cursing loudly seems to help, especially in French.

  • Counterattack ruthlessly. If your opponent breaks through your front line, that's a great moment to counterattack his attacking force. His troops will probably be in a salient, and will have lower efficiency after having just attacked.

  • Hoard shells for your offensives. Just as in real life, you have a limited number of shells for your artillery -- no one could have anticipated in 1914 how much ammunition industrialised warfare would demand. In the lower left-hand corner of the screen, you'll see how many shells your country has available this turn. (It's the data column with, well, a bullet on it. You can increase this number by investing into industrial capacity in the management screen.) Every artillery bombardment consumes 10 shells, so don't blast out rounds like it's Mexican New Year every day. Make every shell count, and save artillery fire for your offensives.

  • Babysit your battleships. Your battleships are monstrously powerful (don't forget to use them to bombard shore hexes you're attacking) but losing one will cause your country to take a major morale hit. In real life, the great steel fleets of WWI were treated like haemophiliac only sons, risked in combat solely in the most dire extremity. You should helicopter-parent your battlewagons just like the real admirals did.

  • Cavalry is damned useful. If you're coming to Commander from a WWII wargame where cavalry is a punchline, you're in for a surprise. In the early war, cavalry is a great unit for attacking -- especially for serving the coup de grace to a weakened enemy unit, because cavalry gets a damage bonus when it forces its opponent to retreat.

  • Trains and naval transports are a limited resource. You're not playing Transport Tycoon, pal. Look again at that chart in the lower left-hand corner of the screen. The numbers under the train and anchor icons tell you how many uses of rail transport per turn you get and how many naval transports you can have asea on any given turn. You can increase this by investing production into the management screen.

  • You don't need to kill a country's entire military to defeat it -- just seize its capital. Take and hold an enemy capital for a couple of turns and they'll negotiate a separate peace by offering to surrender. Make sure that you control any strategically key parts of their territory before you do, because if you accept they'll become a neutral, not an ally.

  • Don't forget to upgrade. When your eggheads come up with a technology advance, it doesn't automatically filter out to existing units. Touch the double-arrow button in the lower right of the screen to upgrade your deployed forces. This costs production points to do, so prioritise troops that are about to go into the breach, or that are holding key hexes.

Belgrade or bust. No sleep 'til Belgrade.

How to play the Central Powers: Opening objectives

For this guide, I'm assuming that you're playing the 1914 scenario on the easiest of the three difficulties. If this is your first go with Commander, I highly recommend this. On higher difficulties, the AI is a right bastard. I also highly recommend playing as the Entente first, as they have an easier time of it.

Who are the Central Powers? At the very start of the war, you're Austria-Hungary, invading Serbia to (ostensibly) extract justice for the murders of Franz and Sophie. After a couple of turns, you're joined by mighty Germany, who have been itching for a chance to invade France and finish what they started in the War of 1870.

As the Central Powers, you have the initiative on your side. Your armies are enormous and relatively advanced, but that advantage will steadily ebb away as the war goes on. The Allies just flat-out have more men than you do, and the longer the fighting continues, the more of those men they can stuff into uniforms and hand rifles to. A war of attrition is a war you can't win.

  • Take cities quickly, especially capitals. In Commander, cities generate production points that you need to build additional forces. Take risks if you think you can grab a city like Calais or Warsaw -- it'll pay off in the long run.

  • Show no mercy to the Belgians. Knocking Belgium out of the war by capturing Brussels within the first few turns is very handy -- that's one less Entente ally producing troops to throw at you and the world's foremost chocolatiers under your command.

  • Keep your fleet in port unless you intend to build it up. As the Germans, any battle with the British navy in 1914 will end with your lunch money getting stolen and you getting a huge wedgie. Your ships get a major defense bonus in port (the hexes with anchors on them) so keep them there unless you spot a golden opportunity like an unescorted Royal Navy battleship.

  • Take Belgrade at all costs. Historically, the Austro-Hungarians expected to steamroll the outnumbered and less advanced Serbian Army. But the Serbs shocked the world by repelling the Austro-Hungarian invasion and launching a counter-invasion of their own. This is exactly what's going to happen to you if you don't cripple the Serbian economy by conquering Belgrade, Serbia's most valuable city. Lucky for you, Belgrade is right on the border -- throw divisions at it until it falls, because you'll have a hell of a time holding out against the combined Serbian-Italian riposte coming your way in 1915.

  • Defend in depth on the Eastern Front. In Commander (as in real life) the Russian front is much more fluid and harder to define than the west. This means that the front line moves frequently and troops will benefit less from entrenchment. Make sure you've got reserve units behind the front lines to plug holes where they appear.

  • When the Turks join the game, focus on Egypt. When the Ottomans join the war sometime in late 1914, you've got a couple of obvious choices: hit the Russians in the Caucasus (the right-center of the map, launching attacks from Erzurum) or invade British Egypt from Gaza. Trust me, the Caucasus is a sideshow. Prioritize Egypt -- not only will you steal a small number of production points from the cities there, but you'll deny the British the resources coming from convoys that traverse the Suez Canal.

  • Try to get your Mediterranean submarines to disrupt Allied shipping. You start with a German submarine flotilla in the Med and an Austro-Hungarian one in the Adriatic. You shouldn't attempt to attack battleships or cruisers with them, but there are French and British merchant convoys passing through the area that you can hunt down.

  • Make prudent use of your rail capacity. The Germans begin the game with the biggest rail transport capacity. This means that you can shuttle troops relatively quickly from the eastern front to the west -- or vice versa. In real life, German high command made a big mistake early in the war by shipping divisions from France to Russia where they weren't really needed, but your war might be playing out very differently from history.

Egypt: so peaceful, so serene. Until next turn. Prepare accordingly. Egypt: so peaceful, so serene. Until next turn. Prepare accordingly.

How to play the Entente Allies: Opening objectives

Here's the good news for the Entente: in 1914: you've got Germany and Austria-Hungary literally surrounded. But here's the bad news: that means that it's much harder for your allies to support one another. Occupying the interior of the circle, Germany can ship troops by rail to any front -- but you can't. French and British troops will never (beyond some exceptional effort on your part) play a role on the Russian or Serbian fronts and vice versa.

The good news is that you've got time on your side. Keep your capitals intact and play defense at first. You've got Russia on your side, the Andre the Giant of Europe: maybe it's not too dainty or sophisticated, but it's huge. Every other country in the game has to worry about manpower (the gingerbread men icons in the lower-left hand side of the screen), but not Russia, which can keep on churning out new divisions as long as its industrial capacity allows. Eventually the Entente will overwhelm the Central Powers through sheer weight -- but you have to survive the initial assault.

  • Don't get fancy with your shopping at first. Hey, look at all this neat stuff in the production screen. Blimps! Armored cars! Armored trains! Did I tell you about the blimps? STOP IT. That new-fangled stuff has its uses, but in August 1914, you need good old-fashioned infantry legions to shore up your front lines. Buy infantry until your front lines are airtight and backed up. Then buy an artillery. Then (and only then) should you consider commissioning the HMS Led Zeppelin.

  • Spend some of Britain's production on strengthening your Egyptian forces. The Ottomans are coming and they want the land of the Pharaohs real bad (see "When the Turks..." above). If you don't add a couple of regular infantry units to your Suez garrison, then T.E. Lawrence will be really sad.

  • Improve Russia's railway capacity ASAP. The Russian front is big and fluid and you're going to need to shuttle troops around it quickly. At the start of the war you have enough rolling stock to move one trainload of troops per turn -- it's worth upgrading this in 1914 to make your troops more mobile and to get some of your far eastern garrisons (Omsk doesn't need defending, trust me) to the Austrian border or Caucasus where they'll do some good.

  • Hold Brussels if you can, but do anything you must to hold Belgrade. Keeping the Belgians in the war is difficult, but it's not a fatal blow to lose them. In real life, the Belgian Army withdrew into their fortresses rather than face the numerically superior Germans with doubtful support from the French, and were effectively a non-factor in the war. If you can keep them in the fight at all, you'll be doing better than your historical counterparts. Losing Belgrade, on the other hand, is a devastating blow in the long term. Spend anything, sacrifice anyone to hold it.

  • The Russian navy is small, but useful. Don't try to take on Germany's fleet but park your Baltic ships off of Stockholm to harass Germany's merchant shipping.

  • Give Gallipoli a shot. In 1915, the British tried to deal a decisive blow to the Ottomans by landing a small Australian & Kiwi force at Gallipoli. This campaign was an infamous disaster in real life, but it's entirely possible for it go better for you. If you can spare a few divisions from Egypt (or Italy if they've already joined), try landing them near the Dardanelles -- or at Gaza. The Ottoman Empire is vast and the AI (or your human multiplayer opponent) can't possibly defend it all.

This guide is just intended to get you started. You should definitely download this PDF of the Commander manual and give it a read -- it's not arduous at all and covers much that I didn't even brush on here.

The real story is well worth reading about. The real story is well worth reading about.

Further reading

I can't overemphasise how rewarding it is to have a little historical background on WWI when you play Commander. If you'll forgive the presumption, here's a few books on the subject that I personally recommend. No doubt our well-read PT regulars will have more books to share in the comments.

  • The Guns of August. This narrative history of the lead-up to and opening months of the war is one of the finest works of non-fiction you will ever experience. When I read it as a teenager, I wanted to propose marriage to author Barbara Tuchman, who had disappointingly passed away at the age of 77 years earlier.

  • The First World War: An Illustrated History. AJP Taylor was a hugely talented story-teller who wrote this breezy, droll history that I think is the best single-volume history of the whole war, full stop. Imagine being down at the pub with your well-read (and mostly drunk) uncle: that's what reading AJP Taylor is like.

  • Storm of Steel. Ernst Junger's memoir of serving in the trenches as a line soldier is really fucking scary, pardon my French. He pulls no punches at all and makes you very glad that for us, this war is just an interesting strategic puzzle to solve in video games.

  • The White War. If WWI is relatively ignored in modern memory, then the Italian front of that war has completely vanished. A very readable history of an aspect of the conflict that few specialise in.

  • The Pity of War. Harvard historian Niall Ferguson is a bit of a jerk but he loves challenging the conventional wisdom about WWI. After you've read a few other books, try this one out and see if you agree with Ferguson's theories.

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