100 years ago the guns of the Western Front fell silent, marking the end of the first World War. For over four years, countries from every corner of the Earth had been engaged in combat so brutal and horrifying that they called it “The War to End All Wars” in the hope that mankind would never devolve into the beast that had caused this level of apocalypse again. Over 12 million were dead, countless more wounded, four of the largest empires had collapsed, the terrain of Europe was torn up and poisoned and the political landscape forever re-written. WW1 was the birth of the modern age, and it came into this world kicking and screaming.
Despite the importance of the war, when it comes to depictions in media, WW1 is often overshadowed by the successive conflict known as WW2. It’s not hard to see why. WW2 is filled with daring battles, exciting gunfights, bombastic tank duels, and harrowing dogfights at breakneck speed. The Great War, in contrast, is filled with endless tales of disease, death, and the hellish boredom and terror of trench warfare. The Nazis are also a far easier “bad guy” and killing them in endless waves doesn’t require bringing up any long-winded discussion over who’s fault the war actually was.
Still, the first World War is definitely a topic that deserves more discussion and portrayal in media. It might not always be easy to make the war “fun” but here are some games that at least try to give players a taste of the conflict, without any trench-foot or Spanish Flu.
First and foremost is the game that’s probably the greatest contribution to WW1 discussion in a long time, even if its historical accuracy leaves a lot to be desired. When DICE and EA announced that they would be taking the Battlefield series away from modern conflict, everyone assumed that meant another WW2 game. However they surprised us all by going back even further, and when the first trailers for Battlefield 1 were shown off there was a mixture of intrigue and concern. A WW1 shooter on the scale of a Battlefield game hadn’t really been attempted yet, and the concept didn’t seem to have legs. Still, DICE persisted and it’s a good thing since BF1 is arguably their most interesting game since Battlefield 2.
Taking place across a wide variety of battles, including The Somme, Caporetto, The Brusilov Offensive, and even Africa and the Middle East, BF1 does a great job of showcasing how widespread the war really was, a concept often forgotten amidst media of the Western Front. Similarly, there’s a massive variety of weapons to play with, from early tanks and planes to a wide array of infantry weapons, including experimental weapons that never saw real action. While the historical accuracy of the game is way off, there’s no denying that it has done a great job of getting people interested in WW1 again, and for that alone, the game is worth mentioning.
Verdun and Tannenburg
For those looking for a much more brutally realistic look at WW1, there’s the WW1 Game Series, the combined title for the games Verdun and Tannenburg. The Former features Western front maps, being named after the longest battle that lasted most of 1916 and centered around a French fortress town, while the latter is named for the German rout of the Russian army in 1915 that would contribute to the war taking far longer than anyone expected.
Unlike BF1 automatic weapons in these games are very much the exception, not the rule, with the vast majority of classes being limited to slow firing, but very deadly rifles, with the occasional pistol thrown in for close quarters. While it doesn’t feature the scale of BF1, both games focus much more on the terrifying nature of the war, where death can come from anywhere at any time, and shots are nearly always fatal. They emphasize good aiming and positioning, rather than blanket fire and grenade spamming.
Verdun is probably the better of the two games, being fully completed with the occasional new bits of content patched in. It features familiar Western armies from Canada, Great Britain, France and America facing off against a variety of German groups across massive maps. The main game mode is Frontline, an interesting attempt to take the back-and-forth warfare of the Western front and make a game of it. Each side attempts to take the other’s trench, either affecting a breakthrough or being flung back to their own trenches to defend against the counter-attack. Rinse and repeat until either the game timer runs out or one side manages to capture all three lines. It’s an interesting idea that is much more harrowing to experience — and the fact that most matches end in stalemates might be a subtle commentary on the futile nature of the war.
Tanneneburg is still in early access, and as of this writing, only has a few maps and classes to play. However it’s a decidedly different beast from Verdun, and if you’re looking for more of a run and gun shooter, this is the one to look for. Like the real Eastern front, this is a war of movement, with massive open maps in the Maneuvers game mode. Each side is tasked with taking and holding spawn points, some of which confer bonuses like extra ammo or artillery support to the controlling team. Once a path has been cleared to the enemy HQ, it’s forward for the final assault. The more open maps encourage on-the-move thinking, and since most of the capture points are in the open, battles have a much more spread out feel. Combine that with the higher player count and bots filling in empty spaces and Tannenburg does a wonderful job of creating a cacophony of death that’s only going to get more exciting as development continues.
Finally for shooters is the oddball, and how very odd it is. While the previous games may have occasionally struggled with historical accuracy, NecroVision struggles with staying on this plane of reality. What starts at the Battle of the Somme with you, a hapless American volunteer stumbling into a slaughterhouse of a battle, quickly devolves into a story about vampires, zombies, demons, and otherworldly magic, all wrapped up with a healthy dose of complete insanity. There are mech battles, there are magic underground cities, there are giant floating sky skulls, and there’s a bizarre melee combo system with names “Brute Willis” “Redneck Fury” or “Soccer Star”. It’s a nutty shooter, no surprise considering it comes from much of the same people that worked on Painkiller, and if you can get it for a few dollars it’s certainly worth the wild ride, if only to see the extremes of where WW1 fiction can go.
One of the most memorable things about the Great War was its evolution of flight, a technology only mastered a decade before the war began. The skies over the battlefields were even deadlier than the trenches and fields, with life expectancy for most pilots between 40-60 hours of combat time. Still, the harrowing danger of the skies translates into great action for games, and the best classic example of this is the Sierra hit Red Baron, specifically the 1990 version. With graphics far ahead of their time that still manage to convey a sense of scale and detail despite the polygonal look, and gameplay that’s deceptively simple to get into, Red Baron is a shockingly enjoyable game even today. Placing pilots into either the British RAF or the German Luftwaffe, and creating a dynamic campaign of bombing runs, balloon attack missions, and good old-fashioned dogfights, Red Baron is a great combination of first-person shooter and simulation that’s definitely worth checking out, even 30 years later.
Wings over Flanders Fields
Still, 1990 was a long time ago, and eventually, someone had to pick up the proverbial torch of WW1 flight sims. Thankfully there’s Wings over Flanders Fields, a full conversion mod for Microsoft Flight Sim turned standalone product that bills itself as the final word in WW1 flight simulation experiences. That’s no joke, as WoFF has an impressive amount of detail built on the foundation that Red Baron put down decades ago. Like Sierra’s classic the campaign is dynamic, but unlike Red Baron, the front will actually change as the war drags on, and battles on the ground can affect your campaign. If you’re assigned near the Somme river in late 1916 you can expect heavy combat every mission, whereas flying over quiet sectors will relegate you to scouting missions and the occasional bombing run. There is a high barrier to entry, and playing it without a full sim setup of head tracking and flight sticks is impossible, but for the fanatic, this is certainly the game to get.
The war in the skies was filled with drama and excitement, and for those looking for a casual take on the “gentleman’s war” there’s the Cinemaware arcade shooter Wings!. Originally an Amiga title, now remastered with better graphics and voice acting, Wings! is that classic Cinemaware combination of storytelling and gameplay that longtime fans loved. It certainly lacks any of the depth of Red Baron or Wings over Flanders, but it does tell a great story of the evolution and daily life of the RAF over the course of the war, and its simple gameplay is enjoyable enough for the few hours of the campaign.
Darkest Hour and Victoria 2
If running around as the infantry or flying dangerous dogfights isn’t your style of gameplay, then the War has also been well represented in the Strategy world. Paradox, as is their style, have two different grand strategy games that let you re-examine the war, or should you choose you can totally re-write it and prevent it from ever happening. First is Darkest Hour, a total conversion mod for Hearts of Iron 2 that Paradox bought and released as a full product. The WW1 scenario starts at the outbreak of the war, with Franz Ferdinand dead and Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. From there you can choose any country to play and decide how you’d like to proceed. Maybe Britain doesn’t join the war after Germany invaded Belgium, maybe Germany didn’t get routed at the Marne and captured Paris in 1914, or maybe the war dragged on for years longer and WW2 never happened. The beauty of these Paradox games is their ability to adapt to your changing history.
Taking that a step further is Victoria 2, which turns the clock back further to 1836, which means the world going into the War could be vastly different. Perhaps the American Civil War ended very differently, with the Union and Confederacy joining different sides, or should you choose the War just never happens, and some other conflict writes the world of the 20th century. While it doesn’t quite have the ease of access as some of Paradox’s later titles, Victoria 2 is still something of a favorite for many fans, and rumors of a third entry into the series are starting to circulate as well.
Battle of Empires
For the arm-chair general looking to get close to the action, the prime game would be Battle of Empires, an RTS based on the Men of War games. A word of warning, each campaign is purchased as DLC, with the base game only containing a prologue and tutorial, as well as access to multiplayer. Still, the campaigns do cover topics the other games won’t like the Ottomans, Russians, Bulgarians, and Austrians. The scales of the battles are impressive too, with hundreds of units and fully destructible terrain creating a great sense of destruction. There’s also a decent variety of missions, from standard battles to stealth missions with small squads, objective based maps that require critical thinking. The attention to detail is superb, and the game is still being updated with new campaigns and mod support, so there’s certainly a lot to dig into for fans of the genre.
Finally, there are a few games worth mentioning that don’t fit into the above genres. Valiant Hearts is a 2d puzzle side-scroller from Ubisoft, using the same amazing art style as the recent Rayman games. It tells a wonderful tale of four different people, brought together by the war and helping each other survive, while also having interesting puzzles and a cornucopia of historical factoids sprinkled around. Toy Soldiers is a tower defense game with a very WW1 aesthetic, with biplanes and rhomboid tanks dominating the battlefields as you hold off waves of plastic army men. Finally, there’s Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol, a mobile turn-based flight game where you command a squad of plans, planning their maneuvers with the flick of your fingers, trying to account for their movement as you go.
WW1 might not always be the most exciting topic, and it’s not hard to see why it’s not discussed to the same degree as other conflicts of the 20th or 21st century. But that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten, and there’s an endless amount of stories to be told still waiting to be made. 100 years is a very long time, and the while all that remains of the war is relics and memories, games like the ones here will make sure that those memories live on for a very long time.
For further learning about WW1, be sure to check out The Great War on Youtube, which provides bite-sized episodes detailing every week of the war over 4 years.