September 22, 2021

5 Questions with… Mons 1914 Designer Geoffrey Phipps

Brant Guillory, 2 August 2021

Currently pushing to get ‘over the top’ on GMT’s p500 list, Mons 1914 is a detailed dive into the first major Anglo-German battle of WW1.  Not only is it a large and comprehensive campaign game, but it includes a handful of smaller, focused scenarios as well as a few hypotheticals.  
Designer Geoffrey Phipps – the man behind GMT’s Gallipoli, 1915 using the same system – dropped in with us for a quick interview about his new design.

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What is it about Mons that fascinated you enough to dig into battle for building out a game of this depth, detail, and complexity?

Mons was the first battle between the British and Germans in WWI, occurring  literally within days of the BEF assembling in France. It is the source of all the stories surrounding the famed BEF – rifle fire like machine guns etc. However, I knew that the Anzacs said the same thing about the Turkish rifle fire when landing at Gallipoli, so I wanted to dig in and understand what actually happened at Mons.

Like Gallipoli, Mons occurred before the onset of trench warfare, so both sides were expecting something like the Boer War or the France-Prussian War –  galloping horse artillery and waves of infantry. I also wanted to see how the British thinking evolved by looking back six months from Gallipoli to Mons.

The fascinating thing about the Great War is that military technology and doctrine evolved farther and faster in that war than it did in WWII. The game needs the detail to show that tactical evolution. Ultimately I’d like to design some games using an evolved rule set for 1918 to show the switch to platoon and infiltration tactics and off-map artillery.

That must be a heck of a research project.

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The British 4th Cavalry Brigade, including the Household Regiment

click images to enlarge

 

How do you go about breaking down such a large and intertwined battle into more bite-sized chunks for smaller scenarios without losing site of the bigger picture?

The German 1st Army arrives in-echelon in three corps, each corps one game turn apart. That staggered arrival naturally splits the game into three one-map scenarios if desired, although the big historical scenario is a two-mapper. The first German corps to arrive saw the most fighting, and also hit the British where they were weakest. It is the decisive event and is therefore the key historical one-map scenario.

Sounds like a blast!

There are two training scenarios – one quite small, and a larger one that pits an entire German corps against a British rearguard of an infantry brigade with some overly-optimistic cavalry.

There is a two-map historical scenario, and also a series of one- and two- map hypothetical meeting engagement scenarios

 

Given the British experience with colonial warfare, compared to the Germans, who’d been fighting continental wars more recently, what are the game effects you tried to put in place to account for these differences?  Or are the largely rolled into more broad C2 considerations for the 2 forces?

The British are much less responsive at corps and divisional level than the well-trained Germans. The British habit of letting “the man on the spot” make all the decisions was sensible when “the man” was in the Transvaal and his commander was in London, but that method failed at Mons because the Divisional commanders did not actively coordinate their Brigades. Hence in the game it is harder for the British to change their orders.

Not every wargame is for every wargamer.  If someone’s looking at the game and thinking “hmmmm, I’m not sure if that’s really my cup of tea,” what are the best comparisons you can give them?  If they like _____ games, they’d likely enjoy this one, but if you prefer _____ then you might rather stay away from this one.

Both Mons and Gallipoli are at the historical simulation end of the  wargaming  hobby. I designed these games for serious play at a 3-day convention, not a 3-hour evening after work.

There is tactical maneuver – fire, assault, morale etc, but there is a detailed command system that shapes the larger narrative. You have to like coming up with a plan, faithfully following it for several turns, and being able to laugh when changed circumstances and a slowly-responding army put you in a pickle.  In scope these games are reminiscent of grand tactical American Civil War games or Napoleonic battles.

If you want total control or a “lighter” game then they are not for you.

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Phipps: “I took this photo when I was working on the colors used for the contour elevations. Mons is two maps laid edgewise, which was the shape of the battle.”

 

What’s an idea or mechanic for Mons: 1914 that changed substantially during playtesting?  Was there a need to adjust movement types, or combat values?  Give us some insight into that development process.

Mons is the second game after Gallipoli. The series rules were overhauled for clarity and simplicity. The core mechanisms are nearly identical in both games. Gallipoli can be played with the new rules. Some mechanisms have been streamlined and had their presentations changed to make them play faster, the fire system is the best example. There is a display to track DRMs visually that replaces the complex Fire Modifier Table in the published version of Gallipoli.  Some things that rarely came up (e.g. rout) were removed to simplify the system. Rules overhauled for readability.

For Mons specifically I made some changes during play testing. Artillery was toned-down because it was dominating the battlefield far more than it did historically. We capped the number of artillery opportunity shots, which also improves playability. For the British we folded the individual machine guns into the battalions. That reduces counter clutter, plus at this stage of the war they were embedded in the infantry battalions rather than being collected at brigade and divisional level. The German regimental machine guns were collapsed  into a single counter for similar reasons – they were always deployed as a group.

Another change adding the hypothetical meeting engagement. The historical battle works, meaning that if both sides follow the historical strategies then you will end up with a historical-looking results. However, the British just don’t do much. The meeting engagement gives both players the chance to have fun, to have opportunities, and explore what might have been, even with cavalry.

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A change of pace – the very first playtest map! Hexes overlaid on a 1917 British map, terrain marked in crayons

 

A big “thank you” to Geoffrey Phipps for taking the time to chat with us about Mons 1914.  And now everyone go get your pledges into the p500 campaign to get it published!

Ed Note: there’s a bonus question or two that will be shared exclusively with our Patreon supporters.  It’s just one of the perks of being a supporter of The Armchair Dragoons!


Thank you for visiting The Armchair Dragoons and spending some time with the Regiment of Strategy Gaming.
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Brant G

Editor-in-chief at Armchair Dragoons

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