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Frederick the Great
Frank Davis & Ed Curran, SPI, 1975
AASGC Game Review
Tim Smith, Annapolis-Area Strategy Gaming Club
'Frederick the Great' (‘FtG’) is widely admired as one of the truly great wargames and retains an active fan base, as commentary in BGG, CSW and elsewhere attests (for example, see Joe Beard’s excellent review at < http://mapandcounters.blogspot.com/2010/03/spi-frederick-gre... >. Designed by Frank Davis and Ed Curran, FtG was originally published in S&T49 in mid-1975, which was graced with an evocative cover. Davis also wrote the accompanying article, an excellent summary of the War of the Austrian Succession and Seven Years War (this reviewer’s first real exposure). The eye-opening initial experience of the ‘zine and game convinced this then-18-year-old that with SPI he had stepped onto a higher plane of both wargaming and military historiography. Given the reverence this game’s devotees have accorded it since, my impressions might not have been unique.
FtG is a masterpiece of parsimony, in the scientific sense of subsuming complexity under a simple rules set – in other words, simultaneously achieving a high degree of ‘realism’ and ‘playability’. It achieves much of its power through ‘Dunniganesque’ simplification and abstraction (reminiscent in that regard of 'World War I' in S&T51). While hardly the ‘last word’ in theater-strategic simulation of 18th-century warfare, FtG set a uniquely high standard for further advances to follow. Subsequent treatments have offered important refinements, but none has captured so much of the essence with so much deft simplicity, nor will any likely ever remove FtG from its status as the best wargame available for introducing students to warfare in the Age of Reason.
'Frederick the Great' falls in the category we in the AASGC call a ‘low-resolution, historically/scientifically accurate simulation model’. It provides a superb representation of 18th-century continental-European campaign strategy, providing an excellent complement to the works of Duffy, et al. It is a strategic game, isolating the primary factors governing the nature of warfare in that era with a minimum of ‘chrome’. FtG succeeds in simulating chess-like maneuver in an aristocratic age when princes fought for limited, non-ideological ends with armies that were professional, few, small, rigid and unwieldy.
Within the constraints of its low-resolution focus, FtG accurately conveys the dynamics of armies tightly tethered to their supply sources (networks of fortresses and depots), constrained in their capacity for independent maneuver, and facing high risk in battle, the outcome of which was unpredictable and often quite costly in losses (troop casualties, prisoners, and leaders, who led from the front and often paid the cost). One seemingly good-odds battle can go wrong and render an entire field army ineffective for an extended period thereafter (if not in fact for the remainder of a campaign season).
The game’s high-level focus includes clever simplifications and creative subtleties. Infantry, artillery and cavalry are melded together in generic strength points. Game turns interweave alternating phases, with a ‘forced march’ phase (misspelled in the rules as a ‘force march’ phase) that enables defenders either to evade combat or to impose it on the player whose turn it is. This subtle little mechanic adds novelty that captures Fredrician dynamics in a way that rewards the kind of generalship for which Frederick won his renown. Austrian Croats and Hussars are represented abstractly, by Austrian field forces exerting a ZoC that impedes Prussian lines of communication (LoCs), but not army movement, in a way that effectively reflects their influence on operations at the strategic level of war. Prussia, however, could not detach light forces and skirmishers without suffering extensive desertion, and therefore enjoys no such ZoCs.
FtG is not, however, detailed enough to enable extensive experimentation with alternative historical courses of action. For instance, the game simplifies supply in a way that restricts options. Depots and forts are required, but supply trains are absent. The Austrian ZoCs can serve to represent, for instance, Daun and Loudon’s obliteration of Frederick’s supply train during his abortive 1758 siege of Olmütz; however, the game does not easily enable Frederick to do the same to the Russians before Zorndorf later that year (an option he failed to exercise, to his severe cost – had he done so he would have forced the Russians back on Posen, potentially at no cost, and have been positioned thereafter to round out the season by defeating the Austrians, perhaps thereby inducing the Coalition to initiate talks). FtG’s more complex descendants, by 3W and DG, do allow such options, offering greater scope to explore the wider implications of the entire Prussian approach to war, military management and hence governance (rear-area raiding and ‘warfare by detachments’ requires deeper bonds of loyalty motivated by patriotism rather than obedience induced by fear – and imagine Prussians with ZoCs in FtG).
Being a magazine game, and one crafted around subtleties, FtG almost inevitably included some errors, only one of which was egregious. Notwithstanding the aura of perfection the game has achieved among its many devotees, this error has long been recognized and fixed by some commentators (armies should actually take losses as a percentage of the enemy’s force vice their own, thereby preventing the ahistorical and notorious ‘Fred+5’ anomaly; this fix is reflected in the unofficial errata this reviewer has submitted to the Forum section in BGG).
FtG nonetheless captures the major features of continental warfare in the Age of Reason (the SPI original covers the first few years of the Seven Years War; the AH edition extends this to 1763, while online variants offer counters for the earlier War of the Austrian Succession). Players must maneuver as best they can, building depots or besieging fortresses (both being time-consuming activities) to extend their operational reach while attempting to cut enemy LoCs and thereby prevent or raise sieges. Campaigning seasons are short, leaving little time for error or reconstitution of an army depleted and demoralized in battle.
'Frederick the Great' is challenging, unusually so for a game with such low unit densities. It evokes the oft-noted tendency of 18th-century warfare to resemble Chess or Go, given the extent to which victory can be achieved best through skillful flanking and envelopment. Planning is rewarded, as is careful calculation of time/distance factors involved in advancing, constructing depots and laying sieges, relative to the time requireed for the opponent to effect counter-maneuvers. Once players get a feel for the game, FtG brings written accounts of 18th-century generalship to life for them, immersing them in the constraints and risks their historical counterparts faced. One might be tempted to play Bach in the background to complement the Viennese minuet stepping across the great ballroom of Europe. Moreover, the difficulty of calculating time and distance combine with the multi-axis strategic threats the Prussians face and high risks of battle to lend great uncertainty to the prediction of outcomes, especially among players of equal skill.
SPI in the 1970s established the industry standard for logical and well-organized rules, a standard rarely attained by today’s publishers. Even in the ‘zine games, the rushed designers/developers made the effort to articulate every factor and mechanic and cross-reference all the ‘inter-mechanic’ relationships. FtG reflects this diligence well, but not without certain errors and ambiguities. These are addressed in the unofficial errata we have submitted.
FtG provides players excellent insight into the dynamics of strategy in an era of limited war, hitting the main points well: the centrality of leadership to operations, the small, localized scale of armies, their brittleness and susceptibility to swings of morale in victory and defeat, as well as their crucial dependence on supply and weather. FtG mates well with 'We the People'/'Washington’s War', '1775: Rebellion', and SPI’s 'La Grande Armée', in a teaching block that demonstrates the changes in warfare from an age of monarchy and aristocracy to one of democratization and revolution. (And we’d be interested in other titles other commentators might recommend for our youth program.)
As noted above, however, FtG is not optimized for penetrating and expansive experimentation with alternative modes of 18th-century warfare. While it remains the best available introduction to the period for high-school wargamers and college-level non-wargamers, it is unsuited for use as a research tool.
With regard to the skills FtG promotes, it does not involve diplomacy or national-level military economics and force-building. Nor does it require the analysis of complex combined-arms force capabilities. What it does is focus decision-making on maneuver and the calculus of likely battle results, which often could bring decisive outcomes out of single events.
FtG works well as an exposure to an era today’s students find distant, dry and which many of them find obscure. The game draws players in. Its simplicity ensures accessibility, while its subtlety and unexpected turns of fortune enable students to experience the uncertainties and risks of command in the age of the soldier-king. And, when the sword of Damocles hangs on a die roll, it concentrates young minds wonderfully.
As a standard early wargame, introduced just before SPI went to four colors in their maps, FtG featured little artistry. It was nicely crafted nonetheless, with Redmond Simonson’s attractive hues and fonts. The counters unfortunately lacked the names of the leaders, compromising some of the immediacy of the historical evocation (one has to refer to the game notes for a list of these). AH fixed that lacuna (while adding counters for the campaigns of 1760-63 that the SPI version ignored) but substituted unattractive colors and fonts as well as a slightly cruder paper finish to the surface of the counters.
The SPI map is a bit crude but serviceable. The AH map seems less attractive to this reviewer, but is mounted, which some prefer (as a club manager, I prefer to laminate). Denizens of BGG and CSW will note that Luco Marcolungo has produced a magnificent DTP map and counters for the game (posted in Files), works that admirably capture the artistry in the game’s design and in the strategies required for victory. Other DTP counters are available on these sites as well.
(By the way, a PDF of this review is posted in 'Files'.)
- Last edited Fri Jan 20, 2017 2:43 pm (Total Number of Edits: 5)
- Posted Wed Jan 18, 2017 4:04 am
Well done, Timothy!!!
Freddie The Grape is one of the best simulation board wargames ever produced. Why?
--- It is fast playing, because there are a small number of units, in maybe four or five stacks, which perform all of the movement.
--- It is relatively simple.
--- It can be completed relatively quickly, in one sitting.
--- It is generally uncomplicated.
--- It has a large amount of uncertainty regarding each side's capabilities & enemy size.
--- Most importantly, it gives an "illusion of reality", in a quick, playable, fast-playing package. This is somewhat like Victory Games Civil War (also, one of the best simulation board wargames ever produced), a most interactive game (no one sitting around for long), but much longer to play.
Freddie is truly a great simulation board wargame.
- Last edited Sat Jan 21, 2017 7:26 am (Total Number of Edits: 4)
- Posted Fri Jan 20, 2017 11:16 am
I really rate this game. I must admit that when I first got the magazine game back in '75 it was a big shock to the system after the never ending panzer pushing.
I have the magazine game punched, the magazine game un-punched and the AH version. One of my favourites.
I still play this game - last time was about 2 months ago.
Here the truceless armies yet / Trample, rolled in blood and sweat; / They kill and kill and never die; / And I think that each is I. // None will part us, none undo / The knot that makes one flesh of two, /
Sick with hatred, sick with pain, / Strangling -- When shall we be slain? // When shall I be dead and rid / Of the wrong my father did? / How long, how long, till spade and hearse / Puts to sleep my mother's curse?
Still love this game - it was my first wargame that I could figure out the rules and actually play (and convince my friends to play with me!). Thanks, Frank!