It was an all-wargame Bay Area GamesDay XXXVIII for me, and Ted Raicer’s new WWI game from GMT was my major undertaking.
If Grand Illusion can be said to be “about” anything, it would be managing command points and manpower.
The sequence of play is designed around command points. The game is played in turns of alternating impulses. Each impulse you may spend command points from a limited pool to activate units and/or attack. Early on in the game, the Germans will have many more command points than the French, while things will even up later. So the French have to use their points very judiciously, making sure not to overreact or otherwise deplete their supply while the powerful German forces are still threatening. If the Germans can get a couple impulses against a paralyzed opponent, this is bad (it’s too bad the available command points are displayed openly … this would be a much more tense game if you didn’t know exactly what your opponent’s capacity to react was).
Movement and combat is then kept fairly simple. Combat involves just rolling less than your strength number with modifiers to hit, causing a step loss. All combat takes place inside the giant hexes, which function much as the areas in the area-impulse games like Breakout: Normandy, with rules about how you can move from and to hexes in various states of control or contest.
Like many of Ted Raicer’s other games (Paths of Glory, Clash of Giants), units can be full-strength or reduced. Reduced strength units are not dramatically weaker, but are much more brittle and easily eliminated. Bringing units back from reduced strength is not hard, but takes time and command points; on the other hand, bringing them back from the dead is extremely expensive. So the Germans need to push hard on the Schlieffen plan, but not so hard that they actually lose a lot of units. Likewise the French need to make an honest attempt at Plan XVII, but again, must try not to lose units in large numbers.
Probably the most serious downside is the quality of the rulebook, which is poor throughout, murky in several areas, and lacks both an index and intuitive organization. This is problematic because honestly, Grand Illusion is unlikely to be a game with a lot of replay value. So I figure I’ll realistically get maybe 5, 6 games out of it if things go well, 10 if I’m really lucky … but the first time through is basically just a learning game as you struggle with the 20 awkward pages of rules. This is not good. I don’t think Grand Illusion is a complex game, despite being a touch fiddly, and these rules needed to be a lot better, or at the minimum have an index. The poor quality of the rules is compounded by weak player aids.
As for the replayability issues … Grand Illusion I think gets what short-term replayability it has from injecting chaos into the game. The number of Command Points you get in a turn is random, and can be quite variable. Likewise, each battle is preceded by a “fog of war” die roll, and this can be rather dramatic. Now, without this randomness, I think Grand Illusion’s replay valuable would be negligible – the main scenarios railroad you into the Schlieffen Plan or Plan XVII, neither of which was a very good plan in retrospect and neither of which had a great deal of flexibility. But simply adding randomness is obviously not the most satisfactory way to do this, from a game persepctive, and I think in the medium term it will lead to more frustration than play value. In the medium-term, Grand Illusion attempts to spice things up by providing a more wide-open scenario with the ability to purchase pre-game option packs, which give more units or more flexibility, albeit at a cost in VPs. While this might work fine, I’m always a bit skeptical of the approach because I wonder if all the possible match-ups lead to an interesting game, and how accurately they could have been costed.
The bottom line: I thought Grand Illusion was decent. There are definitely issues, some of which are significant, but overall I enjoyed it and expect that if I get a chance to play more my opinion is more likely to improve than to fall. The management of command points, manpower, and the chaos of the random events was interesting and had tension. The impulse-based system keeps the game moving at a decent clip, and once you get going with the game, it plays pretty cleanly. I liked the giant hex-areas, which seemed to work at the right level of detail for this campaign. The feeling provided by the game is fairly historical, and there are tense choices. It’s a vastly better attempt to do this campaign than The Gamers’ Drive on Paris was, albeit at a significantly higher complexity level. The playing time is little long (at a guess maybe half an hour a turn for 8 or 15 turns), but not nearly as bad as some other recent Raicer games (Reds!, RTC). The rules are mess in my opinion, but once you’ve waded through and played a learning game the true level of complexity isn’t that high. I’d definitely like to play it again sometime, but it’s unlikely to become a gaming fixture.