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Saturday, 20 July 2019

Gibsons 100: L'Attaque

Gibsons is one hundred years old. Founded as H. P. Gibson & Sons Limited in 1919, it is the oldest manufacturer of board games in the United Kingdom as well as a noted manufacturer of jigsaws. In its time, it has been famous for publishing the classic strategic games of the 1970s and 1980s—Civilisation and Kingmaker—but before World War II, it was famous for publishing a quartet of early military strategy games. Known as the ‘big four’, the quartet consisted of Dover Patrol, L’Attaque, Aviation, and Tri-Tactics. Of these four, Gibsons has published L’Attaque in a brand new edition to celebrate its centenary. Originally marketed as the ‘game to rival chess’, L’Attaque is an abstract war game designed for two players, aged eight and up. The new edition remains relatively unchanged bar the inclusion of a set of the rules rewritten for clarity and a facsimile of the original 1925 rules.

Originally, a French game designed by Mademoiselle Hermance Edan who received a patent for a ‘jeu de bataille avec pièces mobiles sur damier’ (a battle game with mobile pieces on a game board) in 1909, the game was named L’Attaque by its French publisher, Au jeu retrouvé, before H. P. Gibson & Sons Limited purchased the English language rights to the game and published it in 1925. In this game two armies will face off against each other over a set of three rivers. In the original, the opponents were the English and French armies, but they have since been simply named the red and the blue armies. Played out on a nine by ten grid of squares with three rivers at its centre, the aim of the game is to defeat your opponent by either capturing their Flag or forcing him into a stalemate where he cannot move his pieces.

Both armies are identical, consisting of thirty-six pieces made up of the following in ascending order of value and rarity: Scout (2), Sapper (3), Sergeant (4), Lieutenant (5), Captain (6), Major (7), Colonel (8), Brigadier (9), and Commander In Chief (10). Each army also has a several Mines and a Flag. Although the artwork on the front of the pieces is the same for both sides—essentially an interwar period style English army—the backs of the pieces are either plain blue or plain red. A higher value piece beats a lower value piece, but several pieces have special moves. Thus, the Spy is easily defeated by every other unit, but defeats the Commander In Chief; when revealed, a Mine blows everyone up in adjacent squares, except a Sapper who defuses the Mine; and Scouts have unlimited, orthogonal movement. All other units are capable of moving just the one space, either backwards or forwards, left or right.

Set-up is simple enough. Each player takes his army and places its pieces on his side of the board, keeping all of the fronts and thus the types of pieces facing him, and the plain, coloured back facing his opponent. He is free to place his pieces where he wants, although Mines cannot be placed near the rivers. In general, each player will place his Flag at or near the back of his forces, as far away from his opponent’s forces as possible, protected by one or more Mines. On his turn, a player moves one piece. If it is in front of an opposing piece, then the player can declare an “Attack!” When this happens, both attacker and defender reveal the attacking and defending pieces, the highest ranked piece typically beating the lower ranked piece. Pieces of equal value defeat each other. The beaten piece or beaten pieces are removed from play, but a good player should endeavor to remember which pieces have defeated his own and so work to bring a piece of a higher value to defeat them. During the initial stages of the game, the two armies will be probe each other’s forces attempting to defeat or determine which pieces are which, whilst in the later stages, players will bring up their heavier units to defeat their opponents’ stronger defenders.

Some pieces are easier to identify than others, of course. The Scout is easy to identify simply by his extended movement, so a player may want to be more circumspect in revealing that until necessary. Similarly, Mines and Flags can be identified by the fact that neither moves, but that sets up the possibility of a trap. A player could keep a high value unit immobile throughout a game to lure his opponent in and so eliminate a piece attempting to locate and capture his Flag or locate a Mine. This can be effective if the attacking unit is a Sapper, which would deny a player the all important ability to defuse Mines. Once this trap is sprung, the high value piece is free to move and openly attack and defend.

With a playing time of twenty minutes, L’Attaque is surprisingly playable for a game that is over a century old. It is not a sophisticated game by modern standards, but it has given rise to many imitators, most notably Stratego, and was highly popular in its day. Nor is it a particularly deep game and the suggestion that it is a ‘game to rival chess’ is really hyperbole upon the part of the publisher.

Physically, the production values of the centenary version of L’Attaque are really quite lovely, whether that is the rich red box, the artwork on the playing pieces, and the heavy mounted board. The rules are printed on a slim, but heavy card sheet, whilst the inclusion of a facsimile of the original rules is a nice touch.

Of course, there is a wonderful sense of nostalgia to L’Attaque and this centenary edition does much to enforce that. As an artefact in itself, the game is nice celebration of the publisher’s birthday, but L’Attaque can still serve as an introduction to both early games and to wargaming, to bring new players into the hobby, and with a short playing time, to serve a diversion between longer games too. L’Attaque is a lovely piece of history—both gaming and ordinary history—which plays up to our nostalgia.

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