Time to unleash my shameless worship of the controversially priced new wargame on the block. That game is Panther Games Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge (BftB). Its a pausible real time simulation of World War II battles (fought in the Ardennes region of Belgium 1944) where you macro-manage your way through realistic scenarios over realistically mapped continuous terrain.
The game isn’t revolutionary, or pushing the frontiers of what has come before. Rather, its an evolution of a long line of titles released from Panther Games, namely the Airborne Assault prefixed games: Red Devils over Arnhem (RDoA), Highway to the Reich (HttR), and Conquest of the Aegean (CotA). BftB is the next refinement of the engine has been defined with the Command Ops moniker to reflect the shift away from Airborne operations and the focus more on larger scale ground engagements.
I mention the controversy surrounding the pricing, because Panther Games decided to set a high price tag for the game ultimately costing £64 including UK VAT. US customers are looking at something like $80, which is an extra $20 on top of what they are charging for the CotA iteration of the engine. There were a lot of irate forum posts on Wargamer.com, QuartertoThree and Matrix Games declaring that many usually loyal wargamers have been out priced, myself included (and I’m no *real* wargamer – it has to be said). Even Rock, Paper, Shotgun had a piece on the pricing. This storm in a “mess can” ultimately shakes up the wargaming audience who the game is intended for, and I myself had to agree that the high price point for the game wouldn’t help its sales in the short term. Anyway, lots of chin-stroking, marketing analysis and grumbling personal attacks later, I can say that for me personally that the game IS worth the price tag. Even if I think the price tag will put a lot of prospective customers off. A real shame, because the game engine itself is unique to the wargaming community, and I feel it is accessible and clever enough to go more mainstream.
So, I’d bought CotA a week or so before BftB was released. I was just beginning to appreciate the game’s subtleties and then the next generation of the engine turns up, with a more conventional and appealing setting of “the Bulge”. Hmmm. Then the price sticker shock had me flinching and knee-jerking my thoughts on the forums. I vowed to hold off buying BtfB for the time being, and delve deeper into CotA. But, the more I delved into the previous game (plus the positive comments from others on the forums), the more I knew I would have to stump up the extra dosh to get my sticky mitts on the cutting edge of Panther Games’ technology.
Having paid the price of admission, I was able to enjoy the quite detailed and lengthy tutorial videos that not only explain the interface and basic mechanics of the game, but also coaches you through the strategic decision making process throughout a battle. Pure GOLD. To have the thought process of the developer exposed so clearly, running through threat assessment and crafting plans and counter plans on how to interpret a given situation is a God send. Suddenly the secrets locked up in this tightly integrated User Interface were unveiled, secrets that would have needed plenty of study at the hands of a PDF manual to unlock.
The real beauty of the game is that you can take part in the decision process at the level that best suits your playstyle and the AI will take care of the rest. I think the official video tutorial line is that you “can rely on the AI to do a reasonable job”. So, you pause time, you assess the tactical situation and what you have at your disposal, then you set up a series of orders at locations on the map. You try to anticipate what the enemy AI might do, so you can plan ahead and have a counter ready to trigger at a moment’s notice. This “operational view” of the battle means you don’t have to worry about every single unit and the minutiae of their actions, you can sweep with broad strokes across at battalion level and do what “real commanders do”, namely macro-manage, leaving the small details to your AI sub-ordinates.
You can play the game quite deeply (as in the tutorials) with the full military decision loop and wealth of information behind the simple counter representations. But you can also play the game more lightly, and just move your forces into place, and attempt to react to whats happening around you. It has scope to deliver play for the deep info hungry “grognards” as well as your average action RTS player. Since the game is a simulation, there’s a wealth of supporting and background information lurking beneath each unit, down to what guns, ammo and fuel stocks the unit has. If you want to soak up this level of detail its all readily available for the data miner.
The graphics are functional. The maps you play on have real significance to any battle, with woods slowing mechanised troops and covering infantry movements, with rivers becoming real barriers and bridges becoming real choke points. Even contour lines show you that climbing that ridge is going to take longer with your infantrymen. The counters have a lot of information on them, and you can cycle through the dynamic stuff very easily by hitting the function keys. Press a key to see what tasks the unit are performing, or another for an assessment for Combat strength, Cohesion, Morale etc. You can choose between military NATO symbols or iconic representations. I haven’t quite got to grips with NATO symbols, so I feel closer to the action when I see pictures of little men, artillery guns or tanks and trucks.
The actual combat animation is minimal, a few puffs of smoke for artillery, and then coloured lines indicating fire both incoming and outgoing. The sounds accompanying the action are also minimal, but still satisfying. I think the zoom level indicates that this isn’t a game where you’ll be marvelling at the animated graphical confrontations. Play is focused at the tactical level or zoomed out on the higher operational level, to assess multiple threats and conflicts that jeopardise your prime objectives. The action is more fluid and watchable than a turn based wargame, because the manoeuvres take place in real time (or accelerated time). Your counters shift about relative to their orders and each other in quite a synchronised ballet. Watching a line of Tanks sweep across a plain towards a town objective is still a sight to behold. Knowing those small explosive bursts of arty are softening up the enemy as your tanks trundle forward is very reassuring, even if the bursts are not visually stimulating themselves. I would even go as far as to say the game allows your imagination to pick up the slack in the visual department, and you imagine the ground level action taking place, overseeing it as it plays out from a schematic birds eye view.
As I sat fiddling with my forces in the tutorial scenario, taking screenshots for this article, the game ended and to my shame threw up another Draw. Ho Hum – back to the “draw”ing board.
Assessing the lie of the land after the reckoning, you can see I was close to taking the final objective that next time if I can pick up the pace and not spend so much time getting bogged down in heavy conflict around the Breitfield Crossroads, I should stand a chance of a Victory.
My advancing mechanised unit had just completed an attack order (highlighted with a yellow square) and you can see the crosses (dead or surrendered enemy units) littering the area around the road. I was about to start bombardment of St. Vith to support their push forward advance into the final objective. My attention was obviously caught up in the encirclement at the Crossroads and I simply just ran out of time. Bah!
The game is scored by achieving Objectives within a time frame, as you can see from above, I’d captured and held the Bridge, the settlement Lommersweiler and the crossroads (indicated in green), but didn’t manage to take St. Vith before Day 5, 0600 hours. In order to take an objective you need to overpower the enemy by a factor of 10:1 or eliminate them from the objective area (a specific distance based ring around the main objective site). You have the freedom to attempt the objectives in any order you choose, and once completed the objective point totals are compared. A decisive victory is declared if you have 50+ points over the enemy’s total. A state which has currently eluded me.
So, from out of the kerfuffle surrounding the pricing structure, to the realisation that there is no other wargaming experience like this at the moment, it was actually my enthusiasm for what I glimpsed in CotA that pushed me over the price barrier to buy into the next generation of Panther Games unique wargame experience. BtfB is a step forward for wargaming in general. And I hope we can see the concepts presented by Panther Games adopted by other companies to cover other eras of conflict (please someone/anyone make a US Civil War game using a similar engine!). I wish BftB could become more affordable and therefore accessible to many more gamers, because I see no more complexity here than a game such as AI War: Fleet Command, and that game has had enormous success. Interestingly enough they both have rather special AI routines. I’d like to see BftB have the same level of success, but sadly I fear it will become a luxurious expense for only the most dedicated wargamers – which is a real shame.