Ultimate General: Civil War: A Retrospective

Not many people know this, but Ultimate General: Civil War was the first game I wrote about back when I started as a freelancer. The piece was, admittedly, not my finest work, nor was it published, as I had submitted it as part of my initial pitch. Nevertheless, I have an immense fondness for the game as both the stepping stone that allowed me to be here on this blog and podcast, as well as for the fact that, in my opinion, the game just rules.

The Ultimate General series has roots back in the Total War games, part of the development team being Nick Thomadis, otherwise known as good ol’ Darth of the DarthMod mod series, an excellent series of enhancements to the mainline Total War games up to Shogun 2. These enhancements typically involved improving the AI, making the battles more realistic by changing unit sizes and stats, as well as adjusting the campaign AI, economy, and buildings. These were very popular mods, and the team took that experience into Ultimate General: Gettysburg, what was essentially a spiritual successor to the earlier Sid Meier’s Antietam and Gettysburg games.

General Weed in UG: Gettysburg blazing some rebs (look at the kill count I’m proud of this one).

And it was great! The AI reacted in largely intelligent ways, and had scaling difficulties and personalities you could set it to (a feature I wish more games would copy), and had fewer but more distinct unit types than its forebears, painting arrows for them to march along the battlefield. These units controlled much like the units in Total War, but in lieu of a bunch of abilities they can activate, turning battles into an APM mess (I still love you Total War), battles are much more about proper planning and placement of troops. Troops that are camped in the woods take less damage from incoming volleys, wheat fields hide units until they can see the whites of the enemies’ eyes, and river crossings slow units down and make them far more susceptible to incoming fire.

Gettysburg was a solid, if small, experience, allowing the player to go through multiple scenarios of the three day battle, with alternating paths based on how well the player fought. This formed a sort of prototype for Civil War, which said “what if we give the whole war the Gettysburg experience?” The result is an imperfect game, but its quirks make it all the more charming and have kept me returning to it over the past few years.

So, what changed from Gettysburg, other than the fact that the whole game doesn’t take place over one battle? Well for starters, individual units and officers are far more important, as Civil War features a persistent campaign. Those soldiers you start the game with improve over time with experience, becoming better sharpshooters, better melee fighters, or having better morale as they’re exposed to combat. Similarly, your officers are promoted as they survive engagements, and higher ranking officers are considered to be better at commanding their troops, leading to buffs from officers who manage to dodge bullets. This leads to a surprisingly intimate relationship with your army over time, as you want to keep those troops and officers who were with you from the beginning alive, not just for the sake of keeping your army in fighting shape, but because they’ve been with you since 1st Bull Run, and now the man who was a Captain of skirmishers lays dead at the head of his division in Gettysburg. It’s built to tell stories by telling you the names of these officers.

In between the real-time engagements, you’re return to your army’s camp, where you can bring in new recruits, create new units, and equip your men with new manners of weaponry, such as rifled muskets, 20lb cannon, or even repeaters toward the end of the campaign. Juggling what little resources you have to replace losses and upgrade your troops with better equipment is tough, and you’ll be forced to play favorites just by the nature of the game, as you want your best units (the ones that started out under your avatar’s command, likely) to have the best guns so they can kick the most ass, leaving the new corps you form with old 1842 muskets. Or at least, that’s one way to play it.

My III Corps with now-seasoned troops, but relatively poor equipment.

Here however, I must mention the faults of Civil War, beginning with the most egregious and blatant sin: it’s too damn linear. I’m not just saying that because 95% of all strategic wargames ever are American Civil War games and yes we know the whole story by now, but the campaign is structured into a series of set scenarios, which is and was disappointing. You’re basically role-playing as either the Army of the Potomac or the Army of Northern Virginia, based on which side you choose. If you, as the Army of the Potomac, decimate the rebels at Antietam, that should be it! It should be game over! But the campaign is structured to take you through a series of levels. I’m not adverse to linear design in strategy games, as I am fond of this game, as well as of Unity of Command 2 and Panzer Corps 2… but at this level, more freedom of choice would be welcome. I should get to decide on better strategies as the leader of 5 corps running around, rather than McClellan’s legendarily shitty “wait and see” approach.

The linearity is felt in missions as well. The AI adapts pretty well at all difficulty levels, but the main battle of the campaign that you can fight are scripted. These can offer memorable experiences, but if you know exactly where and when scripted enemy forces are going to appear from your last failed attempt at a campaign, they don’t stand much of a chance against you. Similarly, if you reach one of the time milestones in battle and you’re not where the game expects you to be, things can get… weird. Take my most recent Union campaign, for example. At the 2nd Battle of Bull Run, I managed to break through Confederate lines and capture their headquarters on the first day of battle, after initial skirmishing. However, the game did not grant me a victory and let the battle end when the clock ran out. Instead, we were brought to day 2 of the battle, with the Confederates now reformed and reinforced in the woods around the point I had captured. It was irritating, to say the least, that my success had been punished in that manner. 

I enjoy beating up on the rebels regardless of the game’s quirks.

That being said, despite the fact that playing the game can feel repetitive, especially when new players will get their faces stomped in by the AI, the core gameplay is fun. The combat feels nice, directing troops feels natural, building your army can be very zen-like, managing the balances between pushing for goals in battle or just keeping your boys alive… there’s an appeal to that. Other persistent games feel very satisfying to play, but I don’t think they get the human element down as well as Ultimate General: Civil War does. Maybe I’m just a softie, but in a game where you can fight for the freedom of fellow men (or to own them, I guess), it’s nice to be as connected with your men as you are here.

-Jack Trumbull

How to Break WWI with Making History: The First World War

I thought I’d share some of the fun Jack and I are having playing through Making History: The First World War, a grand strategy game from Factus Games. There’s a lot to like in this fun little turn based simulation, but it is an indie title and that means that some bugs and strange design choices can slip through the cracks. Luckily for all of us, exploiting those choices can be just as fun as playing the game properly.

What Kind of Game is Making History: The First World War?

This is a grand strategy wargame in the same vein as the big paradox titles like Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis IV. Players can take control of a single nation across the world starting in 1912, 1914, or 1917 and lead them through the global political and military struggles surrounding the First World War.

Like Paradox games, the open nature of grand strategy means that things might not happen as they did historically, though scripted events here lend a significant hand in steering the great powers in the right direction. But sometimes the fun in these massive simulations is experiencing just how far things can fly off the rails of history.

Systems and Subsystems!

There are a lot of interlocking systems at work in Making History, and that’s generally a good thing. Players are going to have to take care to exploit their resources, build regional and city infrastructure, conduct research, train soldiers, and deal with international trade and diplomacy. The tragic thing is that there is very little in terms of documentation available for Making History: The First World War. When we started playing the game, we had no idea what we were doing. The manual is unfinished, and the included tutorial simply walks players through the UI.

This meant that we had a rough time when we started our game as the Austro-Hungarian Empire. managing the empire was difficult and some test battles against Serbia (Reloading after we saw how the mechanics worked) were drawn out affairs, hard fought and hard won.

That is, until I discovered the manual for the previous game in the series: Making History: the Great War.

Breaking Combat Over Our Knees

So here’s the play. In Making History artillery operates in a strange fashion. According to the manual, when artillery fires into a province, it has a 50% chance to hit friendly troops in that province and 50% chance to hit enemy troops. Each hit unit then rolls to save against that hit based on their defense and the defense of the terrain. But, and it’s a big but, the chance to hit friendly units can be reduced by 1% for every observation balloon stacked with the artillery, and by a further 1% for every unopposed friendly airplane flying over the target region.

So, if one were, to say, stack 50 observation balloons with a stack of artillery. And if, we also say, that that stack of artillery contains every single gun in the empire’s army, what happens?

Armies disappear in a blinding flash of righteous howitzer justice, that’s what.

There are no stacking penalties or limits in Making History. Attacking a province with engineer units reduces an enemy’s fortification defense. Attacking a province with 20 engineer units that is being shelled by the grand battery from hell ha terrifying results. Our war of aggression against the Balkan League resulted in a province falling every turn.

War Never Changes

Now, we’re embroiled in a three front war against the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and Germany. We are holding our own across all three fronts and proceeding to vaporizing the Italian Army with the Grandest Battery in existence.

Why don’t you try yourself?

Check out Making History: The First World War here. We don’t get anything if you click this link, so click away!

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Back With a Proper Schedule!

Hey everyone. You may have noticed a drop in the frequency of reviews and articles across the Let’s Talk About Wargames blog over the past few weeks, and I want to apologize for that. The past few weeks have been a bit of a mess with work and thesis writing taking up a lot more time than I had budgeted for.

Thankfully, the storm seems to have calmed somewhat and to prevent something like that happening again, LTAW’s blog posts will be coming at a fixed interval of Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings (EST). We’ve got some great content planned including reviews of the latest from Slitherine/Matrix, a continuation of my personal attempt to review and decide whether or not to keep games in my board wargame collection, and some new pieces like unboxings, after action reports, and classic wargame analyses.

The strict schedule will help maintain some semblance of regularity in publications. Long time readers will remember some weeks with a new post a day, and others with only one or two. We’re hoping to make the blog a good spot for regular stops in one’s online weekly wargaming journey.

Come join us if you like!

Also want to take this time to again highlight the other things we do:

We run a monthly podcast discussing wargaming, games about war, and the community.

We run a twitch/youtube channel where we let’splay some wargames.

We have a discord for community discussions and hanging out.

We have a patreon that we’re hoping will allow for the purchase of more wargames to discuss/review/let’splay.

Mystery Teaser From Relic’s Twitch

Well, that’s something. Relic, the makers of Company of Heroes, Dawn of War, and the new Age of Empires game, are teasing something on their Twitch stream. What we see is a map of Italy with the occasional overlay of 40s war propaganda films, so it’s safe to say that this is an expansion for Dawn of War 3, best game ever this is related to Company of Heroes somehow, though whether this is a new game entirely or a DLC a whole 8 years after release isn’t certain.

Here’s what we’re seeing.

If you want to sit in on the stream with us and find out what the reveal’s about, you can get to it here: https://www.twitch.tv/relicentertainment.

-Jack Trumbull

Valor & Victory Digital Review

As mentioned before, Valor & Victory is my current favourite squad level board wargame. It’s basically Squad Leader’s laid back and easy going little brother, and I’m finding myself more and more drawn to that kind of game when it comes to an afternoon of wargaming with friends. Maybe it’s the pandemic? Who knows?

In Valor & Victory, there are only a handful of rules to hammer down before diving in, but the system is robust enough to capture the fire and movement feel of WWII squad level tactics: Machine guns can wreak havoc and create fire lanes, pinning is essential on the assault, tanks can provide amazing support but can also fall victim to close infantry attack and AT guns. It’s not the most detailed game, and not the most accurate simulation, but it manages to convey what it should in games that take around 45 minutes for the experienced player. So, you know my feelings going in. That said, I’m not 100% sold on the digital version.

Valor & Victory Basics

Valor & Victory is a tactical game in which both players control leaders, squads, teams, AT Guns, and vehicles from the US, UK, and Germany fighting over geomorphic hexagonal boards representing Northern France. Each nation has a few types of squads at their disposal. The US for example has infantry, Rangers, and Airborne, each with slightly different profiles. Squads and teams can be equipped with heavy weapons and explosives that further specialize units.

Each scenario has one of three objectives: Capture key hexes, eliminate enemy units, or exit units from the board at certain spaces. The variety is there and its nice to see how far the game can take these victory conditions. But keep them in mind, they’ll become important to my frustrations with Valor & Victory.

On a given turn, one side performs a suite of actions before the opponent does the same. The command phase allows for rallying, joining and breaking down of squads, and the transfer of equipment. The Fire phase is for firing, and precludes later movement. Then movement, which can be interrupted by enemy reaction fire. Then enemy defensive fire, in which units that didn’t react fire can shoot. Then there is a final assault-move phase in which every friendly unit can move one hex. If this brings them into an occupied hex, an assault occurs.

Whether or not fire hits comes down to the roll of two dice. The total firepower of all the selected units in a hex is calculated, the dice are rolled, and the result is cross referenced to see how many casualties are taken. One casualty can be converted into a pin, but the rest need to be taken as losses.

Overall its a great system, especially on the tabletop. The simple calculation works to keep the game flowing, and there is just enough granularity to make interesting tactical choices the name of the game. On the PC though, the simplicity hurts the overall package, highlighting some of Valor & Victory’s biggest problems.

Valor & Victory Digital is…Good…If You All Make it Good.

There is a lot to like about the system, and the digital adaptation has promise, but the issue is that it depends entirely on how the community reacts to the launch, and how committed they are to mutliplayer and to scenario creation.

Here’s Valor & Victory’s goods:

The game is authentic. If you want a digital, multiplayer version of Valor & Victory that lets you play with friends across the country. You’re in luck. It does that and does it perfectly. The included scenarios are fun with friends and overarching system does what the V&V does, but it does automate some things like casualty application and defensive fire that some might want control over.

The scenario editor is great. Really, it’s fast, intuitive, and you’ll be cranking out modified ASL scenarios in no time. If the community steps up we could have a treasure trove of interesting scenarios in no time. Editors can set victory conditions, add history, deploy units and equipment, and choose from all of the included map boards in a variety of layouts.

Here are the not goods:

The AI is not great. In multiple games that I played, they barely moved. Or when they moved they did so haphazardly, dancing back and forth between positions. When the AI is tasked with taking objectives, they very rarely make decisive efforts to cross open ground, preferring to stand in cover and fire. Reasonable move to make, I suppose, but not when doing so will lose you the game. The AI is also a little wonky with its target selection. You can very easily bait anti-tank weapons to fire at infantry if they’re closer/more exposed than tanks.

The AI is better at defense, when the game becomes an exercise is how best to minimize casualties as you push towards objectives. The AI lacks a good deal of the reactive ability of a human opponent, and while I get it, AI is difficult, I was still saddened to see them put up such light resistance.

Valorous, Not Quite a Victory

The core is good! Really! If you’re going to play with friends, and if you’re going to engage with the scenario creator, Valor & Victory is great. If you’re looking for a single player board game experience, its not stellar. There is potential for updates, I believe, but I’m very optimistic to see what fans of the game will do with the resources available to them when they get their hands on it.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Valor & Victory has a solid foundation built upon a great boardgame, and the included multiplayer and scenario editor are worth checking out. The AI is not great, which limits single player enjoyment.

Here’s the link to the game, We make nothing if you click on this.

New Unit Pack For Warhammer 40k: Gladius – Relics of War

Well, isn’t this something special! Warhammer 40k: Gladius – Relics of War is adding new units to the 40k 4x game via a “Specialist Pack,” adding… specialists. Each faction gets a unit from this, and they all do wildly different things, from functioning as support units to being straight-up ‘eavy ‘itters, boyz. Here’s what Developer Proxy Studios has to say about the new units:

Astra Militarum – Ratlings
Sniper infantry unit that can move after shooting.
Though less resilient than their human comrades, Ratlings are naturally excellent shots. It is said that Ratling marksmen can take the head off a heretic from over a kilometre away. Coupled with their knack for staying out of harm’s way, this makes Ratlings formidable snipers who can take a surprising toll upon superior enemy forces.

Chaos Space Marines – Dark Disciples
Infantry unit that increases the defenses of Chaos units.
Dark Disciples carry profane accoutrements of their masters’ worship and parrot the fell words spoken in his baleful prayers. Many such disciples have been augmented to better serve in their role–their skin stretched out and inked with grim litanies, or their mouths fitted with Daemon-touched vox-grilles to project their voices into the warp. Amidst the din of combat they join their Dark Apostle’s chants, crying out for the Chaos Gods to manifest their blessings.

Craftworld Aeldari – Warlock
Psyker infantry unit that can teleport around the battlefield and cleanse their foes.
When the Warlocks of the craftworlds join their minds, the fate of worlds can hinge upon their actions. As true sons of Khaine, these militant psykers will plunge into combat at the slightest provocation. Witchblades and singing spears are swung in graceful arcs, leaving coruscating webs of energy behind them as the Conclave carves through the ranks of their adversaries. They do so with joy in their souls, for of all the seers of the Eldar hosts, the Warlocks are the fiercest and most violent of all.

Necrons – Canoptek Wraiths
Extremely mobile infantry unit that passes through terrain and enemies with equal ease.
Canoptek Wraiths flit across the battlefield like the spectres of the restless dead. Using their dimensional destabilisation matrices, these strange constructs are able to phase in and out of reality at will. This unique technology means that, though no more than mindless drones, Canoptek Wraiths have manifold uses in war. Fortifications are no obstacle to a Wraith, and they are able to pass more or less undetected even through the midst of the foe, making them exceptional spies and assassins both. Furthermore, Canoptek Wraiths make effective terror- troops, appearing as if from nowhere to strike at vital targets in the enemy’s midst. Here, swirling through the panicked gunfire of the foe, the Wraiths flicker rapidly in and out of phase with reality, shots and blades passing harmlessly through their indistinct forms.

Orks – Kill Bursta
Super-heavy vehicle with a big kannon and transport assault capacity.
Kill tanks are an Ork heavy tank design based around the twin Ork loves of speed and extreme violence. The Kill Bursta’s main gun is an immense, wide-bore siege mortar mounted in the centre of its forward hull, much in the manner of a Space Marine Vindicator, only much, much larger! The huge rocket-boosted ordnance launched by the bursta gun, while appallingly short ranged, is powerful enough to blast a hardened bunker or defensive bastion to smithereens, and has been observed in direct fire shattering Imperial super-heavy tanks in a single shot, based as much on luck as good judgement by its gunners.

Space Marines – Devastator Centurion
Very bulky infantry unit with massive armaments.
Devastator Centurions pound their enemies with a remorseless, relentless rain of fire. Bloody havoc is wrought upon anything that falls within the Centurions’ targeting reticules. The pilots’ marksmanship is augmented by the grim machine spirits of their warsuits, decimator protocols guiding servo-assisted recoil absorption and oracular auto-targeting to ensure the Centurions maintain a punishing rate of fire. Return fire is a futile gesture, akin to flinging stones at a fortress, for should the enemy launch an assault in an attempt to silence the Devastator Centurions’ guns they must contend with the suits’ massive strength and the pilots’ skill at arms.

T’au – Krootox Rider
Sneaky infantry unit with both ranged and close combat capabilities.
Surging from the undergrowth with their rifles blazing, the warriors of the Kroot Carnivore squads fall upon their victims with feral shrieks. In their midst lumber massive Krootoxes, gunners perched upon their backs as they direct sawing bursts of heavy fire into the foe.

Tyranids – Venomthrope
Infantry unit with poisonous attacks and a protective spore cloud.
The Venomthrope serves as a living chemical weapon dispenser for the swarms of the Tyranid hive fleets. Its whip-like tentacles drip with a multitude of alien poisons. Indeed, so potent are these toxins that it is believed that a Venomthrope’s very touch means certain death.

It’s always nice to see games still get some love from devs several years after launch. I personally haven’t played Gladius, but it is in Joe’s words, “a fun game,” and I trust his judgment. You can find the unit pack here, and the base game on Steam here.

-Jack Trumbull

Field of Glory 2: Medieval: Reconquista Review

The 11th Century to the 13th Century. A very tumultuous time in the Iberian peninsula and North Africa, as Christians and Muslims fight each other tooth and nail for the lands that now make up Spain and Portugal. Elsewhere, the Byzantine Empire expands its influence to Italy, battling the Papal States and other, smaller kingdoms in a bid to “reconquer” what had been Roman land, and that the Byzantines view as their own. Simultaneously, Norman adventurers, harkening upon their Viking heritage, arrive in Italy, looking to make fortunes and claim titles for themselves. 

Field of Glory 2 is, as we’ve talked about before, an excellent turn-based wargame, pitting mid-medieval era units against each other in big bloody battles that seem to always turn into hellish melees. While this is not always the case for the period, it’s very fun to play! And delightfully, Reconquista gives us more to play with in the period. Mentioned above are the hotspots featured in the DLC, but what’s particularly exciting (other than the fact that I get to play as the Byzantine army, who are incredibly cool in the period) is that there are a whole 20 new nations and 45 new army lists in this DLC. Holy crap, Slitherine!

You can find the full list of army lists on the Steam page, but there are several army lists here that have may differences from their northwestern European counterparts. For starters, yes, heavy cavalry is still king, but you see more variances on it than you would up north. Several of the Arab tribes have access to camelry (yes that is the real word) units, which are excellent anti-cavalry units, because as we all know, horses are terrified of camels. As a fun effect, the camels can also disorder friendly cavalry units as well, so any camelry heavy armies should make sure to keep their dromedaries and their horses a healthy distance from each other.

The Arab armies also typically have access to massed archer units, which can rain down much larger quantities of arrows than their Christian counterparts. Curiously, some of the Arab spearmen units had a description saying “mix of spearmen and archers” but the unit was 100% spearmen with no ranged element. I’m not sure whether this is intentional, to represent the cooperative nature of the Arab archer elements in the army, or if it was an oversight. A bit disappointing, as the Byzantines do have infantry units with ranged elements built in. You can quickly see why my army of choice was so feared in the period, with units typically able to whittle down their opponents a fair amount before any engagement even occurs, though the fact that half the unit has the “bow-capability” tag means that they aren’t the best in prolonged engagements.

I could continue to talk about the Byzantine army list for the rest of this review, but I would be doing the DLC a disservice if I didn’t bring up the new campaigns and battles. There are 4 new campaigns and 8 new battles in the Reconquista DLC, seeing action in Iberia and Italy, with loads of different combatants. The campaigns follow the careers of El Cid (Spanish for “The Cid”), Frederick II Hohenstaufen (the Holy Romans loved invading Italy), Muhammad II of Granada (founder of the last Muslim state in Spain), and the Norman de Hauteville clan (the aforementioned Norman adventurers). I haven’t played through each campaign yet, but there is a lot of variety with what scenarios you encounter and the maps you see.

I still have a particular fondness for the dynamic campaign tool of FOG2M, as it enables the player to follow a narrative and make decisions in between battles, and it continues as my favorite piece of Reconquista. As far as i can tell, Reconquista did nothing to change it other than to add some biomes and the army lists from the DLC, but being able to set up a 9 battle campaign where you take your Byzantine army against Andalusians and fight off Lombard reinforcements from seizing a fort you took on the previous campaign step is some marvelous gameplay. Especially nice is the fact that the new army lists also play nice with the time warp lists, so you can have your 550 BC Achaemenid Persians fight your 1200 AD Byzantines for the glory of Asia Minor.

So, should you get this DLC? Definitely. Reconquista adds a lot to the base game of Field of Glory 2 Medieval. None of the base components of the game are changed, but that’s perfectly fine; if it ain’t broke, etc. $20 for an expansion can seem a bit steep, but with the sheer amount of content in the DLC, you will definitely find something in here that tickles your fancy if you’re a fan of the base game. Do yourself a favor and grab this.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

-Jack Trumbull

Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad

I’ve been putting off this review for a long time. The fact of the matter is that this reviewer gets no pleasure from writing poor reviews. All the more so when it’s a game I really should have liked. A bit like Operation Blue itself, somewhere along the operation Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad loses its way.

I remember playing the original Cauldrons of War “concept”. It was barely even a tech demo. You set the stance of your various fronts, clicked next turn and somehow it turned into one of the most convincing portrayals of the Eastern Front I’d played. 

Fast forward, past Cauldrons of War: Barbarossa, and we are presented with Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad. It really should be a match made in heaven. The Red Army is no longer the Stumbling Colossus of 1941 and cracks are beginning to show in the Wehrmacht. Over 1942 perhaps one of the greatest military dramas of all time will play out across the Eastern Front. Glimmers of that drama shine through in Stalingrad’s portrayal of the fighting, that they remain only glimmers.

For the uninitiated, Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad portrays the Eastern Front at the strategic level with a scope equivalent to Gary Grigsby’s: War in the East. The player commands all frontline forces and directs the operations of Army Groups, smaller operational groups and fronts. Eschewing hex grids, Cauldrons of War focusses upon the big picture, creating an Eastern Front made up of various regions that change as the frontlines ebb and flow. Units are assigned to those regions answering to the higher command in charge of that area. Each HQ, whether it be an Army Group or front, has a limited amount of command points that it uses to direct the units below it. This limitation means that players must be very careful in choosing what units will do what.

These fundamentals are a strong base for Cauldrons of War. The limited command points lead to some very careful thinking on the player’s part. Furthermore, it also keeps the game moving. Too often information overload make these games very difficult to learn. The limited ability of the player to give orders in Cauldrons however means that the game moves quickly and focusses the decision-making to a few crucial orders rather than busywork.

So far, so good, unfortunately Cauldrons of War’s lightning advance through the fundamentals begins to falter as it heads deeper into the actual gameplay. For a start, the game’s writing does it no favours. It might seem like a small thing, but in such an abstract game writing is a critical part of how one becomes immersed in the unfolding story. The quite crude English only serves to remind you that you’re playing a game, rather than the gaming equivalent of a serious but approachable history book. It’s altogether a shame.

Then there’s the gameplay itself. The tutorial is adequate – at best – and if you miss or forget something the in-game wiki is quite unfit for purpose. Time and again I would try to find out what a “Grand Offensive” or a “Breakthrough” was. To me it seemed like another kind of attack.  All I seemed to do however was take away a command point for no gain. Eventually, I worked out it represents the overarching plan that your units will follow. It makes sense; but mixed up with all the other options – many of which also were along the lines of “attack” – it simply became annoying.

Fighting the interface is something of a theme with Cauldrons. Its issues run deeper than just game knowledge. With how limited command points are and how your units are assigned to different regions, making your decisions straightforward and transparent is vital. Cauldrons fails here, with the regions your units are assigned to difficult to identify through the interface. Your only option is to continuously click between the map and the HQ you are giving orders to make sure your units are going where they supposed to. For the Germans, who have less HQs than the Soviets, this is a particular problem, with Army Group South having up to a dozen regions under its direction. I want to fight the fascists/commies, not the interface.

The final weakness of Cauldrons however is one of perspective. When playing Fall Blau from either side, whose role am I playing? Am I equivalent to the Stavka or the OKW or one of the dictators themselves? Time and again I found myself asking these questions as one of the many pre-scripted decisions and events appeared at the beginning of a turn. It made little sense, with next to no resources available to the Stalingrad Front to commence its attack, for Zhukov should turn up with a wagonload of command points and a single extra army to begin operations. It’s true that many, often futile, attacks were launched on the flanks of the 6th Army’s push toward Stalingrad during the period – but it strikes me that that should be the player’s decision to cock up, rather than a scripted event. The way HQ command points are handled are equally irritating. I, as commander of all forces on the Eastern Front, able to launch night attacks on a whim, have no ability to influence what resources a HQ has available to it. Likewise, not all HQ actions are created equal. Stalingrad Front, whose fellow fronts are ordering entire armies to make massive assaults outside Moscow, will instead use all its resources for the week ferrying two divisions across the Volga. It would not be unreasonable for the Volga flotilla to use up all the week’s resources pushing two divisions across the Volga – but an entire front?

Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad is a fine achievement and, in many areas, plausibly and skilfully abstracts the enormous complexity of the Eastern Front. It is clear that the developer has done his homework and I especially enjoyed reading his explanations for many of the design decisions within the game. Many aspects work well and it was a nail-biting pleasure to see my panzers reach the Caspian Sea, even as their flanks collapsed around them. Unfortunately, abstraction is a double-edged sword. Time and again I felt I wasn’t fighting the enemy so much as the game. It is a problem Cauldrons of War: Stalingrad does not recover from.

-Charles Ellis

What Can We Learn From Combat Mission: Black Sea?

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest column by friend of the podcast, Savage, the man behind the War Takes twitter.)

Any casual student of military wargaming will know that the use of commercial wargames – whether off-the-shelf or specially modified – by militaries across the globe is nothing new. The United States and its allies use a variety of computer games with varying focuses and levels of detail for the purposes of training, professional military education, or even experimentation. Even then, not many games make the cut to be utilized by the military, and those that do usually end up being modified in some shape or form to meet the military’s specific requirements.

However, if there was ever a game that seemed to be ready for the military’s purposes right out of the box, with little or no tweaking required, it would be Combat Mission: Black Sea by Battlefront.com. The most modern entry – in terms of setting – in the Combat Mission series, CMBS revolves around an escalation in the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian conflict that leads to full-scale open war and the intervention of the United States – a scenario that is timely given the recent escalation in tensions between Russia and Ukraine that lead to a war scare.

I’ve played my fair share of wargames over the years – though I’m still a dilletante compared to many experts I know, and I certainly can’t say I’m any good at all of them. CMBS is one of those games that feels like it was made for the military first and then released to the public, not the other way around. I admittedly have never served a day in uniform, my role in national security being purely as a civilian. But CMBS certainly feels hard enough to be the real thing based on how badly I botched my first mission after completing the game’s basic training mode.

But the difficulty isn’t what makes CMBS realistic. Realistic isn’t even the right term to use. No computer wargame is ever going to be able to 100% realistically simulate the conditions of combat – nothing can match that. But what CMBS does do is simulate the conditions of combat in a way that feels believable to the player. It gets across the key elements of modern combined-arms warfare at the low-tactical level that is still very useful for training leaders or even for experimenting to contribute towards developing new approaches, methods, and capabilities.

What makes CMBS believable? I could write you a book rather than an article on that topic alone, but I can offer you a list of some highlights. For one, it demonstrates how fragile humans can be in high-intensity combat. So many video games – even some of the more serious wargames – tend to allow your soldiers to soak up a fair amount of punishment before their effectiveness suffers – let alone they die. In CMBS, it doesn’t take a lot for your soldiers to get stressed and lose cohesion or retreat. Aside from mental limits, your soldiers are just flesh and therefore are “squishier” than in many games. If you try to charge an infantry squad across open ground to attach a prepared defensive position, chances are they’ll not make it very far before they’re cut to ribbons – especially if the enemy has heavy weapons or vehicles their disposal.

That’s another factor that demonstrates CMBS usefulness is the way it treats heavier duty weapons. It treats them as the key to infantry combat that they are. Most of the time, it won’t be an infantryman’s personal weapon that will be dealing the most damage to the enemy; it’ll be heavy weapons like machine guns, automatic grenade launchers, missile launchers, and vehicle-based weapons like autocannons and tank canons. While many games certainly represent this as well, they still often tend to tone back the sheer destructive power of the heavy weapons in the name of balance and fairness. CMBS does no such thing, letting them reach their full destructive potential in how they can reduce things – both living and inanimate – to ruins in short order.

This is not to say that infantry is useless in CMBS, however. Far from it. And this is another way in which CMBS shows its utility as a military tool, in that it shows how important it is to use infantry in conjunction with heavy vehicles and weapons – despite being “squishy.” I found this out the hard way in the middle of a mission when I got too cocky after destroying a Russian tank platoon and pushed my own tank platoon out a little too far. What I got for my daring maneuver was the loss of one of my tanks to a guided anti-tank missile launched from a nearby house – something I would have been able to spot and either destroy or suppress if I had thought to move up one of my infantry squads through the houses parallel to my tanks as they advanced. Heavy weapons may be effective, but they are not invincible nor are they all seeing. CMBS drives home the importance of true combined arms warfare, making use of infantry, armor, and off-map artillery and air support to destroy your enemy. Favor one too much and neglect all the others and you’ll likely not have much success or you’ll buy it at great cost to your own forces.

The focus on combined arms warfare between peer or near-peer powers is another reason why CMBS is believable as a military tool. In an era where conventional wars between great powers are once again a possibility the United States and its allies find themselves having to prepare for, CMBS’ scenario revolving around a conventional war with Russia to help defend Ukraine is apt. The United States military now has an entire generation of officers who have spent their entire careers fighting counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locales. Now these same leaders have to learn to fight a completely different war to the one they’ve been fighting, with the military as a whole having to regear back to what its original focus was before 9/11 and the War on Terrorism. With its main setting being a war against a well-trained, well-equipped, near-peer adversary, CMBS definitely has a potential use in helping to teach both new leaders and veteran ones to appreciate the difficulties and consequences of fighting against another modern army as opposed to a lightly armed and equipped irregular force.

Combat Mission Shock Force 2, sister game to Black Sea, sees American forces fight irregular units in a hypothetical war in Syria.

Now, is CMBS perfect? Absolutely not. I know I keep asking myself why I can’t run it on its highest graphical settings without it chugging despite the fact that I have a 1080 GTX graphics card and 16 gigs of RAM, but that’s a different gripe. No wargame is perfect, whether it be CMBS, or one of the other games utilized by the U.S. military and allied forces – such as Virtual Battle Space or Command: Professional Edition (the government and military-only versions of ArmA and Command: Modern Operations respectively). This is just as well though, as wargames can’t solve all the military’s problems anyway – something that any wargaming expert will be quick to tell you and anyone who can listen. What wargames are meant to do more than anything else get their participants thinking about problems that they face in modern combat and how to deal with them, rather than give them clear and actionable paths to success.

If that is the goal, then CMBS clearly could be useful in that regard. It’s no surprise to me that the United Kingdom’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) began using one of the Combat Mission games – along with several other popular commercial wargames – for research and experimentation. CMBS certainly has the right elements to make it a useful tool in a larger toolbox of games and software to approach pressing questions about the nature of warfighting going into the future. Whether is experimenting, or training or even retraining leaders on the nature of high-intensity combat, CMBS definitely is robust enough to be considered an aid for dealing with the thorny questions of conflict in the modern day and near future.

For more of Savage’s thoughts, be sure to follow him on his main twitter here.

Combat Mission Fight Club: How Digital Wargaming is Going Pro

Fight Club! Those two words generally evoke images of men fighting in basements, edgy tautologies about society, and the reminder to not talk about Fight Club. However, to us in the Wargaming world, there is a different Fight Club, this one uses games as a training tool, specifically for British Army small-to-mid unit tactics.

Joe and I were fortunate to be invited to a virtual Fight Club briefing a few weeks ago, where the Fight Club team pitched the concept of using games (specifically Combat Mission: Shock Force 2) to other British Army professionals. There were a couple other gaming journalists present, as well as some Slitherine devs, but overall the presentation was geared more towards military folks, not us gaming types. Regardless, it was a rewarding experience in that we got a peek into how CMSF2 could be used as a training tool for a modern, professional army.

Combat Mission: Black Sea, the sister game to Shock Force 2.

PART ONE: WHY COMBAT MISSION SHOCK FORCE 2?

Combat Mission, for the uninitiated, is a realistic turn-based or real-time wargame, where players command units from squad (or in Brit-speak, “section”)-sized elements to a medium-sized regiment. Every soldier on the field is modeled in terms of their gear, line of sight, and morale, and bullet paths are modeled as well, making the game a great choice for modeling real conflicts, or as we see here, training for real conflicts.

Fight Club primarily uses a special, “Professional” edition of Combat Mission, this has miscellaneous extra bits and bobs to it that make it more fitting to the needs of a professional service. And fitting it is! While a unit will need to cover the costs of hardware to run the game (Combat Mission runs on potatoes plugged into a wall, so expensive hardware isn’t necessary), Fight Club offers units that sign up for the program a few free licenses for the game. This makes running a training of CMSF2 much more cost efficient than live exercises, which could involve, among other things, Real Ammo™, Real Guns™, Real Food™, etc. These costs can add up, and units do have a budget.

All of this to say that CMSF2 is pretty affordable, but it’s also extremely modular. The base game comes with plenty of realistic scenarios already and a robust custom scenario creator, but Fight Club provides member units with mods to better match the real participating units’ OOB, complete with mods to slap correct unit insignia on troops and vehicles for, as the organizers put it, “unit pride.” The map variety is also good in base CMSF2, but Fight Club has a special tool that lets them scan in actual maps they have for use in-game. Neat! Don’t suppose us gamers can ask for a Google Earth mapping tool, can we?

American troops prepare to assault a village in Shock Force 2.

PART TWO: HOW TO LEARN WARFIGHTING FROM VIDEO GAMES

Those mods of maps and units act as a training supplement along with the other forms of training exercises for the British Army, live exercises (with or without live-fire), as well as classroom sessions. According to Fight Club, one effective use of the Combat Mission license is to take a map of a training area, place it in the game, and run games with BLUFOR and REDFOR in Combat Mission prior to the live exercise, to highlight potential outcomes and scenarios that could arise in real training/combat.

As Combat Mission has various scales of mission sizes, Fight Club recommends junior leaders taking charge of near-equivalent sized elements to their real commands to get a feel for how they’d react to the situation in combat. Ideally, these leaders would filter order through game “Controllers”, who would be a staff member that’s familiar with the systems of the game and knows how to get units from A to B on the map. The game can be projected onto a screen for multiple troops to view and make suggestions on as the game runs.

There are a couple schools of thought in Fight Club on whether the game should be run in turn-based mode, where both controllers give commands and units execute orders in 60 second intervals, to give participants time to think and discuss possible tactics to take, or in real-time, to simulate the decision-making stress of combat. Both have their merits, and what makes the most sense for a training varies from unit-to-unit and training-to-training.

And though Combat Mission is a game and can act as somewhat of an icebreaker/ “fun” activity, it is treated as a full, serious part of the training cycle. Gamedays are precluded with briefings of the scenarios the units will be playing, complete with recce of the maps, like an actual, real life mission would require. After the conclusion of the match, there are also substantial debriefings that go through what went well, and what didn’t go well in the mission (they also noted that pointing out a player’s missteps by identifying them specifically is a bad idea, which is something any of us co-op gamers know too well). This allows the unit to learn from their digital experience in the same manner they might through training.

An IFV lays down cover fire in Shock Force 2.

COMBAT MISSION: THE FIGHTING MAN’S THINKING GAME

Fight Club impressed us with how they’ve integrated Combat Mission into their training routine, and the organizers were all very gung ho about how it had helped their units’ readiness; this definitely isn’t just a scam to let a bunch of folks play games on the clock. The team talked about future implementations of the game and future mods, with a nod toward a “Russia and Ukraine focus,” the talk occurring at the time of the Russian mobilizations a few weeks ago, the team on the ball for countering future potential opponents.

Joe and I both left remarking about how interesting it is to see something we play for fun used in an applicable manner, especially a digital game, which are so frequently dismissed as the realm of utter nerds… which, to be fair, we are. But, it’s clear that digital wargaming is taking its place next to tabletop wargaming as a valuable teaching tool not just for armchair generals, but for professional militaries as well. Consider us to be watching Fight Club with keen interest in the future, to see what other games- er, training materials, they have up their sleeves.

-Jack Trumbull