You know it’s going to get good when one of the first things you do in a campaign is eat your siblings for getting uppity. Fantasy General II: Evolution is the latest expansion for the already excellent Fantasy General II released in 2019. The third official DLC, Evolution places you in control of the Lizardfolk Szzlag as he attempts to devour his way to prominence across the Broken Isles.
I had the pleasure of reviewing Fantasy General II on its release, and I was very surprised with just how good a job the developers, Owned by Gravity, managed to do conveying the spirit of the classic 1996 game while modernizing a whole heap of systems. If nothing else, go check out the base game when you get a chance. It’s a good game and worthy of a playthrough. Now, to the swamps!
Fantasy General II has generally done a good job of creating a fascinating fantasy world and backed it up with good game narratives in the base game. The story of Falirson and the Empire was entertaining and I’m glad to see that Szzlag’s story is as well. The writing, possible decisions, and outcomes all reinforce the fact that Lizardfolk are not human and do not share a lot of human sensibilities. Theirs is an eat or be eaten world of hunting and raiding where weakness means a swift death. Don’t let Szzlag be weak. Don’t let Szzlag be human, it may save you later!
Evolution goes that extra mile and demonstrates the nature of this harsh world through gameplay. The game does an excellent job out of the gate of introducing you to a totally different playstyle. Lizardfolk are not the strongest fighters out there, but they are excellent ambushers and full of crafty light infantry. Since Lizardfolk can maneuver quickly through water tiles, and can even hide in deep water and kelp forests, setting up ambushes and luring enemies into traps is the name of the game. Just watch out for the carnivorous fauna! Setting up an ambush and seeing it go off without a hitch is second only to massive encirclements for giddy wargaming highs. There is nothing quite as fun as watching the enemy’s giant crab trigger 3 different ambush moves and defensive fires as they move to attack an exposed gaggle of newts.
Eventually, you’ll encouter Hoomans, with their fantastical trinkets, floating hovels, and distinct lack of swimming ability. The dichotomy between fighting humans on the coast and fighting humans in land is amazing, and requires a very different approach. Pelting humans with javelins and stones from the water while luring ships to underwater ambushes is great fun. Hiding in the jungle, sacrificing newts to lure humans out of position so your weaker units can scrape some advantage, is equally so.
On the campaign layer Lizardfolk play very differently as well. Szzlag and some high tier units require evolution points to upgrade. These are generally acquired by eating notable Lizardfolk, which quickly becomes tied to the central narrative of the campaign. In addition to evolution points, liquid mana is a key resource. This is acquired by raiding certain settlements or, more reliably, whenever a friendly unit dies. Now the cost of hiring a new unit of newts can be weighed against the value of their death. If these units can be killed in a manner that serves an ambush, well then, everything turns up Szzlag!
I was generally enthralled with this expansion. Lizardfolk make you think and play very differently from most wargames, not just from the base Fantasy General II experience. The campaign can be made more difficult though a few settings, but I felt the difficulty was good, punishing foolish mistakes and rewarding careful plays. I rarely sit down for several hour gaming sessions anymore, but I found myself making time in the evening to get through a mission or two. I really had fun.
Fantasy General II was already a great wargame and this expansion does about everything I’d hope an expansion would do. Gameplay is significantly different, the narrative is interesting, and the campaign is engaging throughout. Definitely check out Fantasy General II: Evolution if you have any interest at all.
Valor & Victory began life as a Print-and-Play board wargame developed by Barry Doyle. It also has the special honour of being the first Print-and-Play boardgame I ever downloaded. I wrote about the process in a now lost article, but it was a compelling bit of hobbying that unfortunately never made it back with me when I moved to Ontario. Looks like I don’t have to worry too much though, as a new digital version of Valor & Victory is fast approaching from Slitherin/Matrix!
How Does Valor & Victory Play
I quite like how Valor & Victory played on the tabletop. Reminiscent of Advanced Squad Leader with a much less complicated ruleset, Valor & Victory saw players fight man to man actions in a WWII setting. The base download was set in Normandy ’44, but there were tons of official and fan made additions covering most of the second world war.
The digital game seems to be following in the footsteps of the boardgame faithfully. Gameplay will still revolve around the same basic rule structure, dividing play into the following phases: Command, Fire, Move, enemy Defence, and Advance. Since units fire or move, for the most part, and opportunity fire is a constant threat, games of Valor & Victory were quite tactical and enjoyable.
What Does the Digital Version Offer?
I’m happy to see that there will be a decent number of scenarios out of the box with 20 official offerings. There is also a scenario editor which means there is about as much replayabilty as was on offer in the basic Print-and-Play set. I’m happy to see that mutliplayer will be included too in both PBEM and Hotseat modes.
While we’ve only see a little bit of what the full game has to offer, I’m optimistic about what Yoboware Games and Slitherine/Matrix can put out.
I have to say, I’m surprised I like Gem Wizards Tactics as much as I do. I took a first look at it and thought “this looks like a hex game with a neat aesthetic” and I was right, but didn’t realize the tactical depth behind that first look. There’s enough mechanics here to keep a turn-based tactics fan pleased for bite-sized scenarios for a long time, especially considering the procedural nature of the game.
The premise of the game is thus: there’s a magical land with 7 gems, the 8th one, which is extra magical, has been discovered and now you have to fight to keep your home safe. Pretty standard fantasy premise, but the game is pretty cheeky with it. Anyway, as you begin a campaign, you get to choose one of the (currently) 3 factions to lead against the forces that would oppress you. Essentially, it’s an excuse to go beat up on enemies in a series of small scenarios. Perfectly reasonable stuff there.
These 3 factions are led by unique hero characters, that will be the heavy hitters of your force through the campaign. The Potato faction is led by Andromeda Robin, a witch that can grow fast but weak allies, and create a lightning storm centered on an enemy. The Azure Order, led by Gelf Lanz, is a knight/ mage that can also summon allies, and charge into enemies, bumping them out of position. The last faction, the Business Demons (lol), are headed by their CEO, Bill Milton, who uses money as a unique currency to buff his units. Most other special abilities cost Gems, which are strewn around the map, but good ol’ Bill loves to offer his units Predatory Loans (yes this is a real ability) for dosh.
The factional units are the stars of the show in GWT, as they all have unique skillsets that play into a faction’s strengths. Some units, such as the Potato Roll Guard, will roll forever when shoved, until they hit an obstacle, another unit, or roll off the map. Others, like the more standard Azure Order Longbow, have a special ranged attack, which is just them firing arrows, go figure. And others still, such as the Business Demon (lol) Drill Sergeant, can modify the terrain around them for fuel for future attacks. There’s a nice variety to these units, and their abilities often synchronize well with other units from the same faction. For example, several of the Potato units can create wet ground, from which Andromeda can create her seedling allies. A particularly good combo I found was using one of the Potato Splashmasters to push a Roll Guard into an enemy, and the water trail the Splashmaster left behind can be used to grow seedlings.
Each campaign sees your force choosing to deploy at a few different maps, each offering a different level of progress toward completely freeing your people, and sometimes units you can approach and recruit on a map. The new player could be tempted to focus only on recruiting new units, but making progress is important as there’s also an enemy progress counter. Yet, the only way a player can grow their forces is by rescuing units on these missions, which is necessary to bolster your army. Handy too, considering that you can recruit units from other factions and therefore diversify what your army is capable of. The scenario maps are quite nice too, with a variety of terrain features that alter attack and defense, and frequently play a role in unit abilities as well.
The goal of each scenario is to capture a number of “flags”, represented by either forcing your way into a fortified castle and having your unit capture it, or by killing certain enemy leaders on the map. This must also be done with relative speed, as more enemies will spawn in on the map every few turns, and considering that you will always be outnumbered, speed is key. No playing turtle here! The need for speed is balanced with a need to keep your forces alive, as units are persistent and your strong veteran units are essentially irreplaceable. Their basic attack and defense stats are stronger than most units, and it takes time to grow that kind of experience.
All in all, Gem Wizards Tactics is a solid, but small, game. The combat is tight, the scenarios are tough and engaging (you will likely lose a lot until you figure out how to use your army’s abilities), and it’s easy to play in multiple sessions. It doesn’t hurt that the soundtrack and writing for the game are really good. The game isn’t that deep, but it comes in a tiny, replayable package, and if you’re looking for something to scratch a tactics itch, you can find it here.
A brand new Combat Mission has just appeared over the horizon, this time bringing the action to a hypothetical Cold War gone hot.
Set between 1979-1982, Combat Mission Cold War sees both NATO and Warsaw Pact militaries battling it out across the Fulda Gap in Western Germany. With 15 scenarios and three campaigns with an eye to more content down the road, this feels like quite the new entry.
The campaigns even include a full campaign covering the National Training Center in the Californian Mojave Desert in 1982. This puts you in command of a US Army Company Team as it begins to transition towards Airland Battle Doctrine and simulates battles against hypothetical soviet forces. Having a full campaign based around training is totally unique, but if anyone could make it interesting with their attention to detail it’s Combat Mission.
The other two campaigns simulate platoon to battalion sized battles in West Germany from both a NATO and Warsaw Pact perspective, and promise interesting engagements based on the types of missions both sides were training for during the period.
“For the old-timers who served during the Cold War it would be gratifying to actually play out many of the scenarios that were conjectured and trained for during the late seventies to the early eighties, or to re-fight battles at the National Training Center (NTC). Combat Mission Cold War provides those old-timers, and any others that are interested, the opportunity to do just that.”
With Combat Mission’s usual attention to detail, this is going to be a fascinating addition to watch out for. Cold War includes highly detailed, historically accurate organizations, equipment, and modeling of weapons. There will be a full suite of period military vehicles including M48, M60 series of tanks, M150 TOW, M1 (105), T64, and T80. In the air keep an eye out for iconic aircraft like the US F-4 Phantom and A-7 Corsair, the venerable A-10 Warthog, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and AH-1 Cobra gunships. The Soviets bring with them their service workhorses, the infamous Mig-23/27, the Su-17, the rare but powerful Su-25 Frogfoot, and the well-known Mi-24 series gunship, including the first “Hind A” version and the famous “Hind D.”
I’m really looking forward to seeing how Combat Mission Cold War turns out!
Two things to point out before diving into the review: one, I’m a big fan of the JTS games I’ve played and two, I’m interested in the Peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. But despite that, beside dipping my toes into Scourge of War: Waterloo for about 15 minutes, I haven’t played a proper digital wargame set during the Napoleonic Wars. (Total War doesn’t count)
So while I’m no newbie in terms of John Tiller Software games, I’m a fresh-faced greenhorn when it comes to anything set before the Second World War from this venerable house of wargaming goodness. While some of the UI may be familiar, there is a lot I needed to learn to get the most out of Wellington’s Peninsular Wars, and while there was some head scratching and manual skimming, I’m glad I put the required time into learning the game.
The Spanish Ulcer and The Iberian Peninsula at War
My family comes from the Aveiro District of Portugal, and so the Peninsular Campaigns have always held a fascination for me, especially when I was younger and trying to decide on an area of study for graduate school. While I didn’t settle on Portuguese history, I did do a fair bit of reading into these campaigns and the terrors inflicted upon the people of Portugal and Spain by the Napoleonic Wars.
Beginning with Spain and Napoleon’s invasion of Portugal in 1807 and escalating with the Dos de Mayo Uprising against French occupation in Madrid in 1808, the Peninsular War saw many terrible battles and atrocities across the breadth of the Iberian Peninsula. At first allied with Napoleon, King Ferdinand VII of Spain was eventually removed in favor of Napoleon’s brother Joseph. This proved unpopular with the people of Spain for obvious reasons, kicking off one of the first major guerilla movements and beginning a war of terror and depredation that would prove to be the worst in Spanish history.
I also grew up reading Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series, which gave me a healthy appetite for learning about the battles on the peninsula. You would think then that I would be all over games that represent the conflict, but time is what it is and the stars never aligned. That is until I generously recevied this review copy from John Tiller Software.
Wait, How Many Campaigns?
Wellington’s Peninuslar Campaigns, like many JTS titles, is absolutely huge. There are more than 180 scenarios including variants, with 60 or so dedicated to Human vs. AI play. As someone who has yet to put any time into multiplayer (though that may change soon!) I’m happy there are so many battles set up for solid play against the AI. There’s quite a variety of battles to cover here too, even going beyond the work of Old Nosey himself.
Scenarios range from the French quest to take Madrid and Britain’s Sir John Moore’s struggles to aid the Spanish, to Suchet in Eastern Spain, to Wellington’s two campaigns in 1812 and 1813 and beyond. There are also some stand alone scenarios hiding amongst the piles that come with Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns, like the Battle of Maida in 1806. The point is, there is a lot of content here. When I think about how many scenarios I can get out of a JTS game versus pretty much everything else, there’s really no comparison.
Part of my appreciation of what JTS does overall comes down to this overwhelming amount of content. I’ve read about Salamanca several times. But nothing makes the battle as clear for me as seeing the correct units positioned on a correct map. Maybe I’m just more of a visual guy, but seeing, and playing, these scenarios help to expand upon my understanding in a way that always brings me back to the value of wargaming for education. But that’s a topic for another day. The point is, there is a lot of content here, and if you like how the game sounds, I doubt you’ll be running out of stuff to do with it for quite some time.
Deploy the Skirmishers! How Does Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns Play?
JTS games set in any period have some key similarities in features and gameplay. First, the UI is fairly consistent and easy to understand. A row of buttons along to the top of the window provide just about every maneuver or bit of information that a commander could want, ready at their finger tips. Many of these buttons also have corresponding hotkeys, the memorization of such will make games move a lot faster. Second, there is an information panel along one edge of the screen that gives critical information about units occupying a highlighted hex. Clicking on units in this panel allows for individual orders to be given. It may look obtuse at first glance, but if you get past the dated visuals it’s an easy to work system and soon you’ll be checking LOS, deploying skirmishers, firing artillery, and positioning units within a hex in no time.
This is a phased IGO UGO game (by default, though it can be changed). The first side will maneuver, the second will offer defensive fire, then the first offensive fire, and finally the first side will initiate melee. The turn then switches to the second side where they will go about the same phases. At first this system felt a little clunky. I was coming from Panzer Campaigns and Panzer Battles and was more used to units moving without facing and finishing an entire turn (with opportunity fire), but after getting to grips with how units position themselves within hexes, how movement and morale worked, and how facing worked, I felt right at home.
The systems in Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns try their best to make players use period tactics and formations. I appreciate that the game encourages skirmishers, protecting flanks, the appropriate use of each of the three arms, and the correct application of reserves and officers.
When forces are maneuvered and battle is joined, it becomes incredibly clear that the proper management of forces, not just the application of force, is the name of the game. Rotating out units is important, as a unit’s fatigue goes up steadily and barely comes back down. Morale, especially when dealing with average or poorer units is also critical to manage, and a folly move might endanger the line. This ties into the innovative threat score.
Similar to Zone of Control in other games, there is a rating on each hex, depending on proximity to enemies of different types, that units will test against when they attempt to perform maneuvers (or even just move with an optional rule in place) failing this morale test might disorder units or cause a route. So it becomes very important to keep units together and covering each other, and to be wary about how close enemy cavalry can get. It can be disastrous to fail to form a square because you waited too long and the threat value in a hex grew too large for the maneuver to go off without a hitch.
I’m really just scratching the surface, but suffice to say I was impressed with the way the game used base and optional rules to push a period feel and keep battles flowing ‘correctly’. I rarely felt like I was battling the system itself after my first couple of outings and, for a game of the scope, that is something I definitely look to when judging quality.
Not Always A Country of Wine and Songs
It’s pretty clear that I like Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns. Perhaps not as much as the Panzer Campaigns and Panzer Battles that fired my interest in JTS’s systems so long ago, but I do like it quite a bit, and will continue to play it at least until I make it through every scenario at least once, but it’s not perfect.
The enemy AI is often fairly good, but occasionally makes baffling moves. More than once I’ve seen a decent enemy line collapse into a mob, or seen the enemy retreat in relative good order from a position only to start wandering the long way through heavy woods to the next objective. It doesn’t happen too often, and the enemy AI is good on the defensive especially, but occasional hiccups can only be attributed to poor generalship so many times. I personally didn’t find it too bad in most of the scenarios I played, but I understand that some are very sensitive to this sort of thing, so be warned that you will probably run into questionable AI moves here and there.
I am also not impressed with the 3D graphic view. I understand that this is something that Wargame Design Studio is working on for all JTS titles and so it may improve later on, but as it stands the game is best played with counters in the 2D view. Perhaps in future the 3D view will be worth using, but it is not that time now.
Is Wellington’s Campaign a Campaign for You?
Not a long list of complaints eh? Well bah humbug, I had a good time with Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns. The minor AI hiccups and a 3D graphic view I’ll never use hardly detracted from the fun I had working through these scenarios.
The gameplay is tight, the UI, once accustomed to, is easy to navigate, the scenarios are detailed and entertaining, the AI is competent (mostly), there are dozens of multiplayer scenarios. The list of pros far outweigh the cons. If this is your first time looking at a JTS game, I’d perhaps recommend one set during the Second World War, but for those who are familiar or are only interested in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, this is a fine entry point. Try to wrangle some friends for multiplayer too. It will significantly extend the life of this already massive game.
Tight, fun, absolutely massive, and dripping with period charm. Wellington’s Peninsular Campaigns is a great addition to JTS’s venerable lineup.
I thought I’d take a moment to look at some of the news stories circling around and give everyone an update about what will be showing up on the blog in the next couple of weeks.
Panzer Battles: Moscow After Action Report
Like many who keep their finger on the pulse of the wargaming world, I was happy to see a new blog post from Wargame Design Studio, who have been working with John Tiller Software on some excellent titles, about their latest: Panzer Battles Moscow. I’m personally very excited for this, and the blog post, which included a playtester’s AAR, did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. Here’s hoping development progresses smoothly and we can all get our hands on it sooner rather than later
From the developers of Battlestar Galactica: Deadlock comes Warhammer 40,000 Battlesector, a new battle level turn based wargame that sees the Blood Angels face off against a Tyranid swarm. I’m a big fan of the two other Slitherine Warhammer games I’ve played, Warhammer 40k: Armageddon and Warhammer 40k: Gladius, so I’m keen to see what Black Lab Games can do here. With a 20 mission campaign, a skirmish mode, and (my favourite) both live and asynchronous multiplayer, it looks like there’s a lot to offer. I’m going to be keeping an eye on this as more information becomes available.
We’ve got a lot coming up in the next couple of weeks so be sure to check back in for daily content across here, our YouTube channel, and our podcast.
Reviews & After Action Reports
We’re looking at getting four reviews published in the near future, including a look at John Tiller Software’s Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign, Indie titles Maneuver Warfare and GemWizard Tactics and, next week, the latest expansion for Slitherine’s Fantasy General II.
We’ll also be positing another History-Gaming After Action Report, this time form Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign, and perhaps one from an undisclosed tabletop game. Only time (and my flagging sanity) will tell!
For video content, today, Friday February 12 at around 6PM EST we’ll be playing War of Rights with members of our discord and (maybe, if I can think and march at the same time) talking about the American Civil War and its representations in videogames. That will be on our Twitch channel, but will also go up on YouTube next week.
Lastly, stay tuned in the next week or two as we’re about finalized our latest podcast episode. I won’t say exactly what’s going on, but Jack and I are very excited to share it with everyone.
Thanks for all your support across the blog, YouTube, and our Podcast. We’re so excited to see our number of visitors shoot up and are inspired to keep delivering the kind of content you want to see. Really, thank you.
MilSim Shooter Six Days in Fallujah is back in the public eye, 12 years after being cancelled originally. It’s an ambitious project, meant to show the Battle of Fallujah in 2004 on the ground, using interviews from people who were there, and featuring a narrative-driven campaign. It defines itself as a “Hero Shooter” on Steam, but also as a “Tactical Shooter”, so we’re not really sure what to think yet.
Some people are pleased to see the game has come back, interested to see how Konami tells the story of the battle, while others feel that it could end up being a very one-sided narrative. Many other games, particularly shooters, that have featured Iraq or the Global War on Terror more broadly, don’t tend to have much nuance, or show the conflicts from an objective angle. Here’s what the CEO of publisher Victura, Peter Tamte, has to say:
It’s hard to understand what combat is actually like through fake people doing fake things in fake places. This generation showed sacrifice and courage in Iraq as remarkable as any in history. And now they’re offering the rest of us a new way to understand one of the most important events of our century. It’s time to challenge outdated stereotypes about what video games can be.
I suppose we’ll see how it is handled. I for one, am hesitant but will be watching this closely.
Hey Grognards, it’s me, Jack. You know me from the sort-of hit podcast, Let’s Talk About Wargames. Listen, you have many things to offer the community and we wouldn’t really be here without you sustaining and building the hobby for so long, but we need to have a conversation about keeping up with the ever-changing world of digital gaming.
The other day, I wanted to play a game from a grognard dev that I purchased early last year. I booted it up, and the game launcher demanded that I enter in a serial code and activation number. I checked my email, nothing. After some time googling, it turns out that I needed to email the developer my transaction information so they could manually send me this information. It’s 2021. Please automate this. It took me two days to get this information, and I guarantee the man at the other end of the interaction did not want to be emailing me a game code at 7 AM on a Saturday.
Another story about another game. I mentioned this in a review, but I’ll share this story again. I was playing the tutorial for a grognard game series I hadn’t touched before, but noticed when I launched the tutorial, there was no information appearing to tell me how to play the game. This was because the game expected me to follow along with the attached PDF manual as I played the tutorial, constantly alt-tabbing in and out of the fullscreen-locked game. There also was a stunning lack of tool-tips to explain any of the information I saw on-screen. I ask, please have in-depth in-game tutorials and tool-tips.
Not a story about a specific game this time, but grognard games in general. I have attempted on occasions to hunt down and purchase older or more niche games and found they’re hosted on sites probably built in 2000 with a difficult interface to traverse to actually get to the game in question. What’s more is that a lot of digital games will be priced quite high, even when they have been released for over 10 years. To offer a bit of marketing advice to any grognard devs out there, is that I myself have been put off of a few games between the site and the price, consider also opening up a Steam page or having sales so us poor huddled masses can partake in some groggy goodness as well.
I have more stories I could share, but the simple fact remains: I’m afraid new players are going to be put off the hobby by the now antiquated practices of grognard games, as there’s a high bar to entry, both in price and in knowledge. There’s a lot of relatively small QOL changes to implement to help new players and remind old players of how games function. If these issues are resolved I believe we could see a strengthening of the hobby in terms of a new playerbase. Our biggest fear in wargaming is that the hobby fully “grays out”, and we’d like to not see that happen, where we could have a new renassiance in wargaming, if we are but a little more approachable. Please, I ask, keep up with the times.
I was really looking forward to checking out Victory At Sea: Ironclads. I had previously review Victory at Sea: Pacific a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised despite the amount of bugs that littered the game on launch. It was still fun to create and manage Task Forces, carry out operations on the high seas, and deal with both the strategic and tactical layers at the same time. Unfortunately, I didn’t stick with the game for very long, opting to wait until enough problems were fixed before continuing with any meaningful campaign.
I never went back. Things happen, and I guess it was a valuable lesson in the importance of launching without major game issues. Perhaps Victory at Sea: Pacific is better now, perhaps not. I don’t have the time or inclination to find out.
Blocking Blockade Runners: Victory At Sea: Ironclads and the American Civil War
So it was with some excitement, and some trepidations that I downloaded the demo for Victory at Sea: Ironclads that released along with many others during Steam’s Spring Festival. The focus here is on the American Civil War and the naval battles and skirmishes that happened along the East Coast of the US. Not my favourite period, but interesting enough.
I am, however, a big fan of mid-late 19th century naval history. When navies were trying to figure out how best to modernize technology, strategic doctrine, and tactics. From the ill-advised dip into the possibilities of ramming, to the development of ironclads, it is a fascinating period and produced some beautiful ships.
The demo for Victory at Sea: Ironclad starts players off with a tutorial that takes them through the basics. The same mechanics from Victory at Sea: Pacific show up here as well, and in general I like that. It is simple to organize squadrons and give them orders. The AI is alright at handling basic orders, though they stumble elsewhere. The graphics are pretty and the ship models well done.
So Why Did I Not Enjoy the Victory At Sea: Ironclad Demo?
Well, I saw some of the same problems of AI that I saw way back with Victory at Sea: Pacific. During the tutorial, there is a section where the game suggests you attack a fort with a squadron. No problem. But as the ships enter the tactical area, they were behind a little jut of land. I thought it was a perfect opportunity to demonstrate that AI has gotten better, and ordered the squadron directly to the base with an attack order hoping to see the pathfinding at work.
Three of the Four ships successfully found their way around the jut of land and made it to the fort to attack. The fourth ran aground as it tried to drive directly towards the fort. This was a problem in Victory at Sea: Pacific, and I’m really sad to see that it hasn’t bee solved. It may seem minor, most battles will occur in the open sea of course, but where one problem has persisted, how many more will rear their ugly heads once I purchase the full game?
There were a couple other foibles as well, like ordering a ship to fire on a target only to have it pull close and unload directly into the water far, far short of the enemy, but I can chalk that up to a terrible commander, I suppose.
Fundamentally, a good game is one which is easy to play whilst simultaneously offering compelling choices. The game itself should be easy, it is the decisions that should be hard. Killerfish Games’ latest release: War on the Sea succeeds in one sense but fails in the other. Like the Japanese after Midway, this failure is one that War on the Sea cannot recover from.
Midnight. August 10th 1942. 30 nautical miles east of Guadalcanal. Four old Japanese destroyers go into action against an unknown enemy force. Their commander assumes he faces a superior force. The plan: as soon as the enemy is spotted, launch torpedoes and then make good their escape. Their commander assumed wrong. The “superior” enemy force is in fact two destroyers and four transports. A good night for the Imperial Japanese Navy.
When War on the Sea works, it really works. Throughout the above engagement, I felt like I was playing something out of Tameichi Hara’s Japanese Destroyer Captain. My plan was written by my (possibly faulty) recollection of one of Hara’s own engagements. Such considerations are what War on the Sea could be – in a few more months or even a year.
War on the Sea is the ultimate evolution of Killerfish Games’ previous offerings. Its submarine warfare mechanics are more or less lifted from Cold Waters. Surface combat likewise owes much to Atlantic Fleet. With such an excellent pedigree, War on the Sea is a dream game for many. Naval combat in the Pacific theatre in “real” time? Who could ask for more? With the scope, scale and variety of actions on offer, I suspect it has been Killerfish’s dream all along. The design of the campaign suggests to me that Killerfish hopes to offer more campaigns in different theatres as well.
As it is, the single campaign currently on offer, Guadalcanal, playable from either side, is more than enough. One need only watch Drachinifel’s excellent series on that campaign to see why it is the perfect introduction to the format.
Unfortunately, it is the campaign where War on the Sea’s problems begin. It is too much of sandbox whilst simultaneously hamstringing player choice. At the start of a campaign the player has nothing. It is up to them to choose their ships. Great right? To an extent, but how is the new player meant to know what they should choose? For the veteran meanwhile, the decidedly unhelpful user interface means that organising your fleet is far more effort than it needs to be, especially when it comes to organising scouts.
So much for freedom, what about limitations? Put it this way. Your scouts are shadowing an enemy force. You send your torpedo bombers in. But they can’t engage. As far as I can guess, since the enemy fleet has already been identified and the game has given you a choice to attack, the game now decides that you don’t need that choice again. You’ll have to wait for the enemy to be lost in the fog of war again (a matter of hours) before you can attack. It would appear that War in the Sea somehow manages to discourage scouting. The same issue means that enemy scouts, once contacted, can’t be shot down by scrambling fighters.
Similar issues occur in organising your fleet. Whilst aircraft and ships in the same area will take part in the same battle, two groups of the same type (i.e. ships and ships or aircraft and aircraft) won’t. Possibly I’ve been unlucky – but it’s hard to argue with two formations being right on top of one another and then entering battle to find only one formation present. Specialised formations (say, having a flotilla of destroyers supporting your squadron of cruisers) thus appear to be not only useless but outright dangerous – as a cruiser squadron that is caught by an ambushing submarine will be sitting ducks. Similarly, while the AI has had no problem organising combined strikes of fighters and bombers, I for the life of me cannot order up more than one type at a time. Why it is impossible for an airfield or carrier to launch multiple types, together or separately, is unclear.
War on the Sea’s campaign holds so much promise. Its scope, format and freedom should make it the holy grail of naval wargaming. Yet these problems – and I’m cutting out a great many more – say to me that somewhere along the line things went very wrong. I cannot know whether time ran out, problems were not identified, beta testers were not attentive, the engine was too limited or some other fault, but the result is a campaign that, between glimmers of brilliance, is critically flawed.
War on the Sea’s campaign could have been saved by tactical combat. Although the battles are indeed a stronger experience, it’s not enough. The good first. The spirit of Cold Waters makes the submarine combat great fun. Hunting enemy fleets with destroyers circling makes every action exhilarating (though your submarine coming under air attack is dull as ditch water and needs a look at – see above – ahem). Similarly, the fundamentals of surface combat: gunnery, detection, damage control, feel right. Pretty, though not amazing, graphics hold up well. The smoke and star-shells of night battles are particularly impressive. Likewise, damage effects are also suitably impressive for what is happening below decks – but ironically are in some ways a come down from Atlantic Fleet.
With the fundamentals of naval combat so strong, it’s too bad it’s let down by all the clicking. One example: every ship, even ones in a formation, must be given a target individually. In order to fire, I must then order each and every ship individually. If a formation is ordered to fire – only the first ship will open up. The rest will sit and watch. In a game like Atlantic Fleet, where battles were turn-based and small, this was fine. In real time, with much larger forces, not so much. These issues extend to how the player directs gunfire and even into how air combat works. Exciting as it is to have bomb-skipping and other techniques in a naval game, at heart War on the Sea is weighted down by far, far, far too much micromanagement. Even with generous use of the pause button, it just isn’t any fun. I am left with the distinct suspicion that War on the Sea was designed and tested by a culture that plays these kinds of games in a very specific way – one alien to everyone outside the club.
All the issues described above can be solved. Maybe in a year, maybe in six months, the odds are that every issue I’ve covered will be fixed. I sincerely hope they are.
Since I began writing this review at least two small updates have appeared. The fundamentals are there. War on the Sea has the power to be a very good game, but I can only review what I have in front of me. For the moment, a critically flawed campaign and naval combat that is complicated for the sake of it makes it a game that, I cannot recommend at full price. The only consolation I can offer is that, if Cold Waters is anything to go by, War on the Sea can look forward to a lot of work going forward. It needs it.