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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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

All Bridges Burning: The Game that Made Me a Solitaire Wargamer

I finally had the opportunity to play a three player game of All Bridges Burning, the latest Counter Insurgency (COIN) game from GMT. It was the final thing I had to do before before being comfortable to review the game. It was great fun, probably the most fun way to play, but afterwards thinking about the experience I had a bit of a realization about solitaire play and about how different, but equally entertaining both solitaire and multiplayer versions of the game were to me.

My review will be coming to the wonderful Meeple Mountain (Check them out!) in the near future, but since I was in a reflective mood I thought I’d take the time to think out loud about my time with All Bridges Burning, simultaneously my first exposure to the COIN system, and, perhaps not shocking given the title, the game that really made a true solitaire wargamer out of me.

Counter Insurgency games have a difficult task to perform. Trying to represent tricky, often convoluted historical situations where front lines are fuzzy, combatants are as likely to be ordinary people caught up in a terrible situation as trained soldiers, and the horrors that come with that kind of war are on the table for all to see is no small feat.

There is a lot of potential for pitfalls, as the separation from politics and humanitarian issues that some ‘traditional’ wargames can get away with is inescapable here. Not that I believe that you can truly separate war (or wargames) from the political and diplomatic situations that led to them, but the specifics of what is covered or brushed over by a wargame is very different in a COIN situation.

All Bridges Burning’s Finnish Civil War (1917-1918) is particularly tricky to represent, given the grassroots nature of a lot of Red and White actions, but also because of the dearth of easily available academic material. Yet the designer V.P.J. Arponen has done an excellent job in my estimation of not only creating an engaging game (again, more of that in the review) but also a vehicle for transmitting historical information in a way that presents a digestible and, dare I say, empathetic look at an underrepresented historical event.

While this is true of the game at two and three players, Solitaire offers the kind of stress free environment that really lets the designer speak to you. Though it took me a little bit to wrap my head around the solitaire system, the innovations with COIN’s card driven system meant that after a few turns, I was off to the races. It began to feel less like a board game and more like sitting down with an academic text. Just as I approach an academic history, asking it questions, listening to arguments, and evaluating evidence to the best of my ability, playing All Bridges Burning encouraged me to do the same. It was presenting me with its own academic argument through its play and its supplemental materials.

I know that I’m not unique here, I’m sure most if not all wargamers enjoying engaging with the designers and developers and their interpretations of history through play, but now I really consider solitaire play allows the time necessary to really engage with historical interpretation and presentation. I had as relaxing a time playing All Bridges Burning as I have when reading for my dissertation, and that is something I think should be celebrated. I already appreciated wargames for their ability to give me a tactile engagement with the history I read, but this is on another level that I’m glad to have discovered for myself. I’ve finally figured out what solitaire wargamers have known forever.

All Bridges Burning has definitely piqued my interest in reading more about the Finnish Civil War, and getting my hands on other COIN games to see what their designers have to say. That is a pretty good endorsement for checking out All Bridges Burning, I think.

-Joe Fonseca

Warhammer 40k Battlesector Preview Impressions

I’ve recently had the pleasure of taking the preview of Warhammer 40k Battlesector out for a spin and thought I’d spend a little time going through what I liked and didn’t like, to hopefully give you prospective Primaris Space Marines out there something crunchy to think about (just don’t tell your Chapter Librarian, this might count as heretical thinking.)

The Story So Far: Warhammer Ham Cooked Right

I had access to a tutorial designed to show me the ropes and two missions from the 20 mission single player campaign. Each mission took part during a different part of the story, so I can’t comment on the narrative much at this point. Suffice it to say that the snippets I did get to experience are exactly as ’40k’ as I expected them to be. Be ready for large men talking loudly at each other in angry voices about their emperor, their duty, killing things, and all the usual goodness that goes with it. Tack on some Blood Angel specific lore, like dealing with a perpetual closeness to heresy, the thirst for blood they’re always lamenting, and the dire straits of this particular Tyranid infestation and you’ve got yourself some top of the line grimdark content. Just don’t be expecting any serious science fiction. Warhammer has always been over the top and the games are best when they embrace the silliness of the universe with a straight face. Battlesector, so far, does this, and I’m happy with it. I don’t expect I’ll be remembering this story for years after I’m done, but I might be concerned if I did, truth be told.

Warhammer 40k Battlesector: How Does It Play?

This is a tactical game where players take control of a suspiciously tabletop accurate ‘army’ and try to accomplish objectives in a turn based, action point driven combat system. It’s nice to see armies broken up into their roles like the tabletop game, with Landspeeders classed as Fast Attack and so forth. Each unit has an ability bar with movement, attack, and special options that are all hot keyed. It’s immediately intuitive. Each unit has a set number of movement points and action points and can spend them in any order to position themselves, activate free actions, or attack with action points.

I love that the user interface offers statistics and damage information on top of clearly indicating what it will cost to get a unit to do what you want it to. You can move extra spaces, for instance, but doing so uses up action points and the map highlights these extra spaces in red. After a few turns it became very easy to maneuver units without having to check for any hidden numbers, something I find important in a fast paced wargame like this. There are tactical considerations, like overwatch, extra damage from rear attacks, and a lovely fog of war system that brings in sound as a hint for where enemies might be coming from.

So the core is fun, fast paced, and easy to get your head around, but I have some minor worries about what was not shown during this preview. Since the main enemy this time around are the Tyranids, a swarming race of alien bug types, your Primaris Space Marines are always going to be outnumbered, and the AI’s primary method of engagement will be to rush your positions. Thematically it works fine, but I’m hoping to see how intelligently the AI handles the sometimes complex tactical situations it faces. Enemy AI is definitely capable enough to prioritize damaging weak units, but I did catch it occasionally targeting something farther away from an important objective because it was wounded, rather than meaningfully try to stop me from accomplishing my goals.

It remains something to keep an eye on. If there are non-Tyranid enemies in the final game I’d expect them to act more intelligently, but I won’t be able to tell until we get there.

Objective and Unit variety were also pretty good for a preview. The Tyranids have some standard troopers yes, but battlefield controlling Venomthropes create poison clouds that obscure shooting and inflict damage in an area and flying Gargoyles shake things up. For the Space Marines, jump pack equipped assault troops complement the heavy and slow aggressors, and Land Speeders act as squishy recon. I was happy with what I saw and am really looking forward to customizing an army during the campaign.

Final Thoughts

I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw in this preview, and I’m expecting great things from Black Lab Games if they continue down this path. The only thing that caused me any concern was the tactical responses of the enemy AI, and I’m worried how much the ‘Tyranids are swarm aliens’ will be used to cover up unresponsive AI. Holding off hordes of aliens is fun, don’t get me wrong, but I want to see that there will be variety in the encounter types available in the full game. For fans through, this is shaping up to be a no brainer. Fun 40k narrative, fast paced tactical gameplay with clear UI, beautiful models on grimdark battlefields.

I had a lot of fun, and I’m not just saying that because the inquisitor behind me is reading what I type…(help!)

-Joe Fonseca

Let’s Talk About Wargames received a preview key from Slitherine Games for the purposes of this Impressions Piece

Also: Apologies to those looking forward to youtube coverage. I disastrously lost my footage twice over, including the rest of the footage used in the battle already started on our channel. A new system might be in order and has been requested from the machine cults on Mars.

Gary Grigsby’s War in the East 2: First Impressions

I knew there was no way that I could do War in the East 2 justice in the short time I had with it, but that won’t stop me from offering some first impressions of the newest behemoth in wargaming as I keep battling across the wide expanse of the Soviet Union in preparation for a full review. Will the new game do enough to win over new players and satisfy old hands both?

Launching War in the East 2 for the first time I was immediately struck by how much cleaner the presentation was. Now, don’t get me wrong, this is still an old school wargame through and through, with menus to navigate before play and little selectors for AI nation control, but it feels better. There is a charming intro cinematic, tool tips on the main menu are informative, and the overall setup is easy enough for a new player to navigate without much help.

Once you load up a scenario, the tutorial scenario in my case, you’re greeted with the familiar Gary Grigsby charm. There is still a couple button bars across the top of the screen and windows and dropdown menus populate with that familiar ‘click’ noise. But again, it’s cleaner. the top bars readily give up their function, and are generally intuitive, the system seems to process my inputs quickly, and everything just looks sharper.

But that’s where the initial simplicity ends. Beyond lies only the true terror of Grigsby. I kid, but it’s at this point that all players, new and old, will need to crack open the massive rulebook or at least take a peek at the nine one page guides that helpfully explain the core functions of gameplay and management. Video tutorials are forthcoming, which should help new players, but I couldn’t track them down during my brief time with the press release version of the game, I assume they’re packaged with the full release build. Thankfully the guide sheets are a great start, and, I should mention, anyone who has spent any decent amount of time with War in the East 1 or War in the West will be right at home. The biggest change that hits you right as you start is the new air war system. Based on the air management of War in the West, this system sees you (or the AI thankfully) manage air missions and logisitics before ground actions can occur. I like this over an integrated system as it allowed me to better plan and make use of intel.

Another major change evident from an initial few hours is that the AI can be tasked to take control of quite a few systems. Yes, you’re right, they’re probably bettered managed by hand, but in the interest of actually making progress through a campaign, and simulating a bit of command and control issues, I like assigning the AI to take care of stuff I don’t feel like managing. It’s another thing that, when presented well to new players, will probably encourage more adoption than the rough and tumble old-school style of the first.

I haven’t played enough to really gauge the AI yet, though they haven’t done anything stupid yet, I’m happy to report. When I get through a proper campaign (or at least enough of one to properly judge the game in a full review, I’ll come back to the AI).

The amount of information in War in the East, is nothing short of amazing. When you’re tired of getting lost enjoying the massive and readable manual, you can take a break by getting lost in the game’s TO&Es, stat blocks, and included encyclopedia. There’s a lot to take in and it’s clear that a lot of passion went into War in the East 2’s production.

The basic controls are immediately recognizable and core gameplay elements should be familiar for veterans, so for them, I’m inclined to suggest hopping in to War in the East 2 at your earliest convenience. I see nothing here so far that would turn me off having spent a good amount of time with War in the West in the past. For new players, it may still seem daunting, but the information is much more accessible than it has ever been, and if a monster game like this seems at all appealing, I recommend taking the plunge.

Combat Mission Then and Now: Checking Out 2000’s Beyond Overlord

Recently, Jack and I both have been playing the latest Combat Mission games in order to review them for the blog. Check out Jack’s review of Shock Force 2, if you haven’t, and keep an eye out for my take on Black Sea Friday! But all this playing of excellent tactical simulation games got me thinking. It may have been 20 odd years, but I have memories of playing a Combat Mission game way back in the day. Digging around I stumbled across Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, the first of Battlefront’s Combat Mission games and a fond memory of bygone times. It turns out that GOG.com has the first three Combat Mission games for very reasonable prices, so I jumped back in to see how far the series has come.

They look like painted miniature soldiers, but they die like men.

It’s a bit clunky going back, I’ll admit. The UI has certainly seen some growth between classic Combat Mission and the more modern titles. Rather than a nice compact list of possible actions along the bottom UI, things are done with a right-click menu. Still functional, but there’s definitely an upgrade going forward. The basic mechanics of maneuvering and positioning teams is still familiar and after a few minutes of getting used to it I was back to splitting teams, order scouts forward, covering with bases of fire, and all the fun stuff you get up to in a CM game.

I decided to try my hand at the Canadian Armageddon campaign out of a sense of patriotic duty. Getting stuck in with a brigade of the South Saskatchewan Regiment it was time to clear houses and secure a small French town without armour support, of course. Why would I need that?

Just like the modern games, creating a base of fire and scouting are essential tactics.

I’m happy to report that it was just as much fun as the later CM games are. It’s decidedly messier, with map positioning and overall management less intuitive, but it’s still just as entertaining to see orders carried out, see units trying to adapt to changing situations, and cringing when a poor order leads to more casualties than you were willing to accept.

Graphically, it’s obviously much simpler, but the oversized infantry models, the fact that each figure represents a few men, and the distinctly differentiated terrain makes classic CM feel more like a tabletop wargame than the modern games. There is a bit more rigidity to every action and order, but it just reinforces the boardgame feeling.

Another Urban Environment, another delicate maneuver. From France to Ukraine

I was honestly expecting to be underwhelmed. Rose tinted glasses can only go so far and 21 years is a long time in terms of videogame development. The recent Combat Missions have really hit me with just how good they are, so I figured there must be a lot separating them from the classic models. An there is, truth be told, but the classics are still absolutely playable and do a great job of conveying the overall feel of CM, albeit with a simpler tabletop aesthetic, than I was expecting.

It helps that Beyond Overlord, Afrika Korps, and Barbarossa to Berlin are all on GOG for under $10 CAD each. They get cheaper during sales too. As an exercise in feeling old, or if the modern Combat Missions are out of your price range and you’ve already played the free demos, I’d recommend picking up one of the classics to dip your toes. There’s a lot of content and I’m absolutely floored by how well they stand the test of time.

-Joe

Opinion: An Open Letter to Grognards

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.

-Jack Trumbull

Checking Out the Victory At Sea: Ironclad Demo

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.

I want these games to succeed. I wanted to see Charles give high praise to War on the Sea in his review. I want naval games to take off. But I don’t know if we’re really there yet. It makes me sad.

I guess I’ll just have to go back and replay Clad in Iron 2: Sakhalin 1904 again for the hundredth time.

-Joe Fonseca

All Images taken From Steam Pages (I deleted the demo and therefore lost my screenshots. Meh)