Tuesday, December 4, 2012

On the Ostfront

I first started playing war games when I was in middle school.  I'm giving away my age when I tell you that we had no computer war games then; my gaming was all done shuffling chits on paper maps in games from companies like Avalon Hill and SPI.  Over the years I've played a lot of games on a lot of different subjects covering a lot of different battles - but I've never been terribly interested in WWII Eastern Front games.  Maybe it was growing up during the Cold War with family members who had seen active duty in WWII, so neither side in the conflict resonated with me.  Maybe it was the dreary image of the cold and darkness of Russian winters.  I just never played them much, beyond the occasional ASL scenario with a college roommate that was very into Eastern Front games, and more recently the occasional game of Unity of Command.
All of that's changed in the past week.  I've been on a major Ostfront tear with two spectacular tactical level games, Achtung Panzer Operation Star (APOS) and Panzer Commander Ostfront.
APOS is one of the most visually stunning games of this genre I've ever played.  Once you get past the somewhat confusing manual and complex interface, it's also a real joy to play if you're looking for a tactical challenge.  The game and its DLC focus on the operations around Kharkov during Operation Star in February 1943, with one DLC jumping out briefly to Fall Blau (Case Blue) during the Summer of 1942.  I'm currently playing the latter DLC (Volokonovka).  Some scenes:

APOS is unusual in that its played on both an operational map and in a 3D tactical view.  They player maneuvers units on the Operational map, battle is joined, and then played out in the 3D view.

My task as the German player is to take the village of Odnitsov, and then advance to the crossings of the River Oskop near Volokonovka.  The village is held by elements of a Soviet infantry brigade, but Soviet armor is on the way to reinforce the position.

Force preservation is critical in APOS.  Your pool of units carries through the game and unlike a more scenario based game, you aren't going to get a lot of new units and reinforcements between combats.  Further, replacements and supplies are only available at supply points, meaning you'll have to withdraw a unit to those supply points to reorganize, rearm, and refuel.  This means you may have to give up a recently captured key position if your remaining forces aren't strong enough to hold it.  Combined with the lethal nature of WWII weapons, this can make sustained advances a challenge as your units melt away.

This makes APOS a game of careful and realistic tactical maneuver.  You might capture the village with a head-on assault, but your casualties will be so high as to make exploiting your success impossible.

APOS, also unlike more traditional scenario-based games, doesn't outline a specific objective per combat that you're striving for.  There are key points on the Operational map; your task in each combat is to determine the best approach that will put you in a position to control these key points.  You might fight a battle simply to shape the enemy position that a future combat with a different set of units can take and hold a key point on another part of the battlefield.

Weather effects are visible and can have a profound effect on your troops.  Rain reduces visibility and hampers movement.  A blizzard causes your troops to get fatigued much faster.  Resting them inside a building allows the to recuperate much faster.  The entire landscape is deformable - tanks leave tracks, buildings are destroyed by artillery and tank shells, foxholes and trenches are below the earth surface line.  Armored vehicles not only burn when hit, they shed pieces of armor, tracks and wheels - and then they proceed to cook off with secondary explosions for the next several minutes!  Combine this with very good positional audio, and the sounds of an exploding ammunition in a knocked out track behind your front line will have you spinning your POV to see who has moved up and is shooting behind you!

APOS is simply an exciting, engrossing game to play.  Despite the fact that the manuals are bad translations of the Russian versions, the interface can be opaque (this is better with the most recent patch), and installing updates can be convoluted, I can't recommend this game highly enough.  I'm not sure there's ever been any game that as accurately reflects the complexities facing the WWII battalion or brigade commander as well as Actung Panzer Operation Star  does.
Panzer Commander Ostfront also covers the Eastern Front during WWII, and at a similar scale, but is a more traditional game in its approach.

I'll cover the details in a later post, but for now I'm off to defend a river crossing.