PC Anglo-German War

Scott Tortorice

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Since the personal computer became a household item in the early 80's, wargamers have always been on the lookout for a computerized version of their favorite boardgames. Many games have tried to cross this bridge, and we hope that many more will continue to try. This is a look at a new release by Schwerpunkt, a company that prides itself as being the maker of "PC Software for the Serious WWII Historian/War Gamer," called Anglo-German War '39-'45, or AGW for short. Covering the war in Western Europe and North Africa from the opening days in September 1939 and the invasion of Poland to the fall of Berlin in 1945, AGW certainly has the appearance of your classic board wargame - reminiscent of the acclaimed The Operational Art of War (TOAW) series of games. So is this a "TOAW" killer? We'll deal with that in a bit...

Presented within AGW are 43 pre-built scenarios covering many of the major conflicts of the Second World War ETO, with the exception of the Eastern Front (covered by the earlier release, Russo-German War '41-'44). Players are given the opportunity to command ground, naval, and air units of the Allied or Axis powers in play against either the Computer Opponent (CO), versus other players in "hotseat" mode, or via Play By Email (PBEM). This is a turn-based game, with each turn covering one week of time. Units are mostly at the divisional level, but do range in size from Armies (or Battle Groups) all the way down to Regiments. In addition to the included scenarios, players can also generate their own scenarios using the scenario builder that is included in the game.

After a scenario is selected, the player is presented with the option to select the previously mentioned mode of play, advanced attack and defense methods, and "Political Impact" options that add realistic or hypothetical situations to the scenario.

A turn is broken down into three phases per side: the Turn Deployment Phase and Ground Ops I and II phases. It is during the deployment phase that players allocate air and naval assets, assign airdrops, reform and refit units, or display OOB's and HQ assignments. The two Ground Ops phases (which are identical) are where the actual movement and combats are conducted, in no particular order.

Right-mouse clicking on an empty portion of the map presents menu options or "operations" which the player can then selectively apply to desired units. Here the game differs from what you may have traditionally seen; for example, there is no "Naval Supply Phase" where ALL naval supply operations are conducted. Instead, the player may select to conduct some naval supplies, move on to assign air CAP operations, go back and assign further naval supplies, continue on with airdrops, and once again go back to perform naval supply with additional units, etc. So there is no formal structure for when things are done, it is completely up to the player to coordinate what is done when, within what is allowed per phase. The same applies to the Ground Ops phases; one could move some units, perform some combat, move additional units, conduct additional combat and on and on. This really opens up the doors for exploitation attacks and ad-hoc defenses. Once a player has conducted all his operations for a phase, the "Proceed" button is pressed and the computer opponent performs his portion of the turn.

With the given process, the most expeditious manner to handle the operations is to select one of the operation types and then select the units to conduct that type of operation one by one, then moving on to the next type of operation and going back to find all the units needed for that, and so on. Doing it this way though would seem to cause issues with overlooked units since you're scanning the entire map looking for specific units instead of concentrating on one area at a time (by giving different operations to various units). Of course you could work in one area at a time, but you'll be right-clicking and selecting different operations quite frequently. If the top unit of a stack isn't the correct one needed for the operation type selected, you must first TAB-click on the unit in the stack to move it up to the top before giving the order. This could have been alleviated by having the process to simply conjure up the right click menu appear when a player clicks on the specific units. Optionally, one can right-click on a stack, which will then display the individual units in a sidebar on the left side of the screen where players can then right-click on a specific counter to issue a command. I would have liked to have seen this handled directly on the map (in the low level zoom). The selection box should appear around the specific unit that has been right-clicked so that there is no confusion as to which unit players are issuing the command.

Another problem arises when viewing the OOB for units, finding parent HQs, and command structure. Penalties are incurred if a unit moves out of command radius of an HQ, so you'll want to make sure that you're properly linked up. However, you must choose the option to display OOB first (where players will see the command structure of the selected units), remembering where the units are in relation to the HQ, and then switching to the "move" command to move the HQ or units back into the proper radius. The command link doesn't stay highlighted for you, which would be a nice feature to have by default whenever a HQ unit is selected.

It seems that the crutch of many computer-based wargames is the AI (or CO in this case), however the CO for this game seems to be fairly competent and up to the task of defensive operations. While capable of conducting offensive operations, it does have some problems with reorganizing its units as needed, especially when an HQ unit is eliminated. It has trouble reassigning units to another HQ to maintain supply and command. The CO also fails completely when it comes to handling amphibious operations, so if players are hoping to defend the beaches of northern France against waves of attacking Allies, they are out of luck. Unfortunately, players will be stuck being the aggressor in those types of scenarios. Again, to the praise of the game developer, beefing up the AI has been talked about as being one of the higher priorities of the future patch. Don't despair though, the computer will give quite a good fight in the smaller scenarios in which it is primarily set to defend (Bulge comes to mind and France'40 was a good fight as well).

As you would expect, AGW handles all the supply route tracing at the conclusion of each turn, as is FOW (if enhanced FOW features are selected during the pre-game set up). During the gameplay, I very much had the feeling that I was sitting at a classic board wargame, which is a great achievement that will impress the niche crowd of hardcore wargamers. Let's be honest, this game won't appeal to those that aren't familiar with the boardgames of the past. This is very much a boardgame "emulator," where the computer handles the mundane tasks of chart and table look-ups, but it is ultimately up to the player to coordinate moves, attacks, and resupply/reorganization efforts.

After you install the game, if you browse the install directory, you will notice some 2,105 .bmp images. All but about six make up the huge map of Europe/N. Africa. For a computer wargame that is in effect simulating a boardgame, the graphics are very well done, with the map being very well rendered. The playing area of the map covers some 294x264 hexes, which will be reminiscent of some of the old "monster" boardgames of yesteryear.

The unit "counters" are bit more bland, but very functional. Each counter displays a good bit of information and surprisingly that information is easy to read on such a small space.

For those who love getting their hands on the graphics for "modding" purposes, you'll find that the map is available for modding (albeit there are those 2,105 bitmaps!) but the unit counters are not - except that you can change the RGB values (colors) for each country's units. The shape and layout cannot be modded, however. The few various information screens can be modded as well. As they display now, they remind me of a small spreadsheet that has had some color added to the various table cells. Again, very functional if not spectacular.

As far as music and sound goes, there are six "songs/hymns," and that's it. No combat sounds, no movement sounds, no naval sounds. For this reason, the sound scored very low for this title - and is a large part of the somewhat lower overall score than the game deserves. I suspect many will have their favorite MP3's playing in the background to make up for this...

Additionally, if you haven't installed the game to the default directory, you'll get an error from your default .wav playing application saying that it couldn't find the path to the files. This is the same error that you'll get when you go to load a scenario by scenario name. My support question was quickly answered about this issue though, and the fix is simple enough, change the "target" line of the shortcut that is placed on your desktop to point to the directory where you installed the game and it should work as expected.

The interface for AGW seems to be very "John Tilleresque" in appearance, with the main toolbar at the top of the screen containing iconized buttons that mostly handle what is viewed on screen- zoom levels, unit type displays, weather patterns, and the "next step/proceed" buttons. The buttons do provide a named text label when you mouse over them. Most functions though will be accessed via the right mouse button.

As of the time of this review, there is no auto-scrolling for the map. The game designer has mentioned that the option was present in the original build but was not smooth enough for his liking, so it will be addressed again in a future patch. This will be very welcomed, as you either have to click some arrow buttons to scroll in certain directions, or use the arrow buttons on your keyboard to do the same.

New for AGW is the "super zoom" button which will quickly zoom out/in from level 1 zoom to "Europe" zoom level, which was a nice addition and allows one to quickly zero in on a given portion of the map. One just has to remember to deselect this button though or you'll find that you'll zoom out accidentally when you right click on the map thinking that you're about to bring up the operations menu. Keyboard shortcuts have also been assigned for some major cities/ports, allowing you to quickly transport to that location from anywhere on the map. Still, for movements that cover large areas of ground where you're moving several units over long distances, you'll find that you're zooming in/out quite a bit and going back and forth to select the next unit to move.

Installation was simple enough, but not automated. There is no "autorun" to launch the installer when you put the CD in the drive, you must navigate to the CD, and then launch the single executable file to initiate the installation process. As noted in the Audio section above, there was an issue if one decides to not install to the default directory of C:AGW.

My one complaint with the file structure is that all of the files are mixed within the single directory and if players create some sub-folders to move the scenario files (or saved game files into), the map will be blank when they are loaded. It seems that the game is looking only in the root directory for the map files, so players must keep everything mixed together. This isn't much of a problem though since the game has the option of loading scenarios by file name and will thus list only viable scenario files in the selection window.

A nice feature is the ability to save a game in progress at any time, allowing players to return to a game state at any point. A couple of issues with the save game process though; first, there is no prompt to overwrite an existing file so it would be quite easy to accidentally overwrite a scenario file that shipped with the game with one that you are playing if you have forgotten to rename it during the save process. And with no confirmation of the save, you get an uneasy feeling about shutting down a game that you've been playing for hours without truly knowing that it was properly saved. I'd highly recommend that you backup the original scenario files to a different folder as one of the first things that you do after installing the game, just to be safe.

A rare treat these days for computer games was the inclusion of a very detailed, spiral bound manual that covers all of the menu options available during game play. A big kudo to Schwerpunkt for this decision! To top that off, a nicely colored reference card is also included which shows unit information, combat modifiers, movement costs, and a game turn summary. Well done!

I've been enjoying AGW and although I was unable to test the PBEM feature of the game, I very much look forward to being able to do that in the future.

If you come from a background of board wargaming, or have always wanted to play a good boardgame covering the war in Europe but didn't want to read a manual of a rulebook and dedicate a table and room of your house to setting up the game, then this title will very much appeal to you.

Closing Comments:

So, is this a "TOAW" killer? It probably isn't, although it would be a nice addition to your library of games, and to be fair it functions and handles itself in a different manner than TOAW does. The phrase may be overused when it comes to games, but this is a "diamond in the rough" to me. It is not buggy, but a bit clumsy in some areas such as how commands are issued and how you navigate about the map, but it is still very functional and very enjoyable. Also, with Ron Dockal (designer) showing true dedication and support, I hope to see this title polished up and at the top of my most played list.

7.0 out of 10
 
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