Publisher: Matrix Games / Slitherine
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Reviewer: George Damidas
Overall: 9 = Must Buy
Pentium 4, 1GB RAM (XP) or 2GB RAM (Vista/7), 64 MB video card, 500 MB free HD space
I’m just going to be upfront with all of you: I’m not a hardcore wargamer. Oh, I think I would like to be one. What’s not to like about detailed stats giving consideration to every facet of a unit’s makeup? I like my arms to match my battles and my troops. I don’t want lasers anywhere near my World War II battles (most of the time) or lorica segmentata on my Punic War-era legionnaires. By all accounts, I should love wargaming. The truth is, though, that I am quickly humbled whenever I dip my toe into the Matrix or Shrapnel wells. That is important to keep in mind for this review, because as a spiritual successor to Panzer General, Panzer Corps includes all sorts of the types of concessions to a wider audience that make the hardened grognard grimace in disgust.
While I have a hard time getting into a full-blown wargame, I have no problems getting into and enjoying a good beer-and-pretzel wargame. The distinction between the two might seem slight to those who appreciate the latter, but for fans of the former, there is an Eastern Front-sized gulf of difference. But to be fair, I am the exact market for the more casual wargame. I appreciate what they bring to the strategy formula, with their slower, turn-based approach giving sprawling hexagon-segmented maps the feel of both massive and confined battlefields while allowing for all sorts of terrain modifiers; and those same modifiers working in tandem with numerous unit stats for a richer, layered experience. At the same time, I don’t need to know the minute details of the battle to understand where to go or what to do, nor do I need to dive into a sea of menus and arcane references just to know why this NATO symbol of a half-crossed rectangle won’t make that other symbol of a pyramid-thing go away. While some thrive on the complexity and require a more studied approach when tackling a battle of interest, I reach for a book instead. As intoxicating as a good after-action report on Gary Grigsby’s War in the East may be, I also know that those battles are best left to other virtual generals.
For everyone else, or for those who happen to enjoy both styles, there are games like Lordz Games Studio’s Panzer Corps. Panzer Corps does what all the best beer-and-pretzel titles do: it gives you the impression that you’re knee-deep in the muck while actually delivering a polished, more laid-back experience. To be fair to the developers, there is a lot going on here—the game isn’t a few panzers and tigers fighting over a patch of green. Instead, the game offers persistent armies, hundreds of units, a large campaign broken up over several phases, what-if scenarios, a map editor, an encyclopedia, and my favorite, a dynamic campaign that can lead to the German invasion of the United States. It takes effort and skill to get to the more fanciful scenarios, but they are the sort of interesting hook that will get people like me to replay some hard slogs just to shave off a few turns to eke out a Decisive Victory in pursuit of total domination. For those wanting to jump right in at a particular point in history, the campaign can be entered at one of four stages: 1939 (invasion of Poland), 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), 1943 (Western Front), and 1943 (Eastern Front). A ‘Scenarios’ tab also lets you select one of the campaign maps for a one-off battle, and included among the 26 are those tantalizing North American missions.
Don’t let the what-if scenarios fool you into thinking this is a more fanciful take on the war, because the majority of the game is based on actual operations. History being what it is, though, something had to be done for the players who can outmaneuver and outmuscle the Allies. For those German commanders with the chops, and who consistently deliver sound victories, a different progression path becomes available that sees the U.S. as the prize. For most of us, those lucky enough to squeeze out a Marginal Victory at the last second, the war will play out as you would expect. But even then, the game remains exciting. That’s also thanks to Lordz Games using Panzer General as their lead, as they were able to expertly tap into both the underlying mechanics and interface design decisions that made SSI’s hit so palatable to so many.
Prestige is (again) used as the currency with which commanders reinforce depleted units and recruit new ones. By being able to strengthen battered units, survivors can be taken from one battle to the next and grow increasingly deadlier as their stats climb ever higher. Reinforcements come in two forms: green recruits and hardened veterans. Raw recruits cost much less prestige but also drag down the unit’s experience, while vets allow the unit to maintain its level of experience but cost a tidy sum of prestige. Units can be reinforced before a scenario begins as well as in the field, with the prestige pool replenished before each mission for a large build-up and during missions by taking cities. In addition to deciding when and how much prestige to spend, there are also supply considerations to keep in mind. Each mechanical unit requires fuel, while both man and machine use ammo. Both replenishing and reinforcing require a full turn to complete. This can be especially tricky when factoring in things like artillery and fighter planes automatically firing on an enemy attacking an adjacent friendly, which can suddenly chew up that carefully preserved remaining volley. But just as frustrating as watching my last-minute dash to an objective lose steam as my gas-guzzling tanks hit empty, it was equally satisfying to witness the opposite, when defenders ran out of ammo pummeling some resilient pioneers and found themselves unable to answer my steady barrage of fire.
And all of this information, from detailed unit stats to movement range, is readily available through easy-to-access menus and on-screen icons. For instance, units low on supply will have a yellow gas can or ammo belt above their strength number, indicating that they have an attack left before they run out (at which point the icons turn red). Unit movement range is indicated by the accessible hexagons being highlighted in color and the areas out of range in gray, and an arrow displaying the path the unit will take to reach its destination. Small dots appear when aircraft are selected to quickly show areas that are too far away for the current fuel load; those sent beyond the border risk crashing if fuel runs out before a nearby airfield can be captured. Unit stats can also be brought up by a right-click, which includes gives a brief note about the unit’s history, as well as permanently displayed via a handy side bar. All told, the interface, an intimidating and significant barrier to entry for so many would-be wargamers, is slick, intuitive, and very user friendly.
All of this comes together to make the game a joy to play. Aside from reinforcements and supplies, there are a host of other considerations to bear in mind: the weather, the possibility for surrounded and battered units to surrender, ambushes and surprise encounters for those who neglect proper reconnaissance, and the extended frontage required of surrounded units that make them more susceptible to damage. Units can also host war heroes, special troops who go above and beyond with recognition in the form of awards and unit-wide stat boosts. It’s Panzer Corps‘ use of modifiers and pace that really elevates it above simpler fare, allowing it to hit a nice mid-note. Still, some of the outcomes will seem a bit mystifying at first. An outcome predictor pops up whenever an enemy unit is hovered over while a friendly is highlighted that provides an estimate of the combat losses to be received and damage dealt if the attack is ordered, though they don’t always match up with the actual results. While thoroughly accurate readings would negate some of the strategic element, it is a bit strange to expect a loss of one for a damage of three and receive a damage of four and whiff completely. Oh, the perils of war.
The main complaint leveled against Panzer General was that the scenarios had too much of a puzzle element to their approach. While that is true in some of Panzer Corps scenarios, I have found that those not going for Decisive Victories will find the path to conquest fairly open. I was able to make decent progress with a string of Marginal Victories with only Moscow feeling as if I had to play a certain way to make it through before the deadline. Those wanting more defined victories, however, will find their paths a bit more confined. It’s not that the enemy is predictable, as it will certainly vary its strategy depending on your approach, but there are certain notes to hit in order to make it to all the objectives in the shortened timeframe. The enemy has a tendency to throw everything to the front, which makes for an initial slog, but can also mean some cities being taken with no resistance. Objective cities tend to have at least an infantry garrison, but surviving the initial engagements usually means an easier ride. I think that will only be felt for the more experienced players, though, as I often felt that I had to be on my toes to win. It’s not that a puzzle element is all that bad, as a time limit is necessary to convey the effect of a defined engagement and its very inclusion necessitates optimal movement and engagement paths. Although, an easy way to restart a scenario would be helpful as it can become apparent with several turns left that the objectives won’t be taken in time. While the persistent approach means that some battles can be lost, it would’ve been nice to be able to avoid that altogether with a quick restart option; saving during the first turn is allowed, though doing so after prestige has been spent can mean a similar outcome is highly probable.
Panzer Corps is at its best when the maps are large and the turn counter leaves enough wiggle room for experimentation. Not a lot, mind you, but enough so that a few failed advances doesn’t mean the end. There are plenty of maps like that, and they make for a great time. Even in the maps that require a stricter approach, the battles remain exciting as the initial advance separates into several different battles as units form their own mini armies and tackle objectives, each with their own back-and-forth flow. As one group encounters a pocket of stiffer resistance and retreats beyond a bridge, another breaks through and circles around to assist. Keeping track of each group’s encounter and their role within the larger engagement is incredibly engrossing.
Topping all of this off is the ability to play by e-mail, some simple but charming graphics (some Panzer General-style cinematics would’ve been fun, though), and sparse but effective sound effects (ignoring the odd mission narrator). There are even some aids for newcomers, included five difficulty levels and the ability to toggle off dynamic weather, supply limits, and the Fog of War. This all make for a compelling and addictive package, but the addition of extra tools for creating custom scenarios adds a touch more for the budding designer.
The editor is fairly robust, allowing those much more talented than myself the chance to create content for me to enjoy. An included manual goes into detail on the hows and whys—setting up a start date, victory conditions, triggers, and even how to use Google Earth maps as pad images. The system is intuitive, with large icons and clear menu item titles, but I would’ve appreciated some popup tooltips to save me from having to jump between the interface and the manual. The included encyclopedia also proves to be inadequate as a proper reference piece as there are far too few units covered to be of help when trying to create a more involved scenario—though the included units are covered quite well. While it was fun to fool around and create some ridiculous maps, it does falter slightly in the final execution, as the Scenarios folder indicated in the manual isn’t actually there. Still, everything works fine once the folder is manually created, and I have no doubt that more capable hands will create far worthier efforts that will keep the game fresh for some time to come. In the meantime, I need to go shave off a few turns in Kursk.
Panzer Corps has me dreaming in hexagons nowadays. For a beer-and-pretzel wargame fan, it’s a real treat. Slitherine, Koios Works, and others have put out some solid titles in the past, but Lordz Game Studio’s latest effort is far and away the best I’ve played in many years. Fans of Matrix Games’ more hardnosed releases can play a quick game while fans of lighter fare will get to slog it out in the muddy fields of Europe and, if fortune is on their side, North America. A few puzzle-y maps creep up here and there while some outcomes border on baffling, but by and large, Panzer Corps is an engaging, addictive title that has seen and will continue to see many hours of play for some time to come. Highly recommended.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)