PLAYING WORLD WAR II BATTLES WITH THE CAMPAIGN SERIES OF COMPUTER GAMES
TalonSoft began life in 1996
with its first Battleground game, Bulge (also known as
In a few years though the company returned to World
War II combat, on a platoon level, with its East Front game, soon
superceded by East Front II.
The latter marked the real beginning of a new family, the Campaign
Series, which encompassed the Second World War through two subsequent
games, West Front and Rising Sun. Most recently, the system reached forward
with Divided Ground, on the Arab-Israeli Wars from 1948 through 1973.
The year 2001 also saw the release of a combined, discounted package of the World War II titles under the name World at War. With them too come the West Front expansion for Operation Sealion, and a new one for East Front II covering the death throes of the Third Reich. Together, the games of World at War form TalonSoft’s complete, distinctive view of the tactics in history’s greatest war.
A PLACE IN THE WORLD
World War II has always been a “marquee”
subject for wargaming, going back forty years to the Avalon Hill “Classics”
line of boardgaming, which include
Likewise, TalonSoft made its debut with a tactical game on a marquee battle of a marquee war. In the beginning it appeared as though the Battleground Series would include mechanized as well as musket battles, and indeed, early company brochures advertise a “Battleground Middle East.”
By the time that even the first East Front
rolled out, the Steel Panthers games already dominated World War II
and subsequent tactical computer gaming.
In a sense then, the Campaign Series had to play catch-up from
its inception, and against a proven and popular competitor at that.
The TalonSoft games were able to secure their
own niche however, with a loyal following.
They continued the high graphic standards of their Battleground
progenitors, with a great deal of commonality in systems and interfaces. In addition, the remain appreciably more
simple in practice than the Steel Panthers series, and though the Campaign
Series is hardly primitive, and the Steel Panthers games
unplayable physics lessons, The two “Fronts” and Rising Sun do
come across as the more systemically accessible.
On the other hand, much of that accessibility,
at least in the World at War package, is seriously undermined by
incredibly poor documentation. There
is no manual, either in print or on disk whereas its earlier SSI counterpart,
Steel Panthers Arsenal, includes a hardcopy manual combining those of
all three games in its box. Instead,
gamers new to the Campaign Series have to rely largely on the help
The games that bear the closest resemblance to
the Campaign Series have to be those of the Battleground
family. As both trace their lineage to
The map is one of the first graphic
similarities that a new player probably notices. They have the same range of two-dimensional
and three-dimensional views, and a very similar look to their treatments of
terrain. The farms and forests of the
The Campaign Series shows one quite
noticeable improvement over the earlier games in the portrayal of terrain
elevation differences. In all of the Battleground
games except the ninth and final one, there is no attempt to blend the
transitions between hexes of differing elevations in the three-dimensional
maps. As a result, the look is
something like sheets of cardboard or plywood layed upon each other. It does portray slopes in a clearly
functional and adequately attractive manner, but does so with a lot of sharp
The last Battleground title,
The icons to East Front II, West
Front and Rising Sun represent a resurrection of the same approach
used in Battleground: Bulge.
Armored Vehicles are represented on the two-dimensional map by
vehicle-specific icons, and personnel by images of appropriate miniature-like
soldiers. The player has the option,
as in all the Battleground games, to display units with “bases” to
indicate nationality; it is a very good idea to use these in all games. The infantry icons are a little small, and
both they and the vehicles often tend to blend into the background,
especially on maps with heavy vegetation.
The bases are an easy way to tell the troops apart, and in fact just
to see that they are even there.
Besides along aesthetic considerations, the
resemblance extends to other functional aspects of the graphics. The interface is very close to that of the Battleground
games, from the first screen in which the player chooses sides, degree of
difficulty, and optional rules.
However, in its default mode the games of the Campaign Series
does not have the menu bar, a feature that helps define most Windows
software, and one that is virtually essential in all TalonSoft games. The player can call up the menu bar by
hitting the “M” hotkey, and can reverse the decision with the same key.
The series further departs from the Windows
norm in its use of the right mouse button, following the lead of the Battleground
titles. From the introduction of
Windows 95 six years ago, the previously neglected right mouse button has
been integral to the use of software.
The Windows standard assigns making decisions and choosing options to
the left button, and getting menus and rollups, and in many cases additional
information and help, to the right button.
The TalonSoft way makes the right click the
more important one by a large margin.
Except on the menu bar, where the Microsoft standard rules supreme,
the left button comes into play primarily to select units to move or fire,
and the right button to execute all other decisions. For the user experienced with the Windows
operating systems and applications, it is somewhat awkward at first.
There are important areas of departure for the
Campaign Series. To begin with,
movement and combat are integrated through the expenditure of action points,
so that units can undertake movement, in any increments, and fire combat
(normally one or two attacks) in any order that the owner desires. Units can perform close assault, but must
start adjacent to their targets, and expend all their action points. Defensive fire is now a variety of
opportunity fire, so that units can respond as the enemy acts within their
fields of vision. Both mean that the
sequence of play is simpler than in the Battleground games, with the
player turns reduced resolving indirect fire and air attacks, then performing
movement and combat options.
MATTERS OF SIMPLICITY
Several years ago, before I owned Battleground:
Bulge, I was speaking with a player who had far more experience with the
game. I asked him how it played, and
he described it as “Panzer Leader on the computer.” The description is fairly accurate, as it
really does feel like Panzer Leader.
The Campaign Series advances from the
first Battleground game’s systemic precedent in important ways. First, it dispenses with the multi-part
sequence of play, similar to that of Advanced Squad Leader (Avalon
Hill). Then goes a prohibition, again
from the same boardgame system, against a unit engaging in preparatory fire
or offensive fire in the same player turn in which it moves. Likewise, assault becomes part of the
movement/fire combat process, exclusive of doing either, instead of taking
place at the end of the player turn, possibly following movement.
East Front II, West Front and Rising Sun still retain some of
the essential simplicity of their predecessors. Perhaps most salient, unit facing is
strictly optional, though players really should adopt it. It is not a part of the Panzerblitz
games, nor of the Tactical Combat Series (The Gamers), but is a vital
part of combat, especially with armored combat vehicles.
Another option is for command and
control. Again, all players except
those who are raw novices to any kind of tactical wargame should use it. In addition, I always opt for allowing
victory points for eliminating enemy leaders.
As in the Battleground games, the Campaign
Series portrays leaders as units separate from either combat units or
their own headquarters. In one way,
this is an improvement over the Steel Panthers model, which puts
leaders as integrated into combat units.
If a higher-level commander is in the scenario, he can be transferred
from unit to unit as a form of movement, but as a rule single-man units are
treated as transferable assets, in fact characteristics, for combat units and
For infantry formations, the leadership system
used in the Campaign Series is the better one. However, it does not work out quite as well
for vehicular units, as the game shows the leader as separate, in a separate
vehicle, such as a jeep, when he should be fighting from one of the tanks.
The TalonSoft games differ from the Steel
Panthers series in another important way.
The latter treats morale recovery and rally from rout as possible in
both the player turn, when the player actively selects a unit and attempts to
restore it to something closer to good order, and automatically at the end of
the player turn. The Campaign
Series places rally and recovery as the last phase in the player
turn. However, since it is a little
easier to accomplish than in the Steel Panthers games, units do not
stay disrupted any longer.
Players might wonder which is better, the Steel
Panthers games on World War II, especially Steel Panthers: World at
War, or the TalonSoft Campaign Series. Each has its own attractions. First, there is the scale; Steel
Panthers: World at War is on a scale of individual tanks and squads,
whereas the Campaign Series is one of platoons, more similar to Steel
Steel Panthers: World at War gives heavy emphasis to the details of fire combat, to the
point of portraying heavy weapon fire on a shot by shot basis. Furthermore, each weapon fires separately:
Basically, only infantry squads’ rifles and submachineguns shoot
combined. For example, if a German
squad fires at adjacent American infantry, it may first use its light
machineguns, then rifles, and finally throw grenades. This makes for a very fine level of detail.
In addition, Steel Panthers-system
units are capable of firing more often within a turn. Those in the Campaign Series might
shoot one or twice in the friendly player turn, and maybe twice again
defensively during the other side’s turn.
As a result, the Steel Panthers games permit a unit to engage
more targets, albeit at lower effectiveness, than Campaign Series
units in the same amount of time.
One finds more room for scenario variety in
the Steel Panthers games as well.
Virtually every combatant in World War II makes an appearance,
including some that doe not appear in any of the TalonSoft games, most
The Campaign Series further exhibits
less variety in orders of battle.
True, East Front II has the Axis minor allies, so the Soviets
But the TalonSoft series has strengths of its
own. To begin with, the Steel
Panthers system has always had nagging weaknesses when it comes to
terrain. Earlier, SSI games in the
series never did find a way to portraying grass that grows on the slopes of
hills, making it possible to place high grass only on flat, base-level
terrain. More importantly, not until
the final DOS-based game, Steel Panthers: World War II (SP Workshop)
and the first versions of Steel Panthers: World at War did the series
permit depressed features, such as wadis, Russian steppe gullies called balkas,
and sunken roads. Nor did they have
the kind of terrain that divides ground, such as hedges and walls. The last games in the series did include
them, but only as terrain within a hex rather than running along it, the
normal method in most tactical boardgames.
The Battleground series always had such
features, and showed them as occurring along the edges of hexes. The Campaign Series continues this.
Finally, the two fronts and Rising Sun
are more manageable. The Steel
Panthers games are very playable, but sometimes the pace slows. For example, if a side has large amounts of
artillery capable of extensive preparatory bombardment, a scenario can start
out with a long, less than exciting string of sound and fury, signifying
little or nothing. Additionally, the
pace of a battle already underway can be stopped by shell-by-shell portrayals
The Campaign Series incorporates less
fine detail into its methodology. In a
way it is closer to the standards of boardgames, in which designers generally
lack the option to delve into the mechanics of every shot that leaves the
muzzle. Tobruk (Avalon Hill) is
a prominent exception, but was superceded by Advanced Squad Leader which,
despite the rulebook of legendary length and acronyms, actually plays
faster. But for the most part,
boardgames require an approach that considers the ability of the human player
to digest detail, plus the limits of his attention span.
From the beginning, TalonSoft computer
wargames reflected a heritage that lies squarely in the realm of the
cardboard wargame. The Battleground
Civil War games, for example, are heavily influenced by the Great Battles
of the American Civil War games, begun by SPI and continued by several
publishers, most recently GMT. Some
players even think that the TalonSoft games are nearly direct ports of the
The Campaign Series is not a direct
port of anything. Yet these titles too
show their cardboard ancestry. Their
playability and rapid pacing, both making life easier for the human at the
keyboard, show concerns of the boardgame hobby that go back to its inception.
My experience is that East Front II and its stable mates play more quickly than any of the Steel Panthers games, thus making it possible to complete even a fairly large and complex scenario in one comfortable sitting. Smaller battles can be played and replayed, enabling the player to hone tactics with experience. Were they to have better documentation, say on the level of TalonSoft’s other Battleground and Operational Art of War series, I would heartily recommend East Front II, West Front and Rising Sun as the first real computer wargames for novice players.
For my part I have played them a lot, especially Rising Sun. In this case I vote for the Campaign Series with my time and attention if not my feet.