OnLine of Departure

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OnLine of Departure Support Wargames by Jim Werbaneth




Supplements and Player's Aids



Originally Published NOVEMBER 10, 2002

By Jim Werbaneth

TalonSoft began life in 1996 with its first Battleground game, Bulge (also known as Ardennes).  Then it quickly moved away from the period, recasting the Battleground system as one of Civil War and Napoleonic tactics. 

In a few years though the company returned to World War II combat, on a platoon level, with its East Front game, soon superceded by East Front II.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.


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 Stalingrad, Midway, D-Day and Afrika Korps.  Again, using a design licensed from SPI, Avalon Hill released the first East Front tactical game, Panzerblitz, one of the most influential in the history of wargaming, followed several years later by a Western Front adaptation, Panzer Leader. The conflict was then embraced twenty years later when SSI introduced the first true computer wargames.  On the scale of tactics, boardgame publishers made the war a lucrative franchise, before reached prominence on computer screens.  The most successful games of this sort for the computer have to be Steel Panthers and its sequels, again from SSI, with the freeware Windows-compatible Steel Panthers: World at War coming from Matrix Games.

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 files. 


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 that first Battle of the Bulge game by TalonSoft, this is entirely logical. 

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 nineteenth-century United States and the jungles and rice patties of the Pacific and South East Asia are alien to each other, but the artists use the same general approach for both, and do so effectively. 

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 edges. 

The last Battleground title, Chickamauga, introduces sloping borders along elevated hexes.  It does nothing to enhance already high functionality, but does lend the game a more polished look.  The Campaign Series continues this aesthetic improvement. 

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. 


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 headquarters. 

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 Panthers III. 

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 strikingly China.  There are also allowances for countries that might have fought, or fought in a prelude to the war.  Both the Spanish Republicans and Franco’s Nationalists appear, plus the doomed Czechoslovakia.  All of this is in one package, for Western Europe, the Eastern Front, and Japan’s battles in Asia and the Pacific. 

The Campaign Series further exhibits less variety in orders of battle.  True, East Front II has the Axis minor allies, so the Soviets can fight Hungary and Romania, plus the battles of the Winter War against the Finns.  However, Rising Sun limits Japan to fighting the United States and the British Commonwealth; without Soviet involvement, there is no room for the prewar conflict at Nomanhan, nor the last Soviet blitz through Manchuria.  Both easily fit into the Steel Panthers: World at War framework. 

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 of gunfights. 

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 boardgames. 

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.