A CASE STUDY OF CASE YELLOW
THE FALL OF FRANCE IN THE OPERATIONAL ART OF WAR I
There is a long history of tactical computer games that allow players to design their own battles. SSI's Wargame Construction Set and Steel Panthers series are the most important, and the longest-lasting DOS games in many gamers' libraries. The same company also published a Battles of Napoleon game that, though largely forgotten ten years after its introduction, was very well-regarded in its time. At the same time, the Australian firm SSG published its Battlefront and Decisive Battles of the American Civil War series which, like the first Wargame Construction Set, could also cover operational and strategic-level situations.
Yet warfare at this level has always been secondary to tactical battles when it comes to giving gamers the tools to develop their own scenarios. That is, until 1998, when TalonSoft published The Operational Art of War Volume I, covering the years 1939 to 1955. This was followed the next year with a second volume, on conflicts from 1955 to 2000. Both are the work of Norm Koger, one of computer gaming's most important designers, whose long career with SSI began with 1988's Stellar Crusade.
Volume I contains fifteen scenarios, drawn mainly from World War II, but also addressing the decisive period of the Israeli War of Independence, and another presenting the entire Korean War. Two others are hypothetical wars between the Western Allies and the Soviets in 1945 and 1955. Then Battle Pack I, a supplement that also upgrades the game to an improved version, adds sixteen more scenarios.
Furthermore, it is of the right scale to which to judge the game. Case Yellow is much bigger than the Arracourt scenario, a German-American tank battle on the lowest end of the game's scale, and smaller and shorter than the Barbarossa scenario in Battle Pack I. In addition, the contending armies are much different in character, which makes it easier to see if the software treats them differently enough, or as bodies that differ mainly in strength.
Operational Art of War Volume I shows off some impressive strengths of
its own in the blitzkrieg against
Probably the first part
of the scenario that a gamer will notice is the map. As are most in the game,
it is attractive, and gives a fairly accurate view of the theater. Boardgames
can do better; Victory in the West (GMT) is the absolute best on the
Western Front in 1940, and Blitzkrieg 1940 (XTR/Command Issue
42-----March 1997), on the same scale, likewise has more detail and unique
terrain types than The Operational Art of War Volume I. On the other
hand, the computer game has infinitely more detail and subtlety than the
The computer game map has
its share of anomalies. For example,
The Maginot Line in the
The game begins with the
invasions already under way. There are already substantial German airlanding
troops on the ground at
Likewise, there are no
Belgian units in the
THE HUMAN FACTOR
The system to The Operational Art of War Volume I is more complicated than the rather light burdens on the players would indicate, which is a tribute to the game and its designer. Strength and losses are abstracted into the normal combat factors, but this is founded on a far more detailed treatment that measures in terms of squads and individual heavy weapons, vehicles and aircraft. This basis is very reminiscent of the system used in two earlier operational-level computer games by Norm Koger, Red Lightning and Conflict: Middle East (both SSI), although these lack the more easily referenced combat factors and even more generalized "health" measurements of the newer game.
It further has the capacity for a much looser sequence of play in place of the old move-fight paradigm. A player can move some of his units, declare some attacks, then go back to movement, with the possibility of another cluster of combats. This process can continue as long as the human player has a sufficient percentage of his whole force's movement points remaining.
This gives the game a
more fluid, less constrained and "gamey" rhythm than its
predecessors do. It also gives players the chance to use two diametrically
opposite, historical methods of attack. The first, favored by the Germans for
much of the war, was for the panzers to break the enemy line, then exploit,
with the infantry following behind to mop up. The other was more typical of
the Americans, as in the
Reserves are important to the defense. Tactical reserves react to enemy assaults in adjacent hexes, and can move in to beef up the defense, or try to hold the line when the original defenders have retreated. Local reserves react to attacks within a radius defined by their remaining movement allowances.
Airpower too is handled
in a matter that calls to mind the earlier Koger games. Air units are
assigned three basic missions; air superiority, combat support, and
interdiction. Unlike Conflict:
There are still strike
missions against specific hexes, as in the older titles. Unlike combat
support missions, they attack at full strength, but affect only the target
hex. These are valuable for preemptive strikes on enemy air forces at the
start of the game, making the skies safer for the other missions. In the
The tasks of a German
player are, at least superficially, simple. They have to conquer the
This is ahistorical. In
the actual invasion, the initial airborne landings around
Bruxelles takes longer. The
forces directed it are predominately infantry, and getting there is more of a
slogging match than a coup de main. The prize is definitely worth the effort,
as the surrender of
The third and most
crucial German objective is to penetrate into the French heartland with his
mechanized forces. It is essential that he maintain the momentum in order to
cut off Allied forces, particularly the overextended ones, and seize French
cities and their victory points. Moreover, rampaging panzers are, as
historically, the best means of either reaching the Channel coast and
inducing the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force [BEF], and
As historically, the best
route is through the
The Allied goals toward
the panzers are to frustrate them at every pass. Their progress has to be
impeded as much as possible, especially if they cannot be totally stopped,
which is often the case. An Allied player should also be aware of
opportunities to cut off the German spearheads, and counterattack.
Historically, the Anglo-French counterattacks against the panzers were few
and generally uncoordinated. The British move at
An Allied player has to do better than this. He should attack in maximum possible strength, and preferably from as many directions as possible. As do many boardgames in Command magazine, The Operational Art of War Volume I rewards concentric attacks as coming against the defenders' flanks and rear. There is no explicit facing in either; instead, concentric attacks serve the same purpose. Since panzers are the most dangerous and usually decisive units in the game, and therefore the Allied player should attack them with as many advantages as possible.
Fundamentally, an Allied human has to change the character of the campaign to his terms. When Case Yellow is working for the Germans, the conflict is one of movement. When the Allies are winning, the comparing is one of attrition, with movement slowed or halted. A static front on the model of World War I is the ideal for the Allied side, and this is the ideal toward which a player should aim. As an ideal, it is seldom totally attainable, but it is a most worthy goal.
The artificial intelligence to The Operational Art of War Volume I is, on one level, pretty good. It manages the system's salient aspects well, specifically the air game and defensive reserves. The software is also adept at establishing the pace for its side within the game turn, alternating movement and combat to good effect. A gamer might learn how to play the German side better by watching the AI execute the first few turns of the blitzkrieg. The artificial intelligence contains the worst weaknesses of the game as well, and they are apparent when the computer plays the Allies.
The AI is overly
aggressive on the Allied side. The historical strategy was for the Maginot
Line and its fortress troops to act as a shield on the Allied right, while
the armies on the left executed the "Dyle Plan." It was
fundamentally one of forward defense, by which the French and BEF would march
The problem is that the
AI plays the Allies with the same aggressiveness as the Germans. The
Anglo-French armies do not know how to stop their advance, and would keep
However, the Allied AI
makes some crucial and glaring mistakes on the way. Units rush into gaps
blindly, and in maximum numbers. This creates dangerous salients that can be
cut off and reduced by the Germans with relative ease. The Allied tendency to
squeeze as many advancing troops into as small a space as possible leads to
some weird situations. One sees a half dozen French divisions passing through
a narrow corridor into Antwerpen (
Furthermore, the Allied
artificial intelligence does not have the sense to pull out these salients
when their situation becomes most questionable. They know just one direction;
There are two other
problems connected with this inordinate aggressiveness. The BEF's headlong
Second, the troops in the Maginot Line are just as aggressive as their compatriots to the north. It is shocking to see fortress regiments leaving the relative safety of their positions, albeit understated for defensibility, to close with healthy German divisions across the border. It makes sense neither in terms of history nor sound, game-context strategy. The Maginot Line is not an impenetrable barrier on the best of days in The Operational Art of War Volume I, but this turns it into more of speed bump than a shield.
One can argue too that
the AI's play of the Allies is more idealized than realistic. In the real
Case Yellow, the Allied command was paralyzed by the swiftness of the German
advance, and the Wehrmacht's ability to dictate the character and pace of the
conflict. In the
There is one more error
that the AI makes whether playing Allied or German. Headquarters under its
control tend to act too much like combat units. Instead of hanging back
behind the infantry and armor, they often rush up to the battleline and try
to hold ground alone. One might expect an historical HQ to do this on an
emergency basis, but in
The Operational Art of War Volume I is a logical outgrowth of Norm Koger's earlier operational-level games for SSI. The underlying philosophy and simulation methods are developed from his earlier works, and the many PC gamers whose formative years were spent with Red Lightning and its progeny will feel right at home.
The game was designed as a construction kit for operational-level warfare. It has some sophisticated tools, including an editor for making very attractive maps, a large database of weapons, and an event editor that provides players with the ability to simulate important off-map events, political developments, weather and variable reinforcements.
The scenarios included in it further collectively represent a major value for computer gamers. Each scenario is the equivalent of a new game of the Red Lightning family, with massive improvements in graphics, platform (Windows 95/98 is infinitely better than DOS), and general simulation technique. Considering that the "Silver Edition" containing both the game and the first battle pack can be had for about forty dollars, The Operational Art of War Volume I is a better value than the larger but generally obsolescent game sets in SSI's Definitive Wargame Collection releases.
For all the praise that
The Operational Art of War Volume I earns, there are still shortcomings,
and they are centered in the artificial intelligence. This becomes clear when
In the long run however, it belongs in any strategy gamer's collection. The faults are, for the most part, outweighed by the game's assets. Moreover, exhibits potential. TalonSoft is the best computer wargame company for making upgrades and patches available, not just as cosmetic improvements and bug fixes, but as real, substantial enhancements. Hopefully, The Operational Art of War Volume I will benefit greatly from this consistent commitment. In addition, there is a new edition of the game, freshly developed to use the improved engine from The Operational Art of War Volume II. This promises to be a must-buy for computer wargamers when it appears. Even so, in the here and now, Volume I is an impressive achievement. As long as gamers understand the presence and perhaps inevitability of the imperfections, it is one to be played.