Review: Russian Front30 Oct 2014 0
From the distant vista of the casual fan, WWII wargames might all look more or less the same: you push around some tanks, you compel some infantrymen to butt helmeted heads; somebody wins and writes the history books, someone loses and then reloads a save.
And to be sure, there's some truth to that. Much like basketball and baseball might look fundamentally similar to uncontacted Amazonian tribesmen made to watch SportsCenter, a lot of the differences between super high-level operational wargames like Drive on Moscow and intimate tactical affairs like Battle Academy can be cosmetic and presentational. But as Michael Jordan reminded us in 1994, you can be pretty damn good at one kind of ballgame and rubbish at another. Those little differences might be important.
Scottish devs Hunted Cow have carved out a cozy little niche making very decent small-scale tactical wargames like the Tank Battle series for iOS the past couple of years, but their ambition is clearly to branch out and sit at the wargaming big kids' table alongside Slitherine and Shenandoah. Russian Front is their first effort to make a wargame that features brain-flexing mechanics like logistics and morale -- the stuff that makes grognards quiver in their crocheted Tiger tank slippers.
An operational wargame is concerned with fundamentally different stuff than a tactical one is. In a tactical game like Battle Academy, you're playing as a platoon lieutenant or a company commander, chewing your nails about holding this particular street intersection, or knocking out that specific panzer. Because of this, tactical games often get deep into gear-nerdery, offering you significant choices between marginally different tanks and rifles and what not -- because you're directly in charge of the guy pulling the trigger on that rifle.
Because operational games pull the camera way back to focus on the movements of ten-thousand-man army divisions, individual tanks and equipment become less important. You'll never fret about upgrading from the Panzer IIIJ to the Panzer IIIM in an operational game, just like the CEO of your company doesn't care if you're using a Logitech keyboard or a Belkin. At this level, the problems are totally different.
Russian Front appropriately dispenses with rivet-counting over individual dive bombers and sub-machine guns and other marginalia. From your lofty perch it's your job to maneuver huge armies to break through enemy lines and capture strategically vital cities, and as such, your units are more generic and anonymous than the individually modelled riflemen of, say, Close Combat.
The way that operational wargames have typically made this sort of high-level combat interesting is by focusing on two things: terrain and supply. An American tank division in Battle of the Bulge isn't fundamentally all that different from a German tank division, but where the fight is taking place (across a river, amidst a forest, into a ruined city) is of paramount importance. Every map space in Battle of the Bulge is a unique diorama of tactical problems, forcing you to plan out where you want to fight and where you'd rather not.
Supply is the other great problem of the operational-level leader. The undeniable gold standard of recent operational wargames is the magnificent Unity of Command available (sadly, only) on the PC. In UoC, you're evaluated not on body-counts but on your ability to take objectives on time. Your boss doesn't care what you do to get across the Don River, but you sure as hell better do it before next Tuesday -- which often means stretching your units deep into enemy territory beyond the reach of your supply sources. Units in Unity of Command are also highly mobile and can cross several map hexes in a single bound. This mechanic lets you encircle vulnerable enemies and cut them off from supply -- but it also gives you enough rope to hang yourself by outrunning your own logistical support and getting your own boys cut off. In a good operational game, supply is a way of making other mechanics more interesting, more multi-dimensional.
Which brings us back to Russian Front, a game where -- sadly -- neither the terrain nor the supply system are remotely interesting.
Russian Front has a logistical system, but it rarely bothers to show its face in the actual gameplay. The scale is monstrously big in this game -- the map features hundreds of hexes stretching from Poland to Moscow, representing pretty much every single country where people still watch the Eurovision Song Contest. Because every hex represents approximately one bajillion miles, units rarely move more than one or two hexes at a time, which means trying to encircle the enemy's troops resembles Commander: The Great War modelled a much larger venue and still managed to make strategic movement of troops so zippy you'd think that the grunts had been issued Segways compared to this.
The terrain is also a muddle, and part of that is down to Russian Front's indecisive combat system. It's rare to see significant damage in combat, even between two mismatched opponents, so a Russian Front frontal assault often feels like a slumber party pillow fight. "Take that Hitler," giggles Zhukov, as a 14-strength tank division awkwardly whaps an 8-strength infantry formation for one measly point of damage. Would it have been a nastier confrontation in different terrain? It's hard to say, as combat results don't seem any different in swamps or snow or even mountains.
The real pity of the combat is that there's a potentially neat idea buried in it. In Russian Front, you're granted armoured and infantry replacements every turn, and you can grant them to any unit you wish. There's actually something neat to this, as giving an infantry division a few armoured regiments could make for a versatile force -- but Russian Front's UI lets the mechanic down completely. In a scenario with over a hundred units, try to remember which of your dozens of identical stick-figure units is the mixed armor/infantry division when the game doesn't give you any visual cues at all to that effect. You turn into a militarised Jimmy Saville, stumbling around touching every infantryman in sight until one of them tells you want you want to hear. It is -- to put it mildly -- inelegant.
I could go on, but I won't. In a complex genre where games like Unity of Command and Battle of the Bulge are like precision-engineered Gothic cathedrals, Russian Front comes across like a Las Vegas one-hour wedding chapel. It seems to have the basic form and function of an operational war game down, but it's missing the nuance and subtlety of a truly good one.
Hunted Cow's largely satisfying Hex War tactical games have a track record of getting incrementally better with every release, and if the Scots intend to make a serious go at creating operational-scale wargames, then the Russian Front series might be worth checking out in two or three iterations.
Russian Front was played on an iPad Air for this review.