The Operational Art of War II: Modern Battles 1956-2000 Review
By Chad Montague |
The first Operational Art of War game caused quite a stir in the wargaming industry. It was, as should be obvious from the name, an operational game. This means that it fits somewhere in between the larger strategic action of Caesar III and the smaller tactical action of Close Combat. While you couldn't completely ignore the political aspects of your mission, they could safely be relegated to the background. But you also didn't have to fight each battle yourself; that's why you have subordinates, after all.
The Operational Art of War II does exactly the same thing but puts it in a more modern context. It covers the period between 1956 and 2000--bringing strategy into what the box calls the "modern day and beyond." Beyond? Come on, that's sort of a cop-out. I mean, it's only one year. I suppose they're right technically, but it's still funny to me. Anyway, the game doesn't do much in the way of changing the model, but it does add a few neat things to reflect the changing nature of warfare.
This second installment is the series includes many of the most important battles of the 20th century and a few historically based, fictional scenarios. Players can refight the war in Vietnam, break the stalemate in the Arab-Israeli war or roll tanks across the desert in the UN battle for Kuwait. The game also includes a hypothetical Sino-Soviet war, a second conflict in Korea and, my personal favorite, a 1962 invasion of Cuba. There's also an Indian-Pakistani conflict and a few Warsaw Pact/NATO wars in Europe. It's odd that the Balkan conflicts have been left out of the game, but Talonsoft is planning to release a Kosovo campaign disk sometime in Q4.
The scale of the battles varies in terms of space and time. One hex can represent anywhere from 2.5 to 50 kilometers and one turn can range from 6 hours to a full week. Most of the larger battles are located in an entirely separate executable file in the program menu. Why the two files weren't combined makes no sense to me. It's not a big deal to run one file or the other, but it just seems poorly done that they weren't combined to begin with.
The game offers a few new features, some of which are only apparent in the advanced mode of play. The most important addition to the game (and the most revolutionary of the advances made in real warfare since WWII), is the concept of airmobility. Forces that are classified as airmobile may be transported via aircraft to distant sections of the battlefield. The airmobility function didn't always work as it should have in my version of the game, but when it does work, it opens up all sorts of options for cutting off enemy supply lines and lightning-quick strikes against the enemy interior.
The advanced mode of play also allows for limited command and control over friendly units. While this feature can be horribly frustrating, it is modeled very realistically. The frustrations inherent in the concept are the frustrations a real commander must face in battle. TOAWII also includes exclusion zones. These are areas of the battlefield that can affect the conflict but aren't accessible to you until certain events are triggered. For example, you may not be able to access certain units until your opponent has begun to use his nuclear weapons on you. Or some units aren't available until you or the enemy reaches a certain objective.
On the subject of nuclear weapons, this game models a limited form of NBC warfare. No I'm not talking about broadcasting reruns of Frasier across the battlefield. When warheads mention NBC, it stands for nuclear-biological-chemical warfare. The way that this is handled in the game is a little one-dimensional. All of the weapons are assumed to function the same as the others, so chemical weapons are treated just like biological weapons. I also thought that the naval warfare aspect of the game was pretty shallow. Haha. Given that everything else is modeled so realistically, the superficial nature of naval engagements is disturbing.
But, as I said, the modeling of everything else in the game is hyper-realistic. There's so much you have to understand, not just in terms of game mechanics, but also in terms of real world military strategy. Commanders must execute their plans in an incredibly dense and dynamic environment. Factors such as weather, time of day and terrain are just a few of the natural considerations that come to mind. You must also work to preserve your lines of supply and communication. In fact, in the past fifty years, these two elements have become the way to win battles. You can do more to destroy and army by cutting off its supply routes than by attacking it head on.
One of the most important decisions you'll make is whether or not to commit your air forces to an attack or save them for resupply at the end of the turn. Luckily the game handles most of the micro-management for you. You still better know what it can do and then be smart enough to leave it enough resources to do it. In the case of air supply (no, not that All Out of Love crap), just leave enough air transport units free at the end of the turn and your part of the work is done.
The game actually goes to some lengths to make command a little easier on the amateur strategists. Let's take the attack function as an example. Units are grouped into formations based on the proximity of nearby headquarters units. You can select the units to move or attack all as a group. I found that it's much better, although much more time consuming, to direct each unit yourself. You can also direct individual stacks of units to act as a group. This is probably the best of the three options, because it saves time but still gives you a fair amount of control.
And you'll get the chance to control any of over a thousand different units. That's right, one thousand plus. From the ever present tanks and infantry to the more obscure heavy weapons glider and mountain cavalry. Units are represented by the standard unit type symbols familiar to hardcore military enthusiasts and high-ranking Pentagon officials. It may take a while for the rest of the gaming public to recognize that an oval represents a tank and a black bar means heavy weapons, but it's worth learning to play the game. It makes identifying the 120+ unit types much easier than any other graphic representation could. You can switch to the 3D map view that shows a graphic representation of the units, but I didn't like this. Not only is it very dull, it hides the other units in the stack. An infantry unit may be standing on five tanks and you'd never know it unless you clicked on him.
The scenario editor is a monster. Just about anything you want to do can be accomplished with it, but it requires a Master's degree in logic and the patience of Job. The map can be as large as 100 hexes on a side with up to 1000 units in 200 formations. Most of your battles will be a good bit smaller than this, but it should give you some idea of the scope of the editor. The map creation function is well done but it doesn't allow any drag and draw. There is a line draw and a fill feature but dragging the mouse would be so much easier.
The most complicated things in the scenario editor are the event functions. Lucky for all you inexperienced scenario builders, the event function is totally optional. If you have the courage to try it though, you can set up to 500 separate events for each scenario. The triggers themselves are fairly basic. It's the effects that are such a bear. You can drop some refugees into a city, move in a warm front or give one force nuclear capability. And there's a lot more...a lot.
Multiplay is by hotseat and PBEM only, but you won't miss the network option. The game turns take a good while to complete and you don't just want to be sitting there while the other guy takes his turn. Unless of course you pay a flat rate for your connection...and have no pressing social engagements. PBEM is paradoxically intense and relaxing at the same time. For one thing, you get a chance to chew over your options before you send off your turn. Waiting for your opponent's turn will drive you crazy though.
The Operational Art of War II won't win any huge awards for innovation, but that's just because all those accolades went to its predecessor last year. Some gamers may have trouble with the immersion factor in this game. Playing with abstract units may at first seem a little unnatural, but once you get used to it, it makes a lot of sense. TOAWII really does offer a lot to the player who's willing to invest the time and energy necessary to get into the game.
-- Stephen Butts