The Operational Art of War, Vol. 1 Review
By Chad Montague |
The Operational Art of War is a wargame par excellence and the best example of this genre in years. Even so, it is still a traditional wargame, and that means it's steeped in the forty year old boardgame tradition and everything that tradition entails: the counters are square, the map is made of hexagons, and players play in turns.
Lest that turn off the neophyte, keep in mind that what Norm Koger does better than any other wargame designer is layer the complexity of a hardcore operational simulation so carefully that any reasonably well-read, computer literate individual can pick up the game, start playing, and possibly even win without knowing the difference between an M5 Stuart and a Jagdpanther. The interface is that good.
But that's only a fringe benefit of the excellent design. Koger programs for the hardcore wargamer, and he doesn't fail. The first things you look at with any wargame are period and scale. The period is circa mid-1930s to the late 1950s. The scale, one of the game's secret strengths, is flexible, in both time and hex size. This allows it to model anything from a firefight between a few regiments to key phases of history's largest and most pivotal land battle, WWII's Eastern Front.
Where to begin? One of the things that impressed me the most was the battle report. No matter how many troops were involved in a fight, the report breaks down how many rifle squads, mortars, armored fighting vehicles, warplanes etc., were involved in the fight, and survived.
Other key features: you cannot blithely maneuver alongside the enemy--adjacent units are assumed to be engaged, and disengagement is perilous. Also, formations can be split, losing cohesion, but are better able to cover a wider front. Air support is modeled. Naval support, amphibious operations. Fortifications. Command and control. Reconnaissance. Supply lines. Rattle off twenty other terms from wargaming: odds on it's in there.
Yet even as the game handles operational warfare, it also encompasses larger geopolitical realities. Wargames as a class are sometimes affected with a kind of tunnel vision: the games become so involved with the unfolding tactical chess match on the battlefield that external political events are largely ignored. This is particularly true with the "limited wars" or police actions of the Cold War. But not here. In TOAW's Korean scenario, for example, you may well be managing the war quite well on your side, only to find that political leaders across the ocean have decided to use nuclear weapons, gas warfare, or you may find your actions have inadvertently drawn in other super powers. Koger handles this by having each scenario's design include optional probabilities for intervention by another party; i.e. as when during the Korean War the Chinese came pouring over the border or the US opts to go atomic.
Multiplayer options are what they should be--hot seat for two players on the same computer, or play-by-email, which is really the only way to play this kind of game with other people. Internet play is promised on the box but didn't make it in; a patch is forthcoming. But whereas such an omission would be a glaring notch in any other kind of game, in a wargame, where it can take ten to thirty hours to play a scenario, up to a half hour per turn, you probably don't want to play this game on a modem against someone else--I know I sure don't want to--and so that omission is in many ways irrelevant.
Where The Operational Art of War truly becomes more than a game is in its scenario editor and wargaming system. The tools included within the game allow you to create any scenario or situation you can imagine, real or not. Since each of the seventeen scenarios can easily take ten hours, and you can make new battles with the scenario editor, the replay value is potentially infinite. Even if you never touch the editor yourself, you can download scenarios other wargamers have made from the Internet, in essence getting expansion packs for free.
This review simply can't do justice to this gem. The Operational Art of War is a high-water mark in the fading art of wargaming. I recommend it in the highest terms.
-- Jason Bates