Article Type: Review
Article Date: November 21, 2001
|Splash Screen for RGW '41-'44 |
IntroductionSchwerpunkt Games and designer Ron Dockal have brought us the most comprehensive stand-alone computer wargame on the Eastern Front of the Second World War since Gary Grigsby’s classic War in Russia. The game is comprised of fifty-one scenarios focussed on key battles in this titanic conflict: from the initial German thrusts through Smolensk and the Crimea through to the post-Stalingrad turnabouts in which the Soviets started their drive to Berlin. The game does not cover the period between ’44 and ’45, so those of you who want to advance on the Hitlerbunker will have to wait for an add-on. The game also does not cover the Soviet battle for Finland, also known as the Winter War of ’39.
|Scenario selection screen. |
Game MechanicsRusso-German War (RGW) is an operational-level wargame in which individual units are generally division-sized. Hexes are 10 miles across their largest dimension, and due to the innovative dual-phased movement system, armored divisions under ideal conditions (and barring rail movement) can drive almost 50 miles over a one-week turn. In addition to infantry and armored units, the game also features air and naval units, which can be used for a variety of different functions. In fact, the turns are structured around phases and ground/air/sea operations.
Depending on the particular phase of the turn, each unit can conduct a range of operations specific to its particular function. During a phase, the player selects an operational mode by a right-click menu. For example, in the first phase of each turn the player can have its naval units provide support for land combat, ferry friendly troops from port to port, supply land units in coastal hexes, or move from one port to another. Things get even more interesting with air operations.
In the Air Phase, the player can have his squadrons support ground combat, fly CAP over a particular region, conduct air recon flights, supply ground units, or transfer to other air bases. Fighter CAPs are flown to establish air superiority over a particular region and are essential in the planning of any major ground offensive. The opposing player has the opportunity to intercept these CAPs, challenging air superiority in this region. This system is very well done, and reminds me a lot of the air unit rules in the old GDW Europa series board wargames.
|Wings over the Dnepr! |
MovementThe phased movement system presents some problems, and the rail movement is a bit strange. Once on a rail hex, a unit can move four hexes in 4 movement pulses. There is no penalty for embarking/disembarking, and a unit can use rail movement to penetrate enemy territory. This can result in some ‘gamey’ tactics for a player who is desperate enough to encircle the enemy or occupy cities behind enemy lines.
Apparently, this issue has been dealt with in the Version 1.2 patch, but the patch came out too late for me to review it.
In addition to Rail movement mode, units can either use "Move to Attack" mode or "Move No Attack" mode. If the latter mode is chosen, the unit can double its movement points but does not have the option to attack in the following combat phase. Weather effects are also factored into the ability of units to move, although more could have been done to simulate the debilitating effect of Rasputitsa (the Russian rainy/muddy season) on the Axis offensive.
|Last one in Sevastopol, shut out the lights! |
CombatGround combat is resolved in the same manner as classic board wargames through the use of combat odds tables. There is a long list of combat modifiers, including terrain effects, supply status, command and control effects, etc. Unlike in Norm Koger’s Operational Art of War system, there is no way to estimate the potential success of a given combat, so it’s really important to have a good general idea of combat odds before committing. In RGW, there’s no dialog that says "Are you sure you want to attack (Y or N)?"; once you click the button you’re committed. Combat losses are taken as step losses; units which have step losses can be replenished with replacements at the beginning of each turn as long as they are in supply and in command. As with movement, there is a second exploitation combat phase each turn which can result in a very fluid battlefield when highly mobile mechanized units are involved.
|Combat Results Table |
Command & ControlOne of the more interesting aspects of RGW is its Command/Control rules, which are presented as a game option. When C&C is selected at the start of a scenario, headquarters units will also be present on the map. In fact, the entire Order of Battle (OOB) can be inspected on a separate screen, showing unit organizations from army groups through armies and corps down to individual division-sized units. Chain of command is a very important concept in RGW since it is necessary for allocating reserves which can make or break a particular combat result.
Reserve points flow from the highest level (OKH or STAVKA) down through the chain of command to individual combat units. You have choice over the direction of this flow, and this gives the game a strategic element since this is how you will basically shape the ‘spearhead’ (or Schwerpunkt) of an assault on a front line. In addition to allocation of reserves, it is also necessary to keep units "in command" relative to their HQ unit. Units out of command (i.e., isolated behind enemy lines) are limited in their actions, being unable to attack at all.
SupplySupply is handled in an abstract yet effective manner. Supply lines are traced from a supply hex (usually on the Western map edge for German units, or the Eastern map edge for Russian units) through a chain of rail hexes to a rail head. Any units within 4 movement points of a rail head hex (which reflects the ability of supply trucks to move from the railhead to the units) will be in supply. Units out of supply will accumulate supply step losses, making them less effective in combat. Out-of-supply units, however, can still move relatively unhindered, and this coupled with the dual phased movement system can result in isolated units causing plenty of trouble behind enemy lines. For this reason, a prudent player will leave a number of divisions behind the front as a strategic reserve.
Interface and GraphicsThe game interface takes some getting used to and the graphics are pretty bare-bones; in fact, the game doesn’t even need DirectX to run. On the upside, this means that RGW will run on just about any Pentium-level computer. The minimum requirements are stated as Pentium-200, but I comfortably run this game on my old Toshiba notebook which is a P-166MMX with 80MB of RAM.
The graphics do serve their purpose, especially with the very effective presentation of all sorts of information on the unit counters. This information changes dynamically, based on the status of the unit within the turn. For example, if the unit has moved with the "Move No Combat" option, its combat factor will be replaced with the letter "M" during the combat phase to indicate that it is not eligible for combat due to its previous moves. This system is quite effective for assessing the battlefield situation with a quick glance.
Manipulation of unit stacks is a bit cumbersome. Left-clicking a stack will select the top-most unit, hitting [Ctrl] left-click will select the bottom unit, and hitting [Shift] left-click will select the middle unit. This can lead to some frustrating screwups if you happen to hit the wrong button to get a unit to advance after combat, for instance. Also, you can display the contents of a stack in a side panel by selecting the stack with [Alt] left-click. Unfortunately, you can only inspect this panel and not select units from it (which would be a really convenient alternative to the cumbersome key combinations mentioned above).
The game map has multiple levels of zoom. At the most zoomed-in level, the units are represented as boardgame-style counters with combat/movement factors and other information visible. Detailed terrain features are also visible at this level. At the first zoom-out level, units are represented by colored squares and different types of game information can be overlayed on these squares (supply losses across a front, for instance). This level is also dynamic in that units can be selected and manipulated for various operations.
At further zoom-out levels, there is little the player can do in terms of manipulating units and are more intended to give an overall perspective on the battlefield. One annoying feature of the game is that when the AI has finished its turn, the map is always zoomed out to the maximum level, forcing you to zoom in again and pan around to the battlefield covered by the particular scenario you’re playing.
Historical RealismOne aspect in which RGW shines is its detailed OOB information and historical research. Any serious student of the Eastern Front conflicts in World War II will want a copy of the game if only for this carefully researched and compiled information. There are multiple ways in which OOB information can be visualized, and it’s seamlessly integrated into the game such that the player readily appreciates the command hierarchy of any given unit on the map.
|Order Of Batte (OOB) for the 6th Army at Stalingrad |
The first scenario that I played that had a high unit density was Smolensk ’41. At first I was a bit overwhelmed with all the units at my disposal along the front, but the game does a good job of identifying how the units fit into the overall command structure. Unfortunately, the benefits of this attention to detail are somewhat marred by certain anomalies in the game, such as the rail movement system, that can produce ahistorical results.
Victory conditions are handled in a very interesting way that is tied very closely to historical results. In contrast to many wargames, where victory is determined by the combination of objectives taken and combat losses incurred, in RGW these factors are compared to the actual historical results such that final victory is expressed as a letter grade reflecting the performance of the player compared to his historical counterparts. This is a great idea and allows for someone to win an unbalanced scenario as long as they do better than what happened in history.
|Victory screen! |
ManualThe manual for RGW is excellent, and I hold it up as an example for all small-scale computer wargame publishers/designers. It is spiral-bound and 60 pages in length and filled with an abundance of useful content. In addition to explaining the game system in a clear and unambiguous manner, there are copious design notes on how the game systems were designed in the light of historical data used. Next to the manual for the HPS Simulations tactical system Panthers in the Shadows / Tigers on the Prowl 2, it is one of the best manuals for a computer wargame that I’ve come across. My only complaint is that there is an incredibly useful tutorial / walkthrough that is at the back of the manual as an appendix. Since this is what really got me to learn the game system quickly, I wish it would have been put at the very beginning of the manual instead of the end!
ConclusionRusso-German War ’41-’44 is an excellent operational wargame covering the great bulk of the Eastern Front conflict at a divisional level. Although there is an overall campaign scenario covering the entire war, it really works best when playing the smaller scenarios as studies of individual battles.
The designer, Ron Dockal, has worked hard to patch some bugs that were present in the initial release (see "Files" section below for patches). The game system is innovative and refreshing, although there are still some fundamental design flaws (the rail movement system in particular) that prevent me from wholeheartedly recommending the game to everyone. This is a game for experienced wargamers. If you’ve had a lot of experience playing games like The Operational Art of War and John Tiller’s Panzer Campaigns series, I would highly recommend checking out RGW since it introduces a refreshing new operational system that is overall quite sound.