PC Game Review: John Tiller's Squad Battles: Falklands
Michael Eckenfels checks out Squad Battles: Falklands, the latest from John Tiller Software that covers the short war between Great Britain and Argentina in the early 80's.
On April 2, 1982, Argentine Marines and Special Forces troops landed near Stanley, the capital of the Falklands and the largest community, and took control of the islands, establishing by force Argentina’s historical claim to the islands. However, Great Britain’s response was not what Argentina expected and a task force of naval ships and troops set sail on the 8,000 mile voyage to reclaim the Falklands setting the stage for a clash of the old and new worlds in this remote area of the South Atlantic.
So begins the introduction on John Tiller’s website, introducing his latest Squad Battles title, Falklands. In this game, you will take control of small-unit actions that took place over the slightly longer than two-month period in 1982. The conflict began when Argentina’s military government looked for a way to divert public attention from the country’s wounding economic issues and ongoing human rights violations; it was hoped that the patriotic fervor of the populace when it came to the islands would help lessen the internal strife. Argentina’s ruling junta thought the British wouldn’t bother to respond militarily – not to what is essentially a barren pile of wind-swept, frozen rocks in the far South Atlantic. They figured wrong.
The first British soldiers landed on 21 April, but bad weather precluded a full landing, which took several days’ time. Over the course of the next two months, the British cleared the islands of the Argentinean presence, and in the end a thousand soldiers died from both sides, while two thousand more from both sides were wounded.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Tiller has been making these Squad Battles titles for years (the last one I wrote was for North German Plain ’85, about seven years ago), and not much has changed over those years – especially the graphics and sound effects. While in some PC game circles such a lack of advancement would be a death knell, in Tiller’s games there is something of a comfort zone with this. The same portraits, weapons systems, terrain, and other such familiar sights and sounds are in existence here.
For the Falklands, there isn’t much to look at; much of the terrain is barren and this translates well into the scenarios. Elevation changes, foxholes, bunkers, and rough terrain on a relatively brown map are pretty much what you’re going to see in most of the scenarios, although there are several that play closer to the coast to give you some color variance. The bleakness of the Falklands is reproduced well here.
The sounds are what you would expect from a Tiller title – different sounds for different weapons systems, including the thump of mortars and the chatter of machine-guns. A constant background combat noise adds to the immersion on the battlefield.
If you’re a fan of John Tiller’s plethora of wargaming products, no doubt you’re going to be able to jump right in and play Falklands. To be honest, I haven’t played a Tiller title in probably five years, but I was playing them a lot back then. When I installed Falklands, really, nothing had changed much.
From one point of view, a lack of change is a nice, comfortable feeling, because I was pretty much able to jump right in and play, with things I remember about his titles coming back to me slowly but surely; I referred to the pretty good “Getting Started” document, which spelled out all of the necessary steps to become acquainted with the system within a small scenario.
In Falklands, players have the choice of being the British or the Argentineans, with one side usually dug in and waiting for the other to come to them. Units are limited to the squad level, with groupings representing platoons and companies; control in this tactical environment is very specific and well-organized. The weapons of each squad (or ‘section,’ in the British vernacular) are right there next to their owner. Also, one can see radios, binoculars, anti-tank weaponry, and the like.
These soldiers are moved around the map to capture objective hexes, which are worth victory points. Victory points can also be gained or lost through casualties – giving or taking them, respectively.
And casualties in a modern battlefield environment are pretty easy to encounter, making movement to those objectives an exercise in suicide if one does not properly prepare. Soldiers can hit the ground and go prone, limiting their movement ability but making them much more able to withstand enemy fire; or they can stand and move much faster, but be much more likely to suffer the consequences.
Artillery and other support makes its presence felt here, and careful husbanding of these relatively scarce resources are essential to softening up enemy defensive positions or cutting down an attack. Artillery is something of a random thing, though, as rarely will it actually plop right down on the hex that it is ordered to, and can in fact scatter up to several hexes away, making casualties from friendly fire a distinct possibility.
The lethality of the weapons in the game are actually discussed at length in Tiller’s “Notes” document, as he indicates the weapon values here in Falklands are the same as those he used in Tour of Duty (the Vietnam-era Squad Battles game), with a few exceptions. As many of the scenarios in the game take place at night, the accuracy of most weapons is limited and is translated into increased protection from terrain, but increased power from weapons like artillery and machineguns (area-effect weapons, in essence). All of the reasoning behind the values he programmed in is listed there, and it’s a great read.
Speaking of reading…there’s lots of it to do, especially if you’re a newcomer to the series, but Tiller’s scenarios aren’t nearly that overwhelming as one might think. Even if you are new, it’s easy to jump in and play around without having to worry about screwing too much up, and furthermore, there is a “Getting Started” scenario and document provided to help along fledgling Squad Battles players.
Besides the “Notes” and “Getting Started” documents, Tiller includes a User Manual that details the Squad Battles engine fully and completely, so anything one would care to read about any particular part of the game is there for perusal. The documents are launchable from the Falklands folder in the Start menu, but are also accessible through the in-game Help menu. And since Tiller games are not resource hogs (another bravo to the graphics and keeping them simple and sweet), it’s easy to keep several of these open just in case one needs a reference. There are also numerous Help PDF documents provided, including a Database Editor and Order of Battle Editor PDF documents.
The only thing I could find wanting in the documents are two things. One, some of them could stand an upgrade in design and layout; the Getting Started document is incredibly useful, but could be made more so by including more (and larger) images to indicate what a new player needs to click on to get what the text is describing. I’ve worked as a technical writer and instructional writer for years now, and a re-design of these docs would go a long way to improving their usability – but then again, maybe the old-timers that have played plenty of Tiller titles don’t want this to happen and are perfectly happy with them as is. As I said, it could stand an upgrade, but it’s really not all that essential.
Two would be the use of the word “loses” when “losses” should obviously be in there. Normally I wouldn’t call out a relatively minor error, but this occurs quite frequently in the Getting Started document and ties in with the point I make above. There’s also a few other errors, but it’s not that big a deal, except maybe to an anal-retentive writer such as myself.
Falklands isn’t particularly pretty or attractive to look at, but the only thing you can blame for that is the Falkland Islands’ topography. And while it might not be exciting to look at, it makes up for that in terror as you charge men across open, rocky ground into the teeth of chattering machineguns. I challenge anyone to play thorough a scenario without at least a handful of casualties.
John Tiller’s Falklands is another outstanding title in a long line, but these kinds of games will appeal to a fairly regular audience, I think. Newcomers to the PC wargaming genre could do much worse than to start with a Tiller title, and there are plenty of them to choose from over a variety of wars, campaigns, and battles. What Falklands does isn’t much more than continue a long and good tradition of wargaming. It does not up the ante or push the boundaries; it does not pull you in any more than other Tiller titles; and it does not electrify your wargaming spirit. What it does do is keep you involved for hours in a familiar and enjoyable gaming environment that’s easy to learn. And what this all comes down to is, if you enjoy the mechanics of one Tiller title, you’ll enjoy them all; if it doesn’t do anything for you gameplay-wise, you’re likely not going to enjoy any of them even if the subject matter is engrossing.
Review written by: Michael Eckenfels, Staff Writer
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Eckenfels has made a return to wargame review writing after about a five-year hiatus. He’s previously been involved in manual writing for PC and console games and has written and edited plenty of documentation for a wide range of computer game companies and marketing companies. Currently he resides in southeast Texas where he works as an instructional designer/technical writer.