The Game of War: A Retrospective on The Wargame Franchise

By Alex Connolly 13 Dec 2016 0

With the recent release of Wargame: Red Dragon's third nation pack double-whammy, it feels as good a time as any to reassess the merits of Eugen's Cold War strategy series. In particular, the most recent entry is still receiving paid and free content, still getting updated and still the best real-time game in town; Red Dragon remains the go-to for a materiel sandbox that balances relative accessibility with a fastidious attention to detail. As far as non-hex operational efforts, Red Dragon is the only game in town. 

For the uninitiated, the Wargame series is as much about managing variable outcomes as it is logistics and territory control. The great tumult of a combined arms clash is illustrated beautifully, be it witnessed as NATO designation chits crawling over a lavish map, or boots-on-the-ground ogling amid the crunch of rending metal and crackle of arms. There are few hard counters. A small group of motivated infantry can halt an armoured column. A brace of T-34/85s may just win the day from their forested nook. Light AA vehicles can set their sights low and rasp an infantry detachment into oblivion, or rattle them enough to severely affect combat proficiency. And M60A2 Starships just might be worth a damn. It's all a glorious, chaotic opera of ordnance and boldness.

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"We wanted to create a more simulation oriented RTS than usual." Eugen Systems' co-founder and Wargame creative director-producer Alexis Le Dressay explained. I was lucky enough to get his insight and reflections on the series. It had always been fun to posit what the French developers were specifically referencing in the series, and the influences are relatively clear. 

"If I were to refer to a single inspiration," he continued, "it would be the Close Combat series, although on a larger scale. Regarding the context of the Cold War, our main inspirations were Third World War ‘what if?’ novels, such as Tom Clancy’s 'Red Storm Rising' or Ralph Peters’ 'Red Army'." Le Dressay went on to cite movies like John Badham's WarGames and WOPR as having no small part in colouring how Wargame itself turned out. Of course, real history played a part, with close calls such as ABLE ARCHER and the Cuban Missile Crisis helping to craft a speculative Cold War battlefield. 

Le Dressay and Eugen have been crafting battlefields since the turn of the century, and it's fascinating to have seen them go from genre convention to shifting the goalposts entirely. The Act of War series appeared as Europe's answer to Command & Conquer: Generals, but it was with RUSE that people rightly sat up and took notice. Eugen's stylized game of operational information and deception remains one of the most interesting military strategies out there, with its war room aesthetic and emphasis on parsing intel. Shifting from then-publisher Ubisoft to Focus Home Interactive, the team debuted their Cold War project in 2012's Wargame: European Escalation

"Our idea," Le Dressay said, "was to explore realism and simulation."  

The early prototypes for Wargame were quite different to what became the series' hallmark large-scale combined arms engagements. Unlike the abstracted unit scaling of RUSE, Wargame notably retains the correct dimensions for it materiel. Le Dressay used infantry as an example of challenges to be overcome in the early days. "They were very boring playing with, very difficult to see and were deploying without vehicles."

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Getting the right feel of engagement -- that classic Wargame lethality, informed by realism -- was crucial, and where the initial infantry combat felt anemic, it was the team's initial modelling of armour firepower and mobility that set the tone for the entire series. "We started prototyping the Abrams M1A1, and the first firing system we did -- aiming, shooting and exploding a BMP2 with one shell -- was very close to what we use now. It really helped us project where we wanted the game to go." 

Wargame: European Escalation shipped with three hundred and fifty military units across the NATO-Warsaw Pact divide. It was somewhat of a paradigm shift for the genre, certainly one that had grown up under the Blizzard and Westwood marquis of hard counters and lean unit numbers. For a genre that prides itself on clean, clear balance, European Escalation was an undertaking that many gamers found daunting. What was the difference between a Challenger 2 and its French AMX contemporary? Why would someone choose a Crotale over its similar equivalent? Moreover, why choose something well-superseded in place of advanced hardware? 

"Balance always was an issue indeed. And still is to this day. We keep constant tracks of the server stats and win ratio for each faction and nation, in order to adjust balance if we realize that a nation or particular deck seems to become too powerful," Le Dressay said. "Yet we’ve always stated that all the nations couldn’t be on an equal footing. If Warsaw Pact and NATO are well balanced between each other’s, as well as the major players, it will always be a challenge for Denmark to take on the mighty Soviet Union alone. And it is intended that way." 

He went on to say the team is fastidious in modeling both the asset and the plethora of stats surrounding it. European Escalation had the aforementioned three hundred and fifty, 2013 follow-up AirLand Battle upped the count to seven hundred and fifty, with over one thousand individual pieces of kit in 2014 for Red Dragon; all meticulously represented in look and capability. 

"We tried to model them as close to reality as could be," Le Dressay explained, "and then, it was a question of balancing through price and availability." 

Which ultimately led to greater strategic and tactical questions than evaluating the proficiency and deficiencies of comparative hardware, adhering to notions of what class should consist of. In a game that catered for the tail-end techno-marvels of high speed, high impact and highly-stabilised MBTs as well as T-34/85s, there remains no 'right way' to play in Wargame. The indiscriminate toolset only increased with each iteration. 

AirLand Battle introduced fixed-wing aircraft, which greatly enhanced engagement, as Le Dressay explained. 

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"The planes’ integration was a major step, a game-changing one, and it went pretty well and smoothly. They brought new depths to the game and gave it a bit more tempo. That’s definitively one of the game best additions and a popular one among the community." 

As the unit count increased, so did the nations involved. It was a point of pride for the team, particularly when the Cold War in fiction almost inevitably focuses on Washington and Moscow. Eugen's integration of smaller, but no less diverse and intricate, nations continues to be a large part of its appeal. 

"Highlighting major yet unsung countries of the Cold War is also something we can pride ourselves with," Le Dressay said. "Cold War games, movies or literature usually restrict this era to a Soviet-US confrontation, with an occasional reference to the UK or Germany. With Wargame, we brought other countries and armies into the light, like Poland, Czechoslovakia and of course France." 

Shortly after European Escalation’s release, the team received a letter from a Czech journalist. He thanked Eugen for including the Czechoslovakian military, and moreover for creating a game devoid of geo-political cliché.

"That’s something we’re proud of." 

Not every addition worked out for the better. While AirLand Battle's fighter-bomber additions were celebrated, Red Dragon's naval aspect fell short. 

"It is no secret," Le Dressay admitted, "that the naval element in Red Dragons didn’t suit the community’s expectations." While coastal support offers an interesting dynamic, pure naval engagement never felt quite right. Ship-to-ship combat felt anachronistically short-range, as though the firing parameters used on land were quickly ferried offshore. Emphasis on ship-to-ship missiles and electronic warfare was a non-starter, and the distinct absence of submarine warfare was a missed opportunity. 

But at the same time, Red Dragon's shift to the Far East was welcomed. Its topography was varied and often mountainous, with the requisite armies of Asia's military might on detailed show. An anaemic naval module could be excused in light of the fresh materiel. 

Wargame has received admirable post-release support, with all three entries getting a number of free expansions. A number of community favourite maps were ported from European Escalation and AirLand Battle to Red Dragon. Red Dragon was also the first to offer paid DLC, with the first community-voted nations pack releasing in May of 2016.

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To Eugen's credit, DLC wasn't designed to fragment the community between those who bought and those who didn't; each pack simply expanded a player's arsenal. After the Netherlands military debut, Israel followed. The Finland-Yugoslavia double pack is the third of Wargame's paid expansions. While the community votes on which military will see the light of day in future packs, Le Dressay doesn't discount future content releasing independent from player choice. 

"It has to be seen as obvious when we decide to launch the expansion," he said, "but to be honest, both can work." 

And while three iterations might seem like the right time to put Harold Coyle back on the shelf for good, Le Dressay and the team are adamant there's plenty more to investigate. "How could we have said everything there has to be about the Cold War? There are still so many countries, theatres and historical incidents we could use for more 'Cold war gone hot'!" 

So there's room for that South African faction yet. 

Thanks to Alexis for his time - do you still play any of the Wargame titles? What keeps you playing them? Where would you like to see the series go from here? Let us know in the comments below!

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