Review: Battle of the Bulge for PC

By Dave Lane 01 Oct 2015 0

A lunge to Lullange leaves Leipzigers lost.

Battle of the Bulge was released on iOS in late 2012, the first game by Shenandoah Studios. It was praised on release for its slick presentation, and for being one of the first heavy strategy games really tailored for tablet platforms. Now, with Shenandoah under Slitherine’s wing, the game is out on PC. But is this a smart move? Can a game designed for mobile platforms really stand out on a big-rig? Surely it’s not a game for grizzled grognards, hailing from the land of Clash of Clans and Candy Crush as it does?

Well hold on there, soldier. Battle of the Bulge isn’t the biggest or most gruelling of games and it shows a few stretch marks from its porting, but it’s slick and smart enough to demand attention from anyone interested in digital wargames.

Bulge is a mostly orthodox operational level game. The historical Battle of the Bulge itself is to wargaming what the peasant boy with a great destiny is to the fantasy novel; the fallback premise which has had it’s innate appeal worn away by repetition. Combat is resolved with a virtual dice roll for each ‘pip’ of unit strength, with a pip knocked off the foe for each success, while victory points are awarded for destroyed units and occupying key spaces. It’s an operational-level dice-fest VP-fight in wargaming’s most well-trodden ground. Yet despite that orthodoxy, it remains a very, very clever game.

Instead of a ‘move your whole army’ IGO-UGO set up, Battle of the Bulge divides a turn into finer impulses - pick a space, move and/or fight with all the units on it and then your opponent does the same. This adds a ton of tension and brinkmanship to proceedings. Players have to carefully weigh up their choices between thrusting here or reinforcing there, knowing that whatever options they don’t take quickly will be snatched away from them.  

A Bloody battle against the menace of fascism is no reason to not get into the Christmas spirit.

Time is as precious as panzers here: you’ll often be tossing away the one to keep hold of the other. You are constantly faced with choices between reinforcing a defensive position to make it impenetrable or attempting a critical encirclement; choosing between reorganising your troops into powerful spearheads or leaping for a weak spot with whatever is to hand. It’s a game of balancing risks and trying to predict your opponent’s responses.

In a sadistic little twist, the length of impulses varies - meaning you can never be sure if this will be your last move of the turn. It neatly abstracts the uncertainty of command in a game of open information and forces players to consider not just what they want to do, but what they can afford not to do. 

There’s a boardgame like elegance to the design which is Bulge’s greatest strength. It favours abstraction over detail and brings the difficult, harsh decisions to the fore without asking the player to dig through the numbers first. The terrain rules, for instance - forests and towns both absorb one hit for defending units in each combat - are tremendously simple, but do a huge amount to dictate the character of the game. Similarly, the map design, made up of individually tailored spaces, does nothing that couldn’t be represented in greater detail by hexes. But Shenandoah’s choice makes the map attractive and helps players to focus on - and mythologise - the map’s key features.

Making the other poor son of a bitch die for his. 

Although the design is superb, the amount of content is going to trouble some. You can play the Battle of the Bulge itself - depicted as a back-and-forth affair where an overwhelming Wehrmacht assault is gradually pushed on the defensive by growing allied forces - and two smaller scenarios which portray the opening and endgame of the battle respectively. There’s also a mode which randomises the order of battle for a bit of longevity, but you’ll have seen what the game has to offer after a few plays. This issue is exacerbated by the AI. You’re offered three virtual commanders for each side, but they have similar strengths and weaknesses. They’re opportunistic enough to give new or reckless players real trouble, but someone who has grokked the systems will find themselves winning every time - the computer frequently shows a weak grasp of how the game is scored in particular, which means it can often let players off the hook.  

Where the game really shines is as an asynchronous multiplayer game, for people who really want to get their teeth into the battle and learn the map’s intricacies. The turn structure’s capacity to create nail-biting moments and nasty surprises really comes to the fore against a wily human opponent. 

Bulge was not only an excellent design, but a rare wargame actually crafted with the mobile experience in mind -- it was a game you were originally meant to hold in your hands, not sit three feet away from. While the PC port is basically fine, that tailored fit is no longer there, and the game feels uncanny in places. The interface, while still clean and functional, ends up feeling subtly off with it’s huge windows and lack of tooltips.

Ain’t no party like a panzer party. 

Despite this, the port of Battle of the Bulge is still a delightfully crafted game. It’s loaded with presentational flourishes: the attractive map, use of 1940s-themed chrome in the menus, the day-by-day account of the historical battle to compare with your own progress. Most importantly, the solid tutorial and reasonably short rulebook means this is an easy game to slide into. If you know someone who is interested in the dark waters of PC wargaming but afraid to take the plunge, Battle of the Bulge competes with Unity of Command as one of the best games to introduce them to the genre. Given the game’s multiplayer focus, Slitherine’s choice of their own PBEM set-up (to facilitate cross platform play) is decidedly clunkier than the original iteration's seamless iOS GameCenter integration, though still functional. 

Despite its flaws and the change in platform, Bulge is still a smartly designed and beautifully presented wargame. Veteran commanders may find it too slight, but equally may find that the game's limited scale and slim, honed rules stir up cherished memories of classic tabletop wargames. For dabblers and newer wargamers, Battle of the Bulge's presentation and accessibility make it one of the best entry-level wargames on the market.

Battle of the Bulge is available on Steam and direct from its publisher.
Tags: PC

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