Review: Strategic Command World War 2 Global Conflict

By Doug 19 May 2010 0

Gameplay

The most important issue in any game is usually how playable it is.  Design decisions in SCGC have clearly been governed by an effort to reduce the complexity of a strategic game of global magnitude as much as possible, and also endeavouring to make the overall game reasonably balanced so that both sides have a chance of victory.  On the whole, the design is very successful at being both playable and balanced, ensuring that those with any interest at all in the subject will be able to play the game while being challenged and have a chance to achieve victory no matter which side they chose.  These are major achievements in playability, and the game designer deserves great credit for them.

The game engine is clearly built upon earlier Strategic Command games, modified to a global scale in both terms of time and distance.  There are a few improvements in general game play as well, but any player familiar with recent Strategic Command games will recognize most aspects of the game.  Land units, for example, come in three sizes ? corps, Special Forces, and armies ? that have different strengths and some special capabilities, but generally the first is the smallest and weakest with armies being the most powerful ? and expensive.  Cost is woven into the fabric of SCGC, with all units and many actions requiring ?Military Productions Points? (MPPs).  MPPs accrue from cities, mines, convoys, and occasional one time ?bonuses? such as a payment to the conqueror when a country surrenders.  Generally there are never enough MPPs to go around, and one of the most critical strategic decisions for players is where to invest their scarce MPPs ? build more units, send key units zipping around theatres using rapid (but expensive) operational movement, invest in diplomatic influence or scientific research, or reinforce units damaged in combat?  There are quite a few things that need to be (or at least should be) done each turn, and most of them require MPPs, and it is a rare turn that you have enough of them.

One of the important design decisions is that there is no stacking.  This certainly makes it easier to see where all units are on a map, but massing and coordinating units for attacks is clearly an important issue that requires players to pay attention not only to where specific units are placed, but in which order units are placed around them.  There are many variables at play, despite or even because of the no stacking criteria, and planning requires players to anticipate what units are best suited for supporting or attacking, what range different aircraft have, where amphibious units might be able to land, where the double attack of some power?s armoured groups can be best used, et cetera.  The absence of stacking from the game is contentious, but overall there are still many, many variables involved in planning a successful attack or defence and there is little doubt that this design decision does not undermine game play, although it is doubtful that precluding stacking can be defended on historical grounds. 

Air warfare is modeled with a similar focus on playability and reasonable simplicity, even if this occasionally impinges on reality or history.  Units include fighters and tactical or strategic bombers.  The three main types have very different characteristics, and naval aviation is embarked aboard aircraft carriers, which have unique characteristics of their own.  Fighters are best at air control missions (defeating other fighters) but can also conduct ground or naval attacks, seldom inflicting as much damage as tactical bombers in the latter roles.  Strategic bombers can reduce MPP production from cities, mines, or even convoy routes, as well as conduct ground support operations, but their missions can be countered somewhat by fighters or AA defences.  Tactical bombers can be very effective at ground or naval attack, but can be vulnerable to fighters.  Carriers can do either fighter or tactical bombing operations, depending on mode selection, or can do both at approximately half strength if a ?mixed? mode is selected.  All these options provide an intricate ?paper, rock, scissors? type of aspect to the game, and attention to detail (and a little luck) is important to success. 

Air power can be critical to success in the game, and whether air power is too powerful or not appears to be an enduring discussion on the Battlefront SCGC forum.  The other factor that impacts significantly on airpower is weather.  Weather is a major factor in all operations in SCGC, but the impact is most significant on aircraft.  As with most SCGC aspects, weather is complex in that there are quite a variety of weather types ? clear, storms, rain, mud, and snow, with various types sometimes combined as appropriate ? as well as a significant number of different weather zones.  However, dealing with weather is relatively easy, in that weather is simply there, and a player has no choice but to recognize this.  (Recognize might be a bad choice of words ? storms at sea are not always all that easily seen, depending on the square in question as well as other weather actions in that space.)  The inclusion of weather in the game adds some verisimilitude to the Second World War environment ? Soviet winter affects German units during their first winter in Russia, for example ? and the variability of weather certainly adds to the randomness and variability of the game.  However, weather can be rather overwhelming, to a degree that is hard to see as historical in any meaningful use of that word.

The reasons for this lie partly in the scale of the game: when one player turn takes 14 days, and there are alternating turns, each player only gets about one opportunity a month to actually use his air units for offensive purposes (fighters can fly defensive missions during an opponents turn if the right settings are in place).  This fact alone means that a turn of bad weather can really undermine the offensive potential of air forces.  However, different weather zones can compound this problem.  The best example is that the UK and northwest Europe are in different weather zones.  Therefore, on one turn it can be clear in the UK, but raining or snowing over the continent, and then the next turn the opposite, but the overall effect is to prevent offensive air operations from Great Britain onto the continent.  This can be rather frustrating if you have forces landed in France.  In a recent PBEM game this effect resulted in six months where the Allies were unable to project offensive air power from the UK to the continent of Europe.  Certainly this occurred over the winter, and bad weather is definitely more common during that time of the year.  However, historically RAF?s Bomber Command actually preferred winter for many missions ? there would have been no Battle for Berlin over the winter of 1943/44 without the long nights that occur at that time of year, which allowed bombers to be cloaked in night as they flew the long distances to and from the German capital.  The absolute impossibility of air operations in many weather conditions certainly simplifies the game, and perhaps helps to balance the impact of tactical bombers, but it is hardly compatible with how actual operations took place in the war.  Overall weather seems too absolute in SCGC, resulting in the complete prevention of many air activities for long periods.  However, while weather is ?gamey?, it does seem to be more or less factored into the balance of the game by the design team. 

Naval warfare was a major part of the Second World War, and there are many naval components in SCGC.  All the design elements that were present in previous iterations of SCGC remain, and the concepts of surface and bomber raiding have been added.  The designers have also made a real effort to ensure that some sort of ?Battle of the Atlantic? occurs, salting the German production queue with U-boats. A further new addition is the ability of amphibious units to conduct an attack on a shore unit before landing ? a major change.

The naval aspect of SCGC remains the most problematic to me.  There is no doubt that the naval war found in SCGC is a good game.  There is a better element of ?cat and mouse? in it, which is a reasonable component of naval warfare.  Different classes of warships add ?flavour? to the naval war, and carriers are very important, which is reasonable in light of the roles they played in this conflict.  Carrier combat can also be quite interesting, although it is more often like that which occurred at Midway than at Coral Sea ? the first to find and sink his opponent is usually triumphant, and exchanging blows as occurred at Coral Sea is uncommon, given the time scale of this game.

The decision to make naval supply independent of range from a port (ships only expend supply in combat) certainly makes logistics easy to track, but it also facilitates some rather bizarre tours of the world?s oceans.  What keeps long distance voyages from occurring too frequently, I would guess, is that ship transit speeds are agonizingly slow.  You can send a carrier group, for example, from the UK to the Far East ? it just takes a long, long time to get there, well over a year if it travels south around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Indian Ocean.  Sailing ships used to travel a similar route in an average time of 3 and ½ months ? the best time set by the Cutty Sark was 72 days, or less than 2 and ½ months or about three game turns.  A carrier leaving London would not even reach the equator west of Africa in three turns in this game.

The rationale for this incredibly slow transit speed is obscure, and ensures that major naval offensives require long term planning to ensure that all your vessels are in the right place at the right time, as you often have to start a long, long time in advance.  From a strategic game play perspective there is a good argument in favour of this, and it seems clear that the designers have allowed for the slow pace of naval operations in the way the games are set up, resulting in reasonably balanced games.  No one should ever, however, think that naval travel in the Second World War really followed the torpid pace found in SCGC ? it just wasn?t so.

A good contrast to this is how air groups can be moved around the globe using operational movement.  For the payment of a certain number of MPPs, any air group can be whisked in the space of one turn from one location to another, even if that location is ? quite literally in this game ? half a world away.  There is no arguing that aircraft and pilots can travel long distances relatively quickly.  And the one size fits all mechanics of SCGC make a single way to move air groups around reasonable.  But air groups require more than planes and pilots to function effectively.  In fact, planes and pilots are really just the tip of the proverbial iceberg ? maintainers, munitions, and aviation fuel are absolutely essential to air group operations, and moving these by plane is very costly, difficult and slow.  Yet in SCGC air groups can be zipped quickly to obscure islands in the Pacific or deep inland on another continent.  In game terms this more or less works, but again the attachment of this concept to reality seems tenuous at best.

The impact of R&D is a further factor complicating planning in SCGC.  The R&D mechanism in the game is based on investing in chits that have a chance, each turn, of producing an improvement.  The degree of possibility of an advance varies on the number of chits invested (a maximum of three in any one category) as well as advances made by opponents in the same area and any advances in the generic ?intelligence? category.  Finally, each major power has a different R&D ?cap?, the US being the least constrained.  In general, the R&D system seems to work, but there are also many times when research seems to dry up for really long periods in one specific area.  The overall result is an interesting mixture of frustration and variability.  R&D frequently sparks prolonged discussion on the Battlefront SCGC forums.  There have been mild tweaks, but overall the R&D system in SCGC is not all that different from that found in the original Strategic Command.  Success in R&D is important to success in the game, but since positive results in any one specific area cannot be guaranteed, players often need to adjust their strategy to suit the positive results they are achieving.  R&D is yet another variable that helps to keep games from being the same time after time. 

Diplomacy can have some interesting impacts as well.  The diplomatic aspect of the game is not excessively complex, but it does allow many aspects of the war to be modeled.  The long campaign starting in 1939 with major powers such as the USSR and USA still neutral offers the widest variety of possibilities diplomatically, as the potential entry of a power into open warfare is directly affected by its level of interest in the current contest.  The two major powers just mentioned start the 1939 campaign with their preparation for war level in the teens, and are not eligible to join the Allied cause until their preparedness level reaches 100%.  One of the major innovations in this game, though, is that reaching 100% does not require a nation to enter the conflict ? declarations of war are necessary.  This allows the USSR to be at war only with Germany, for example, and not necessarily Japan.  The Allied player can have the USSR declare war on Japan once the USSR reaches 100%, but that decision is one that has to be consciously made.  In previous Strategic Commands this level of sophistication or complexity did not exist ? once a nation reached 100% it entered the war.  However, in previous iterations of the game the war was restricted to one theatre, and the challenge of being at war with one member of an alliance and not another did not arise.  The solution used in SCGC works reasonably well.

In the end, the abstractions and compromises can be overlooked, for the most part, if SCGC delivers a good game.  My assessment regarding game play is not, to be frank, what I first thought it would be.  I was initially a little underwhelmed with the game.  But a funny thing happened the more I played it ? it got better.  I began to see a number of different ways to achieve objectives, and started to learn that no cookie cutter approach had any guarantee. This is not the most realistic game of the Second World War, but it is most definitely a very, very good game that rewards strategic planning and does provide a reasonable overall insight into the war, insights significantly enhanced by the very effective Decision Events system embedded in the game.  It is also a game that is difficult to appreciate in just a couple of turns ? Battlefront provides a reasonably nice demo, but this game is one that really rewards long term thinking, and a couple of demo turns only gives some insight into the mechanics of the game, not the long term ebb and flow that is the real heart of the game.

AI

The AI in SCGC is reasonable, although in no way comparable to taking on a human.  The game makes a good effort to provide a solid opponent for solo players, augmenting the computer in a number of small ways (mainly resources, it seems) although the computer basically follows the same rules regarding combat and fog of war.  As with most AIs, the computer player tends to do better when on the defensive than when required to attack.  The computer also has a bit of tendency to continue doing something where a human player would quickly have decided that that course of action was simply cost-prohibitive.

The AI is certainly a worthwhile opponent while learning the game system, and there is enough variety in the game that it is quite possible to play a specific scenario several times with quite different results.  The AI is also tweaked by the designer when patches are provided, and there tends to be two or three patches in the first months after a Strategic Command game is released. 

Multiplayer Gaming

Playing a wily human opponent is by far the best way to try and rule the SCGC world.    SCGC offers both PBEM and network play.  I cannot speak for the network aspect, but PBEM is very well implemented.  As with earlier Strategic Command games, I definitely prefer playing this game PBEM, and the replay feature provides a very good understanding of events during your opponent?s turn that the fog of war would have allowed you to see.

The more balanced amount of resources that both sides have in a human versus human contest makes these games very different from taking on the AI, to the point where it is often difficult to apply techniques that work against the AI against a human.  In other words, while the game doesn?t actually change, the play is so different against a human as compared to the AI that most players will need to adjust their styles significantly if they wish to do well. 

Overall, play balance in PBEM seems good.  The Axis player has certain advantages, especially the initiative early on in the long war campaign, but the Allied player usually has a major production advantage as the game goes on.  Different strategies by different players can markedly affect the outcome and the range of variables inside the game make it essential that players remain responsive and adaptable to changing circumstances if they hope to succeed.

Editors, Expansions, Replay Value

As with earlier offerings, SCGC comes with what appears to be a very robust editor. 

It is not clear where the Strategic Command engine goes next.  To address some of the more glaring compromises with reality now found in Strategic Command would require a major re-work ? Strategic Command 3, if you will.  At present there is no clear indication of whether this will occur.  It might also be possible to adapt the engine to different conflicts ? after trying to overcome China in SCGC with my Japanese forces it does not seem that the First World War would be that much of a stretch.  But at present the game design team is focused on ensuring SCGC works properly, and no hints as to the next step have been provided.

Replay value is pretty good, and I would say replayability is outstanding if you can find a human opponent.  The game system does have inherent dynamic changes built into it through the script methodology.  There are four campaigns that come with the game, and all offer an interesting challenge.

Finally, it is very likely that the game will be tweaked and improved by future patches, the first of which is already out. 

Summary

SCGC is a very, very good game.  It is not quite as impressive as a historical simulation, but it does provide a reasonable flavour of the period.   This really is a piece of software that gives players the opportunity to take command of either the Axis or the Allies and try to ?rule the world? in the setting of the Second World War.  I would recommend this game to anyone with an interest in strategic turn-based gaming or the Second World War.  The game is comparatively simple to figure out, but very challenging indeed to master ? a truly excellent piece of work.

System Requirements                                             

 

CPU: 1 GHz                                                                  

RAM: 512 MB                                                               

OS: Windows XP/Vista/7                                          

DirectX: 7                                                                      

Video Card: 128 MB with color supporting              

at least 1024 pixels in height and 768 pixels width

Sound Card: 16 Bit DirectSound Compatible

CD-ROM: 8X or better (for disc version only)             

HD: 1.2 GB free space                                                  

About the author

Doug began wargaming with Panzerblitz back in 1972.  He transitioned to computer wargames in the early 80s, and still spends far too much of his time on them.

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