One Week in Normandy - An Armoured Commander AAR17 Jan 2017 6
I’m dead, again. This had easily been my longest run, but all good things must come to an end. My fate was delivered to me by the most terrifying of steel beasts. The Jagdpanther. But where are my manners? Stories have a beginning for a reason so let’s wind back a few…
I first discovered Armoured Commander in the last quarter of 2016. A one-man project that’s free to download, this game looks and sounds like something you needed a floppy disk to install onto your Amiga way back in the day. The combined size of all of its files is less than most emails! In it you command an M4 Sherman tank through post D-day Normandy, where life is hard and death lurks around every corner. The tank commander who bore my real name, Sean Couture, died two runs ago fighting alongside the Canadian 4th Armoured. His stead, the Bullet Magnet, went up in a fiery explosion after he’d made the mistake of existing in the same area as a German Pak 40 AT gun.
Upon starting a campaign, you name your commander and your tank before then selecting the skills of your commander and crew. These skills are modifiers that have a percentage chance of activating when they take actions. For instance, the “cautious driver” skill means my tank has a chance to start an encounter in the hull down position, providing me with extra protection. Before deployment on each day you stock up your tank’s general stores and ready rack with rounds. There will always be an infinite amount of HE and AP to choose from, but rarer things like HCBI (smoke) and HVAP (High Velocity Armour-Piercing) are in limited supply so picking them up when you can is a good idea. It's also good to note that eventually should you reach the refit period you will be offered another form of Sherman to commandeer.
At the start of each day you are presented with a map of the area you will be moving through, each with a start zone and an exit zone. Your mission is to advance through the map capturing areas as you go; each area you capture and enemy you kill will net you VP (victory points) which are tallied up as your score when you either finish the campaign or die (most likely the latter). You can scout out the areas adjacent to the one you’re in and the game will give you a report of what the resistance is like (light, medium or heavy). Reaching the exit before nightfall gains you extra VP.
Got the basics? Good! Let’s get back to the story about my week in Normandy…
My first day of the Operation Cobra breakout went off without a hitch. Loaded up the newly christened The Black Orchid with just over fifty HE rounds, around thirty AP and a couple WP (white phosphorus) for good measure. Our mission today was to simply advance alongside the rest of Patton’s 4th Armoured Division so contact was light. With this being the first day the Germans were still in disarray, the largest thing we saw was a Puma armoured car that didn’t really stand a chance once we’d closed in.
So far, so good!
Our first real battle encounter. We were moving through a town when we happened upon some infantry, an Opel Blitz truck and a Panzer IV. Battle encounters are turn based and happen on a hex grid. There are three phases; spotting, order, and fire. In the spotting phase you pick one quadrant of the map to scout out all enemy units in that area, during the order phase you give orders to your crew and in the fire phase you...well, fire at the enemy – provided you didn’t order your vehicle to move.
Thanks to my driver Billy “The Cautious Driver” Dorman and his handy “Cautious Driver skill” we started the encounter in the hull down position giving The Black Orchid some extra protection. With infantry being so close I told the crew to turn in and I got Alfred Fields, my loader, to switch the HE rounds out for AP and in the fire phase I mail two of them to the Panzer IV by way of the 75MM postal service. One hits, leaving it stunned. Meanwhile the abstracted friendly forces who accompany you everywhere (though they aren’t shown on the map at all) manage to wipe out the infantry. Being stunned the Panzer IV doesn’t return fire and the Opel Blitz...is an Opel Blitz. I fire again, this time killing the Panzer IV with a single AP round whilst my comrades “bravely” dispatch the Opel Blitz.
I breathe a sigh of release and congratulate myself on my first tank kill.
One solitary tank kill probably doesn’t sound like at that much. But you have to remember that I’m in an M4 Sherman. Not a Firefly, not a Jumbo or Sherman 105mm or one of the improved 76ers. I’m in command of one of the most out matched armoured fighting vehicles in 1944. So a kill on anything above light armour is a major win in my books. Day three goes by with me killing a Puma or two and feeling a little bad for using WP on an infantry section that got too close.
This isn’t so bad, you know?
One thing I’ve never really understood about Armoured Commander is how I’m supposed to tackle AT guns. In most of my other runs the appearance of a Pak 38 or 40 might as well have just been a death screen. If they’re close enough you can kill them with a HE or two but if they are at long range they are a lot harder to deal with. Pulling a Fury and charging them will just get you killed faster and as far as I can tell you can’t simply reverse out of battle encounters.
Suppressing them with smoke and closing in, or hoping that your comrades will kill them seem to be the two most viable options as far as I can tell. Of the two I ran into today I played no part in killing either. The first got picked off by a nearby infantry unit while the second killed three friendly tanks before attempting to run off and getting shot in the back by one of their vengeful comrades.
We live to fight another day, and I’m starting to get into my grove.
I don’t care if it’s a tiny grey box. Jagdpanther’s are scary. I run into one just one area away from the exit zone. It’s accompanied by a Panzer IV and some infantry. I might as well pick up and throw my AP shells for the good they’re doing right now. Before long I switch targets to the Panzer IV since I know I can hurt that and rack up my second armour kill.
I then pop smoke and scream at Billy to hull down. Before it leaves the Jagdpanther stuns me twice and kills two friendly tanks. On the upside, I fought a Jagdpanther and lived! But on the downside I’ve just been shown how little power I have comparatively.
Still, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!
Today’s a little different. We’re on a battle mission rather than an ‘advance’ mission What’s more, my tank has been made battle leader so I’ll be getting a nice VP bonus by the end of this day. The game says resistance will be heavier than normal and encourages me to make use of airstrikes and artillery. I do so quite happily. My proudest moment of the day is when I manage to ambush a Panther and plant three AP rounds in its rear before it can even react. Disabled and facing the wrong way I quickly dispatch it in my next fire phase and thank the RNG gods for such favourable dice rolls.
Later on command sends me on a rescue mission to recover some downed pilots. I enter the area, a battle encounter triggers and one solitary enemy unit is spotted. Oh Nazi Germany, you shouldn’t have! It’s a Pak 40! And I’ve been ambushed, so he gets to fire first.
“Hello darkness my old friend...” His first shot takes out my tracks, his second stuns me. “...I’ve come to be with you again…” in his next turn he fires once and misses. Some nearby infantry pin him. I’m saved! I pop smoke and pray. He fires again, this time at another tank. No dice. Friendly infantry return fire, killing him. God bless those GIs! With that my day is done. With my track all shot up I can’t make it to the exit zone and don’t get the extra VP.
But I stared death in the face and lived. For the first time since I landed on his incredibly retro, pixelated scrap of war-torn France, I start to feel a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, I can win.
I can DO this.
I can’t do this.
Billy’s dead. The artillery we called in to suppress this area apparently had little effect on the Jagdpanther who just put an AP round through The Black Orchid’s front armour. I have no proof it’s the same one from Day Five but I’m damn sure it is. For the second time in as many days I’m immobilized, opposite a weapon designed specifically for killing tanks. I do the only thing I can do and throw every AP shell I have at it. Dylan fires off four, three of which land on target with the fourth going wide. Bounce, bounce and oh look, another bounce. The Jagdpanther returns fire with a solitary shell, confidant it won’t need a third. It was right.
M4 Shermans became famous in WW2 for what crews called “brewing up”, where the whole tank would light up in a fantastic pillar of fire upon being dealt a fatal hit. M4s in Armoured Commander seem to have the same susceptibility, despite having less pixels than the phrase 'ASCII'. The Black Orchid explodes, killing me and the rest of the crew instantly.
In all honestly, Armoured Commander reminds me less of a game at times and more like a solitaire (solo)digital board game. From the dice roll screen for resolving hits, to the character sheets for your crew, to half a dozen other small things that most games probably wouldn’t bother with. Or at least, they put more effort into hiding. The ACSII art style is by no means pretty, but then we’re wargamers – we eat pretty for breakfast.
It’s probably a touch unfair, but I find it's willingness to try and accurately portray that part of its setting oddly endearing. In fact, it reminds me a bit of the non-wargamey paradox titles. In games like CK2 and EU4 I rarely reach the game's end date and “win” but (not to sound soppy) it’s the journey and the stories you get out of it that counts.
Armoured Commander is free to download from the dev’s site. A sequel is also in the works.