The Wargamer's Guide to... the 5-Star General Series

By Zach Zimmerman 13 Jun 2018 2

Many players got their first taste of a wargame with Panzer General. Panzer General eventually formed a key part of the fantastic ‘5-Star General’ series, a collection of releases which were innovative in their turn-based combat and scenarios. The 5-Star General Series would take you from 2D to 3D unit sprites, from WW2 to fiction based WW3, and all away into fantasy and space battles!

Given that there were nine entries in this series, how does each game stack against each other? Well, we don't have anything better to do, so let's settle this debate once and for all, so that it never need be spoken of again. This list is in descending order.

9. Panzer General III: Scorched Earth

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations, Inc. / Mattel Interactive
Released: 2000
Purchase: Free

It should come to nobody’s surprise that Panzer General III: Scorched Earth is the weakest of the entire series. As the last released, it really misses the mark on a lot of the expectations of long time fans. Arguably, the entire game feels more of an expansion (focusing on the Eastern Front) than a fully-fledged game, PG3SE manages to have the same issues that Panzer General 3D suffers from.

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This problem stems from the focus on 3D models for the units and cities. It can be speculated that the changes to 3D models forced the battles to shrink and the stakes to be lowered. Compensating, PG 3 focuses on having a leadership pool that grows as the game progresses and each have an equipment speciality. While the older games sprites have aged like a fine wine, some of this early 3D work can look very blurry and awful. The martial music here seems very repetitive, more-so in PG3SE than anywhere else. You might find yourself muting your first Panzer General game! If it wasn’t enough, PG3SE is the least compatible with modern computers in the series.

While not terrible, it shows that with Panzer General III: Scorched Earth, the series was coming to a close. From its flaws, it makes sense that PG3SE doesn’t see the reverence that the earlier releases.

8. Star General 

Developer/Publisher: Catware / Strategic Simulations
Released: 1997
Purchase: Free

Star General was a bold move by SSI, to go where they have never gone before with the series, into spppaccceee. The premise was once again exciting, with the hex combat seeing itself split amongst planets, moons and the stars with great looking space combat. What especially stands out for this sci-fi spin is the music, easily the best part of this release. Diplomacy, planet exploration and switching between maps can be exciting, but cumbersome.

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Star General’s flaws stem from joining a genre that’s already well established with space epics such as the Masters of Orion series and others. Coupled with some poor sound choices (besides the music), still clunky user interface, uninteresting scenarios and campaign play with demands of some scenarios being absurd with its turn expectations. For the scale of the battles being what they are, you will find yourself going to run out of turns more often than not.

It shows that SSI didn't develop this title. It lacks the captivating elements that other games in the series have. While some fans swear by it, overall the feeling is most people have skipped this underdog.

7. Panzer General 3D

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / TLC Multimedia & Ubisoft
Released: 1999
Purchase:  GoG  Ubisoft

Panzer General 3D was following a trend at the time of its release by incorporating 3D elements into the game. Because of this, it feels rather chopped and limited in scope because of this new transition. However, PG3D is still an excellent romp and showed that SSI could still be innovative with the series.

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PZ3D can be divisive among series fans, as it was the start of smaller scale battles and more of a tighter experience. With smaller battles, the scenarios seem to be more polished and there is some variety to be had. PG3D was first to allow leaders to focus on combat specialities for their units. The user interface of the 3D games seems more logical and intuitive than predecessors, something closer to what modern standards call for, but not there just yet.

However, innovation from 3D graphics and the leadership mechanics could not save PG3D from being low on this list. The graphics arguably have not aged well, at least compared to the fantastic sprite work of previous titles. It goes without saying that PG3D also struggles with compatibility issues. Even with a re-release on GoG, it still suffers immensely with graphical glitches and a sense of non-cooperation with Windows 10.

The developers knew that they missed the mark with this release, because a year later they would try to correct with PG3SE, bringing the Eastern Front to the game engine and some minor fixes. Looking back on Panzer General 3D, it seems too little in content and too late in release. 

6. Fantasy General

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / Strategic Simulations
Released: 1996
Purchase:  GoG

Fantasy General, for many wargamers and fans of the series, is something of an oddity. It turns out SSI is also well known for games influenced by Dungeons & Dragons, and in trying to break away from its World War staple, FG manages to take the hex-based strategy series to new places.

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Beautiful sprites and a new fantasy world was exciting to look at back in 1995. The soundtrack is exciting and fitting for the theme, while the sound of FG is engaging. AI reacts and puts up a fight when pressed.

Fantasy General’s biggest flaws are the clunky split-up user interface, pacing of the later missions and of some of the scenarios. Another deficiency is the balance of forces. Some of the maps become so large and the turns so tight that some units are completely useless because of the level design; your tactics mainly end up revolving around cavalry and heavy infantry exclusively. These set backs and a rather generic fantasy world place Fantasy General in middle of the pack.

5. Allied General

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / Strategic Simulations
Released: 1995
Purchase:  Free

Allied General was the direct sequel to Panzer General, releasing the following year. It acted as a direct opposite in the field of the Axis armies, focusing on battles from the Allie's perspective.

A great element of Allied General was the return of the little battle animation bubbles that could be toggled to spice up the combat and bring in that little extra immersion. Allied General felt more balanced and geared towards infantry whereas Panzer General was all about the ze panzers.

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The scenarios and campaign were well designed, and a lot of enjoyment can be found from fans of the series. Particular standouts in AG are the Finland scenario and Africa campaigns. It also helped that for a lot of the scenarios, you could play as the Axis to keep things fresh.

For those who spent a lot of time on Panzer General, coming to Allied General would be less enticing because of the large similarities. You may even come to be a bit disappointed if you were looking for more than just the same. Furthermore, the scenario roster seems a bit lacking in the retail release when compared to Panzer General and others in the series. AG lacking a 1940 Western Europe scenario seems like such a missed opportunity as well. While mechanically it didn’t particularly take many chances, Allied General is a competent release that is just overshadowed by giants that were to come.

4. Pacific General

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / Strategic Simulations
Released: 1997
Purchase: GoG

Pacific General is a fantastic effort to bring the fight to the Pacific, featuring large naval battles and island hoping. It was another great avenue for SSI to explore.

PacGen was the first in the series that really captured the sense of combined arms, the first game to establish the ability to move multiple units first, then to attack for maximum damage. Naval warfare was well put together, and naval units could repair themselves or suffer critical consequences from a strike. Again, the sound and visuals are top notch.

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Things begin to unravel on the edges of Pacific General. While the scenarios are a lot more laid back and feasible for newcomers than the original, some scenarios border the line of impossible and PacGen veterans all know of the 'prestige save exploit', which enables more prestige to purchase units to get over some humps. 

Pacific General really shines in it’s presentation and scenarios. Veterans and newcomers alike can find there to be both exciting battles to be had and challenges to overcome. Yet some of the issues such as ageing, a rough time working on modern computers and the same scenario balance problems of which are peppered in all 5-Star General series games still manage to prevent this one from leading the pack. 

3. Panzer General II

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / Strategic Simulations
Released: 1997
Purchase: GoG

While there were a few years and releases between Panzer General and Panzer General II, it seemed that the intent of this release was to be a worthy successor for the original game.

PG2 really does deliver on a lot of expectations for fans of the series. Better looking sprites and maps, fantastic audio and soundtracks will accompany the thrill of exploiting holes in the enemy’s defence. Fantastic campaigns and scenarios to chose from, with a fantastic list to start from calling back to the early days of vast amount of content. Every unit has an incredible face uplift under this new impression. With sprites turning to face the enemy and each unit having a great level of detail for a game designed in a small resolution.

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Incorporated from Pacific General, you can now move multiple units and then fire, creating new ways to decimate the opposing force from supporting attack bonuses. Additionally, veterancy is a feature of which units can acquire leaders and skill bonuses making them even more valuable on the battlefield with continuation in the campaigns.

But some players may find that Panzer General II does have a few flaws. Again, some levels become a race for the objectives kind of puzzle which limits strategic thinking, and immersion breaking. Being the seventh release of the series, more than just an objective chase game type would be appreciated. As the title of the game suggests, focus of the game is again brought back to the armored nucleus of the Axis armies, and scenarios of which excelled from this template. Those who are fans of the other releases in the series may feel left out because this.

It became important for modders to make up for its flaws in user generated scenarios. PG2 has a fantastic repository of scenarios for it, which can be found here

2. Panzer General

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / Strategic Simulations & Mindscape
Released: 1994
Purchase: Free

Panzer General was the first game in the series and a giant amongst contemporary wargames. It brought wargaming to a whole new accessible echelon that blended fun and quick play with critical and strategic thinking.

PG has managed to be remembered fondly for decades now. The presentation has been world class, and at the time of 1994, the user interface was acceptable and easy to navigate. A healthy manual told players what to expect and actively tried to encourage the player to think about their actions.

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The vastness of scenarios and campaign mean there's hours of fun to be had and set the standard of what was expected in later releases. To this day, Panzer General inspires new projects with its content and has many spiritual successors. The AI in Panzer General was great at the time, and still puts up a fight although in some cases, it can be felt that the AI does cheat.

While nostalgia might make us see past some of the flaws, they are there. AI can be problematic, and some turn demands for scenarios can be restrictive to the point of no fun. Panzer General unfortunately is a bit of a drag to get working on modern computers (unless you manage to read our helpful guide here!).

Panzer General was so solid at the time and was incorporated into further games in the series. Modders and enthusiasts went to work to keep Panzer General alive by bringing its content to later titles and updating through a remake known as Panzer General Forever. It’s a close call for first but Panzer General can hang its head high knowing that it started a fantastic series and still holds up today.

1. People’s General

Developer/Publisher: Strategic Simulations / Strategic Simulations
Released: 1998
Purchase: Free

People’s General is a juggernaut of a wargame. Approaching 21st century warfare with the 5-Star General lens and operating with Panzer General II’s mechanics and looks, it produced an astonishing recipe for operational wargaming.

People’s General was a far more advanced version of PG2. Leaders were handed out when important areas were captured, there were more options for purchasing units, movement felt more organic than static sprites and experience levels. The soundtrack for PeG was a mixture of martial and totalitarian sounds, adding to the stress of how important it was to knock out that AAA that’s been wrecking havoc on your jets trying to break up armor thrusts.

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At release, People’s General came with 9 campaigns and plenty of scenarios. Over a hundred additional scenarios were developed, covering everything from America’s Revolution all the way to the Falkland’s War. Those scenarios can be found here. Graphically PeG is the best of the series. Under the engine called 'Living Battlefield' beautiful vistas cover up the hexes alongside great looking unit sprites from a variety of nations and factions. The UI meets the modern warfare setting by being neat and straight forward.

The weakest element of People’s General was the lack of naval warfare in the base game. While naval warfare has evolved in radical ways since the last world war, it would have been fantastic to see Strategic Simulations explore this, as they did with Pacific General under their new engine.

People’s General takes all the lessons learned from the 5-Star Series and really runs with it. It’s a real shame that its legacy is ultimately overshadowed by the original Panzer General. However, all games of the series are phenomenal and full of potential. So, what are you waiting for? Time to earn those stars, general.

Do you agree with how we ranked the 5-Star General series? Let us know in the comments!

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