Rags to Riches: A Look at Freeware Armored Brigade14 Mar 2017 3
Most freeware games remain either ignored or played only by a devoted fan base - rather like the cult around “The Rocky Horror Show”. Precious few attract a large enough audience to become a commercial offering. One example is how Victor Reijkersz’s Peoples’ Tactics grew into Advanced Tactics when it was published by Matrix Games. Now the venerable wargame publisher has picked up another project: since 2008, RTT wargame Armored Brigade has attracted hard-core modern warfare gamers and has been updated frequently over the years, with the last version (0.0812b) being released in 2016. Slitherine/Matrix saw the game’s value and will be publishing a commercial version this year with the newly incorporated Veitikka Studios. Let’s look at what inspired the leap into the brightly lit landscape of commercial games.
Editor's Note: The freeware version of Armored Brigade isn't officially available for download any more, probably because of the new partnership & the commercial version now being in development. We managed to get a hold of the files though for the purposes of today's article. Remember, this article only focuses on the freeware version of the game. The commercial version hasn't been shown to the public yet.
Before the Wall Came Down
The game is set in the 1980s. For those of you under the age of thirty, that time represents a period of real possibilities for a conventional war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, probably leading to a global nuclear exchange. The game’s area is the Fulda Gap, the quickest route to Frankfurt a. Main where the bulk of US reinforcements would have arrived. I lived near Fulda for two years (Marburg a. Lahn, 1976-1978) and can attest that a certain degree of anxiety was always in the air, especially since the Russians’ Plan B was to roll southwest from Kassel through Marburg on their merry way to Frankfurt. Armored Brigade invokes scenarios that were far too real at the time.
As with most freeware games, the graphics are not up to commercial standards. Yet, terrain and unit sprites are more than enough for acceptable play. Players have the ability to select specific parts of the general map, defining the width and height of the battlefield followed by picking a section of the Fulda map. The ten zoom levels are all top-down but show different details. The first five levels show units as NATO symbols with rather abstract terrain features portraying built-up areas, roads, forests and water ways. Zooming in displays fairly detailed unit icons with gun barrels pointing at their targets. Terrain becomes populated with individual buildings and obstacles, clumps of trees, fields and streams while differentiating between streets, roads and autobahns. Several hotkeys add contours, elevation, sight circles, and a 3D view of the field and lines of sight on the map. Other shortcuts reveal the status of units and their specs. Colored lines represent movement paths and lines of fire. Wrecks are shown simply with a hazy orange ball over them. During battle, a running text narrative informs players of what damage was done with each side having different colored messages.
Sound effects are surprisingly good. Helicopters make whirling noises as tanks, missiles whoosh and other vehicles rumble as usual. The combat sounds are fine. The greatest obstacle for quick entry into the game is the lack of documentation. A two-screen Help function lists what all the hotkey functions do and veteran tactical gamers should have little problem understanding the mechanics. Beginners can use the YouTube videos but those are based on an early version of the commercial game.
Generating the Unthinkable
Lacking pre-made scenarios, players must generate their own in several screens. The first screen sets the overall tone of the battle by choosing which of eleven countries will be the human controlled Force A and the computer controlled Force B. A realistic pairing would be the US or the West Germans against the Russians but, if players want to see the Finns take on the Yugoslavs in west central Germany, so be it. Next, power points are allotted to Force A with Force B initially getting the same amount. The type of engagement, -meeting, advance, and defense –is chosen. The type of force is either armor, infantry, mechanized or, in the case of the player, the pot-luck “dynamic”. Players can opt to choose units manually or let the computer select. Ground condition, terrain type and weather are further parameters. Most interesting is how time is handled. Players pick a time along a horizontal bar starting and ending at midnight. As time progresses the effect of sunlight changes. Hence, a pre-dawn attack will see the early morning haze eventually burn away. The length of the day is set by the season. Finally, the number of objectives and victory points are chosen.
Next, the part of the Fulda area designated for battle is delineated by a moveable window over the large scale terrain map. This window is divided by a center line separating east and west. Players should choose the location based on the type of engagement they plan to fight. The next screen allocates the percentage of Force A’s total complement by percentage to the recon, mech, armor, infantry, support and air components. Force B’s power can be raised or lowered by percentage of power points. Veteran players will want to boost the AI to have a real challenge.
The succeeding screen is where power points are translated into units and is extremely interesting. For each of the six components, three sections appear. The first are the units available to be bought in section, platoon, company and HQ sizes. A single click moves the selection over to the middle where its specs and an overhead view of the sprite can be seen. A double click buys the unit. Units can be bought up to players’ limit of power points. Connoisseurs of the period will enjoy the ability to see the transition from the American M60 tank to the early M1A1 and the switch between the M113 APC and the Bradley IFV. On the other side, the comparative merits of the T-75 and T-80 can be measured as well as the performance of the vehicle models the Russians kept for themselves versus the export models. This period saw many such transitions in all branches of weaponry. The game has all types of weapon platforms and players should take the opportunity to try out many combinations.
Preparation for battle isn’t over. The next screen shows the battle field in three sections: one for each force and a no-man’s land. Force A’s section is further divided into an advanced section where recon units can be deployed and a main area for all other units... Using elevation and line of sight overlays, players can deploy units in their area with click and drag. A limited amount of minefields can be laid and obstacles can be built. Pre-planned artillery shoots, waypoints and airstrikes can be set up with time delays and ammunition choices. Right clicking on units brings up a menu for eleven orders including advance, defending, dismount/mount, SOP and speed.
The Balloon Goes Up
Armored Brigade is a real-time game but no click fest! Play time can be compressed to taste and orders can be issued when play is paused. Unless ordered otherwise, units fire automatically on visible targets or if the short-lived recon units send coordinate. Advancing units leave dust trails that can obscure sight. Popping or calling in smoke is always an option as is waypoint-directed retreats if matters go pear shaped. The AI has a reasonable feel for terrain but depends largely on numbers and artillery. Players should be ready to group units into formations, monitor line of sight and be ready to right click to upgrade orders; sitting back and watching is a recipe for defeat. The game is over when time runs out and victory is a function of captured objectives and casualty ratios.
So Why Should I Buy when I can Get It for Free?
As good as the freeware version is, Armored Brigade needs more polish to attract a wider audience. More maps are needed with the North German Plains area as an imperative. The Danish border would be interesting as would Norway and Finland; after all, the US Marines carried out many exercises in the north. The nexus of Austria, East Germany and Bavaria would pit the bulk of US forces against the Pact. The idea of fighting along the Italian/Yugoslav border shouldn’t be ruled out. If war had come, the Warsaw Pact would have exerted pressure on many fronts. The most helpful thing the new developers and publishers can do is to write a comprehensive manual and tutorial. This game is too detailed to be intuitive so gamers should have a good idea of how to play before being dumped into the deep end of the pool. Multi-play options should receive a high priority
The concepts and mechanics of this game are fantastic. We expect the new version to maintain and expand on its excellence - at the time of publication, there was no news on a release date for the commercial version.