Boot Camp: A Beginner's Guide to Steel Division: Normandy '4401 May 2018 1
Let’s be clear here - Steel Division is a hard game. Many games are difficult to master, many games are difficult to learn… but Steel Division: Normandy ‘44 is both. For one thing, the meat of your experience of the game is likely to be in multiplayer, where veterans of Eugen’s real-time tactical offering will pounce upon you like hawks if you don’t go armed (and, where possible, with friends).
For another, Steel Division’s formula is so very different to more traditional forms of RTS. Resource gathering and base building are out the window. Economics are for the guys back in their bunkers located under the Foreign Office and the Reich Chancellery playing their own private Hearts of Iron. For you, as a combat commander in charge of several battalion’s worth of assets, it’s down to you to use them well.
This guide assumes that the reader knows the broad basics of how to work a strategy game. Left click selects units, right clicking moves units, they take damage, etc. This guide instead focuses upon the aspects of Steel Division that mark it out as different to its other real time strategy brethren. Some of the topics to be covered may appear a little bit arcane. Nonetheless, they’ve been included because of their supreme importance to the way this game plays.
The phase system in Steel Division is perhaps unique in this genre. Over the course of forty minutes the game escalates from what are meant to be early meeting engagements to all-out battle. Generally, the phases are the following: Phase A consists of lightly armoured vehicles and infantry, who will take and hopefully hold ground. Heavy armour is almost non-existent, and tanks are generally in short supply. Phase B ratchets things up a notch. Large quantities of medium tanks and artillery will begin appearing, as well as many specialist infantry units. Finally, Phase C is where the fighting reaches its height, with plentiful quantities of all units, as well the heaviest and hardest hitting units any division has available.
Exceptions of course apply. Most glaring are the captured units available to a small number of divisions, where vehicles traditionally found in phase C are in phase A (and often give light vehicle players an exceptionally bad day). Other divisions may bring small but potent armoured forces to the game from the beginning, often these are backed up by excellent recce vehicles (more on those later) and other mobile units.
In keeping with the phase system, divisions vary wildly in their strength and type of units they can bring to the table in any given phase. Some elite infantry divisions (particularly paratrooper divisions), thrive in the early game. Others (particularly German armoured divisions) start slow and build up to become almost overwhelming in power. The characteristics of each specific division is a subject worthy of a guide of its own. For this guide it can only be stated that the match ups of each division are often asymmetrical, and the player should try to recognise whom they are facing (ideally at the outset) and plan accordingly.
Morale is another significant factor that might take a moment for the player to get their head around. All units when under fire by any unit take some amount of morale damage. How much depends on how deadly the weapon is. Unloading a machine gun into an enemy tank is unlikely to do much to worry them. On the other hand, a large calibre anti-tank gun is guaranteed to put the fear of god into any vehicle upon the battlefield. As a unit’s morale becomes worse, its effectiveness in just about every aspect diminishes as well. Once the morale loss bar is filled (so to speak), the unit panics. Infantry units go to ground and may be ordered to fall back (almost always the correct decision), but otherwise do not return fire and are liable to be captured by the enemy. Vehicles meanwhile begin to fall back slowly (and always in a direction you don’t want them to). They will not return fire and are also in danger of capture (and yes, those two-man reconnaissance teams are extremely effective at capturing King Tigers who’ve bitten off more than they can chew!). One notable saving grace is that units may not be captured so long as there is one unit nearby that have not themselves been panicked.
For most games, the frontline of any action is something not so much announced by the game but a psychological place, where the area where your units may move freely morphs into a land of darkness filled with hidden enemy units itching to ruin yours. Steel Division makes it a game mechanic. It is, put simply, the big line down the middle of the map at the start of the game. Where it goes from there is up to you and your opponent. Obviously, the closer it is to the enemy’s side of the map, the better you are likely to be doing.
Since the frontline is affected by almost every unit in the game, it can provide critical information both as the game begins and as the action continues. All units exert a certain pressure upon the frontline. It is possible to use the frontline to divine how well the enemy is covering a section of front. The closer the front is to your units, the closer the enemy is. This magic allows us to compare this situation:
Units that end up behind the frontline take increased damage to their morale. Creating pockets, where enemy territory is not connected to their side of the map, serves the same effect.
Fog of War
Traditional RTSs make fog of war self-explanatory. Where your units can see, the world is lit up, where they cannot is in shadow. As you will find from the moment you launch your first battle in Steel Division, this isn’t the case here. It would seem that the entire map is visible, lit by that lovely summer sun.
As is so often the case, looks are deceiving...
Fog of War and line of sight are somewhat opaquer in Steel Division. The lack of any visual fog of war means that you can never be truly certain of what you can and can’t see. Not all units are created equal in this way. Park a tank in a hedge and you can be pretty certain it’ll be spotted from quite a distance. Put a two-man reconnaissance team, or your choice of hand-held anti-tank weapons teams, and the enemy may need to be right on top of them before they are spotted. It is quite possible for such units to be left behind by the tide of battle, sitting hidden far behind the lines providing their owners exceptional intelligence with their enemy none the wiser. The implications could be catastrophic in the case of an anti-tank team. Imagine parking your shiny new panzer beside an innocent looking tree line, only for it to be annihilated by hidden enemies without it firing a shot in anger. It is important therefore to realise that nowhere is truly safe in Steel Division. Forests, tree lines and hedgerows can conceal all manner of horrors to ruin your day.
So how do you deal with all this uncertainty? Recon. Recon is everything in Steel Division. From the tiny scout teams mentioned previously, to heavy armour to aircraft of all shapes and sizes, recon can come in almost any flavour you like. It would be easy to overlook these units in one’s rush to Steel Division’s array of heavy armour, heavy artillery and other nasties. Yet none of these units work very well without being able to see what they are up against. As a rule of thumb, I prefer reconnaissance to be as far forward as possible. You want to be confident that every possible part of your frontline is visible to at least some sort of reconnaissance. Even if that unit can do precisely zero to stop the enemy coming through that sector, knowing that they are coming is half the battle.
Furthermore, bring replacements – and lots of them. Being placed as far forward as possible, recce units die like flies. Generally, infantry recce, that is, guys who dismount from trucks, halftracks, etc are best when you are starting out. It is true that recce vehicles can be extremely effective. Light weapons, particularly the autocannons that are carried by German scout vehicles, make up for lack of punch with sheer rate of fire. At close range these units, spotting for themselves and perhaps with heavy anti-tank support, are to be feared. Their light armour however means that when things go wrong for these units, they go very wrong. For beginners, stick to infantry, but do not be afraid to experiment when the time comes.
This guide is by no means an exhaustive accounting of what makes Steel Division the tricky game that it is. This writer does however sincerely hope that it gives those just starting out with the game the pointers they need to begin delving into it themselves. It is easy to harp on about Steel Division’s learning curve, but, ultimately, the results are worth it. Best of luck.