Upcoming strategic war game Warplan shows promise, but struggles in its search for a soul

By Charles Ellis 27 Jun 2019 0

Any discussion in any online space on the conduct of the Second World War is guaranteed, at some point, to devolve into an argument about tanks. Both sides trot out the statistics, there is much hammering of keyboards, walls of text come and go and at the end of it we are left with a whole heap of nothing.

What with such walls of drivel being so popular, developers follow suit. Every WW2 game has a Tiger somewhere... until now, that is. Having given Warplan a thorough going over, my investigators have been forced to conclude that no evidence of tankophilia™ can be identified anywhere on its person. And all I can say to that is: “Finally.”

Now we can get on to the business of the real war.

warplan pic 1

With that in mind, let’s be clear on what Warplan is not. It most definitely does not have a Gary Grigsby-style obsession with detail (the world barely has room for one Gary Grigsby series). Nor, at the other end of the scale, does it have, say, Hearts of Iron’s strategic-scale. This is a game set strictly in the European theatre, with just a sliver of North America on the side to allow for convoys and the most megalomaniacal kind of Fuhrer. Turns last a week, and about the smallest land formation you can get is a division. Probably the most important limit (and impetus toward actually thinking about what you’re doing) is that you can only ever have one unit of the same type occupy a map hex (the exception being fleets).

Warplan is clear on what it wants to be, as well. This is a strictly military wargame (a tautology if ever I saw one). The bureaucracies of your various nations give you numbers to work with, and you go from there with what you build. Trucks? Landing Craft? Long Range Submarines? That’s all up to you. Just about your only interaction with factories and oil wells is to invade them and bomb them. The production system took a little bit of getting used to for me. Maybe my eyesight is going, but I found the formatting of numbers tricky to keep from wandering all over the screen. But - as its early days yet for Warplan, I’ll cut it some slack there.

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Closely allied to Warplan’s production system is its fuel system. It’s easy to end up with a fuel system that feels very far away from anything at the frontline. In Warplan, it’s the opposite. Every time a unit is ordered, it uses its own discreet amount of fuel. Run out of fuel halfway through the turn? Tough – your planes and tanks aren’t attacking anything. It’s good; but might be in need of adjustment. It feels wrong that your tanks and planes can still be moved (quite long distances too), even when they’re out of fuel. Similarly, after a relaxing spot of phoney war whilst I polished off Scandinavia, as Germany I prepared for the invasion of France, I found myself with enough oil to fight a major war until, I suspect, 1950.

It’s those sorts of things that begin to make things tricky for Warplan. As a game focused on war, it avoids politics, but how can it hope to depict any war without some treatment of politics. I suspect, were the Allies of the historical Second World War under unified command, as Warplan handles it with one person at the top, that things would’ve been rather different. When you have ideological adversaries being given orders by the player even when one side is in (proverbial) bed with the enemy, it starts to feel rather wrong. It does all the more when you give the Red Army orders in 1939 as it is poised to invade the same Poland that you are also right now defending (the game sidesteps the awkward problem of allies fighting allies by just giving the eastern part of Poland to the Soviets – something I suspect Poles then and now wouldn’t consider precisely accurate). Unfortunately, Warplan is on track to back itself into a rather nasty corner.

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Combat itself in Warplan is straightforward and without fuss. If you’ve experience in any hex game, you’ll get this before anything else. Resolution is quick, and you can give as much or as little attention to the fine details as you like. I should single out for particular praise the game’s AI, or at least, its attacking AI: vicious. Playing Barbarossa as the Soviets ain’t fun. The Germans will at every opportunity seek to encircle you, and they usually will – that, in itself, is a rare achievement in strategy gaming of any sort. It’s not all good news on the AI front, however. The AI is depressingly blasé about leaving gaps in its lines. Whilst I could pat myself on the back for one well timed raid that took out an enemy airfield, when it’s repeated, it makes you begin to think that maybe the AI is the one at fault.

The AI might be strong, but other aspects of combat leave me scratching my head. I’ll give you two anecdotes that highlight my issues. The first: Barbarossa, 1941 – the acid test for any WW2 game. The Soviets are retreating on most fronts, but nowhere more so than in the northwest, where a Finnish infantry division crosses the border east of Lake Ladoga and marches all the way around to the south of Leningrad. Out of supply and under attack by Soviet troops most of the way, they continue their long march until they almost link up with Army Group North advancing through former Estonia. Any number of logistical, moral and indeed political factors I should think would’ve made such a movement impossible. The result is that plausibility, at this point, is out the window for me.

The second anecdote: the Germans are invading Poland, In the south, the city of Krakow has a single Polish infantry division surrounded. The Germans attack: the Poles retreat to the one empty hex available to them. The Germans attack that hex, the Poles retreat back to the city. This exercise continues for some time. Any plausibility, once again, begins to decline rapidly – and I am again reminded that I am playing a computer game.

warplan pic 8

Right there is my central issue with Warplan as it is now - It’s struggling to find its soul, its reason for existing. It does a lot right by throwing out all the pointless details weighing down so many other strategy games. It focuses on one thing and its AI responds, for the most part, pretty well. And yet… I don’t feel the game has taken advantage of the weights lifted from its shoulders to pursue its own, possibly quite unique personality. Oftentimes, its pretensions to grand strategy are undermined by quite 'gamey' occurrences that almost mock what it seems to be trying to be. What’s more, I’m very afraid that it doesn’t have time to find the little twist that will make it tick.

Someone asked on the Wargamer.com Discord what a good entry level wargame for them would be. At the time I couldn’t mention Warplan due to an NDA, but I can make the point now: It has just the right amount of straightforward simplicity to be an excellent starting point for the budding wargamer, and it is a magnificent achievement from a solo developer. That said, while I’d heartily recommend Warplan to any grog-in-training it currently lacks that spark that will keep you hooked over the long-term. In a subject matter that’s already sporting several quality actors, Warplan’s going to struggle in face of games that are more honest about who they are.

Warplan is due for release on PC later this year (we think). You can sign up for the beta here.

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