Once and Future King: A love-letter to winSPMBT14 Jan 2021 5
Like all good videogames, Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank started life as a mod for Steel Panthers II: Modern Battles, as well as taking notes from a World War II Steel Panther mod. As a fully-fledged game, Shrapnel Games' winSPMBT has 16 years of history and development behind it. Even in the year 2018, it’s still a great game, and a great wargame to boot. I wonder what that says about the rest of the industry?
Battlefront’s Combat Mission series is known for meticulous research and a truly hardcore level of detail. However, being 3D games, the increased development cost in money and resources means there are limits on the period of history they can portray. Many others are limited in the same way, taking a conflict and running with it. For modern warfare, you could look at something like Eugen's Wargame.
But then Wargame wouldn’t really tick those ‘Simulation’ boxes. It's more concerned with breadth than with depth, with fans clamouring for even more toys to be added. It was never designed to be a really detailed war sim, so you have truncated ranges, a non-existent command system and air support that materializes almost immediately. Meanwhile, winSPMBT covers the time period between January 1946 to the far-off year of 2025 - and still manages to go really deep with it.
But that doesn't mean that you can recreate the famous Wargame rushes where a low-tech deck just swarms the more advanced enemy with T-34/85s. For one, winSPMBT really wants the random match ups in Battles (what other games would call “Skirmish”) be contemporary. The nation selector changes by year and month, as does the TO&E.
So, no pitching the USMC of 2020 against the Vietnamese forces of 1969 – and yes, USMC is the only military unit to have a separate nation selector. But outside of that, if two armies existed at the same time, they can fight each other. From the big boys of US and USSR to Zimbabwe, Belgium and even UN forces, the game has it all. There are also Red and Green forces to represent any missing combatants – supplied with WARPAC and NATO gear respectively – and they also include police, gangsters and other armed folks.
When you're out on an AI bash or facing another player in Battle, you buy your forces with points. The selection is split between Armor, Infantry, Artillery and Misc. (as well as the option to take Allies from a nation). Most units are bought in either platoons or companies, though there are options to buy a tank or a truck – or to sell back a platoon from the formation to get points back.
The variety of units is amazing, as the game also covers various prime movers, barges, asses and stationary ammunition dumps. The units are fairly detailed, too, with the game tracking weapon types and ammo (in shots, rather than rounds – Gary Grigsby worked on the original game, not the mod), fire control, vision devices, experience, morale, leadership ability of leaders, vehicle armor (separated between four hull and turret facings) ...
This is all of great help to scenario and campaign designers, of which there are many. More than being just a mere multiplayer bash sandbox, winSPMBT is a toolbox for anyone who wants to recreate their favorite post-World War II conflict, as long as it's platoon level or higher (the truly insane can go up to regiment). WinSPMBT ships with hundreds of scenarios and quite a few campaigns. As well as re-fighting Cold War's most famous battles, you also get to fight drug lords on the US border, enact French hostage rescue operations in Africa, or even carry out a pulp movie scenario (literally) where the US forces take on dastardly Nazis. Heck, some enthusiasts start crafting scenarios based on real life conflicts that have barely just begun, even if that is a little grim. I can't think of any other game that gives you that many options without sacrificing realistic detail.
What amazes me is that this ancient is game is still a damn blast in 2018. For one thing, it puts a lot more emphasis on the visuals than many games 16 years its junior. You might not exactly distinguish infantry by look alone - they're but ants of a couple of pixels - but you can tell if it's a squad or a weapon, or if the unit had been reduced by fighting. And you can bet your sorry ass that each tank, truck and plane is recreated lovingly, as well as having appropriate camo for the map you're fighting.
Battles randomly generate a map based on the most possible battlefield for your matchup. You don't even control the planes directly, and those all have models! Even the interface, dated as it is, looks a lot better than a lot of the barebone UIs you see on games today that give the impression of playing on Excel. And even then, tool tips and help aren't that far away to inform what does what. It just surprises me that this venerable title looks and feels better than games developed years later.
However, learning some of the hotkeys is a must. You'll want to be able to quickly switch between units under your command – the game allows you to do that by either hopping down the list unit by unit or by command element. You can even command an entire platoon at once, but the manual states that the AI is “a bit rubbish” at path-finding. In any case, most of the buttons can be found on the side bar. Learning to play by keyboard still helps a lot, though.
That is not to say that winSPMBT doesn't have its own quirks. With each unit being able to do overwatch unless heavily suppressed, movement in the face of the enemy can be a chore. Each weapon that a unit fires at the enemy is resolved separately and one at a time. This can add up when it's just infantry pot-shotting each other from a hex or two away. But once you run afoul of a tank company in a flat desert, expect waiting to times to increase. The AI will always fire all the guns that are in range and able to engage that target. Unfortunately, this frequently involves machine-guns against tanks. You will remember the ricochet sound of rounds bouncing off armor to your dying day. You can manually disable certain weapons from firing. But you want them on for your opponent’s turn... so yeah.
Also, on normal settings, artillery comes in one round at a time, which can take minutes with MLRS barrages. Thankfully, the developers aren't complete dunces and a 'Fast Artillery' option exists.
Still, I can't stop loving this game. From the fact that artillery and air have to be called in – and takes time to arrive (and doesn't always go on target) – to that the little things like tanks kicking up dust in the desert (this can both obscure some targets and reveal that someone is moving there), it's a pleasure to behold. And at its core, it's a free game! The free version of winSPMBT has everything you need to play, albeit the max resolution is limited to 800x600. The paid version will set you back $39.95. It comes with higher resolution options, more PBEM save slots, tools for tournament organizers as well as additional functionality for map designers, easier encyclopedia parsing, terrain height and density reporting (useful when placing those FOs) and similar stuff. But really, you want to get it for that sweet, sweet resolution increase.
WinSPMBT is standout game even today. The wide scope does not demand sacrificing the depth and detail. You have both documentation and modding capability. The full price is reasonable when you consider how many hours of gaming you can get out of it. And even the free version is closer to a ‘full’ game than many a base product from the DLC laden shores of AAA gaming! Just fire it up and blow up some tanks.
This article was originally published in May 2018.