Minsk 4404 Feb 2007 0
Operation Bagration must have given generations of NATO officers nightmares. In this operation, Russian forces, aided by a months-long program of preparation, deception and partisan activity, destroyed the four armies of the German Army Group Center within three weeks. The Germans couldn't blame their loss on unreliable allies; they were out-generaled and could not withstand the judicious use of artillery, air assets, armor, and infantry used by the Russians in Byelorussia. HPS, John Tiller and their band of scenario designers had to do major rework on the Panzer Campaigns' engine to make Minsk '44 accurate and yet enjoyable. They have succeeded far beyond my usually gloomy expectations of Eastern Front games.
Large Places with Strange Sounding Names
Installation is accomplished the usual way through a wizard and takes 250 MB of hard disk space. As with all Tiller games, documentation is on-disk with a short tutorial walking through a scenario specifically designed for it. All rules and mechanics are explained via a menu-driven on-screen display. The designer's notes in Minsk '44 are especially interesting. Here, Glenn Saunders gives insight into how each entry into this series is made, describing the construction and verification of the huge map, the pains of constructing a detailed Order of Battle and why certain features were added or changed. Reading these notes can actually improve gameplay.
The premier graphic in the Panzer Campaign series are the maps and the Minsk '44 campaign map ranks towards the top of the list. Covering 130,000 square kilometers at one kilometer per hex, its terrain includes marshes, swamps, rivers, various sized streams as well as man-made features such as obstacles, minefields, and bridges. Byelorussia is not an integral part of most gamers' personal road map so this detailed research is not only appreciated but essential to understanding why the attacks went as they did. The 2D maps will be the most used medium for play since both the normal and zoomed-out view give a good feel for the situation. The 3D mode is useful in figuring out movement in areas that are filled with streams, rivers and bridges, all of which will force players to make thoughtful movement decisions. Play is aided by shading hexes for movement and line of sight; different color options show counters divisions and statuses such as fixed, low on ammo, etc. The enormity of the area and the battle makes these features almost necessities.
Units can be seen in three modes: 2D counters with values for strength, movement, fatigue, and morale shown on an info panel; 3D counters with the information on them; and 3D icons. The first two options are very useful and are aided by the color illustrations in the side bar. The 3D icons are generic and add nothing to play. Further information on units and terrain is shown with right clicks on the info bar. A key piece of information on terrain is the hex's supply value which, along with headquarter command range and status, determines units' supply condition.
Combat results flash up very well on the screen with appropriate sounds of shells, bombs, machine guns, rifle shots, and motors. Toggle-able background sound effects provides "white noise" if desired.
Pushing the Steamroller
The basic combat and movement mechanics for the series are described in our Stalingrad review. Minsk '44 still relies on these mechanics but has some features, old as well as new, that deserve more description. As one would expect in an Eastern Front game, many of the scenarios have a multitude of units. A player playing the Russian side will have a surfeit of artillery and could spend significant amounts of time finding them and targets they can hit. The artillery dialog comes into its own here. This pop-up lists all artillery units with those eligible to fire in bold. Clicking on a unit in the hex will highlight it and every eligible target. Hitting "OK" finishes the fire mission and the next artillery unit is ready to go.
Other ways of handling large scenarios without sleep privation is to speed up AI processing with "F8" and deferred AI orders. The first option just drops graphics and sound without decreasing AI effectiveness. The latter allows players to give orders to large organizations as to movement and the AI takes it from there.
Partisan units have undergone a needed facelift. In previous games, these units acted like weak regular units and had the ability to do irreparable rail damage. The latest models move faster, disappear quicker, are more vulnerable in a firefight, and do damage that is repaired in a turn or two. Nonetheless, they are a true pain to the Germans in the campaign scenarios as they try to move the panzer divisions that were suckered south up to the action. One scenario is devoted to this; partisan activity can cause a train back up the equivalent of gridlock on Chicago's Dan Ryan during rush hour. The German response is security units posted along rail lines. Patch 1.01 will add a "Patrol" feature to aid in securing the railways as well as tweaks revolving around reinforcing existing units and stopping gamey bridging tactics.
Another important tweak is units ferried by engineers are not automatically out of supply on the opposite shore. Also, high quality troops are not affected as much by fatigue.
The most bally-hooed improvement is the AI, revamped by John Rushing and retrofitted to earlier games in the series. The AI seems more focused in that it drives towards objective hexes, keeps an eye on its flanks, retreats better, and seems to sniff out seams between divisions. The AI still can't leap over tall humans in a single bound and tends to get lost in large scenarios but gives a significantly better challenge to solo players.