Review: Assault on Arnhem12 Aug 2016 9
Review: Assault on Arnhem
Released 25 Feb 2016
While my initial reaction on trying Assault on Arnhem (AoA), released a few months ago by HexWar.com, was to cry, “Impossible!” I am disinclined to give short-shrift to anything, especially when reviewing. Therefore, I heroically kept at it, re-reading the documentation and replaying the tutorial scenario several times before tempering that notion. Although an Allied victory in the very brief Tutorial scenario “Grave” could indeed be unattainable if the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment drops too far away – the player has only five turns to take and hold the Grave Bridge – overall the tasks presented in AoA are feasible, and presented in an interesting way. Figuring out how is a bit of a chore, albeit a journey worth the effort.
‘Instructions’ are accessed from an in-game menu, supplemented by the Tutorial, which is toggled from a Game Settings menu. However, here is where interface problems arise: The tutorial can be easily skipped through if one accidentally (or deliberately) clicks anywhere, which advances or dismisses its window. If one tries things explained by the Tutorial – say, panning the map by mouse! – it will advance, perhaps before having read everything. Getting it back requires a new game; resuming an auto-saved game doesn’t restart the Tutorial. A simple fix such as an ‘X’ in a corner of the window that obliges a deliberate sending off would do wonders here. And/or another to ‘reset’ the Tutorial.
You Can Get There from Here…
Before that point, the player is offered the ostensible option to play on a ‘3D’ map, yet this selection – also toggled though the Game Settings menu – only alters the player’s perspective from a top-down to isometric view of a traditional 2D hex-grid ‘map board’. The only noteworthy aspect of this virtual playing surface is how things like forests and villages – streets and ‘blocks’ – appear blurry, notwithstanding a graphics setting of ‘Fantastic’ (chosen via a pre-launch menu). Indeed, the graphics appear dated, the highest resolution selectable apparently 1920x1080. Even so, while AoA is not a game likely to win a beauty pageant, neither is it ugly.
As might be expected, the game itself breaks down Operation Market Garden into four scenarios, albeit the aforementioned “Grave” could take a veteran barely ten minutes, and really cannot be played much differently, so arguably shouldn’t count. The remainder – “Nijmegen”, “Arnhem”, and “Market Garden” – sequentially increase the game’s scope, complexity, and length as focus shifts to different sectors of the campaign (the Eindhoven area is omitted to keep the scale tighter). One or two players are accommodated by the first three scenarios, with the option to play – unsurprisingly – either the Allies or Axis. “Market Garden” is essentially the ‘campaign’ game, opening things up to four players; one can take Britain’s 1st Airborne Division, another the U.S. 82nd, a third is assigned XXX Corps, the last taking control of the Axis.
Close to historical forces are portrayed, in addition to reinforcements and timings; e.g., the 1st Polish Independent Parachute Brigade. A side’s Victory Point total, determined as usual by holding objectives, decides the outcome at endgame, which can take up to 63 turns for the entire campaign, a turn representing two hours during the day, four at night. Each turn is further divided into phases: Airdrop and Reinforcements, Movement, Combat, and Logistics; albeit only Movement and Combat require player input.
Movement and other actions are apportioned to units using a system of ‘Command Points’ (CP), the available total depending on the number of HQs in play. This structure obliges a player to prioritise, since each action such as Resting, Digging in, Defending, and Assaulting – including un-Resting, or reverting from R&R to active – takes CP. Assaulting also requires extra Supply, which is allocated at the beginning of each Combat Phase.
Much like comparable games, units out of range of their HQ will be prohibited from taking on replacements (Resting) or Assaulting, not to mention replenishing ammunition. Although supplies are airdropped daily for each Allied division (not for XXX Corps or Axis forces), the game does not explicitly tell the player that said supplies must be picked up by moving a unit on top of the Supplies ‘counter’, whereupon, so sayeth the Instructions, they are “automatically sent to the collecting unit’s owning HQ for… distribution”. It may thus behove a player to leave a unit in each Drop Zone to collect these supplies, even while justifying CP later on to run around and retrieve them might also cause pain. Even the AI appears to have trouble keeping up with them, despite appearing to have sufficient CP. As it happens, Engineers may be useful in this capacity, since I did not find them practical elsewhere.
Actually, You Can’t…
Even granted the game’s short time scale – seven days, maximum – Engineer units are curiously unable to bridge major rivers, despite the historical use of Bailey Bridges in the operation. Although I admit the ability would need to be carefully balanced, its lack is unfortunate, seeing that Engineers appear to have limited use otherwise. Instead, they are given combat bonuses against Artillery, and are the only units that can otherwise cross a major river at other than a bridge (how they do this while being unable to aid others is a head-scratcher). Yet, employing them to take advantage of these dubious attributes is problematical. Even on ‘Easier’ difficulty, the AI seems competent enough to position its arty behind the frontlines and defend with at least one or two Infantry, most of which are easily a match for Engineers – who will almost unavoidably be out of supply if sent across a river to hunt artillery. I ended up pretty much ignoring Engineers after my first couple of games, instead saving CP for more important endeavours, like moving, defending, picking up supplies…
Engineers notwithstanding, the Axis player – AI or human – benefits from numerically superior forces (as was historically the case), yet allocated CP remains a constraint; this, while not a revolutionary concept, represents traditional ‘fog of war’ effects due to factors such as limited or chaotic communications. Command Points are logically reduced at night, and adjusted in favour of the AI at higher difficulties. Although one might imagine deciding how to use them could be more challenging for the Axis than the Allies – as the former get fewer – this was not the case in my first Axis campaign game on ‘Normal’. Having foreknowledge of enemy drop zones and the timings of reinforcements – if one can memorise or recall accurately – felt kind of like a cheat; I easily mounted an impenetrable defence in only my second full game, first as Axis, as the enemy pretty much sat by and watched; game over by about Turn 30-35. ‘Hard’ being a different matter altogether; see below.
More about the AI in a bit, but the above leads me to posit that the game might profit from an ahistorical modification to slightly randomise these events, as well as game lengths; alternatively, they could be toggled options. I suspect that otherwise re-playability will drop dramatically, at least for familiar, human opponents. Such options could also be used to handicap unevenly matched human opponents. It also seems a little too easy for tanks – even Tigers – to dislodge entrenched infantry in towns, but while that is relatively minor, I ran into multiple, more dubious combat results which I will go over momentarily.
As to the AI, a ‘Legendary’ difficulty was added above ‘Hard’, which I have yet to test. Having won my first full game as Allies on ‘Easier’, and a second rather more easily as Axis on ‘Normal’, I can however attest that the difficulty ramps intensely on ‘Hard’ – at least for an Axis human. As well as receiving combat bonuses, the AI’s CP are doubled, all of which proved quite a spike. Instead of waiting passively and digging in along the Osterbeek Road, e.g., the AI suddenly seemed to have little problem taking every bridge before my Axis forces could scramble to mount an effective defence at any.
Although surprising – in a kind of welcome-the-in-laws way – it wasn’t the worst I’d encounter; I saw numerous examples of combat results that ‘shouldn’t’ happen, e.g., regular infantry destroying heavy tanks, and even light infantry killing heavy tanks, on their own in open terrain (unless they were Assaulting, which is hard to tell; the AI sure gets a lot of Assaults). And once an anomaly, surely: I could not tell whether a badly wounded enemy infantry or full-strength tank was in the same hex; both flickered in and out at different zooms. I attacked, killed an inf., but the Coldstream Guard was right there as well! Ack! Cheating AI?
In any event, between the Designers Notes as well as forums, the designer admits to ongoing debate about unit strengths and tweaking play balance, in addition to a ‘feeble’ Allied AI (not so much on Hard!). He as well as players seem to concur that the Axis will usually win, given a human vs. human of relatively equal skill, which does not bode well for a ‘perfectly’ balanced game. Yet, the most important thing I discovered was that going ‘historical’, especially in the campaign, will likely result in failure for a human Allied player, because a simultaneous rush to each bridge mires one in a veritable army of logistical and communication issues – that is, a lack of Command Points!
One other item I can offer in the way of tips – beyond a few ‘standards’ such as pay attention to move/attack order, plus unit types and terrain – is: Beware of even wounded arty! More importantly, ensure not to clog up roads with units at ‘Rest’ or otherwise out of immediate or upcoming action; in spite of the reported anomaly above, one unit per hex seems to be the rule, and other than recon, even tanks move much faster on them than overland. (The narrow brown ‘trails’, which I presumed were just that or secondary roads, must actually be railroads, appearing to serve no game purpose beyond aesthetics; also somewhat disappointing.)
Which is it, Then?
Here, I must briefly return to interface issues: The simple select-and-left-click interface can cause problems when attempting to scroll the map, and not only by advancing the Tutorial; if a unit is selected and a hex clicked within its range, it will accidentally move – or attack, if on a legal target in that phase. An ‘Undo Last Move’ is available in single-player, albeit not multi- – and it won’t take back attacks – so this is potentially disastrous! A simple fix would be to require a right-click instead. The map view can be moved instead using keyboard arrows, W-A-S-D, or other, customisable keys, but I found this awkward. It may simply take some getting used to, after playing games that auto-scroll with mouse movement.
Nonetheless, with a little practice, the game’s interface is manageable, and important information is available, even if some is not covered in detail. The sidebar shows time of day, terrain (in which the cursor currently resides), game phase, plus selected unit name and primary stats. The only thing I might add is a ‘Turn # of #’ indicator; although notice is given via popup at the beginning of each turn, and time/day is shown on Resume/Load, having it right there would be more convenient (similar games have it). Units – resembling customary board wargame counters with optional NATO symbols or stylised figures – can be subject to several Statuses, as indicated by attached icons; Terrain combat modifiers, in addition to normal stats like Attack, Defence, and Movement, can be determined via the Unit Summary.
In conclusion, while not ground-breaking and despite its shortcomings there is a lot to like in Assault on Arnhem. Start with the fact that, for me, it’s probably one of the first ‘board’ wargames to actually relieve the player(s) of pretty much all the drudgery associated with the latter, such as determining LOS, rolling dice, and calculating modifiers, along with facilitating and (partially) randomising setup and reinforcements. Add to this the price: At only US$9.99 for PC/Mac, $4.99 for iPad, I can suggest it is well worth the cost for anyone interested in a different take on the subject matter, with or without human opponents. Especially when one considers that a typical board game of the genre could set one back up to ten times that, not to mention requiring a human opponent – and moreover proving rather awkward to set up and play on the train during one’s daily commute.