Strategic Command World War 2 Global Confict Part 1

By Scott Parrino 18 May 2010 0

Author:  Doug McLean

Eight years ago the first Strategic Command game was published ? an eon ago in this computer age.  Since then the game engine has continued to evolve, first expanding its horizons within the European Theatre, later adding Pacific operations. Now the simulation engine encompasses the entire global conflict.  To state that it is a tall order to reduce the most destructive and widespread war in human history into an easy to play but hard to master computer game is, of course, stating the obvious.  So does SCGC succeed?  Is this a game that really allows players to try and rule the world, or is it a piece of software that should be avoided?

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Global Map 1939.  At the outset of the long war campaign, action is focussed on Poland and China

Within a couple of years that will be much more activity on this map.

Introduction

SCGC covers the entire main portion of the Second World War, coming with four campaign scenarios that start as early as 1939 and continue until as late as 1947.  Besides the conventional Second World War campaign that starts with the invasion of Poland and Japan already at war with China, there are shorter campaigns that start later in the war, or even an alternative campaign that sees the totalitarian Nazi and Soviet regimes joining forces to take on the rest of the world, aptly titled ?Alliance of Evil?.  In keeping with previous versions of the game, however, there is also a powerful editor included with the game that allows those inclined (certainly not me!) to prepare custom campaigns.  A number of these have already been posted on the Battlefront (or other) websites, either expanding the map so as to change the nature of game play or adjusting the time horizons of the war to include events before 1939, et cetera.  Depending on a player?s inclination this is either a sandbox to simply play what is available, or to dive in and adjust an impressive number of the variables.  Overall this truly is a major game engine, not just a game, and really does open an impressive window on this period of history.

The map is reasonably impressive, but the manual clearly states that reality has been adjusted here and there to enhance playability.  In simple terms, this means that players should recognize the globe, but certain areas have been expanded or compressed to make the game work effectively.  One easy to understand example is that many Pacific islands have been expanded in size to provide room for units to maneuver ? in reality many of these islands would rate barely a pixel on a map of this scale.  Overall the map does a good job of bringing the more important aspects of Second World War geography out in the game, although the rather large scale and difficult terrain of some areas result in a pace of combat more akin to the stalemates of the First World War than that associated with the Second.  The scale of the game makes sweeping maneuvers difficult to undertake ? most of the time progress will be very measured and small (some mods significantly expand the map to allow more maneuver).

Time is broken up into 14 day segments, with one side completing its turn, then the other.  This alternating play results in each player receiving approximately 13 turns a year ? which is not all that many, and which certainly puts a clear premium on prioritizing a player?s activities. 

Both the map and the time scale decisions highlight a clear priority in the game?s design ? playability and game balance are paramount, with reality and history not quite as important.

Presentation

SCGC is similar to previous games of this series, expanded now to encompass the globe.  The world is displayed in a two dimensional way, with squares used to control movement.  The choice of squares is one that has generated a fair amount of discussion, purists insisting that hexes are the only worthwhile way to go in wargames and pragmatists being more concerned with playability.  I suspect there is no right answer to this debate, but the squares used in the game do seem to work well enough, creating challenging game situations.

The main display is (in the configuration I have on my computer) about 8 squares by 9, and allows players a clear view of action in an immediate area ? say southern England and northern France, or northeast China.  There is a very small global map underneath the main display that enables quick jumps around the world, but a number of different maps and displays can be accessed by hot buttons along the right side of the screen.  These hot buttons also allow access to diplomatic, research and development and general information displays.  A major improvement in SCGC is the provision of copious graphs allowing players to better understand the impact of raiding and bombing on strategic supply.  

Players have a fair amount of choice when customizing the display.  A grid can be superimposed or left off, national colours can be switched on or off, and unit icons can be either symbolic counters (similar to the cardboard ones you might find in a board game) or small 3D representatives of infantrymen, tanks, planes, et cetera.  These pictographic representations vary somewhat depending on nationality, size of unit (corps, special forces or army for infantry units, for example) as well as research levels achieved (Panzer I, II, III, IV, VIa and V for level 0,1,2,3,4, and 5 technology German tanks, for example).  The graphics are functional and reasonably attractive, but the main game is aimed at moderate computer systems.  I mention ?main game? because one of the already completed mods apparently requires a rather robust system ? which is only an issue if you want to get into the modified campaigns, of course. (I may have to upgrade soon ? the requirements for the mod exceed my current system)

Another important improvement in game functionality is the introduction of three hot keys in the game to provide a player with quick access to information regarding the potential appearance of partisans (?P?), supply status in each square (?S) or the summary of last turn events (?L?).  These keys can be very useful to players trying to understand what is happening ? or might happen, in the case of partisans ? and significantly improve game play.  Expanding the hot key approach in the future might reduce some of the extensive clicking now needed to access detailed unit information.  The game design has evolved so that there really is quite a bit of information now associated with most units, and some ? such as aircraft carriers ? regularly require multiple mouse clicks each turn to operate them effectively.  This does not inordinately complicate the game ? it is still reasonably easy to learn, although some of the mechanics do take getting used to, as occasional questions on the battlefront forum attest ? but anything that would streamline mouse clicking is probably an improvement in this game!

Installation and Technical Issues

The one important issue to note here is that Battlefront employs a system known as e-license.  This seems to work well, but, clearly, the issue is a contentious one for many gamers.  The game can be downloaded (as I did for SCGC) or a physical copy can be ordered (as I also did in this case).  Installation in either case proceeded smoothly for me (I used the disc to install a second copy of the game on my computer, so that I could patch one version of the game while still maintaining the older edition for ongoing PBEM games ? saved games are not compatible between versions), and Battlefront has been generally responsive to those gamers who encounter technical challenges.

SCGC worked well from the beginning.  A number of minor game issues were identified, although none seem to have completely undermined the game as it was issued.  I have experienced no CTD, and only a couple of odd crashes have been reported on the Battlefront forum.  The first patch has already been issued, and clearly reflects the impressive responsiveness of the game design team, Hubert Cater in particular, and Bill Longacre on many occasions as well.  The forum discussion of many game aspects is often lively, and the involvement of the design team is frequent enough to demonstrate their awareness of the many issues that are associated with any topic as complex as this game.  Individuals may not always agree with every decision made to the game engine, but the improvements that have been added to the Strategic Command game engine over the years reflect the importance and value of discussion among interested users.  I would point to the responsiveness and thoughtfulness of the design team as a good example of how this should be done in the industry.

Documentation

Documentation comes in two forms.  A limited edition printed manual accompanies the early CDs (if ordered), while a much longer 193 page adobe manual is found in the installed folder (194 pages after the first patch).  The printed manual covers game mechanics and provides an introductory tutorial discussion of the first few turns of the main campaign, some strategy hints and a description of the very extensive game editor features.  The incredibly small font makes for difficult reading for someone my age, and I would not really recommend it.  There are also a couple of minor errors in the printed manual, which have been corrected in the first patched manual accessible in the installed game folder. Game mechanics are straightforward enough that you can just dive in and click around to learn how most things work, but there will be a lot of trial and error that way.  Reading the manual will provide a good understanding of how the game basically works.  However, to really understand and master the game requires going through the online manual, as it contains the numerous ?scripts? that govern a wide range of events, from the declaration of war by neutrals to determining victory. The impact of these scripts may also be apparent after playing the game often enough, but there are so many variations that experience will be a slow teacher.

Graphics and Sound

SCGC has graphics and sound that are functional and generally easy on the eyes, but not ground breaking. Sound is also mainly utilitarian.  The map can be very busy with weather and terrain effects, but there are also options, such as adjusting the display to remove weather from the display, that can be selected.  This allows a clearer view of the map, but the impact of weather can be significant, making leaving this information off the screen problematic.  Overall the map is good, but players may need a little experience to appreciate all the nuances.

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Main screen with Poland about to be attacked. 

Players will spend most of their time in the game using this screen.

There is an opening musical score that is martial which shuts off ? fortunately ? once the game actually starts.  When playing, there are marching or clanking sounds when infantry or tanks move, swishing sounds as ships steam, roaring sounds as planes soar, and explosions as attacks hit home.  The sounds are appropriate and add a bit of ambience, but are hardly a critical reason to play.

Interface

SCGC follows a process similar to previous iterations of the game engine.  During the course of a turn a player decides on what units he will move or attack with, what R&D or production he will employ resources for, or what diplomatic actions he will initiate or respond to (and perhaps expend resources on).  Moving units and attacking with them generally absorbs the most attention, and this is why players will spend most of their time in the main map view.  Most activities here are reasonably intuitive.  Clicking on a unit will result in reachable squares being highlighted.  For most units you can either attack and then move, or move and then attack. A very few special units allow an attack, movement and a second attack ? but this is not common.

At the basic unit ?grab and click? level the interface is excellent.  The interface also provides quite a bit of information on diplomacy when you access the diplomatic screen, or the losses suffered by you or your opponent (in numbers of units, or in MPSs destroyed by raiders or bombers in a new display).  Information on existing forces is very accurate for your own forces, but generally is suspect for your opponent?s forces because of the influence of the fog of war.  (It is possible to turn fog of war off, but it is hard to see the point of doing this in most circumstances).  .

SCGC continues to expand the use of ?Decision Events?, where the player has to make a yes or no decision.  These are quite helpful in getting players into their respective roles, and in many cases are sort of a mini-history lesson embedded in the game.  The variety of events in SCGC is quite impressive, and really add to the games replayability as there are a number of these events where no single decision is clearly the best ? depending on your overall strategy it may be better to choose yes, but in a subsequent game where you are trying a different strategy a no answer may be better.

An important, and not always transparent, aspect of SCGC is the concept of ?belligerency? and neutrality.  All campaigns start with some of the major powers at war with each other.  However, war between two major powers does not necessarily mean that an ally of the major power is involved in the war.  This is a very important concept to model in the context of the Second World War, as there were occasions where conflicts did not automatically extend into different parts of the world when fighting began somewhere else.  The designers have paid a lot of attention to this concept, and players will need to be careful when learning how this aspect of the game works, as things are not always what they seem.  The most problematic examples, for me, have occurred in the Pacific.  When Japan declares war on the United States, for example, this does not seem to automatically mean that Japan is at war with the Philippines, even though military and air units appear in the Philippines when Japan declares war on the US.  This means that the Japanese player, even though he can see what he might take to be enemy units in, say, Manila, cannot attack them until a separate declaration of war is made on those islands.  Concurrently, it is fairly obvious that the Japanese player needs to declare war on Hong Kong as units in that small island do not appear until a state of war exists.  The designers have provided a separate screen that can be accessed to determine who is at war, et cetera, but some greater clarity on the main screen in this aspect seems necessary to me.  However, the overall system does work ? it just takes a bit of getting used to.

Check in tomorrow for Doug's examinaiton of the gameplay and his conclusion.

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