WarPlan Review24 Oct 2019 3
Released 24 Oct 2019
The year is 1940. All Europe lies beneath the Nazi jackboot. From Warsaw to Paris, Hitler’s armies reign supreme. Britain stands alone. Churchill delivers his famous speech: “we shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds…” As that speech is being delivered, Britain’s armies decide it’d be a good idea not to station any troops in Kent. When the subsequently unopposed paradrop by German Fallschirmjäger takes place – the Royal Navy also decides to leave the straits of Dover undefended, thus sealing Britain's fate when a German Panzer corps crosses unmolested.
Napoleon’s remark that all he needed was 6 hours of control over the channel to invade Britain is proved right.
Let’s take a few steps back: WarPlan is a new grand strategic wargame from Kraken Studios and published by Matrix games. I use “grand strategic” with the following proviso; You command all forces of either the Axis or Allies in Europe, North Africa and even a bit of Eastern North America. The Pacific theatre does not exist in this world other than to bring the US into the war in December 1941.
The real strength of WarPlan is its simplicity. I’ve praised that simplicity before and I’ll gladly praise it again. Too often in WW2 games there is an emphasis, bordering on obsession, with hardware. WarPlan does away with all of it. All you do is build a corps, it has a particular attribute you emphasise and that’s it. No fuss, no bother. You don’t care about whether the calibre of your guns are 75 or 76 millimetres. You’re the supreme commander, that stuff is for your minions. All you care about is whether your stuff is a) better or b) more numerous than the enemy.
All this translates very well into WarPlan’s combat. It just works. What more can be said? The random number generator has its say, but most of the time the outcomes felt 'right'. In deciding where and how to attack, the game helps a lot, with each attack displaying a convenient ratio and other factors that will affect the outcome. You can focus as much or as little as you like on the specific attributes of each formation. In combat, you have some information, but not so much that you’re overwhelmed or so little that you end up scratching your head at why that one worked but this one didn’t. There are edge cases where what looks like a cakewalk results in heavy casualties for your side, but that too, in moderation, feels 'right'.
Buttressing combat is the AI. I’ll talk about the AI's strategic thinking (or lack there-of) in a moment. At the 'tactical' level (its technically the operational level, but 'tactical' makes for a clearer distinction here); in deciding what to attack and where to push, the AI is quite impressive. In almost all cases it will attack where your line is weak, where it has an advantage and it will always aim to exploit gaps to create encirclements. So many other games, for a variety of reasons, fail at making their AI have a brain in combat. At best it’ll advance on a broad front like it's World War One, or it’ll just attack and attack and waste all its men. Not so for WarPlan. If anything, the AI’s competence in battle is the game’s greatest strength.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for its strategic AI. When WarPlan’s big-brain doesn’t have an enemy right in front of it, things start going wrong. Probably the worst it’s been is the little piece I started this review with. Not only did the AI leave Dover undefended, it then didn’t attempt to prevent me landing further units to exploit the landing. Result: Britain falls to distressingly easy Operation Sealion.
There are other strategic concerns that mar the experience as well. I noted in a previous article how the limits placed upon certain powers, particularly the Germans, seem very generous. Playing on 'historical' difficulty, I had enough fuel reserves by 1941 to probably last me past 1945, even whilst undertaking Operation Sealion. I get the impression that the onus is on the allies to bomb the absolute stuffing out of Germany’s oil production, but I suspect there was enough fuel in the bank to last me even despite that! I understand a need for balance, especially in a WW2 game where the historical timeline is somewhat well known, and the player won’t make the same mistakes the historical powers did. Yet the largesse of Kraken Studios keeps me from having to make the difficult decisions that I feel like are crying out to be at the heart of the game.
I would’ve loved, in a subsequent article, to have reported back on whether fuel stocks became a problem later on (even with a disturbing absence of allied strategic bombing!) Unfortunately, that is no longer possible due to some cheeky interface quirks. It’s half my fault, but when you go to save a different game and it defaults to the same name as the first game, you tend to expect it to ask you if you’d like to overwrite it. WarPlan must be the only program I’ve ever used that doesn’t do that – and so Germany’s miracle capture of Great Britain is lost forever.
You’ve been warned.
It’s hardly the only issue with WarPlan’s interface. There aren’t that many, but they crop up at exactly the wrong time. The most problematic is the deployment menu. If you fill up your production queue enough that you need to scroll down to look at the rest, clicking the “deploy” button simply selects the unit beneath the “deploy” button, rather than allowing you to put your brand-new units down.
That’s okay, right? Can’t you just wait [you filthy instant-gratification millennial]? Well, no. If you happen to be gearing the USSR for an impending war with Germany, you’ll find a large stack of reserves waiting for war to begin. This list runs more than a page and is present at game start. So guess which state, critical to the allied war effort; isn’t placing a single unit down until the start of war? It’s these little problems that begin to weigh one down the more you play. One or two are fair enough and I’d let pass. But there are more than just a few and, coupled with the AI, this supposedly speedy, no frills, no fuss wargame starts causing its user to run out of patience.
WarPlan makes no apologies about being, effectively, a computer boardgame. There'sis nothing wrong with that and, in some ways, it’s an advantage. The simplicity that WarPlan brings to the table is great. Gameplay is fast and, in combat, satisfyingly cerebral. Unfortunately, it is outside combat that things prove lack-lustre. Fundamentally, what I find to be holding back WarPlan is this: just because a game is simple doesn’t mean that it has to lack challenge. Planning implies certain limitations. We plan because we don’t have unlimited resources and therefore have to make sacrifices.
I don’t find myself having to make sacrifices or difficult decisions in WarPlan. I might have to wait for some new thing to appear, I might have to lose some territory, or even give up France if worst comes to the worst. But why bother about that when I’ve already done so much better than France in 1940 did historically? That there is at the heart of why I feel so neutral toward this game. It gets so much right, but I don’t think it truly takes advantage of the opportunities it presents itself.