Wot I Think: Unity Of Command – Stalingrad Campaign

By Kieron Gillen on February 25th, 2012 at 2:03 pm.


I’m a shit Nazi, me.

In terms of things that a game can teach about yourself, that’s got to be up there somewhere. As my repeated attempts at claiming Stalingrad at a properly blitzekreigian pace mounted up, I realised that I’m not exactly the man Hitler would have rushed into awarding a general’s baton. I’m not even sure that Generals have batons. I may be thinking about marching bands. All that marching. I just get confused. That said, Himmler was a shit commander too, and it didn’t stop him being giving a bunch of armies to push around the map between doing the activities that don’t tend to turn up in accessible wargames about World War Two.

At this point someone has already skipped to the comment thread, and has written an indignant message saying something about the Wehrmacht not being Nazis. That’s because I’m baiting you, friend. I’m baiting you. You fell into my trap, much in the same way as I fall into the AI’s trap in Unity of Command.

See. Bear with me long enough and, eventually I start talking about the game at hand.

Unity In Command came to my attention in the middle of a Flare Path. It almost doesn’t need his prose to sell you on the concept – accessible wargame with hardcore appeal that can actually cross over. The screenshot alone suggests something that’s trying to reach a little bit further than its-the-personality-that-counts crowd. And the talk about the game says “Clinical, small scenarios, with a degree of accessibility and purportedly brutal AI”? Hey, baby. No need to conscript me.

Of course, I’ve played serious WW2 wargames. It’s been a while.

I exaggerate, but only slightly.

So I’m coming to this with my eye on it as the great-crossover-wargame-hope. Which is somewhat unfair. This is just a game. It shouldn’t have to carry that particular expectation. That, to its credit, Unity of Command doesn’t buckle beneath my expectations.

It’s a hex-based scenario-centric WW2 wargame, which allows you to approach it at its own pace. With its UI, you can play it badly easily. You select units. You move them around. You move them into enemy units. And lo! Within a few turns you realise you’re doing it. You’re actually doing it. You’re playing a wargame! Badly.

And then you start picking stuff up. The full limit of my tactical knowledge is a vague recollection that a land war in Asia is a bad idea – but when the entire concept of the game is about a land war in Asia, I’m kind of left adrift. But the basics start seeping in. Tanks generally crush stuff. Hungarians are generally crushed by stuff. Attacking across a river ends badly. Having your supply lines cut is disastrous… actually, let’s come back to supply lines later.

At this point you may decide it’s time to not actually just read the manual, but to try to understand it. And you’re starting to think about how tanks actually crush stuff, which isn’t solely related to their enormous attack, but their fundamental capabilities as tanks. Give a couple of tanks to an infantry unit, and you’ll blunt the worst of it. Choose the right terrain to blunt it some more. Realise the difference between artillery supported units and Katyusha supported ones (The former are towed, which means that if they move, they lose their artillery bonus if they attack at the end… but are ready to counter enemies on their turn. The latter’s rocket-heavy artillery support can move and attack, at the expense of slightly less punch, making them more suitable for swifter assaults. Also, they have a better name). You start to realise how you can actually pull of a river crossing. You realise how you can best position your most powerful units to maximise their chances over over-running several units in a single turn. You start thinking of useful things for Hungarians to do, other than act as improvised paint for tank treads…

You start playing a wargame. And that’s wonderful. It’s a neat, interlocking matrix of possibilities.

And it all rests on supplies. Bar the most experienced units, lacking a clear route to the nearest supply base means they don’t get resupplied. Not having it for two turns, and they can’t attack. Not having it for three turns, and you may as well be Hungarians. Which leads to a game which rewards the grand encircling manouveres of World War 2. And there’s few things which punish an over-optimistic attack than cutting off their resupply, even for a turn. A tank with seven units uses two of its supplies in a previous turn? It doesn’t get it replenished? Well, before it even tries anything, the next turn it’s only going to be on 5/7th strength. Which immediately removes the momentum of your attacks, which brings the whole house of cards crashing down. An oversight in protecting your supply can undermine your whole game, forcing you to waste turns while cursing, cursing all the while.

Of course, it’s worse when you realise the power of supplies – which you will realise early, they’re that fundamental – and start trying to do encircling. And you’re so incompetent, its primary effect is just weakening your defences enough to let them simultaneously cut off your supply lines. And then everyone cries.

Except the AI. It looks at your with its steely, robotic gaze and snorts, looks at your lines, finds the bit where you’re weakest, and punches through. See this?

That’s the AI, being a bastard.

So I play the scenario again, reinforce that bit with anti-tank, twiddle a bit more, try to encircle him and…

That’s the AI, being a bastard.

And to (movie) quote the Tim Stone of WW2, A Magnificent bastard.

So – accessible yet deep, attractive and with an AI which teaches you the core of the game by beating you around the head. Scenario play, two campaigns and even a tiny bit of multiplayer (hotseat or internet play, on a single map). It’s a hell of a wargame. But for all its charms, it’s not going to be the one which drags in a (PC) mass audience into a scenario-based hex-map wargame. And, perhaps somewhat sadly, it’s in areas where the game’s most interesting that it’s going to lose people.

The big one is its campaign structure. While you can play any scenario individually, they’re chained into a campaign, with your degree of the success in a mission determining whether you get to play the next one or not. The key thing being “degree of your success”. There’s bottlenecks in the campaign where unless you manage to get the top level of victory, you’re barred from progressing through the campaign. It’s just fundamentally strange to win a battle and then told it’s game over with 3/7 scenarios played. And while the structure is demanding and compulsive, making you constantly push for the big win, it doesn’t stop it being genuinely alienating. Much like the Kings of convenience, all too often you find yourself winning the battle, but losing the war.

The second problem is a small one, but its impact is multiplied by the unforgiving campaign structure. There’s no undo function. While I understand its lack for undoing battles – because there’s a random factor there and it’d just be an excuse to game the system – for moves it’s painful. Clicking and moving around the map, it’s fairly likely you’re going to move a unit to the wrong place every game or two. And when the scenarios are balanced so that the much-lusted-after decisive victory often does hang off a single move, this can flip a victory to a loss. Oh – and while the game saves when you leave a scenario, there’s no actual save, meaning that you have to replay the whole level to get to the place of the error. If you’re tough, you swallow that when it’s part of the game, and your tactics are defeated – and they’re the correct length to replay too. When it’s the equivalent of playing a boardgame with someone who shouts “you took your fingers off the piece”, that’s a tad more grating.

The third problem is a softer psychological one, which makes the game harder than it ought to be. As well as earning points from victories, you earn prestige. Prestige can be spent in missions on reinforcements, plumping up units or adding a handy tank or two to a formation. Which is neat. The problem is that Prestige both builds up across games and that also acts as a score bonus. Both make the gamer want to stockpile as much as they can. Because clearly the mission is completable without spending any, so you don’t. You will tend to only spend prestige when you’re sick with being beaten on a level to press on through. When the reinforcement system is neat and adds a lot of options, that the design actively discourages you using it and makes finally submitting to touching it taste bitter, that’s a mistake.

In some scenarios you’re actually given a few free reinforcements, which makes the error clearer. Seeing that you’ve got three anti-tank guns available, and choosing where you need to prop up your line is a meaningful and compulsive tactical decision – and a suggestion of a way that the prestige system could have improved the game.

I think the reinforcements is the one area of the design I’d question outright. For the rest, it’s mainly things which limit the game’s wider appeal. I say “limit” rather than remove. Because even though it’s not the game that takes the pop appeal of Advance Wars and marries it to the niche appeal of the inside of Tim Stone’s head, this is a damn sight more accessible almost anything else. PC-gaming everyman Alec would like it. I suspect Adam has already played it, and I equally suspect he likes it. But I suspect its poise isn’t enough to get the Jims of the world on board.

Clearly, Walker is about as much of a lost cause as my latest Hungarian-lead offensive.

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70 Comments »

  1. Teronfel says:

    Unity of Command? Never heard of it,where can i buy it?

  2. kastanok says:

    I’m a shit Nazi, me.

    Your name shall not go on zee leest.

  3. Kaira- says:

    I’ve been keeping on eye on this. Sounds like even with those little flaws the AI (if it really is that good) makes it all well up. I guess I’ll have to fork some money for this, and time to play it.

  4. icupnimpn2 says:

    At least it looks to be an attractive game of busts vs tanks

  5. Cinnamon says:

    I think that Hitler gave his generals one of those metal eagle things squatting on swastika. At least I know that they existed and idea of them was that they were supposed to be like roman legionary standards, where the eagle represents the honour of the legion.

    I don’t know why there isn’t a demo of this game. It looks good but it seems a little pricey for a game of this sort with not much history behind it that I know of.

  6. PostieDoc says:

    Vulcan!
    I used to love that game as a kid playing against my brother.
    He always made me play as the Axis though which mean’t by the end of the battle I was screwed for troops :(

  7. caddyB says:

    Hello KG.
    It’s been a long time.

  8. Dana says:

    Check website. 30 dollars ? Are you serious ? Panzer Corps costs 30 bucks. Hell, Command Ops is even cheaper !

  9. Wooly Wugga Wugga says:

    That’s ok. The Nazis were shit Nazis too. Lucky thing that or we’d all be talking German right now.

  10. Vinraith says:

    I love the sound of the system, the AI, the overall design, but dammit people why eastern front WW2? It’s really, really, really tired at this point. I have all the eastern front games I want, quite frankly, for the next long while. The setting is a huge demotivator for me on this one, and will probably keep me away from it indefinitely. There are thousands of years of military history that you people could be making games about, and for that matter dozens of other subconflicts in WW2 that have been less overdone. Stop being stuck in a rut! *goes back to playing EU:Rome*

    • wodin says:

      I think you will find there are far more West front games out than East. The East Front is my main interest in WW2. Alot more to it than the West front which in comparison was a sideshow. It’s just a far more interesting theater of WW2 than the other theaters. I find Africa boring as I prefer Inf combat over tank and really that theater is all about the tank. You will find most developers will go for the West front first as the Americans are in it, thus they sell more. You see you moan about another one, yet here I am pretty much obsessed with the East front and really have nothing decent (for me tactical) on my hard drive that covers that theater.

      As for modern war there a fair few of those out now and they just don’t make much money, whatever way you look at it your not going to sell loads if your wargame covers Arab\Isreali war or some such. Saying that I do love the tech in CMSF, which I actually miss in CMBN (but I really had no interest in the one sided conflict).

      Sadly though when you do get a new wargame for the masses you get Wargame Escalation, which isn’t a wargame really, just a bigger World in Conflict, it’s also starting to come in for some pretty poor forum comments now the initial WOW factor has worn off.

      As soon as CMx2 hits the East (See yet again we have the West being covered first) and Panther Games start their East front titles (Again we had the West first) then I’m set up totally and will finally be happy that my interest has fianlly been covered by decent wargames.

      Saying all that though Red Pill looks great.

    • Vinraith says:

      Yes, west gets covered more than east, but there’s been a glut of both lately. No one, conversely, covers the Italian campaign, or North Africa (exterior of Combat Mission), and for that matter the Pacific as a whole gets pretty short shrift. I’m just really tired of fighting the same battles over and over under different game engines when there’s a world of other options out there.

    • neohellpoet says:

      The problem with making a game in the Pacific is that it has to focus on Naval combat, and making naval combat in ww2 interesting without making it incredibly complicated is difficult.

      “War in the Pacific” is my go to game and while it’s amazing, it’s also very niche. In order to make the game about more than: “Find enemy, release the planes.” You need to give the player a ton of options and an incredible amount of stuff to look after.

      Finally, there aren’t enough games to serve as a template. The more games there are of a specific type of game, the more similar and better games will be made since people who enjoy them will want to make one of their own, only better.

      Italy and Africa on the other hand are inexcusable. Why there aren’t more of these is byond me.

  11. BAshment says:

    “Tanks generally crush stuff. Hungarians are generally crushed by stuff”

    Astronomical maximum respect.

  12. neohellpoet says:

    I knew about this game for some time now. I was thinking about buying it and finally did.

  13. Chris D says:

    Was that a Princess Bride reference halfway down or have I just blown what little wargaming credibility I had?

  14. Fumarole says:

    Welcome back, Karen. Thanks for posting this WIT as I’ve been wanting to play Unity of Command for some time. One of these days I’ll get around to buying it.

  15. Jackablade says:

    Ah, those are busts of soldiers, not ducks wearing hats. I’m disappointed.

  16. Tim James says:

    I haven’t played this, but here’s a couple notes I picked up:

    1. Undo is coming in an update. They’re working on it.
    2. There’s no demo. But they’re considering it.
    3. You didn’t mention one other quirk of the campaign: it’s historical, so the first scenario isn’t necessarily the easiest. If you’re having trouble, try some other scenarios first. (Voronezh?)
    4. The designers intend for you to play each scenario multiple times to try alternate strategies or do without the reinforcements. It’s probably not a game where you cruise through the campaign and quit forever. Take that into consideration before you buy.

    Check the forums for more information.

  17. Joshua says:

    “I am a shit nazi, me”

    Don’t feel bad about it. So was Hitler.

  18. Easy says:

    I love this game, one of my best buys of 2011. Go get it and support these talented developers. If you like wargames you won’t be disappointed.

  19. Advanced Assault Hippo says:

    I’m vaguely interested, but I’m not spending full whack without being able to play a demo first.

  20. cptgone says:

    no sandbox play, just campaigns consisting of scenario’s? the devs should be hung for war game crimes against humanity.

    if i’d found this game for a reasonable price, i’d have bought it blindly.
    now i’m glad i didn’t.

    lovely write up btw.

    • Devrey says:

      What an unnecessary rude comment.

      Agree about the price though.

    • Antsy says:

      Yeah, I mean there’s two of them ffs. Two whole guys! You would think one of them would have had time to add a sandbox mode! Right?

      Outrageous!

    • cptgone says:

      i’m sorry i upset you guys.

      Antsy: i would have preferred sandbox mode over mission/scenario mode. might have actually saved ‘em some time, perhaps?
      and, no i didn’t know they were so few. hats of to them.

    • Antsy says:

      Nah, I understand where you’re coming from. I much prefer a more open gamemode too, but these guys have done such a good job on what they have put in it’s a shame to berate them for stuff they haven’t got round to yet.

      I did see some talk of adding an editor in the future.

    • leeder krenon says:

      A sandbox mode makes no sense. It’s a historical wargame simulating actual things, so you’re playing scenarios. I don’t think any serious wargame ever featured a sandbox mode.

    • Antsy says:

      I just assumed he meant something like a campaign mode.

    • cptgone says:

      @ leeder krenon:
      by “sandbox mode”, i meant something like Hearts of Iron.

      campaigns consisting of scenario’s, Panzer General style, frustrate me. as Kieron says:
      while the structure is demanding and compulsive, making you constantly push for the big win, it doesn’t stop it being genuinely alienating. Much like the Kings of convenience, all too often you find yourself winning the battle, but losing the war.”
      furthermore, they limit the player’s strategic options (e.g. Moscow first, vs. encircling Kiev defenders?)

  21. Gothnak says:

    Hello PC Wargamers, tell me what to try next…

    Loved Old Speccy Wargames including Desert Rats & Encyclopedia of Ancient Battles.
    Loved Steel Panthers
    Loved Close Combats
    Loved Fantasy General
    Liked Panzer General & Panzer Corps

    However…

    Don’t like chit based wargames (both real and computerised).

    So, i was thinking, Unity Of Command, but currently have Crusader Kings 2 as it’s awesome…

    So, what games are out that have medium complexity, but aren’t too dry? Help appreciated!

    • wodin says:

      Battle Academy.
      Panzer Corps.
      Combat Mission Beyond Normandy.
      Panzer Command.

    • Arona Daal says:

      Except for Panzer Corps and the Rubberboard Games i played & loved all those too.

      My Recommendation:

      Hearts of Iron II

      Or one of its commercial Mods ( I play Darkest Hour myself atm)

    • Tokamak says:

      I wish they could make a modern (as in modern engine) version of Steel Panthers – for some reason, it’s the only wargame that I’ve played which really engrossed me.

  22. Konil says:

    I’ve been debating wheter to get this or not since RPS first mentioned it. It looks supple.

    Yet, the niche price tag, no steam registration and no demo do make it a bit of a hard sell for the international and budget concious gamer. Wargame: European Escalation is only $9 more and it’s a big game,this is almost double or triple the price of tipical indie games.

    Still want it though!

  23. MD says:

    Thanks, Uncle Kerion. This looks really interesting, but I umpteenth the call for a demo! I’m not going to complain about the price, because this could easily be worth it, but it’s not really in “happily take a risk” territory.

  24. Earl-Grey says:

    Who is this Keniro Gellin?

  25. Torgen says:

    I’ve been eyeing this one since the FP episode gushing over it, but $30 is just about my total monthly entertainment budget, and the wife just got a $260 speeding ticket. :( I look forward to even a small demo.

    Also, we need some wargame Humble Bundles.

    • Squirrelfanatic says:

      Look at it this way: The wife just spent 260$ for entertainment purposes, so you’ve got quite a bit of room left there.

    • Konil says:

      A good indie wargaming (is there any other kind of wargaming these days?) Humble Bundle would be a great idea, indeed.

      I hope the people at Matrix games and all those crazy cats read all these comments.

  26. Real Horrorshow says:

    I’ve skipped ahead to the comments to confirm that the Wehrmacht are, in fact, guilty little nazis.

    http://www.amazon.com/Wehrmacht-History-Myth-Reality/dp/0674025776

    • harrumph says:

      Ha, I did the same. Check out Omer Bartov’s work on the subject—I think he was the first major historian to revise the account of the honorable, apolitical Wehrmacht. Hitler’s Army is a good read (if soul-crushing, grisly history is your idea of a good read).

  27. leeder krenon says:

    This will be in the Matrix sale next Christmas. Just wait til then if it’s too expensive.

  28. default_name says:

    the entire concept of the game is about a land war in Asia

    You shouldn’t have skipped your geography classes.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Hehe, true.

      Game is great, btw. Well worth the price tag in my opinion. But then again, I have no problems shelling out much more than that on games either, so maybe I’m not a typical RPS-reader. Or maybe people somehow thinks a 7 hour linear shooter is worth $30 but a strategy game with deep, lasting appeal and HOTSEAT MULTIPLAYER (best feature ever) isn’t. I dunno. For me it is.

  29. Donkeyfumbler says:

    Just bought Battle Academy from the same publishers (Matrix/Slitherine) which is a great game too. I did look at Unity of Command having seen it mentioned in the same FP that brought up Battle Academy but no demo for this one when Battle Academy did have one made the decision fairly easy.

    Also £24 on one war game is enough for me. Shame really as there are quite a few Matrix games I like the look of including the revamped Close Combats. If they were £10 to £15 they’d fall into impulse-buy territory and I imagine I’d end up actually spending more money in the long run.

  30. dakl says:

    Never thought I’d be getting interested in this kind of game. But I guess that’s a testament to the power of gaming to change people – and make them more keen on war.

  31. pbbpbb says:

    NEW
    Online Store:
    ( http://www.paybuybuy.com )
    you can find many cheap and fashion stuff

  32. robc says:

    Unity of Command is the most entertaining wargame I have played in a while. The reviewer was spot on with some of his criticisms, specially reguarding being blocked from progressing in the campaign unless you achieve the highest level of victory and being somewhat forced to hoard your prestige. These points aside it is stll a very good game. The game was challenging, but fair. I tended to win the scenarios to my satisfaction on my 1st to 3rd attempt, so it is possible to get through the campaign without banging your head against the wall.

    One Guy, Too Many Games

  33. longhaia says:

    http://bit.ly/wWceQs
    You’ll love it very much!
    A good place for shopping online store…..go now!

  34. ThaneSolus says:

    nice one KG, and welcome back! Thanks for making me dusting off my Panzer General II disk. Cya in 2 years lol.

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