The Flare Path And The Sea Lion Tamer

I’m glad Strategic Command 3’s camera is a tad myopic. Not being able to see the Panzers parked in Parliament Square… the SS Sturmgrenadiers marching down The Mall… Mosley and Hitler shaking hands on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street, means I can push north towards unconquered Scotland with a spring in my goose-step.

After dalliances with squares and the Great War, Hubert ‘Fury Software‘ Cater, is back hewing hexes and what-if-ing WW2. Around six weeks away from release, Strategic Command 3 (or Strategic Command WWII: War in Europe as it’s officially known) is conservative turn-segmented grand strategy with the emphasis squarely on military matters rather than political, social or economic meddling. I launched into the latest beta build expecting to be overwhelmed and overworked. What actually happened was this.

Initial fears aroused by the 180-page manual, and the lack of small evening-sized scenarios or individually playable minor nations vanished half an hour into my first game, an Axis affair with a 1940 eve-of-Fall-Gelb start. Relatively modest unit counts (I’m averaging about two turns an hour at the moment) together with hearteningly ergonomic and transparent play systems ensure SC3 is nowhere near as backbreaking or mindboggling as it first appears.

Helping to keep things PzKpfw II pacy are abstracted convoys and automated convoy raiding, two-click naval transportation, and fighters that escort and intercept without player intervention. Unintrusive logistics and a one-unit-per-hex rule play their part too. I was able to sweep aside the hapless Dutch, Belgians, and French within a few hours using nothing but instinct and that convenient invasion thoroughfare just to the west of the Maginot Line that wargamers have been shamelessly exploiting for generations.

My first bona fide blunder was an attempted battleship breakout into the North Atlantic. Instead of emulating Lütjens and sailing up the coast of Norway during a foul weather turn (turns span fourteen days), I foolishly chose to send my eager convoy raiders across the middle of the North Sea in bright sunshine. The resulting brush with the Home Fleet gave me a healthy respect for the Royal Navy that lasted until 1941 when the Senior Service put in a somewhat half-hearted performance during my startlingly successful version of Operation Seelöwe.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Long before German jackboots hit Sussex shingle I’d made friends with the game’s pared-down production, R&D, and diplomacy dimensions. Military Production Points fund almost everything in SC3 outside of standard combat and movement. Generated each turn by the same urban/resource hexes that serve, along with HQs, as logistical nodes, MPPs can be spent commissioning, upgrading or reinforcing units, researching new tech, influencing the alliance aspirations of minor powers (the initial relationship stats ensure things never get too weird) and funding long-distance ‘operational’ unit moves. Your unnamed and invisible boffins research generic ‘tech levels’ rather than specific vehicles or weapons, which may seem a little dull if you’re used to spreading tech trees acorned with recognisable aircraft, AFV and warship types, but the flavour deficit is partially offset by evolving counter art and the game’s library of one-off decision pop-ups.

Do you want to invest in an Italian human torpedo programme? Will you supply weapons and aid to anti-British rebels in Iraq? Is Marshal Pétain’s ‘Vichy France’ armistice agreement acceptable or would you rather fight on? Would you like to found the Afrika Korps and send it to Libya to support the struggling Italians? Interesting aspects of WW2 that are either beyond the scope of the core mechanics, or potentially fiddly, are handled through one-click-and-it’s-done yes/no dialogues. Though I like the approach I have encountered one or two decisions that were jarringly out-of-step with the events unfolding on the map. Here’s an example.

At the time this defeatist document dropped onto my desk, the only English settlements remaining on my ‘To Subdue’ list were Dover and Hull, and resistance in Scotland was crumbling faster than a shortbread frisbee. France at risk from Allied invasion? I think not.

I suspect/hope my relatively painless Channel crossing in the Summer of ’41 had more to do with my choice of difficulty setting (Intermediate – at higher levels the enemy gets an MPP boost and enjoys enhanced spotting abilities) and my reckless determination to defeat the Englander Schweinhunds at all costs, than poor AI or balancing. When the Fascist-filled LCAs and troopships sailed from Calais, Cherbourg and Le Havre, the Fatherland itself was virtually deserted. I was relying on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the deterrent effect of a few token garrisons to keep Stalin out of my hair until the UK was crushed. I hadn’t expected the treacherous Soviets to pre-empt my treachery by mounting their own backwards Barbarossa in September.

If the Reds had struck a little earlier or focused their attack on one or two countries rather than five (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria), I doubt I’d have been able to stop them. As it was it was possible to use expensive long-distance operational movement to ferry the bulk of my triumphant Tommy trouncers to the eastern edge of the Großgermanisches Reich before any capitals fell or major swathes of territory were lost. Can I push the Communists back where they came from while simultaneously maintaining pressure in North Africa (the DAK are four hexes from Alexandria) and keeping a lid on partisan mischief in the UK, France, the Low Countries and the Balkans? Only time will tell.

Fending off the Soviet attack has been both enjoyable and illuminating thus far. Heavily reliant on a large and modern Luftwaffe (I’d naively assumed that the RAF would offer stiff opposition during Seelöwe. In fact they proved about as dangerous as the RN) turns when the weather is too mucky for aerial ops are particularly challenging.

It’s hard to tell whether the AI is using its HQs well (HQs provide supply and increase the combat ability of nearby troops). I suspect I’m not, but defender-friendly reinforcement rules together with low damage dealing means the Soviet steamroller is unable to take advantage of my incompetence at present.

My foe definitely understands that it pays to schwerpunkt on occasion. I’ve watched him shuffling frontline units in order to pummel a particular target multiple times in a single turn. What I’ve yet to see him do is employ artillery. The only type of unit apart from aircraft and missiles* able to attack non-adjacent enemies, arty is, as I’ve discovered in Egypt, bally useful. The absence of it in Soviet and British lines is a trifle strange.

*The V1s I planned to use against London and the Garden of England in fact first saw action on the Baltic coast bombarding tanks and mechanized infantry near Danzig

Oddities like rare artillery and (checks notes) unsupported aircraft units roadblocking blitzkrieg progress, Italian starting conditions that mean Mussolini starts the game with just one one fighter and one bomber unit, a Home Fleet that lingers at Scapa Flow when Britain is clearly lost, are one of the reasons I play far more tactical recreations of WW2 than strategic ones. All grand strategy titles seem to advertise their syntheticity from time to time. Simulating the convulsions of an entire theatre plausibly is much harder than aping a small armour clash or infantry skirmish. If you can accept that fact, and are in the market for a £20* 1939-45 ETO title that doesn’t exhaust, infuriate, or baffle then the pacy, moreish Strategic Command WWII: War in Europe is definitely worth shadowing.

*Guesswork. As usual, Slitherine won’t reveal the price until release day.

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This way to the foxer

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  1. Shiloh says:

    Hmm, thanks Tim – this is making me think I haven’t played a decent Op Sea Lion game since the days of Norm Koger’s Operational Art of War.

    Might have to remedy that, and while I’m at it, return to North Africa as well for a bit of free-wheeling desert fighting. I’m pretty sure Koger had that covered as well.

  2. Drib says:

    I’m too American to play WWII sims properly. I remember back in the Civ2 era, it came with this WWII game and I tried to diplomacy my way out of war with the Axis powers.

    By giving nuclear missile technology to Hitler.

    I regretted that ceasefire later, I’ll tell you.

  3. wodin says:

    Decisive Campaigns Barbarossa is a recent wargame releasethat had purpose. It did things differently, was innovative and damned good aswell. Where as many wargames esp Grand Strat or Operational just seem to rinse and repeat your standard wargame formula and to be honest I don’t understand why anyone is motivated to spend all those hours developing a game that’s more or less the same as many many others. I was hoping SC3 was going to try different things but it doesn’t seem like it sadly.

  4. Peter Mandelson says:

    Thanks Tim, I’m buying it! Speaking of Op Sea Lion, can you (or anyone?) help me remember the name of an old Battle of Britain strategy game? It isn’t BoBII Wings of Victory, it isn’t Order of Battle: BoB, it isn’t Talonsofts’ Battle of Britain… all I can remember is it had a nice simulation of the Brit Ops Room (Uxbridge bunker) Dowding System, with its Tote Board system of lights for different squadrons (standby, attacking, etc) tied with the Sector Clock (Red, Yellow, Blue segments). I seem to remember playing it around the year 2000. I’ve been racking my brain, searching for weeks but can’t find it anymore. Or perhaps it wasn’t a strategy game at all and was some sort of “interactive CD-Rom” multimedia thing explaining how the Dowding System worked? Or maybe I dreamed the whole thing and neither History CD-Rom nor BoB staregy game with Tote Board simulator exist?

  5. Niente says:

    I’ll be buying it but I seriously doubt it will be £20. Double that and you might have a more accurate figure.

  6. mrskwid says:

    Looks a little like gary grigsby’s world at war but hexy.
    I liked the tech system in that one.

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