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Strategic Command WW1 Breakthrough

A review by Boggit, 14 December, 2012

Developed by Fury Software and published by Battlefront Inc.

Wargamers have recently had a series of fine wargames set during the First World War competing for their attention. With the Breakthrough expansion to Strategic Command World War One, Boggit takes a Grog’s view of whether this is just “Over the Top” or “Bang on Target”.

 

Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough is Fury Software’s latest addition to their Strategic Command stable of games. Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough is an add-on to Strategic Command World War One, so what has changed with the addition of Breakthrough, and for those unfamiliar with Strategic Command World War One itself, how does the game play?

Breakthrough makes a number of changes to the Strategic Command World War One game engine and introduces a new unit – the armoured train, which substitutes for the rail gun in some scenarios. The game engine changes cover a host of improvements including new hotkeys and some nice combat features like combat unit swapping, improved bombardment options, and so on. Supply rules have been overhauled and improved. Breakthrough also adds a variety of additional scenarios and a range of modding features to the game editor.

 

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What scenario to play? Action takes place from the muddy Flanders fields to the jungles of Africa.

Strategic Command World War One ships with 11 campaign scenarios, but Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough adds a whopping 20 new scenarios. Whilst the majority of these are concentrated on the Great War itself, a couple of them deal with the Balkan War 1912 and the Russian Civil War 1918-23. There is a wide variety of scenario scale. This can range from the whole war at Corps level running with approximately two week turns, varying by season, to smaller campaigns at Divisional and Brigade level such as the Somme 1916 with five day turns to the Meuse-Argonne 1918 at one day turns. The ground scale relative to the map is adjusted to suit, so smaller towns/key woods are portrayed in the smaller campaigns. Whilst the majority of scenarios concern themselves with warfare on the Western and Eastern fronts, there are some interesting scenarios that other WW1 games often cover with no more than a line in a report. These little gems include von Lettow-Vorbeck’s East African Campaign 1916, Jutland 1916 and the Siege of Kut 1916.

Veterans of Strategic Command World War One might be surprised to see another 1914 Call to Arms scenario, but in fact this scenario provides a flexible deployment option, allowing Germany to deploy an Army size group of units from their starting forces as the player sees fit within Germany. It’s a nice feature that allows players to explore “what if” possibilities.

 

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Reports give a clear indication of progress – In this case Germany is not doing at all well

Graphically, the game looks a little dated. However, the artwork for the unit sprites is “pretty” and the maps themselves are crisp and clear. The graphical interface for reports, graphs and so on is easy to use, with an emphasis on clarity. Another nice feature is in the regular use of period photographs or artwork for on-screen reports.

The game offers a wide variety of screen resolutions to satisfy most monitor requirements. The downside when using common resolutions like 1980*1080 is that the sprites appear on the small side and so appreciating the art detail gives some eyestrain. Conversely, reducing the resolution can give rise to a blurriness , which detracts from the quality of the artwork at a higher resolution. Fury Software has indicated that in the future they will investigate the practicality of adding a larger sprites option to further enhance the player experience. On map, using a high resolution can cause a concentration of sprites and trench lines can sometimes look a little indistinct, although this is less of a problem at lower resolutions, where the crispness of only some of the graphics is lost. I use a 22” widescreen monitor and of course the visual definition issues I had may well be somewhat different for players with different size screens.

 

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Here are the basic game options. Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough allows players plenty of choice to play the way they want to.

Breakthrough can be played both single and multiplayer. Playing against another human will usually present a greater challenge, but the AI in Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough is good. I found even playing against the computer at “Intermediate” level the AI put up a good fight. I did find turns could take a while to process, although in fairness a lot is going on during the AI turn. Fury Software has recognised this and there are four options specifically designed to improve AI speed. I took advantage of two options for improved AI speed vs AI processing time and any turn delay was compensated for by seeing spotted AI activity within the computer turn (Fog of War is an optional feature). On a 3.2GHz computer turn delay was something I could accept and is definitely not a game breaker.

Advanced options give a lot of variety to play. Essentially they allow a player to customise the use of visual effects, map, game features (like production delay) and event scripts. This can have quite an impact on gameplay. For example, turning off viewing of National Morale bars removes certainty about victory progression, so can affect a players strategy. Likewise turning on the Retreat option gives more realism to combat.

 

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Ha, Ha! I say Carruthers, it looks like we’ve given the Hun a jolly good thrashing!

A typical turn will open with event reports and then it is up to the player to move their units. Units can make a standard march, force march – at the cost of readiness and morale - dig in, or use strategic movement by ship or train. Strategic movement has to be paid for by military production points (MPP’s), which is a neat feature as it represents the opportunity cost on industry when a large chunk of the transport infrastructure is removed from economic activity. Accordingly, major strategic troop movements have to be seriously considered against other investment choices. Fortunately, “Infrastructure” is a Research choice, which can mitigate the impact of such economic dislocation.

 

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IX Korps stands ready to attack Samsonov’s HQ – Damaged HQ’s find it harder to replace losses and to supply units

If a unit has used a standard move to contact, then it has the option to attack. This is done by selecting the unit to attack and left clicking on the target. Before left clicking a player will see an intelligence display giving information about the battle including the likelihood of success. This is not a given result, since a random factor, unspotted defensive artillery can influence combat. Combat strength is affected by a lot of things like leadership, experience, weather, readiness and morale, all of which are influenced by a number of factors, most importantly supply status. Attacks result in strength losses and a defender may retreat in certain circumstances due to lack of entrenchment or cover and having too low a strength to reasonably resist. Reconnaissance plays a vital role and cavalry, aircraft and spy networks/radio intercepts are the best ways to gain vital intelligence. Not knowing the location of enemy troops can lead to disaster, since movement itself - when fog of war is on –can lead a unit to blunder into a hidden unit which can precipitate the chance of an ambush occurring – with yet another advantage accruing to a defender.

The left click for combat might look simple, but it hides the complex web of relationships that affect raw troop strength in calculating the combat result. In short, combat in Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough is elegant.

 

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With the collapse of Germany in 1916, could Trotsky and Lenin still have made a Bolshevik Revolution successful?

A key concept which has a critical effect on the game is National Morale and the collapse of the same can lead to revolutionary chaos and defeat. It represents all those factors contributing to a country’s willingness to continue fighting. If National Morale falls below half its initial strength then it starts to take a toll on battlefield morale. It is dynamically affected by combat losses and events, so plays a vitally important role in a player’s strategy.

 

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Diplomacy is a key issue. Here diplomatic pressure can be directly applied, but events and military action affect diplomatic outcomes

Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough is comprehensive in the modelling of many relevant factors for the Great War and in so doing Fury Software set a very high standard. However, I was surprised that disease and general attrition is hardly modelled - save for a couple of the smaller campaigns - considering the large impact it had on the battlefield. To give credit to Fury Software, Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough models a drop in morale and readiness for forced marches and it uses events for important historical desertions and mutinies, as well as one for Ottoman winter attrition in the Caucasus. It also models the National Morale effect of economic blockade causing hunger for Britain and Germany, but more could and perhaps in hindsight, should have been done. Disease in WW1 was still a major killer on the battlefield. Armies suffered major casualties - due to living long term in insanitary conditions - from diseases like Typhus, Dysentery, Typhoid, Influenza, Malaria and Trench Foot etc. General attrition exacerbated the non-combat loss problem even further as widespread issues like local desertion/AWOLs, exposure, exhaustion, shell shock and mental breakdown, suicide etc., wore down the armies.

To put the impact of just disease into perspective – on the Western Front delousing stations were established, but this wasn’t commonplace on the Eastern front and Typhus wasted armies – over 150,000 combatants dying just from Typhus in Serbia alone. In the 1918 Influenza pandemic was so bad it killed more American military personnel than in battle and at one point came close to halting the Meuse-Argonne offensive. By the end of the Gallipoli Campaign official statistics show Australian fatalities of 8,159 of which 665 are due to disease alone – a significant 8.15% of total casualties!

Decision events relating to disease and medical support appear in two of the scenarios, but not in the grand campaigns. The Ludendorff scenario gets influenza events and the East Africa gets events related to making provision for tropical diseases. From the general detail I’ve seen lavished in Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough, I suspected the omission of general attrition and disease elsewhere was an unintended oversight, but Fury Software say it was a development decision as they were concerned that players might feel frustrated if they lost strength whilst building up for a key attack. Fury Software has said they are not tied to their earlier decision and depending on reader feedback may consider revisiting disease and general attrition as a future realism option for players in the other campaigns. I’d like to see a future patch with a disease and attrition option and scripted Epidemic events, which reflect strength, morale, and readiness losses. This could be mitigated by national decision events to expend MPP’s to invest in medical facilities, or via Research development into a new research category of “Advances in Medical Care”, as was done by most of the main Powers (save in large part for Russia and Turkey, who suffered particularly as a result).

 

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Period photos for events enhance the game experience

The game has a lot of chrome built into it that shows Fury Software’s care and attention to detail. Some features have no effect other than enhancing the period feel, like new unit portraits on upgrades and national anthems when clicking on capitals. Others, in particular historical events can be far reaching, not only adding a lot of chrome to the game, but directly and indirectly affecting play.

 

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Decisions, decisions… The crew are hungry. Let’s go with “Yes” and grab a kebab in Constantinople.

Some events are decision led, like whether to send the ANZAC Corps to France or Egypt and have both time and/or cost implications as well as giving a battlefield effect. Others are scripted and are triggered on certain conditions arising like the state of a nation’s national morale, the date, or even in consequence to a decision led event, like conscription. Mostly these have a political effect like civil unrest/strikes affecting national morale, but these can also play out as sabotage, factional infighting or outright revolt as with the Senussi Revolt in Libya or the Arab Revolt in Arabia.

 

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The “Boffins” are never bored with 20 researchable areas to focus on

There is a comprehensive game editor supplied, which allows a player to create new scenarios and modify almost every aspect of the game. This really nice feature gives longevity to the game as the fan-base can create their own scenarios. There are already a number of fan made scenarios available at Battlefront’s scenario repository and it’s growing. Ongoing scenario development is not just left to the fans either – In a recent forum post Fury Software’s Bill Runacre stated his willingness to upgrade core scenarios to be Breakthrough compatible. This greatly increases the appeal of the Breakthrough expansion, particularly in respect of the WW2 scenario.

Fury Software demonstrates an on-going commitment to their game with an active presence on Battlefront’s growing Strategic Command World War One forum. Amongst other aspects, support and other game issues can be logged and Fury Software shows a willingness to listen to the fanbase. This is reflected not only in the development of the Breakthrough Expansion, but in a number of patches to the core game - The current patch at the time of writing being v1.06 and Breakthrough is not currently patched.

The game itself is very stable. When preparing for this review I ran the game many times with hardly any problems at all. The only crash to desktop that ever happened was when I returned to Windows 7 after it went into power save mode. The moral being; save your game if you are going to be away from the computer for a while.

Documentation released with the game is comprehensive compared to many games. Not only do you get a manual, but in Strategic Command World War One there are two strategy guides, notes on playing World War Two games with the engine and two event logs (which describe historical events, how they are triggered etc., which is useful for planning strategy). Breakthrough takes this level of player support even further with a further four strategy guides, four Event logs and Expansion Notes.

For many years I had avoided the Strategic Command series, as I’d formed the superficial view based upon the screenshots I’d seen, that it was just another simplistic “beer and pretzels” game of the “Axis & Allies” genre. To me, it appeared OK for beginners but seemed to offer very little for a Grognard other than light diversion. I could not have been more wrong. For me, Strategic Command World War One and the Breakthrough expansion is an extremely understated game and a delight to play.

If given a chance, a player will find Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough not only highly playable but also a very deep, subtle and immersive game. I highly recommend it. It is one of those outstanding games that compel me to say – “just one more turn”.

 

Grumpy Grog Says: Strategic Command World War One Breakthrough is more fun than unleashing a pre-dawn artillery barrage.

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