Battle Academy: Operation Sealion – PC Game Review
Battle Academy—Operation Sealion expansion. PC game. Publisher: Matrix/Slitherine. Developer: Lordz Games Studio. $14.99 download; $24.99 boxed.
Passed Inspection: Good scenario, great AI, simple mechanics, enjoyable graphics
Failed Basic: Some fuzzy scale abstractions, ahistorical off-screen assets
Few events that never happened have inspired more ink, counters and pixels than Operation Sealion, the proposed-but-never-initiated invasion of England by the Nazis. Churchill probably started it all with his "We shall fight them" speech, and Hitler left the concept unfinished by finding easier nuts to crack—like the Soviet Union. Propaganda and popular imagination have kept Operation Sealion alive for over 70 years. Matrix/Slitherine and Lordz Games Studio saw this hypothetical clash of wills not only as a natural add-on to the popular turn-based Battle Academy series but also as a chance to be innovative. Players can only take the side of the British in solitaire play, but the German side is available on the multiplayer server.
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Operation Sealion: The Beaches, the Landing Grounds and All That
The Battle Academy system is rather more abstract than many other wargames. Locales are not definitely historical such as Dover or Folkestone and units aren’t designated with names like "Coy C, First Welsh Regiment." No time scale is given, so movement and combat effectiveness are also abstractions of several unrevealed factors. The easy interface has been described before in articles like this one on Armchair General about earlier Battle Academy expansions. The graphics do reflect the terrain where the battles would have been fought: postcard English villages, hedge-lined lanes and wire-strewn beaches. The type of units involved seems authentic and gives scenario developers free rein with possible weapon systems.
"We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender."—Winston Churchill
1940-style units may strike modern gamers as, well, out of the ordinary. Even the German armor units of the period appear out of place beside their later counterparts. Panzer Mk IIs look decidedly toy-like beside a long-barreled MK III while the German halftracks coming on shore may have amphibious apparatus on them but still look odd. The 37mm anti-tank piece and the Panzerbuechse AT rifle pretty much went by the boards early in the war, while the Panzerjaeger I hardly receives mention in books. The eight-wheeled scout car did good service throughout the war and appears frequently in this game. Of course, German infantry and parachutists look the same, while fighting with their usual efficiency. Flamethrowers can scorch a hole anywhere in a British line— if they survive the approach.
However, the British win the prize for quirky vehicles. Having left their first-line equipment in France, they had to make do with sloppy seconds and improvisations. The occasional Matilda tank shows up, as does the 2-pdr portee of desert fame. The Bren carrier is ubiquitous, but other vehicles are stuff for the most obscure encyclopedia entries. The Guy armored car is fine as a scout and for finishing off infantry but useless against real armor. The A10, A13 and Mark VI light tanks are fine for scouting but, with their 2-pdr pea-shooters, they depend on their speed and agility to survive even a glimpse of German armor or nearby infantry. The best British anti-armor vehicle is the motorized Bofors AA truck, unarmored though it is.
The Armadillo, a jerry-rigged truck—actually, a truck rigged to fight the Jerries—proved relatively effective.
Other British vehicles stretch the imagination. A 4-inch naval gun was mounted on a flat-bed truck. The size of the piece was offset by the instability of the mount, making it ineffective against swift armor. The Boys AT gun carrier could take out an early war German tank at close range but the likelihood of getting close enough was small. The strangest yet most effective improvisation was the Armadillo. Armadillos were trucks with iron sheets bolted on them, armed with mounted machine guns and a 37mm quick-firing gun. These vehicles actually had a fighting chance against German armor. The light armor and guns of all these vehicles mandate that they be put behind cover and used for "shoot and scoot" tactics.
Novel for the series is the introduction of small naval units. The Fairmile B motor launch and motor gunboat are useful for inserting troops behind enemy lines. They can also provide protective fire. Unfortunately, firing makes these vulnerable craft sitting ducks for any German gun emplacement.
The heart and soul of Operation Sealion is British infantry. Some regulars and engineers appear in the scenarios and a few can be bought from the selection panel but most squads will be Home Guard. These militia soldiers have a morale value 25 percent lower than regulars, making them easy to break. Yet, players can’t win without them. These volunteers are not well armed and use home-made explosives and grenades. Open assaults with them are a waste of resources but tucking them into buildings and bunkers or behind hedges with "Hold Fire" orders yields surprising results. Enfilade fire from two or more well-positioned Home Guard units can slaughter multiple elite German units. German vehicles moving near buildings face devastating attacks from sticks of dynamite dropping from windows. Home Guard units may be easily suppressed but a relay of two—one replacing a suppressed buddy, who can recover quickly—presents a formidable front.
Another impressive genre of British units is the specialists. Bren and Vickers machine gunners can suppress infantry and sometimes light armor, making those targets susceptible to follow-up assaults. Boys anti-tank rifle gunners and troops armed with sticky bombs must have nerves of steel; German armor must be virtually on top of them before their weapons are effective. Snipers can destroy a depleted enemy squad or a gun emplacement with one shot.
A new unit is the auxiliary. These troops are proto-commandos who can move one space in the open without being seen and conduct silent attacks. Auxiliaries are perfect for night attacks on invader installations that must absolutely be taken out quietly.
What few armor assets Britain has, the player must use wisely for maximum destruction of the invaders.
The ten scenarios in the game are not linked but follow a story arc from airborne landing to pushing the Germans into the sea. The British are usually on defense with the primary scenario objective usually consisting of holding on to victory positions or killing very large numbers of German units—in one scenario, the British defenders must take out at least 40 of them. Defense is handled by using buildings and field fortifications effectively while awaiting reinforcements.
Off-screen assets are usually limited to rally, training, medic and re-supply. Air support is available in only two scenarios and artillery in just one. The AI knows how to attack, sacrificing one or two units to draw fire and then dropping the hammer. When the British must take objectives, missions will only be successful through cunning use of cover; charging forward with all guns blazing doesn’t work here.
Multiple replay is assured by scenarios’ three or four secondary objectives, allowing players to tackle a scenario many times to reach perfection. The German side can be played via Slitherine’s easy and reliable multiplayer server.
Hardcore gamers will cringe at the lack of scale in Operation Sealion and will find instant rally, promotion, replacement of men and re-supply outlandish. They miss the point. The abstractions in the Battle Academy series allow for reasonable situations without getting bogged down in detail. Of the three add-ons to the series, Operation Sealion stands out as the most challenging, innovative and enjoyable so far.
Battle Academy is required in order to play Operation Sealion.
Armchair General Rating: 92%
About the Author
Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he dealt with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Subsim, Strategyzone Online and Gamesquad.