France ’40 – Game Review (PC)
France ’40 (HPS Simulations) is another strong game from John Tiller. A wargamer’s wargame, it is highly detailed, historically accurate, and has a steep learning curve. The game itself is light on system requirements, which means you can use that old PC to play this fine program. Players familiar with the other simulations in Tiller’s Panzer Campaigns series will find France ’40 to be familiar-2 hour turns, units down to battalion, and separate company level. The grand campaign is 140 turns long and includes forces from all the major combatants of the campaign-United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands, and of course Germany.
Gameplay (55/60): Gameplay is the strong suit of France ’40. The AI is well-programmed and makes sound tactical decisions. It will take advantage of weakened lines, will use air power and artillery to suppress player artillery, and will attack second echelon reinforcements while isolating the main objectives. In short, the AI will hand your butt to you if you are not careful.
I found the interface to be somewhat unfamiliar, having not played any of the series so far. The icon for "Change Transport Mode," for example, is too close to the "End Turn" button-as I found out to my chagrin twice. Luckily, the player can choose filters and other aids to show movement ranges, enemy units in vision and a host of other choices. Given the complexity of the game, it is worthwhile to tweak the screen to find the information needed.
Each unit has it strengths and weaknesses. Engineers can clear obstacles, lay mines and blow bridges. They can also rebuild bridges and create obstacles, but they are weak when compared to full strength infantry battalions. The France 1940 scenario is an excellent tool for learning the use of many units of the campaign that are often overlooked. Horse cavalry in the Ardennes is very useful for reconnaissance and their fast movement often gets them out of tight spots. Motorcycle and bicycle units are represented as well, and their ability to spot the enemy or exploit a gap in the enemy lines makes them substantially more useful than many historians give them credit for. In addition, there are parachute and glider units; heavy, medium and light armor; and a wide variety of field artillery.
Some parts of the game are abstracted, such as air power. Being an operational-level game, the player has no control over reinforcements, unit equipment or other issues normally associated with a strategic level game. No tactical level tweaking is needed in France 40 - don’t expect to be laying smoke to cover your attacks. Casualties are calculated to the individual soldier and vehicle level; quite an accomplishment for a campaign of this size. Yet the game is so adroitly designed that these calculations do not bog down play. To the contrary, watching units lose individual tanks or men adds greatly to the depth of play.
Another screenshot of the 1940 scenario. The Ardennes has some rough terrain, but the fast moving Wehrmacht can slice through it quickly. Note that the Allied units along the south edge of the area are ‘frozen’ in place until the German units are within their range. This prevents players from being too ahistorical and injects a challenge into the Allied player’s planning.
The game can be played single player, with or without fog of war, multi-player hotseat, or via direct connection.
The game has a couple of weaknesses. I found the lack of an easily understandable method to start a new scenario after the end of a session (i.e., it does not boot the player back to the main menu page) to be a bit irritating, but not game-breaking. The game has a definite learning curve; do not expect to do well or to learn all the commands in the first session.
Graphics (11/20): The graphics in France ’40 are functional and informative. They neither add nor detract to play, but provide key details as needed.
Sound (5/10): In a game of this sort, sound effects are secondary to gameplay. The background machine gun fire, explosions, etc. are entertaining, but are clearly there to add ambiance to the game. Most players, I expect, will shut the sounds off after a few scenarios.
The 3D Tactical screen from the tutorial scenario. The units listed to the left are those at the ‘hot’ hex in the center of the screen. The historical detail of the units is impressive; note the differences between the machine-gun armed German infantry battalion, the regular battalion and the mechanized engineers. This is only a small sample of the hundreds of units in the campaign.
Documentation and Technical (7/10): Documentation on the game is included on the disk (no hard copy). However, it can be accessed via the Help menu of the game, along with historical background on the campaign.
Armchair General Score: 73%
Pros: Historically accurate simulation of the 1940 campaign, with a tough AI, and plenty of units. High replayability factor and numerous scenarios included on disk.
Cons: Very steep learning curve. Graphics are functional but not outstanding, as is sound. However, given the game’s target audience and basic premise, both sound and graphics takes second place to playability.
Bottom Line: Anyone interested in the 1940 campaign and any fan of Tiller’s wargames should buy this game — and line off a couple of weeks of your life.
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Lieutenant Colonel Bob Mackey, Ph.D., is a US Army combat veteran of Panama, Desert Storm and OIF, currently assigned as a strategic plans officer for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He is the author of The UnCivil War: Irregular Warfare in the Upper South, 1861-1865, and is an avid wargamer.