The Operational Art of War Revisited – Game Review (PC)
“My friends, we’ve come home” – Kirk, Star Trek IV
(upon seeing the new USS Enterprise)
As we now know Matrix Games is going to re-package and re-release Norm Koger’s operational tour-de-force, The Operational Art of War: A Century of Warfare. If this news caused you to fall off your chair, I share the sentiment – I actually broke my chair as it slipped out from my under me! If you were a bit under-whelmed by the news, I invite you to read on a bit further before writing this off. A great wargame is about to become even better, and this article will help outline some of the areas of possible improvement, based on what we know about the original and its strengths and weaknesses.
Some may scoff at the idea of doing a review of a game that first hit the scene in 1998, was updated a few times over the years, then largely abandoned to corporate ebb and flow ever since. However, this game system is important for a variety of reasons. Above all, the fans of the game have been unflinching in their support in recent years, making it a desirable property to whatever entity owned the rights to it. These dedicated gamers (both players and designers) have always dreamt of the day when it could return to some semblance of profitability for ANYONE, just so the system could get some much needed updating. That time has finally come…
The game system also represents a dying breed (perhaps a dead breed) of how games are designed, packaged, and published in the modern era. The Operational Art of War (TOAW) included all the tools you could ever need to design almost any scenario, with scales ranging from a small battle in World War I all the way up to the ENTIRE six years of World War II in Europe. This put amazing power in the hands of freelance designers, and gave the system unprecedented versatility and longevity. The notion of selling an “engine” that is compatible across any type of vehicle is contrary to most games today, which are set in stone once you drive them out of the dealership. There is no definitive answer as to which approach is correct, and there are pros and cons to each side of this dichotomy, although fiscally speaking, most agree the latter is the only way for publishers to survive.
This game system is a gold mine for the players who, after buying the game, have access to literally hundreds of FREE scenarios which, in and of themselves, are as complicated and detailed as many standalone game products on the market. Do you want to play Barbarossa, Overlord, Sealion, WWI, WWII, WWIII, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Korea, Iran-Iraq, or anything else in the 20th century? It is all there. But what of the designers and the publisher who sold you this great engine? Once the game is out the door, how can they make the money needed to continually update and support the product X years into the future? This is part of the dilemma TOAW has faced over the years, and why this game system remains fairly unique in its open approach to scenario creation, map editors, and so on. However, it is a tribute to its design, playability, and versatility that the game is still considered a viable and worthy system for a publisher such as Matrix Games to pick up. Long time players and designers using this system will be the first in line to say this engine still has a LOT of miles left on it.
A retrospective review of this game is necessary both to refresh the memory of those who may have relegated this title to the dustbin of history, as well as to provide a jumping-off point for what appears to be a series of new improvements to the game, its scenarios, and its future. Just how extensive those tweaks may be is beyond the scope of this overview, as we have yet to learn the full extent of what may be changed going forward. However, we can easily see some of the areas where potential changes may be most beneficial to this system, and we can shine the spotlight on its flaws in the hopes some of those issues will get future attention.
It is with these things in mind that we begin a journey down memory lane…
Unlike most games that we review, this one has YEARS of play testing and scores of player suggestions designed to improve many of its flaws. In that light, it is difficult and perhaps unnecessary to focus a lot of time on problems of this very complex engine (there are many). Matrix Games already has a list of the major flaws present in this game (we made sure of that!). It is realistic to state this game probably fires well on seven of its eight cylinders. But woe to those concerned about that eighth cylinder! More on that in a bit.
At the most basic level, this game uses a “classic” hex grid layout similar to any of the boardgames most longtime wargamers are familiar with. Although it came with a rudimentary 3-dimensional “top/side” view of the battlefield, this was almost completely ignored by gamers since it added no value, other than some eye candy on the packaging. Instead, the nearly universal method of playing is by using the two- dimensional NATO icons in a “top down” view. This allows a player to quickly scan the map to see battalions, divisions and corps, rather than a series of indistinguishable little tank and soldier figurines. (Most veteran wargamers will agree that 3d just isn’t practical in the “Operational Art” of anything!) This system uses the IGO-UGO (I move my pieces, then you move yours) approach to turns when playing against fellow humans (AI games use variable sequenced turns similar to an initiative check). Furthermore, on the complexity scale, TOAW would rank near the top, and there is no watering down that fact – nor should there be. This is its strength!
The essence of gameplay is that you are given a group of units at your command in a scenario (generally ranging from the US Civil War era through modern day), you are given an objective (capture that bridge, defend Stalingrad, or win World War III), and then you move your pieces against your opponent (human or AI), as he tries to counter you. This is done in a series of turns, each of which is broken down into a variable number of rounds. The concept of the “round” is one of the most loved AND most cursed features of this game system. To proponents, it represents the variables of luck and inconsistencies encountered when trying to move any army in combat. Imagine on some turns being able to fire your weapons 6 times, while on others you can only fire them once (this is a gross oversimplification of course). To detractors, this system is unnecessarily complicated, and requires vast amounts of time and skill to perform well. The truth for most lies somewhere in the middle. Any good TOAW player can be found from time to time wallowing in misery as his turn ends prematurely just before he was able to perform the coup d’ grace on his unwary opponent. Just as likely, you will see that same player cheering in amazement as he racks up 6 or 8 rounds in a turn to the shock and horror of his hapless opponent! Rounds are complicated to explain well (forget about the manual), and the frustration of trying to master this facet of TOAW has forced many a player to greener pastures. Can this concept be modified or simplified? The answer to this is tricky, because it is so integral to how the game plays today, but does bear some consideration nonetheless…
The actual combat model is quite detailed and complex. Each individual squad, tank, plane, artillery piece, etc. is factored into each attack and each defense “roll.” Much as you would expect on the real battlefield, you enter into a rock-paper-scissors mindset as you seek to employ your strongest units against the enemy’s least powerful. Armor can get chewed up facing anti-tank units, infanty can be decimated by artillery, and both could potentially meet disaster when facing certain air assets. Knowing what unit types can defeat others is part of the learning curve, and part of the elegance of this game system. Your “12-6″ unit can’t just attack an enemy “12-6″ without considering what is actually inside that unit. Most players may never explore the depths of detail present in how units fight each other, but the best players have done their homework to understand and win these rock-paper-scissor encounters. Additionally, combat can involve a whole host of other factors such as artillery, aircraft, naval gunfire, tactical reseves, multi-directional attacks, overruns, fortifications, supply levels, veteran vs. untried units, various levels of morale, certain factors for how hard a unit will stand and fight, and many others too numerous to list here. Almost anything you can think of regarding the “art” of operational combat will be found here. Granted, some aspects of the combat model leave some things to be desired (for instance, naval and air units are more or less considered mobile artillery more than anything else), but for the most part is fairly realistic. You will never see a mobile soup kitchen defeating a platoon of M1A1′s!
Some scenarios offer an incredible range of options. Here in Europe Aflame
the German player has many options he may or may not choose.
One of the biggest secrets to this game system is its event engine. Essentially, this is a clever way to program in certain variables, objectives, and news strings which gives the battlefield a dynamic and realistic feeling for the players. Because many of the events use chance to determine whether they will occur, you may find that the same scenario can play out very differently depending on your opponent’s moves, your own skill, and of course lady luck. Over the years, designers have become very adept at creating scenarios which maximize this event engine, in may cases using up every one of the 500 event slots – meaning that the scenario is VERY dynamic during play (even when playing the often obtuse AI). Because the events can be freely edited by designers in the community, it is possible to have several scenarios covering the same exact battle (D-Day for example), but all of them play out in incredibly diverse ways. Coupled with a map editor, these tools give this game system unprecedented replayability and as mentioned above, explains why a sizable number of wargamers still have this game on their computers today.
The game also scales well from 2.5km hexes up to 50km per hex, giving the owner of this game the ability to play scenarios covering an incredible range of military history. Scenarios originally included with TOAW covered World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and everything in between. Over the years, designers have been cranking out fine scenarios extending back through the American Civil War, and well into the future. It is safe to say one could recreate almost any battle or war fought in the last 100 years using this game system…and most (if not all) have already been put into freely available scenarios.
Finally, one of the driving forces in the survival of this system has been the play by email (PBEM) element. While there is built-in variability when playing against a computer opponent, nothing can compare to the sheer joy and frustration that comes when facing off against another human. Many websites over the years have been dedicated to the promotion of PBEM play, discussions, and ladders, and it remains a popular game system for head-to-head play even today. This is another testament to the creativity of designers to constantly produce new material, and the flexibility of the system itself to adapt to new design philosophies as well as scenarios that push the size limits, event limits, and conceptual limits as defined by house rules.
The end result is a game system that is truly like a chameleon. For the operational gamer (the TOAW manual suggests this term generally means anything above tactically moving individual vehicles on the battlefield, but below strategic games which also include national production), this system provides a gateway for almost any military situation in recent history. Airborne drops (Arnhem, Crete, etc.), amphibious invasions (Sicily, Iwo Jima, Normandy), armored clashes (Kursk, Desert Storm), infantry assaults (France 1914), hypothetical wars (India vs. Pakistan, Chinese invasion of Taiwan, or the Axis invasion of America), and numerous obscure battles are all lined up waiting to be played. It truly is an engine to fit all vehicles.
Now, about that eighth cylinder. This game system is so complex, and it has been so thoroughly play tested over the past seven years that a huge backlog of flaws have been discovered and documented (over a hundred to be sure!) Some of the major ones include: poor naval and air models, too few event slots, problematic supply model, unreliable and difficult-to-find statistics during game play, problems with small units attacking larger stacks of units, poor encirclement model, clunky interface for designers, and some vulnerabilities for cheating. It is fair to say that some of these issues are probably responsible for previous players chucking the game into a dark closet somewhere… It is beyond the scope of this article to address all these issues individually, but again it is safe to say that Matrix Games has a list of all these major flaws.
I think a pretty accurate rating of TOAW’s original gameplay would be 36/40. This is because the strengths of the game system far outweigh even the major flaws listed above. Despite everything, the game is incredibly playable for those with a bit of patience to overcome the steep learning curve. In the next incarnation of the game, a repair of some of these flaws will see the gap close those last 4 points.
For a game this old, the graphics aren’t as bad as you might think. The terrain types are for the most part easy to differentiate, and even when you have masses of units the overall look is easy on the eyes. You have the option of turning the hex grid off, leaving you with a clean-looking map on which to move your units. The limitations of 256 colors soon become apparent however, and on the bigger maps you will find large, monotonous zones of the same terrain type since there is no variation of tiles within the same terrain type. With more colors, and a more dynamic tiling system, it might be possible to add enough random details to each hex so the monotony is eliminated. Some independent designers have already created custom graphics (railroads, cities, etc.) to give the map a bit of an update.
We fight anywhere, anytime, in any condition.
As suggested earlier, TOAW tried to implement a 3d graphic system to display the hex map. However, given the nature of operational warfare and the scale of the battlefield, 3d is really a handicap in this game. When in 3d mode, it is like looking at the map through coke bottles, and it is very difficult to see terrain, elevation, or even unit types. There is no question this mode of gameplay is almost universally avoided by TOAW players today. Since no one uses 3d, I’ll not penalize the final results for graphics…and I hope no efforts are wasted to update the 3d model in the future. If this game was only available in 3d, I daresay no one would be playing it today.
3D mode. No “art” in this Operation.
The graphics on the interface of the game itself are fair, with a large right-hand panel containing many of the games buttons (weather, reinforcement listing, end turn, and so forth), as well as the overview map and a window which shows the contents of any hex you click on. It is clear enough to convey the data, even if it isn’t incredibly attractive. The in-game data screens, scenario editor, replacements screen, and so forth are about what you’d expect given the palette limitations. Clear, but a bit bland.
The real strength of the graphics is in the units themselves. TOAW, in my opinion, still has some of the best looking units (counters) of any wargame on the market. Because of the way they were created, a “palette” of unit color combinations was hard coded into the system, which means that there are a finite number of unique colors that can be used (i.e., you can’t program a scenario with purple units, because purple units didn’t come with the original game). For the most part, this is not a problem because the bulk of the major nationalities over the past 100 years are well represented with traditional garb (grey or black for Germans, tan for the Brits, red for the Russians, and so on). Additionally, the units themselves are very clear and easy to read, with enough room to easily fit the NATO symbol, attack and defense strength, supply status, loss tolerance, deployment status, and unit size. When looking at the entire battlefield, it is possible to get a good overview of all the units without needing to click on any units at all (unless there are multiple units per hex). This very much simulates the feeling of looking at a physical boardgame. Many player take comfort in this fact.
The counter art is crisp and informative. Almost everything you need is
on the front face. [larger pic]
There are no “action” sequences or cut-scenes or anything graphics-wise that would require a high horsepower graphics card. Many of the limitations which were present seven years ago are no longer a factor (there is actually a “lite” version of the engine, so as not to overload those Pentium II’s out there!). This could potentially mean we could see some graphics improvements to the game, possibly allowing for a deeper color palette which could lead to revised maps, retooled interface, and possibly more unit colors. This could be a great addition.
Given the age of the game and how well the graphics have withstood the test of time, I’d assign a rating of 11/15 to the graphics engine as it stands now (remember, this is without factoring the 3d model). Just a few tweaks of the code are needed to bring these to perfection (or as close to that as any hex-based map board could get).
The game did attempt to load various sounds for each of the unit types (tanks rumbled along, trains sped by, and battles would result in gunfire). For what they were, they were adequate to get the job done. Yet most sounds get disabled for larger scenarios where you are moving 100′s or 1000′s of units on the map (how many times can you hear the same sound of a tank moving?). Likewise, the music score was nice, but it becomes repetitious after a few hours (or a few years!) too. In the end, this game becomes more like a quiet meeting between two players over a boardgame in someone’s basement. Nothing but the clock ticking, muffled voices from upstairs, and the rustling of you and your opponent moving cardboard over cardboard.
The music and sound was just fine for what it was supposed to do, and I’d give a rating of 9 out of 10 for the category. I would be surprised if any improvements are coming in regards to sound.
As mentioned under graphics, the interface (the layout of the game, and how you interact with it) is pretty straightforward. One large map window taking up 75-85% of the screen, with one pane on the right covering the last 15-25% and showing your buttons, mini-map, etc. At first blush, it is very easy to become overwhelmed by the varied and large number of buttons, pull down menus, right-click menus, and other data presented on the various panes. But if you can stifle the information overload, you will find that everything you could ever want to know about your units is a click or two away at all times. While it might not be organized in the best way possible, you do have access to a multitude of information.
The main TOAW interface. Main buttons in top right, pull down menus, and
microview panel (minimap) are all right there in front of you for easy access. Knowing
what information comes from where is the real trick. Click image for full size view.
Accessing information on individual units also takes some getting used to. When you right-click on a unit in the main map window you are given a menu list of actions you can perform with that unit (attack without regard to losses, entrench, set it to reserve status, bombard using artillery, and about 20 other options). When you right-click on the same unit up in the unit panel (top right), you instead get a popup showing the equipment inside the unit, details about its strengths and weakness, and a flurry of other information. Combined with the depth and breadth of other menus and buttons on your screen, it is not hard to imagine new players having their heads spin!
The problems with the interface can usually be worked out over time – assuming a player has the patience for it (don’t bother looking in the manual either!) I could see improving a few things such as perhaps moving all the buttons to the top bar, having the option to close/remove the mini-map, and have the unit details box “float” above the map in the top right (allowing more of the map to be seen at one time). Why not give the ability to click on a unit and see its potential movement radius? How about an option to set all units to the same loss tolerance? Why not show supply as a shaded gradient overlaying (or under-laying) units for the ability to visually scan your supply situation without reading numbers? Or perhaps add in a 3rd zoom level to make the units twice as large for the focally challenged out there? But realistically, given the complexity involved, I doubt we will see many changes to the interface – at least at first.
Despite all its shortcomings and omissions, the interface is usable (once you get over the learning curve) and as such, I’d rate it an 11/15. It would probably be a lot of work to close that gap, as it would require tinkering with how the game works rather than just how it looks. Yet these things (and many more like them) are generally of most significance to those who want to see changes to make the game more player-friendly.
The game is pretty uneventful on installation, and over the course of several years I’ve not had many technical issues. The hardest part of buying the game has been finding the upgrade patches for it…since they were removed from any “official” site a long time ago. All in all, the game installation is pretty typical. For most of us, it works fine on Windows 2000/XP (minus the ability to extract OOB information). For that, I’d give it the full 5 out of 5.
There is a running joke in the TOAW community which basically says that if you want to learn how to play the game, DON’T use the manual. And, while there is some truth to this (you certainly can’t become a “great” player if it is your only resource), the manual is good for most of the basics of the game. The manual falls flat however because it is painfully ambiguous in many places, omits advanced concepts, and does nothing to help a new player get started (unless you count the hobbled “standard rules” version of the game). Most of the really juicy concepts have to be gleaned from other players in head-to-head PBEM battles, or by keeping up on TOAW forum discussions about the game.
In a perfect world, the manual would be completely redone, with an eye towards giving new players a nice tutorial on how to get started, with notes pointing them to advanced concepts at the appropriate point in the discussion (for e.g., to learn more about how to get the most rounds out of a turn, turn to Appendix A). This would make the manual about 3 times larger than it is now, but it would finally be complete. With that in mind, I would rate the current documentation at 2 of 5. I would have given it a 1 except that there is a slightly more complete set of documentation inside the game itself…although even that is well short of what it should be. There is much room for improvement in any new version.
I make no secret of the fact that I am an avid player of this game system. Over the years I have followed with frustration as various companies passed around the rights to the ownership of this game like it was a tired, rusted old engine. However, many of us knew this “tired engine” was in reality a valuable, unique, sports car engine and we just prayed that a company would eventually see its true worth. It seems that time has finally arrived.
Putting my subjective feelings aside, I do believe this game still offers unprecedented playability for anyone interested in operational gaming. As illustrated above, there is no single game currently on the market which has the possibility of covering such a broad spectrum of time periods and conflicts. One could argue this is the ultimate wargame construction kit – offering almost any battle, anywhere, at any time. I would wager almost every operational boardgame on your shelf is represented in TOAW, and without needing space for mapboards, counters, etc. Granting there are some flaws to TOAW which may have been keeping some potential gamers away, I believe there is a real chance to bring many of them back by working with Matrix Games and Norm Koger to finally help fix what isn’t working.
Furthermore, this game system is serious. The numbers on the counters aren’t arbitrary, but are instead derived from a very in-depth (although incomplete) weapons database, and for the most part are created by researching the real life Orders of Battle of various encounters, as well as the Table of Organization and Equipment from the time period of the conflict. In short, these units are composed of the same numbers and types of soldiers, tanks and aircraft that were actually present in any given battle. While it has every look of a board game, the detail is off the charts once you get under the hood. Fortunately, with a few exceptions, the player isn’t saddled with all this information and is welcome to keep the hood closed and just enjoy driving the vehicle. In that regard, and excepting some of its flaws, you could easily claim this game is simultaneously one of the most complex, yet most playable and enjoyable wargames out there.
In that vein, and with the benefit of hindsight, I can easily award this game a full 10/10 for value and replayabilty. Many TOAW players are entirely dedicated to this game system, even as newer and admittedly better looking wargames are released year after year. But, as with anything, the wear of time and the high mileage were beginning to catch up with TOAW. Matrix Games has chosen the perfect time to save this title from descending further into obscurity, and we can only hope to see some of the changes outlined here and elsewhere to help freshen up this game and carry it into new directions. It is already a classic, so it should be a slam dunk to wash off the rust, give it some new spark plugs, and get this engine back onto the racetrack where it belongs.
Armchair General Score–84%
36/40 — Gameplay
11/15 — Graphics
09/10 — Sound
11/15 — Interface
05/05 — Installation/Tech
02/05 — Documentation
10/10 — General’s Rating