SSI's PANZER GENERAL

Panzer General appeared in 1994, the cover of its CD boasting the legend "Setting a new standard in strategy gaming". Four years later I was able to purchase a copy off the bargain CD tower for 9.99, thus proving once again that in the world of computer games, today's hi-tech hit is tomorrow's bargain bin offer.

But Panzer General is still an impressive game, and like Civilisation looks set to enter the pantheon of classic games. The basic concept is simple: as a WWII general, you are given a number of different units with which to defeat the computer opponent, either in attack or defence. Victory conditions are normally to either capture or hold a number of key cities and towns. During the game you get reinforcements in the form of prestige points which can be used to purchase fresh units or to make good losses to your original units. In the Campaign Game (only available if you are the German player) you carry through those of your original units which survive, thus eventually (and hopefully) gaining a nucleus of tried and tested troops.

The units themselves might be loosely termed regiments, battalions or brigades, at least in size. In composition they correspond to real-life WWII equipment, so a German player might have Tiger units and half-track infantry units, while an Allied player could have Mustang units and Sherman units. Needless to say, the differences between the units also reflect the technological level that each side had reached, so all other things being equal, a unit of Sherman tanks will be inferior to an equivalent-sized unit of Panther tanks. As well as armoured and infantry units, artillery, anti-aircraft, reconnaissance and anti-tank units are also available to the ground troops. In the air a player can have fighters, tactical bombers (some of which can double as fighters) and level bombers. Naval units - aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, submarines and motor torpedo boats - are also sometimes available at the start of a scenario, but cannot be created by players, presumably reflecting the impossibility of building the Ark Royal or Bismarck in three weeks.

The battlefield itself is on the operational scale, with a hexagonal grid overlaying all the important terrain features. Each terrain feature offers a level of "Entrenchment", ranging from 0 for units in the open to 9 for infantry dug in in static defence lines. Basic terrain is "Clear", which is good for tanks but offers no protection to the infantry. With woods and towns the situation is reversed, as these offer a basic Entrenchment level of at least 2 which can be increased with each turn that a unit remains there. The higher the Entrenchment level, the greater the chance that an attacking unit, subject to its Experience level, will fall prey to the dreaded "Rugged Defence". This is basically an Ambush by the defender who attacks using the enemy unit's Close Value instead of its normal value against infantry or armour, and in addition gets to fire first. Attacking units can be decimated this way. Apart from towns and woods, there are also Swamps (difficult terrain with little protection), Rough (some cover), Hills and Mountains (both again offering cover at the cost of difficult movement). Rivers can be crossed at any point but require all of a unit's movement to do so. Furthermore a unit on a river hex is more vulnerable than usual, so it makes sense to use bridging engineers (quite expensive) or cross at a bridge. Desert and Rough Desert both offer little cover and seem to cost more in terms of movement and fuel consumed.

Artillery and anti-air units have their own special rules. Artillery can be used to bombard enemy units within its range, which not only inflicts losses but reduces the level of Entrenchment, a worthwhile proposition when attacking a town. An artillery unit placed adjacent to another unit will automatically bombard any enemy unit that attacks that neighbour. Thus a German infantry unit attacking a Soviet infantry unit, behind which stood a Soviet 15.2 cm artillery unit, would be bombarded by the Soviet 15.2 cm unit before it even came to grips with the Soviet infantry. Assuming this did not break up the attack, it would then have to take fire from the Soviet infantry unit. For this reason it is normally sensible to try to eliminate artillery positions first, either with friendly artillery or airpower. Anti-air units operate in a similar way: a flak unit placed adjacent to a friendly unit will automatically fire on any air unit attacking that friendly unit. While some anti-air units can be somewhat feeble, notably the lighter flak, some of the larger Soviet and German AA units are truly lethal, especially an experienced 88 unit. German players attacking Soviet forces will often find a position backed up with a joint artillery-AA defence, whereby the AA protects the artillery from aircraft and the artillery protects the unit in front that in turn shields the artillery and AA units. These sort of situations are usually tough nuts to crack and need specialist units, usually a combination of artillery and "Pioneer" or engineering troops. The latter have the advantage of ignoring Entrenchment levels when they attack, presumably to reflect the fearsome nature of such weapons as flamethrowers and demolition charges. This nullifies the chance of "Rugged Defence", but you still need to eliminate or reduce supporting artillery or your expensive engineers will still be stopped dead in their tracks.

Two other aspects of the game need to be considered: reconnaissance and supply. One advantage of computer games over boardgames is that the computer can withhold information from the human player, simulating the real-life "Fog of War" situation. In PG this is nicely simulated by keeping all the opposing units concealed unless they are within the "Spotting" range of a friendly unit. Spotting ranges vary from unit to unit, but most Recon units in the game (usually armoured cars and sometimes light tanks) have a Spotting value of 4, ie they can see units within 4 hexes of themselves. Most other units, even aircraft, are restricted to 2 or 1, so it pays to have at least a couple of Recon units in your side. Apart from showing where the enemy's main strength is, they also prevent your units from walking into a hidden unit and being subject to a "Rugged Defence" ambush. Most units will also need resupplying during the game, as each carries a limited amount of ammo and fuel. Running out of either immobilises a unit or leaves it helpless, even a heavy tank unit. Resupply can only be done in a limited and expensive way (and sometimes not at all) while adjacent to an enemy unit, so as in real life, a unit needed replenishment must usually withdraw from the front line. It takes a complete turn to replenish supply, and even then this may not bring the unit back up to a full level. It should also be noted that bad terrain or weather cause a higher consumption of fuel per hex, and that heavy tank units (especially German Panthers and Tigers) seem prone to running low on fuel every few turns.

The game can be played as either an independent scenario or as a campaign that interlocks a series of scenarios. The scenarios themselves are based for the most part on historical WWII campaigns or battles, eg France 1940, North Africa, Kursk, D-Day, plus a few "what-ifs" such as Operation Sealion, an early German drive on Moscow or even Washington 1945. The scenarios do not claim to be balanced, but then neither were the real-life situations. Furthermore, the computer can also play against you at three levels of difficulty for any scenario or campaign chosen. Norway or Cobra, even at Easy level, is quite difficult, whereas an experienced player should beat the Poles in 1939 even at Difficult level. There are five campaigns: 1939, 1941 and 1943 West and 1941 and 1943 East. These start off with one of the historical scenarios and then, depending on the outcome, progress on to the next one or, in the worst case, ignominiously dismiss you from your post if you lose badly. As you go forward you gain prestige points, so in between scenarios you can also upgrade your surviving units - thus a raw Panzer I unit in 1939 can end up as a 5-star Panther unit in 1945. In the early campaigns the ultimate aim is to beat all the Allies, including the Americans: in the 1943 campaigns it seems that forcing the Allies or Russians to an armstice is as good a victory as any. (The game does not raise the ethical difficulties of fighting on behalf of a psychopathic dictator, so maybe some designer could design a patch for an "Overthrow Hitler" concluding scenario).

Do I have any criticisms of the game? Not personally, but one or two voices have raised a few mild criticisms. One player objected that since only one unit can occupy a hex, combined-arms operations are impossible - for example, an attacking tank unit cannot be accompanied by an infantry unit to protect it against anti-tank units and infantry in a potential "Rugged Defence" situation. This is true, but I think it misses the "Paper, Scissors, Stone" aspect of the game. In such an example as the one above, you would first use artillery or airpower to soften up the target, then send in infantry, or use tanks if the enemy's entrenchment level were sufficiently reduced to pose a minimum threat of Rugged Defence. In other words, you are using a Combined Arms philosophy, albeit sequentially rather than simaltaneously. Others have raised the objection that the scale tends to vary from game to game, but this seems a bit of a minor quibble.

A more serious couple of objections were raised by a few devotees of PG who got together to design a patch to fix them. Their objections were that some of the dates of the introduction of new equipment were wildly optimistic for the German side (thus you could have Fw190s instead of Me109s in the Battle of Britain, almost guaranteeing aerial victory), and that the points costs for a lot of the equipment were too low. Also some unit types were missing (no Henschel 129 tank attack aircraft, for example) while others featured that in reality were extremely rare or mere prototypes (eg the Heinkel 162 or Dornier 335). To take these objections in turn, I agree with them strongly regarding the introduction of new equipment, which is where historical accuracy slips in PG. I do not think the other two are as valid, though. Apart from historical accuracy, most of us like to play this sort of strategy game because it is enjoyable, dare I even say fun? Although we consider ourselves a bit too mature (or slow) for arcade games, we get our buzz in other ways, for example by trying out aircraft that never actually flew in anger or pretending we can change the course of history by throwing invading armies back into the sea. I have played the patch produced as a solution to the above-stated problems, and while it is good in many ways, I find it makes the game harder due to the higher costs of obtaining tanks and aircraft. Even infantry are somewhat expensive to replace under this system. Furthermore, if by playing Panzer General we're playing a simulation of changing history, there's no reason why in this hypothetical universe we couldn't have Heinkel 162s over Berlin or North America. The compromise I have made is to stick with the original system but to only allow myself equipment in the early scenarios and campaigns that was historically available at the time: thus I'm stuck with Me109Es for the Battle of Britain, but can have my jet fighters in 1945.

Panzer General proved to be such a popular game that SSI brought out two related products and then Panzer General II. To take these in turn, Allied General was a similar concept but from the Allied point of view, allowing you to play the role of a British, US or Soviet general. A number of voices were raised in criticism of the changes made to the game system, and I have not seen AG for sale in the shops so assume it did not do very well. In any event PG II has made it almost redundant. Pacific General was the same game engine as far as I can tell but moved to the Pacific, where you could take the role of a Japanese or US commander. Again there were hypothetical scenarios such as San Francisco 1945, as well as little-known conflicts such as the Sino-Japanese in 1937. The system was enhanced to take in extra naval rules, and the game also came with a system editor that allowed you to modify or set up your own scenarios. Finally Panzer General II came out this year. This has been well spoken of, but one or two people (including myself) were unhappy with the 3-D battlefield which purportedly makes it harder to keep track of units, although to be fair I have not yet played the game. Also, the Germans do not get jets in the US in 1945, whereas the Allies do - surely an ahistorical quirk, even in such a (thankfully) hypothetical scenario. On the plus side, you can now play the campaigns as either German, British, Russian or American, and there are more unusual scenarios such as Malta or Leningrad.

A number of people have added home pages for Panzer General and even written patch and add-ons. As I find these sites I will insert links for them here.



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