Thursday, May 14, 2009

The operational art of war III review

(notice that english isn’t my native tongue, so pardon me for any error)

There are plenty of reviews which cover the game technical aspects. You can find an example of such a review here:

or here:

That is not the goal of this one.

Image from the Vietnam Series by Bonnierat (link below)

What makes a great wargame? Historical details? A great number of scenarios? Flexibility? Fun gameplay? A great community? Longevity and continuous evolution? An exhaustively tried engine? The promise of further development?

I used to think that what made a great wargame was precise simulation and in search for the definitive wargame I went back and forth through the net reading reviews and posts until I found something that would disqualify the game I had in focus on the occasion. It could be a reviewers disapproval of it’s AI, an execration of some aspect of it’s combat engine or anything else. The fact is that I was always able to find some post or review that would destroy my will to play the game in question.

With time I figured out that most aspects of wargames are very subjective, since even among military analysts there are discussions on the effects of any actions taken in a determinate circumstance and history is full of exceptions and subjective narratives that may bear support to any thesis. I figured out that there isn’t an answer to what makes a great wargame, but games in general are products of circumstances. Chess could have been different if historical circumstances favored one of the other existing variables centuries ago. But chess is what it is today and that’s great for the simple fact that it benefited from centuries of evolution and tweaks and science and competitiveness, to the point of becoming an universal reference.

Computer game history is more recent, but some almost universal references (at least for a particular field of interest) already come to mind, like Civilization, Steel Panthers, Combat Mission, Sim City, Microsoft Flight Simulator and TOAW.

Those will always present things like dozens of mods, scenarios, discussion forums, opponents or team mates, continuous support, articles, etc, which will always make them worthy. In the realm of subjective matters, those objective variables make those games excel. You can prefer tic-tac-toe to chess and that would be a completely subjective matter, not open to discussion; but you won’t find the same level of tactics and strategies discussion, interaction with people, championships, tools and the such for tic-tac-toe as you will for chess.

TOAW makes part of this select group of games that came to be a reference for it’s longevity, continuous evolution and community contribution.

Operational level is, at least for me (and that is subjective), the most interesting level for a wargame. At the tactical level one is isolated from the big picture, so what happens in the war theater doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters is this little isolated point with it’s peculiar characteristics. At the strategical level military operations are diluted among other variables like economics, politics and so on... and let's face it: few things are more ridiculous than a computer trying to simulate diplomacy, for example. There are good games nevertheless, but the military aspects become almost secondary (in most cases, at least). On the operational level one has the greatest comprehension of the military campaign as a whole.

On this level TOAW reigns. Sure, one can find games which will cover very specific battles in a more precise way, but none will have the kind of flexibility that TOAW has. TOAW can be a fantastic tool to design a great variety of conflicts, a great tool to learn about those conflicts while playing and is also, and primarily, a VERY fun game to play.

Every wargamer has it’s own idea of what a wargame should be. Every TOAW player has it’s own idea of what TOAW should become in the future and those ideas most of the time conflict with each other; after all, the perfect wargame is an absolutely utopian idea.

Being so, what makes TOAW the great game it is, even if we can discuss the validity of some of it’s simulational aspects (tell me one game of which we wouldn’t be able to do the same)? It's great because it brings positive answers to all the questions posed in the first paragraph of this review. It has the greatest number of scenarios available for any operational level wargame; it has a big community providing opponents and interlocutors for discussions, mods creation and so on; it has an exhaustively tried system; it has continuous support making the system each time more consistent (not perfect, but consistent; as I write this review, a patch is being finished tweaking the greatest part of the last known gamey aspects); it is extremely fun to play with scenarios that can be played in an afternoon to others that will take months; and, above all, it is still extremely popular after a decade of existence.

If you're hesitant about it, those points I just mentioned must say something about this game. They sure should make the reader ask himself about the validity of any arbitrary negative judgement to it. After all, TOAW has among it’s community members individuals that are directly involved with military institutions or scholars of military history along with more casual military enthusiasts. Believing that all of them know nothing about wargames or believing that so many hardcore wargamers are in the wrong path for so long…

Finally, presenting a very personal argument, military history embraces much more than WWII and TOAW allows people to take a breath from the most explored conflict in wargame history. WWII period provided the foundations to TOAW, so that it will represent it very well, but the game seems to have followed it’s natural path extending to other periods with each version, but mantaining it’s core the same. For those addicted to novelty, having a completely new game with each version is mandatory. Those more enlightened know that long term evolution can bear much better results than the constant reinvention of the wheel. Apart from that, TOAW can open new horizons for those who think that world conflicts resume to Allies vs Axis, even if those wanting to take the role of the Axis or the Allies will find some of the best WWII scenarios available for wargames here.

TOAW is the best operational wargame available not because it is a jewel of gaming engineering, but because, like the other titles I mentioned on the beginning, it grew to be the best with time and the contribution of its community. Its success isn’t based on ephemeral novelty, but in solid evolution.

Below I post some examples of links which contain mods and scenarios for TOAW. See by yourself the extension of the most successful title in operational wargames.