23 October 2014

PC Game Review: Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue

Henrik Rothen experiences operation Fall Blau through the new addition to the Decisive Campaigns series. Follow him as he strips down this Eastern Front jewel, finishing it off with a short, but teasing, AAR.

Published on 25 SEP 2012 2:40am by Henrik Rothen
  1. world war ii, air combat, ground combat, naval combat, eastern front, pc, division, regiment

Publisher: Matrix Games / Slitherine

Developer: Victor Reijkersz Designs

 

A New Addition

I am a passionate “MOP” (Military Obsessed Person), so I love World War 2 Eastern Front warfare and enjoy huge, complex strategy games. I do enjoy Matrix Games’ products, so I should enjoy this game immensely. But will I? Decisive Campaigns: Case Blue is the successor to Decisive Campaigns: The Blitzkrieg from Warsaw to Paris. After players had the opportunity to roll through Poland and the Low Countries in the latter, they have now given a chance to take the fight to the Eastern Front. You will have the chance to follow my scatterbrained notes as I give this strategy game a test drive, in this new release about Case Blue (Fall Blau): Germany’s invasion of the Caucasus and drive towards Stalingrad.


 

Historical Background

Although most grognards will know much of this already, I will provide some background information to the historical setting of this game. After the failed assault on Moscow during the late fall of 1941 and the massive Soviet counteroffensive on the central part of the front, the German commanders realized that they were not strong enough to launch major offensives on all three sectors of the front as they did in 1941. “What would be the best approach to win the war?” they thought. Occupy the Soviet capital of Moscow or head for the resource rich south with the oil of the Caucasus, blocking the river traffic on the Volga passing the city of Stalingrad? As most of us know, Hitler chose to go for the resources in the south. The game covers the initial German drive into eastern Ukraine and beyond, and the following Soviet counteroffensives that may have decided the outcome of the entire war. What’s interesting about the setting of the game is that I don’t know of many games that cover this operation specifically. So, let’s have a look at what it has to offer.

 

Scenarios and Campaigns

The game offers various campaigns/scenarios for the player to choose from, from the full campaign—which is quite extensive—to shorter ones (scenarios) covering certain segments of the struggle. Each campaign has its own starting and ending dates. Although there are eight campaigns/scenarios available to the player, there are only two shorter scenarios (“2nd Kharkov” and “Voronezh”), which might be a disappointment for some. Five of the campaigns range from several months to several weeks long. Both the “Case Blue” and “Uranus” campaigns, which represent the military operations of the same name, offer short and full versions: the short Case Blue scenario being the main campaign scenario. There is also a “Linked Scenario Campaign” which focuses around the actions of the 1st Panzer Army. In addition to this, there is available the “Trappenjagd” campaign scenario which is about a year long in May 1942. Considering all of this, with many months of fighting and 2-day turns, we indeed have a monster game here! You can also play LAN, hot-seat internet games and Slitherine’s online PBEM++ system, which automatically saves and compiles your ongoing Play-By-E-mail games. Very handy!


 

Tutorial

I initially started with the tutorial. After doing so, I am immediately informed it won’t be very exhaustive and that I should refer to the manual. Although it was difficult to find initially, I noticed I could access the manual and four different user guides through the games launcher—simply by clicking the “Game Menu” shortcut. All of these instructional documents are in .pdf format and are very thorough. The user guides include a “Replacement Troops Guide”, a “Reinforcement Units Guide”, an “Order of Battle Guide”, and an “Editor Guide”. That is correct, this game does indeed have an editor. One just has to select the scenario they’d like to edit, then click the “Edit” button. There is also available an image of the campaign map, a closer-up image of the “Don and Wolga” sectors, and (of course) the ability to check for updates, on the game launcher.

During the tutorial, I learn how to move units (including multiple units in a division at once), attack, use strategic movement, how to check supply status, changing what HQ a unit is attached to, etc… all very useful and essential aspects. But let’s face it, the tutorial is rather brief and could contain more vital information. After this experience, I also began to realize the loading times weren’t going to be ideal. So be prepared to be expecting load times comparable to strategy games of similar ambition, i.e. Gary Grisby’s games.

 

 

Interface

The game has plenty of stats, maps, tables, indexes, and unit summaries; as one would expect. A whole array of buttons spans the top of the HUD. These buttons are used to conduct actions. The tabs, about the interface, is used for attaining information—there is much to be had. Once you get acquainted with the interface, it is quite easy to control the game. It took me a while to get used to, but once I did I quickly realized it wasn’t the most complicated of strategy games I’ve played. Settings are easily found and changed. Although, I would have liked to see pop-up tool tips for some of the games functions that are not easily understood. Though, each turn you will receive status updates, through reports of many kinds. Do you have enough oil to keep the offensive going? How are your Axis minor allies reacting to your progress and setbacks? What reinforcements can you expect? And of course, are you winning the war or not.

 

Music

The game is complimented by peppy marching music, which I do like (the first loop anyhow). The second time it plays is only seconds away from the start of the first, since the sound file is quite brief. There must be very limited sound file material in the game. Yes, music is expensive to produce and strategic games are probably better played without it, but this was a bit annoying. Maybe it would have been better to cut out the music totally. I did find another catchy tune playing while trying out the tutorial and this one was about as long and repetitive as the first one, after just minutes. I desperately start looking for the settings button to turn it off, but options aren’t accessible from the main menu. However, they are accessible from within each scenario under the “PREFS” tab. Turn the volume down? What if I want to listen to other music while playing, or want to hear the sound effects in the game? There must be a settings button somewhere… found it! After scrounging about for the options panel I did find a graphics glitch: a long rectangular blue box had appeared just below the options interface which looked as if it didn’t belong.


 

Units

Units have hard attack/hard defense, soft attack/soft defense, and defense values totaling five combat value categories. The Cossack unit in the tutorial has 15/15 in soft attack/soft defense, and 8/8 in the “hard” department. The hard value is apparently for armored units as non-armor units, like cavalry, will have lower hard values but reasonable soft values. In addition to these five “combat” values, each unit has a submenu where you can see a unit’s “Readiness”, “Experience”, “Weight”, “Entrenchment Value”, “Morale”, “Action Points”, and many more values. This looks promising; I like a game with great detail and depth. You can even access a small historical background of each equipment type.

You can choose between NATO symbols and outline figures for unit counters, which is a plus. You control units at the regimental-level. Each regiment has its division number clearly labeled on its counter, which makes it very easy to tell what division it belongs to. There are inherent divisional organization penalties when splitting up divisions over long distances, so it’s vital one keeps their regiments close together.

Reinforcements are also automatic, which makes it easier to play and commence with operations, allowing you to focus on other aspects. Which units will have precedence over others in receiving replacements is decided by the player. There are also unique unit types rather than just the traditional ones—there is much unit diversity here and they add historical immersion. The game even contains naval units. But as the Axis, you obviously have very few of them. Naval units can attack other naval units, participate in amphibious operations or assist on land with shore bombardments—all nice additions to the series. The game has also implemented engineers, which can attempt to blow bridges or reconstruct them.



Maps

The map consists of old school hexagon provinces (hexes) rather than oddly shaped provinces—I like this. There are three levels of zoom available. Is the map beautiful? Not really. It is quite basic; although it is very easy to discern different terrain types while each hex represents a competitive 40 kilometers. It’s accessible and easy to understand—I prefer these qualities over eye candy in a game of this nature. A bit of an 80s feel for some, but the traditional map interface of this genre; although, it does do the job. Terrain types are very basic: plains and fields, forest, light urban, urban, rivers and marsh. Simple, but it’s enough for me and adequate for the topography of the Eastern Front.

The game also implements random weather, and each turn this variable can effect movement, air mission efficiency, etc…Since the area of operations of the game is quite large, and the number of units and cities are too many to easily keep track of, a very neat feature allows you to easily navigate to any area in the game: the mini-map. There is also strategic map overview which pulls down when the “S.MAP” tab is clicked, which gives you a clear picture of where the front is and where your armies are positioned—a great aid in a game of this scale. You can also choose any HQ or city from a list and “teleport” there immediately. The HQs appear on the strategic map when the option is checked. Being in the middle of a huge campaign, I found myself using this feature more often than not. Also within this tab is a list of the strategic details of both belligerents: “Regime BaseMorale”, “Victory Points”, “Fuel”, “Command&Control” and “Prestige”.

 

Movement

Moving troops around may be a bit unconventional, at least for me—you left click to enter a new hex. At times I did wish there was an “undo last move” button, so I wouldn’t have to reload temporary saves quite so much after realizing my last move was a mistake. You can also do combined movements if units are from the same division or corps, which lessens the micro-management factor a bit and makes sense in a game this specific. Also, some units are locked for a specific amount of time depending on the circumstances of each scenario, and therefore they will be unmovable.

 

Leaders, HQs and Political Points

I found that each corps’ HQ, and above, has a historical leader. They influence combat quite a lot according to their skill and traits as each leader has a number of cards at their disposal at all levels of command: action cards. These cards represent the historical characteristics of each commander, so they differ from commander to commander whether they command a division or an entire army group The affects these cards implement lasts for a single turn and are similar to the card mechanics offered in a board game. (For example, “OKH”, the highest German HQ, can assemble reserve units using this feature. This is a very nice card and feature to have when planning an offensive.)

 Click for full imageClick for full image

HQs can also give you new goals during an ongoing campaign, depending on your success. These interactive missions give you something to focus on in the short-run as you endure a long campaign. It also adds a dynamic factor to the already in-depth and complex machine that’s at your fingertips here, not to mention implementing a historical factor. You can assign units to different HQs but you must keep units within its HQ range. HQ units are designated by a flag of their respective nationality. Units are also color-coordinated according to the HQ they are attached to. All tried and true elements of a proper strategy game! “Prestige” points in the game introduce another vital element. These points represent the possibility for you to demand reinforcements, while increasing your ability to countermand AI orders or receive more objectives, etc…


 

Combat

Combat is played out in rounds in the turn-based fashion, and turns represent one week within the actual timeline. There is a very detailed combat result for each round if you want to check out exactly what took place in that combat action; but most players likely skip that because of the sheer number of battles that takes place at any given turn. You can assign artillery bombardments within a range of two hexes: artillery carries a limited supply of ammo and must be recharged if exhausted. You can move before and after combat, depending on how many action points you have left for that unit. This makes for a rather flexible combat system. A unique aspect is the requirement to click on the target first to find out which units can attack it, which is a bit unconventional and a unique characteristic of the Decisive Campaigns series. Also, you can execute more than one attack per turn. But players also gain an attack penalty for attacking a hex more than once, or attacking more than one hex at a time, so it doesn’t necessarily benefit you to make many small assaults to gain one hex. There is also a button implemented which shows the history of the game. It allows players to rewatch each step of the scenario, so one able to see their forces disposition before the enemy begins its turn.

 

Air units

For beginners, it may be a bit confusing to find out how to give orders to air units. In addition to air attacks and attacking land units, aircraft can also supply units on the ground. An undertaking that was in its infancy until the successful post-World War 2 Berlin Airlift, this mission option allows players to recreate the historical feat of the Germans attempting to supply the entrapped 6th Army within Stalingrad. Air units have icons and historical air units are represented, like: Me-109, HS 123, HE-111 etc… (to name just a few German air units offered). These designations are nice compared to just using the generic “medium bomber” and the like. The icons, furthermore, look really good for a game of this nature—profile pictures similar to what you would see in Gary Grigsby’s strategy games. The artwork is a welcomed site to see, but a carryover from the predecessor.


 

The OOB

Want to find any special troops on the map or dissect your order of battle? No problem. They are all organized under your “OOB” tab. Considering this feature and the historical backgrounds for the many various units, the historical research done for this game was quite substantial. The ordnance and tanks used for this era are (not surprisingly) accurate. And although I only recognized a few of the divisions and commanders from my history books and documentaries, I did find myself following certain commanders, divisions and even regiments as they increased in experience, morale and combat expertise through the duration of a campaign—a welcomed role-playing implementation.

 

 

The AI

How well did the Soviet AI perform in my play-through? Quite well, actually; especially when played on a higher difficulty level. In this case, this meant the AI “cheats” and receives bonuses for movement, combat and more transfer points. A common way to increase difficulty, but also a disappointing technique as a more complex system would be expected from a game of this caliber. The AI does not perform as well in the larger campaigns as it does in the smaller scenarios. I suppose the amount of terrain and units available is a very daunting task for any game developer to program. So in essence, the AI comprehends smaller engagements much more efficiently, having a more difficult time handling the larger strategic picture; depending on the settings that is. I soon learned to use the “extra slow” setting for the AI, giving it a bit more time to examine possible moves. This appeared to increase its performance quite substantially. After doing this, I noticed it would pullout forces from quite sectors, while sending them to threatened areas of the line. It would even mass troops for counteroffensives instead of feeding them piecemeal into the battle, like AIs often do. All in all, the AI performs reasonably well, which is high praise since there can often be found glitches and loopholes in a game of this type (here, there can only be found one such glitch). The AI’s turn is often full of movement and, depending on the scenario, can take quite a bit of time to complete.

A nice feature for the longer campaigns is the automation of reinforcements and supply, as these campaigns are in fact huge! When you win and lose battles, you gain and lose political prestige (as previously noted). If you reach zero prestige you have lost the war or your commander has lost his command and has been replaced (depending on the scenario chosen). But if you gain a higher score you might receive new objectives from OKH or STAVKA; this makes the game more varied and less predictable than other titles of similar scope. The impression I get is that the German AI command tends to overreach somewhat, assigning new territorial targets further and further away. In addition to the cards available for officers, are the “Regime Cards”. These cards affect the HQs which are not represented on the map (Berlin and Moscow). This is very historical and realistic as command gains confidence in your abilities, but this can also be frustrating at times.

 

My AAR

To give my readers a first impression of how the game plays out, I will go into some detail about my experience with one of the scenarios. Alright, let’s choose a scenario. I have picked “2nd Kharkov”, which is labeled as a “small scenario”, and have decided to play as Germany. This scenario starts with the Soviets attacking, en masse. Immediately my troops are pushed backwards in a blur of motion and I can’t tell what is happening until the end of the Soviet turn. The AI appears to be getting a workout, but will it be a formidable foe?


Turn 1: scenario start north.

Now before presenting what is happening to my readers, I would like to present a screenshot. I’m looking around for the “take screen shot” button on the interface and there is one available within the PREFS tab—a handy feature. I also tried the “Print Screen” button on my keyboard, which also seems to produce results.


Turn 1: scenario start south.

Apparently, the Soviet hordes have pushed against the weak 108th Hungarian Division. I can only find two regiments in bad shape south and north of a huge Red Schwerpunkt aimed at the lightly defended city of Krasnograd. A corps’ HQ and an engineer unit sit in the town. South of the breakthrough, the mauled 62nd German Infantry Division is in retreat. I decide to pull it back and form a line with the city and nearby rivers. In order to do so, I realize I will need reinforcements in this area of the map.


German forces retreat to avoid the Soviet juggernaut.

On the northern part of the front the situation looks better. 6th Army has a few tank destroyer units and an artillery regiment in reserve, along with two panzer divisions. The panzers seem to be locked in place for now as I am unable to move them. Troops are more plentiful and the terrain benefits the defender more here than in the center. I retreat behind the river and send the 113th Infantry Division to the south to cover the approaches to Kharkov and the suburb of Mereta.


German defenses around Kharkov.

For now, I want to blow stuff up to prevent the “Ruskies” from catching up with me. Unfortunately, my engineers fail in their attempt to destroy this vital river crossing; so I will have to consider this in my strategy.


Northeast of Kharkov lies the town of Belgorod. The front is quite weak here. I try to shore it up with units from the army reserve and corps engineers, even though the unit info suggests they are considered construction troops and not combat engineers. We’ll see how well they perform on the frontline.

 

Close up view with counters around Belgorod.

The only mission available on the tool bar for my air units at this point and time is the recon mission, but I see more than enough red counters and would rather bomb the “bejezzuz” out of them than look closer. I hope to see my pretty digital air planes fly around the battlefield soon enough.


Close up view of counters around Belgorod.

 

The AAR Concludes

In the south, around Krasniarmiskoye, I’m trying to stretch the line with any available forces. Parts of the 14th Panzer Division is sent westward with the intent of joining up with other panzer forces and forming a strong counterattack towards Kampfgruppe. I have no idea if this is a good idea with regards to the length of this particular scenario, the need for forces in the south or fuel consumption, but heck, I can hardly do worse than the Gsdsröfaz corporal that so messed up the historical situation this game is based upon. Am I right or am I right? 60th Motorized Division is locked in reserve and Soviet forces are not quite as plentiful in this sector, so there should be a favorable outcome. I hope this was enough of a play-through to give you an idea of how the game presents itself. After taking on that small scenario it wasn’t long before I jumped into connected scenarios, and even started up one of the major campaigns.


 

Summary

Hopefully any reader, by now, has an insight in the strengths and weaknesses of the game. The game is, overall, quite easy to grasp, yet promises great strategic depth with an abundance of information. Though, it might be quite overwhelming in the beginning or for the casual player. It is well polished, offers a variety of scenarios and the AI makes for decent opposition. The graphics are aged even though a recent patch (1.02c) has improved upon this. If you are after easy action and real-time strategy, this is far from your thing. But if you enjoy large strategy simulations, with historical variables and immense unit variety, I definitely recommend this title.

 

Review written by: Henrik Rothén

 

 

 

About Henrik Rothén

Henrik Rothén (Bachelor of History of war, Master of Laws at Lund University, Sweden) is a writer and computer game designer living in Lund, Sweden. He is currently developing educational computer games for children and has also recently released the book Mein Book, a black comedy book about Adolf Hitler’s life. Henrik has a background in old school hexagonal strategy games, role-playing and early computer games. His favorite interests are movies, literature, military history and strategy games.

Forum username: Henrik rothn

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