Games Reviews

Review: France ’40 Gold

There’s a quote that has been forever linked to Minister of War Andre Maginot and the Great Wall of France that bore his name; “Fixed fortifications are a monument to man’s stupidity” (LTG George S Patton, Jr). Of course the Maginot Line itself has forever been linked to calamitous defeat, as two entirely different ways of doing business on the battlefield collide to determine whether the old or new is superior. The result, of course, was lopsided victory for a newfangled concept called Blitzkrieg, and this has made the 1940 campaign less than popular in wargaming circles. One side is hopelessly outmatched, not to mention its not Eastern Front and there’s not a Koenigstiger sitting on every street corner. It’s a red haired step kid and just not sexy.

Which is exactly why I like this and similar WWII campaigns, and fortunately so does Wargame Design Studio. They have recently released the Gold version of John Tiller Software’s 2005 take on the campaign, and yes, if you have the game by all means update. If you don’t, then consider this $39.95 well spent.

JTS France d bis Holland without Names JPG

Under the Hood

First, what this review is not. It is not a discussion of the game engine or game play. John Tiller’s campaign system has been around since 1995 Talonsoft time, and although there have been updates and mods from time to time to address technology and subject, the core system is pretty much the same. This does not mean stagnation or a lack of innovation (really? Are you sure?-ED), but rather that the original software design has stood the text of time extremely well and remains a gold (no pun intended) standard as regards porting cardboard counter and hex games to the PC. So if how this game and its siblings play is of interest, take a look at Jim Cobb’s review on Moscow 42, another Panzer Campaigns entry.

Nevertheless, there are some improvements to gameplay, mostly geared towards making the game’s match to history more marriage than engagement. The changes for version 2.01 Gold include:

  • Units no longer have their movement points halved when disrupted during day.
  • At night disrupted units are reduced to two thirds movement.
  • A Place All Reinforcements function has been added.
  • Fragile Morale has been included for some nations
  • National Surrender has been included for some nations
  • New Modern Icon toolbar, thus bringing the game in line with more recent Panzer Campaigns fare.
  • Unit stacking onboard has been adjusted to account for larger unit counters.
  • All new in-game sounds.

All fine and good, but honestly, not what makes the game a must buy.

A New Coat of Paint

There are actually two major improvements to the original France ’40 game, and the lesser of these is a completely new color palette and graphics suite. After the demise of Talonsoft, Tiller’s games continued to be published, first under the HPS Simulations label and then under John’s own JTS label. Yet, in my personal opinion anyway, the graphics simply did not come up to the standard of the Talonsoft art. Those old graphics seemed to have a smoother texture, an almost painted on look. Yes, there was a suite of generic hexes that were linked together in various directions to produce the maps, but the point is the silkier presentation meant they didn’t look that way.

I’ve always referred to JTS graphics as GAG – Garish and Grainy. The hues were almost florescent bright and the texture extremely rough. And while the same concept of linking generic hex patterns was used, this time they looked it. This was especially evident in 3D visual presentations, where although the terrain mimicked a miniatures battle map, units were still counters. I never understood why Tiller did it that way, but it is what it is.

Sedan old and newOr it was what it was, because there is an entirely new look to the game where the colors are more subdued and the texture smoother, far less granular. Likewise the new map schematics include a subtle hexside with light center overlay while most terrain features have simply been redrawn using a  more modern, less in your face design. Unit boxes, the ones that appear in the left sidebar when you click on a stack of counters in a hex, now look more like colorized combat photos from the campaign, and far less like drawings. For counters, you can now switch from NATO symbology to vehicle silhouettes and personality faces.

If that wasn’t enough, the entire game map has been redone. This does not only mean visuals, but also redrawn to include more terrain features based on new research, things like canals, redrawing river traces and new forts complete with the names thereof. The map has also been enlarged to include more of Germany in the East, as well as Paris in the West and all of Belgium and the Netherlands.

It brings the game up to more recent Panzer Campaign graphics standards, the impetus being a slew of player modifications that proved extremely popular with the masses. I saw this happen with the JTS World War I Campaign Series. France 14 graphics were replaced by those from a player mod, which became standard in an updated version of the game and the default in the follow-on East Prussia 14 game. Its not quite as good as the old Talonsoft stuff, but pretty close and much better than previous offerings.

JTS France 40 b Sedan

Models and Options

WAIT! Did you say the map includes all of the Netherlands? Yes, I did. Why? Because now the German invasion of Holland, the whole thing, is included, and that is but a mere taste of the scenario feast this game offers.

Scenarios are the BIG change to this game. Originally weighing in with 25 different choices, there are now 93, count ‘em, 93 scenarios in the game. Of these an extra 24 are from modder Ed “Volcano Man” Williams covering alternative events, while another 44 are by modders Michael Prucha and David Michas. The new material covers both hypothetical and historical missions, with the former allowing things like releasing the Panzers from Hitler’s Fuhrers Befehl mandating them to stop outside Dunkirk, or not forcing the Allies to march north to the Dyle.

However, it is the extra historical scenarios that are the most impressive. Here we are mostly talking about battles, and variants of those battles, that the original game simply left out. Yes, now the campaign scenario goes past 24 May so Dunkirk is possible, as is the invasion of Holland, and yes you can play the latter as part of a full campaign that covers all military operations from the Swiss border northward. With the release of such films as April 9th (on the German invasion of Denmark), I’ve become very interested in these overlooked vignettes of World War II, so the inclusion of the Dutch army, all of it, was really a nice perk.

JTS France 40 c Lille

However, the best example of what these new scenarios have to offer is the small but dramatic siege of Lille, 28 – 31 May 1940. Here, 35,000 men of the French 1st Army under the command of tough as nails General Rene Jacques Prioux stubbornly held the city for four days while the Germans threw everything, but the proverbial kitchen sink down range. Well, not really, just the 5th, 5th and 7th Panzer Divisions and the 11th, 217th, 253d and 267th Infantry Divisions, some 160,000 men plus. Historians believe this stand allowed another 100,000 men to escape across the English Channel and German General Kurt Waeger was so impressed he granted the French the honors of war. The 1st Army marched to captivity with rifles shouldered, on parade thru the Grande Place of the city while the Germans stood at attention. Typically, Hitler had a conniption fit and had Waeger reprimanded. Never heard of this battle? Well, you have now and its one of the new Prucha scenarios included.

Now a word about the full campaign scenarios. The first step is to admit you have a problem, need professional help, to include prescription narcotics, because you either don’t have a life or are stone cold nuts. Just because France 40 is part of a so-called Panzer Campaigns series does not mean it’s a campaign level game a la Avalon Hill’s France 40. No, this is an SPI Wacht am Rhine mega game on a YUGE scale. The units are battalions and companies, the scale is 1 km per hex and 2 hours per turn. The game map is now 2 1/2 times the original, and that means 212,000 hexes. I know, because I counted them. Seriously, when the AI moves, you can take the spouse out to dinner and it still might not be finished when you get back (ask me how I know). So if you really want to do this, get real familiar with the AI Orders section of the manual on page 30, because you are gonna need it.

JTS France e Full Campaign Maginot Line

In Conclusion

Yet sadly, despite all the new scenarios, there are still one or two missing IMHO. I remember one of the fascinating options of the old Avalon Hill board game was not having the Maginot Line built, but instead allowing the French additional mechanized and air units using the 3 billion Francs saved. That was the option I always played and would have made this already excellent game even better had it been included.

And yes, the game is excellent, likely the best computer game on the subject. I’m not a World War II person myself, but I do enjoy oddball campaigns like this one. In fact the changes Tiller has done in this Gold edition sorta reminds me of a great novel whose final chapters have finally been completed. By including the Dutch and a host of other battles seldom seen in books, much less in a wargame, France 40 Gold is a very good read indeed.

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