For normal people, death and taxes are the things that are always with us. For wargamers, it’s death, taxes and Rommel. Movies, books, articles – he’s always around. No wargame publisher feels a bone fide member of the industry unless he has at least one Rommel-based game in his inventory. Dan Verssen Games ported its solitaire Field Commander: Rommel board game over to PC and mobile platforms in 2015; is the unadorned replication of a board game to computers acceptable in the digital age?
A Three Map Story
The game spreads Rommel’s career as general over three campaign maps: Northern France and Belgium, North Africa and Normandy. Each map is divided into areas roughly approximating provinces although areas are named after the dominant cities in the European areas and provinces in Africa. Few natural terrain graphics exist; they would be irrelevant as no terrain modifiers for movement or combat are used. Cities are not shown but some like Paris have fortification markers looking like towered medieval gates. Supply sources are shown as open boxes emitting arrows and objective areas wave national flags. When clicked, areas are shown in a box at the bottom of the map with truck icons indicating the number of units the area can hold without penalty. Provinces light up when they are functional for movement and battle. Put bluntly, the advantages of computer graphics were ignored to keep the game true to its board origins. Other ports at least try to spruce up their paper beginnings. Around the maps are informative buttons that show supply amounts for each side, how supply points are gained, victory points as of that turn and the date. Each turn shows a calendar advancing to the end that varies with each campaign. A banner across the bottom tells players what they can do in each of the ten phases. A button at the bottom right is grey when players must do something, yellow when the phase can be advanced but more could be done and green when the phase must advance.
Unit icons are only slightly better. On the map, they are only silhouettes of tanks, half-tracks and men with the number of units present. Clicking on an area displays units there in colored 2D counter-like icons that differentiates between heavy and lights tanks while showing the attack, defense and movement factors. A superscript indicates particularly good attack values while chevrons denote units that have achieved veteran or elite status. A typical health bar reveals damage. The movement value is largely irrelevant as the game itself shows which areas are allowed to be accessible. The continued presence of this value is a superfluous throwback to the boardgame origins. The only real hint of exciting color in the game comes with the battle plan chits used in resolving a battle. Each chit has a symbol of a gun, tank, plane or more abstract symbol indicating its influence on the battle.
Animation is limited to spinning dice, starbursts for hits and skulls for destroyed units. Sounds include rumbles for movement, bangs for hits and ratcheting for updates. No manual exists making the game difficult to learn and play all out of proportion to any educational or entertainment value. An “I” button on each screen brings up information on what to do at the moment and a list of the phases on the left edges appears but this system is disjointed and slows the flow of play initially. The game doesn’t explain the battle chits at all. For that, players must download the boardgame rules from the DVG website and wade through irrelevant text to see the chits’ functions. How hard would it have been to cut and paste relevant information into a PDF included in the game?
Do You Feel Lucky, Punk?
The first phase is moving forces into an adjacent area for battle. Players have difficult choices. They can choose not to attack and save supply, move only the number of units up to the stacking limit of the area or move all units available to battle. Since each unit can only roll one die per battle turn, small numbers decrease chances for success but large numbers mean survivors in an over-stacked area will suffer two step losses or pay a penalty of two precious supply points. If no battle is joined or battle is declined, the next phase allows players to move into unoccupied areas.
Battle itself is begun by the Allies selecting battle plan chits slipped into a vertical column on the left edge. These plans go into action in the sequence of placement, thus giving the allies an initial edge. Players, however, can see this order and attempt to counter it. Chits are bought with mysteriously provided battle points and cost from one to four points. Players can buy more chits by spending supply points. Chit actions include gaining more units, enhancing die rolls, negating enemy chits, adding battle rounds and allowing exploitation moves after a victory. Some chits roll their own die while others affect unit rolls or status. Battle begins with dice rolls which use “ye olde” result lower or equal to factor as modified hit scheme. Red dice equals misses and green ones mean hits. Starbursts on units indicate damage. Hits are allocated by clicking on units. As units have only two steps, eliminations are frequent. After all battle turns and post battle activity such as exploitation and ravaging enemy supply points are finished, units can be upgraded one level for each enemy destroyed. Victory requires annihilation of the defender; otherwise, surviving attackers go back to the area.
The next step will have players scratching their heads for about an hour before they can figure it out. Reinforcing areas is a matter of re-supply points. A sliding panel has three columns holding destroyed units, available new units and units bought for deployment. Clicking the box on the lower right increases those points. When the points equal the attack factor of a new unit, a button on top is clicked to move it to the deployment section. The side’s primary supply area is selected and the unit moves there. Likewise, destroyed units can be moved to the available section by spending supply points. If not enough resupply points are left to deploy units, they are used to buy supply. Re-supply units must be exhausted before the phase can end. The Allied side then does the same actions and the six-day turn ends.
This system becomes an exercise in logistics which is fine but history and balance is thrown out the window. The object in the first scenario has Rommel’s division racing from Liege to Cherbourg in seven turns. The Allies can stop him easily because they have no other German forces to fear so they can mass troops and supplies. The North African and Normandy campaigns make more sense but are spoiled by the unfairness and sloppiness of the battle system. Rommel’s advantage was surprise but the Allies have the only chit allowing this. Troop quality is almost ignored and going first allows the Allies to whittle down German forces by having more chits. The over-stacking penalty prevents a German Schwerpunkt while the Allies can afford the penalties. The result is a frustrating time drain.
Many fine computer games have been developed from boardgames by designers who understood the paradigms of both genres. The first historic computer games were clearly ports from the boardgame genre but the developers understood the power and nuances of digital play. The designers for computer Field Commander: Rommel failed to understand what makes computer games different. They didn’t bother with tooltips, PDFs, fog of war, animations, demos, multiplay or even play balance – not to mention historical accuracy. Some players might find this game worth $10 USD for some unknown reasons, but the $19.95 price is ridiculous to the point of insult. Given the glut of good games dealing with campaigns where Rommel was active, one would think a company would at least try to meet industry standards. DVG did not exert the effort.