It’s midnight across the rugged plains south of Tobruk. The men of the 2/3rd Australian Infantry Battalion crouch, weapons at the ready, eager to get on with the attack. They are still in high spirits, but nervous, only the engineers of 2/1 Field Company, 250 meters to their right, still fidget with equipment. The infantry knows that they’ll be the first over the ditch that signifies the beginning of the Italian defensive network.
It will be they who bleed first, who kill first. It is up to them to pierce the line and open it up for the rest of the 6th Division to follow. The Commander-on-High knows it as well. Suddenly, at 00:30, all Hell breaks loose. A barrage of artillery fire drops shells just beyond their position, the roars accompanied by the closer thumps of mortar rounds. Before they know it, the shelling is over. The order comes down to advance. The brave men of the of the 2/3rd rise, and stride towards the ditch separating them from Hell. Then the mines go off. Darn. Sorry men, I should have sent the engineers in first.
Playing Panzer Battles 3, or as it now known, Battles of North Africa 1941, I found myself engaged no matter which scenario I chose at random from the overwhelming list. Yet it took me a good half dozen completed scenarios to finally pin down, with the start of the battle of Tobruk above, what it was about North Africa 1941 that really resonated. The scale of Panzer Battles, nestled as it is between the two JTS/Talonsoft series Squad Battles and Panzer Campaigns, gave enough depth that I was able to be carried along by the minutia of the tank to tank firefights and empathize with the struggles of my platoons while still presiding over large, important engagements. It never felt like a simple game of numbers, nor abstracted to the point that I felt no attachment to the counters I pushed around. In my opinion, the depth of North Africa 1941 sits at just the right level for a deep, but not overly complicated session of computer wargaming.
I will admit that I am a relative newbie when it comes to the JTS/Talonsoft pedigree of wargames, having only really invested time in Squad Battles: Spanish Civil War. Yet there I found a fun squad level game that I could easily see myself playing out on a tabletop, with rules that seemed designed to replicate that experience. Worried that I would find myself dragged down by the massive scale the screenshots of North Africa 1941 displayed, I’m happy to say that I never really found that to be the case. Let’s dig into the why of it.
I am happy to see that Battles of North Africa 1941 comes with a ‘Getting Started’ scenario and accompanying PDF. The write-up gives simple, screenshot heavy, blow-by-blows of each turn of the scenario and walks the player through all the important initial steps like moving (both in column and tactically), how to order air strikes and artillery, and how to make quick sense of the enormous task bar that spreads out across the top of the screen. The scenario was short, and simple, but solid enough that I found myself rarely being forced to reference the manual when I immediately followed it up with a much larger scenario. For myself, any war-game that gives adequate and followable instructions immediately earns some points. I must do a great deal of reading for work and sometimes I’d rather peruse a manual at my own leisure and pleasure rather than be forced to dig deeply before even beginning to play.
The game engine is clearly part of the wider JTS group and comes with all the same pros and cons that accompany the others. The screen, as usual, is dominated by a clear and bright hexagonal map of the battlefield. The left-hand side of the screen is dedicated to displaying information about units occupying a hex and the details of the hex itself, (with more information revealed with a right click). A long bar with colour coded buttons for all manner of organization, map, and unit controls adorn the top of the screen, while small text pops up at the bottom, informing the player of ongoing events. The major change, as far as I can tell, is that the map has been restricted to a top down vie with variable zoom, and units on the map can be displayed as either a top down sprite, a face on sprite, or purely with NATO symbols.
As for play, it took me a little while to get used to the specifics of unit control in Panzer Battles. The need to click on the hex and then click on the unit in the side bar before allowing it to move took a while, though the reasoning becomes clear when many units occupied a single hex. Similarly, the need to move a unit hex by hex when they are not in ‘travel’ mode seemed odd, until I managed to misclick. In a different game my unit would have gone charging merrily into whatever danger I had inadvertently sent them towards, but here, I am greeted only with the Microsoft “You can’t do that” sound. There are some annoyances. Information is not always clearly presented, some enemy artillery didn’t redirect the map so I could see what was being targeted, and the need to toggle buttons for line of sight and for ranged attacks feel dated, while remaining functional.
Sound is the one area I wish Wargame Design Studio had made some more advancements. The background noise is a constant and repetitive collection of booms and ra-ta-tas of weapon fire, and individual weapon and engine sounds were clunky at best. High fidelity sound isn’t a requirement of wargames, but I’m happier when I don’t feel forced to turn them off.
Now for content: Battles of North Africa 1941 is massive. There are dozens of scenarios (115 if you include the small number of repeats with differing victory conditions) that cover most of the early North African War with a jump over to Greece and Crete for a few scenarios. There’s even a campaign mode and multiplayer, though I haven’t yet had the time to try them. The single scenarios have been quite entertaining thus far. There are also gigantic master maps and meticulous OoBs for those interested in looking at the breakdown of participating forces or interested in creating their own scenarios with an editor. For the amount of content one gets from the game, it seems well worth the current asking price.
I have very few complaints to make about North Africa 1941. I had little problems with the AI, which seems to be a common concern with these types of games. I found them competent and fun to play against, though whether this is due to scripting and scenario design rather than AI performance, I was never bothered enough by AI decisions to try and test out. Though the actual package is beginning to look dated, Wargame Design Studio have provided a wargame that sits at an enjoyable scale, with more content than most can reasonably handle. I recommend it to any who are on the fence about jumping into the JTS style of war-game. I’m happy I did.