I’ve recently been reading a book chronicling the six month tour of duty in Helmand, Afghanistan conducted by Royal Marines Commandos in 06’. A term often used in the account is “advance into ambush”. This refers to the fact that since the Taliban had the ability to maneuver and hide more freely than their coalition counterparts the Royal Marines had to knowingly advance into likely ambush areas hoping their superior training, skill and firepower would allow them to overcome their adversaries. Panzer Battles Normandy, by John Tiller Software, is easily at its best when you advance into ambush.
You control Allied and Axis forces in the D-day invasion of Normandy and many of the subsequent operations afterwards at a battalion/brigade level. Anyone who’s ever played a JTS game is likely more than familiar with how this whole affair works but I’ll briefly peek under the hood for any newcomers that are reading. Upon startup you are greeted by a scenario selection screen that gives you some nice descriptive flavour text about whichever mission you have selected. It also tells you if it’s suitable for multiplayer, which side you should play as in singleplayer and if either side should be given any sort of advantage.
After that you’ll pick your side, set the enemy side to automatic with fog of war on (because FOW off is pointless and laughably easy) and off you go. Units have movement points and the rate at which they are expended depends on both the unit and the terrain it’s trying to navigate. Fire tells you how many times it can fire though moving decreases fire points and vice-versa is also true. Units also have a morale rating from A to D with A being the highest. After being fired upon units can be Disrupted, and eventually they will break.. This essentially make those units useless until they recover. Disruption is minor and simply impedes the unit rather than stopping it in its tracks.
The first three tutorials demonstrate perfectly what I mean when I talk about advancing into ambush. All JTS games that I know of contain a “getting started” (or sometimes just “started”) PDF file that teaches you the basics by walking you through a scenario. While I appreciate the dev team attempting to keep their game open to newcomers with this pseudo-walkthrough it’s often rather boring to follow in practice. Wargames are about players relying on the their own tactical skill and decisions. So this railroading approach to the tutorial seems extremely contrary to that whole mindset. If you want my opinion, go read the rather lengthy manual (which is annoyingly named “user”, not “manual”) and examine the UI for a few minutes. After that load up one of the tutorial scenarios, go crazy and live with any screw ups you make along the way. This way you learn as you play and you rather accurately recreate the skill level of a lot of Allied commanders during Operation Overlord.
Now back to those tutorials. All three have you attacking as the allies and not long after starting them you will “advance into ambush”. Rounds will fly and you’ll most likely take casualties but that’s ok. You are up against a well dug in and prepared opposition after all. This illusion works because the JTS engine’s infamously goofy AI isn’t even really what you’re up against here. Instead you’re up against the product of experienced level designers who understand both their player base and the capabilities and limitation of the engine upon which their game is built. Sadly there is a rather large downside to that. Most scenarios lack any sense of replayability. Anyone with good memory recall will most likely find taking Caen rather easy the second time since they now know where all the German defenders are hiding.
In any scenario where the AI is left to its own devices it becomes apparent that it’s not quite up to the job. The AI will often march whole battalions along open roads and into the waiting bullets of your men instead of taking cover in tree lines. I guess you could argue that this mirrors the numerous tactical blunders made by Allied commanders during this period but even then it seems a bit preposterous. Once again though the design team seem aware of this which is why the AI isn’t given much freedom of movement. Most missions in which you are defending will spawn AI troops so close that you’re almost always in contact by the end of the first turn. While I have no idea if it’s possible one thing I’d love to see the devs take a few cues from games like C&C or Supreme Commander for future titles. Often in skirmish mode you can choose the attitude for the AI (aggressive, turtling, swarm and so on) for a nice bit of variety. This would help give missions where the AI is defending a lot more replay value.
I must give credit where is due though to Panzer Battles Normandy’s scenario design team. For one they’ve crammed a huge plethora of scenarios into the game that might rival even Combat Mission: Beyond Normandy’s legendary library. Any Canadian readers will be happy to know that their countrymen’s contribution to the war such as in Operation Goodwood is not overlooked.A lot of the other smaller players in the war such as the Free French, Free Polish and Free Belgian forces are also present, although I never encountered them. The vast scenario list is also a plus.
In terms of looks Panzer Battles Normandy is never going to described as a pretty game. The JTS engine has looked utterly functional since the 90s and still looks functional today. But in saying that the game is also rather self explanatory as well. The UI, though vast, has nice little tool tips that tell you which button does what meaning that so long as you’re willing to pay attention you’re never really lost. Many people like to reminisce about the wargames of old but often forget that they didn’t have learning curves so much as they had sheer cliffs atop which was a man telling you to bugger off since you forgot to do one specific step. The unit icons are also handy since they contain both a picture of the unit along with the NATO symbol so that experienced players can identify the type at a glance.
Like with many JTS games, it’s hard to review Panzer Battles Normandy without sounding overly harsh, but these games will only feel more and more ‘old-school’ as time goes on. If I had to attribute one word to the game though, it would be “solid”. The age of the engine on which it is built rears its ugly head every now and then but the experience of the design team is often there to counteract that problem. If you’re a huge JTS fan you probably don’t care what I think and have already played this game to your heart’s content. If you’re new to JTS or wargaming as a whole I’d recommend downloading the demos on the JTS site and playing around for a bit since Panzer Battle Normandy’s asking price is a bit steep to pay on a whim.
Panzer Battles Normandy can be bought direct from the JTS store.