YOBO Wargames’ publisher and lead developer, Lance Craner, loves the old, simple cardboard games of yore. He has already released a free game, Operation Typhoon, making his trial attempt to judge the popularity of trips down memory lane for the PC, iOS and Android. His feedback must have positive because he has released the more polished Kursk – Battle at Prokhorovka on Steam. Will an attempt to move old concepts into a more modern medium work?
Thousands of Tanks Going Nowhere in Particular
Because of its mammoth size, the battle for Prokhorovka fascinates historians and gamers despite the fact it was a tactical draw and was pretty wasteful for the Germans as the Kursk offensive had already petered out. The northern pincer stalled after two days and, while the southern flank made better progress, it still faced the layered defenses to the north. The attack on Prokhorovka was to protect the German right flank and actually diverted the panzers to the north-east instead of heading north-west. Unfortunately for them, they ran into a huge Soviet counterattack from reserves held in place for just such a contingency.
The first day of this clash (July 11. 1943) is the focus of the game. The map is huge, covering hundreds of kilometers with the occasional cloud floating across the locale. The battlefield is divided into three areas with the railroad embankment separating the north from the middle and the river Psel providing the northern border of the southern region. The northern and middle regions are rich in victory hexes, and should be the scenes of the most intense fighting. Update 2.04 has provided a zoom feature with the “O” and “P” keys for the 2D birds-eye map. Terrain features for towns, woods, roads, streams, the Psel and bridges are very clear; particular attention should be made to the blown bridges. Victory, movement and combat hexes are plainly shown although the toggable regular hexes are faint to the point of invisibility; the dev has promised to correct this annoyance.
Units represent battalions, and their counters show soldiers for leg infantry and halftracks for mech infantry. Infantry units have the venerable three values for attack, defense and movement with corps designation. Armored units have silhouettes for PZKW Mark IVs, Tigers, Panthers, T-38s and KVs. Attack and defense values have been combined for armor units so these counters only have two values. Artillery units are a special case. Their images are of AT guns, howitzers, mortars and self-propelled guns like Marders. Each has a label of “A”, “S” or “D”. “A: units can’t fire after moving; “D” unit can move and fire but only at enemies in their line of sight and can’t bombard independently, while “S” guns are totally independent. Artillery units have the usual defense and movement values, along with numbers for offensive and defensive bombardment, range and corps designation. Units disrupted in combat have no numbers on their counters.
Documentation is dispersed. Basic game controls are explained on the first screen; terrain effects, unit information, sequence of play, and other controls are detailed in an on-screen slide show. Further details are in a Dropbox download, Steam community guide and patch notes. The game appears simple at first, but questions arise that send players to several places to get answers. A PDF manual could be used to collate all this data. Sound effects are limited to continuous battle sounds unrelated to play.
No Muggins in Combat
Mechanics are old school. Left click to select a unit and destination with gold hex sides indicating possible paths. Once movement points are totally expended, the unit is greyed out and no “undos” are possible. Combat mechanics are similar with a left click selecting a target which assumes a red hue and the hexes of possible adjacent attackers have yellow outlines as do possible supporting artillery. Defensive artillery fire for the AI is automatic. Independent artillery in range can bombard enemy units marked in red separate from ground attacks when the bombard button is clicked. The game is draconian in that attacks can’t be cancelled. The rationale for this is players must take their rime to think and commit – the cyber equivalent of “you lifted your finger from the piece”. The sequence of play – moving all units players wish and then have combat to taste – reinforces this discipline by not having combat results influence later movement in the same turn.
One aspect of combat that is extremely old school is the absence of any zones of control. Units can move between enemies freely and attacks from the rear or flank have no special bonuses. The rationale for this is that the situation was very fluid that day. Still, a unit should be able to slow a foe coming by its flank and attacks from the rear are always devastating.
Combat odds are a dream for old “combat accountants”. Comparing total attack values against total defense values modified by terrain produces a ratio. A barely readable dial gives a hint at the outcome but the developer suggests that more factors are in the black box. Players should just have a mental image of a “6-1 DELIM” combat table in mind and hope the randomizer is kind. Combat results are the old Defender eliminated, Defender retreats, both sides lose strength (destroyed actually), Attack fails, Attacker retreats and Attacker eliminated. Retreating units are disrupted for one turn and can only move a few hexes.
These mechanics are used to play out three variants of twelve turns: Paul Haussers Attack, Rotmistrov Reacts and Bogoroditskoye Bridge. The first represents the actual battle with about half of the Russian forces fixed of the first turn. The second is the same but with all Russians free to move immediately. The third takes place a day earlier with the vital bridge over the Psel at Bogoroditskoye still standing, allowing movement between the middle and southern map sections. The German phases always occur first but on each first turn the Germans can’t move, combat only occurs between adjacent units and no artillery fire is allowed. The Russians can move unfixed units at half their movement value and can’t use artillery either. The only AI is for the Russian but a German AI maybe added later. Multi-play is possible through the Steam server.
The first phase of battle sees the Germans trying to clear the roads and cross bridges. This effort entails moving isolated infantry units from woods, no easy task and often requires tremendous amounts of fire power or six units surrounding the defender. Such attacks take time and resources the Germans don’t have. Meanwhile, the Russian AI keeps setting up units at choke points and forming solid defenses around victory hexes. The panzers grind forward to hit the main line of resistance despite the Russian propensity to send many Germans back. The Germans can eliminate four Soviet units to their one and still face defeat because the victory hexes remain in Russian hands. Even a “Defender retreat” doesn’t help Jerry all that much as advancing a unit into the vacated hex usually puts the unit into a cul-de-sac of vengeful enemies. However, even the Russians run short of units around turn 10 and skillful German players can lunge forward to grab enough victory hexes for a tactical victory.
Questions remain about Kursk – Battle at Prokhorovka. Would fog-of-war be too new school for the paradigm? Where is the air power? When will we get a German AI? Nonetheless, the game meets its goals of translating a simpler system to computers with an accurate and enjoyable result. Bravo and encore!