War in the West is my dream game. In every World War II game I’ve played; be it Graviteam Tactics, Hearts of Iron or any of the host of other titles dedicated to the Second World War, I end up wishing that I had more control. Sure, that air sector in Hearts of Iron has aircraft in it doing their attacks, but man, it’d be nice if that SS-Panzer Division had every fighter bomber in NW Europe vectored toward it right now. Granted, I have pretty good control of my squads and vehicles in Mius Front, but man, I just wish High Command stopped bothering with this sector, or gave me more heavy artillery to pulverize those pesky Marders. Gary Grigsby’s War in the West, like its predecessors War in the Pacific and War in the East, stands out as perhaps the most detailed World War II wargame in existence. It is an example of all that Wargames should aspire to, while at the same time as a potent reminder of some of wargaming’s greatest problems.
War in the West was originally released back in December 2014. This is a review of the game as of the most recent patch, which coincides with its release on Steam.
From Tunisia to final victory in 1945, War in the West provides perhaps the most complete portrayal of the Western Front available in any game. An entire front, two years of conflict, the largest naval invasion and one of the largest air campaigns of all time are painstakingly modelled in 10 mile-per-hex glory. From mid-1943 to 1945, with turns lasting over a week, the player must either defeat Germany as quickly as possible, or defend Germany for as long as possible (although, given Germany’s fate post-war, perhaps a rapid collapse of German forces in the West isn’t such a bad idea). Players can either play against an AI opponent or against a human via Matrix’s Play by Email system.
At its simplest, this game can be played with large amounts of AI assistance and automation. At its deepest, the player will find a labyrinth of detail. The depth is staggering. From my godlike headquarters, I have complete command of Axis or Allied forces in both the Mediterranean and North-West Europe on a scale few other wargames can hope to match. From the vast tapestry of frontlines, divisions and headquarters units it is possible to zoom down to the smallest details.
I might, for example, choose to focus on No.627 Squadron RAF. On May 30th 1944, they are based at RAF Ingham, they have 16 operational aircraft (with three damaged) and 16 pilots available. What is No.627 Squadron currently flying? They are equipped with the Mosquito B.IV, with a maximum speed of 380 miles per hour. Or they would, if these Mosquitoes were not currently armed with two 50 gallon drop tanks and four 250 pound bombs. Not a problem – I can switch them out. I could take out the bombs and be done with it. Or if I were feeling cruel I’d equip them with 4000 pound “cookie” bombs to really make the mozzies work!
This is the sort of detail I’d expect in a serious flight simulator like Il-2 or DCS. But War in the West is a strategy game skirting the boundaries between the operational and strategic levels of play. RAF Bomber Command has six squadrons flying Mosquito B.IVs. It has a total of 76 squadrons flying machines ranging from Lancasters to P-61 Black Widows. In turn, each squadron maybe given individual orders; loaded up individually for its sortie and perform its own discrete mission at a time specified by the player with results specific to it alone. It’s micromanagement on an epic scale, but the results are very satisfying indeed.
Like its predecessor War in the East, War in the West, with the right scenario, is relatively simple to begin playing. At its most straight forward, the player is able to automate the vast air component and go straight to the ground war component. Ground combat consists of a satisfyingly simple choice between “hasty attacks” and “deliberate attacks”. The system makes sense (although if you are unfamiliar with the way combat is calculated it can sometimes be off-putting when units fail to defeat apparently easy victims) and the sheer depth of this wargame makes every encounter feel far more real than the abstracted numbers of other wargames and strategy games. Like their air force brothers, every unit has a full list of all its equipment. The addition of divisional insignia gives each unit its own identity and is much appreciated when compared to the hundreds of essentially anonymous units that clashed together in War in the East. Logistics, terrain, leadership and many other factors combine to make this intricate combat system tell its own story.
Nor are the rear services and “soft factors” that keep modern armies moving ignored either. An extraordinarily complex supply and production system sits at the heart of War in the West. Amateurs look at tactics, professionals look at logistics and Gary Grigsby and co went overboard here. Heavy industry is used to create the raw materials for other factories to then build the weapons and vehicles your forces require. Railways and the amount of materiel that can be carried by them are all displayed in painstaking detail. None of this is safe however. Airpower — by this point largely Allied airpower, — is able to attack all these installations and, hopefully, bring this complex machine to a screeching halt. The sheer amount of research and detail in War in the West beggars belief. Matrix Games deserves high praise for that achievement alone.
All this detail comes at a price. This is most certainly not a game for the faint of heart. Even for those with experience in War in the East, the additions made to War in the West, including amphibious assaults and a completely separate phase for airpower takes some getting used to. For those without experience in previous games, it’s time to do some reading. The new player experience has improved somewhat from War in the East, with a player’s handbook and other short quick reference sheets available from the opening game menu. These, whilst an improvement on previous titles, still perform poorly, with walls of text that lack readability and any kind of effective “executive summary”. Although costly, with the combined manuals running to perhaps 400 pages, for those seeking to truly learn the game, printing is likely the best option – although that still won’t make up for the walls of indistinct, grey upon grey text. The player’s handbook, the “go to” for a new player, is particularly guilty of this. Whilst some players may find that extensive reading works for them, I am sure I am not alone in preferring to learn through doing with the vaguest of guidance to help me along as I go.
It is true that right at the end of the player’s handbook there are provided a number of quick reference pages which endeavour to teach the game in as simple terms as possible with plentiful pictures to provide a visual reference to the neophyte. It is a great shame that these are not highlighted further. A further problem is that, at least in the steam version the reviewer was provided with, the opening game menu closes when War in the West is started. If you don’t have the suite of manuals open on your computer, it’s time to start digging in the game’s files for them. In a game as deep and complex as War in the West, much of the supporting documentation comes up short. Whilst the game’s main manual and living manual perform their jobs well, the introductory documentation that should be giving the new player many ways of learning about their new purchase. It is true that War in the West is not alone in this. AGEOD’s stable of strategy games are often just as culpable. The fact remains that this wargame leaves much to be desired in the learning department.
This is a game that one must have firm expectations of, or the player can expect to be disappointed. Do not play this game for fast moving turn-based action. Do not expect to play a couple of turns even in one sitting. Instead, immerse yourself in this game. Take it slowly, perhaps even play it in “real” time (one turn over one week) and let the story unfold. It’ll be a while before I understand War in the West fully, but I know that it will be worth the journey.
This review covers a game developed and/or published by members of the Slitherine Group. For more information, please consult the About Us page.