The surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 was only part of Imperial Japan’s plan that fateful day. Over the next several hours, Japanese forces also struck U.S. and British forces across the Pacific theatre, ranging from Guam and Wake Island to the Philippines and Malaya. The Artistocrats’ latest DLC for Order of Battle: World War II sets its focus on the fraught British and Indian defense of Singapore, and the subsequent Japanese invasion of Burma (Myanmar) in the immediate aftermath of Japan’s sudden aggression.
Regular readers of The Wargamer are probably well familiar with Order of Battle’s own history, but for newcomers, here’s the quick and dirty version. The game was originally incarnated as Order of Battle: Pacific and came with a couple Pacific-themed campaigns. But as developers The Artistocrats recognized that their game could, with a little tweaking here and there, be adapted to countless other World War II scenarios, they opted to re-release the game’s front-end and tutorial missions for free, giving players the option to buy whichever campaigns interested them the most. Rebranded as Order of Battle: World War II, the game now offers eight individually-purchasable DLC campaigns, with Burma Road the latest in the bunch.
A big draw for these campaigns has been the fact that they’ve tackled theaters that haven’t seen much (or any) play in computer wargames: Last year’s Winter War focused on Finland, and Kriegsmarine posited a set of hypothetical scenarios set in the North Atlantic. Burma Road pushes the ruleset almost to the breaking point by adapting it to handle regional politics in southeast Asia (more on that later).
As commander of British and Allied forces in Malaysia, your first task will be to push into Thailand to head off invading Japanese forces. In the opening mission, you’ll command two columns in a three-pronged attack – capturing a central crossroads town with your main forces and eventually taking control of an Australian column to the east. In the west, a column of Indian troops will head north to attempt to capture two Thai checkpoints.
Most missions, in fact, will have you working alongside an AI-controlled ally, and this can be the source of some frustration. In the opening mission, Operation Krohcol, for instance, your Indian allies will sometimes capture one or both checkpoints, but will often make foolish mistakes and be annihilated by Japanese forces. Enemy AI will also make baffling errors at times, but the campaign is difficult enough that I wasn’t bothered by this nearly as much as I was by my computerized comrades doing their own thing from time to time. There’s no way to communicate with your AI teammates, so it’s either let them go and hope you can hold the line on your own, or follow and support them as they trundle off into the jungle.
And holding the line is a big part of this campaign. Allied forces in Malaysia were, like the rest of the world, caught flat-footed by Japan’s invasion, and your supply lines and reinforcements are sparse at best. In many scenarios, you’ll be playing for time, trying simply to hold back a far more numerous Japanese force and ultimately merely delaying the inevitable. Each loss is keenly felt, despite the fact that core units can be reconstituted with a one-third experience penalty.
That ability is often cold comfort in Burma Road, since experience will be your most valuable resource. Japanese forces are numerous and well-equipped, and having the edge in battle-hardened troops is crucial to success thanks to the baked-in resource scarcity of this 13-scenario campaign. I began the campaign on “captain” difficulty and quickly found that I had to knock it down to “first lieutenant” for the sake of finishing it for this review. Bringing fresh units to mid- or late-game scenarios is almost a guarantee of defeat.
Some of these scenarios, however, are interesting departures from the usual tense jungle combat of the Malaysian peninsula. Early on you’ll be tasked with providing air cover for destroyers searching for survivors of the HMS Prince of Wales, a British battleship sunk in the Battle of Malaya days after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Later on, in one of the campaign’s most outside-the-box (and tricky) moments, you’ll put down the “Quit India” movement, now ready to boil over into full-on revolution, by tracking down and arresting Mahatma Gandhi far to the west in Bombay (modern-day Mumbai). Here you’ll also have to use military police to disperse crowds of rioting workers and push them back to their housing while keeping violence to an absolute minimum.
Also of note are the host of new units. British and Japanese forces have new units available, and entire new armies have been added for Thailand and British India. I was beyond delighted to have kukri-wielding Gurkha fighters join my side for the first time as my beleaguered British infantry pushed deeper into the jungles, and they did not disappoint – and they weren’t inclined to give me any quarter when I ran into them fighting for the other side, either. There are new officers to unlock and attach to your units, and having them along for the ride adds a sense of continuity to a campaign that plays out a bit like a highlights reel from a side of the Pacific conflict less seen.
All in all, Burma Road is a strong addition to the Order of Battle historic campaign library. Its issues are the issues Order of Battle has had already, including AI that can sometimes be frustratingly dunder-headed and unit stats and abilities that can be difficult to parse. But The Artistocrats’ willingness to explore ignored battle theaters is to be lauded, as is the creativity their scenario designers have brought to bear on this heart-wrenching corner of World War II – one that would go on to shape the faces of modern day India, Burma, and the Malaysian peninsula.