Back in 1998, Norm Kroger, Jim Rose and John Davidson of Talonsoft introduced the wargaming world to the first edition of The Operational Art of War (or TOAW). Now, on 16th November 2017, and some six editions later, Matrix Games presents the seventh version of the game, The Operational Art of War IV. When you consider that the game has kept enough interest for some 19 years to warrant yet another updated, redesign and publication, you know the software is special. You also tend to worry if any publisher’s reissue of the game will do the original justice.
Not to worry, TOAW IV not only does all that, but more. On this project at least, the union of Matrix and Talonsoft is truly the proverbial marriage made in heaven.
Operational art (or in Russian оперативное искусство) is a level of war between and connecting the tactical battlefield with strategy where national level resources are managed to obtain long range objectives. Although used for centuries, it was Marshal of the Soviet Union (MSU) Mikhail Nikolayevich Tukhachevsky (1893 – 1937) who codified operational art as a systemic concept in his Provisional Field Regulations of 1936. The Marshal was killed in the purges and his theories abandoned, but events like Desert Storm and the writings of MSU Nikolai Orgarkov (1917 – 1994) on the Revolution in Military Affairs gave the tenet a new and permanent lease on life.
Definitions abound of course, but the simplest I’ve seen to describe operational art is the use of military and other resources to maneuver friendly forces into battle with the enemy under the most favorable conditions possible. Remember this definition because this is what TOAW simulates, and it does it well.
Thus it should come as no surprise that the bulk of the way TOAW works is no different from previous versions. While units represented can often be battalions, in general they are brigades and divisions. Otherwise, scale is variable and can from 2.5 to 50 km per hex, while each turn can simulate from six hours to an entire week of military shenanigans. With this in mind, playing the game is quite simple. Click on a friendly unit, then use the mouse cursor to drag a unit to its new location, a friendly red arrow indicating the path the unit will take and the number of movement points used. When you’re finished you can tell the computer to initiate combat and the fighting begins. Unlike other games, Advanced Options are enabled by default, and this is a good thing because they really aren’t that complex to master. Advanced Options include little gems like a drop down menu that allows you to select how many casualties you are willing to risk when you attack someone. It could be minimal, moderate or don’t worry about how many troops get killed, just take the damn hill! Obviously such selections play into the computer’s algorithms which will then conduct all the combat for you and apply the results. Pretty easy right?
Actually, not so much.
In many respects the foundation behind TOAW is not to have the player functionally do a lot, but think a lot instead. The units in TOAW look like spruced up board game counters, but there is this one little square up in the upper right corner you should really pay attention to. The color of this square indicates the overall health of the unit with green being fine and dandy, yellow being a bit worn and red the color asking for a miracle. TOAW provides a huge data dump about your army, down to the ammo per machine gun level (well OK, not really, but you get the picture) that enables you to maneuver your forces in the most effective way possible. Sometimes this means pulling forces out of combat, not only to avoid defeat, but to reconstitute and resupply. Now this is important – the game does not ask the player to run a full logistical model (or other functions), but merely insure his units are in the best position possible to use the game’s computer managed supply module. This is based on supply lines and distances from supply sources, with a convenient map you can pop up to see where they lay, the supply variable for each hex and who can use that hex to trace a line of communications. Again, this is an info driven game unlike any other that places a premium on thinking, while allowing the player’s game functions to concentrate on killing things.
The second thing to remember is that turns are variable, with an initiative algorithm calculated each turn to see which side goes first. Further, and one of the big selling points of TOAW, is that for each unit, the turn is divided into 10 segments, each representing distance moved or time fighting and so on. When a unit moves, depending on how far and under what conditions, segments are expended. If you fight a battle, segments are expended, and these may be more or less depending upon the optional rules in play (remember those casualties we spoke of above) and how you – or your opponent – uses them. Thus you may find that after all your combats are done for a turn, the computer AI may flip everything back over to you because some units may have unused segments left, or that persnickety AI may have defended with a hold at all costs option, costing you more time than you anticipated. Again, the AI calculates all of this in the background.
But don’t think there isn’t anything new in the game. Instead, think same durable chassis, but some Formula 1 modifications under the hood and a lot of them. Some are big and some are small, but for the most part they will be transparent to the player. This means, that once again, he will need to understand what these mods are doing to insure the proper use of his formations, but there is not actually any new function for him to deal with for the most part (because there is always an exception or two). For example, There is now a new transparent function whereby snow will turn to mud if the weather changes and it starts melting, the higher the temp, the quicker the mud and higher the movement degradation. Likewise, ranged units such as artillery now retain their deployment states after firing, as do assault units such as infantry if their attack was cancelled.
There are, however, two areas of major change in the game, one where the player indeed has functions to actually perform, the other more transparent where the AI works in the background. In the latter case we are once more talking about an issue the player needs to have a good grasp of, but doesn’t need to start allocating supply points and what not. As you might have guess, this transparent change involves logistics. There are numerous changes such as determining supply status of certain material at the beginning of each player turn vice game turn. There is now also a new supply status called Overextended, laying somewhere between Supplied and Unsupplied, generally for units that are within range of a supply source but in a hex whose supply value is less than scenario parameters. Nevertheless, the big change in supply I noticed was the way distance to a logistics source was calculated. In the old system a unit could have several levels of supply based upon the distance in hexes it was from it supply source. Now the distance is calculated based on the movement points necessary for notional supply convoys to reach a unit, which could be quite a lot given terrain or the lack of roads. This seems to be a lot more accurate, and continues well with the game’s overall philosophy of knowledge vs function.
The second, and perhaps most pronounced, change is very functional and players will have some direct gameplay involvement. There is now a full-blown naval warfare module included in the game. The enhancements are far too many and far too detailed to mention here in their entirety, but involve Naval Combat, Sea Interdiction (ie, targeting ships in deep water with shore batteries or aircraft), Sea Spotting (which now includes air based recon and other sources above the normal rules) and Naval Targeting (which is now by unit type and not location). The Naval Combat section is probably the best place for an example, and suffices to say the model now functions in a way familiar to both board and mini gamers. The new model looks at a variety of factors to determine hit probability and damage, to include warhead penetration, armor thickness, weight of shell, visibility and a host of other factors. Embarked units no longer add their armor or anti-aircraft strengths into the fray as was done in the past, while all of this is used to calculate a number of damage points not only on the naval target, but its embarked passengers as well. It takes 100 hit points to completely sink a vessel; otherwise it can theoretically be repaired, minimally at sea and more efficiently in port. Hit levels between 0 and 100 obviously degrade a unit’s ability to operate.
Does it matter? Well, if you pick the Russo-Japanese War scenario for play, the first thing you notice is a REALLY big Japanese battleship division surrounded by all the Rising Sun destroyers on the planet. Think shore bombardment, or better yet the Russian Baltic Fleet coming full speed to crash the party. No matter the Russians have about as much chance of winning as the Cleveland Browns going to the Super Bowl, they will need to be accounted for. This is a most welcome addition to the game, so bravo!
Something Borrowed, Something Blue
Finally, the graphics have been much improved over the past, tho there is an option to return to the “classic” visuals if you so desire. The game keeps the newly refined graphics for map and unit as was introduced in an update for TOAW III. However, here the artwork has been refined with smoother, more rounded edges and a deeper and more lifelike texture for all maps. Symbology, such as railroads, has also been updated to be a little more current. Hexes show corners only and are far less obtrusive. The changes are subtle, yet noticeable.
The big facelift comes with the user interface. Actually no, we’re not talking facelift here, but radical, reconstructive surgery, and by George, the attending physician was spot on. The interface has been totally redesigned in terms of looks, placement and design. Again, the visuals are a more streamlined modern look, olive drab with an Arial type font replacing the old cast iron Steampunk designs with script that looks like it came off a 1936 stock market teletype. The look is smoother with rounded edges, sorta reminiscent of when Windows adopted the Metro look.
And the redesign is far more functional as well, with color icons that more properly display their nature and their number limited to what a player needs to know most of the time. If he needs more detail, he can always left or right click and pull up another screen or menu. The strategic map box has been moved away from the rest of the interface, while those 32 functional icons so beloved in pervious TOAWs now sit behind three tabs labeled Reports, Maps and Units. Segregating these particular icons in such a manner made the game much easier, and far less confusing, to play even though the overall total was greater than in the past. It’s a matter of personal preference of course, but to me it just looks better and works better to boot.
I ran this game on my wife’s Lenovo ThinkCentre mini-workstation that weighs in with a 2.4 GH quad processor, 8 GB of RAM, 500 GB hard drive and Intel HD integrated graphics. Obviously, this is not a high hardware requirements game, though I did use the Win 10 Game Bar (Win = G keys) and ran the game with Admin privileges. Outside a very slight delay on certain menu items when clicked on, game play was perfect with very smooth scrolling and mouse dragging. Installation was a snap, so long as you turn off your antivirus temporarily as Avast sure didn’t like a file called irsetup.exe for some reason.
Trust me it’s worth it. Whether you have all the previous editions as I do, or you are a newcomer just starting out, this game is a must buy. Now toss in over 300 included scenarios, online play not to mention a Jim-dandy scenario editor, and plunking down a few shekels is an even easier decision to make. Yes, I know, most film sequels are never as good as the original, so what are the odds here? They’re pretty good actually. This latest TOAW edition has indeed made an almost perfect classic even better, well deserving a five star rating if not an entire constellation. Two thumbs up for a job very well done.