The first time I heard about Tanks it was presented as a bit of a joke – nothing more than another X-Wing clone only with lumbering, earth bound hunks of metal replacing zippy space ships locked in do or die interstellar dogfights. How could a semi-realistic portrayal of World War II tank combat, including build your own, Airfix-style models, ever hope to compete with Fantasy Flight’s evergreen, and ever expanding, Star Wars miniatures game?
Yet, only a few weeks later and with my first couple of games under my belt, I was getting messages from those I had duelled with showing me pictures of their multiple Tanks purchases. You see, there is a magic to Tanks that is turning it from a tabletop curio into a minor phenomenon that has trundled across the UK. Now with an International version of the rules on the way, it looks set to conquer the globe. This makes it our Wargamer.com duty to track exactly what makes this game roll its way into our battle-ready hearts.
Fanning the Flames
At its core, Tanks is an ultra-streamlined spin off from Gale Force 9’s own WWII hit Flames of War. Instead of wrestling with the complexity of controlling entire armies of soldiers, vehicles and artillery, though, you just get the metal warhorses of the military machine. With its simplified, one arrow-tipped ruler, movement and use of a card-based points system for choosing drivers and load-outs, there is a hefty dose of X-Wing esque design here to lure in more casual players. Although let’s not forget that X-Wing liberally pilfered from the Wings of Glory system for its gameplay, so no one can really point fingers at this juncture.
The cheap but definitely cheerful core set takes its cues from the dogfighters above too, with models for two nippy Brit Shermans and a solitary, yet tough as nails, German Panther included the box for your beginner battles. There is also some flat, thick cardboard scenery – buildings, bushes and trees – that can be laid out to provide much needed cover during the included starter missions. Meanwhile, the manual is reassuringly thin too and significantly less weighty than the fully-fledged Flames experience. There is no doubt you are playing a WWII-lite game but the further you dig into Tanks’ smart design and card-based buffs, the experience – both on and off the table – can become as deep as you want.
Having to build the plastic models yourself might be off-putting for players weaned on X-Wing’s ready to fly, pre-painted ships. Yet, as any avid wargamer will tell you, the investment of time, patience and occasional muttered swearing needed to snip out parts and assemble your own units means you are more invested in a game before it even hits the table. It helps that Gale Force 9 has included straightforward guides to building each tank, also included with each expansion available for the German, British, American and Soviet armies, which are easy to follow even for beginners.
The only niggle is the inclusion of alternate parts reflecting modifications made to tanks throughout the conflict. For history buffs and tank aficionados, being able to configure a unit to reflect a specific time in the conflict right down to the shape of the main gun and the calibre of back up machine gun is undoubtedly a boon, while players in a rush to get started might find they have accidentally cobbled together a Frankenstein’s monster of a machine.
Obviously, once you have constructed your units you really should be giving them a lick of paint before they roll onto the battlefield. There is an official Flames of War guide to coating tanks with historically accurate browns, greys and greens, although there is nothing in the rules that says you cannot have luminous yellow stripes and vibrant purple weaponry to intimidate (well, blind) your enemies.
Boom Boom, Shake the Room
Admittedly, your entertainment mileage with building a squadron may vary, but anyone who has played Tanks will know this is a game that wins hearts and minds the first time you roll out each model into enemy territory. The Your First Game mission included is a doddle to set up and a light way to ensure you and your opponent have grasped the mechanics of movement, attacking and defence which are outlined so eloquently in the manual (Unlike another game we could mention – ED). There is genuinely little margin for error here and, if all goes well, in under half an hour most of the trio of units (Two Shermans and a Panther) will be smouldering wreckage on the battlefield – well, marked with Destroyed tokens anyway.
Every rule, from the effect of cover to the reduced firing arc of fixed Assault Guns (no swivelling for you Mr Turret), is straightforward and carefully designed to give players the chance to make dramatic assaults or essential retreats without compromising the mostly realistic sense that Tanks are not the most agile vehicles. Like X-Wing, each unit’s stats are distinctly displayed on a card kept by the player – ensuring you are never at a loss to know how many attack dice to use or how many hits you can take before the crew will have to flee rather than be cooked inside the flaming wreckage.
The only real complexity in your first forays comes from learning how movement and cover impacts on each player’s dice pool in combat. You get extra defence dice, for example, for each movement you make – reflecting how tough it is for one tank to get a bead on another trundling away in the distance. Cover also boosts your defence or, in the case of buildings, can entirely block line of sight.
At first, it can be a tad confusing to work out exactly how many dice you should be using but the skill is quickly mastered and proves to be a system that smartly matches the inherent clumsiness of two metal juggernauts trying to blow each other apart from opposite sides of a doomed village. Plus, there is nothing more satisfying than the ultra-tense, dice off combat in quick-paced games like this, where a single critical hit getting through an opponent’s defences can easily spell victory or at least serious damage to a unit (indicated by Critical Damage cards, which may or may not be repairable).
The Long War
Once you are hooked into the basic game, Tanks really opens up when you start building a personalised squad. Expansion units for the three sides are inexpensive and, now production has started to match players’ appetites for these tiny Tanks, easy to acquire. Plus, if you are in a small group like me, picking a side and sharing your spare units can help you quickly build up to 100 point skirmishes with increasingly devastating load outs – all of which can be quickly tweaked on the fly for your next scrap.
Gale Force 9 is also determined you will never run out of ways to prolong your personal conflict, with new additions to the Tanks roster like the Soviet M20 Lend Lease – complete with a self-propelled gun to prevent flanking – rolling off the production line this month and a continuous stream of printable PDF missions to sink your tracks into. Most recently, a “mega battle” pitching four or more players against each other in a Normandy setting has showcased just how flexible the core game is.
Groups of players are also encouraged to join together to compete in mini-tournaments, with Tanks Challenge Coins to be given out by organisers as medal-like prizes. Other rare items, such as sets of acrylic Move tokens, are available to give to winners or perhaps those with the most historically accurate platoon.
It is abundantly clear that Tanks and its many, many devoted players are in this game for the long haul and, personally, I am inspired to see the developer rallying alongside its troops to keep these tracks rolling for a long time to come.
To find out more about Tanks, visit Gale Force 9’s website.