During the Second World War, British intelligence believed that, once the Germans defeated the Polish Army, the Nazi forces would easily outnumber the combined Franco-British units on the Western Front. Estimates indicated that the German strength on the Western Front was currently circa 60 divisions to the combined 88 divisions in France (72 French divisions of regular army, 4 British divisions of land units, and 12 divisions of fortress garrisons). The combined force was not quite enough to warrant a direct assault across the by-now refortified Rhineland, but the story was to become worse with the surrender of Poland. With up to 40 divisions transferred from the Eastern Front, this would enable Germany to actually outnumber the Allies by 12 divisions. This combined with the Luftwaffe's superiority in planes (circa 2,000 compared to 950 for the French and British alliance), had to seem ominous. [Figures gleaned from Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, p. 480.]
As a result, it seems like the Allies should have taken the risk of an offensive while the Germans were still engaged in Poland. The odds weren't good, but they were better than they would be later in the war. Strategic Command: European Theater gives gamers the opportunity to experiment with some of these long-odds decisions. In fact, the overall impression that this reviewer received from playing far too many hours (an all-nighter here and there in desperately trying to win from both sides at various points in the war) was that aggression will usually be rewarded. In short, the game plays like a board game on the computer. That's good news for some of us; bad news for others.
In fact, the game plays like an easier version of the Avalon Hill classic Third Reich in that you never feel like you have enough units and you never truly feel in control. Unlike the board game, the computer game handles the bookkeeping for you (though nomenclature has changed from the classic BRPs (Basic Resource Points) that served as the medium of exchange in the board game (and later, computer game) to MPPs (Military Production Points).
The game is not as complex as the SPI classic, War in Europe (currently being transformed into its second version as a computer game by Decision Games). Strategic Command: European Theater doesn't allow for overrun attacks and exploitation movement (continuing forward after combat), for example. As a result, you can sometimes have static lines that make you believe you're playing a WWI game instead of a WWII game. This design decision makes the game play faster, but it certainly takes the sharpness out of the German schwerpunkt (strikepoint attack emphasizing breakthrough and exploitation).
Further, the computer model for the present game doesn't really indicate the effectiveness of combined arms (using different troop types) or even troop strengths. Though this may simply be perception, it appears that a 6 Corps strength is just as good as a 6 Army strength and a 10 Tank strength is just as likely to be able to root a garrison out of a city as a 10 Army strength is able to accomplish the same task. Again, it is possible that the model makes distinctions in strength and type, but the on-screen presentation doesn't offer any clues. In fact, jet aircraft seem about the same effectiveness as prop-driven planes when equal numbers go against each other. It merely seems as though an additional unit is added to the maximum combat strength number when the upgrades come into effect.
To be sure, however, it is hard to believe that a program that goes to all of the trouble of keeping track of supply condition, combat experience (as indicated by the medals colored in when you choose a given unit), entrenchment (as part of the defensive rating), and "readiness" (equivalent to effectiveness or, conversely, "brittleness") would ignore basic combat quality. Without cracking the code, however, all a review can report is one's perception and mine was that combat type and quality made little difference.
The good news is that use of air support, rocket artillery, and naval support does reflect the use of combined arms. Since the three types of ranged support reduce both the entrenchment factor for the defending unit and the combat total, one gets the satisfaction of softening up the enemy before flinging one's units upon enemy lines.
Man is a Political Animal (Strengths)
By far the most fascinating aspect of the game is the capacity for setting randomness with regard to the political events in the game. When Italy on the Axis side or the Soviet Union on the side of the Allies decides to enter the game makes a huge difference in terms of deployment requirements on various fronts and the subsequent expenditures of MPPs necessary to keep a line secure on a given front. In one game where I was commanding the Allies, it was almost two years (in simulated time) before the USSR entered the campaign after the Italians were already invading France from the South. This was a huge boon for the Axis. On another occasion, Italy came very late to the Axis cause (reflecting Mussolini's actual reticence to bite off more than he could chew).
The use of the "War Map" screen is also a welcome design feature since it enables one to examine the loyalties, military resources, and status of a country in one quick glance, as well as to declare war at will. In perusing this map to consider the status of neutral countries, we were reminded of Britain's lost opportunity in Norway and Sweden when they were overly concerned about respecting the neutrality of the respective countries and gave key ports in Scandinavia to Hitler by default. If you respect neutrality in this game, you're going to be in trouble, strategically.
Another neat wrinkle, though it is really more of an interesting feature than major tactical or strategic event, is the use of partisans. When the Axis controls either Yugoslavia or the USSR, there is a percentage chance that partisan units (which can be operated by the Allies on the Allied player turn) will appear. These units, like their historical counterparts, are not very powerful, but they force the occupation forces to garrison supply depots or resource cities in order to keep the value.
On the typical, but still very welcome, design side, Strategic Command: European Theater offers a fog of war option where one doesn't know troop locations or strength until said enemy units are engaged; an option for increasing/decreasing the ability of the AI opponent, and a terrific recap page at the end of the game that breaks down losses, conquests, and time in terms of points allotted for victory.
Another strength of the game is its capacity for allowing one to jump into WWII at several different points, initially starting at historical conditions. Named for German operations, the "fall" in each title is equivalent to our English, "case." The game contains:
Fall Weiss (September 3, 1939) Hitler's Blitzkrieg vs. Poland (traditional start);
Fall Gelb (May 10, 1940) Opening the Western Front (neo-Schlieffen Plan);
Barbarossa (June 22, 1941) â€“ THE Huge Offensive on the Eastern Front;
Fall Blau (June 28, 1942) Opening of the Stalingrad Offensive (from the Volga);
Zitadelle (July 5, 1943) Germany finds Herself Bogged Down in Kursk; and
Overlord (June 6, 1944) Usually Known as D-Day, the Allies Invade France.
As you would expect, the starting points increase in difficulty for the Axis and decrease in difficulty for the Allied forces as one moves from early in the war to late (moving down the list). Frankly, in a strategic level game like Strategic Command: European Theater, there is a tendency for some of the scenarios to blend together. For example, Fall Blau and Zitadelle look remarkably similar, except for the fact that the Soviet Union has significantly more units in reserve in the latter than it has in the former.
After-Action Report (Conclusions)
Winning at Strategic Command: European Theater requires a wide-angle approach. In general, it is useful to follow the guidelines listed below.
1. Watch the integrity of your front lines. As in any hex-based combat game, you want to limit the number of hex-sides from which you can be attacked. If you always keep your units contiguous on their respective fronts, your opponent can only get a maximum of three (and usually, only two) close combat actions along with whatever ranged attacks can be assembled. Since air units must first engage for air superiority (more later) and then, take damage from ground-based artillery before attacking, you can expect that there won't be a lot of successful air attacks each turn. Further, rocket units (the only artillery units that act discretely from the regular army and tank units) are notoriously unreliable in terms of accuracy and naval support units can only fire at coastal hexes, those units will not be used as often as the brute force attacks by regular army, corps, and tank units.
2. Although the game rewards aggression, be sure not to overrun your supply lines. The game depicts the supply chain via your country's dominant color (the terrain changes color as your "zones of control" advance. However, units can easily use up their allotted materiel (ending up in Supply: 0 status). If you allow this to happen, you will very rarely effect successful offensive actions (however limited) and can only defend with limited effectiveness.
3. Remember that your Military Production Points are dependent upon supply depots, resource cities, and ports. So, plan your offensives to take these first and your defensive stance to protect these as long as possible. The artificial opponent isn't very smart, but it does circle around and find unprotected resource hexes whenever you leave them wide open (Exception: The artificial opponent doesn't cross the ocean to invade the US or Canada.).
4. Remember that reinforcing units is cheaper than purchasing entirely new units. Plus, if you don't have to rebuild too much of a percentage of said unit, you will only lose a portion of their combat experience value (whereas a new unit has no compensating value).
5. It is important to keep your air fleets close to full capacity because air superiority is important both on defense and offense. Sometimes, having air units in reserve as potential counter-air will discourage an opponent (though not the artificial opponent) from using air in an offensive.
6. Rocket artillery commands are useful alternatives to air support in that there is no provision for counter-artillery fire. So, each time you use these units, they are gaining combat experience (hence, potential accuracy) with no risk (as long as they are behind your front lines) of being reduced. Initially, you won't feel like you're getting what you paid for, but as the experience mounts, they are invaluable for softening up positions.
From this reviewer's bunker, Strategic Command: European Theater offers a high price-performance ratio in terms of value and enough interesting facets to keep you playing that "just one more move" that we turn-based strategy fanatics look for. While hardcore wargamers may lament the facets of War in Europe and Third Reich that are not present in the game, the game is sufficient to offer hours of challenge and, unlike previous versions of the two aforementioned board games, an ever-ready, versatile, and challenging artificial opponent.
Reviewer's Snapshot: 6 (on scale of 10)
Historicity 8 (solid job of simulating situations)
Graphics 3 (not even board game state-of-art)
Artificial Opponent 6 (few surprises here)
Replayability: 7 (nice scenario selection)
Price/Performance 9 (terrific value)
Reviewer's Bias: 7 (concerned about graphics)