I could just say “Go and buy this game”, but I am not really in the consumer recommendation business and this isn’t really a review. And, honestly, a lot of people will take a lot of time before Shenandoah’s Battle of the Bulge finally clicks in that special part of the body that wargamers or old time boardgamers assume everyone has. Because this is a game that lets you move tanks and play pretend war that challenges higher thinking processes without forcing you to care about Panzers.
Because, truthfully, not everyone has that wargaming gene so they will need some poking to see why Battle of the Bulge is not just a pretty, simple game that bears passing resemblance to the real Battle of the Bulge (or at least the battle you would know from other games, books or movies.) This is a game where the sacred ritual of taking turns is abused, where major combat factors are beyond your control and where you aren’t commanding thousands of men and it never feels like you are commanding thousands of men.
The game certainly has the same strategic problem as the real Battle of the Bulge – can the Nazis break the Allied front before reinforcements arrive in time? – and it has the same map. But walking into Battle of the Bulge with your usual wargame expectations would be a grave mistake. It is best to think of it as the kind of board game that can only really exist in a digital space – like Vic Davis’s Solium Infernum only not nearly as Byzantine.
Why? Well, let’s start with that turn thing. Wargamers love to talk about how “realistic” a game is, even as it moves in turns – the least realistic thing on God’s green earth. France didn’t let Guderian steamroll through Belgium because they weren’t allowed to move yet. And, in most games, these are to be turns where the commander has complete control of his front, because armies move as one. Maybe you have action points or some other limitation, but combined operations are assumed.
Shenandoah’s Battle of the Bulge is more like chess than it is any recent video wargame (though there may be cardboard antecedents – I don’t know). Unlike most wargames, you can’t move every unit you have on a turn – you can only select one sector and then move the units that are there (maximum of 3 per sector). This makes BoB a game where you don’t set up perfect encirclements or traps and then execute them – you hope to surround the enemy and cut them from supply, but the map is too small for much of that. You don’t control artillery or air forces, but you will be told at the beginning of each day which sectors are being affected by off map activity.
No, you just move a spare few units on a turn and you could run out of actions to make before a battle day is completed, depending on how you have positioned your troops.
Second, the turns themselves are irregular. The Nazis get three free actions to open the battle, which makes sense. Then the Allies can only move vehicles on the first day of battle. But each day of battle is divided into 30 minute increments, and any single turn by a side could take 30 minutes or 60 minutes or 120 minutes but you never know how much of the day is being eaten away until it is your move. If you have your forces grouped into a few sectors, then you can be overrun or surrounded but if you scatter them more widely then there is no guaranteee that you will get to activate them all; the entire day could be gone before you put your grand plan into action.
These two mechanics combine to make a game where even if you know precisely how to win as Germany or the Allies in a perfect situation, everything can break down by the middle of the second day.
I like to think about historical games in the old R.G. Collingwood approach to history – “What question is this game trying to answer?”, in other words, what is this game about? Where Combat Mission is about equipment, War in the East is about everything (but mostly geography) and Unity of Command is about supply, Battle of the Bulge is about Time. Now you could argue that all wargames are about time, since most are turn limited and many even adjust victory conditions based on how long the battle is raging. But Battle of the Bulge deals with time not just in game, but player time, making it sort of a pure weird thing.
Battle-wise, Time is crucial here. If the Nazi assault is not quick enough, it could soon get overwhelmed by the coming reinforcements. But the game itself makes no promises that the sun will stand still long enough for that to happen. This isn’t simply a matter of attrition or the odds working against you in a certain encounter and slowing progress – this is an intentional game mechanic that puts pressure on you to take risks that, if they pay off, will force the Allies to take new risks in order to push the Nazi advance back. The Allies can just hold ground or cede a little for a counter attack, but varying the number of turns throws the entire calculation off balance.
And if there is a better analogy for the panicking during the Winter of 1944 around Bastogne, than I haven’t found it.
For the player, this variability ensures that a game with only two scenarios and four AI opponents is still a wise investment of time and money since it is not a wargame puzzle that can necessarily be cracked. The German opening is certainly free for Best Practices Analysis, but as the sectors fall and the number of units expand, the fact you don’t know if you have five turns or eight turns the next day becomes very game changing information.
This is also the kind of game that could really only be designed with the iPad in mind. Doing it for the PC would lead to feature creep very quickly and PC wargamers have come to expect things to be bigger and broader there. It’s not an unreasonable expectation. But the modest size of the iPad screen makes every sector of real estate important, the UI crystal clear (this is a well-documented game) and adjusts expectations to the right size.
Now, to be clear, I am NOT saying that this is a good wargame “for an iPad wargame”. I am saying that it is so unlike most of the wargames you find on the PC that if a studio made up of nobodies did this game in Flash, I doubt anybody would notice the brilliant blend of mechanics and theme.
And it manages to capture the theme of the battle without slavish devotion to unit names or map details or even great sounds. Shenandoah has simply presented the battle as a problem to be solved: One side needs to do something, the other side needs to stop them. The time pressures at the historical battle make it perfect for a quick moving challenge that is about mobility and firepower, maneuver and last stands.
It’s depressing that 10 bucks is considered premium pricing on the Apple store. But that is a premium price for a premium product.