Panzer General

Among all of the other things I need to take care of this week, I’ll be taking care of some zine related stuff, clearing my queue and hopefully be ready to move into phase 2. The stress may have gotten to me, and I was laid out on both Sunday and Monday, but I’m doing a bit better now.

When I was convalescing, I spent my time revisiting a few old SSI favorites. Inspired by playing Fortress Europa with my dad, I downloaded and got Panzer General running on my PC. The 5 Star General series was one of my dad’s favorite gaming franchises, because it brought his favorite style of war gaming to the PC in a way that was recognizable to a classic board gamer, but enhanced with all of the glitz and glam of vidya games. It also had cool play-by-mail features that were much more convenient than writing down a spreadsheet of hex-numbers and checking the daily stock-market for your dice rolls. Now, they were incredibly dumbed down compared to the earlier V For Victory series, which in many ways was one of the most ambitious translation of hex and chit war gaming to PC port ever attempted*, but they definitely scratch an itch for someone who wants real strategy games and not real time strategy games.

Now, when I was a little kid, I sucked at Panzer General. And it turns out I still suck at Panzer General. Why? Because it’s HARD! I always thought my dad was amazing at it, but to my knowledge, even he never “beat” it; the difference between major and minor victories, even in the hypothetical scenarios would usually mean that he’d be set on the defense and have to play though all of the fighting retreat scenarios until managing to force a favorable armistice with the Allied Nations. I don’t know that I ever managed to get past the conquest of France. And it looks like that might still be the case.

Unlike many of the later General games, PG 1 ratchets up the difficulty incredibly quickly, with almost no real ‘tutorial’ warm-up type battles. I mean, sure, there’s Poland, but even those two missions aren’t a cakewalk by any means. If you do well in the battle for Warsaw, you’re put in charge of the forces invading Norway, where you will be getting hammered constantly by the British Navy which you can do almost nothing about. Italy 1943 (Allied conquest of Sicily) is probably the most brutal starting scenario; even when I’ve ‘won’, my forces would always be so wiped out that in the follow-up break-out at Anzio scenario, I’d be overrun in less than five turns.

The biggest issues contributing to difficulty in PG1 are:

  1. Low strength values of the units: early in the franchise history, the 5-Star games used a 10 strength baseline for units; elite units could be (very slowly and at great cost) made overstrength up to 15 (1 SP per grade; good luck having a unit survive long enough to become a 5 star veteran). This often meant units could be wiped out incredibly easily in one unlucky turn. More on that in a bit. Later general games made the unit strength base 15, which meant a much greater chance of front-line units surviving long enough to gain experience and be rebuilt.
  2. No upgrading/overstrengthing in between missions. This is one of the most frustrating aspects of PG 1. Despite promises that doing well in such and such a mission would give high command time to replenish, resupply and retrofit your troops, you never had the opportunity to do so between missions. Therefore, you would have to spend the first turn of any mission upgrading units (because god knows that Panzer IA isn’t going to be useful past 1939) and buying replacements. Again, this is something that later 5-Star games addressed, allowing you to upgrade and purchase core units between battles.
  3. Rugged Defense. This was the equivalent of rolling a 1 on the combat result table. Before you made any attack, the game would display an approximation of the casualties both sides would incur. Due to how initiative and suppression worked in PG1, these numbers were often incorrect, but typically gave one a reasonable idea of whether an attack would be suicide or not without having to check both units hard attack/soft attack and hard defense/soft defense stats. Sometimes, however, you would see a warning message stating “Rugged Defense!” This usually meant that a weaker or understrength unit that you were attacking because the predicted odds were incredibly in your favor could somehow kill half or more of the guys in the attacking unit, which would often be wiped out next turn. This result was always frustrating and disheartening and felt like the game was cheating, since you couldn’t see under the hood.
  4. Lost Cause scenarios. The defensive scenarios very much feel this way. The Allies often have just breathtakingly overwhelming superiority in numbers at times, and their losses do not hurt the way your losses do; unlike the Allies, you are only taking with you whomever survives the battle. Therefore, in a case like the start of the 1943 Italian campaign, when treated as a single scenario, you can fight to the bloody end, with the last of the Panzers heroically stalling the Allied advance into the toe of Italy after having survived both the ground onslaught and constant naval bombardment. But then you go to the next mission with your 6 surviving units and immediately lose because you just cannot make up for that difference in power. It’s like those fighting games that don’t reset BOTH players’ health bar after each KO. You can’t catch up.

Tomorrow, perhaps, I’ll go into Fantasy General, the other game I spent a lot of time this weekend fooling around with (and also ended up enjoying more), but as this has gone on fairly long, I think I’ll wrap up here.
*:The most audacious feature of the V For Victory games was the simultaneous execution of movement, something that would only be possible, especially on the enormous scale these games used, with a computer; players would painstakingly assign each unit’s action for the turn and hope that their opponent’s movements did not somehow muck up whatever they had planned. For instance, an infantry unit could be programmed to be packed up into its trucks and travelling down a road (strategic movement) while an enemy unit is slowly moving perpendicular to it crossing that same road in proper marching formation (tactical movement); depending on where and when the units will cross paths, the infantry in their trucks may end up cut off and not only fail to reach their destination but be ambushed and possibly wiped out by the unit moving in formation; neither player knows what happened until they see how their planned moves resolve.

Minor update: I’m apparently the first person on wordpress to talk about Panzer General since 2013.  How punk rock is that!?

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