I think the wargamer in me has been subconsciously prepping for WWIII for the last couple of months. Not only did I start playing Fallout 3, I was, until last week, embroiled with a double header of NATO: the Next War in Europe, and over the weekend, I devoted several hours to one of my favorite childhood video games, Red Storm Rising. I’ll tell you what: RSR is the best Tom Clancy based game there is, was or ever will be.
But today, I want to spotlight Power Dolls, a game that I’ve been playing the past couple days and did some live tweeting of last night.
There are two things I love that I am always in the look-out for in combination – hexbased wargames and the real-robot genre. There are a handful of examples out there, but many have a very steep language barrier, such as the Gihren’s Greed series or the line of Mobile Suit Gundam hex & chit board games, and for whatever reason, many Japanese tactical wargames go for squares, rather than hexes, which are nigh intolerable (especially in cases where there’s no unit stacking).
First thing I’d note about Power Dolls, it has a lot more stuff going for it than you would expect of a game whose primary hook is “everything is piloted by women”.
There’s something about a war between earth(maybe) and colonists on this planet, and you’re playing as the colonists’ defense force in a bid for maintaining independence. Or something. I should really probably go back and go over the settings stuff again. But for whatever reason, the entirety of the defense force is composed of women who pilot mechs and air-planes or drive self-propelled rocket artillery.
There are apparently only 10 missions, but given how long one of them takes to play through, that’s probably plenty.
Each mission starts with a large operational view of a theater, showing the situation, the mission, and the disposition of both your troops and the enemy’s. You have the option of selecting different pre-defined plans for the operations, which determine things like when forces get dropped, when air support is available, etc.
You have up to three drop-teams of mechs (depending on the operation; the first missions so far have only used two), a drop-team of off-board rocket artillery and a couple squadrons of air support.
Before each mission, you assign mechs, planes and artillery to your pilots, hopefully giving them some sort of configuration of gear and weaponry that compliments their skills. You then have to assign pilots to each landing group; the number of mechs in each group will determine how much air-lift it takes to bring them in; I’m sure that will matter more in later missions, since there are both heavy carriers and light carriers with some air-to-air capability. Any pilots not tied up in air-lift can be assigned fighter-bombers to offer ground support in one of the fighter wings.
So, what goes down, and gets depicted in the operational map, is your long-range artillery gets airlifted into position, then your first drop-team flies in and gets deployed on the tactical map, and as the mission progresses in 5 minute 1-turn increments, your troops are flown in according to the selected plan for the operation.
While the gameplay isn’t as crunchy as Battletech (there aren’t individual components that are tracked), it has a pretty robust selection of actions you can take during a turn. Each mech has three different rates of movement to choose from, which vary in per-hex movement cost, passive spotting radius, and defense against opportunity fire. Attacks are based on the equipment a mech has, but include everything from sub-machine guns and rifles to grenades and smoke screens. Units can drop weapons that are out of ammo to increase the number of realized action points. They can also call in air-strikes and indirect fire anywhere on the map.
I screwed up in a lot of places in the assignment of gear and deployment of forces in the second mission, partly because I didn’t pay enough attention to the mission briefing. I’d landed my troops around the bridge-head I thought I needed to defend, when really I should’ve air-dropped a handful of recon mechs to act as spotters and call in air strikes and off-board indirect artillery strikes while the enemy armored column moved south along the road. Instead, I had a massive tank division more or less punch through my scattered lines. By the time I’d started calling in indirect fire, most of my units who could spot were dead, cut-off or just trying to run away.
I may have to restart this mission so that I can go back at it with both better equipped units (fat lot of good my air-to-air missiles have done in this mission with no enemy aircraft) and better unit placement.
So, the good:
-Fairly nuanced tactical game; you have a lot of customization available to you in terms of how you can outfit your pilots. There are also a lot of different things each pilot can spend their action points on during your turn.
-The operational overview map is really cool. Even though you don’t do much on it, and so far only one mission has allowed for employing different “plans”, it’s a cool part that gives the game a wider feeling of scope than otherwise; for instance, you can SEE where your off-board artillery are located in relation to your front-line troops.
-The character art is pretty good; it finds a decent spot between ‘cute girls in mechs’ and the rougher look of more serious mil-sf animes. There is a character, though, who’s clearly an homage to Emma Sheen from Zeta Gundam.
-Hexes. They use hexes, man, HEXES!
-The music is incredibly repetitive. For how long you’ll be playing this, you’re not going to be thrilled hearing the same bad midi-theme playing constantly.
-Speed of play. Not only are the turns incredibly long, this is exacerbated by the fact that the AI turn processes fairly slowly. Enemy turns take too long by most wargame standards. One mission of Power Dolls could easily eat up an entire evening, which is a double whammy when you realize you’re in a losing position after having sunk several hours in. I am probably going to have to go back to a save from nearly 4 hours of gameplay back to take another stab at the second mission (and hopefully this time silver haired yellow cat-eyes, cocky green-eyed brunette, and blue-bandana blonde won’t get blown up).
-The Fog of War doesn’t make sense when you’ve got air superiority and one or more fighter wings overhead. I get why spotting works the way it does, but it would be nice if there was a multi-step fog of war so that planes could spot units out in the open if they’ve bombed a target – even if they’re actually “gone”, you’d have an idea of the troop disposition from the previous turn as your pilots saw it on the way to and from their attack run.
There are also some complaints about the game’s AI; I can’t really judge yet, because if it’s bad, my strategy is probably worse than it is, at least until I figure out what I’m doing. We’ll have to see.
They’ve apparently made several sequels, but I’m not sure if any of them were ever translated into English. There’s also, apparently, a mediocre OVA based on it.
I’ll say that, for now, despite its flaws, I’m really digging Power Dolls. It’s definitely niche-within-a-niche, and the only other game that springs to mind along the lines of this is Cyberstorm (and that game was a very special kind of ugly). I’d love to find something that is mid-way between this and SSI’s Panzer General game, or even in a completely different direction, mid-way between this and Atomic Games/Avalon Hill’s V for Victory series. But as it is, if you’re desperately thirsty for hex-wars and giant robots, Power Dolls will definitely tide you over for a bit. You can find it at most abandonware sites.