Guns, Germans, and Steel

Pity the PC (or Mac) gamer. We spend thousands of dollars buying or [worse, upgrading our computers]( computer/) so that we can play the latest high end games. Then we spend our time with those computers seeking out remakes of the classic games that we actually liked, but which don’t work on modern hardware or operating systems anymore.

The poster child game for this effect, for me, is Panzer General (and its fantastic sequel Panzer General 2). I suspect this game occupies that role for most of us who have been wargame fans (wargames are a fairly esoteric niche in the already marginalized world of PC games. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, I wrote an explanation of the genre last year). There is virtually no turn-based strategy game that comes out that I don’t buy, because I am – perhaps out of some desire to reclaim my youth – trying to return to 1997. I am typically disappointed. When I heard people talking about Commander - Europe at War, I experienced a familiar sense of dread. I was sure I was going to see another Panzer General clone, and I was going to be let down again.

Here’s the good news about Commander - Europe at War, a strategy game available for both PC and Mac. It’s not really anything like Panzer General. Here’s more good news: it’s really quite good.

Commander gives the player control of the Allied or Axis forces in 1939, and offers you a chance to lead your troops throughout the entire war. Whereas Panzer General presents combat in small, digestible (and brilliantly designed) scenarios depicting specific battles, Commander gives you a more- or-less uninterrupted picture of several theaters of operations, from the East Coast of the United States through North Africa, Europe, and Russia. This, to my mind, makes the game a different beast entirely.

[![I Love Paris]( content/uploads/2008/01/picture-1-150x150.png)

I love Paris

]( “I Love Paris” )

It is however, strikingly similar to another game that was released a few years ago, Strategic Command, published by Battlefront. StratCom was, to me, a singularly frustrating game because it felt almost perfect, and that feeling of near-perfection masked (for a while, at least) what I considered to be serious flaws. Games that simulate historical periods walk a fine line: blow off historical realities and the grognards will criticize you for not being “realistic,” but hew too closely to them and you can end up making a boring game.

StratCom, I felt, bound the developing war so tightly to the historical narrative that I felt less like I was making strategic decisions, and more like I was playing with a slot car set with an “end turn” button. Commander overcomes this flaw swimmingly. I played through the opening years of the war and each time tried different strategic paths. Some of them worked out better than others, but it was fairly rare that I felt like i simply couldn’t succeed because, say, the game was designed so that I had to invade Belgium before capturing Paris. It’s a historical game, but one that gives you some flexibility. By pulling this off successfully, the game makes itself worth serious consideration by any fan of wargames.

The developer of Commander also created Legion Arena. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Like Commander, Legion was in a genre that is nominally overpopulated and, to be frank, moribund. Like Commander, it managed to achieve a surprising degree of freshness through simple and approachable UI and putting playability before historical accuracy. These are tradeoffs that some might disagree with, but I think they made the right call.

The game is good, but not perfect. In particular, the tutorial is sketchy to the point of being insulting, and the game’s UI, though simple, suffers from a lack of visual feedback for certain important actions. Despite this, the game accomplishes what it sets out to do. In my view, this is the fulfillment of the promise of Strategic Command.

It’s not Panzer General. But then, it’s not trying to be.

Commander - Europe at War, by Slitherine and Firepower, is available for the Mac, by Freeverse and for the PC, from Matrix Games. Both versions cost just under $50, and free demos are available from each publisher.

Disclosure statement: Both Freeverse and Matrix Games graciously provided review copies of the game for their respective platforms.