War is long periods of boredom sitting in a treeline all mission punctuated by one round of sheer terror desperately praying your LAW does damage to the Patton that just machine gunned you in the face.
Genre: Strategy, Programming
Release date: 05 Nov, 2020
Zach Barth of Zachtronics is an underground legend in the game development world. Aside from creating Infiniminer, a creative precursor to Minecraft, Zachtronics has almost single-handedly created a genre (“Zach-likes” if you go by their name) of programming-based puzzle games, including SpaceChem, my GOTY of last year MOLEK-SYNTEZ, and their magnum opus, Opus Magnum.
That said, the Zachtronics team occasionally takes time off from the brain-torturing programming puzzle games to make games that exist inside more well-established genres, like last year’s Eliza, a visual novel by a middle-aged computer programmer that makes games about automation about the negative impact that automation has had on other people’s lives. Or Ironclad Tactics, and alternate history Civil War with Steampunk tactics game. Not uncoincidentally, Möbius Front ’83 was apparently spearheaded by a different member of the Zachtronics team, Matthew Burns, who apparently does most of the music for Zachtronics games. Möbius Front ’83 most resembles Ironclad Tactics of his past works, but just looking at the screenshots, you might be fooled into thinking it’s a spiritual successor to Advance Wars, of all things.
When it comes to military games starring America, there’s kind of a problem: You want your opponents to be a credible threat, so you want to present the good guys as an underdog with the odds stacked against them. However, if you want to have the US military as the heroes, then short of having literally the entire world declare war on the US all at once (which would prompt the question of whether what they did to pull off such universal condemnation would not make them the villains…), it’s hard to come up with a force more powerful than the US armed forces. (As Yahtzee put it while reviewing Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.K.s’s plot where a private military company declares war on the US, “and where were you hiding all the soldiers and hardware it would take to declare war on a global superpower, the fucking moon?! I know the laws of drama require the enemy be an actual threat, but it’d be more plausible if the enemy had been an army of disgruntled insect people from the Earth’s core.”)
So guess what? In order to create a credible existential threat for the United States circa 1983 that didn’t involve nuclear Armageddon, Zachtronics went for alternate dimension Earth 2’s United States invading Earth 1’s United States. This also means that if you’re really into slightly retro US military hardware, you can extra military wank to the fact that every unit in the game is vintage US military gear, with vehicles like the M-1 Abrams being the end-of-the-rainbow weapon system. Oh, right, and to add in extra threat and raise the stakes, there’s also quantum tunneling and a different kind of alien menace involved later on.
When I first saw Möbius Front, I thought it looked an awful lot like Advance Wars. Being a huge fan of that franchise and its spiritual successors and Zachtronics, I immediately put it on my list of games to review. It turns out, however, if anything, it’s an inversion of Advance Wars, as if Zachtronics decided to remake the gameplay loop in its own image, and wound up keeping only the aesthetic while turning everything else completely around.
Advance Wars heavily favors aggressive play, especially in taking cities. Aggressively taking cities means you gain more money to buy more units, your enemy gets less money to buy units, you have a forward repair base as cities repair land units, you control more territory you don’t have to push the enemy back through later, you have a defensive tile to defend your territory, and since you’re scored on speed, destroying enemy units, and losing few units, you just plain have to start taking cities to gain momentum if you’re going to get a good score. Every aspect of the game pushes to take any city you can as fast as you can. Even in games with more “realistic” aesthetics, such as Panzer Corps 2 or Strategic Mind score you on speed, destroying the enemy, and heavily punish losing units (as you carry units over between missions and have to pay to replace losses), although damaged units are easily repaired between missions.
In Möbius Front, a win is a win is a win. There is no score and no difference between your last infantryman crawling to the objective on the bloody stumps that used to be his limbs just a nanosecond before being splattered by an incoming tank shell and a 7-turn victory with no losses.
I often take the time, spending 40 turns, just hunting down every last enemy unit and exploring every tile of map just to make sure nothing is overlooked, but I have no reason to do so just as I have no reason not to.
Another major difference is that most units can only attack if they do not move, and even those that can (mostly tanks and attack helicopters) have significantly reduced damage if they do not move. This basically means that the advantage goes to the defender in nearly every case. The AI, which judging by the messages in the patch notes, Zachtronics is pretty proud of, isn’t stupid enough to give you this advantage easily. (In fact, it’s guilty of an overabundance of caution, if anything. A single rifle team can threaten off superior forces unless the enemy gets the message that it has overwhelming advantages in numbers. The enemy generally will not move anywhere it is threatened by a unit it cannot destroy before it gets a turn unless it can outnumber the defenders.)
Let’s take basic rifle team infantry for an example – they have four HP. Unit damage does not degrade with a unit’s damage in this game, so a 1 HP unit can deal as much damage as a full-HP unit. Infantry’s rifles deal 1 damage, have a range of 1, and they cannot move and shoot in the same turn. This means that if two infantry fight, the one that moves to within range first loses, as the other one gets the first shot at them. If you outnumber the enemy and move in at the same time, you can take out the enemy in two rounds, taking two damage if you moved first, although the enemy will often retreat in such situations. The way infantry works reminds me of pawns in Chess – they are slow to move and need constant support from other pawns or more powerful units.
Woods are a key part of infantry’s survival. In woods, infantry are “camouflaged”, and cannot be attacked except by artillery and units in adjacent tiles. Since asic rifle infantry teams can only move one tile per turn, have a range of one, and cannot shoot and move in the same turn, forcing your enemy to come up to you to attack you is vital to allowing them to get to attack at all against more powerful vehicles.
AT teams have a range of 3, however, after moving, they take a turn to “set up”, and no, they can’t set up on the same turn as moving, either. Disembarking from a vehicle is a turn. Setting up a is a turn. Only on the turn after those two can you fire, and even that presumes your ride was in position (and they cannot disembark the same turn the vehicle moved, either). If they have to walk a tile to get into position, that’s another turn. Generally, you find one place for your AT teams and never move them for any reason, because the battle will be over by the time you’re done repositioning them. That said, their powerful rockets can one-shot vehicles, and for that reason, the AI will never willingly move vehicles into their range unless they can kill the AT team in their move (and are not within range of anything else that is a threat).
Compared to slow-moving infantry, ground vehicles move a relatively blistering 3 or 4 tiles per turn, while helicopters move 10. You never deploy infantry, you only deploy vehicles that carry infantry, which come along as a sort of bonus with the vehicle. Armored vehicles have armor points, which are subtracted from the damage of every attack. Light vehicles like APCs and tank destroyers have one armor, while heavy tanks can have up to three. Armored vehicles are immune to damage from artillery and light weapons. While anti-infantry weapons deal only one or two points of damage, anti-vehicle weapons deal a random amount from 2-6, with it being reduced to 1-3 or 1-4 if they have a move-and-shoot feature (which generally only tanks and improved machine guns do). This means that if you move and shoot with several tanks against a single enemy tank, there is a decent chance none of them will do damage, only for the enemy tank to destroy one of yours on its next turn!
This 2-6 damage element is where a lot of people get upset with the game. I’m not a fan of RNG in strategy games, so I can’t blame them, but it’s worth noting that if you’re doing things right, it doesn’t really matter if you get some bad rolls. Even though I failed to kill the tank in one round with three infantry teams in the example above, taking the tank down to 1 HP disabled its treads, so it couldn’t advance further. It killed my AT team, but they’d done their jobs, and I could move my regular rifle team to block the pass if I needed to, while the infantry teams’ LAW rockets took out the tank on their own. You can get a set of false expectations from other games that you should be able to instantly kill a tank when you “do everything right” by having an AT team in the right place and finally get to use them, but you’re thinking about things the wrong way if you do.
Aside from tanks, there are also light vehicles, such as APCs, trucks, and jeeps. These can carry different equipment from mission to mission, so an M119 APC can have nothing but an M60 machine gun that cannot be fired when the APC moves one mission, an M2 machine gun that allows you to move and shoot another mission, and have an M60 and a TOW missile launcher that requires set-up in another mission. Likewise, even the humble jeep can have powerful AT weapons on some maps. Maps have no scrolling, they are always the same size, and terrain is mostly just woods, fields, and roads, so the big difference between one mission and the last is often what you are up against and what tools you’re given to accomplish your mission.
(In different chapters, you play as different military units. The 194th Armored Brigade is your starting, basic unit that relies upon mixed-arms fighting with some of the older tech in the game. D Troop is a reconnaissance detachment that has lighter, higher-mobility vehicles and where you are fighting inferior enemies at first, but the enemies get heavy reinforcements to hunt you down. The 82nd Airborne only gets air units and light equipment that can be air-lifted. Your first mission with them involves only air transports!)
The AT team is best used as a zone-denial deterrent. The enemy loves to target them first, so they’re also great bait. Use them to block off the easy access points, and force the enemy to go around into your actual trap.
Helicopters are very high mobility, but even the very expensive Cobra attack helicopter has only 3 hp and no armor, making it highly vulnerable to any anti-infantry weapon capable of firing at air units (you have to check, many don’t), and have little ammo, so even the rockets that do allow you to move and shoot might be best saved for sitting still and either letting the enemy come to you or just trying to corner your prey.
Inversely, enemy air units can be either terrifying or easy kills from one mission to the next, depending on if you have vehicles with good machine guns that can be used against aircraft. One mission only gives you Chaparel anti-air missile units that require setting up that are essentially useless against the air threat they are meant to stop, as unlike land units, air units cannot be boxed in with a unit that still loses line of sight when trees obstruct their view and with a range half that of the helicopter’s movement – I found it easier to send my APCs at the helicopters!
Speaking of ammo, nothing can be repaired in any way. Ammo can only be refilled for infantry via a single resupply that certain trucks and jeeps get, while all vehicles have only their initial supply of ammo.
Finally, the AI gets some cheat powers. Unlike most strategy games, this isn’t an overwhelming numeric advantage to make up for being dumb as bricks. You actually get essentially dead-even values for troops throughout most of the game. However, the AI can effectively see through fog of war for free, although they apparently still need line of sight to target you with artillery. That said, no ambush ever works on the AI, they always know what you’re planning. Having played Advance Wars where sitting in forests in fog of war maps not only hid you from enemies, but actually made the AI ‘forget’ that you were there and that they watched you move into the forest, it may just be too hard to give an AI a “memory” to make them keep track of your units when you move out of range, or to make sensible decisions on where to go if no enemy is visible or how to approach an objective that is almost certainly defended when they can’t see the enemy yet.
Let’s give an example from the third mission in the game. The enemy gets 15 deployment points off the bat, you get 5 with another 10 coming in “phase 2” (which is five turns after the start – the first turn only allows deployment, and it takes at least a couple turns to reach you, so basically, stall a superior enemy for 2-3 turns). You also cannot buy tanks on the first phase.
The first “mission” was a tutorial against cardboard props that don’t shoot back.
The second mission was one where you get two tanks and have to take five objectives in a line. The only real threats are anti-tank trucks set up right behind tree lines to be an ambush if you pushed your tanks to the objective markers blindly while overextending them without support, and even then, they can get lucky and blast the enemy truck before it gets a chance to shoot. It’s just a “don’t push your units too far ahead” tutorial in disguise.
The third mission, however, is the lesson where they teach you how the game is *really* played. See, you can get a helicopter that can deploy halfway up the map, but the enemy has twice the currency to buy units with than you do until the fifth turn, so you need to play defensively. When I placed my units up halfway up the map because I had a chopper to drop them off, I wasn’t considering that the helicopter transport takes a second turn to land, my AT team would take the third turn to move into the woods, the fourth turn to set up, and only on the fifth turn (when reinforcements were available) would it actually be ready to shoot. By then, the enemy had already advanced into the middle of the map and was attacking my units that weren’t set up yet!
After learning the lesson of how the game is actually supposed to be played, I tried again, to much different results – victory without losing a unit through the power of curling up in a defensive position around a single objective and not moving until the enemy has broken itself upon my stubborn defense. I only move forward when the enemy has expended its power to oppose me.
This playstyle continues to be valid even into the missions where they give you all your units at the start of a mission and the enemy gets more reinforcements later, and even from behind in the D Troop missions – grab an objective, and hole up on it, and you’re basically going to win no matter the opposition, so long as you understand how the enemy reacts to the threat of your units. As slow and difficult to use as they are, the enemy is quite afraid of your LAW-carrying basic rifle teams.
The TOW-equipped tanks and infantry are key to this battle, as they are cheap units with the power to deter or destroy more expensive ones, but they only work in defensive battles. When all you have is a hammer, turn all your problems into nails; if the only battles you can win are defensive, go on defense even while on offense.
Playing with Myself
It wouldn’t be a Zachtronics game if he didn’t slap some form of Solitaire into it. This time, it’s Cribbage Solitaire. It feels like Zachtronics is reaching now, as the rules for this one are just annoying, as far as I’m concerned.
Also, I question the need for this game at all. In the programming games, the Solitaire game is an unwinding game between times that you really squeezed your brain trying to work out how to strip just a couple more cycles out of a solution so that you could match the scoreboard’s solution. I never needed a cooldown from Möbius Front’s strategy gameplay, however, as it’s kind of inherently relaxing.
Another thing they added in were a couple of .pdf files of real, declassified period-appropriate documents detailing military doctrine in the 1983 timeframe. I find this a nice touch, but you only get two documents early on in the game, and they only vaguely tie into the game, itself. The fact that this is an alternate history game certainly makes it far harder to get historical documents related to the time period that isn’t made irrelevant by the alternate history, but Radio General had manuals and newspaper clippings and small army training movie clips smattered between every mission to help put you in the sense of a certain time. It feels like this could have meant something more if they’d gone to greater lengths to add more documents, and something like contemporary propaganda or TRADOC releases from the period were handed out between more missions, rather than all you were going to get dumped on you essentially after the first mission.
Finally, there’s a TIS-330 Programmable Radio minigame (and reference to his older TIS-100 game) you gain access to when you kill quasi-hidden extra units in certain missions (which are highlighted on the mission select for having these extra units). This is a game of programming (because Zachtronics just can’t resist) but which is much simpler than the other “full” programming games. You are given inputs and need to achieve certain outputs using specific types of logic gates. This is the only part of the game with a global scoreboard, encouraging you to find more efficient solutions (least possible number of logic gates), as opposed to the score-less pass-or-fail main game.
Sound and Graphics
On the title screen, you get a bombastic action movie song appropriate to the not-entirely-serious tone of the game itself, but mostly, you just get ambient noise like rain in a lot of missions. It’s a little disappointing that you don’t get more music in the game, as a pure ambient soundtrack only really works for immersive first-person games. I wound up having to just play my own to fill the void.
Sound effects are filled with all the “whoosh” and “boom” effects you’d expect. They all sound like they take place somewhere far away, which is appropriate for your commander’s view, but also somewhat less visceral than some might like.
The Advance Wars-like “bobblehead” cartoon graphics are what first caught my attention about this game (and gave myself and others the false impression of it being like Advance Wars, which I think led to some of the disappointment in the reviews when it wasn’t), and the cartoony appearance may not appeal to everyone, but I rather appreciate it. A dark and gritty approach to war doesn’t really suit this game’s fairly war drama sci-fi military heroes aesthetic as much as a G.I. Joe Saturday morning cartoon with big explosions and dead soldiers that just fade out with no blood does.
Ultimately, I have to say that the only negative to this game is the lack of replayability. Each level is a puzzle, and once you solve it, there is no reason to return as you already know the solution. (Well, unless you have a bad memory or it’s been a few years.)
Looking at the other reviews, however, I’m surprised to see so many negative ones that basically hold up the basic game design as a flaw. For example, that it rewards defensive gameplay, as opposed to most other strategy games that heavily favor recklessly aggressive gameplay based upon savescumming to know enemy positions is held as a flaw. There are others that hate it just because it’s a Zachtronics game that isn’t a pure programming puzzle game. (Which adding in the programmable radio is probably a mistake in that instance, as it kind of implies more of that kind of gameplay rather than being purely optional side content.) I can’t fault them for not liking the game, but you should judge a game on its own terms. Möbius Front ’83 didn’t want to be Advance Wars, in spite of superficial similarities, so it shouldn’t be graded on being an Advance Wars clone.