REVIEW: Operation Citadel

How can an indie game from a young new developer do EVERY front of WW2 when most of the big names can’t even do a fraction of that?

Released: Steam
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Genre: Strategy
Developer: Valentin Lievre
Publisher: Valentin Lievre
Release date: 5 Mar, 2020

The Panzer General series was first launched in 1994 and despite the series having been pretty much dead since 2000 its influences can still be felt in games being released today. Panzer Corps, Unity of Command II, Order of Battle and now Operation Citadel seem to follow in the footsteps of this venerable series.

Operation Citadel is a turnbased strategy game set during World War II, and unlike most other games of its kind it’s not dealing with a specific theater, instead it deals with more or less all of them. Depending of course a bit on exactly where you draw the line for where World War 2 started and ended and which conflicts you want to include in it. But in terms of scope, Operation Citadel casts a wider net than pretty much any other game of its kind. The question remains though: Is such a wide scope even manageable?

The Pacific theatre is well represented in Operation Citadel, both from the Japanese and the US perspective

Setting

Operation Citadel is set during World War 2, starting with the invasion of Poland in 1939, and ending in 1945 with the fall of Japan. The game is not focused on any one part of the war, but instead has a bunch of different campaigns for the different major powers that fought in the war. The game more or less assumes that you know the broad strokes of the war, and does not give a lot of context for what’s going on. Each scenario has a short introduction text, and then it throws you right into the action. The maps are at least pretty good representations of their real word counterparts.

The games campaigns, of which there’s plenty, start in a way that’s more or less accurate to history, the German 1939 starting date campaign for an example starts with the invasion of Poland as you would expect, but then after the invasion of France takes a turn for the unhistorical and has you invade the UK, something that of course never happened, but has been a staple of alternative WW2 history.

People who are interested in WW2-era military vehicles will have a field day with this game. There’s a lot of different ones being represented here, including a lot of variants and even some more obscure vehicles. As campaigns progresses more and more advanced vehicles will be seen on the battlefield, while older ones are getting phased out. This is of course nothing unique to this game, but it still manages to give a sense of things progressing.

While not playable in any of the campaigns, some smaller nations that did not play a large role in the war, like Mongolia and Switzerland, are represented in the quick-play scenarios, where you can also chose to play them if you really want to. It’s nice to see them there, but ultimately they add more flavour than gameplay possibilities.

Good question, what “is” a campaign anyway?

Presentation

Functional. If I had to describe the way Operation Citadel looks, that’s the word I would chose. The graphics are simple, with little flair to them, but the game is easy to ready, and you can usually tell how things are going by just glancing at the screen. There’s one big exception to this though, but more on that later.

The maps in Operation Citadel are made up of hexagons and each hexagon has a terrain type associated with it, like forest, town, desert and so on. And they might also have a road running through the hex. If you look carefully at the art for these terrain hexes, you’ll see that it’s just the same thing being copy/pasted repeatedly, there’s no variety between hexes that have the same terrain type. The artist did take care as to make sure that there’s nothing in the terrain that really stands out though, which would have looked bad if it was repeated and so the game does not terrible, despite the simple graphics. With one exception: Beaches. Beaches tend to really stand out in a negative way and this is because the entire hex is sand coloured with no smooth transition the usually green inland hexes.

Winter maps both look and play quite different from summer ones

Units are represented by simple artwork as well. Infantry has a picture of a helmet and a weapon under, which gives an idea of what kind of infantry it is. Regular infantry has a rifle, anti-tank infantry has some kind of anti-tank weapon and so on. Vehicles, be it ships, tanks, planes or anything else, has a picture of the vehicle seen from a bird’s eye view. The graphics is once more simple, but at the same time surprisingly detailed. If you’re familiar with these vehicles it’s for the most part easy to tell them apart, at least the ground ones. Variants might be a bit harder to tell apart though.

There’s a problem with the graphics though, and that’s that units have a set colour, a German tank will always look the same, no matter who’s controlling it. You can capture equipment from the enemy, but if you were to say capture some Panzer IV tanks as the US, these will still have the same greyish blue colour when you deploy them, and this does make it harder to read what’s going on. Some kind of clear indicator, like a flag pasted on top, would have gone a long way to make these captured units easier to identify at a glance.

The interface is not very pretty, but it does the job well enough. All the important information is easily accessible and with a few minor things, like how windows sometimes overlap, it’s easy to work with. But it looks somewhat generic, like something you could slap onto any post WW1 strategy game.

With the risk of sounding like a broken record, the sound design is also very functional. The game gives decent feedback for all your actions, and the sound never gets in the way, but at the same time it’s also nothing special. The music does fare a bit better and has an almost Hearts of Iron-like vibe to it, though not quite as bombastic, which suits the setting quite well.

The German army is preparing an invasion of the UK. Something that of course never happened in real life

Gameplay

As you would expect from a turnbased strategy game set during World War 2, Operation Citadel is about the war between the Axis and the Allies. What sets Operation Citadel apart from the other games of its kind is the breadth of its scope. Where most non-grand strategy games are content with depicting a part of the war, Operation Citadel almost all of it.

There are two singleplayer gameplay modes in Operation Citadel, Quick-play and campaign. Quick-play lets you tackle a single standalone scenario, though these are far from “quick”. The maps in quick-play are huge, and even the smallest ones will take several hours to complete. You can also chose which nation(s) to control here, and yes, that includes nations that were historically neutral, like Switzerland.

Campaign mode is where the meat of the game is though, and you’ve got a lot of options here. You get to chose a nation from one of the five available (US, UK, Soviet Union, Germany and Japan), a front and a start year, and some of these campaigns do go in somewhat unexpected directions, so picking the 1939 eastern front for Germany won’t just have you fight Poland and the Soviet Union. Not all nations get the same number of options, and the US and Germany are the most well represented nations, but there’s still a staggering amount of content on display here.

Once you’ve started a level things should look familiar to people who have played this type of games before. You’ve got a bunch of units, each representing a group of soldiers or tanks that are conveniently grouped together into a single piece you can move around on the map. A number under the unit represents its current combat strength, which for a fresh and inexperienced unit maxes out at 100, though veteran units can higher. Fighting the enemy will lower this number, and lowering it also lowers the fighting power of the unit. Click on one of your units and mouse over an enemy and you’ll see how much combat strength both sides will lose if they were to fight, though this number is not necessarily entirely accurate, as there might be hidden artillery that will support a unit that you’re attacking and in some instances it will indicate that your unit will take damage even when it won’t. You also have some starting resources which you can use to buy more units and capturing key locations will give you even more resources, as well as a bit of passive income.

The British army is gaining ground against the Germans in North Africa

Moving your units and ordering them to fight is as simple as clicking on the unit, clicking on where you want it to go, and clicking on the enemy to attack it. Every unit can move once per turn up to its maximum movement range (which is modified by terrain), unless it’s a scout unit, in which case it can make several moves, and attack once (if it’s a unit that’s able to attack). It’s a simple system, but it works well here. Different terrain types, which can give defensive bonuses, hinder movement and so on.

Units also need to worry about fuel and ammo. Different units will have differing amounts of this, and once they run out of it, they need to be re-supplied in order to continue fighting. A heavy artillery piece or a bomber plane is likely to run out of ammo far faster than a group of light infantry, and a thirsty Tiger tank will go through its fuel supply long before a light armoured car. In order to keep your units fighting fit you need to send supplies to them and in order to do that you need to keep clear supply lines for your units. This is not as central to the game as in say Unity of Command, but keeping units in supply, while also trying to starve any of the more dangerous units the enemy might have, is important.

Some maps are huge!

Speaking of dangerous units, the game has a lot of them. Over 900, according to the games store page, and while confirming this would be very tedious, it seems quire realistic, considering the number of nations that are represented in the game, and the wide range of vehicle variants that are on display. These units range from basic light infantry and transport ships up to heavy tanks and SPGs and even battleships and submarines. Many units also have upgrades that can be applied to them, like droptanks for planes which increase their range, but make them a bit slower, or trucks for your infantry which make them move faster, but also makes them dependent on fuel.

Weather effects are also important to keep in mind. The weather system is not particularly complex in this game, but it’s something that keeps airplanes from being too powerful. Bad weather can make it impossible for your planes to do anything useful for a turn and it prevents unrealistic strategies where you just spam airplanes from being too strong. Cold weather also has an effect on your troops, though it’s scenario based rather than something that will randomly happen over the course of a level. If it’s very cold your troops will take damage from just moving around, unless they have winter equipment. The effect is just that they take a bit of damage, but it still makes fighting during winter feel very different.

I heard you liked units! At the bottom are different generals, who give a bonus to units around them

Operation Citadel does struggle a bit in a few areas though. For one the amount of units does also in a way make many of the nations feel a bit similar to actually play. There’s nothing here that really encourages you to play a nation in a historical way, and ultimately a heavy tank is a heavy tank. A German and a Soviet heavy tank might not have identical stats, but they still function similarly. And the same is true for most other units, with most major nations have equivalents to each other’s units. Most of the variety comes from the levels themselves. The second area where the game struggles is with some polish. Not every level feel like it’s been playtested a whole lot, and the result can be wildly fluctuating difficulty and some slight pacing issues where there are turns where not much happens. The AI also seems a bit passive.

One area where Operation Citadel does shine in though is how customizable it is. Doing simple things like changing unit stats and even making your own maps is remarkably easy and the game does have steam workshop support so if you’re proud of what you’ve created you can easily share it with others. There’s even a map on the steam workshop right now that does a pretty good job at recreating the battle of Hastings, even though this game was never designed for such things.

Ever wanted some medieval warfare in your WW2 titles? Picture is from the Mini Medieval – Hastings 1066 mod by Pixel

Closing Thoughts

For anyone who’s been playing turnbased strategy games set during WW2 for a while, most of what’s been mentioned in this review might sound quite familiar. Other games have done pretty much everything this one does, but better. But that does not make Operation Citadel a bad game by any means, and while other games might have each done parts of what Operation Citadel does in a better way, hardly any can match the scope of this game.

The scope does present a few issues for the game, nations can feel a bit samey because the game has no real way of simulating any peculiarities in their fighting forces but instead rely on the unit stats to differentiate units both within and between factions. Though this is a tradeoff that pretty much every game that goes this wide with its selection of units ends up doing, particularly when they don’t want to restrict you in how you build your army.

Ultimately the biggest issue Operation Citadel has compared to the likes of Panzer Corps, Oder of battle and Unity of Command 2 is a lack of polish. But if you look past a few rough edges there’s a great game to be found here. It’s easy to learn, but has a good amount of depth and variety, and on top of that it’s not even particularly expensive, at just $15 or 12.5€. Anyone who enjoys WW2 strategy games should give Operation Citadel a look, and if you’re on the fence about the game then try the demo, that’s what it’s there for.

Operation Citadel does have multiplayer, but I did not have a chance to test it in preparation for this review. It does seem like the kind of game that could be quite fun in multiplayer though.

Written by
Fnord
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