Of course it’s “The Allies”, I’ve got Australia with me, he’s my ally!
Type: Single-player, Multiplayer
Genre: Turn-Based Strategy
Developer: The Artistocrats
Publisher: Slitherine, Matrix Games
Release date: 28 Jan, 2021
Before sitting down to write the review for this DLC, I wrote a review for Order of Battle writ large. This is because roughly 80% of what I would need to say if I were to start reviewing Order of Battle with this one DLC would be having to go back and talk about the base game, as Allies Defiant, and all the other Order of Battle DLCs, for that matter, are mostly just mission packs put together into a campaign that all run on the same game engine. This is, again, generally a fine way of doing business, as it hypothetically means that you can sell DLC that play up different strengths of the game, and let players choose which campaigns to follow through on, or just plain let players choose just how much game they want to buy as they complete each campaign and ask themselves if they still want more.
I can’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu. I swear that just a couple weeks ago, I was playing a Slitherine wargame where I was putting up an ahistorically spirited defense of Belgium and then fighting an ahistorically one-sided battle in North Africa… Oh, right, and making a joke about how this is the same thing every wargame keeps doing.
Lead the Limeys
The name is somewhat misleading. The campaign ends in early 1942, so you specifically play as the British while having some support from the Australians, New Zealanders, and the French in the first few missions before France falls. (The US Marines count as a “different faction” from the US Navy, which still have their own marines and army that aren’t part of the US Marines or US Army faction, so I guess I shouldn’t complain too much about the Aussies being counted as different from the UK and having a totally different budget to spend.) I cannot imagine this DLC won’t be followed up with an “Allies Resurgent” and “Allies Triumphant” in one of the chain-DLC campaign trilogies they’ve made for the Germans and Soviets already.
I also think that I’m going to have to restart this campaign with a mindset more focused upon conserving RP instead of “winning”, as I’m positively cash-strapped and having trouble keeping my too-many elite units elite repaired, much less having the room to buy new units when I get more command points to play with. I only refrained from doing so because of the desire to get through as much of the campaign as possible before the review. The great problem I had was in trying to play the game too much like I’m trying to win a war and defeat my enemy, when I should be gaming the system and RP farming as much as possible. The earlier campaigns had some skewed incentives, but coming back to this game years later, it really strikes me how much the new campaigns encourage abandoning objectives to just focus upon RP. (And in case of skipping the previous review, RP means Resource Points, and are used to repair your units and occasionally buy new ones.)
One thing I should also say is that you should absolutely not buy the Swordfish. Forget the first mission having HMS Glorious, there’s nowhere near enough carriers to justify it, and swordfish will absolutely be shot down constantly by Bf 109s, while even Skuas have double the aircraft defense. I burned way too many RPs repairing a Swordfish that barely did anything for me.
On The Defense
As I said back in the main Order of Battle review and Möbius Front ’83 review, the whole Panzer General descendant sub-genre tends to be a genre bent heavily towards playing aggressively. You mainly survive purely through the ability to rapidly repair and reinforce any losses as you throw wave after wave of your own men to die in the meat grinder, and you have to be sure to completely destroy enemy units quickly, as they have access to the same repair mechanic you have, but without your extremely limiting RP budget and will return at full strength if you let them escape to recover for just a couple turns.
This is why I find it a little uncomfortable to have a campaign with so many defense missions. Roughly half the missions in this campaign are defense missions, and I never really found a good way to deal with them in the time while I was playing. Not that I had trouble winning in the missions, just that my mindset was entirely wrong, and I was spending far too much RP just keeping my units in good repair because I would see some German unit that was retreating (you only defend against Germany, while you’re basically always attacking when facing Italy, notably), in spite of having attacked me until it was down to 2 HP and red efficiency, and how dare that cheeky bastard think he can just slink away and come back at me again two turns later, I’mma leave my fortified positions, and run that Jerry down! And then, after doing that, my elite armour unit takes 4 damage being swarmed while out of position, and I need to spend 40 RP to repair it in a mission where you get 10 RP per turn.
That’s not to say you can’t cut off and destroy some enemy attackers, or that it isn’t a good idea to do so, especially if they are powerful units. It’s just that the game gives you objectives like “defend Brussels for 4 turns” and then another objective to “defend the second line for 14” as secondary objectives, but I’m still doing OK and holding the line at Brussels until turn 15, and I’m not sure when a good breaking point to fall back would have been until after the game announces that the Germans broke through the Ardennes, and I’m now way further east than the game expected me to be, and I have to rush units back west to try to intercept the new units.
What’s really problematic, however, is that these ‘defense’ missions are set up with really unrealistic behavior by the attackers to keep you on defense. By which I mean, they have you defending river crossings, but if you actually cross the river to go on a counter-attack yourself, the enemy has an entire extra army doing absolutely nothing but sitting with their thumbs up their butts waiting to punish you if you go “out of bounds” with about a dozen (often self-propelled) artillery pieces that never move and are set up to only be able to reach targets that cross German lines.
Standing up for the French
One thing I’ll say for the game is that it doesn’t dunk on the French overmuch and play into tired memes about the French just surrendering on sight of the Germans. You do not get any French core troops, which means that all the French troops are loaners, and by game mechanic law, that means you are absolutely supposed to get them thrashed rather than keeping anyone alive since they disappear at the end of missions, anyway. (Although getting two to escape at Dunkirk gives you an RP reward, even if they are at 1 HP, so I had a recon unit and infantry escape. No more than that gets rewarded, though, so screw the rest.)
It turns out that, according to Order of Battle, at least, the French suffered not from poor command decisions or an antiquated army. (Lord knows this game loves to give absolute garbage vehicles stats that let it stand toe-to-toe with the best tanks of the war – the Type 89, which could be out-jogged by most infantry and had armor that could be penetrated by some rifles – is one of the better Japanese tanks in the early war.) No, the failure of the French was that they were even more RP-strapped than you were. The Lowlands (Fall of France) misison gives you 0 RP to repair your units, although it does have a secondary objective of dealing a trivial amount of damage to the Germans to get a one-shot bonus of 100 RP for the French forces only. (It’s unusual to have a secondary objective that rewards one-shot troops, but since it’s specifically for their forces to complete, it makes sense.)
I managed to hold the line with the French for far longer than the game ever expected me to, even to the point where I got cocky, and tried to start counter-attacking to run down those units that were trying to repair, but then my RP ran out about 12 turns in, and I just couldn’t sustain it. I didn’t retreat until it was nearly too late (about 17 turns into a 25-turn defense mission, when they expected me to be manning the last line in a last ditch defense), but by then, I had bought so much time that the Germans couldn’t even cross half the map in time to catch me before the mission was over.
They likewise gave a heroic showing at Dunkirk. This was another mission where they expected you to barely escape, and you have a mission goal of only protecting Lille for 4 turns, and I wound up keeping it in action for 12 out of 16 turns, and only abandoned it because I would fail the mission if I didn’t get 6 troops on troop transports and into the exit tiles before the mission turn limit was up.
Arbitrary Scripted Events
In fact, I should mention that because I forgot the obscure rule in Order of Battle where you can only board transports directly from a port or when there is an allied ship adjacent to the beach, I actually failed the Dunkirk mission the first time due to just thrashing Jerry too long and not getting enough boats in the water fast enough.
On this note, I have to highly recommend you play with the option to have the game autosave on every turn turned on. Due to the nature of the game, some mistakes are impossible to correct without going back several turns, so having a rolling save for every single turn you fight a battle may result in bloat in your save folder, but it’s basically the only way to actually try to correct mistakes without having to restart the whole mission or even campaign.
The arbitrary scripted win condition nature of the game really hurts the defense missions more than the others, and is a main reason why I dislike them so much. You aren’t supposed to worry about any objectives you would actually be trying to achieve in a war, you only need to technically complete your primary objectives to not get a game over while trying to prevent as much damage to your own units as possible, because there is no actual reward for destroying enemy units or putting up a stiff resistance.
The use of secondary objectives to try to incentivize destroying specific targets or protecting certain non-core ally units is also a rather blunt tool. If I’m told I get a reward for evacuating 2 French units at Dunkirk, that means that evacuating 1 French unit is a waste, and so is any number greater than 2. I gain nothing but benefit from having them remain behind and die to cover my core unit’s escape, and they are not tracked at all if they live or die, so they might as well die.
On that topic, the secondary objectives in the original campaigns would have repercussions in subsequent missions. Sinking all the carriers in Coral Sea in the Japanese campaign would mean that there was one less carrier when you got to Midway, for example. In Allies Defiant, however, nearly all the secondary objectives are just straight RP cash rewards which reduce them down to a boring calculation of whether the RP you’ll get is worth the repair bills you’ll incur trying to obtain the objective, rather than a chance at an alternate history scenario. Destroying enemy units is meaningless for anything but a unit’s kill count since the enemy just respawns after a mission, anyway. It pushes you towards a mindset where you don’t feel like you’re trying to do your part to win a war, you’re just trying to coast by and get other people to make the sacrifice while you collect your paychecks and put in the minimum effort.
To Be Continued
Several of the missions have a definite feeling like they were one mission that was made into two missions just to say that they had 12 missions like all the other DLCs that are $15 base price. (The two DLCs which are $10 have less than 12 missions, but they’re also the ones with the most interesting missions, so I actually like those better.) The Lowlands mission and Dunkirk mission take place on exactly the same map (although the right edge is chopped off for Dunkirk) and flow directly from one into the other. There isn’t really a good reason this couldn’t have been a single mission where they told you “defend Brussels, but it’s OK to fall back, oh, wait, you’re getting flanked, OK, new objectives, now you just need to evacuate.” It’s just a chance to reset the board and give the Germans and French more reinforcements. That said, by that point, I’d gotten my French troops almost entirely shredded, so I probably gained a net benefit from that, but it still winds up making the damage you dealt to the Germans completely meaningless, as well.
What really makes me feel like I’ve been robbed of a full mission however, is that the map from the Beda Fomm mission starts you out in the city you just took over in the previous mission, Operation Compass. Operation Compass is also a very short mission (you have 20 turns, and can win in about 15 if you push it), so it really feels like they just wanted to find a place they could cut the missions into parts to pad out the raw number of missions. This is especially true because Operation Compass is one of the only missions where you have only a single gunboat as a non-core unit, so the limited unit count makes each turn easily a third the length of the much more sprawling Lowlands and Dunkirk missions.
In fact, the Beda Fomm map is exactly the same map as the opening map from the Sandstorm DLC, you’re just on opposite sides, now. This was something that was interesting in the original campaigns – you would often play the exact same battle from both sides in the US Navy and IJN campaigns, such as Coral Sea, Midway, and the first mission both being Pearl Harbor. In this case, it starts to feel like they’re just coasting by, trying to get more full-priced DLC out without needing to do much more work, however. (And this isn’t the last time you’ll see this map, either, as you then have to go back and defend it after going off on a quick Greek excursion.)
The same goes for how there is a single mission dedicated to getting supplies to North Africa by sea, which is of course, a totally separate from the land battles that these ships were designed to be bringing supplies to, and the fact that this game has combined unit warfare and a supply system seemingly explicitly to represent these things dynamically in a single mission. I know I keep harping on this, but this is the game whose best selling point is its ability to let you play the mission where you can be faced with choices between defending your land troops or your supply ships with your limited fighter cover, and have the tide of battle shift from turn to turn as each side has supply ships make it past the gauntlet or be destroyed, and the mission designer keeps absolutely refusing to use the game engine to its fullest potential.
Have You Seen Me?: Royal Navy
I also have to point out that this is the only campaign since Burma Road to feature the British, now almost 6 years into Order of Battle’s spitting out DLC, and neither have given an option to purchase Royal Navy vessels. While, granted, Panzer Corps 1 basically only gave a single token three-part campaign to the Allies and ignored the Pacific entirely, and Panzer Corps 2 seems to be going the same way, Order of Battle was originally a game about filling in the under-represented aspects of the war. It had naval battles and combined-forces battles that involved amphibious assaults that I’m still sore they didn’t put into more missions. Their first European theater DLC was Winter War, the Soviet invasion of Finland during Stalin’s land grabs before Operation Barbarossa, where the Soviets got their first taste of how unready they actually were for a major war. (In WarPlan, this is sadly handled entirely through scripted events, because the game couldn’t handle a side conflict that wouldn’t involve all the Axis powers against all the Allied powers that had entered the war.) Then came nothing but bog-standard “play as the Russians on the Eastern Front” and “play as the Germans on the Eastern Front”. As time has gone on, Order of Battle’s campaigns have become more and more mainstream land battle simulations that don’t bother to distinguish itself from Panzer Corps, and sidelined the elements of the game that made it unique, like naval battles and amphibious assaults.
Keep in mind, this is a campaign where we’re fighting in Norway one moment, in Belgium the next day, then suddenly, we’re in North Africa for most of the campaign except when we’re suddenly leading ships from Alexandria or fighting in Greece. (The troops in North Africa pulling off Operation Compass were stationed there the whole time, so the BEF didn’t get evacuated and then go directly to North Africa.) There’s no historical consistency where we’re playing the role of a single unit that fought in all these battles. This is just a highlights reel of western operations of the British land forces, with a couple naval battles thrown in. In fact, the first battle, Narvik, is mostly known for being a naval battle that went poorly for the British, but that’s just a sideshow the British can easily curb-stomp the Germans with in this game. The Artistocrats sure would have to know this, because Narvik was already a naval battle in their Kriegsmarine campaign!
The problem with having naval units that only pop in as non-core units is that they will therefore have no value to the player. The way scripted objectives work, they do give you a secondary objective in Cape Matapan to avoid losing more than one Royal Navy ship, but if you can’t complete that (because the Italians absolutely focus fire on your weakest destroyers and sink one on turn 1…) there’s absolutely no reason not to get the whole fleet sunk in a mad dash towards the enemy, and especially no reason to put your own core units (aircraft only this mission) in any danger. There’s no secondary objective to preserve the non-core air units at all, so you absolutely should get your non-cores totaled.
This is also a game which is covering British battles from 1940 to 1942, and it doesn’t cover topics like sinking the Bismarck. I guess this means that somewhere down the line, there’s going to be a Royal Navy DLC, and all the naval battles outside the couple here are going to be carved off for that, because I don’t see why Cape Matapan and some supply run to North Africa would be the only missions that are naval actions covered for the British.
It again just feels like the mission designer in Artistocrats just lost all interest in naval or amphibious landing battles, and those were the real stars of the show.
Playing on defense is certainly a type of variety compared to the nearly all attack missions of the original campaigns, but the Resource Points system and objective scripting reward abandoning your post to save RP on repairs over spirited defense, making a real mismatch in player goals and feeling like you are struggling against the system. I miss the mission variety of earlier campaigns where you would have naval battles, amphibious assault battles, and land battles more than just having either land offense or land defense.
Maybe this is just a personal preference thing. Maybe I would just like to wait for that Royal Navy DLC that’s probably coming, and I should wait out the next only land and air core forces DLC. You might not be as burned out on yet another battle for North Africa as I am, and really enjoy this one. I can only speak for myself, however, and I find Artistocrats mission design to be getting increasingly stale, and I wish they would go back to campaigns like US Marines that played to Order of Battle’s greatest strengths.
Allies Defiant doesn’t really seem to distinguish itself from its competition (either the other DLC like Blitzkrieg or other games like Panzer Corps), so unless you just dislike playing as the Nazis or Soviets (and fair enough if you do) or have already played all the other DLC and just can’t hold back from having more, there isn’t a particular reason to go for this one. There isn’t anything specifically bad about it as a DLC, but it lacks a standout reason to choose it when Kriegsmarine or Winter War or US Marines are more interesting and unique campaigns.