Better to go out in a blaze than wither away?
Type: Singleplayer, Multiplayer
Developer: VR Designs
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.
Release date: 18 Nov, 2021
The Battle of the Bulge, or the Ardennes (counter)offensive was the last major offensive by the Germans on the Western front. They were losing badly, and the high command of the German army viewed a miniscule chance of victory as better than an assured defeat, even if the cost was going to be very high. This offensive has been covered by numerous games in the past, and after d-day is probably the most well known, and most often portrayed battle of World War 2 (Stalingrad might, in recent times, also have a say here).
Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is a battalion level game that straddles the line between what would be considered a game on a strategic and a tactical level, that portrays the famous Battle of the Bulge. It’s turnbased and every in-game day is made up of four turns, and units are represented down to a squad level for infantry, and a single entity level for tanks and other vehicles. It’s in other words a pretty granular game.
The Ardennes Offensive is considered to the be the last major offensive on the western front by the German forces. At this point in the war Germany were clearly loosing, with the allies closing in from the west, and the Soviet Union were crushing the Germans to the east. Things were looking desperate, and the German high command decided that it would be better to try and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, even if the chances of victory were slim, than to remain on the defensive. If a victory at the Battle of the Bulge would really have meant much for the Germans in the long run is questionable, they were losing badly on the Eastern front, and the western Allies still out-produced the Germans by a wide margin, and had access to vital supplies the Germans lacked, like oil. At best the Germans might have been able to negotiate a peace treaty that were not too devastating too them, but if the allies would have accepted such a deal is also questionable.
Towards the end of 1944, as Autumn was nearing winter, the advance of the western allies were slowing down. Having pushed far into what used to be Nazi controlled land faster than anticipated the allied troops were exhausted and the supply lines stretched too thin. This was not helped by the lack of deep water ports, as the German forces had done their best to make the ones the allies were able to capture unusable, and a probably too effective campaign before d-day targeting the infrastructure, which was meant to slow down the German responses but which also meant that once the allies had established a foothold in France the infrastructure was in shambles.
The allied forces did not expect a major counterattack. Why would they? While the German forces might have been able to have put up serious resistance on a local level in some places, on a strategic level they were crumbling in front of the mighty allied war machine, and it looked like it would not be long until the allies would reach Berlin and finally end world war 2. But in December of 1944 the counterattack happened, and the allies were ill prepared for it.
While the Ardennes had terrain that made advancing rapidly tough, and the hilly terrain caused frequent bottlenecks that slowed down the German forces, they were able to drive a wedge through allied controlled land, and initially took a lot of land. On the front lines the allied defenses crumbled, though a few pockets remained that the German forces were unable to crack. The Germans had struck when the weather did not allow the allied airplanes to operate efficiently, and the poor weather, combined with the rough terrain, mean that the allies had not been able to see the full extent of the troop buildup behind the lines. But it would not take long before the allies were able to organize themselves, and put up a stronger defense. This combined with the lack of fuel and supplies would ultimately be the undoing of the German forces, and while many of their soldiers were able to flee back to their own lines, they had to leave a lot of valuable equipment behind, equipment that they could ill afford to lose. By mid January the battle was over, and it had been an expensive loss for the Germans.
If you’re expecting a game that looks like a AAA from this millennium you’re in for a disappointment with Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive. The graphics here are functional, but far from impressive. Nothing is animated either, so what you see in the screenshots is what you’ll see in game. The game is played in a series of hexagon maps, exact size and layout depends on the scenario and all the units are represented by counters with images of the primary troop type the unit is based around on the counter. There are a lot of different images though, as the counters are different depending on the exact typo of vehicle, gun or infantry type, so a counter for a unit where the Tiger II makes up the bulk of its intended fighting power will look different than one with a Panzer IV, and in cases where it’s relevant an image of whatever means is used to transport or tow something will also be displayed, be it horses, halftracks, fully tracked vehicles or trucks. When you’ve select a unit you’ll also see a more detailed breakdown of what they contain, with larger illustrations for everything, at the bottom of the screen. The actual illustrations are pretty good, but they’re still just static images.
The interface looks more intimidating than it really is. There are some different abbreviations that might not make immediate sense, at least not if you’re not a wargaming veteran, but luckily the game is not filled to the brim with buttons with weird abbreviations and niche use cases, so what’s hear is pretty easy to learn. You also don’t need to dive through nested menus to get to anything important.
In terms of sound, it’s a case of “it’s alright”. There’s some stock sound effects being used for things like movement and combat that will play depending on what exactly moves (and is that not the troop movement sound used in Civ II that found its way into this game?). A strangely eerie soundtrack also plays in the background that don’t really fit. The soundtrack almost sounds like something out of a horror game, not a strategy game set during WW II.
Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is a battalion-level turnbased strategy game where you’re taking control of either the forces of the allies or the Germans, as they fight across the Ardennes. The game is split up into a series of scenarios, organized by size, that can be played in any order, and where the outcome of one won’t influence any other. In them the goal is simple, the German forces need to reach a certain victory point goal, and the allied forces need to prevent them from doing so.
Each scenario covers a portion of the Ardennes, and a couple of days of fighting, with the larger scenarios covering more time as well as more space. The fundamentals of the game does not change though. All in all there are 4 “small” scenarios, 6 “medium” scenarios and 2 “campaign” scenarios, with the later two being huge.
Once you’ve selected a scenario you’re met with a map with lots of little counters on it that represents the two armies. Each counter represents a number of soldiers, weapon teams, vehicles and large guns, though the exact number varies. There’s a number on the counter that gives you an idea of how many soldiers they make up and if you click on it you can get more detailed information about the composition. Depending on your fog of war settings the amount of information you get from things that your troops can’t see will vary.
When you select a unit some hexes will change colour to indicate how far the unit can move, and any enemies that are within ranged will get a marker on top of them. Left click on an enemy and you can attack them, with the estimated odds of the attack being shown. Attacks can be either long range, where your troops sit back and try to shell the enemy positions, or they can try to move in and force the enemy out of their hex. When you perform an attack any other friendly units in range can also join in, and attacking enemies with units from several adjacent hexes will give you a bonus (it is after all harder to defend yourself when attacks come from several sides at once).
While a rough estimate of the odds are given when you are about to initiate combat the game could be a bit more transparent about exactly why the odds are as they are. There are a lot of factors that go into combat, including a units combat readiness, terrain modifiers, supply modifiers, how close they are to their HQ, available action points, the time of day and so on. Thus the odds of a success can sometimes feel a little bit arbitrary, even if they’re not, simply because there are so many factors at play that are not entirely obvious.
Combat are done automatically and both sides will fight a number of turns depending on the available action points for the units involved. After combat is done you’ll get a summary of the casualties inflicted on each side. If a “regular attack” was performed (one where the troops try to move in and take the hex) and the defenders either decided to flee or were wiped out the attacking units will move into the newly conquered hex.
Combat is greatly complicated by the fact that you don’t have perfect information about the enemy. Each counter has a number of recon points, that depends on the unit types and experience, and this will be used to try and spot nearby enemies. The closer a unit is to an enemy the more information they’re likely to get, though it’s then further modified by the terrain in the hex. Basically people are better at hiding in forests than on open ground. Sometimes you’ll just know that there is an enemy there, and sometimes you’ll know the exact composition of the enemy forces. Attacking into an enemy that is not known is dangerous, but it will give you more information about the nature of the enemy at least. Sometimes you might not even know that there’s an enemy in a hex you try to move into, and at that point your troops will end up being ambushed. Managing scouting and line of sight is a very important part of the game, and it’s not immediately intuitive how it works, but it’s also not something you need to understand all the details of.
Scouting and line of sight is not just something that just applies to knowing where the enemy has concentrated their forces, but it also applies to just information about what places are controlled by each force. There are some ways to know that you or the enemy controls a specific hex. If there’s a flag on it then it will indicate the side holding it, and key locations have these flag markers. If there is a unit standing on a hex, then it’s under control of the side that has that unit. But if you can’t see a unit, or a flag, then the exact ownership will be uncertain. The game will draw a border where, based on the intelligence you have, the front lines should go, but there’s a degree of uncertainty here, and land that you might think is safe can end up being enemy controlled. This matters when it comes to tracing supplies.
Soldiers can’t fight on an empty stomach and vehicles can’t drive without fuel in their tank, and so it’s important to get supplies to the people at the front. Supplies are drawn from supply depots, and needs to be transported to the fronts. Supply is traced along roads and railroads, with larger roads being able to carry more supply. The game models how much usage the roads get, both based on supply and unit movement, and congestions can happen, which means that those vital supplies might get stuck in a traffic jam. Or they can be intercepted by the enemy, as supplies might end up being transported through land that’s not as safe as you would expect. Like with attacks, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes with supplies, and it’s not always immediately obvious how everything works. You don’t need to set supply lines yourself, the game does it for you, and usually finds a good route, but it could have been made a little bit easier to tell when problems will arise.
Political Points, or PP for short, are used to call in reinforcement, air strikes, additional supplies and other useful things. At the start of each turn you’re usually handed a few “cards” to add to your stock. These cards represent things you can call in from outside the map, and they have a PP cost (stop snickering). It’s a somewhat gamey system, but it does work well and gives more strategic opens. Is it worth sending in a unit of troops behind enemy lines who will try and disrupt their supply lines, or would it be better to try and send in a few planes who will make a strike against the enemy armour?
Overall the game mechanics in Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive are pretty complex. They’re not up there with the most complex strategy games on the market, but they are still complex and there are a lot of moving parts and variables to worry about. But luckily it’s not the kind of game where you need to know how everything works before you can start having fun. The game gives you enough information that you can usually make strategic decisions that will more or less end up going as you would expect, before you’ve learnt all the ins and outs of the game. The game comes with a thick manual, at 116 pages, and this is what you’ll have to turn to if you want to learn more about the underlying mechanics. 116 pages might sound like a lot, but they seem to have been made to fit the dimensions of a DVD box (and it’s roughly 1/3 the size of the manual that came with VR Designs last game, Shadow Empire). The manual is pretty easy to work with and finding relevant information does not take long, though it’s missing some of the nitty gritty of the mechanics. Sadly while the manual is a good teaching aid, there’s no tutorial. Having a quick tutorial mission or two would have made it easier to get into the game, particularly for those who are making the transition from less complex wargames to this.
As for the scenarios that comes with the game, all twelve feel and play differently. The basic mechanics are the same, but the different conditions of each scenario does force you to adapt. All of them can be played from either side, though it seems like the one that’s picked by default (usually the German side) is the more fun to play. As for playtime, the medium ones will likely take at least an evening to beat, probably more, the short ones considerably less than that, and the two campaign ones will take a very long time to beat. Each scenario does have a turn limit, and once that’s reached the victor will be determined, though you can still keep on playing after the turn limit has been reached. People who are easily overwhelmed by games that have a large counter density might want to stay away from the two large scenarios, as there are a lot of counters on the field that you need to worry about, but the medium and small scenarios have a pretty reasonable amount of counters.
Finally there’s a level editor that comes with the game, and it is surprisingly easy to work with. At least if you want to throw something together that’s playable. Making something that’s actually good might require a bit of effort, but even so for a game like this the level editor is quite user friendly.
Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is not a game for everyone. It’s a pretty dense hex-based wargame with a lot of moving parts and it’s not exactly a feast for the eyes or ears either. This is the kind of game that appeals to a niche audience, more so than say Panzer Corps 2 or Unity of Command II does. But to this niche audience, those who enjoy more detailed and granular wargames, and who don’t mind the simple graphics, Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is well worth its price. It’s deep, it’s not too tough to get into, all things considered, and it gives a good representation of the kind of engagements that were fought during the Battle of the Bulge. It also operates on a scale rarely seen in wargames, usually they’re either on a either a grander, or a smaller scale, and that alone makes it special.
Is Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive perfect? No. It’s very good, but there are still a few things that brings down the overall score. The lack of a proper tutorial is one of the main sticking points. Wargaming veterans are probably used to not getting much in the way of tutorials at this point, but it would have been nice to have a proper one in-game. These kinds of things is something that makes it harder for people who are not veterans of these types of games to get into them. The game could also be a bit better at presenting some of its information in an easily accessible way. These are not game breaking issues, and the game is really fun to play, but there’s still some areas where it could have been improved.