2015 marks the 70th anniversary of both the end of World War II and the beginning of a neverending flood of books, films, television shows, and yes, video games, about the largest conflict in the history of man. Though most media tells the story of the war from both sides, video games about the Deuce have tended to only look at things from the Allied side of the fence (cough, Medal of Honor, cough). However, in 1994, Strategic Simulations, Inc. gave gamers a chance to explore the war from the German perspective with today’s game, Panzer General.
Before we go any further, I’m going to go ahead and address the elephant in the room. Although you do indeed play as a German general conducting campaigns from the Second World War, there are no references to the N-word here or any Nazi-related imagery; German possessions are signified with black crosses instead of swastikas, there are no appearances from any historical German figures, and even in scenarios like the Battle of the Bulge, units like the Waffen-SS are nowhere to be found. Even your mission briefings come from a nonexistent commander who’s never named or seen. I understand some people are just not going to be interested in playing as the Germans, but I give the designers credit for trying to smooth things over as much as possible.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, we can get into the game proper. PG allows you to start from five different starting points in the war: the invasion of Poland in 1939, 1941 in either North Africa or the Eastern Front, and 1943 in either Russia or Italy. Depending on the scenario, you have a set number of turns to either capture objective cities or defend them from the enemy, and in a very cool feature, the campaigns aren’t set in stone; score a major victory in France and you’ll be able to undertake the invasion of England, score a minor victory, and you’ll miss your chance at Britain and will have to tackle the Soviets first before having to face off with a better-prepared Britain in 1943, fail to defeat France, and Game Over. I really enjoyed the fluidity of the campaigns, and how your actions now can affect battles down the line, and I really dug the hypothetical what-if battles, like an attack on Washington, D.C. if you decisively beat the British and Russians.
Aside from the campaigns, you have the option of playing specific scenarios (the only time you have the option of playing as the Allies), either alone against the computer, with a friend taking turns, or an e-mail game, similar to people who played chess through the mail back in the day, allowing two people to go head-to-head from different computers without having to both be playing the game at the same time, which strikes me as a really cool concept, especially for the time.
As for the actual gameplay, PG is a turn-based hexwar type of game, something like a computerized version of Risk. Units have a set number of spaces they can move at a time, which differs on a number of factors, such as unit type, terrain, and weather, and all units except artillery, air defense, and capital ships have to be adjacent to an enemy to engage them. Combat also takes those factors into account, as well as experience levels which carry over between missions, so it pays to keep seasoned troops alive. Also, units that remain stationary over time develop an entrenchment level that both makes them less vulnerable to attack, as well as increasing their odds of a “rugged defense”, which basically repulses damn near any attacker, so even the highest levels of tanks are susceptible to getting beaten back by basic infantry.
The sheer volume of units to be found here is staggering. Just infantry alone consists of standard infantry, heavy infantry, paratroopers who can take off from an airfield hex and drop in at enemy weak points, pionere infantry that are immune to rugged defense, and bridge engineers who can post up on a river tile and allow tanks and other vehicles to pass over them. Different unit types do suffer from a bit of a paper-scissors-rock problem, though, as say, anti-tank units are obviously powerful against armor, but weak against infantry and artillery, and tanks are more powerful on roads and open terrain than in cities or rough ground, so the game does goad you into having to take a combined-arms approach, mixing artillery, infantry, armor, and air power, instead of just giant armor battles like the title implies.
You earn the ability to purchase, upgrade, and replenish units through prestige points, which you rack up through defeating enemy units, capturing cities and airfields, and completing missions, with major victories raking in higher scores than minor ones. As the war drags on, new models of units become available, so the dinky first-model panzers you start with against Poland can eventually be turned into Tiger and Panther tanks by the time the war against the Soviet Union is at full pitch, and by 1945, you can even trot out early model jets to pound your enemies from above. Also, as units gain experience, you can make them “overstrength” by purchasing reinforcements when they’re at full-strength, so a unit with two stars of experience can be beefed up to 12 strength instead of just 10, giving you elite units capable of smashing holes in the enemy lines.
As you can probably tell, this is not exactly a casual game, and while it’s not quite nuclear physics, there’s a multitude of little things you have to keep track of if you want your war machine to keep rolling. Each unit has a finite amount of ammo, and motorized units have a certain fuel supply, which has to be replenished at the cost of burning their turn. Air units have to be on or adjacent to an airfield hex to refuel and rearm, and will crash if they don’t make it in time. Rainy weather make air attacks impossible, although they can still move, and consistently bad weather will reduce your line of sight dramatically and turn ground terrain into muck that will grind armor to a halt. You do have a weather forecast available, but it’s not as reliable as it sounds. Furthermore, while new units do get developed over the course of the war, they don’t just get generically better, and you’ll have to navigate a few menus to compare unit statistics. You’d also be well advised to not just plow your armies straight ahead without doing a little recon, as if you blunder into an enemy unit’s path while they’re hidden, they get an automatic rugged defense against you.
On the flip side of the coin, the complexity does allow for armchair generals to come up with some different tactics and strategies. Do you prefer to take a city with a punishing ground attack and purely outmuscle the opposition, or do you drop some paratroops behind enemy lines to seize lightly defended towns and try and lure defenders away from your real objective? Do you use capital ships for close-in support for your advancing army or push them up the coast to soften up a target for when your army reaches the upriver city? After a while, you really start to weigh one option versus another, especially when you’re constrained by both time and logistics, so if the designers’ goal was to really make you start to think like an actual army commander should, I would say they succeeded.
I do have some other minor complaints here; there’s no way to tell how many turns you have remaining while you’re in the middle of a turn, and a string of rainy days/just plain bad luck can make some missions damn nigh impossible to complete through no fault of your own. Much like Civilization, combat basically comes down to a dice roll at its core, so yes, sometimes your elite, 14-strength pionere infantry are going to be held up if not driven back by a weakened counterpart. Also, it is possible to save your game in mid-mission, but I didn’t know that at first, seeing as the option to save is hidden in the “Quit Game” submenu. Also, I would’ve liked to see a bit more emphasis on naval combat, myself, maybe a mission simulating the Battle of the Atlantic where you have to sink a certain amount of merchant ships defended by Allied warships, but then again, this is “Panzer General”, not “Kriegsmarine Admiral”.
Presentation here is more form than flash, even for mid-’90s DOS standards. Units don’t really have any animation as they move about the map, which looks more like moving board game pieces around then anything else. When two units lock horns, little representations appear picture-in-picture, and while there is variation between the different types of units (especially the butt-ugly yet iron tough Soviet tanks), their animations in battle will be pretty samey. There are some nice touches, though, to be sure, like how the ground turns muddy brown after rain, and soldiers waving a white flag if you force a unit to surrender, but this is one game that you do kinda have to use a bit of imagination. Sounds aren’t great, either, and you’ll hear the march of moving infantry, the rumble of tank engines, and the same explosion sound approximately a jillion times over the course of the game, but they’re all fairly functional. I would, however, recommend turning off the in-game music, a martial theme that’s rather bleepy-bloopy and will wear thin on you, especially during longer scenarios.
Panzer General wasn’t the first hexwar game by any stretch, but it’s probably one of the best known, and with good reason. It’s deep, the flexibility of the campaign mode gives it a lot of replay value, and it’s still fairly accessible, especially compared to games like Operation Europe or P.T.O. Apparently, a lot of people seemed to like the formula SSI hit upon, as there are quite a lot of sequels floating around out there (Allied General, Star General, Pacific General, to name a few). Again, I understand that some people simply will not be inclined to check this game out because of the subject material, but aside from that, I highly recommend PG for anyone interested in World War II strategy or an exceptionally well-made classic strategy game in general.
Well-detailed yet relatively simple to grasp strategy, awesome campaign mode with tons of potential paths and outcomes, about as guilt-free an experience of playing as World War II Germany as you could hope for.
Antiquated graphics and sound, and as whitewashed as it is, some people might still be touchy about playing as World War II Germany.