Panzer Corps, developed by Flashback Games and The Lordz Games Studio, was published by Slitherine in 2011. The game is a spiritual successor to the 90's classic, Panzer General, which set a strong benchmark for the "beer and pretzels" segment of the wargaming genre. Panzer Corps takes that strong, yet straight forward gameplay and polishes it even further. The result is a modern wargaming classic that can be enjoyed by novices and grognards alike.
In the years since its release, Panzer Corps has been expanded via numerous DLC to allow for playing a much more lengthy German campaign, campaigns focused on specific theaters, and campaigns giving the player control of the Allied forces. It has also spawned spiritual successors of its own, including Order of Battle: WW2 and the far more fantastical Warhammer 40k: Armageddon. In this review, I will take a look back at the original base game of Panzer Corps, and discuss what makes that core gameplay so attractive to so many players.
|The UI makes movement choices easy to understand.|
The Panzer Corps campaign consists of a series of linked scenarios, in which the player fights the highlight battles of WW2 in Europe. Success or failure to meet objectives in each scenario decides where the war goes next, or if it goes on at all. Win decisively, by completing more challenging optional objectives, and you can even alter the course of history. Victory is also rewarded in the form of "prestige" points, a key resource in the game. These points are used to replace losses, buy new units, or upgrade existing ones. As the same points are used for everything, the player must be wise in considering how to spend them.
The other key resources in the game are your units themselves. A "core" set of units are carried forward through the campaign and can gain experience and stat bonuses. They can also be upgraded with more advanced equipment as the war goes on. This is one of the primary appeals of Panzer Corps for me. This is a game where I get to decide what the mix of forces in my army will be, and where limited resources will be spent. The system also makes you feel more attached to your units by granting them medals and heroes over time, giving your veteran units far more character than they would have otherwise. Your veteran units can also become far more powerful than they were at the start of the game, as each star they gain at certain experience thresholds lets you give them an extra point of strength beyond the default of ten points. Losing one of these hardened units halfway through the campaign is a real one-two punch to the gut. Not only did you lose a unit that had been with you through many battles, but you have also lost a key component of your force that will be difficult to replace.
The wonderful tutorial campaign starts the game off on the right foot, presenting all of the previous concepts, and much more, over the course of a half-dozen scenarios linked together just like the real campaign. The tutorial starts off with a simple ground assault on a couple of towns, and then introduces every concept and unit type in the game across gradually more complex missions. You will get to try out bridging units, air combat, naval warfare, amphibious assaults, tanks, reconnaissance, and more. By the end of the campaign you will have a good handle on how the game works, and how to effectively use all the various unit types. This is a critical lesson to learn, as units like bridging crews and reconnaissance teams may not seem too exciting compared to buying more tanks or paratroopers, but in the right situation they can be vital to your success.
|New unit types and upgrades become available throughout the campaign.|
The tutorial campaign also gives you the chance to try out purchasing and upgrading units. Units you keep alive throughout the missions will be quite powerful by the end, having gained a star or two and a few stat bonuses. An additional wrinkle in this system will become apparent to the player as his units inevitably take some hits. Units begin with a "strength" level of ten, regardless of unit type. This level dictates both their ability to defend and to attack. A full strength unit can always take a couple of hits and deal out punishment in return, but a weakened unit may become helpless against even the unit type it is meant to counter. To get a unit back up to full strength, those losses must be replaced. The game gives you a few options in this regard. A unit can take on green recruits, which is cheaper mid-scenario, and free between scenarios, but reduces the experience level of the unit. To preserve that experience, elite replacements can be used instead, but these are more costly, especially if used during a scenario. So the decision will come up often, should I keep this unit at maximum experience, or save some prestige for other uses? Also, during a mission, you may have to decide whether keeping a unit in the fight is worth the extra cost, or if you can afford to send them back to base early. Playing the game well, will of course alleviate much of the tension here, take few losses while completing your objectives and you will have points to spare. That of course is easier said than done. There are also a few other ways to earn extra prestige. Control of every city on the map is usually not necessary for victory, but each one you take gives a little bonus. You can also get bonus prestige for forcing the surrender of enemy units by surrounding them, representing equipment and supplies captured from the enemy.
Once you have a firm understanding from playing the tutorial, it's time for the full campaign. The game offers several different starting dates for the main campaign. You can skip ahead to the epic battles of Barbarossa, or jump into the middle of the war with a 1943 start on either the Eastern or Western fronts. Of course, for the full experience, you will want to start with the invasion of Poland in 1939. This full campaign will give you the chance to mold and grow your force from humble beginnings into an elite fighting machine. Do well enough, and you will change history with your armies, to the extent of even invading England and the United States.
All of the elements discussed before are present in the full campaign, only bigger and more complex. The scenarios pit your forces against difficult terrain and aggressive foes. Units like mountain troops and bridging units can be critical in overcoming these obstacles and outflanking the enemy, while in other missions they may completely superfluous. This highlights the necessity of building a robust fighting force to help you face each new challenge. Dropping all of your prestige into tanks won't get you very far when you need to take three or four cities in a row defended by AT guns and dug-in infantry. Rest assured, you will get the chance to let your big cats off the leash in wide open terrain where they can pounce on anything and everything.
While some of the missions are designed in such a way that the player can try different strategies and be successful, many can feel more like a puzzle that needs to be solved. Especially since every scenario is limited by time, and getting a "decisive" victory often requires completing the scenario even faster. Since the scenarios always start the same, it becomes easy to have a try at a scenario, then start over with better knowledge of the enemy positions. You might send some paratrooper planes on a daring raid behind enemy lines, only to discover a fortress watching over your intended landing zones. Do you waste precious turns slogging it out, or reload and land your men on the other side of the city? The answer is easy if you want the best outcome. Simply put, having a trial run at a mission and then starting over will always give you a more efficient result, which translates into more prestige, which means you can buy better toys for the next mission. Playing through without any save scumming could lead to frustration for many players. Taking too many losses means you can't afford to upgrade you tanks or purchase a new fighter squadron. It might also mean that you can't afford to keep your units topped up with elite replacements, eroding away at their experience and leaving you with a weaker force as scenarios become more difficult. This is really my only major complaint with the game, but it doesn't take away from the fact that picking apart these puzzle-like situations is FUN. Where on your first try at a scenario you may fail abysmally, the next time around, armed with just a bit of extra intel, you are able to find the chink in the enemy defenses and tear them apart. Knocking out one enemy unit after the other, while minimizing casualties among your own forces, can be wonderfully satisfying. You will feel like a master commander as you hit the enemy with just the right combo of units moving and attacking in concert.
|Panzer Corps is no graphical feast for the eyes, but the solid gameplay is what matters.|
Graphically, the game is not going to blow anyone away. The 2D map and unit models are mostly static, other than some adequate attack effects. That doesn't mean to say the game is ugly though. The maps can be nice to look at, and, most importantly, clearly convey the different types of terrain in each hex, which is critical for planning strategy. The unit models are all nicely done as well, and there are hundreds of them, representing just about every tank, plane, and other vehicle you would expect to find in the setting.
The game's sound is also well done, with strong explosions and angry blasts of machine gun fire accompanying every attack. You will, however, hear the exact same effects hundreds of times over the course of the game. The music is also nicely done and fitting for the game, though I couldn't say that any distinct tracks stick out in my mind after closing the game. At no point when playing the game did I run into any kind of bug or glitch, no crashes or corrupted saves. This game was clearly polished to perfection in that regard.
Panzer Corps has some serious legs if you want to keep playing after finishing the campaign. There are several DLC on offer, including a much, much longer Grand Campaign for the Germans, campaigns for the Soviets and Western Allies, and a campaign focused exclusively on North Africa. There are also user made mods and scenarios if that isn't enough for you. Not to mention online play against human opponents using Slitherine's excellent PBEM++ system.
In summary, I will reiterate what I think is the heart and soul of this game: Mixing strategy gameplay that is simple and easy to understand (while retaining some depth) with a light RPG-esque system of building your own custom army that evolves and grows based on your leadership. This system gives the player agency over their units, and then tasks them with putting that army to good use in the field. Smart decisions on one side of the coin gives rewards on the other, and the same is true for poor decisions. I would heartily recommend this game to anyone wanting to dip their toe into the wargaming waters, or to any hardened wargamers who want something that is fun to just dive into and play.