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Strategic Command: American Civil War From Matrix/Slitherine and Fury Software (Also available on the Steam Platform) Strategic Command: Ame...

Strategic Command: ACW (indepth review special) Strategic Command: ACW (indepth review special)

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Strategic Command: American Civil War

From Matrix/Slitherine and Fury Software
(Also available on the Steam Platform)

Strategic Command: American Civil War (SC:ACW) is a fully-evolved design effort that also celebrates the 20th anniversary of this popular game series.


Fury Software's lead developer Hubert Cater's first game, "Strategic Command: European Theater" (WW2) was published under the label and released on July 16, 2002 - almost 20 years to-the-day from the July 14th, 2022 debut of SC:ACW on Steam.


Whether this is a coincidence or not only Cater himself can say. And he did graciously respond to a Steam discussion post that he had "lost track" of the release date of his first game effort, and the debut date of SC:ACW was entirely coincidental.


This response reveals both the inherent humility of this veteran game designer, as well as his commitment to move forward - and not look back - when it comes to his team's latest wargaming effort.


The latest computer game in the venerable Strategic Command series covers the American Civil War from start to finish.


The Bottom Line, Up-Front

Of course, AWNT's readers are looking for more than just nostalgia in this game review. So, here are our up-front, bottom-line recommendations:


1. Owners of Cater's three most recent Strategic Command offerings available at Matrix/Slitherine (SC: War in Europe, SC: World at War and SC: World War I) have most likely put more hours into SC:ACW than this reviewer.


Germany launches its great Spring offensive in a division-level campaign from Fury Software's previous game,
Strategic Command: WWI available at the Matrix/Slitherine web site.


2. Board wargamers, of which AWNT has more than a few, should both welcome and be imminently comfortable playing with this wargame design.


3. American Civil War (ACW) aficionados, in general, will find that nothing in the digital gaming arena compares with this product when simulating the strategic level of the conflict.


4. ACW historians - both amateur and experienced - who are interested in playing out an unlimited number of "what-if" scenarios, will find a treasure-trove of possibilities when firing up the game's easy-to-use campaign editor.


The detailed properties of a Confederate "Ranger" unit are available from the main map screen.
All of these unit variables can be changed when using the Game Editor.


It's a Tough Job, but Someone Has to Do It

The reviewing of wargames has become infinitely more challenging since the days of two-page, print reviews for the long-defunct Computer Gaming World magazine. The internet is now full of reasonably accurate game reviews and you-tube videos from truly dedicated providers. And the fact that this is an ACW game opens this particular review up to a much wider audience than, say, a niche wargame on the Eastern Front's Korsun-Cherkassy pocket.


For this reason, we have enlisted some extra help in the form of links to some detailed and deep forum comments, as well as field dispatches from a true grognard with more than 1,500 hours in another ACW game currently available on Steam: Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) or "GT" for short.


GT is an incredibly ambitious project developed by Oliver Keppelmuller and released on the Steam platform on Sept. 24, 2021. And it is primarily because Matrix/Slitherine has made its SC:ACW product available on Steam that it would be negligent of us not to give some coverage to this amazing, but still-evolving, tactical/operational/grand strategic game on the American Civil War.



It may be October 31, 1861, but it's unlikely the Union Army is celebrating Halloween: A screen shot from the highly ambitious Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) courtesy of the Old War Dog.


SC:ACW Highlights

First, let's list some of the outstanding characteristics of Fury Software's SC:ACW game engine.


A) This is a proven game system that has evolved over more than 20 years of simulation design. The overt "bugs" that are entirely expected from a breakthrough game like GT are notably absent from SC:ACW.


B) SC:ACW features Matrix/Slitherine's excellent PBEM++ multiplayer game system. At this writing, the monitoring of multiplayer activity on the game's forums shows robust head-to-head activity that appears to be surpassing single-player-oriented posts on social media. Matrix also kicked off a tournament program soon after the game's release on Steam.

C) And yet, the single-player experience appears solid, thanks to an aggressive and relatively intelligent AI that has been massaged over the years. One proof of this statement is the AI's ability to effectively handle transport and amphibious operations - a talent that took Paradox's developers a couple of years to effectively incorporate into their excellent Hearts of Iron IV game offering.


D) The inclusion of a hugely-expansive, 292 x 223-hex game map covering most of North America, the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Native American territories. At 10 miles-per-hex, this works out to 6,578,500 square miles of simulated space. Admittedly, not all of the map is fully used in the vanilla campaigns. But the map does allow modders to recreate some peripheral aspects of the ACW, including a full-on Mexican War circa 1861-1865, as well as various conflicts that include French, British and Spanish force structures.

E) Tremendous flexibility in terms of starting game options, including the ability to change sides mid-game and adjust hundreds of scripts to the player's liking.


Thousands of AI and Event scripts can be edited using the player's default text editor.

F) A fully de-bugged and easy-to-use campaign editor that offers historians unprecedented power in both modifying existing scenarios and creating an unlimited number of "what-if" game situations. Although game play is very much strategic in scope, the editor allows gamers to drill-down into the very depths of the game engine and modify an almost limitless number of simulation and unit variables.


    SC:ACW's game editor, where hundreds of game variables are easily manipulated.


G) Close to 40 individual units types represented in-game - from infantry brigades to submarines - and each one has up to 16 distinct attack and defense values assigned versus every other (logical) combat unit in the roster. Each unit also has a variety of general combat characteristics, including spotting range, action points, attack range, entrenchment, demoralization, attacks per turn, and the chance of loss-evasion when attacking and defending. And, of course, all of these variables can be quickly and easily modified inside the Game Editor.


 Editing the myriad of characteristics of a Union infantry brigade in the SC:ACW game editor.


H) Two years of of researching and testing to develop, with a brand-new and highly detailed, 66,000-hex map, along with new rules governing riverine warfare.

I) More than 450 pages of PDF documentation, including the main game manual, the tutorial manual, and six (6) must-read "strategy" guides for each vanilla campaign.


Welcome to the Team

In addition to Fury Software veterans Bill Macon and Bill Runacre, the company wisely sought the expertise of ACW historian Ryan O'Shea for help with campaign/scenario design and the writing of the hefty manual and strategy guides.


What does come as a surprise is that O'Shea was also responsible for programming the AI for the various campaigns. This seems like quite a bit to ask a "newcomer" like O'Shea, especially as Cater himself led the charge in programming the AI in all the previous SC game releases. (More on the AI later in the article.)

Finally, O'Shea also serves as a frequent contributor on the various game forums and appears always ready to answer questions regarding in-game strategy and the thought processes behind some of the developers' design decisions.


The game ships with six different campaign scenarios that altogether do an admirable job of covering the length and breadth of the ACW:


  • "1861 Blue and Gray" - The marquee campaign, featuring an April 12, 1861 scenario start

  • "1861 Manassas to Appomattox" - A later, summer of 1861 game-start just three months after Fort Sumter and beginning at the time of the First Battle of Bull Run.

  • "1862 (General Winfield) Scott's Great Snake" - A representation of the Union's Anaconda Plan that kicks off in the early Spring of 1862 with the Yankees poised to amphibiously-attack its most ambitious target yet - New Orleans.

  • "1862 Trent War" - A "what-if" campaign that simulates an alternative history of the ACW, in which the "Trent" diplomatic incident in November 1861 triggers Great Britain's entry into the war on the side of the Confederate States.

  • "1863 Lee Rides North - The climactic phase of the ACW, which features an aggressive Confederate General Robert E. Lee conducting an energetic counter offensive against the Union's Army of the Potomac (under the command of General Hooker) in late April 1863.

  • "1864 Make Georgia Howl" - Union General M.T. Sherman's famous quote comes to life at the beginning of 1864, with that general's bold march through Confederate-held Georgia.

It's important to note that each of the above campaigns is fully playable from either side of the conflict in single-player (versus the AI), multiplayer (PBEM++), and hot-seat game modes.


Like the other titles in the SC series, customization is a key feature when it comes to setting the game's difficulty levels and general player options. Besides toggling on-or-off literally hundreds of vanilla game scripts and enabling various mods, one can choose to directly control only the nations that one wishes to play.


There are a wide variety of Player Options available when starting a new SC:ACW game scenario.


For example, when playing as the Confederates, one can delegate British, French and Spanish forces to AI control - when, and if, they become active in the game. One can also give the computer opponent various bonuses to spotting, experience and military production points (MMPs). In general, experienced SC game players would do well to assign the Rebel AI opponent a "veteran" status. When playing as the Confederates versus a Union AI, it's advisable to scale the difficulty level down to the "intermediate" level of play.


What's Not to Like?

We did find a single Matrix forums poster at press time, who was a veteran of the SC series but did not enjoy this latest iteration. These players appear to be in the minority at this writing, however. 

One potentially significant issue with all the SC-series of games is that they do not feature unit stacking. This may or may not be an issue for some AWNT gamers. Matrix/Slitherine forum poster and SC beta tester "JWW" addresses this issue better than this writer ever could, and it's a mouse-click away at:


We also have a link to another Matrix forum thread started by an SC game veteran, who is not quite in love with the latest iteration of this venerable game series. His opinions may hold some weight with owners of the previous games, who are considering a purchase of the ACW offering. The responses to the OP's opening comments by other players should also be of some value: 


In general, combat resolution is reminiscent of the Panzer General/Panzer Corps series of games: It's quite abstracted, with a "wham-bam that's the combat, madam" type of feel, as each single unit in a hex - whether corps, division, regiment or brigade - attacks or defends against another single unit at anywhere from 5-10+ formation strength, losing a few hit points here and there. However, SC:ACW does feature a more fluid retreat model than the Panzer Corp engine, and it's highly recommended that the "retreat" option stays in place when playing the game.


The bottom-line is that battles like Gettysburg, Antietam or Shiloh will only take place inside of the players' imaginations and within one, 10-mile hex between single units of various sizes. Here's what one forum poster said about this issue:


"I do think the game (SC:ACW) does a good job of representing the strategic military and political decision-making of the time, but the operational scale is 'off' when it comes to the map and units. In the Western theater, there are wider spaces between towns, and a player can maneuver units and get a feel for operational Civil War tactics. Naval operations seem to work out well, as do amphibious operations to seize Confederate ports. But the Eastern campaign tends to bog down into a WWI-style defensive line running from the Shenandoah Valley to the Potomac River, with very little maneuver possible, other than swapping out units to try to punch a hole in the enemy's lines."

So, there it is, although the Eastern theater is not quite as congested as the previous quote suggests. The potentially short, but continuous fronts near Washington, D.C. and the Shenandoah are vulnerable to breakthroughs early in the game, and Cavalry units with up to six action points can wreak some havoc behind the lines.


At the start of the 1861 campaign with no fog-of-war, there's plenty of room for units to maneuver.


In general, the game does a good job of recreating the strategic war of movement in the West, and the strategic stalemate in the East.

In the 1863 "Lee Rides North" campaign, one gets a clear view of the strategic stalemate in the East.


The end result is that gamers who can't handle SC:ACW's level of abstraction (or a view from 20,000 feet up) can try another ACW game on Steam: the Ultimate General: Civil War real-time strategy and tactics game, or the ambitious GT in its current, less-than-perfect state.


Another important issue is that the artillery guns represented in SC:ACW are "integrated" within each formation. Field artillery and siege guns can be created as stand-alone units, but only when using the Game Editor.

This does not mean that SC:ACW is devoid of tactics. In fact, the game is overflowing with tactical-level unit data everywhere one looks, and we will expand on the game's generous use of the nitty-gritty, grognard-style level of unit detail a bit later on. Let's just say that by the end of 1862 in most campaigns, the Union is pushing around more than 110 land units alone, so micro-management is certainly a thing here.



 The Production Screen shows future unit deployments.


Another minor quibble is that, like the other games in the SC series, various Military Events are displayed at the start of the players' turns - such as the destruction of enemy units and capture of various objectives - but, clicking on the Event being displayed does not localize the Event on the map. So, one must use one's good memory and imagination when interpreting these start-of-turn updates.


The Reports tab gives a quick overview regarding active formations and unit losses.

The Main 'Events'

Much like Fury Software's most recent WW2 titles (World at War and War in Europe), as well as the latest Strategic Command - World War I game, players will be asked to make strategic decisions, called Decision Events - usually with a simple "yes" or "no."


Stephen Mallory, secretary of the navy for the Confederate States, queries the player regarding one of more than 160 rich, historical and what-if Events programmed into the game.


More information on the events themselves are contained in the Strategy Guides for each campaign scenario, and these excellent documents are conveniently accessed by push a command button at the top right-hand-corner of the game screen. One can also study the game map and return to the decision screen at one's leisure.


There are also specific Notes that come with each decision (available by selecting the "Notes" button). These Notes give players detailed descriptions of the background and the current consequences of every "yes" or "no" choice.


For this game, there are more than 160 specific Decision Events, not including several hundred - perhaps more than 1,000? - general event scripts included with SC:ACW. The latter non-decision events announce themselves at the start of a new turn, but do not require a decision to be made on the part of the active player.


The marriage of George Armstrong Custer is duly celebrated in this in-game "flavor" Event.


The fact that all of these events and AI scripts can be easily edited inside the Game Editor using the player's default text editor, which automatically pops up when a script is opened, offers levels of customization which are quite staggering. And if English isn't one's native tongue, the game actually supports more than 650 different languages for modding purposes.


Each of the scripts are generously "commented" within the files themselves, which offer would-be programmers a chance to get in some practice. The effort required by the developers to make all this available to the player is somewhere North of extraordinary. But that's just how the latest SC game releases are built.

Multiplayer Gaming

The topic that's taken up the most bandwidth on the games' forums thus far is multiplayer balance. In that regard, the developers have already pushed out a couple of patches addressing play balance between two human opponents. Our view is that's what the game editor is for: simply make some adjustments between two consenting adults and have at it! Meanwhile, here's the latest on multiplayer game balance based on two informative forum posts:




We also have a detailed quote on game balance from SC Assistant Programmer Bill Macon:


"There may be some confusion as to 'being able to simulate historical events' with wanting to replicate exact historical results. But this shouldn't be the case at all. Good wargames should demonstrate that if you follow historical strategies, then you should achieve relatively similar results. But that's not the point. If you have some confidence in the wargame being realistic and historically accurate, then you should have some confidence that following ahistorical strategies should produce believable results.

"The Strategic Command series does a pretty good job of doing that, improving and expanding as it has over the years," continues Macon. "If you play ahistorical to win, your victory or loss should be believable. In that sense, we should be on the same spectrum. And there should be an addictive replayability effect to try again with different ahistorical strategies."

The fact is that the Civil War in the East did not consist of a continuous line of units, but the battles played out that way. So, one point for Macon. Also, this was a period in warfare when the defender was favored, and wave attacks against the weapons of the time were suicidal. Even Lee, when he marched North and encountered the Union at Gettysburg, found that attacking on terrain favorable to the enemy was sheer madness.

So, the War in the East eventually did take on a WWI-style of attrition warfare, with the North having to accept high losses in order to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia.

According to another knowledgeable poster, "...the map only offers a limited number of hexes depicting Maryland and Pennsylvania. And as a result, there is no representation of mountain areas, such as South Mountain. So, the Cumberland Valley doesn't exist in the game, and that alone cancels out some crucial operational decisions." (Italics ours)

And so, we remind ourselves once again that this is not an operational-level game to begin with. We only belabor the point here because it may be a deal-breaker for certain gamers.

Our other observation related to multiplayer thus far is that, while Matrix/Slitherine's PBEM++ system is quite functional, gamers should expect only a limited amount of activity on the servers. This means that almost all multiplayer games available are locked-out as "private," and those searching for opponents are best directed to the Matrix/Slitherine forums to get connected. 

The 'Intelligence' of the Artificial Opponent

It's high time to give some credit where it's due. Whether it's O'Shea, Cater, Macon or Runacre, or most likely a team programming effort, the AI in this game is imminently credible. It's likely that only veteran-to-expert SC players (and those familiar with the most detailed levels of ACW grand strategy) will find any glaring faults here.


And here's some proof: When playing a custom 1861 game-start as the Confederates against a "veteran" Union AI opponent - with the French controlled by the AI but immediately active on the Rebel side with a generous portion of MMPs - the artificial opponent conducted itself quite admirably.


Specifically, our French allies under AI control both purchased units and conducted its land and naval operations better than this intermediate player could hope to do. (Of course, this isn't saying much.) On the Union side, the AI was bull-dog efficient in identifying, surrounding, and eliminating vulnerable Rebel forces, while credibly reinforcing its own formations.


Coming off some play-time with the ever-popular, strategic-level Unity of Command II game series on Steam, this writer was struck by the manifold internal AI decisions required of SC:ACW compared with the aforementioned game. Let's just say that the perceived effort required to program an excellent single-player game like Unity of Command II cannot be compared with the challenges presented - and mostly overcome - by the SC:ACW artificial opponent.


And, the AI isn't programmed to cheat, either. It uses the same supply, combat, spotting, income, research and other rules and formulas as the human player. However, by increasing the difficulty level in the Options menu (from Green, to Intermediate, to Veteran and onto Expert), the AI can be assigned spotting, experience, and/or MPP bonuses. The Experience bonus may give the AI an edge in certain combat situations, while the MMP bonus allows the AI to reinforce, upgrade and purchase more units over time than the human player.


Players can further customize the difficulty level versus the AI by disabling a number of AI bonus unit events in the Options/Advanced/Scripts screen during game set-up. These AI unit bonuses are typically found on the last few pages of the Unit Events menu and specifically labeled "for AI use only."


Hundreds of AI and Event scripts can be activated or de-activated at the start of the game.


One example is "AI Union: Division - Boston 3/63 Lv2," which translates into a Union AI-only event at the intermediate difficulty level or higher, whereby the AI will received a Division unit in Boston in March 1863.


The designers admit that the AI plays pretty well tactically, but "has difficulty matching the big-picture awareness of a human player." So, giving the artificial opponent a few more units helps it with grand strategy.


In addition, the AI bonus unit events are said to "smooth out" game play in general and avoid a snowball effect, where the AI begins to lose badly, resulting in an abrupt and unsatisfying finish to the game for the human player.


A number of advanced AI scripts are also present, which actually force the programmed opponent to conduct various research and diplomacy investments, whether it has the income to do so or not. These events were included to optimize the game experience for the player, but like most scripts, they can be turned off if desired.

Finally, when playing against the AI, the turn resolution phase in the SC:ACW game reviewed here is relatively lightning-quick, thanks in large part to a system that has been proven over more than 20 years of designer effort. And that's when testing the game on a sub-par, i7 3.6 ghz machine with a lowly GeForce GTX 745 video card at a screen resolution of 1900x1200.


A Rousing Welcome for the 'Old War Dog'

It may be the right time in this narrative to welcome a special guest: the Old War Dog. With 30 years of professional military experience as a U.S Army/USMC officer - and an astounding 1,500 hours playing GT (you remember that GT is short for Steam's Grand Tactics: The American Civil War, don't you?), the Old War Dog oozes the kind of real-world credibility that this writer sorely lacks.

  Major General William Tecumseh Sherman

Let's quote General William T. Sherman here: "War is cruelty, and there is no point in reforming it..."

And the Old War Dog responds: "Well, war has gotten 'reformed' very dramatically, and it is still being made the more terrible."


Like many military veterans who play wargames, the Old War Dog revels in designs that feature in-depth historical immersion, including a detailed treatment of unit headquarters, their personalities, and their functions. The Old War Dog notes that the shorter command ranges of HQ units in this version of SC makes their strategic placement "pure gold," but he mourns the limited number of historical leaders available to both sides during the game.

Now, we'll go into a bit more detail on the available HQ units and the strategies behind their optimal use in this SC game offering:


Like Fury's previous games, HQs can be set in one of three modes: Auto, Auto-Assist and Manual. The full-on Auto function allows the friendly AI to fill all the command slots, while Auto-Assist lets players intervene and manually assign formations to HQs as an option. Manual mode requires that gamers manually assign each unit to a HQ.


The Old War Dog notes that the AI doesn't always select the optimal HQ for each unit when on full Auto. On the other hand, Manual requires a good deal of micro-management to avoid leaving a command slot wide open. In this regard, Auto-Assist appears to be the best setting for HQs.


When using Auto-Assist mode, formations within command range are color coded on the map: A "blue" tint indicates a unit is not in command, and said formation will likely perform poorly in battle. A "green" tint indicates the unit is commanded by the selected HQ, while "red" shows that the selected formation is part of a different HQ than the one chosen. While all of this sounds complicated when being spelled out, it's relatively straight-forward in practice.


Van Dorn's Confederate HQ is responsible for several brigades (highlighted in 'green') when accessing the game's HQ mode. Also in use here is the "1861: The Blue and the Grey Mod" (alternate turns), which features custom unit graphics and a number of other features (link below).

When accessing the game's HQ mode, one strategy is to focus on the "blue" highlighted units and determine if each one really needs to be commanded by a HQ during that game turn - for example, if that particular formation is going to be involved in a key battle or is likely to be attacked during the next enemy turn. If a critical battle is coming up, it's wise to assign the units in question to the highest-rated and most experienced HQs.

If that is the case, the player can right-click on that important unit and attach it to the selected HQ. If the "attach" function appears faded-out, that means the current HQ is devoid of command slots, and another unit must be detached to make room for the key formation.

The various HQ functions cannot be used if a unit has been moved, has attacked, or has been upgraded. Therefore, it's important to finish all the HQ assignments before one starts shuffling units around. When one deploys a new HQ unit - and there won't be many of them in a vanilla campaign - that HQ cannot move but can be assigned subordinate units within its command range.


The Naval Game

There's quite a bit that's new when it comes to naval warfare in the game, and even the most experienced SC players have come up against a moderate learning curve when exploring the nuances of riverine warfare in SC:ACW. There are no less than 15 individual naval vessels modeled in this game.


Ironclad ships (including river ironclad and monitor-type vessels) are most useful in destroying wooden ships (mainly gunboats). And there is a meaningful distinction between all types of naval units, from battleships to amphibious transports.


Monitors are less effective than ironclads when battling the latter ships, but they are potent weapons when faced with wooden ships and also cost a bit less in MMPs and can be built quicker than ironclads.


The Confederate player is advised to build at least a few river ironclads and monitors to challenge the Union and avoid having the enemy destroy Rebel convoys and drain its economy. On "normal" difficulty level, one can do significant damage with ironclads in order to open up Confederate trade lanes and gimp the Union's ability to amphibious assault. And new players should be warned that the Union player seems to be able to conduct landing operations anywhere and everywhere it so chooses.


The latest build of the game gives gunboats the "special" ability to kill land units on an all-to-frequent basis. "They make field and railroad guns look like peashooters in comparison," says the Old War Dog, although certain land features appear to mitigate their effectiveness. The use of several gunboats can be used by human players like a surgical tool to inflict "1" or "2" strength points of damage to land units per attack. While Union General U.S. Grant used these weapons to great effect when sailing down the Ole Mississippi, at press time gunboats appear to be overpowered when attacking land formations. As such, the building and deploying of large groups of gunboats are currently a known "exploit" for Union players.


In any event, researching naval weapons is a good idea in order to improve the offensive capability of one's ships when playing as the Confederates. The Union player is graced with a preponderance of ships active in coastal areas of the game map. However, players will still need to prioritize three key techs - infantry equipment, corps organization and infantry tactics - over and above naval considerations.

SC:ACW's research screen allows player to follow their own strategies when allocating precious Military Production Points to the various technologies that may be unlocked during the game. This particular screen belongs to a "modified" campaign featuring extra research points.


The Old War Dog strongly suggests that players consult the individual Strategy Guides written for each scenario for further hints on research and general game tactics. However, the research paths chosen are typically dependent on the player's overall strategy, so there is no perfect formula for devoting MMPs to various technologies within the game. Besides the infantry techs, bonuses to field telegraph, leadership, spying-and-intelligence, and fort modernization should all be considered right up-front.

Directly below is an informative thread on Union naval strategy regarding the blocking of Confederate ports, which is what the AI will certainly use against the player:


And here's another helpful thread on the use of amphibious landings in the game:


Finally, we offer one more tip on SC:ACW naval strategy:


More On Strategy

With more than 1,500 hours playing GT, the Old War Dog rates the complexity level of SC:ACW as a "3," with GT's challenge rated at an "8 and rising," with the latest updates. That steep of a learning curve, as well as a fleshed-out "civilian" component, makes the strategic, operational and tactical aspects of GT time consuming and demanding compared with the high-level and relatively streamlined personality of our latest SC game.


A quick study of this game screen pulled from Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) shows the depth of detail inherent in this breakthrough game design.


"SC may be a great game for 19th and 20th Century large-scale wargaming," says the Old War Dog. "I have noticed with Fury's latest iteration a unique AI compared to the previous games that teaches history while guiding the player through the scenarios. At the tactical level, the AI component is competent but relies more on the player making the decisions than in GT's tactical game module.



Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) features strategic, operational, and tactical game play that can challenge the most experienced AWNT wargamers.


"The GT AI is continually evaluating and becoming stronger at holding the lines and less resistant to flanking attacks," the Old War Dog continues. "Of course, the competency of the AI has varied quite a bit from patch to patch with GT. The SC AI seems to adjust well to the player's decisions: going back to the War in Europe game, it you decide not to execute Operation Sealion, the SC's AI does a good job of re-adjusting Britain's home defense priorities."


Also, please find a link below on the strategic uses of regiments, brigades, cavalry divisions and other units from some expert SC game players:


The International Scene

The inclusion of Britain, France, Spain and Mexico in the stock campaigns is intriguing indeed. But, as was historically the case, wargamers should generally not expect the major nations to play a key role in the vanilla scenarios.


  In this campaign, the British Empire enters the fray in the American Civil War on the Confederate side of the conflict, attacking from the Canadian territories.


O'Shea admits that France's intervention in Mexico is not included in the game as a separate scenario. Instead, the designer has built this interaction into the main campaigns. When the French seize control of the Veracruz Customs House in Dec. 1861 (you remember that from North American History 101, right?), a new faction will appear in that city - the Mexican Empire (not Mexico proper) - and every so often after that an event will pop up telling the player about recent events in Mexico.

Of course, all of this changes if and when France enters the war...


In this modified campaign scenario, The French Republic has gone over to the Confederate side. Several French units can be seen in the Southwest corner of the game's strategic map.


When Napoleon III jumps into the fray, both Mexico (on the Union side) and the Mexican Empire (on the Confederate side) will both activate, with their forces positioned in accordance with their historical deployments at that time.


For example, if France joins the ACW in the Summer of 1862, one will find General Lorencez licking his wounds after the Cinco de Mayo. And if France appears a year later, Marshal Forey will be victorious in Mexico City.



 The French send 163 Military Production Points to the Rebels via the Convoy system.


At this point, both the Union and Confederacy will also be able to send forces to Mexico; and, in the Union's case, MMPs via a convoy, provided that the Yankees control both El Paso and New Mexico. As such, it's important that players balance out their military commitments between the battles in Mexico and the U.S. if they are to have a chance of winning the much wider war.


Editing Power in the Player's Hands

We are happy to report that the developers did not "wimp out" and promise the editor in a future patch: The standard SC game editor, which is extremely powerful and very easy to operate, is included and entirely functional in the release-version of the game.


Previous owners of one of the SC series of games know exactly what they are getting here. For newcomers, expect to be pleasantly surprised by the scope of editing possibilities offered by this utility - without ever reading the editor's documentation. The editor both reveals all the detailed data behind the game's design and hands it all to the player on a silver platter. In fact, we recommend that players boot up the game's editor just to see the wealth of statistics that back up the vanilla campaigns' designs.

And this is where all the "unused" space on the generous game map of the Northern Hemisphere in the vanilla scenarios can be leveraged to create entirely new global wars. Even for first-time users, one of the beauties of this editor is the ability to profoundly change the character of any of the stock campaigns with just a few keystrokes - and no error messages!


The entire Northern Hemisphere is one's playground when using the SC:ACW game editor.


Unfortunately, there are few players who will make use of the editor's power in campaigns for public consumption. Two months after the game's initial release on Matrix/Slitherine, and we don't have even one customized battle scenario (data-wise, not just graphics-wise) available for download. The dearth of custom campaigns on public forums has generally held true for the previous SC releases, but that does not stop would-be designers from creating their own diversions.


However, this sad state of affairs is in no way a reflection on SC:ACW or its editor. Matrix/Slitherine's War in the East 2 sports a phenomenal, if somewhat more complex, editor than the SC series, and one can count the number of custom scenarios available on the game's forums on less than half of one's hand. It appears that, in general, most digital wargamers are looking for a very historical version of history to be served up with their campaigns. There are exceptions to this rule in the Matrix product catalog, with the Operational Art of War IV and Advanced Tactics Gold being primary contenders.


SC:ACW is still ripe for mods, of course. Certainly, the enduring attraction of replaying the American Civil War on the computer should also captivate the imaginations of creative game players looking to explore what-if scenarios. The conflict inspired a whole series of novels and "Lee Rides Again" fantasy excursions in book format, so there's little stopping players from diving in.


Even in its purely historical guise, SC:ACW is a game that should not be missed by those looking for a relatively rare, strategic-level simulation of this far-reaching and monumental conflict.





Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive From Matrix/Slitherine Games and Developer VR Design       If there's one thing most wargamers ap...

Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive Indepth Review Special Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive Indepth Review Special

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Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive

From Matrix/Slitherine Games and Developer VR Design


If there's one thing most wargamers appreciate, it's the numbers. For example, the nitty-gritty combat factors that can make or break an in-game assault.

Well, digital wargamers can rejoice because VR Design's latest offering, Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive (AO for short) includes more "column shifts" than the average grognard would have thought possible in a strategy game. And all of this is courtesy of a simulation that takes maximum advantage of the number-crunching capabilities of modern computers.


When one includes these features with a UI that's easy to navigate without ever opening the 110-page manual, and strategy gamers have a product that offers (almost) immediate gratification, as well as a respectable measure of historical accuracy.


What's clear after 50 hours of playing time on the smaller scenarios alone is that, from almost every angle, the game has been polished to a brilliant shine.


"It's really just a counter-pusher and nothing more than that," writes developer Victor (Vic) Reijkersz in the game's manual. However, what he adds next perfectly sums up VR Design's creative efforts: "By really focusing on making it do what it does well, I think we have delivered a fun and realistic game."


In that respect, and in our humble opinion, VR Design has accomplished its primary mission.


The 'Screaming Eagles' defend Bastogne


But before we continue with the accolades, we need to conduct a few reality checks:


1. The game was released on November 18, 2021 on while this review was still being written. This means that a large portion of the existing Matrix/Slitherine customer base interested in the game before release probably owns it by now. And that may include you.


2. The remaining buyers of the game who are still on the fence have several good-to-excellent video reviews to sit through if they have the patience.


3. The much wider Steam audience will be introduced to the game when it is available on that platform in a few months. Our guess is that only a few of these customers are regular visitors to AWNT's web site. And yes, we forgive them.


4. Nevertheless, AWNT will still lasso a significant number of potential buyers post-release who are searching the web for reviews of this game. So this article may be helpful if that is you.


5. And finally, we come to this review's primary raison d'etre: To introduce board wargamers to a digital product they may have otherwise missed.


In fact, there are several reasons why AWNT's audience might be keenly interested in this game, while those who enjoy lighter-weight titles like Matrix Games Panzer Corps 2 might want to give it a pass.


The first of these reasons was touched on at the beginning of this article: the countless algorithms used for sighting, terrain affects, weather, movement, command-and-control, supply, morale, and most especially - combat - are deliciously detailed and skillfully displayed for the player. In addition, the game map has the looks and quality of a modern board game release, although different heights can be difficult to discern.

The Bottom-line

For those of you in a rush to get to the bottom-line, there's no need to search further for a summation: It's all right here:


For computer wargamers looking for a medium-complexity, battalion-level simulation (1 km per hex) with a comprehensive suite of editors, this game is the literal "critic's choice," and the $40 U.S. asking price is a mere pittance for the content one will receive. And, most importantly, for board game players who have thus far resisted the urge to purchase a digital wargame? Well, this is the product you really want to consider.


The NATO counters are not as snazzy at the silhouettes but equally informative.

The scenarios included with the game include four "smaller" engagements (West Wall, To Dinant, Arracourt, and Stavelot); six "medium-size" scenarios (St. Vith, 82nd Airborne, Bastogne, Elsenborn Ridge, Skyline Drive and Windhund (116th Panzer Division)); and, two huge campaign games (Wacht Am Rhein, and the Allied counterattack, The Tide Turns).


Several weeks after release, some of the more experienced wargamers on the Matrix/Slitherine forums are still embroiled with the smaller stuff; And Stavelot, arguably the simplest of the offerings, is challenging some of the best and brightest. These players are finding that there's always a way to win the introductory scenarios, but it's going to take a few tries and several different strategies. Kudos to Reijkersz's partner in VR Design's latest effort - Davide Gambina - who is responsible for scenario design and the significant amount of historical research required to publish a game of this depth.


What experienced gamers may be surprised to find in a product depicting an impressive level of tactical detail in an operational-level wargame is just how easy the game is to play. The challenge is in beating the pants off the AI. PBEM is accomplished the old-fashioned way - via file transfer - with no dedicated server available yet. But the AI is aggressive on the attack and stubborn on the defense. With an artificial opponent like this, who needs friends anyway? However, head-to-head mode is likely to be extremely intense for players looking for the ultimate challenge.


Players can also expect history to repeat itself in terms of Axis fuel shortages and Allied air superiority. However, in the warm-up scenarios at least, these historical realities don't come across as too heavy-handed.


The engagements seem nicely balanced but do require the Axis side to take risks to achieve the ahistorical victories that eluded the Wehrmacht. This means blowing past the more immediate victory locations and stretching German troop movements to the limit in a December 1944 version of the blitzkrieg.


Playing the aggressor against an equally competent human opponent is going to be tough. Likewise, when defending against an AI attacker, experienced players may want to adjust the difficulty level from "normal" (the easiest setting) to "challenging." Fortunately, with scenarios like West Wall and The Tide Turns campaign, both sides get to play as the attacker in a game that realistically favors defensive operations.


The strategic map for the Wacht Am Rhein campaign game.

In a game as calculation-centric as AO, it's a marvel the engine doesn't bog down. Even when playing the big campaign scenarios against the AI, the initial turn preparation phase never exceeds more than several seconds. Game phases for the smaller scenarios are processed with lightning-quick speed.


Even better, the mouse feels like a scalpel under this new Decisive Battles series UI, with the most important actions falling readily to-hand. We have all fussed with wargame interfaces that remind us of what a Trabant must have been like to drive in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The switch-gear in this game, however, is both tactile and intuitive - the BMW M5 sports sedan of wargame interfaces.


A big part of the success of this newest Decisive Battles interface is that there are tool tips for nearly everything. And "everything" means much more detailed information in the tool tips than most WW2 grognards could ever wish for.


The combat routines are immersive, detailed and immensely satisfying, while also managing to move the battles along at a brisk pace. When tested on a i7, 3.6 ghz system with a lowly GeForce GTX 745 graphics card, the game phases for the largest scenarios advance in less than 15 seconds, and the quality of the 1900x1200 desktop resolution used to run the game was better than average. Higher screen resolutions will most likely result in more razor-sharp images.


In this game, troops are modeled per squad of 10 men or a single vehicle, with new rules for LOS, traffic jams, height levels, and much more. Six different ground states are displayed on the map, three of which are for aesthetic purposes.


It all begins with the intuitive MOVE mode: a simple "left-click" to select a unit and a "right-click" to move and/or attack.


An attack brings up the all-important combat set-up screen, which is masterfully well-designed. In the center is a zoomed-in map view showing the immediate area of the combat, reminiscent of Strategic Studies Group's "Kharkov - Disaster on the Donets" combat screen. Except here we have a high-res view of the counters and terrain, with the combat odds and attack options properly put forward.


In fact, this may well be the best combat strategy screen ever created for a wargame. It's simply amazing how uncluttered this screen is when considering the reams of data available to the player when planning an attack.


The combat set-up screen in a small engagement outside of Stavelot.

The small- and medium-size scenarios included with this game are rewarding enough, but there are two marquee battles that really define the title. The first is Wacht Am Rhein (Dec. 16-31, 1944), which will be easier to play as the Allied defender simply because there are fewer units to manage compared with the Axis attacker.


The second campaign game, The Tide Turns (Jan. 1-16, 1945) will be the more innovative choice, and starting on Turn 1, players will find a huge number of Allied counters waiting for orders. Fortunately, they can be moved by group as well as individually. Managing the defense for the Axis forces in this large campaign will also be an appealing challenge, with fewer units to micromanage.


In terms of raw data, VR Design's previous effort, Decisive Campaigns Barbarossa (DCB) features only one campaign (and no scenarios) and takes up 583 mb of hard drive space. AO requires 900 mb, and that's still quite tidy considering the greater emphasis on graphics for the new title, not to mention 10 scenarios and two large campaign games. There's more content for one's money here compared with the developer's last game. Oh, and the previous title featured a significantly smaller (and graphically much simpler) terrain map at 98x74 hexes.

Decisive Campaigns Barbarosa, VR Design's previous effort.

One thing VR Design hasn't done is rest on its laurels: DCB (the third game in the DC series) was released six years ago and was most recently updated in March of 2020; and, based on popular reviews, Shadow Empire, a turn-based 4X role-playing strategy/wargame, has been a runaway success for the developer since its release by Matrix/Slitherine. It is also available on Steam.


New Features

The new game represents units at the battalion (operational) level, but there is still a tactical feel to the proceedings. LOS is now a "thing" in this game and is governed by several factors, including terrain type and height, weather, unit types, and the recon point value of each hex. All this information together can result in either full, partial or fully-blocked LOS. As wargamers might expect, building up a high recon point value through probes, etc., gives players more accurate information on enemy units, while no recon at all invites an ambush.


While the designer uses a full page of the manual and a detailed chart to explain recon in the game, let's just say one of its best features is that it makes sense to actually use small scouting forces - and especially reconnaissance-trained troops - for recon-only missions.


Recon levels are shown directly on the map using an "eye" icon that is shaded green for strong recon or red for the opposite. Considering there's a lot going on graphically in the map display, the recon function is well designed and doesn't contribute to map clutter. The recon value is also displayed numerically on the combat set-up screen.

The green-colored "eyes" feature the highest recon levels.

Another new factor to consider with this game is "intercept fire." Your units may be fired upon when moving and will obviously take more potential damage if in "march" mode. Friendly forces also conduct intercept fire on enemy units automatically, which gives the game a slightly more WEGO turn resolution feel when playing.


Of course, like most aspects of the game, intercept fire mode can be modified by selecting the "trigger happy," "regular," "conservative" and "never" standing orders for each unit. As an example, when using the "conservative" setting, your units will only attempt intercept fire if they have a 66% chance (or more) of hitting the enemy.


With all there is to do in the game, this writer was content to leave the settings at "regular" to avoid excessive micromanagement. However, in certain tactical situations it probably pays to "get one's hands dirty" and experiment with the settings. Enemy intercept fire never appeared overly deadly in terms of friendly casualties but was able to stop a unit in its tracks, which was often a worse outcome than taking a few losses.


The new Uncertainty rule is a feature that's rarely, if ever, seen in digital wargames and adds more suspense and randomness to combat and formation quality on a unit-wide basis. It took the designer a full page of the manual to explain just how the "dice" modify things when using this rule. Let's just say that you won't be able to discover the true quality of a unit until after it has participated in multiple combats. Under rare circumstances, the rule can actually quadruple the performance of a troop based on modified attack and hit points.


Another feature not present in most wargames is that when Fog of War is disabled, the player can see all the units on the map, but the combat calculations still consider only what your units and the enemy's can actually see.

Designing Your Own Kampfgruppe

A significant new game feature is that units in the same hex can now be transferred from one formation to another using a similar, but more highly polished and detailed mechanism first seen in VR Design's classic, and still popular Advanced Tactics Gold wargame. New battlegroups can be created on-the-fly, with the program providing an appropriate name for the new formation, such as KG (kampfgruppe) Gutmann or Battlegroup Smith.


This feature is more than just an enjoyable new piece of chrome, as it allows strategists to create task-specific formations for upcoming duties. And it's also a heck of a lot of fun to use.


For example, rather than being stuck with an overly large regiment consisting of mixed battalions and companies for a critical attack, the transfer feature allows one to create an artillery-heavy battalion to soften up the enemy; a veteran group of panzer grenadiers and engineers for the assault; and, a pure armored formation for the breakthrough. Of course, custom units formed using this utility cannot more or attack in the same turn they are created.


In the same way, a defensive-oriented unit made up of "fortress" infantry and anti-tank guns can be whipped up quickly and assigned to defend the hex, rather than using (and possibly wasting) the services of a larger battalion or regiment. A situation like this can be doubly important when attacking with a large vanilla unit, as an "overkill" penalty in combat triggers various penalties and useless losses.


The 84th SS Flak Abt. (highlighted in red) is created in order to ambush American armor.

It's also important to note that while newly formed units are temporarily "disorganized," the penalty is far from crippling. The bottom line is the player has the ability (and the responsibility) to ensure there are no awkward or inappropriate formations in his or her army.


In this latest version of the Decisive Campaigns series, the variety of Action Cards has been greatly and generously expanded to fit the operational level of the game. The card's in VR Design's previous strategic-level DCB game seem quite skimpy in comparison.


For example, a survey of available action cards in AO scenarios number as many as 15 for the Axis, separated into four categories: Combat Units, Rear Area, Air Support, and Depots. Naturally, the Air Support category is minimal for the Germans and more plentiful for the Allies - depending on the weather. Like so many other aspects of the game, the decision of how and where to spend one's precious Political Points on Action Cards in a given situation can be immensely rewarding for the player.


A sampling of Axis Combat Unit Action Cards.

Command Points differ from Political Points in that the former are used to activate a variety of different Action Cards that are shown for each officer, and also to create new kampfgruppes/battlegroups, among other things. These command points are generated by the Command Rating of the various personnel in one's officer corps. In addition, each personality is rated in five areas, such as Audacity (think Gen. Patton), Determination (Patton again), Charisma (Rommel (yes, he lurks in the editor)), as well as Intuition and Organization.


Simulating the Bulge: Comparing Panzer Campaigns with Decisive Battles

The game scale used in the late John Tiller's Panzer Campaigns Bulge '44 Gold edition (patch circa 12/09/18) matches AO's closely at 1 km per hex with each counter representing a roughly battalion-size unit. The southwest corner of Tiller's Bulge game is anchored by the four-hex (4 km) city of Charleville. AO's map is pretty close, with that city about five hexes from the western map edge and seven hexes from the bottom.


Likewise, the large, Allied-held city of Verviers sits at the top (northern) edge of the Bulge map, where strategists tackling VR Design's game get seven extra km of maneuvering space north of that city.


AO's campaign map (155x116) is a few 'clicks larger overall than the Panzer Campaigns map (169x98) for a total of 17,980 square km vs. 16,562 square km, respectively.


John Tiller's Panzer Campaigns Bulge '44 Gold edition map.

We could go on with our comparison, but a close study of the many cities and towns included in both games shows creative choices were used by the designers of both products, making it crystal clear that Gamina did not borrow from Tiller when creating AO's campaign map.


Mr. Tiller's original Wach Am Rhein campaign game weighs in at a hefty 164 turns, vs. AO's relatively brief 64 tries, albeit with up to 10 combat rounds simulated per turn. However, these rounds can be resolved in a flash if the player so wishes.


In terms of unit placement, the U.S. 102nd Cavalry Group is located exactly where it "should be" in both games - about two 'clicks north of Monschau.


In general, there's only a few natural map and unit variations between the two excellent game designs, and the differences make each a true "original."


For example, Tiller's team chose to highlight the town of St. Vith as a one-hex, 1,000 point objective, whereas Gambina spreads things out by using four separate objective hexes to mark the town.


It should be noted that Tiller's research and scenario design team included Panzer Campaigns veterans Greg Smith, Glenn Saunders and the late Dave "Blackie" Blackburn, while Gambina handled all the OOB and scenario design work himself.


In fact, the fidelity of both games is such that players of AO may want to seriously consider picking up Bulge '44 Gold at


The 116th Panzer Regiment highlighted in AO's map.(Compare this screen shot with the Panzer Campaigns map showing the same game situation in the screen shot above.)

 The Counters Explained

While the standard NATO counters are both informative and relatively readable (even when some screen displays considerably reduce their size), the Silhouette counter option can be deeply gratifying.


However, not all the symbology on the counters will be clear at first glance. Fortunately, there is an excellent tutorial video on the topic ( that will cost you 11 minutes of your life. So, it may be quicker to just do the reading below. The following screen shot comes directly from the game manual:

The 'key' to the counters.

  • The Regime icon is either the vintage-look German Cross shown in the counter above, or a green-colored star for the Allies.

  • The Name (162. here) is where players may find some inconsistencies with OOB naming and labeling that can make units of the same formation a bit more difficult to identify. (These names can be changed in the program's Simple Editor, and at least one modder on the forums is hard at work attempting to clarify these situations.)

  • The tiny Supplies Received square is colored green, yellow, blue or red, showing a progressively decreasing access to supplies. Black means the unit is out-of-supply.

  • The shield or symbol of the unit's HQ is displayed next; there are a plethora of colorful (and historically-accurate) icons available for HQs of both sides.

  • The color of the vertical readiness/integrity bar below the shield goes from green/yellow/blue/red, with the latter color showing readiness below 25. One does not want to attack using units with low readiness.

  •  The green crate icon in the lower right corner of the counter shows supply reserves using the same color coding for increasingly lower stocks. The larger numeral to its left is quite handy and depicts the abstract strength of a unit compared with others on the game board.

  • The number within the circle is the unit's Action Points; the highlighted circle is white if the formation is in March mode and black for units in Combat mode.

  • The "oil drum" in the lower left corner of the counter shows fuel reserves from green (full) to red (low).

  • Last and largest is the actual unit silhouette in the center of the counter, which shows the most prevalent troop type in the formation and its means of transport, if any. The unit in the screen shot above is shown as mechanized infantry (notice the halftrack icon), while other icons include horse-drawn transport or nothing at all for foot sloggers.

The screen shot show below shows a close-up of several British formations surrounding the city of Huy at the start of the Wacht Am Rhein campaign scenario. One notices that the rather nicely drawn British roundels and the vertical (green) readiness/integrity bars have been shifted from the right to the left edge of the counters to further differentiate Allied from Axis units.


British formations, including HQ units.

One notices the HQ of the 152nd Infantry Brigade (sporting the large British roundel) on the left side of the screenie. Its HQ is the 51st Infantry Division "Highland" off map to the southwest. The "2SH" (2nd Seaforth Highlanders) is positioned directly northeast of 152 Infantry Brigade HQ, while the 127th Royal Field Artillery is a bit further northeast and features the "HD" roundel atop its readiness bar signifying it as a member of the Highland (HD) Division.


In this microcosm of an OOB, the naming, labeling and shading is quite well done. But one can imagine things can get a bit sticky at times. In the release version of the game, there may be inconsistencies with the historical designations of the units on several of the 200+ counters created for the game.


Combat Planning In-Depth

How much data does the player have at his/her disposal in the combat set-up screen alone? Below is a sampling using the screen shot we posted previously:


The combat set-up screen examined.
In the upper left of the screen shot above we have the Eligible Forces available for the proposed attack - up to 24 (or more) distinct little counters just large enough so one can read the various attributes of each when actually playing the game. Like past Decisive Campaigns games, the player can select and de-select each counter and instantly see how the estimated attack data changes.

Directly below the Eligible Forces is the box containing the "estimation of offensive mods" table, which includes the affects of the landscape, rivers, concentric attack modifiers (if any); readiness and unit experience modifiers; an attack saturation modifier (if too much power is being used on too small a target); a HQ/Staff/Officer bonus modifier; a high-ground modifier; two "offensive power" modifiers; and, last but not least, a "cumulative modifier" that multiplies all the estimated modifiers with one another.


On the opposite side of the main combat set-up window is a table showing the same detailed combat modifiers for the defending forces. The units of both sides involved in the combat are also shown in the bottom left and right corners of the screen.


Obviously, calculating all these modifiers by hand in a board game would be a stiff challenge, but it's a breeze for today's modern CPUs.

Four attack options (Probe, Recon in Force, Attack, and All-Out Attack) are shown as brownish buttons at the bottom center of the display, and all feature tool tips on what they do. Just above these buttons is the large, green-colored combat odds box (i.e., Odds 4:1, as shown in the screen above).


Above the Odds box is the map or "porthole" view, showing each attacking counter with the defending unit(s) in the center. The player can also add or remove an attacking counter from the combat by clicking directly on the unit in the map view.


Finally, the Combat Totals are shown numerically in the upper right-hand table, including individual Infantry, Guns, Motorized, and Tank units committed to the assault, as well as the attacker's and defender's Stack and Recon points.


And, of course, all of this information is updated instantly every time the player adds or removes a unit counter to or from the attack.


Once the player confirms the chosen attack type by pushing its button, the full map is shown briefly (centered in the combat location) with an "explosion" icon over the targeted hex.


There are three combat resolution screens available: Graphic, Textual, and Detail views, similar to the previous Decisive Campaigns games.


The graphic view shows tiny unit counters on each side of the screen (attacker and defender, respectively), with equally tiny graphic icons of the units themselves in the center (infantry, bazookas, trucks, jeeps, tanks, etc.). A number is shown in white below each icon and turns red when losses occur.


The player can choose to resolve each of 10 or more rounds of combat all at once by selecting the "auto-play" button or show the results of each round manually by pressing the space bar or "next round" button.


The "textual" combat resolution option shows a spreadsheet-type view of each combat round in numerical format, with unit types, losses, and various other stats updating with each round of combat.


The "detail" combat resolution screen is just that: more details, with a screen full of data showing individual combat losses each round, as well as a variety of other reports.


In this writer's opinion, the textual combat report is the easiest to absorb, but the player has the ability to change the resolution screens on-the-fly for every round of combat.


Ranged Combat

The screen shot below illustrates the Ranged Attack planning window, with the indirect fire bonus modifier tool tip enabled in the center. The Eligible Forces available to fire are included in the upper-left corner, and in this example, the sole German unit selected is shooting from 2 km (two hex) range.


A trio of 81mm mortars is selected in the upper left and ready to fire on the Americans.

Let's savor some of the details depicted on this screen for a moment. This particular shot is from a modified version of the Stavelot scenario - the smallest battle included with the game. The single formation highlighted under Attacking Forces is shown in the bottom-left box and ready to shoot with its three 81mm mortars, as part of an editor-modified and enhanced 11th VolksSturm Battalion.


In this case, full LOS, height affects and several other modifiers matter in what is otherwise a tiny firing mission. Experienced users are split on whether the player should highlight and attack with every ranged unit individually for maximum effect, or instead, avoid micromanagement and fire with all the available units listed in the Attacking forces box. In this case, the result of our three-tube mortar mission is masked because the fog-of-war setting is on.


Nevertheless, this is a battalion-level game with the granularity approaching a squad-based title. The possible outcomes of every combat are nearly limitless.


And besides the combat resolutions, there is the amazing amount of data tracked when accessing the Stats tab at the top of the main screen. More than 165 unit types are listed alphabetically, from the 105mm Howitzer to the German Wirbelwind. Losses and kills can be tracked for each type of infantry squad, artillery piece or armored vehicle in the game using an easy-to-read graph.


The Stats screen also gives commanders a quick way to access the equipment being used in the game by unit type, as well as its effectiveness. In terms of numbers tracked, this game arguable drills as deep as Matrix Games' legendary War in the East series, except the information is generally easier to digest.


Total motorized losses for each side. The green data track shows friendly losses.

The Editorial Suite

And oh, how sweet it is. Most players won't even touch the Simple Editor, as well as the Troop-Type, Historical Unit, Officer, and Map editors. And the primary reason is the legitimate desire to be chained by historicity. And we respect that.


Nevertheless, this writer is now officially off-the-leash. It's Patton's Third Armored Division against the Wehrmacht's finest panzer troops untouched by bad weather and previous casualties in a colossal meeting engagement with Bastogne as the prize. This imaginary scenario is easier to set up than one might think.


The editors give players the ability to change nearly everything about the forces involved in a scenario, as illustrated by one of the many available editing tools shown in the screen shot below:


Unit stats ready for modification in the Historical Unit Editor.

One can also use some restraint and just give the Axis some extra fuel, or political and command points, to see if it can accomplish what turned out to be a near-impossible historical mission. All it takes is a few key strokes.


Using the Table function in the Simple Editor also makes it easy to scroll down a long list of scenario-specific modifications. Want to swap out a particular division's Panthers for Tiger IIs? It literally takes a few seconds. In fact, most budding scenario designers can stick to the "Simple" Editor and modify a vast number of game parameters.


For example, by selecting Map and then Units from the upper tab in the Simple Editor, one can quickly remove, relocate or chose from a satisfyingly-long list of new combat formations and historical leaders to include in an edited scenario.


The screen shot below shows a partial list of historical Wehrmacht leaders included with the game, along with their statistics. American, British and SS officers are included in separate files.


The German officer line-up in the Historical Officer editor.

As of this writing, the official documentation for the editors can be found here:


Other than graphics mods, all the important files one will be editing, overwriting or renaming are all located in the "ardennesscenarios" folder in the main game directory. This makes it easy for modders to back up the original files and save their modified works-in-progress, as only one folder needs to be protected from unintentional overwriting.


The modding of game files at this stage of the release using the Simple Editor is easy enough, but few players typically take advantage of the power inside this utility. What experimentation with the basic editor does show is just how robust the AI appears to be: Even when modding the small West Wall scenario into a mammoth slug-fest, the computer opponent somehow refuses to be confused with all the tinkering. So one can imagine just how well the AI handles the stock scenarios. And PBEM as the Axis may well be the greatest and most enjoyable challenge board wargamers have yet to face in the digital game arena.\


And that is by far the strongest "must buy" recommendation we can currently offer.


Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive