Tacticular Cancer reviews Unity of Command
Tacticular Cancer reviews Unity of Command
Review - posted by Trash on Fri 22 February 2013, 17:07:53Tags: 2x2 games; Matrix Games; Slitherine; Unity of Command
Unity of Command was released way back in 2011 by small independent developer 2x2 Games. Since we're now well into 2013 we decided it was about time we gave some attention to it. Our very own Ulminati braved the endless Russian steppes to see what's what with Unity of Command.
One of the most striking things most my Grognard compatriots tended to remark upon when seeing this game are the graphics. Many appear to loathe them and immediately assume the game is a glorified web browser clickathon. I’ll admit I was initially discouraged from buying the game because of them, but they very quickly grew on me. The interface is easy to navigate and packs a lot of information onto your screen without ever getting so confusing you can’t tell what is going on. The prevalence of browns and greys also fits the dismal setting of the miserable eastern front and allows the slightly brighter colors of the informational icons to draw the eye without burning out your retinas. Looking at a unit icon will tell you what kind of unit it is, what its strength is, if it is out of supply, how much of its combat strength is suppressed, its experience level, its status, whether it can move and/or attack and what specialist equipment (if any) it has without so much as mousing over the bust. Clicking any unit will bring up a more detailed overlay on the right hand side, putting numbers to the icons. The clean graphics allow for a lot of information to be conveyed on the screen in an easily readable format.Read our full Unity of Command review.
"At the bottom of the trenches there lay frozen green Germans and frozen grey Russians and frozen fragments of human shapes, and there were helmets, Russian and German, lying among the brick debris... How anyone could have survived was hard to imagine. But now everything was silent in this fossilized hell, as though a raving lunatic had suddenly died of heart failure."
- Alexander Werth, Stalingrad, February 1943
Unity of Command is a turn-based strategy game by an independent 2-man developer called 2x2 games. It was released in Nov 2011 for Windows, Mac and Linux, but has since languished in semi-obscurity. It was recently promoted on steam in conjunction with their steam for Linux launch, which is where yours truly picked it up and quickly regretted not having done so sooner.
The game centers around the German push into Russia in 1942-1943 and the Soviet counteroffensive after Operation Barbarossa stalled. It is a turn based strategy game played at the Operational Level. Individual units on the map represent axis divisions or soviet corps, every hex on the map is roughly 20km across and a turn represents 4 days of warfare. The player manages the deployment of forces with the actual fighting being abstracted. The game comes with two campaigns – one Axis and one Soviet – and 17 scenarios, many of which are lifted from the main campaigns. There is a DLC out which adds a campaign about the Soviet push to Berlin and 19 scenarios to this list along with some late-war unit types. The game also comes with a scenario editor but the mapping community does not appear to have taken off so the selection is limited. One interesting feature is that all of the scenarios can be played either against the AI or another human in either hotseat mode or over the internet.
Moscow or Bust
One of the most striking things most my Grognard compatriots tended to remark upon when seeing this game are the graphics. Many appear to loathe them and immediately assume the game is a glorified web browser clickathon. I’ll admit I was initially discouraged from buying the game because of them, but they very quickly grew on me. The interface is easy to navigate and packs a lot of information onto your screen without ever getting so confusing you can’t tell what is going on. The prevalence of browns and greys also fits the dismal setting of the miserable eastern front and allows the slightly brighter colors of the informational icons to draw the eye without burning out your retinas. Looking at a unit icon will tell you what kind of unit it is, what its strength is, if it is out of supply, how much of its combat strength is suppressed, its experience level, its status, whether it can move and/or attack and what specialist equipment (if any) it has without so much as mousing over the bust. Clicking any unit will bring up a more detailed overlay on the right hand side, putting numbers to the icons. The clean graphics allow for a lot of information to be conveyed on the screen in an easily readable format.
Some critical information is not visible on the main screen. Supply range and weather conditions can only be seen by toggling map overlays that make the units transparent. Map features are easily readable in open terrain, but once you have 10 divisions lined up on either side of a river it can be rather difficult to tell where exactly the bridge is. There is a terrain overlay that shows these, but again, it dims units after being toggled on for a short time. More glaringly, weather can have a huge impact both on movement and combat results, but the only way to see if it’s sunny, raining or snowing is by bringing up the overlay. This is an important enough factor that I wish a small sun/raindrop/snowflake icon or color tinting could have been worked in to show weather in hexes. The graphical difference between unit busts can also be too subtle at times. You’ll never confuse a Soviet corps for a German Wehrmacht division. But you just might mix up your elite SS troops with Italian regulars – a potentially disastrous mistake if you send your elite siege breakers in the wrong direction. Also, the miniature icons for the various types of unit specializations can be a bit difficult to tell apart without bringing up the unit overview pane by selecting a unit. That said it would most likely be impossible to work in more detail without making everything unreadable in the clutter. The UI strikes a very good balance between detail and usability. It is a sleek, utilitarian thing of beauty that would bring tears of joy to the eyes of Wehrmacht engineers.
While the unit card offers a detailed overview, most pertinent information can be gleaned from the icons adorning the busts on the map.
In the sound department, the game is somewhat lackluster. The music starts out generic, swiftly turns annoying and shortly thereafter you will want to turn it off and replace it with a YouTube mix of WW2 marching music. The sounds are functional but nothing special. A short trumpet fanfare sounds when you capture objectives, buttons go click. Soldiers have marching sounds, cars go vroom, tanks clatter along and guns go RATATATAT and BOOM. There is very little “oomph” to them and all tanks sound the same. It is a nitpick to be sure, but listening to the same 2-second marching boots sound as the AI moves 20 divisions in quick succession does make the hand reach for the volume slider.
All in all, the graphics, sound and UI are minimalist but well executed and polished to a mirror shine.
Not one step backward!
The game plays at a very comfortable pace. Most scenarios last 10-15 turns and can be played in about 45 minutes to 2 hours depending on how ponderous a general you are. The fairly tight time limit does a good job at keeping the player under pressure as precious victory points decay every turn they haven’t fulfilled their objectives. Most missions see one side racing to capture set objectives within a set time limit while the other simply stalls for time as long as possible. In both scenarios and the campaign, the sole factor in scoring is the turn number in which the objective hexes are captured by the aggressor. The only way you will ever achieve a “decisive” or “brilliant” victory is by ignoring force preservation and funneling your divisions into a ruthless meat grinder of human despair and suffering. This is fitting for the setting when playing Soviet. But for the german side, throwing away experienced men with no penalty seems to run completely counter to the Blitzkreig doctrine. I cannot help but feel a more interesting and varied set of tactics would be possible if players were also scored on how many of their forces survived or allowing experienced units to carry over into subsequent missions. Beating set scores for speedy objective acquisitions gives you additional prestige which you can use to call in reinforcements in subsequent missions or hang on to in order to maximize your campaign score, but that is the sole continuity between campaign missions.
Your campaign is auto saved between scenarios, but you cannot save during individual scenarios. If you misjudge a push on turn 6, there’s no quick undo button and you’re forced to live with your mistake or start over from scratch. While this semi-ironman may be commendable, it can get a bit rage-inducing at times if you misclick and accidentally send your panzers advancing in the wrong direction.
The Campaigns themselves are linear affairs. You progress through a number of historical scenarios, which you must complete in chronological order. There are a few scenarios which open up optional side missions if you complete them within a low enough number of turns, but that's it. A mega-campaign where success or failure in a scenario shiftsthe front at the level of Paradox Interactive's Hearts of Iron would have been heaven. But that is sadly outside the scope of this game.
Spending prestige in missions will affect your overall campaign score, but the reinforcements may also allow you to gain a more decisive victory which in turn opens up branching mission choices.
While individual scenarios allow for a human opponent, the campaign is played strictly against the AI. The AI is quite competent at stalling your advance and is swift to exploit weaknesses in your lines to sever sections of your army so they lose supply and weaken. It is a formidable opponent for new players to the genre and even seasoned TBS players will have to think for a bit if they’re trying to achieve the decisive victory goals. The only oversight I have found in the AI is that it will not make serious efforts to recapture supply points once lost. Considering how important these are, it is baffling the developers have not taken the opportunity to patch in this behavior. Besides that one niggle, the AI plays competently, making use of all the same resources human players are allowed and deploying them in a sensible manner. Anti-tank divisions march to where your armor is concentrated. Divisions reinforced by commissars will hold critical objectives. Partisans will be deployed where they can sever your supply lines and so on.
Combat is fairly straightforward. Click a unit to see how far it can march. Press space or scroll the mouse wheel to toggle forced march, which increases their marching distance but means they will be unable to fight this turn. Hover over an enemy unit and the information pane in the upper-right will display the likely outcome. The relative strength of the fighting units provides an initial result, which is then shifted in favour of one side of the other, depending on a number of factors such as armor, weather, terrain, entrenchment and experience. The result is not guaranteed - there is a small random factor – but most of the time it will be spot on. If a predicted result is not what you expected, you can hold CTRL and hover your cursor over the information pane to examine tooltips for the various factors to figure out why it’s predicted to go the way it is. You can also look everything up in the 45-page manual that does a good job of explaining how the numbers are crunched to deliver the combat result.
Units have an attack and a defense value multiplied by a number of “Steps”. Steps are a combination of manpower, morale and equipment and determine the overall strength of the division. As you attack and defend, steps can be suppressed, representing lack of ammunition, fuel, morale and so on. Suppressed steps do not count when calculating your unit’s final attack and defense values. Steps can also be lost, representing your men dying horrible deaths and your vehicles going up in flames. If a division reaches 0 steps, it is removed from the map. Suppressed steps regenerate over time, the exact number depending on whether you’re in supply and on the units experience level. If one of your divisions is out of position or low on steps, you can elect to reorganize it before moving it or attacking with it. Reorganized units are removed from the map and their steps appear in your reinforcement pool in the subsequent turn. You can then use them to reinforce other divisions closer to the fighting, so long as those divisions are within supply range. Reinforcement steps enter the division suppressed, so it is not an instant boost to the division’s capabilities. But it can still be a lot faster than marching the entire division across the map and it is a handy way to consolidate several weakened units into a single hex.
A moments carelessness saw the AI break through a weak point in the german defenses. The red exclamation marks denote units that are outside supply range. Fortunately, the german Panzer divisions should be able to break out of the pocket before penalties stack up.
Depending on the scenario, you may receive additional divisions at specific turns that you can deploy as reinforcements. You also have scenario-specific support abilities such as air strikes, partisans, supply drops, bridge repair/demolishment and so on. These are typically refreshed at the start of every turn and function pretty much as you’d expect them to. In campaign scenarios you can also draw from the Operational Theater reinforcement pool to get additional units or specialist equipment. But doing so will cost you prestige that will then be unavailable in subsequent missions or for calculating your final score at the end of the campaign.
Supply lines are one of the main features in Unity of Command that differentiates it from many turn-based strategy titles. As your units move and fight, ammunition, manpower, morale, fuel and so forth are expended. This is all abstracted to the concept of supply. As long as a line of supply exists to your units, they will regain their strength and fight at peak capacity. Once the unit is out of supply range, it will no longer replenish lost combat steps and its strength will rapidly decay until it reenters a hex with supply. Supply emanates from supply sources, each source having a maximum distance it can supply. Railroads connected to supply depots allow supplies to be transported without distance decay, serving as the arteries that keep your men in fighting shape. Cutting off enemy supply for a turn or two by holding choke points will make large sections of his army easy pickings for your advance. It is usually better to turn bulges in the front line into pockets and starve out enemy units until they are weak enough to crush rather than trying to crush them head-on in one fell swoop. Likewise, a quick blitz past enemy lines to occupy their railroad for 2-3 turns can turn the meatgrinder elsewhere on the map into a one-sided rout as one side suddenly no longer regains suppressed Steps of combat strength. Of course, if you misjudge your strength, the blitz may find itself surrounded and defeated. With the clock ticking down every turn, the player is constantly weighing risk vs reward and trying to decide when to go all out on the offensive.
Supply radiates outwards from a supply center by a specified number of hexes. Roads and railroads connected to supply centers transport supply without a cost in distance, serving as the arteries that pump the lifeblood of fuel and ammunition to your men. Taking the bridge and road in the soviet-held territory here would allow you to bring supply down to the southern part of the front line.
Unity of Command is an intriguing look at an oft-visited scenario. It is not a complex game by wargaming standards. But every detail that has been glossed over by abstractions has paid dividends elsewhere and the game provides focus on things that are often overlooked in the genre. The simple mechanics mean scenarios can be played in a single sitting and enable the game to impose its ironman requirements on the player which in turn leads to a more tense and flavourful experience. The minimalist graphics help convey the information the player needs to make informed decisions without calling up a plethora of submenus. The game's tutorial scenario is all the introduction most players will need to get going and the included PDF manual is well laid out when you need to look up specific mechanics. The simple mechanics and graphics allow for a pleasantly complex game about supply lines.
The AI also deserves praise. While it is by no means a replacement for an experienced player it provides a decent challenge for new players. This is doubly impressive when you consider that the AI - unlike in nearly every other wargame - doesn't cheat. There is no fog of war for it to ignore, it recieves no secret bonuses to it's units and so on. There are no difficulty levels, but completing campaign scenarios ahead of schedule opens up secondary branches of missions with more challenging objectives. A mediocre general will end up in Stalingrad after a few battles, while more competent commanders will be able to strike south and east to luxuriate in the oilfields of Baku.
The aforementioned abstractions makes Unit of of Command play a bit like a board game at times, which can be a good or a bad thing depending on your point of view. It blurs the line between wargame and board game, not quite falling into either camp but offering something to please fans of both. The game is by no means perfect, but it is a solid introduction for new players to the genre while remaining complex enough to tease grognards. The game is challenging, but fast-paced enough that your failures encourage you to try harder next time rather than throwing up your hands in fustration at the prospect of sitting through everything again. It is a tragic shame the game did not recieve more attention upon release, as a bigger community and a few additional campaigns (Operation Sonnenblume and Market Garden, I'm looking at you) would have made this a classic. If you can look past the "flash browser game" stigma many people seem to attach to the game upon seeing screenshots, there are many hours of fretting over shifting frontlines to be had here for a very modest price. If you are interested in turn-based strategy and haven't grown tired of the WW2 setting just yet, you might just want to volunteer for transport to the eastern front.