November 8th, 1942; Operation Torch. German Panzer IV’s pelt an American battleship off the coast of North Africa while aircraft carriers scramble to build F4 Wildcats from scratch to fend off Stuka attacks.
That’s from the opening scenario of Tank Operations: European Campaign, and it’s enough to tell you that this is not a historical tactical simulator. It’s just a tactical sim with a veneer of historicity. This is disappointing, because the game could have been so much more.
Tank Operations: European Campaign is a single-player war game played out on a hex grid. There are numerous scenarios taking you from Operation Torch, America’s entry into the western theater of WWII, all the way to Berlin. You move and direct units through an intuitive point and click interface. As you capture cities, you get cash to acquire more troops.
Tank Operations should be familiar to anyone old enough to remember covering the dining room table with Avalon Hill’s Advanced Third Reich, with its sprawling hex-map of Europe and little cardboard chit counters representing combat units. For many years, the term “wargaming” was synonymous with turn-based grand tactical strategy games of this type. Tactical simulation video games do well to emulate these games, as they have a long pedigree going back into the 60′s, and it is from these games that much of our modern gaming theory derives.
It is for this reason that Tank Operations comes as somewhat of a disappointment. Here is an opportunity to reintroduce the grand tactical game to a newer generation of gamers who are only familiar with skirmish-level RTS’s, while also offering old-school wargamers a fresh, modern update to the genre.
Instead, it appears that Tank Operations wants to be a stripped down, late-comer entrant into the venerable, but much-celebrated Panzer General series by SSI. In fact, the similarities are so striking and pervasive that one cannot qualify Tank Operations without weighing it against the gold standard of computer grand tactical war games.
This is not necessarily a terrible thing in and of itself. Panzer General is worthy of emulation, but is over twenty years old, and its once lush 320×200 VGA graphics could use an update. Unfortunately, on this score, Tank Operations does not appreciably improve graphically enough on its spiritual forebear to keep me from digging through my old floppy disks for my old SSI collection.
Another area of disappointment for Tank Operations is lack of historicity. In the aforementioned Operation Torch scenario, the very first in the game, the designers replaced the French defenders of Casablanca with Germans for no appreciable reason. Together with a lack of verisimilitude with respect to how ground units interact with sea units, and how reinforcements are purchased on the field with cash, Tank Operations is not a historical tactical simulator, but rather a tactical simulator with the trappings of historicity draped upon it. And it is in this respect that we must again compare with Panzer General, whose historically named units and campaign-level reinforcements mechanism remain a cut above the challenger.
The biggest, baddest disappointment of all, however, is the complete lack of any multiplayer. This genre of wargame, going back to the cardboard chits, was invented for multiplayer. Panzer General II came out sixteen years ago and it has multiplayer. This can’t be an oversight; there simply must be some reason that you can’t play against your friends. Perhaps because the game only lets you play as Americans?
The aforementioned problems are not enough, however, to disqualify Tank Operations as a good game; quite the contrary, in emulating a successful and proven franchise, Tank Operations is a solid, balanced game, and a sublime way to waste an hour or two. In particular, they succeeded immensely in encouraging authentic military tactics.
One such tactic that is requisite for success is “combined arms”, where you balance your attacking forces with rocks, papers, and scissors. Infantry, tanks and air power working in concert on a single objective have more success than just one type working alone.
Requiring the capture of cities to acquire the cash you use to build your units on the field, though completely outside of any historical realism, encourages “maneuver warfare” tactics, with an emphasis on speed and mobility to achieve advantageous battlefield positioning. Since supplying depleted units with fuel and ammunition requires convoys of trucks, maneuver warfare tactics can deny the opponent the opportunity to resupply, halting his tanks in place and preventing his infantry from even shooting back. This not only adds another dimension to the game, but is in keeping with a modern understanding of military tactics.
In the area of balance, Tank Operations does very well. By and large, you can reasonably predict the outcome of an engagement between two combat units such that good tactics are not usually thwarted by random number generation. Five grunts with two rounds of ammo between them are not going to wipe out a couple panzer divisions. There are some games (*cough* Civilization *cough*) where this is an enduring, and frustrating problem, but not so here. And, in favor of Tank Operations, this is one area where they have improved on the original formula found in Panzer General. The ultimate arbiter of success is sound strategy, not luck.
Overall, Tank Operations is a fun and engaging way to spend a few hours (the length of time it takes a complete a scenario). However, it could have been so much more. Its deficiencies are most disappointing because the game is not terrible enough to not want to play at least once. Replayability is low, however, since each scenario has static deployments and you can’t switch sides. And once you’re done with scenarios, you’re done with the game. Multiplayer alone could have changed this title’s score. If Tank Operations makes you long for a game with authentic historicity and realistic mechanics, you can find Panzer General for free at Abandonia, and Panzer General II for $10 at Good Old Games.