OK, this was unique. As a mini guy I’ve always been a sucker for great, colorful graphics in computer games. This was what drew me to the PC game Barbarroja (Barbarossa) , the first offering by Spanish developer Strathexa. As the name implies, the game covers the German invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II, up to an including the final assault on Berlin.
To my surprise, however, the most notable thing about this game was the computer AI that acts as an opponent for solitaire play, in the sense that there isn’t one. Here is my report.
Phony AI War
You have to figure that Strathexa is a small startup given their company Website is actually a Word Press blog page. Thus its no surprise that including a complex AI to act as a worthy opponent to the player might well have been too expensive or digitally complex for their first game right out of the box. That’s right, this game technically cannot be played solitaire.
Instead the game offers three options for head to head play with other Wetware, ie, flesh and blood people. You can play via a local network, the Internet or by “hot seat.” Recommendations for running the game this way include Skype and a local network software package called Hamachi. The hot seat option is very simple. One player sits down at the PC, completes his turn, then allows his opponent to sit down and complete their next move, repeating the process until the game is complete.
This is where the term “technically” comes in. It is actually possible to play the game solitaire using the hot seat option by simply having a single player assume the role of both himself and his opponent. It may sound silly and counter intuitive to do this with a PC game, but in the boardgaming world this is common practice. SPI guru Jim Dunnigan noted in several articles and at least one book that the overwhelming majority of hex and counter games are played this way, so it can work. The player in effect plays both sides.
This is exactly how I played the game for this review, and I found doing so surprisingly easy and fulfilling locking horns with myself “On One Computer” (as the game intro screen notes). I think part of the reason is that I have played boardgames exactly this way for years, and it does get past the perspective that the AI has to be doing something sneaky or dishonest. Since you are playing both sides, you ultimately know why one of the two adversaries gets hammered, while the element of die rolled chance still insures neither side is guaranteed success. Its real “boardgamish,” but after all this game for intents and purposes is a digitized boardgame itself.
So armed Barbarroja allows you to play the entire Eastern Front in WWII, or any of the following, smaller map scenarios to include Berlin, Kursk, Moscow, Belarus, Stalingrad, Summer and Fall 1943 and something called Test 01. You can also generate your own scenarios by choosing start and end dates, dimensions of the map and so on.
Playing the game is uber simple, and indeed the hardest part might be deciphering the translation of the Spanish into English (no other languages are supported). This is really not a show stopper, and quite humorous on occasion, but get ready to notice that when the game indicates “Scenery,” it actually means “Scenario.” Oddly, some verbiage is left in Spanish “atacar” evidently means “roll dice” but I did not find any of this particularly distracting even though I have no experience in the language.
Otherwise this is a typical hex and counter game. The scale is one month of real time per game turn with units representing commanding generals, armies, corps, divisions and air wings providing tactical air support. Reichskanzler Hitler and 1st Secretary Stalin are also both represented, but I did not see any information as to ground scale. The map, however, is 2583 hexes so we are not talking small here.
Each scenario allows the player to pick the degree of difficulty and also whether he wants the computer to drop all forces on the map in their original, initial historical locations or do it himself. Turn sequence is as follows, 1) Movement and Combat, 2) Reinforcements and Replacements and 3) Rail Movement. Units completing these task are numerically point rated for Movement, Combat and Stacking. Thus, in the first phase formations move and then may attack any enemy units they end up adjacent to. Distant air support can be added, and obviously Stukas and Sturmoviks don’t need to worry about terrain effects. Attacks can be made individually during the course of movement, or all at once at the end of the phase. The computer figures the odds and adjudicates the battle using a digital six sided die. If both terrain and Zone of Control allow, and if the friendly unit in question still has some base movement remaining, it can move again to exploit a breakthrough when enemy forces are eliminated. Depending upon their competency, commanding general units can impact the odds of combat.
In the Reinforcements and Replacements phase, the map will highlight large urban areas where units made available to the player may be deployed. Reinforcements are new units ready to be added to the fray, while replacements are friendly formations that were eliminated at least three turns ago and for which enough replacement points (added each turn) are available. In Rail Movement, units that start on a railroad may move on said railway and I have yet to see a limit as to how far this means each turn. Like air units, the number of rail transport hubs available depend upon the side, the year and month in question and the weather, which can be clear, mud or snow.
Supply is calculated by the computer for both sides at turn’s end without player involvement, and units must be able to trace an unobstructed line of communications back to the Eastern (if Soviet) or Western (if German) edge of the map to ensure enough Schnitzel to eat, Vodka to drink and bullets to shoot. Otherwise a unit will start to degrade in capability after the first turn out of supply, units in large cities after three turns. The only exception is Leningrad, given Stalin supplied the city across Lake Ladoga, so the lake itself is not considered impassable.
While each scenario assigns geographic objectives such as Moscow to accumulate Victory Points, the generals running the armies to get there can also collect some “victory points” of their own. The player can assign that after eliminating X amount of enemy Combat Points, say 25, they receive a medal and a related increase in competency to bolster their own army’s combat power. A maximum of three Eisenkreuz or Red Stars can be awarded. The game also has some additional chrome in the form of special rules for Soviet Katusha rocket launcher as well as Russian partisans, the latter which are never considered out of supply. Likewise, air support provided can only be used to support ground (called “terrestrial” in the game’s Spanglish) combat, with no strategic or interdiction missions allowed.
Its simple, but it works, with electrons very easy on the PC, yet fast and smooth when running.
As noted, it was the looks of the software that drew me in, not only the color palette, but also the overall design of the interface and how it worked. Unlike most Tiller games, Barbarroja has only 15 small function icons in the upper left of the screen, plus one large button that allows you to move from one turn phase to the next when clicked. Some buttons are for saving a game, exiting the game, locating unmoved units and so on, but most are for modifying the primary map to display certain features individually. For example, click a button and all railways will be highlighted, another all rivers or waterways. Map movement is done either by scrolling left-right, up-down or by dragging using the center mouse wheel. There is a small strategic map just under these function buttons, and the player can bring up a third map that is midway in size between the strategic and gameplay maps. There is no zoom in or out function.
German counters in the game are RED. OK, I know this seems absolutely whacky given the Wehrmacht’s fighting for their lives against the Soviet Red Army but remember this is a non-British European produced game. Having spent four years in Germany I know that red is a typical color afforded to “the bad guys,” so from that perspective it does make sense. The Soviets are in blue, with Guards units pale blue, while SS formations are colored black and German allies dirty orange. Symbology is either portraits and icons or standard NATO at the players discretion.
The map is drop dead gorgeous, and in a nifty bit of class, actually changes its color palette when the war moves into mud or snowy winter months. I also like the fact that the map automatically draws the front line of troops while the game is progressing. But for me at least, the best part of the interface happens when you click on a hex with a couple of leaders and five or six combat units underneath. Doing so brings up a right hand side bar that displays all the counters in the hex selected. Click on one or more of these counters, say a general and two Panzer Corps, and you can move your selection in total as if it were a single formation. There is no need to click through the entire stack or use some combine forces function to make this happen. Given the game does let you reassign commanding generals, this is a very handy way to manage a digital war. Also nice was a combat results table that drops down showing you the odds and likely results before rolling the digital dice.
I will say this is absolutely not the best or most innovative game I have ever played. However, I have gotten several turns into the grand campaign scenario and found it fast, fun and producing results pretty much on par with what happened on the ground back in 1941. As simple as the game may seem, its historical bona fides seem pretty solid. The balance favoring combat over logistics in the game also impressed me.
And seriously, the lack of an AI solitaire opponent really didn’t bother me nearly as much as I thought it would. I think a big reason is that, as a retired intelligence officer targeted against the USSR, the game gave me a chance to play the Russians more historically than an AI would. As I play all computer games solitaire, one of the things that seems evident is that the AI is built to be competitive, not historical. Hot seating with Barbarroja bypasses that issue and this made the game even more enjoyable.
Its not for everyone, maybe not for most, but it was good enough to convince me to grab their next game out, covering the pre WWII Spanish Civil War. There isn’t much out there on this conflict unless you want to plunk over $42.99 for Matrix/AGEOD’s Espana 1936, an area based, more strategic treatment of Franco and the lads. I much prefer a hex based, military treatment of such small peripheral wars, and at just under $20.00 for Barbarroja, for me this works.