Second Front first impressions (Part I)

Pike & Shot in 2014? Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem in 2002? Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord in 2000? Sid Meier’s Gettysburg in 1997?… Give me a moment, cornerites. I’m trying to remember the last time a brush with a new wargame engine left me this excited.

I finally got my hands on Second Front code earlier this week. The ‘playtest’ build currently entertaining press and testers only includes five missions* but, gosh, is it mesmerising. The magnetism is remarkable when you consider that, mechanically and thematically, SF does little that hasn’t been done dozens of times before.

* Plus editors and a unit comparison mode

This is the latest in a very long line of Advanced Squad Leader-likes. You get hexed WW2 battlefields… squad, half-squad, and team-sized infantry units… single vehicles… rigidly structured IGOUGO turns leavened by opportunity fire phases. Scour the design for ingenious ‘New Wave’ takes on stuff like Fog of War, command simulation, morale, or campaigning, and you’ll find sweet Fanny Adams,

The most avant-garde aspect of the game is probably its aesthetic. I know some find the bold colours and simple models a bit Fisher-Price. To a fuddy-duddy like me who believes that 3D engines often contribute nothing of worth to board game-style TBSs, the graphical approach is borderline genius. Because developer Jo Bader doesn’t insist on showing every rivet head and rust streak, every quivering leaf and blackened brick, SF’s action is almost always admirably legible. Because he realises that sometimes even the most mathematical mayhem managers like to view their handiwork from a warrior’s perspective, and doesn’t impose needless camera limitations, 3D really earns its keep here.

Naturally, it takes more than bright colours and an unusually flexible sky-Leica, to produce feelings I haven’t felt in years. The fact that my first week with SF has brought back memories of early days with Combat Mission and Close Combat is largely down to all the pleasant surprises and novel experiences the game has generated.

Byproducts of an accomplished AI and the kind of details hex wargames often sacrifice on the altar of abstraction, these memorable moments are one of the reasons I wargame. When I realise that I’ve just lost a Panther to a Pak 40 that, a few turns ago, was crewed by Germans not Americans, my heart simultaneously sinks and soars. When I realise that a blaze started by my flamethrower team is spreading fast and will soon accomplish something I was struggling to achieve with bullets and HE alone, I find it impossible to suppress a grin.

A bazooka backblast eliminating a favourite sniper… a factory interior melee ending with all the participants dead or incapacitated… a spontaneously-generated ‘hero’ scavenging a dropped Panzerschreck then using it to deadly effect… house-clearers lobbing a demo-charge up a flight of stairs… SF drops jaws and fashions anecdotes without really trying – a very rare talent for a hex wargame.

The playtest build’s largest scenario is set in Aachen and suggests urban warfare is going to be one of SF’s most appealing activities. When I first saw the plethora of units and the huge battlefield – only a section of which is visible in the above screenshot – my initial thought was “God, this is going to be a grind.”. Three or four rapt hours later, all traces of cynicism had vanished.

Multi-storey buildings, the bête noire of wargame devs, are handled with panache by Bader. Explicit staircases and walls mean you can’t simply enter a building and clear it any way you choose, you must examine it and pick your routes carefully. It’s possible for a unit to be directly below or above an enemy and have no way to reach or engage them. Frequently you find yourself suppressing an occupied floor from across a street, while one of your units attempt to infiltrate the structure in question to deliver the coup de grâce. In one scene that has stayed with me, a gaggle of German defenders pushed upwards by Thompson bursts and grenade blasts, surrendered en masse in a spacious attic.

Another of the scenarios demonstrates pretty convincingly the AI’s ability to simultaneously attack and defend. In one portion of the battlefield, the CPU, without the benefit of scripts, propels GIs and Shermen towards a small player-held town, while in another it tries to prevent a Panzer-rich relief force from bolstering the town’s defences. When many AIs can’t unitask properly, watching one multitask competently is wonderful.

The first words scrawled under ‘AI’ in my play notes were ‘lively’ and ‘restless’. After a few hours of order-issuing I’d upgraded the assessment to ‘thoughtful’. ‘Dangerous’ with its emphatic red underscore came a day or two later and was a direct result of me watching with morbid fascination as computer-controlled Americans skilfully flanked a complicated urban position of mine using multiple clusters of infantry. I guess it’s possible I witnessed accidental rather than intentional guile, but I think not. The way the attackers pivoted and spread to envelop my position, all without the benefit of guiding VLs, strongly suggests top drawer behavioural algorithms at work.

SF’s morale mechanics probably inject as much unpredictability into scraps as the AI. While I’m not overly keen on the game’s use of the word ‘rout’, the way discombobulated infantry units auto-retreat, and remain ungovernable until rallied (an automatic process hastened by HQ proximity), feels pretty naturalistic, and lends pleasing dynamism to clashes. Keep asking your men to charge across bullet-lashed streets, and stand firm in the face of HE deluges, and even grizzled veterans will don red exclamation marks eventually.

Roman has just handed me a mug of tea with a Post-it note attached. On the note is written “Don’t forget to mention the Hetzer incident”. In the interests of transparency and completeness, I will now mention the Hetzer incident – just about the only thing I’ve seen on a SF battlefield this week that has caused me to frown.

Hopefully my brush with an improbably resilient (the Sherman in the pic above has a mere 3% penetration chance) German tank destroyer last night was the result of an easily-corrected variable typo, rather than an inevitable consequence of simplistic armour penetration shorthand.

Compared to the likes of Combat Mission and CC, SF offers a fairly lo-fi take on angry house aggro. AFVs can – depending on the type – pop smoke, fire smoke shells, carry passengers, train different weapons on different targets, become immobilised, and lose unbuttoned commanders to small arms fire. However, they don’t have explicit ammo counts, and, right now, as my Hetzer encounter illustrates, their historical strengths and weaknesses aren’t always perfectly captured.

(TO BE CONTINUED)

13 Comments

  1. “first week with SF has brought back memories of early days with Combat Mission…”

    Pretty much exactly what I was hoping for since I first heard about this game! Very much looking forward to part 2.

    • I had that thought. The comment commander concept has however hitherto always used a ‘wego’ engine, rather than a ‘igougo’ one.

      That doesn’t preclude a shift in approach but would likely cause additional work for Tim, something we should be chary of imposing.

      I guess in a way it’s his own fault, for enticing us with descriptions of a game that offers so much while putting relatively little in its way. Invincible hetzers hopefully ameliorated prior to release aside, this does rather appeal.

  2. This looks fantastic, with lots of interesting mechanics (Fire! Wheee!) and an unique art style that offers a real change.

    But somehow, I’m a little turned off by the setting? Forgive me American friends, but I just feel like the USA vs Nazis setting is worn out for me. I wish we could see this system applied to a wild and weird conflict like the Spanish Civil War or something more unique…

  3. “mechanically and thematically, SF does little that hasn’t been done dozens of times before.”

    This comment got me thinking about what features/mechanics could be added to wargames that haven’t been tried yet. Usually, wargamers just have things like different conflicts or better graphics on their wishlist for new games. However, it’s interesting to consider what hasn’t actually been tried yet? I’d be interested in hearing the community’s opinions on this.

    • Civilian casualties and swaying public support are two mechanics that come to mind as rarely simulated in games.

      Not a lot of fun to be had in collateral damage though…

      The other element that I think would make an excellent wargame mechanic is “the map is not the terrain.”

      It’s pretty rare for actual battlefield commanders to have a 1 to 1 accurate view of the landscape they’re fighting over. Especially historically, troops might only have very basic maps of an area until they are actually in it and maneuvering. I’d love to see scouting and terrain simulations appear as part of a more dynamic fog of war system in some future games.

      • There are games that give you just the map and leave the terrain up to your imagination. Which is often half the game. My respect for Radio Commander, which is a rather short and simple game, rose exponentially when it gave you a map in french, because the most accurate maps of the vietnamese hinterland available at that time were still from colonial times. I found that a very endearing and immersive touch.

        But a game that reveals actual physical topography only i it is (currently) in line of sight of your units (or just your C&C units) and covers the rest of the screen with actual military maps or just drawn ones sounds very interesting to me. That would probably work better on the battallion level for modern titles.
        Then, I could also imagine i working for the operational phase in pre-modern times. For some reason the run up to the battle of Gabiene between the Diadochi Antigonos and Eumenes is the first thing that came to mind. The struggling for position actually included the armies passing each other unnoticed with just a ridgeline between them. In another incident a surrounded and cut off rearguard had to fight its own abortive battle. The whole campaign concluded in Antigonos being forced to move to a different province for winter quarters, only to see him break with tradition and try a crazy sneak attack by crossing the inhospitable saltflats off-season. That sounds like an awesome thing to game.

        EDIT: Also, the process of actually creating an army is mostly glossed over. Be it on the desktop with planning, victualing, ordering weapons, uniforms and shoes to actually going out there and setting up recruitment offices/press-gangs or bribing the local chieftains. From Lawrence of Arabia to Jean d´Arc or other hands-on scenario. Mostly it is just spend resources ->, receive units.

  4. My biggest takeaway from this is how legible the UI is. That has kept me from getting into combat mission or other more complicated non-PG like wargames.

  5. Really happy to see your thoughts on this. Was seeing mention of the game start to pop-up on Twitter and it was intriguing right away, but couldn’t find any solid previews yet. Looking forward to part two!

  6. Really looking forward to this. It sounds like what I wanted Battle Academy to be.

    The map editor being included leaves me hope that we can semi-easily add units to the game also. Maybe expand the usual suspects to include some more off the beaten track conflicts.

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