Thursday, March 25, 2010

Rise of Prussia Review

The eighteenth century is almost universally dubbed the "age of limited warfare". For a century that witnessed the first global conflict in record (the Seven Years War), that's indeed a funny nickname. During the Seven Years War, rulers from every cardinal point of Europe threw con gusto their armies into one battle after the other. Bloody battles where casualty rates could easily approach forty percent of a whole army. If there was anything limited during the Seven Years War, it was more the result of the individual armies’ small bag of tricks rather than an agreement to wage war in gentlemanly terms. Primitive logistics, lousy communications, poor road networks, a good share of amateur generalship, and relatively small armies resulted in a unique way of fighting wars that was in no way less hard on soldiers and horses. The day that didn’t bring battle, it did bring the endless march: these were tiny forces meandering in vast expanses of territory. Even a seasoned general could pursue the enemy for weeks without achieving anything but the exhaustion of its own army. Some generals developed a penchant for "clever marches" and in many circles of officer's corps there was a lingering idea that the way to win a war was to exhaust the enemy through maneuver, with battle being just a desperate measure. Capturing the crucial aspects of warfare during the Seven Years War in an enjoyable war game is no small feat, and AGEOD’s “Rise of Prussia” delivers the goods without breaking a sweat.

Readers are strongly encouraged to click on the images to see them expanded. Most images have suffered some quality degradation during the conversion to a jpg format. 

“Rise of Prussia” is a WEGO turn based war game focused in the operational level of warfare (or projets de campagne in eighteenth century's parlance). The player is presented with a artistic rendition of eighteenth century central Europe (just for simplicity I will call it a map in this review, but this thing is worth of printing and hanging in a wall). This map is divided in regions that have specific terrain features (woods, hills, clear, mountains, etc) that affect movement and combat. Generals, armies, corps, brigades and regiments are represented by markers that the player can click to learn the specific details of the unit. The attributes of each unit go from the obvious (strength, movement speed, ammunition), passing through the necessary (supplies, morale, cohesion) and ending in attributes that are ignored in most operational-level games (like individual generals having personal strengths like logistics, rallying, ability to evade detection and more). Rise of Prussia has a panoply of historically correct unit types for all combat arms and a portrait of what a man in the unit looks like is available after a few clicks. 

Before starting to move his forces around, the player should carefully inspect and organize them because this war game features a chain of command structure that will severely penalize a hastily organized force with a lousy leader. To order a unit to move its icon needs to be dragged onto a neighboring region. A path for the planned movement and a transparent marker of the unit at the destination will appear, along with a number indicating the number of days the move it will take. 

All orders issued, the player hits the next turn button and the map comes to life with all units, player's and opponent's, moving simultaneously according to their marching plans. Even the weather changes, with the not-unusual blizzard or rain-in-your-parade miseries throwing your plans out of schedule. Because each turn represents 15 days of action, the player not only needs to provide well-thought marching orders but also defensive or offensive stance and rules of engagement to his troops. This allows player's generals to take action while they are unsupervised by the player during the simultaneous turn resolution. These stances and rules of engagement come in different shades of gray, ranging from full offense (attack whatever comes into sight) to unashamed cowardice (run for the hills at first sight of the enemy). 

When opposing forces set feet (or hooves) into the same map region, the game engine calculates if a battle is to be fought. This calculation takes into account the terrain of the region, the stance, rules of engagement, size and type of the unit plus the forces leader's abilities to present or evade battle. Battles are resolved by the game engine automatically in a series of pulses that can span for several days. Battle resolution is presented to the player as a circular display showing the force ratios and the number of troops going down as the carnage progresses. A victor will emerge along with a battle report explaining the particulars. Rise of Prussia is the first of the series to include a detailed battle report that shows how every unit has performed. When all the battles and movements for the 15 days of the turn have been computed, the player can issue orders again.

We are cleaning up! A tactical battle being resolved. On the left side of the circular dial, we the Prussians.

It is impossible to ignore that during this struggle between Prussians and Austrians (plus the rest of the world) there was a commander of sorts fighting for one side. Commanding the Prussians, King Frederick the Great was one of those military leaders that is the stuff of legends. You may argue about his persona, psychological baggage, agenda and self marketing. But you have to agree that it takes some serious gonads to bully a bunch of bulls surrounding you at biting distance like Frederick did with the Austrians, Swedish, French and Russians. That's my excuse for first playing Rise of Prussia as the Prussians only, but be aware that you can play as the Austrians and their allies too. 

Playing as king Frederick, the first thing in order was to organize my forces accordingly and this where the fun starts. Choosing the right general for the right mission is crucial, but besides skills you have to watch for seniority (promoting a young rising star could result in a decline in the national morale). I was happy that I could promote von Schwerin but less than thrilled about promoting Wilhem von Preussen, who turned out to be good at nothing. When making this type of decisions, I got a sensation of being a commander in chief that no other counter-pushing war game ever gave me. I am not a big fan of the little portraits in the markers of each general (see next paragraph), but I have to confess that seeing a face there made me develop mild digital grudges against some of my generals. Commanding a nation or kingdom at war is all about the people fighting it, after all. von Schwerin got a full army for himself at Breslau, yet short in men and cavalry. Should I recruit more people, or just move some troops down to Breslau? These are the types of questions that the player is likely to face besides the ones about pure combat. 

The other issue that I had to deal early on is supplies. Fortunately, Rise of Prussia has a supply system that is deep enough to have an effect on the operations but no so convoluted that it requires a Ph.D. in logistics to understand it. The placement of supply depots and magazines in Rise of Prussia really defines how war is waged. A new addition to the engine is the possibility to build magazines using some of the supply trains, which really comes in handy while on campaign. All of these supply issues result in operations that are never too deep into enemy territory, just like it was in real life. 

Planning an operation in Rise of Prussia is just fantastic. You can plot march orders for a group of units and since you get an estimate of the amount of days each step will take, you can plan very complex operations and have a visual cue of how it will hopefully play out. The part I most enjoyed was ordering cavalry screens and deep reconnaissance missions (don't forget to issue the right stance to them!). The computer opponent is not scripted, competent and believable. This results in operations that are very fluid with marches and counter-marches very similar to the ones described in the history books. In my solo games, the Austrians were very aggressive and fond of exploiting weak spots, so I had to assume an offensive posture to keep them checked. I was really surprised of how much of the basic principles of modern operational art can be used to play Rise of Prussia. At certain point I had chapter 7 of the US Army Field Manual 3-0 (operations) in one of the monitors of my computer and Rise of Prussia in the other, trying to decide if von Schwerin's Army was to conduct a shaping or a decisive operation. 

The day of battle is also a treat: seeing the swing of that circular dial move back and forward when troops rout or arrive to the battlefield reminds me a bit of listening a soccer match on the radio when I was a kid. Battles tend to be pretty devastating, specially when one of the generals in command is in the low percentile of the martial IQ bell curve. When I started playing this game I tended to consider tactical battles like something more or less out of my control. I was thrilled to later find out in the manual that some restrictive terrain, like mountains or hills, will affect how troops deploy. So, you can have a small force blocking a mountain pass, with the enemy never being able to deploy more troops than yours because of the terrain!

A single click highlights the strategically important cities (blue are cities the player holds, light brown the ones the enemy does).

It is difficult to say anything negative about Rise of Prussia. But there some aspects of this game I wished were a bit different. Given the tremendous success that AGEOD had with previous games, I'd label the next points more like personal peeves rather than reasoned criticism. 

 (i) "The Ukraine is weak": real life military symbols are compact and informative, allowing you to grasp your military power with just a glance. In Rise of Prussia you have the so-called "troop display markers" (TDMs), which are true pieces of art but they fall a bit short to tell what's the unit's composition and strength. At the bottom of the TDMs there is a gauge with bullets representing four command points, and off course you can click on the marker to find out the composition and strength (by hitting the Ctrl key you eventually find out how many men and horses the unit has). But there is no way to see all this information all at once for more than one TDM. Also, I've seen TDMs representing a cavalry brigade that for all purposes looked no different than an infantry brigade. I would love TDMs that display both the amount of men/horses and the combat arms in an unit. 

(ii) "An army of one": the command structure and its effect on gameplay is on of the strongest features of Rise of Prussia. The game engine is a jewel of design on how it manages to represent complex military formations with exquisite precision without becoming a monster game with thousands of counters. It is rather silly that this design goodness is somehow eclipsed by a not-so-user-friendly way of assembling anything bigger than a brigade. It is easy to get lost while shuffling regiments from one Corps to another. The fact that single generals have TDMs that have the same size in pixels and overall appearance (except for the tiny damn green bullets) than the TDMs of a force under their command was sometimes confusing. At a certain game, I had a TDM near Koeniggratz. I thought it was a brigade but it was actually a single guy and his horse, a Prussian version of "Zorro" if you will. It was my fault, but at my age those little green bullets are hard to see.

(iii) "Where's Waldo?": as I said before the map and the TDMs are aesthetically great. Both appear to be rendered using the same dynamic range and with the map zoomed out the TDMs tend to be difficult to find when there is snow and mud on the ground. I usually activate any of the political map filter to circumvent that, but it would be great if the game had another way to increase the contrast between the TDMs and the map. None of the points above are game killers. I see Rise of Prussia as a solid simulation of warfare that somehow has outgrown AGEOD's original board-game-style interface and presentation. 

Command and control. The area shaded blue is King's Frederick command radius. Note how some of the TDM's portrait backgrounds are in red. Those are Corps under Frederick's Army. The icons on the right, on top of the map, show how many armies you have in the field.

In closing, although it doesn't feature any ground breaking gameplay additions to AGEOD's engine, Rise of Prussia is a solid war game that scores straight As in every subject and adds to a line of finely crafted products. The topic is great (the beginning of a military tradition of fighting strategically surrounded, an early example of coalition warfare), the audiovisual presentation is superb and the gameplay portrays eighteenth century warfare like no other computer war game out there.

Body count: this battle report has nothing but good news for the Prussians.

The new detailed battle report. Good to find out who was sleeping on the job.

We are Prussians, and we suck at siege warfare. Dear von Schwerin (the TDM with a blue background portrait) you better get your act together and storm that city because the enemy is approaching from everywhere. 

Excuse me, have you seen my Corps? I left it here, somewhere, before the blizzard.



Anonymous said...

Great review, thanks!

JC said...

Thanks for you comment.

More RoP coming soon! :)