Years ago, on Usenet, I remember reading an assertion from a fellow wargamer. In order for a new game to be worth buying, at a minimum it had to be better than the Operational Art of War scenario covering the same subject. Does that statement still apply? Does it apply if the new game in question is the new Operational Art of War, out since the end of last year?

When The Operational Art of War (TOAW) was first released in 1998, it held out some pretty substantial promise for wargamers. It looked and felt like your typical hex-and-counter board game, but with a few advantages. First, and most obviously, it was not just a game focused on a particular battle or campaign, but a wargame construction kit. Another major innovation was this focus on the operational level. While this wouldn’t be the first computer game to depict factors such as supply, replacements, and repair, making these things integral to the game’s engine did stand out. The release was a success and was followed by newer versions and a vast library of user-created scenarios to expand upon those that shipped with the game.

In the intervening decades, other games have encroached on the territory initially occupied by TOAW. Coming to mind are the likes of Decisive Campaigns or Unity of Command. Can The Operational Art of War IV compete with what we expect today? Does it improve enough on the previous iteration to be worth it as a new, full-priced offering? Especially to someone who plays The Operational Art of War III? To answer this question, I play a scenario side-by-side in both TOAW3 and TOAW4.

Into the Jungle

When I open up the typical World War II, Eastern Front operation scenario, I see the hex map and counters familiar from board game on the same subject. I can quite confidently play exactly as if I was playing that board game. While TOAW has calculations going on behind the scenes for supply, attrition, and combat losses, I don’t need to track those details. In fact, I can be even less aware of the mechanics. In the cardboard world, I probably want to know exactly how to determine the movement allowance for each combination of counter and terrain so I can plan my move. On the PC, I know that roads are fast and swamps are slow and the system takes care of the details.

Even if I don’t know the finer points of whatever battle I am playing, I can probably rely using my gut and some basic principles of warfare. I maintain my own lines and don’t let my units get isolated while trying to cut off and surround the enemy. I’ll probably get trounced by a good human opponent but this will be sufficient to enjoy a game against an AI. 

Scrolling through scenario introduction

To step outside that box somewhat I look at a Vietnam scenario, created by a user for the Century of Warfare version. “Vietnam 1965-1968” pushes the parameters of TOAW in both subject matter and design. The most obvious departure is that the rules of mechanized warfare on the steppes of Ukraine don’t apply. We aren’t advancing the front line to control the territory behind it. All the fighting occurs, ostensibly, in friendly territory. Allied forces could be anywhere in South Vietnam, just not everywhere.

Reading the manual, descriptions of the various rules and calculations are directed toward the would-be scenario designer. The designer for “Vietnam 1965-1968” has stretched the capabilities in a number of ways. The overarching flow of the game is guided by “Theater Options” which then trigger a events. The U.S. player’s political decision results, several turns later, in the arrival of reinforcement forces. To account for the asymmetric nature of the fighting, the scenario also lowers the lethality of combat and reworks supply parameters to better simulate Vietnam.

The Air Cavalry can quickly isolate and destroy the enemy.

This departure from typical scenario design puts the onus onto the player to be able to understand what is going on underneath the hood. In Vietnam (and in “Vietnam 1965-1968”), units will be to be able to be cut off and isolated. Knowing how supply is calculated, and how it is prioritized becomes an important part of understanding what you can do. In a board game, this would be explicit in the rules. In TOAW, it relies upon the algorithms within the engine. So the player needs to understand those algorithms, or at a minimum, their effects on his plans.

“Vietnam 1965-1968” portrays the period from the initial deployment of U.S. Forces to the beginning of the U.S. draw-down and “Vietnamization” of the war with week-long turns and 5km hexes. Roughly, the scenario asks the U.S. player to get through the historical Tet Offensive without suffering the historical political setbacks. To simulate this, victory is measured by what TOAW calls the “Event Variable Value.” Without dwelling on the details, victory for the Americans occurs if they reach 180 turns without an ever-accumulating political tally reaching 100. Losing control near population centers or allocating more resources to Vietnam both cause the number to increase, asking the player to walk something akin to the historical political tightrope.

Situation, May 1965. Note the Event Variable Value at the bottom.

We start slow. Events activate a small number of units which then are used to trigger build up of forces from both sides. It takes a couple-of-dozen turns to get the opposing forces up to strength but, once it gets going, the general feel of the Vietnam War is fairly well approximated. The Americans boast superior units and can use their air superiority, plus exclusive access to helicopter transport, to isolate and overwhelm pockets of communist forces. Limitations on their total manpower and of supply mean that they must pick their fights. They can’t be everywhere.

This scenario may not be a perfect simulation of the War in Vietnam, but it’s decent. More to the point, I don’t think there have been any other computer treatments of this war, at this operational and strategic level, coming close to what is available in TOAW.

Facelift or Reconstructive Surgery?

Upon firing up the new version, my initial impressions are positive. The graphics are very much upgraded. The visual facelift covers graphics (hex and unit coloring), fonts, and the dialogs. Better still, it is all open to end-user configuration. While the combination brings game’s look into the current millennium, it is the dialog upgrade that changes its feel. Dialogs are bigger, more colorful, and more readable. The dialog controls are what we expect PC dialogs to use. No more fiddling with little up-and-down triangles at the bottom of a too-small-for-modern-resolutions text box

So does it breathe new life into an old game?

For a prospective purchaser of this upgrade, focusing on the functionally changes requires some care with the reading of the new manual. The release of The Operational Art of War III was a major update and was considered something of a ‘game changer’ by the player base. Accordingly, the TOAW3 manual wrote much about the new functionality within that version. In reading the manual for TOAW4 (downloadable before purchase) we are regaled with descriptions of what is new. In some cases the “new” means the transition from the Century of Warfare version to TOAW3 and in others the upgrade from 3 to 4. Along with the Version 4 install is a separate “What’s New 4.0” document. It describes two major categories of changes. First, the way naval units are managed has been completely revamped. This is a wide ranging upgrade but it isn’t terribly applicable to a Vietnam scenario. The other major change is the way the partial turns are computed. This is a big one for this scenario.

TOAW is a “IGO-UGO” system. During a player’s turn units are moved and combat is designated. When ready, the player chooses to execute all designated attacks. Depending on several factors, including how movement precedes the initiation of an attack, a battle often takes less than the full duration of a turn to resolve. If, after combat computations complete, units still have movement capacity remaining, the player can continue to move and designate attacks. This has been an important feature of TOAW, allowing things like front-line breakthrough and exploitation, or pursuit and elimination of an outgunned enemy.

It also has always been a source for great frustration. Try as I might, I could never seem to manage the staging of attacks. In desperation, I began saving just before I hit compute. If the execution seemed to cut my turn prematurely short, I’d reload and add in any moves I was saving until a later phase. The worst of it was, sometimes the engine would then change its mind and give me another “phase,” denied to me when I had planned fewer actions.

The change for Version 4 was small, but the impact is big. The old system took whichever battle lasted the longest to determine how far into the turn to advance. In the new version, the limiting factor is the median battle duration. This greatly reduces luck as a factor. A single battle going longer than expected won’t cost you your turn but a majority of battles that are pushing the limit probably will. Any necessary accounting is done at the individual unit level. Playing “Vietnam 1965-1968” in TOAW3, I had one (or maybe two) turns in the entire game where I was granted multiple phases. In TOAW4, nearly every turn is phased and, further, I feel it is largely within my control.

Additional, smaller changes also have a noticeable effect on play. I’ll name a few. In previous versions, Event Variable (the key victory parameter, in this case) was only reported through the news feed making it difficult to follow. In Version 4, it shows up front and center at the start of each turn. Assigning a unit to an attack and then changing your mind doesn’t break the units existing disposition (e.g. fortified). Obvious upgrades aside, it seemed to me that the Programmed Opponent is a little smarter or a bit more aggressive, even though I can’t quantify the difference.

Finally, despite the better UI, I am taking about twice as long to complete a turn in the newer version. The extra phases is part of it but, with all the little improvements in graphical feedback, I find myself focusing on little details I’d previous ignored.

Battle results are now presented in a turn-end summary, which is a nice touch. They also look nicer.

Worth it?

So should an owner of The Operational Art of Warfare III be springing for this latest version?

I guess I’d have to say it depends.

For anyone actively playing TOAW, particularly if you are involved in the on-line community, you already know your answer. To some extent, upon these folks’ shoulders the fate of the rest of us relies. If the library of user-made scenarios continues to improve and grow, access to that new content will make it worth the price of admission.

What if you’re like me? I like to occasionally break out my TOAW to play a scenario of interest, but only occasionally. I’m neither designing scenarios nor engaging with opponents on-line. I’m not eagerly following scenario creation in the forums.

Presented with a choice between 3 and 4, there is no doubt I’d rather load up a scenario in TOAW4. The improvements may not be earth-shattering but they are clear improvements. The focus on backward compatibility means there is no down side.

Is the full price a lot of money for a marginally better experience? The new version is clearly more than a patch. Spread the price out over enough scenarios, it probably would be quite reasonable. The cost per scenario or per gaming-hour will wind up being a fairly personal one.