By now, most are familiar with Order of Battle: World War Two and the kind of experience it offers. One of the more successful of the Panzer General successors, OOB offers some fresh mechanical innovations, pretty animations, and an underrepresented campaign when it launched as Order of Battle: Pacific in 2015. Since then the game has morphed into a pseudo free-to-play launchpad, where players are encouraged to choose and buy only campaigns that interest them from an increasingly diverse selection.
Gameplay remains fairly consistent between campaigns, with some offering traditional Panzer General fare while others tackle radically different fights like tight engagements in the jungles of Burma or the asymmetric struggles of the Finnish Winter War. While the transition was rocky, OOB has settled nicely into its new format and, with few exceptions, developer The Artistocrats have consistently offered interesting entries for players to jump into.
I’ve embraced the sandbox nature myself, picking up their takes on campaigns I rarely see in computer wargaming like the Japanese invasion of China and the Kriegsmarine’s struggles in the Atlantic while avoiding the more common German conquerathon that I’ve done a hundred times before. The Artistocrat’s latest offering, Red Star, hit upon the desire to explore less ‘popular’ theatres that got me interested in the first place. While part of a trilogy that will look at the entirety of the Soviet Union’s involvement in World War Two, Red Star focuses on the first few years.
Starting with border clashes against the Japanese in Manchuria and Mongolia and the Soviet invasion of Poland, players will then dive into some previously covered campaigns, only this time from the other side. OOB fans will note that we again return to the Soviet-Finnish Winter War and Operation Barbarossa, with the campaign culminating in the desperate defence of Moscow.
Holding the line against an overwhelming Japanese attack before launching your own was an exciting start to Red Star’s campaign.
Taking the path less traveled has always been one of the greatest strengths of this series and the thing that keeps me coming back again and again. The border skirmishes around Lake Khasan and Khalkhin Gol, which comprise the first three scenarios, prove that OOB still has some kick to it. Showcasing early Soviet technology and tasking the player to repel Japanese attacks and then follow up with their own pincer move, Khalkhin Gol especially reminded me why this game works so well in the first place. Managing supply and proper support while racing to complete objectives kept me on the edge of my seat while the attention to detail in the available units kept options and replayability open.
Mission diversity is a strength. Though some are not quite as good as others, Red Star never shies away from throwing a good challenge your way. The invasion of Poland, hot on the heels of the sprint in Mongolia, is a little underwhelming as you smash your way through hapless garrisons. The Winter War, immediately afterwards, picks up again offering you a different but equally fascinating challenge. While the AI is the same as it always has been, in Finland I found many enemies working to stymie time-based objectives by stalling my advances, sitting in place and healing or else emerging from cover to cut supply lines as my tank units rumbled past. This change in behavior from the more bombastic Japanese attacks earlier forced me to alter my planning, something I’m happy to see Red Star demanding of me.
Most missions in this campaign will either have you assaulting a position or else holding against an enemy attack, but there is enough individual variation that I never found things to be repetitive. Map diversity is excellent, with Mongolia feeling very different from Finland and Moscow’s outskirts. While maps range in size, the geography never felt too scattered or difficult to parse on larger maps. Things fell together and I found myself enjoying the best of Panzer General style games in managing both local clashes along with the wider front. OOB’s inclusion of supply lines ties everything together neatly. When Red Star lets you fight a big battle across a wide map against a reasonable enemy, I can see why OOB continues to be one of the go-to games for this style of play.
Finnish determination and Finnish snow slow my advance to a crawl. The race was on to the Mannerheim Line!
I only started to lose steam during the Barbarossa scenarios. These maps recreate the unpreparedness of the Soviets by tossing your core units amidst a sea of weakened and outdated chaff. Your vets are left to snatch victory from defeat while the remainder are dutifully chucked under the treads of advancing Panzers to give you a breather. Each clash can take a while to resolve, and they tended to climax in a heady collision of veteran tanks before petering out in the last few turns. The challenge comes from throwing tons of high-level veterans at you and generally starting you flat footed. I appreciate that this is exactly the kind of late game challenge that many are looking for, and there is nothing quite like testing your strength against the best the Wehrmacht can throw at you, but I found the fights exhausting and occasionally frustrating. My poor air wings, leveled up as they were, went down like pigeons before the eagles of a ridiculously strong Luftwaffe. Even trying to kite them over my anti aircraft guns did little to curb them. All but three of my surviving wings sat out the final scenario for want of utility.
I also found myself taken out of the world in the last few scenarios. What were supposed to be desperate defenses, by the halfway mark, tended to turn into German routs. It feels odd to finish a mission having not only held but counter attacked forcing the Germans to the edge of the map at Rasainiai only to be patted on the back for my desperate near win. Here is where Red Star could have used some alternative scenarios. Handily achieving major victories on each scenario, (mountain of sacrificed non-core units aside) should have resulted in more than an additional tank unit or Resource points for later missions.
I found myself bogging down in the numbers during Barbarossa. They were tough, hard-thinking fights. And how many times can an enemy successfully escape with 1 HP remaining!?
Additionally, perhaps because I was enjoying Red Star’s scenarios so much, some of the clunkiness that lurks at the edge of the otherwise excellent OOB system became more evident. Throughout the Barbarossa scenarios especially I found myself seeing the game less as any sort of representation of WWII and instead saw only the puzzle that needed to be solved. I also saw some simple flaws resurfacing that I didn’t remember until I made the same mistakes. Trying to distinguish when a unit will switch to its transport for movement on snow maps is difficult with white outlines on white hexes. I also only reloaded saves twice, each time when I misclicked and carried a unit to certain death where it wasn’t wanted. I also found myself consciously trying to do damage with my core units to ensure they received enough experience points to contest the later levels. The gamey and gimmicky portions came to the front as the scenarios became more difficult, and as someone who is far more interested in seeing battles like Khalkhin Gol represented on the screen rather than in figuring out the optimal way to win a scenario, I don’t think I’ll be replaying the Barbarossa scenarios any time soon.
All that being said, I did enjoy my time with Order of Battle: Red Star. I feel like it brings out the best of what the system has to offer, and many of my complaints can be said of many games that descent from the Panzer General lineage. OOB could stand to look at some recent entries like Fantasy General II to see that innovation is still welcome. In the end, anyone who has enjoyed previous entries and who wants a challenge will find exactly what they’re looking for here. I’ll certainly be looking forward to the second installment of the Soviet trilogy, my men are tired of having their crushing victories held back by failures on other fronts. Bring on the era of the counter attack!