Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Battle of the Bulge (iPad game)

Plays: intro scenario x3 as Axis, basic scenario x2 as Axis, x1 as Allies.

The Game

Battle of the Bulge is a boardgame developed purely for the iPad. Technically speaking it can be produced as a physical game, but putting it on the iOS platform takes away a lot of calculations, accounting and menial tasks that the players would otherwise have to deal with. So you can focus on the fun part and let the computer handle all the work part. The background story is, of course, that final attempt of Germany to push back the Allies during World War II, which ultimately failed. The Germans did catch the Allies by surprise, breaking through the Allied defenses and creating a huge bulge in the frontline which was how the battle got its name (the Germans and the French gave the battle a more tasteful name though). However when the Allied reinforcements rushed to the scene, the Germans were eventually pushed back. Many perished in this epic clash, on both sides.

The game comes with a few scenarios which are variations of the same battle. Each scenario is played over a specific number of days, one day being one round in the game. The Axis and the Allies take turns activating one space and all units in it. They can move or stay put. If they enter a space with enemies, they engage in battle. If the activated space contains enemies and you make your units stay, a round of battle will ensue too. Once you complete a turn, between 0 and 2 hours will pass, and the day will progress. Once dusk comes, the day ends, i.e. the round ends. Units not yet activated won't be able to move anymore. Units that have been activated will be reset so that they can move again the next day. On your turn you can decide to pass, and sometimes you do want to do this to see how your opponent commits his forces. If both players pass consecutively, the day will end early.

Victory is determined by points scored by the Axis. A check is done at the end of every day, and the victory condition for the two sides differ from day to day. In the early game when the Axis have an advantage, the victory requirement is very high. Later in the scenario as the Allies become stronger this requirement will reduce. The Allies on the other hand need to make sure the Axis does not score too many points. If they manage to keep the Axis' score below a certain threshold, they will win. This threshold varies from day to day. There are a few ways for the Axis to score points. Capturing and holding victory locations gives points at the end of every day. Crossing the River Meuse and exiting the northwest quadrant of map give points too. This represents the Axis breaking through the Allied defenses and wreaking havoc behind their lines. Killing Allied units gives points. Getting killed by the Allies will reduce the Axis' score.

Spaces on the map have various features, e.g. forests, woods, roads, rivers, towns. All these impact the movement abilities or the fighting abilities of units. There is a stacking limit of three units per space. Attacking across rivers is tricky because only one unit can cross a bridge per turn. This means the first attacker needs to attack alone, and will only get support the next turn, or even the next day. The concept of supply lines plays an important role. If you are cut off, you will fight less effectively. If you are out of supply for an extended period, you can't fight or move at all and are sitting ducks.

There are fixed events and reinforcements. You need to regularly consult the calendar of events in order to prepare for them. On the first day the Allies are caught by surprise and their infantry cannot move at all. Later on, the Axis suffer from poor supply and a random tank or mechanised infantry unit will be temporarily unable to move. Both sides get reinforcements of predetermined types and quantities at predetermined locations on predetermined days. Naturally the Allies will get more. That said, both sides need to conserve their units and not waste them needlessly.

The Axis are blue, the Allies green. The Axis start from the eastern edge of the board and strike westwards. In this particular game I played the Axis. Notice that the northern half of my army are mostly out of supply now, being cut off by that pest of a lone American tank which had broken through my lines and reached the eastern edge of the board. I lost quite horribly.

The Play

The tutorial is quite straight-forward. The things you do are straight-forward - it's just picking a space and then moving (or not moving) the units there. However, to play well, you have to pay attention to detail. You have to consider the various factors affecting the battle outcome, and you have to think ahead how to position your units. The controls are user-friendly, and it is easy to mistake this as a simplistic game. It is not. Some thought needs to go into deciding when to take a risk and when to concede ground. This is not a "throw everything at your opponent" kind of game. It is subtle, and when you play well, it is rewarding.

One thing that I worried about was whether the scoring mechanism would make the game feel artificial, i.e. whether I would be making moves for the sake of scoring points, even though in real life it wouldn't make sense, e.g. when I would be sending young men to almost certain death for no tangible benefit. I found that I had worried unnecessarily. If I had made such dumb moves, the victory point gains would have been short-lived, and I would find my overall board position suffering in the long run. So I'm glad the scoring flows quite naturally from making good tactical decisions.

In this particular game I played the Allies. The Axis played by the AI was quite aggressive and advanced quite far westwards. At one point I was able to cut off its advance units, but at this point it had reestablished a supply line. A few of my infantry units in the south were now cut off instead.

This is the same point in time as the previous screenshot, but viewed in a different mode. This is the supply mode. Red spaces are where there are units out of supply.

This is the victory point calculation screen. That bar at the top indicates the victory requirements for the day. For the Axis to win, they need to score 55pts. For the Allies to win, they need to keep the Axis score at or below 24pts. At this point the Axis score was 23pts, which meant the Allies had won. You can see that the Axis can score points for crossing the River Meuse, for exiting the northwest quadrant of the map, for capturing and holding victory towns and for killing Allied units. They lose points for their own units killed by the Allies.

The Thoughts

There is a little chess-like feel because of how it is a perfect information game, and how you take turns moving units. Battles are resolved by die roll, so the outcomes are not deterministic. But there is much you can do to control your odds in battle. Before you commit to any battle, the computer tells you what your odds are clearly. It's up to you whether you want to go ahead.

I like how the game is challenging and a little thinky. You do need to put in some effort to do well. This is not a casual game. It is something you sit down, pore over, and think through carefully. So far I have won once each as both Axis and Allies in the standard scenario. It was satisfying. However, after that I have not yet picked up the game again. I have a feeling that I have solved the puzzle, so I don't have a strong urge to revisit this battle. The historical accuracy is a double edged sword. It's realistic and immersive, but it can also feel scripted. The starting setup, the reinforcements, and the events are mostly fixed. The battle can still evolve very differently from game to game, because of how individual fights turn out and how they have cascading effects. However it's hard to avoid that deja vu feeling when the calendar of events is a 100% accurate fortune teller. I own Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge, which I only get to play once in a long while. It doesn't feel repetitive despite the fixed starting line-up and reinforcements, but that's only because I don't play it frequently enough. In my situation, the convenience of playing the iPad Battle of the Bulge games becomes a disadvantage, which is bizarre. I have not yet tried the game with human players. I expect it would be much more challenging and much less like a puzzle to solve.


Aik Yong said...

Dude, that's because you haven't played against humans players yet! Hit me up when you're ready, the matchmaking service is quite good as well.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Are human vs human games played within the same sitting? Or in async mode? For me this is a game I feel I have to set aside some time to sit down and play quietly, as opposed to something like Ascension where I can take one turn on the train, then another turn at lunch etc. So I find I need to be in the right mood to play Battle of the Bulge.

Aik Yong said...

It is in async, although my experience against a good opponent is that we traded moves immediately and we can finish a game in a session.

I think in your case, you are still not familiar with the game's nuances. Which is why you feel that you need to take time to make moves.

Personally, I tend to play Battle of the Bulge iOS as fast as Ascension. Rather than being stuck on analysis paralysis, I just go with the flow and see what happens. Because of the fast turn around rate, I can just learn from the burnt hand and play another game.

My point is, after many more games, you will comfortable making moves on train, at lunch, etc.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Ha ha, I'm still playing the game as carefully as doing a heart transplant. Can't imagine playing it at the pace I play Ascension. I guess I need to transplant more hearts.