Order of Battle: World War II is a deep, strategic war sim – but is it too opaque for console gamers?

Whether on the tabletop or in digital form, I’ve always loved turn-based games. From Risk to modern miniatures games like Battle of Pelennor Fields, I enjoy everything from grand, strategic endeavours to more tactical encounters. This gives me a natural predisposition towards games like Slitherine Studio’s Order of Battle: World War II, which is a “free to try” episodic hex-based wargame that has just been released on console.

To take you back a few years—- 25 or so — to the first time I saw a game like Order of Battle: World War II on a console. That game was one of the Panzer General games, released on the PS1. I bought it in good faith and tried my best to understand it,  but alas, my thirteen year old brain couldn’t concentrate on that much pixelated brown for long enough to see through the mud and reveal the — apparently rich — systems that lay hidden beneath.

Order of Battle: World War II

And, honestly, Order of Battle: World War II makes me feel the same way. On the Xbox One Series X it looks marginally better than Panzer General did back then, but it does very little to entice the player with its visuals. Static loading screens featuring airplanes with guns blazing and ships firing their main batteries are rousing enough, but the in-game graphics are very run of the mill.

Thankfully, there are two visual aspects that work well. Firstly, each unit is relatively easy to tell from other similar units. A Panzer III, for example, is clearly smaller than a Panzer IV and a heavy infantry unit is equipped differently to a rifleman. A rifleman unit and a group of marines? Less so, but an information panel at the bottom of the screen helps clear up any confusion when a unit is highlighted. 

The other thing which Order of Battle: World War II excels at — and this surprised me — is the scale of its maps. As someone used to console based strategy games, I’ve come to accept compact maps that leave little room for battalion level flanking maneuvers and complex combined arms approaches. Order of Battle: World War II has this in spades, with some maps proving to be absolutely huge. 

As is often the case, there’s another “but” coming here, and in this case, despite the very basic graphics, Order of Battle: World War II performs embarrassingly during AI turns on console. Whenever the “thinking” dialogue appears at the bottom of your screen, you can be assured that on any map of any size, the game will chug to a grinding halt that makes it very difficult to watch and track enemy counterattacks. 

Order of Battle: World War II

All of this is kind of peripheral though, in honesty, compared to the quality of the gameplay. No one has ever bought a turn based strategy game because of how it looked, right? Anyway, there is definitely a glimmer of hope here — but just as in Panzer General, it is deep, deep under the mud. Order of Battle: World War II tells you almost nothing about what you need to know, even with a lengthy tutorial spanning three sizable missions. 

Even though the game never tells you so in a way that is evenly remotely structured or helpful, each unit has a number of different stats that affect how it moves, how it attacks and how it defends. Simply, this might mean that a unit of infantry is good at fighting other infantry, but perhaps not so good at damaging armoured units. It is, in theory, all self-explanatory — or so you would think.

The trouble is that as the usual modifiers come into play — terrain, flanking, being under fire from artillery etc — Order of Battle: World War II starts to throw up unusual results. This is compounded by one of Order of Battle: World War II’s better ideas — that of units needing to remain “in supply.” Being in supply effectively means that the player will need to maintain control over hexes between their units and the nearest supply base (or supply vehicle) that they control. 

Failure to remain in supply will result in a reduction in unit efficiency. Equally, being suppressed (as per the previous example) has a similar effect. These effects are represented by the colour of a unit’s strength — with white being “fine” and yellow through orange to red indicating worsening to bad. A strong unit that is operating inefficiently is more or less as weak as a weak unit that is well supplied and content. Other factors like fortification (the longer a unit is still, the more fortified it becomes) also play a part.

Order of Battle: World War II

The problem with all of these modifiers is that you won’t have a clue which ones are affecting your units or the enemy. This was compounded in my second mission (of the tutorial campaign) when one of the randomised tooltips on a loading screen helpfully mentioned that “warships are more efficient if an enemy ship is at the same range at the end of your move, as it was at the beginning.” 

Excuse me? Well thanks for letting me know… No wonder that every time I go to move a ship I have to cycle through every space near an enemy to see which show the most favorable battle outcome. What does that even mean? Is it a representation of how naval guns are calibrated? If so, fine, but in a real battle a destroyer can’t circle a completely stationary and passive battleship at the same range to get the best shot. Anyway, whatever.

Other examples are more common on land, where modifiers are more frequent. I swear to God that the match ups make no sense at all to me. Play Order of Battle: World War II enough and you will simply get a “feel” for how to safely engage an enemy and overwhelm them. Often this involves taking it slow, ensuring battles are two units versus one, using different mixtures of tanks and infantry. At first though, every one on one encounter will be inexplicable — whether it goes in your favor or not.

Another issue came to light for me during the very first mission of the main, free to play campaign. This one centres on the German advance into Poland at the start of the war — the one we often call the Blitzkrieg. In true Blitz form, I recruited tanks and attempted to rapidly cross the Polish countryside — despite the fact that the resilient Polish had already blown the bridges. No matter, German engineers can build pontoon bridges, or even repair the main bridges given time. 

Order of Battle: World War II

This combined arms strategy took me successfully to a storming first half of the mission — with Polish bunkers and supply bases falling in rapid succession. As I pushed on into the second half, however, even my terrifying Panzer IV’s began to lose efficiency and in one pivotal moment, one unit was forced to retreat by a Polish cavalry unit — a match up that’s almost as ridiculous as the fondly remembered spearmen triumphing over modern armour days of Civilization IV

I can sum up the density of Order of Battle: World War II by saying that even though I finished that mission and moved on through the campaign, I still to this day do now know why my entire force lost efficiency in that one battle. We had supply lines, we had forward supply bases, and my units engaged the enemy in a line of battle that held and left no room for the Polish to outflank. It made no sense — and it still doesn’t.

Despite all of these negatives — and there are a lot — I have willed myself through the whole of the tutorial and German campaigns in Order of Battle: World War II, because I want it to work so badly. Despite the rubbish graphics and the intense slowdown, and even though the systems collide against each other in the most jarring of ways, when it does work, Order of Battle: World War II is just great. 

The sheer scale of the battles, the number and variety of units involved and the complex, challenging missions really give the player credit. For someone who takes the time to figure out the systems (better than me) or who can at least work around them (which is me) there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had here. Taking control of even one section of the battlefield against the odds feels like a victory in Order of Battle: World War II, because even though they sometimes break, the underpinning systems make you feel like you’re really commanding a large force — and facing all of the challenges that come with that.

So in short, Order of Battle: World War II is not everyone. In fact, it’s probably not for even half of us — hell, I am a fan of this genre and I almost gave up several times. For those who stick around though, Order of Battle: World War II can be rewarding, and if you do like it and want to go beyond the free campaign, then there are maybe another ten you can buy for between five and fifteen quid each. It’s good value if you pick up just one or two of these, but it’s exceptional value if you just take the free campaign.

You can find Order of Battle: World War II on PC and Xbox One.

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