Finally, after months and months of preparation: reading dozens of books whilst making notes and creating a series of maps to illustrate everything, the time has come to unveil my latest, megalomanic, project: The Civil War Weekly. 
The under-title of the blog says almost everything: A Week-by-Week account; what happened one hundred and fifty years ago during this momentous struggle which pitted brother against brother and shaped the future of the United States.
The American Civil War is very much alive today. And thus I will retrace those events of 150 years ago on a weekly basis. Every week I will write about what happened all those years ago in that week and put it all in perspective. The famous battles we learned about at school are mostly far in between and the periods of inactivity and preparation are very long. At the same time Grant's Overland campaign of 1864 will get another dimension, week-by-week the fighting continued and casualties mounted. The same goes for Sherman's March to the Sea.

Next to retracing the main events I will take a look at the events in the lives of several leading figures, from both sides, as well as some less well known. Amongst others: generals Grant and Lee, Dan Sickles and Stonewall Jackson. But also inventor John Ericsson, intellectual J.J. Pettigrew, private investigator Allan Pinkerton and captain James Wadell.

Well, I am off to write some more and if you are interested, take a look


Enhansing Napoleon Total War; the game as it could....no should have been

I still can't understand why the Creative Assembly leaves it up to the modding-community to make their Total War-games into what they are supposed to be. Whenever a new game hits the shelves, leave it there for six months and only then pick it up. By then many a few great mod(-dification)s can be found which improve the game beyond anything CA released. Enhanced gaming experience ahead!

The performance of both Empire and Napoleon isn't all that good, sudden lag is quite normal if you have anything but a brand-new, state-of-the-art gaming-rig. The engine renders in a completely wrong way, or so I was told. My brains stop working when something becomes technical so don't ask me how and why. What I know is my perfectly suitable machine wasn't able to run bot Empire and Napoleon properly without the GFX-card making an awful rattle.
Now some chaps: Brigadier Graham and Killzone, performed miracles and found a way to let the engine render battles far more efficient. The results: better FPS, better quality and better overall performance of the game. Why can't SEGA do this themselves you wonder?

Next I focused on the looks. Well, the Total War games have always been about looks and mostly anything else comes second. Even so, there is room for improvement in this department as well. The smoke from musket and cannon discharges disperse quickly and the explosions are unimaginative. Enter the to Smoke and Blood mod. (the second part is a little bonus) and you have all the "atmosphere" you want. Clouds of smoke linger for minutes, explosions are great and with one of the good sound-mods (I used the Ultimate Sound mod) the noise is realistic as well.

So, we have a better performing, better looking and better sounding game, we now can actually feel like we are part of the battle and commands amidst the chaos. The original units however, are a bit bland and almost color-coded. In comes the modding-community yet again, with a large selection of new units/skins. In general they are more detailed, better researched and thus more realistic then the original units as well.
There are scores of different unit-packs as well as completely overhaul mods which incorporate many more aspects of the game. The one I prefer is Georider's. A total of 88 new units more then doubles the vanilla number of units.Whichever faction you will play you will find something of your liking.

To complement this set of fine mods there are some smaller ones which might add some extra depth: Longer battles, Massed fire, Larger units and Tighter formations. You choose which you like and get the game you want, or hoped it was in the first place. The preceding was just a list of my favorites and most certainly you will find even better mods when you look around on this and other sites. The search is well worth it so, good luck!

Finally there is the main problem with every release, the AI. Empire: Total War excels in this case, it was abysmal. In Napoleon it is so-so. Mods slightly improved on the AI in Empire and in Napoleon they do yet again. Luckily CA has put in some effort and now the AI is something you can live with even though it isn't as good as you wish. There are some mods which enhance the battle and campaign AI but it is all a bit iffy as no one knows exactly how the AI works and how to edit it. Let's hope the Shoguns will know how to fight when we meet them on the field of battle in 2011.


Napoleon's campaigns in detailed maps

Recently I came across a set of highly detailed maps from the "Atlas to Alison's History of Europe". This atlas was made by cartographer Alexander Keith Johnston (1804-1871) to accompany "Modern History of Europe from the French Revolution to the Fall of Napoleon" by Sir Archibald Alison. Written between 1832 and 1844 the work is according to wikipedia: "one of vast industry, but is extremely diffuse and one-sided, and often prosy." Thus, simply leave Alison's 10 volumn book gather dust and take a look at the accompanying atlast which is wonderful.
All the important and many less well known military campaigns and battles from the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars are mapped by Johnston. Well, take a look for yourself: here you can leaf through the Atlas, and here you can view high-resolution scans of the individual maps. Enjoy!


Victoria 2: a Review

  • PC Game
  • Paradox Interactive
  • Release-date: 13 August 2010
  • Price: E 39,95
The Paradox
Seven years ago I played the first instalment in Paradox Interactive's Victoria series. I didn't play it for much longer then a few games and put it away rather quickly; bored and overwhelmed I did not like the game at all. Playing Victoria 1 did feel more like being at work, accounting, then playing a game: relaxing and being entertained. Naturally I was a little apprehensive when Paradox announced Victoria 2 just over a year ago. And even though having read a portion of their 'developer-diaries' I didn't look forward to playing this game all that much. To be honest I almost declined writing about it at all.
Even though I am a long time fan of Paradox games ever since Europa Universalis came out in 2000 I have to admit Paradox does not have earned themselves a reputation of delivering a well-polished and bug-free product at release with their last few games; Hearts of Iron III in particular. Combine this reputation with that of Victoria 1's: steep learning-curve, micro-management to the max, and you can understand why a lot of people won't be all that enthusiastic with this title before even having played it. They however, will be left out on a good, perhaps in the future even great, gaming experience.
Victoria 2
Victoria is a grand strategy game which “allows for the player to take control of and manage a 19th Century nation-state including its political, diplomatic, economic, military, and technological aspects.” Where other Paradox games, like Hearts of Iron cast you in the role of an armchair-general or an armchair-king in Europa Universalis, in Victoria 2 (V2) you play the role of a nation's prime-minister. This can be any of 200 nations; from uncivilised and isolated Sokoto, to dominating great power Great-Brittain and everything in between: the declining Ottoman empire, the soon to be 'civilized' Japanese or the emerging United States.
Nations in V2 come in four categories: uncivilised and civilised countries, secondary powers and the big eight, the Great Powers. Your natural goal is achieving a position in the last category.
The Learning Curve
When you start your first game in Vic.2 you have two choices: jump in straight away or take it slowly and play through the tutorial (at least).
Jump in straight away as a powerful Great-Power - and if you are not a post-graduate in computer-science and logic - blunder about and fiddle a bit with the sliders, techs and the budget. Quite soon you will think there is hardly anything interesting to do in V2 while you possibly run your economy into the ground and the POPulation into rebellion.
There is another option: take it slowly and realize V2 is a game altogether different from games like the Europa Universalis series. The good tutorial (a play-through before you start a campaign is recommended), manual and strategy-guide will help you understand the interface and game-mechanics before you start your first game. Due to the steep learning-curve playing Japan, which starts in 1836 as an uncivilized nation 'closed' to the west, is perhaps one of the best choices. You won't have all the countless additional options an European Great-Power has and they will leave you alone for now. This is perfect to learn the first basics of gaining prestige, handling the military and managing your budget. Within two or three decades you enter a different face as Japan opens like a blooming flower and civilizes; factories are build and the country industrializes from the ground up, step by step and slowly. Soon your population will become conscious of their plight and have demand you to address their issues. Keep them happy, not demanding too many reforms, and employed, make sure your economy runs like clockwork and your nation diplomatically independent. You'll soon know how to efficiently run a country and dissipate the initial vagueness of the game-mechanics. Except for trade perhaps which was I left to the AI to sort out.
In V2 everything you do revolves around the different groups of population, POPs for short. There are several categories: farmers, artisans, clergymen, capitalists, soldiers etc. and all of them have their own relgion, ideology and dominant issues. Many of those will conflict with the needs and wishes of another group of your population. The conservative poor-strata will often demand completely different reforms, and less reforms then the more liberal and upper-class. The same can be said for the middle-class, all have their own issues, their own daily-needs and their own goals in life. And if you don't give them what they want they move to another province, another country or rebel in an attempt to overthrow your government. Compared to 99% of the games there is little “action” in V2 but a lot of “monitoring” and “management” instead.
The consciousness and militancy of your POPs changes over time, when you make a decision or by event. V2 has a lot of fine historic and flavour events which make every play-through different.
Historical Simulation vs a Historic Game
Keep in mind however V2 is not a historical simulation but a historic game. We will have to agree no game-engine can ever represent unrealistic things like a player attempting a world-conquest nor should a game-engine put you in a historic straight-jacket. In Europa Universalis3 Paradox had, in my mind strayed a bit too far from the path of history making the game into a complete sandbox game after the very historical EU2. With V2 they have chosen for to take a bit of both and this works out very well.
The AI governs its countries well, altough it sometimes has some problems with the revolutions in the later part of the game. The AI fights with acceptable, but not superb, skill and performs all-important naval-invasions. Rebellions are far more realistic then in any previous games and less haphazardly. Some areas of the game could be fleshed out a bit more such as the reaction of your POPs to a massive war or big change in government-policy. The game might be too easy for those gamers who will try to play V2 as quick and hard as possible. Some balancing through future patches thus has to take place and the AI needs a bit of imporovement to keep down the rabble. If you keep pace with history, the current build of V2 already is a great experience so this can only become better.
What's left out and should or could be in
V2 has too many facets and options to name in this review but there are also some things which are not there and which I miss.
If you play it well you won't have to take up arms once during your entire game. When you do however, either as an aggressive European power or to wage a colonial war, you will see the military aspect of V2 is quite abstract in comparison with other games of it kind. This is understandable and not altogether bad because the game will quickly be boring if you play it EU-style. Nevertheless I would have applauded some more focus on this aspect, more variety in units, and unit-types and best of all the HOI3-Semper Fi order of battle organiser.
At the moment there is only one starting point:1836. According to a statement on their forums Paradox have made this decision as it was hard enough to code the entire population for one grand-campaign, let alone several starting points. An expansions will certainly mend this but it will take some time before that will be ready.

V2 is a splendid game which looks really great; the zoomed-in map is detailed and zoomed-out version looks like a map from an atlas. Like HOI3 was it is not plagued by bugs and crashes (I experienced none at all) and everything feels very solid. O yes, there are some things which do not work as intended; China is a weak nation and huge casualties during war are not really reflected in a decline of your POPs and population, for example. Next to that I experienced some weird things in the later part of the game. This time around however, patches will not have to mend a 'broken' and instable game but merely make it better and more balanced.
An alternative campaign-start and some scenarios, most importantly the American Civil War, are not part of the game. Re-playability of the 1836 start is good however; nations are very different from each other and every game will be a different experience. After some time you will have had enough of the obvious course of the 19th century -industrializing, revolutions etc- but by then the first expansion will probably see the light making this game even better.
The good
  • Genuine Grand-Strategy
  • No more mind-numbing micromanagement
  • Good tutorial manual and Strategy-guide
The bad
  • Only one starting point-1836
  • Steep learning curve
  • Some gamers might deem V2 to easy as it is now
Score: 86%


A Victory 2 Review-After Action Report

Earlier this afternoon I started a Victoria 2 Review AAR.

Some words from Wikipedia about Victoria 2: "Victoria II is an upcoming grand strategy wargame by Paradox Interactive. It is the sequel to 2003's Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. It was announced on August 19, 2009 and is set for release on 13 August 2010.

Like its predecessor, Victoria II allows for the player to take control of and manage a 19th Century nation-state including its political, diplomatic, economic, military, and technological aspects."

I am playing my first game as Japan, starting in 1836, and have the following goals:
- Become civilised
- Industrialize
- Conquer Korea
- Develop Japan to at least a minor power
- Colonize the Pacific (if possible)
- Conquer some colonies in SE-Asia
- Attack the United States
- Become a great power
- (Let's not forget: Learn the game)

The Review AAR, called Under the Rising Sun, can be found here. Enjoy!


World of Tanks MMO – Beta Preview

World Of Tanks is a free MMO PC-game currently in development and beta-phase by the Belorussian development team behind Wargaming.net and scheduled for release later this year. For those unaccustomed to online gaming, MMO is short for Massive Multiplayer Online. In the case ofWorld Of Tanks (WoT) you will play with up to 60 players, 30 vs. 30, driving tanks on a single map.

Check out my full World of Tanks preview here ->


Gettysburg Battlefield Panorama

On the afternoon of July 3rd Confederate general Robert E. Lee ordered Pickett's division (amongst others) to attack the Union position on Cemetery hill in an all out effort to break the Union line. After an hour (or more) long cannonade, which achieved little damage as the Confederate artillery mostly overshot, Pickett, reluctantly, sounded the attack and forward went some 12.500 men in what would be later called Pickett's Charge.
Pickett's three brigades came in from the left half of this view, to the left of Codori's farm (the red building) marching obliquely to the wall. Pettigrew's six bloodied brigades came on from the center and right in a straight line. After crossing the wooden fence bordering Emmitsburg road) musket-volley's intermingled with cannon fire and wrecked the attacking formation.
The Copse of trees where the Pickett-Pettigrew charge hit home on the afternoon of July 3rd is on the right of this picture taken at 'the Angle'. This location and moment in history is called the 'High Water Mark' of the Confederacy. It was here Armistead broke through for a moment, raised his hat on his sword and shouted his men on only to be mortally wounded moments later when the Union troops reformed and counter-attacked.
On the right side of the picture we can see the wall making a sharp angle to the right and a few dozen meters to the rear -in front of the markers- the continuatie of the stone wall. It was here Pettigrew's (formerly commanded by Heth) battered division assailed and crossed the wall. And in fact got further then Armistead at the 'High Water Mark'.
Eventually all Confederate troops where beaten back and streamed across the field towards Seminairy ridge. Lee whept and could only mutter "It is all my fault".
Panorama picture taken from The Gettysburg Daily, a great site for information on Gettysburg amongst which dozens of panorama pictures.


World War II in animated maps

There is nothing better if you want to understand the actions and movements in war then looking at a map. Hence I have a shelve full of historic and militairy atlasses depicting wars, campaigns and battles. These days however, there are numerous animated maps to be found online which are quite convenient. They of course don't have the 'depth' of these -quite bussy- maps in an atlas but the animation makes them usefull and very interesting all the same.

For an easy understanding of World War II you can acces a some great maps through the links below.


A Canadian on the Eastern-Front

Whilst on vacation in beautiful Southern-France I read a handful of great and interesting books on military history. About a few of those I would like to share a word with you.

Panzer Gunner is a very special book, not only because of the style in which it is written: a very personal, very open biography, but more because of the strange history of its writer: Bruno Friesen. The sub-title of the book says it all: "From my native Canada to the German Ostfront and back."

Only now, after all these years, mister Friesen has decided to tell the remarkable history of his youth. Born in a German-speaking Mennonite family which emigrated from the Ukraine to Canada to seek their fortune away from the Communists Bruno's father sends him and his brother to prosperous Germany in 1939. Many a good chance and a good future he hopes to find there for the two young lads but that turns out not to be the case as they are separated and threated as "The Americans".
Bruno tells in a very personal way about his experience on a farm in Northern-Germany, his subsequent job in the shipyards and the change of the early war years.

By 1942 he is drafted into the Wehrmacht like many young 'German' boys and trained as a driver, and later as a gunner, on the panzer IV. Here the true magnificence of his biography starts, the detail of the account makes it stand out from all other 'panzer-biographies'. He tells about the sergeant's bullying tricks during training, the experience on garrison duties in Italy (after the Italian defection), visits to the brothel in Trieste and the battles on the Eastern-Front. Bruno's account is not a simple one, telling about the fights, the action and the stress of battle. No, he takes you into the driver's seat of the Panzer IV and explains how it is driven, how gear-changes work and how the steel monster is navigated. The same for the Jagdpanzer IV, tank-destroyer. Which crewmember does what, how is the gun loaded and above all how is it adjusted, aimed and fired. Truly fascinating stuff and a must read for everyone interested in the period.

After the war Bruno Friesen returns 'home' to Canada. His war-experience is a serious drawback for his career and makes life difficult. So he decides not to speak about it, until now. And I am glad he did.

- Panzer Gunner by Bruno Friesen fascinating 'in-depth' personal account of the job and life of a panzer's driver and gunner 4/5


HOI3: Semper Fi Preview-AAR

I will have to explain the somewhat cryptic title of this article. Last August I wrote a rather successful After Action Report (AAR) of my experiences with the Beta version of Hearts of Iron 3. Of course Paradox interactive (developer and publisher of the HOI series) completely agreed with it because companies aren't too fond of it when people show their beta-games to the world. With their approval I did and it was a nice success: over 500.000 views.

Now, almost a year later, the add-on to HOI3 is about to hit the shelves, D-day will be on June 6th. With the preview version of this add-on I set out to do the same I did in August: write an AAR of my experiences.

It can be found here.


Achtung Panzer: Operation Star; an Interview with Graviteam

Graviteam (the developers of Achtung Panzer) was kind enough to allow me to interview them about the sequal to Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943.
I hope many a question, will be answered in the interview published on Armchair General.


The Most Iconic Tank in History

Which is the most iconic tanks of history? The mass-produced Sherman or the powerful and frightening Tiger, used time and again in movies art and pictures? Or perhaps neither of these but instead the machine which, debatable, won the war: the T-34?

Where are the other ' monsters of war' on this top-ten list, the Abrams, Mathilda, Stuart 'Honey', the tanks from WWI, the T-60 etc? And what would your list be? Take into account we are not talking about the best but the most iconic tank, a profound difference. 'Iconic' as in, which tank will be remembered from a certain nation and/or timeframe. Which most of the time has nothing to do with the technical quality of a tank.

After an extensive survey and some long discussion we came to a top-ten. Agreeing on the first three wasn't all that hard. Heated discussion started when the Abrams and Centurion had to be placed and about place 10...well, we never reached an agreement.

The Top-Ten Most Iconic Tanks in History

1. Mk VI Tiger (GER)
2. M4 Sherman (US)
3. T-34 (USSR)
4. T-55 (USSR)
5. Renault FT-17 (FRA)
6. The WW1 Mark series (UK)
7. M1 Abrams (US)
8. Centurion (UK)
9. Mk V Panther (GER)
10. Mathilda II (UK)


Napoleon's Veterans Captured on Camera

Early photographs are always very fascinating. There is, for example, a superb series of color pictures from Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century. One of these depicting a splendidly clothed warlord.

If we are looking into military history there are many pictures of interest from the period of the 1850's onwards. During the American Civil War Mathew Brady was especially productive and from this war date the first pictures of real action. Now, don't expect much of them as it wasn't possible to capture movement on the plate in these early photographs. We see however, the smoke hovering over the battlefield at Antietam and the bombardment of a fort. Much more of an impression make the pictures of the aftermath of the battles and those of the veterans.

Veterans of earlier wars are photographed as well and there even are some pictures of splendidly uniformed veterans of Napoleon's Grande Armee. A set of pictures depicting fifteen Napoleonic veterans can be found here. These soldiers have probably been photographed in 1858 on the 5th of May. On that date veterans donned their old uniforms and honored their general and emperor at the yearly anniversary of his death in Paris. So most of these men are in their late 60's or seventies.
They are however not the earliest born persons in photos, that honor goes to veterans of the American War of Independence.

Grenadier Sergeant Taria wears a bearskin and the uniform of the Grenadiere de la Garde of 1809-1815.

Monsieur Moret wears the uniform of a grand hussar of the 2nd Regiment, 1814/15. Red pants, green jacket and gold embroidery on the tassel.

M. Dreuse of the 2nd Light Horse Lancers of the Guard, circa 1813-14 wears a splendidly plumed shako.

Twelve more splendid and interesting photographs of the Anne S.K. Brown collection can be found here.

Legio: Chess meets Warhammer | Interview and Preview

Legio is a turn-based game for one or two players that requires careful strategies and cleverness. Described as a cross between chess and Games Workshop’s Warhammer game it places players in command of a small army of fantasy warriors with their only goal eliminating the opponent’s army.

To learn more about this hybrid wargame, I interviewed Jonas Fjellström of ICE Game Studios. You will find the interview here.

Subsequently, I wrote a preview of Legio which can be found on Armchair General as well: here.


Wings of Prey Review

It has been quiet out here for some time but for a good reason. Several weeks ago I was asked by Armchair General to write game-reviews for them. As you can imagine I didn't decline this great opportunity. Over the weeks I have played games for quite a lot of hours and written about them. The first one is up, a review of the flight-sim Wings of Prey, and more will follow soon.
Of course I am also working on some other articles which will appear in the next few days and weeks.


Blast from the Past UFO: Enemy Unknown

In 1994 Microprose released UFO: Enemy unknown, the first installment in the X-com strategy series, is a game in which you lead an global defense organization to counter the alien organization; shoot down UFOs, kill the aliens and research new techs in order to destroy their lair on Mars and destroy them once and for all. UFO: Enemy unknown is a serious Blast from the Past.
Classic games from the 90's are seriously outdated graphic wise, but they made it up in gameplay and the so important replayability. UFO is a prime example of this and does something modern games fail to do; it keeps you glued to your seat for hours. Replayability to the max, they made up in gameplay what they lacked in graphics. UFO: Enemy unknown is awarded the title '#1 PC game of all time' by IGN three times in a row.
The X-com series games combine tense tactical squad-based combat with global strategy and base-management, a perfect mix. The turn-based combat is the best part of all though; your team will be flown in to eliminate the survivors of an ufo-crash or worse (better from the gamer's perspective), defend a city against an alien attack. In between your turns, as the aliens move, you hear them but don't see them, you can feel your heart beating because of the tension.
A scream, then some movement and a burst of shots......this game is just so unbelievably good.

After the success of UFO: Enemy Unknown Microprose released Terror from the Deep, the aliens did survival after all and now they where coming from the seabed where you would have to combat them. "Fantastic new graphics" the strategy-guide reads, well perhaps in 1996. However, this game was again as thrilling as UFO. If you haven't played them, check out both of them, they can be found for a few bucks on download-sites like Steam and Gamersgate.
For me UFO is more then just one of the best games ever made, it is the game which introduced me to 'Wargaming' and games in general. I occasionally fire it up and have as much fun I had fifteen years ago. Recently I found the special-edition on e-bay. UFO en TFTD with both strategy-guides. I had had it but lend it to a friend and never saw it returned. I have been searching for it for a long, long time but now, at last, I have found it and will never lend it again to anyone.


Best Wargame of Q1 2010

Not Napoleon Total War, not Rise of Prussia or Battlefield: Bad Company 2 but the unexpected new game Achtung Panzer is what was for me the best new Computer-Wargame of the first quarter of 2010.

The other games mentioned and those not mentioned are most certainly impressive games, both Napoleon and Bad Company having impressive graphics and a lot of immersion, Rise of Prussia meticulously detailed and very well researched, but none of them comes close to Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 (AP).

AP is a game we have been waiting for quite some time, a game which fills a gap and does so in a splendid way. AP is a very serious realistic 3D-wargame. For those who wanted more after playing games like combat-command there was nothing, Graviteam, developers of Achtung Panzer threw in 3D graphics and set the game during the German Kharkov offensive. Very well researched, countless period military records and maps as well as surveys have been used to recreate the Kharkov area in which your company size command will fight. The Soviet force is composed mainly of infantry backed up by a few platoons of T-34s while the full might of the 6th Panzer Division is brought to bear against them. Playing as the Germans you have panzers, APC-mounted infantry and mechanized artillery (Marders and Stugs) at your disposal.

Graviteam (also developer of training complexes for the Ukrainian army) claims the use of a completely destructible environment, although this sounds somewhat more impressive then it really is. Houses, fences and trees will show damaged and destruction and best of all burned out vehicles will stay on the field of battle during the subsequent missions but don't expect bricks, concrete and dirt flying all across the screen. Houses and trees will not catch fire either although this is something Graviteam will implement in AP's sequel or add-on Operation Star which we will be able to play later this year.

The learning curve for AP is rather steep but quickly you know how to manage your troops and all that's left to learn, which takes a lot of time and practice, is which strategy to use in an infinite number of tactical situations. During your first few playthroughs you are not really aided by an intuitive interface and the lack of a proper tutorial is annoying as well. There is, however, a good concise Quick-Start-Guide which allows you to get into the action rather quick. Don't expect anything from the manual though, as you won't find answers to your questions there.

Achtung Panzer makes use of two different views, the Operational view which takes place on WWII-period maps, you move your forces across them to engage the enemy. Everything you need to know about your platoons can be found here as well: Current strength and whereabouts as well as the options to repair reinforce and refit. The same menu also give you access to the losses incurred and the damage done by your units and, this is very cool, the medals earned during operations.

As your and the AI's units are pushed across the map, almost like playing chess, battles occur where the two clash. Sometimes there are just two units involved but if you play it right you outnumber the enemy. If not you might just have to run and safe your force to fight another day. When you outnumber the enemy 4 to 1 however, you should still be careful lest the enemies sell their skins dearly and your victory turns into a Phyrric victory.

Engagements are played in 3D battle-mode one at the time. Starting out by deploying your forces as you see fit: in positions from which to strike quickly or perhaps dug-in around an objective for defense. You have a birds-eye view of the detailed and accurate 3D landscape. Snowy fields, forests and villages.

Because of the snow everything is white and gloomy, even when the sun breaks through and the sky clears. In which case you better watch the skies.

When distant artillery and the occasional barking dog is all you hear apart from the squeaking of the vehicles' tracks, the crack of an anti-tank rifle can make your heart skip a beat. The message "Enemy contact" flashes and the upbeat music hightens the tension and immersion even more; the battle is on.

The vehicles and units in AP are well detailed, including the unit's markings on tank or halftrack; shovels and rifles can be seen stacked away in the halftracks and spare bits of track on the tanks and Stugs. Considering realism the spare parts actually serve a purpose, if immobilized your crew will jump out of their vehicles (if not in the enemies field of fire) and repair the damage done. If they don't manage to do so during the fight a vehicle is not written off completely as your mecanics might be able to repair the damage in the few hours between battles, of course you might have to be without this particular unit for the next clash with the enemy.

Battles are completely different every time and the silence can be transferred in a hellish inferno in second, incoming artillery (and kathuska strikes), rumbling panzers, molotov-cocktail throwing infantry, rattling machine-guns, it is all there. One wrong descision can have fatal consequences for you entire force while setting up in just the right position can assure a costly defeat for the enemy without any loss. This game is for the hardcore and the exact oposite to any arcade-like game.

The AI is not exactly perfect but a lot better then can be expected from such a small team, it is even better if you compare it with games like the Total War series. The AI's decisions on operational and tactical levels is different, but mostly logical although sometimes unexpected this makes for a good re-playability. Even though I would really like to see Kharkov 1943's sequel; Operation Star (tigers!) and the subsequent game set in the summer (and green terrain). There will be much, much more to come and Graviteams engine will turn out classic, although niche, wargames for years. Or so I hope.

Even though there are some problems which need attention in Achtung Panzer: yes, the interface could be user friendly, the AI can use some attention and we could use a bit more spectacular graphics such as fire and smoke (will be in Operation Star) this game deserves our complete attention. Because of its refreshing and realistic gameplay as well as immersion beyond anything encountered so far I would like to name Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 the best wargame of the first quarter of 1943.


Words of War

In this series of columns we will take a look at words associated with and originated in warfare. Many of these words have found their way into our everyday vocabulary with a different meaning or vice-versa. For the first episode we will look at the grim business of different methods of punishments.

A scene we can easily depict when reading the words is one not put into practice all that often: walking the plank. Pirates sometimes used this harsh punishment but more often marooned those they punished. The word marooning is derived from the term maroon, a word for a fugitive slave.The punishment was meted out by the fellow crew who set the their victim (or victims) on a deserted island, often no more than a sand bar at low tide. He would be usually given some food and water, and a loaded pistol so he could commit suicide if he desired. The outcome of marooning was usually fatal although not so in the case of Alexander Selkirk and famous pirate captain Edward England. In some cases, like that of Alexander Selkirk, who was worried about the unseaworthy condition of his ship, marooning was voluntary, and thus took place under somewhat more favorable circumstances. He later stood model for Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

In its glory days the Dutch navy practiced a rather strange method of punishment. Keelhauling, literally meaning "to drag along the keel" was a form of corporal punishment not meant to kill the victim, although when not done right the sailor could drown as a result of being underwater for too long a time.
When a sailor was keelhauled, he would be stripped and tied so that he could not swim. Usually a weight was attached to his legs to pull him away from the ship. The offender was tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship, and dragged under the ship's keel to the other side of the ship.
If the offender was pulled underneath the ship quickly he would suffer severe cuts, bruises and other injuries from the barnacles on the ship's hull. If pulled to slow he would not hit the hull but might drown.
Keelhauling first appeared in 1560, when a Dutch ordinance outlined the practice and the offenses for which it could be used legally permitting its use as a punishment. Other maritime powers including the Britain Royal navy adopted the practice as well. There are also many associations with pirate lore. The Dutch navy did not abolish its practice until 1853.

Today keelhauling is only performed metaphorically altough the term is still occasional used by watersport-enthusiasts. It refers to the spinnaker sheets (parts of the sail) getting stuck under the hull. The social networking site, Facebook, has an English (Pirate) translation that uses 'keelhaul' to mean 'remove' or 'cancel'.
After the Second World War, between August 14, 1946 and May 9, 1947 the allied armies in Northern Italy carried out Operation Keelhaul. The operation's intentions to repatriate Russian captives to the Soviet Union. The term has been later applied as well to other Allied acts of often forced repatriation of former residents of the USSR after the ending of the war. While the original naval-punishment was not intended to kill the offender many of the captives and refugees repatriated during Operation Keelhaul lost their lives through summary execution or during their times in the Siberian camps after returning to their country.

The Spanish horse was a cruel but not widespread torture device. I have seen one in the Netherlands but have also seen a picture of a similar device on a picture from the American Civil War.
Basically, the punished soldier stands over a pointed (but not sharp) beam on his toes. His groin area is exposed to the board and becomes uncomfortable as he shifts from getting tired. This causes his private parts to grate across the board. His hands will be tied to make sure he can't support himself. On occasion wheels were fitted underneath the Spanish horse and it was dragged through town. If that was not cruel enough additional weight could be tied to the offender's feet to make aggaivated his suffering and eventually cut him in two.The Spanish horse was not often used to execute offenders in this way however.
The name Spanish horse comes from the Eighty Years War period or Dutch war of independence. When a deserter was punished with this somewhat less painfully devices in the American Civil War he was said to be 'riding the horse'.

In case of a mutiny Roman generals punished the unit which had performed this unforgivable act by executing every tenth legionair. From the latin verb decimare, to kill every tenth men, our word to decimate was derived. Which in the nineteenth century aquired its more general meaning of 'to destroy a large number of the enemy'.

Sometimes we link a punishment to a certain period in history. The humiliation of tar and feathers is something we know from the American Wild West but in fact this punishment goes back far in history. During the third crusade, in 1189 King Richard the Lionhearted issued a decree in an attempt to twart the increasing large number of thefts taking place during the long journey to Jeruzalem. "Any robber traveling with Crusaders shall be shorn like a hired fighter, and boiling tar shall be poured over his head, and feathers from a pillow shall be shaken out over his head." After Richard I's decree this form of punishment became widespread although you of course wonder how they acquired the tar needed.
During the American Revolution it again became a widespread practice as Colonists used it against the Loyalists. These days we only use it in a figurative manner when we it is used to refer to a severe and disgracefully punishment.


The Nafziger-treasury of Orders Of Battle

Invariably, when writing books on military history, creating boardgames or detailed computer games (not like the Total War-series), you are going to stumble upon one big defect. The lack of detailed OOBs (Order Of Battles). Next to the official records the most important resource there is. A select group of people specialize in collecting these OOBs probably most prominent of them George F. Nafziger who collected a stunning 8000 files over time. If you have any books on organizational history in your library there is a good chance he has 'written' it.
Nafzinger served in Vietnam aboard the USS Hull. He retired from the US Navy in 1995 as a Captain and is now in his early 60s. In the past year he has written countless books and is a valued editor of numerous books and articles on the subject of military history. He is also the former director of the Napoleonic Society of America and the Napoleonic Alliance. Both of which we will discuss in more detail in a subsequent post about the neverending Napoleon Podcast.

A few weeks ago messages appeared on the internet. Nafzinger had put his entire collection online for everyone to look through and download whichever files they could use. Naturally I had a look and downloaded parts of this massive pdf-library of 596 mb. I was dumbstruck by what I encountered and happy as a child finding a treasure, which was actually just what happened.
According to George Nafzinger's statement he had donated his valuable to the U.S. Army's Combined Arms Research Library and it is now "free to the world" The reasons why he had to make this decision are a bit sad though:

"Technology was killing me. The collection was in WordStar, a DOS-based program, and Windows XP and Vista would not allow me to print the documents, so I found myself having to maintain a Windows 98 machine (and a spare, just in case). Sooner or later, I would no longer be able to get to the data."

As he is in his early 60s he was afraid "my wife and kids know nothing about the collection, could care less about it, would see a Windows 98 machine and think "junk" and place the computer, its hard drive and all the collection on the curb for the garbage collector, that my death would result in the disappearance of something that meant a lot to me as a hobby and a labor of love."

He ends his statement thus: "maybe I will achieve a modicum of immortality, leaving a legacy that will haunt you all long after I've shed this mortal shell. Enjoy, make use of it, and consider it my gift to the wargaming community."

Well, most certainly we will. Captain, thank you for all your hard work and thank you for sharing your collection with us.

You can find the Nafzinger-files here.


Mount & Blade Warband, first impressions

Since yesterday the singleplayer Beta for Warband is out for whoever pre-orders the game (multiplayer beta is available for download as well for those who have the original game). I have been playing Warband for a several hours in the past week now and would like to write up my first impressions of this, nearly finished, game.

Let me first introduce you to Mount & Blade which can be best compared with Bethesda's Oblivion; a medieval inspired fantasy RPG. That's the end of the comparisons however because Mount & Blade is much more combat-oriented with the big plus being the inclusion of mounted combat. You can swing a sword from horseback to chop down archers, use a lance to break through the enemies ranks or remain at a distance and rain down arrows upon the enemy. You don't do this alone however, as you can recruit your own little force of soldiers and NPCs, starting at about thirty men but soon rising to a hundred or even more you will find yourself commanding an army as well as fighting the enemy at the same time. Your troops can be trained and evolve into tough, well equipped fighters and your army will be renowned throughout the realms of Calradia. A little 'sauce' of quests, warring kingdoms and bandits complete the game for a very nice gaming experience.

TaleWorlds, a small developing team (man and wife) from Turkey, started to develop Mount & Blade some four years ago and the game soon turned out to be a success. Mount & Blade is not so much a second installment as a stand-alone add-on. It offers various new things fans have been waiting for a long time: Multiplayer battles, better graphics, better battle-AI and best of all: the ability to marry to a damsel or lady (or a lord if you are playing a female character).

Not being such a fan of multiplayer games (too fast for my kind, I can't think which tactical move to make next) I had looked forward to the singleplayer version Warband and so I set out last Friday on a new adventure in Calradia. Right from the start it is clear the map is bigger then the original. Most of the names of the cities are the same as are the factions, there are new villages however and they are all farther apart making for much larger, but alas somewhat bland, empty kingdoms (I very much preferred the map of the Broken Lands mod for M&B). After a little while you want to read a book or something to pass the time while travelling from one city to the other.

Quite soon I set out to perform some minor quests; train some villagers to defend themselves, escort a caravan and pay the ransom for a merchant's daughter (quest didn't work, remember this is still a Beta!). All is well, there are many more quests in Warband. Entering villages and towns is a real joy now, the look perfectly splendid and lively. Instead of quickly jumping to the tavern or the arms-salesman I like to walk through the gate and navigate the streets until I have found the merchant I need, almost sightseeing. The villages are much more a part of their factions now as well. Nord villages have a real Viking feel to them for example. Then there are the skies. Normally I wouldn't write a word about them but in Warband they need some attention because the look so good, so realistic, and in doing so add to the game's atmosphere and immersion.

In fact, the graphics in general are a lot better. I just love the clothing of the steppe-people and during a battle you sometimes wonder about the equipment and armor of the soldier you are fighting as it all looks so splendidly. It has happened more then once I pick a helmet or piece of armor with a lower armour-value just because it looks better. The once I like best are those which depict your own heraldry (you will pick one at the start of the game). Even more then in M&B your soldiers will carry shields depicting your heraldry which makes for a very nice scene, you almost feel proud of the buggers, when they are attempting a shield-wall.

Then to the actual combat. I found the enemy in Warband behave better then in M&B, wasn't able to crack a superior force early on this time around so that might account for a certain AI improvement. Your own army performs exactly as you ask them to do, in Warband there are even more options such as 'Stand Ground' and 'Withdrawl' but in order to incorporate them a new two-tier system had to be made. I am not very happy with this as I now have to give twice as many commands to set up my forces before a battle and being used to the ones in the original M&B make a lot of mistakes sending soldiers to their death by accident. You will get used to it however and seeing them make a nice line, archers ten steps to the rear, cavalry behind you on the right, gives a lot of satisfaction. Pepper the enemy with arrows, blunt his first attack and then charge them from the flank with fuming horses and leveled lances.
This brings us to the second part of combat swinging the sword yourself. After having made your tactical dispositions and shouting out orders to your men you want to get into the fray yourself as quickly as possible. My preferred modus of operandi has always been to use the lance during the first and second run and then switch to the sword (preferring edged weapons over blunt and thus killed enemies over prisoners). Straight away I ran into an annoying bug, or new future, who's to say. In M&B your lance levels out when galloping and you have to aim it to strike a damaging 'couched lance-hit'. This does not happen in Warband however, I couldn't get my lance to level for a long period. By pressing 'x' it would level for about ten seconds but pressing 'x' all the time is rather annoying, the key being so close to the 'AWSD' you need to control your mount. Let's hope this is actually a bug and something soon solved.
Swinging a sword is different in Warband as well. Your swing is longer and far more realistic and elegant. I had some problems with thrusts however but that's something negligible once I have found my favorite, the curved sabre.

To conclude, a little recap. There are some bugs which need (and probably will be) solved before the end of the Beta-period. The map, however will remain some sort of a problem for me and perhaps for others as well. A mod will solve this issue however and it is something I can live with for now. The graphics are stunning and in big battles they don't seem to hamper the performance, quite the contrary as it looks like the performance in Warband is better then it was in the original Mount & Blade. Battles have become even more fun and I am sure everyone will enjoy them, throw the multiplayer options (siege, deathmatch, skirmish, capture the flag and conquest) into the mix and Warband is a very enjoyable game.

If this would have been a review the score would have been like this:

Gameplay 8
Graphics 8,5
Sounds 7
Replayabiltiy 9

Overall Score 8