Chuck Kroegel has a thing about tanks. We should be happy about this.
The honest truth is that I almost missed Panzer General: Allied Assault entirely. While I played Petroglyph Games' previous entries in the strategy space – the Star Wars: Empire at War series and the more recent Universe at War for PC and Xbox 360 – I found neither one particularly engaging. But Petroglyph's legacy, mostly in the person of CEO Chuck Kroegel, goes way further back than console Real Time Strategy games.
That legacy blossoms in this latest take on Panzer General.
As a younger man, Chuck Kroegel was part of the teams at Strategic Simulations Inc. (SSI), responsible for some of the most successful nerdy, deeply strategic franchises, including the Panzer General series. It was only natural that he'd be keeping an eye on the franchise from afar, long after the demise of SSI. It was in casual conversations with publisher Ubisoft that he first tried resurrecting his true love. "We were talking about another game project," recalls Kroegel. "So I asked them, 'Hey, so what are you guys doing with that Panzer General IP you've got there in that closet gathering dust and cobwebs?'" The answer was "nothing." Ubisoft claimed that they were uninterested in simply re-skinning the old games, and wanted something different. Kroegel and his team took that as a challenge.
What they came back with was Panzer General: Allied Assault.
A Different Kind of Panzer General
At its core, PGAA is a board game, so much so that an actual boxed boardgame should be on store shelves just in time to miss the Christmas rush – January 2010. Whether you buy it in a box or with Microsoft Points, the game is essentially the same. You and your opponent play cards from your hands onto a simple 5 by 6 grid (although larger multiplayer maps are available). Cards can represent units (various forms of artillery, tanks and infantry), actions (airstrikes, sabotage, etc.), or can be used in resolving combat (increased offense/defense, smoke screens, additional artillery support).
Each player takes turns playing cards, moving units on the board, and making attacks. The core mechanics are simple and straightforward, and will be familiar to even the most casual strategy or war gamer: Units have attack and defense scores, modified by terrain, cardplay, flanking units and artillery. All the modifiers are tallied up, and a die roll is added. If the attacker wins, the defender is damaged. If they win by a lot, the unit can be wiped out.
What makes the game more than just a slugfest is the subtlety of its resource management. Territory control – simply being the last person to occupy a space – conveys "prestige points." These points are used to buy cards, play cards, and put units on the board. The cards themselves also act as valuable and scarce resources. Not only are they your units and actions, but every card in your deck can be sacrificed during combat for a modifier.
Thus, every turn becomes a series of decisions about how best to use each card in your hand, how many prestige points to spend buying and using cards, and whether to stretch yourself thin by going on the offence, or hoard resources to make a defensive stand on your opponents turn.
While that sounds completely abstract, underneath all of this there is still the strategic context of World War 2. PGAA is still very much a Panzer General game.
"The essence of the old Panzer General was 'We're going to forget scale, and go to the basics of World War 2," explains Kroegel. "It's about the strategic dance, so to speak. There was this whole combined-arms dance between infantry and tanks and artillery and air. In that regard this Panzer General is the spiritual successor to the old Panzer General, because it's about that dance." The achievement of PGAA is that it succeeds in capturing that dance in such a confined and constrained environment. With just 30 board spaces to play with and a deck of 60 cards, all of the core lessons of WW2 strategy are evident: the importance of artillery support, entrenchment, the battle-winning nature of good airpower, the necessity of good supply, the fragility and information advantage of scouts.
In other words, despite extremely high levels of abstraction, it still feels like World War 2, and that's very much a good thing.
While there have been numerous boardgame conversions of video games (Warcraft, Halo, Starcraft, Doom), and many video game conversions of board games (Catan, Carcassonne, Ticket to Ride), Panzer General: Allied Assault is unique. After initially coming up with a vision for a stripped down XBLA game, Kroegel and his team decided to just take things to their logical conclusion. "We thought, 'Well, it's kind of a board game anyway, let's do a prototype of a boardgame as our first milestone,'" he explains. And so the very first exposure publisher Ubisoft had wasn't to mockups or wireframes, it was to an actual boardgame prototype. "We just laid out the tiles and the cards and played some games with them, and they loved it," he recalls. "They could really feel what the game was going to be about without even having to see it on the screen. So while it was always an XBLA title, what really sold it was making the board game."
With the success of that first prototype, Kroegel kept the board game as the centerpiece of the design work until the systems were essentially done. Only then did they "port" the game to the XBLA development team, much like porting Settlers of Catan or chess. But unlike a gone-digital version of those classics, Kroegel and his team could still iterate. "We found that with the UI considerations, we had to really simplify the game even more. So we evolved the Xbox game, and when we were almost done with that, we ported it back to the board game."
This back and forth between the screen and the tabletop continued until the game reached its current state, ready for both hobby-game shelves and XBLA.
That's not to say that there aren't differences. The plastic and cardboard version of PGAA will feature some minor rules variations, and the units have slightly different characteristics. The biggest difference between the two, however, will be speed.
"The XBLA version plays much faster, because of the recordkeeping," says Kroegel. This should be a familiar refrain to anyone who's played any of the XBLA board game conversions. Where a game of Settlers of Catan might take 90 minutes in person, it can be played in 30 minutes online. The same, it would seem, holds true for PGAA. "In XBLA things go faster: You can go in without understanding everything perfectly; you can just jump in and play."
While PGAA on XBLA does lead players through a learning curve, the core concepts are all in play from the very first game. Therein lies the real challenge with all crossover games, PGAA included. When I crack open a fresh boardgame, I expect to spend half an hour with a manual. Not so with an XBLA game. The consequence is that it was only after several games that I really understood how terrain, entrenchment and movement worked. Kreogel understands this, but ultimately, it takes player commitment to overcome. "On the board game, you have to do things manually," he explains. "So you're more in touch with what's happening and why it's happening, so the strategies will be more apparent faster, in a kind of different way."
Put another way: The game is easy to pick up on XBLA, but perhaps takes longer to master.
A Well Crafted Labor of Love
PGAA is an excellent, strategic, and above all else, interesting game. For me, the core of any good strategy game is this: Do I have an interesting decision to make, and will it matter? The more times I can answer that question per unit of time, the more I tend to enjoy the game.
Because PGAA has boiled the core strategic "dance" down to such a great extent, every decision matters. Every decision to spend a point is a decision not to hoard it. Every card you use on offense is a card you will miss on defense. Every unit you play is one less card you have to resolve combat with a moment later.
It's clear to me that PGAA is very much Chuck Kroegel's labor of love, built on IP he's cherished for 15 years, in a genre he's been designing since the rise of SSI in the mid 1980s. What he and the team at Petroglyph have created would be easy to overlook, but that would be a mistake. PGAA is more than just a franchise reboot, and it's certainly no sequel. It's an entirely unique game, but one built on familiar concepts and delivered with deft strokes.