Panzer General: Allied Assault

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.

Being Board

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.

Comments

This has been a very surprising game for me. When I saw people on Xbox Live playing it I imagined a hex grid, small tanks and obtuse instructions. I was hooked about halfway through the tutorial when I realized it struck such a nice balance between card game, resource management strategy and light wargame positioning.

I also beat Julian in our epic two hour match with an infantry flanking rush that he didn't take seriously until they swallowed up his artillery. That was a hoot.

Sounds...compelling.

I have no experience with this kind of game, and provided it doesn't require that I put on my reading glasses to see all the stats that are crammed onto the board, it sounds like something I'll have to check out.

Great write up, Rabbit. Almost makes me wish I had a console...almost. So instead I'll just wish that they port it to the PC.

I've been loving this. I've got one of my boardgaming buddies hooked on it, and we're both pleasantly impressed with how good a digital version of a boardgame it is. Multiplayer can be a bit of a slog though - the games ain't fast to play. Certis' "2 hour epic" sounds about right. The fastest game I've played was over in about an hour, when I foolishly tried to storm my opponent's base from the middle of a river.

Friend me up and let's play!

Nevin73 wrote:

Great write up, Rabbit. Almost makes me wish I had a console...almost. So instead I'll just wish that they port it to the PC.

That's the nice thing about them porting it to a board game though - it becomes everything-compatible.

Also, is it safe to say this is only for two players, or does it allow teams ala Memoir 44?

Yeah - thanks Rabbit for clueing me in on the game. Less thanks for soundly trumping me on the two maps we played!

I will say there are some UI... oddities and there are some odd choices about displaying data that actually slow down play (e.g. when both players do not have combat cards to play). But the excellent gameplay makes up for what amounts to very small UI issues.

I am not on XBLA to play often (perils of being a dad), but feel free to send game invites to HedgeWizard.

I too am hit completely out of left field by how awesome this game is. There is no way a strategic WWII themed board game should be finding playtime in my current WoW, Brutal Legend, Uncharted 2 rotation, and yet there it is holding its own.

Depending on the quality of Torchlight, this could be my surprise unexpected pleasure of the year.

Wait... this is already out on XBLA? (squee!!)

I'm so out of touch these days.

I miss Panzer General II and it has given me so much love. I'll be trying this out after I get the current slate of games off of my table.

HedgeWizard wrote:

I will say there are some UI... oddities and there are some odd choices about displaying data that actually slow down play (e.g. when both players do not have combat cards to play). But the excellent gameplay makes up for what amounts to very small UI issues.

Yeah, I found that a bit odd as well. I already know I can't play any cards, and I know that the AI doesn't have any left either, so why do we still have to go through the whole announcing & turn-taking process? It also served to enrage me once or twice, when I foolishly forgot to leave cards back for defense and was getting trounced in battles I had absolutely no control over. Just whoop my ass without reminding me, over and over, that I have no cards left, okay?

I usually hate card-based games like this, but nonetheless found myself playing the demo for more than two hours. Solid!

Sounds like fun. Is there any kind of local play? I'd like to get the in-person boardgame experience with the advantage of automated record keeping. Or would this mess-up the more sneaky tactics?

DanyBoy wrote:

Sounds like fun. Is there any kind of local play? I'd like to get the in-person boardgame experience with the advantage of automated record keeping. Or would this mess-up the more sneaky tactics?

I don't recall there being local play, which makes sense as there is hidden information (units and cards).

Oh that's right, THIS is what I was going to download tonight.

Elysium wrote:

I too am hit completely out of left field by how awesome this game is. There is no way a strategic WWII themed board game should be finding playtime in my current WoW, Brutal Legend, Uncharted 2 rotation, and yet there it is holding its own.

What he said. This game has been eating my soul. I went in for a quick one-off before bed last night and it spit me out four hours later. My only gripe is a the lack of a quick resolve.

Enjoying it so far, though I'm still having trouble keeping enough good cards in my hand to sacrifice. That, and I hate AA units.

Now I'm waiting for a Fantasy General remake

Does anybody suffer from too small cards/text...? I don't sit too close to my HD TV and I can't read all numbers and descriptions on the cards.... I think I will pass after playing the demo (I like the game though)... sad...

brof wrote:

Does anybody suffer from too small cards/text...? I don't sit too close to my HD TV and I can't read all numbers and descriptions on the cards.... I think I will pass after playing the demo (I like the game though)... sad...

The text is definately pretty small on the cards ...

Thanks everyone so far for the comments! We featured Julian's review on our main site: http://www.petroglyphgames.com/news/.... Our PG:AA podcast http://www.petroglyphgames.com/commu... also has some great follow-up comments from Chuck Kroegel. Looking forward to playing PG:AA with you on XBLA!

So when should I expect to see Steel Panthers on XBLA?

wordsmythe wrote:

So when should I expect to see Steel Panthers on XBLA?

Any day now, just keep waiting.

IMAGE(http://img252.imageshack.us/img252/1729/200pxseymourstill.jpg)

Certis wrote:

IMAGE(http://img252.imageshack.us/img252/1729/200pxseymourstill.jpg)

Why Certis, why?

Clemenstation wrote:
Certis wrote:

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Why Certis, why? :(

Seriously. Buzz Killington.

Wednesday is a day for sadness.

Certis wrote:

Wednesday is a day for sadness.

You and your damn Canadian holidays. You don't see me spreading misery around here on Tuesdays, do you? I respect other people's cultures.

I'm laughing a bit too loudly for my work environment.

rabbit wrote:
brof wrote:

Does anybody suffer from too small cards/text...? I don't sit too close to my HD TV and I can't read all numbers and descriptions on the cards.... I think I will pass after playing the demo (I like the game though)... sad...

The text is definately pretty small on the cards ...

Yes, a MTG: Duels-esque card zoom with the right trigger would do wonders for this game, I think. I wonder how difficult that would be to implement through a patch.

As far as the rest of the game goes, I agree that it's a spectacular strategy game that has much more depth than you would initially think, but I also agree with Cory's point on the recent Conference Call that the ramp-up is probably a bit too slow. Part of it, I think, is that the tutorial is a bit dry in how it presents the information to the player; you get bombarded with a number of (admittedly informative) text boxes that explain the math and the flow of control...but you don't really get enough reinforcement of how well it can work for you in practice until you're about halfway through the first mission proper in the campaign.

Sure, once it finally "clicked", I was hooked and I upgraded to the full game right then and there...but I wonder if others - especially board/strategy game initiates - would give it as much of a chance.

The account of the development process is interesting. I know a few guys who do independent design here and they swear by prototyping with board and cards.

It helps formulate rules without getting caught up in the nuts n bolts of the software development process.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

The account of the development process is interesting. I know a few guys who do independent design here and they swear by prototyping with board and cards.

It helps formulate rules without getting caught up in the nuts n bolts of the software development process.

This is something myself and a few friends have discovered as well; I had designed and tested a small clutch of boardgames over the years (with zero intent on trying to produce them), but now we're looking at (possibly) developing them into PC/iPhone/XBLA games.

1. There aren't enough true boardgames in this areas (IMO)
2. I think the translation between board design/play testing and electronic implementation is a solid one; it tends to provide a much faster software development cycle which is the costlier of the two processes.

I do wish they had done a few rounds of board/card prototyping with Culdcept, sounds like a smart development path.