Computer Graphics Memory Disk Space Minimum: 386SX/16 VGA 2 MB 4 MB Recommended: 386DX/33 Control: Keyboard, Mouse (required) Sound: Thunderboard, PAS, Gravis, SoundBlaster family & compatibles. Notes: Manufacturer recommends uncompressed hard drive. Reviewed version 1.0 on: 486/66 VLB, 8MB RAM, SoundBlaster 16.
I first saw a screenshot of SSI's WARGAME CONSTRUCTION SET II: TANKS! (heretofore referred to as TANKS!) back when the working title of the project was "The Iron Fist." While my eyes lit up at the prospect of being able to rumble armored vehicles around a virtual battlefield and cause mass destruction, I had the same reservations about the game as I tend to have with all wargames. For while I embrace the concept of using one's gray matter to crush one's enemies, I am not a military historian, nor am I an oracle of wargaming experience. The V for Victory series' preponderance for obscure details and endless rulebooks left me staring blankly at my screen, my confidence shattered, my mind swimming aimlessly among the map hexes. So it was with trepidation in my heart that I gingerly approached the cashier with the TANKS! box in my hand. Little did I know what a pleasant surprise was in my near future.
TANKS! is a turn-based tactical wargame played out on a standard hex map at the scale of approximately 250 meters per hex diameter. The playing pieces are represented by colorful icons resembling boardgame cardboard cutouts ("counters", for the experienced wargamer), so those with even a passing familiarization with wargames will feel comfortable with the format of play. The mechanized forces of several time periods, from the Great War to the Gulf War are offered to the player to test his tactical mettle. The package comes bundled with several pre-built scenarios, but where TANKS! earns its title as a "Wargaming Construction Set" is in its ability to create random scenarios, and in the Editor, where the creative and inspired player may use the tools at his command to paint truly endless varieties of situations and conflicts.
It is obvious from a cursory scan of the well-done 106 page rulebook that TANKS! was designed from the ground up to be a very attractive, playable game. The first 30 pages of the manual are enough to hold the entirety of the rules (and methods) of gameplay. The entire ruleset can be learned in under an hour of reading, and one need only scan over the basic interface conventions to be able to sit at the computer, fire up the game, set up a battle, and have a blast moving tanks and infantry around and blowing up bad guys. This is perhaps TANKS!' greatest feat; it can offer an enjoyable gaming experience to almost any level of wargamer, from the novice without patience enough to read the manual, to an expert in search of a thoughtful, yet playable study of armored conflict.
The rest of the manual continues to tell the tale. After the rules of play, the next 10 pages explain how to use the Editor, and the rest of the book is just filled with statistics tables. There are hundreds of different types of military vehicles and equipment represented in the game, each with its own movement and armor characteristic, and each of which might hold up to two different types of weapons (which in turn each have ratings for range, rate-of-fire, armor-piercing ability and "soft-attack" ability.) The combinations are staggering, and all totaled, over 1000 unique unit types are available. This tidal wave of information tends to paralyze a gamer with "numberphobia" like myself, but the way the information is presented eases the blow remarkably. Tables for individual units may be pulled up on-line for a quick glance at their relative capabilities, and in a separate screen, forces from both sides involved in the current scenario may be compared, so you can see just how vulnerable your Panzer IIIE is to his Stuart M5. This screen in itself simplifies comprehension wonderfully, since you quickly learn that it's not what you have that counts, it's how what you have matches up against what HE has. The system is built with the user in mind, and after almost a month of constant play, I continue to learn new things every time I run the program.
Gameplay, like the rest of the package, is a painless affair. The system is, point to the guy you want to move or fire, then point where you want it to go, or what you want it to fire at. The faster units can go further in a single turn. The weapons with the higher rate-of-fire may shoot more rounds per turn. It is intuitive, and it works. Many of the more subtle elements of wargaming are represented here as well. Units may only use direct fire at enemy units in the field-of-view. Indirect fire units (such as mortars) may only fire at enemy units which have been "spotted" by friendly units (and just because you can SEE an enemy, doesn't mean that he is SPOTTED - an important difference that quickly becomes clear.) Field-of- view is calculated on a true slope, unlike similar systems such as that in 'The Perfect General'. This allows for the use of such tactics as hugging the bottom of a hill to hide from units on the top. Each unit is rated with three numbers for morale, supply, and control. The higher a unit's morale, the more likely it is to hit what it's aiming at. The higher a unit's supply, the more likely it is to get more ammo by staying put. The control number has somewhat more involved consequences, but in general, the rule is: the lower the control number, the lower the chance that the unit may "spot" enemy units for indirect fire missions, and the higher the chance for the unit going into "reorganization". While a unit is in reorganization, it cannot be given orders. Again, all of these rules are easily absorbed after only a few sessions of play.
Graphics, while perhaps not quite on par with the V for Victory series, are more than adequate. The battlefield is attractively rendered, and the counters, while displaying a lot of information, are clear and easy to work with. Three levels of altitude are represented on the map, with the "higher" hexes being of lighter color, and after a while, the display truly begins to feel three-dimensional. During night battles, the VGA palette is subtly darkened, though not so much as to interfere with play. This, and other nice touches, such as smoke casting shadows as it drifts across the battlefield, are surely to be appreciated, and lend strongly to the feeling of a very dynamic, very "tangible" environment.
If one can forgive the somewhat grating music that the menu screens sport, sound in TANKS! is another winner. Digitized sounds are used during almost every aspect of battlefield operations. Tracked vehicles sound a lot like tracked vehicles. Helicopters sound remarkably like helicopters. A gun fires, and an explosion is heard from the target hex. An interesting addition to the game was the use of stereo sound, so (assuming a capable sound card) a tank moving across the right side of the screen causes the "tank sound" to come from the right speaker. (Hint: This can actually be used as a trick to determine approximate locations of enemy units!) Although loud and satisfying, I have found none of the noises to become annoying, and after countless hours of use, I still have all the sound options turned on. (I could complain about the strange, inappropriate techno-bluesy tune played during force selection, but that would be nit- picking.)
Creating random scenarios is as easy as picking forces for each side, and specifying a few parameters for the map-creating algorithm (such as the relative frequency of hills, roads, cities, etc.) Forces from different time periods CAN be mixed, so you might have modern day Americans seeking revenge on the Waffen SS of 1941 (needless to say, the Nazis don't fare too well in this situation.) The maps that are created can be remarkably well "thought out", so much so that one user actually accused the program of picking from several pre-determined maps bundled with the game. The game also attempts to balance out the forces you've picked for it, so if one picks "equal" sizes for the above scenario, the SS is going to have a lot more units to work with than the Desert Storm veterans.
The Editor is broken down into two parts; the map builder, and the OOB (Order of Battle) builder. Each does what its name implies. The map building feature is similar to any popular paint program, except instead of blues and greens, one paints hills and trees. An "auto-contouring" feature facilitates the matter of smoothing out rough edges, and makes creation of unusually shaped mountains and lakes a snap. Editing OOB's is a matter of deciding what units you want available for each side, and where you want them to start. The user is also encouraged to provide "hints" for the programmed opponent (the designer, Norm Koger, frowns strongly on the use of the term "AI") by specifying secondary and primary objectives for each side's forces, and by giving generalized orders to each formation in the game (such as "defend" and "hunt"). The Editor includes the ability to create random maps and OOB's independently, in case you haven't the patience or desire to build both manually. The entire system works well as a whole, and as a "Construction Set", TANKS! fulfills its obligations superbly.
I would be remiss in my duties as a software reviewer if I didn't point out a few of the games features (or lack thereof) which might bother some players. Alas, a modem-play option was not included, and while "hot- seating" (two players on the same machine) is implemented nicely, there is no dedicated Play-By-Email option (however, PBEM can be accomplished to some extent by simply trading saved games.) The "campaign" feature is merely a string of random scenarios, with each battle's initial setup based on the results of previous battles, and when one side reaches the appropriate number of points, he is awarded a campaign victory. There are no extra "cheese" screens or rewards for this accomplishment. Also, the wargamer who places most of his stock in games which stress realism and historical simulation may find TANKS! somewhat lacking. Stark realism is frequently sacrificed in the name of playability, and in the final analysis, I would have to say that TANKS! is more suited to the 'Perfect General' crowd looking for a little more substance than the 'War in Russia' crowd looking for a tactical-level exercise. It is TANKS!' intrinsic elegance that belies its underlying complexity. The rules are simple. The methods by which to achieve success are not.
I have not had such affection for a computer game as I have for TANKS! in quite some time. The designer is always friendly and open to suggestions and criticisms, and by the time you read this, a version 1.1 should already be available. It is a wargame that I am continually drawn to, not only with the promise of education and enlightenment, but with the promise of good, clean, destructive fun. It is endlessly replayable, and unfailingly satisfying. Chris Crawford once said of his game 'Patton Strikes Back' that his purpose was to create the wargame for "the rest of us." In TANKS!, Norm Koger has taken great strides toward creating the wargame for ALL of us.
(Incidentally, for our Internet friends: TANKS!-related files, including patches and home-built scenarios, can be found at the anonymous FTP site ftp.digex.net in the directory /pub/access/nukenin/tanks. See you there!)This review is Copyright (C) 1994 by Ben Parrish for Game Bytes Magazine. All rights reserved.