If your Wargame ain’t broke…

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

WRD Gunboat

The US Marines came ashore to find their enemy in disarray.

 

Before the first marine set foot on land, their escorting frigate swept the skies clear. Naval gunfire and wave after wave of Marine helicopters established a safe zone around the shore. Now, as the helicopters darted inland to cut off enemy reinforcements, the first Marine tanks lumbered off the beach, while their officers set up a command post behind them.

 

Everything was going to plan – better than planned. There was just one question: what were Swedish Navy gunboats doing in the Marine task force?

 

Welcome to Wargame: Red Dragon, the follow-up to my favourite game of last year, Wargame: AirLand Battle. Whereas AirLand Battle represented a huge upgrade from the first game in the series, European Escalation, Red Dragon is much more incremental, arguably closer to a stand-alone expansion than a whole new game. It offers plenty of new toys for the toy box, as well as some quality of life improvements (more details below), but the core mechanics are little changed from AirLand Battle.

 

As such, most of what I said about AirLand Battle still applies – this is a “beer and pretzels” Cold War military tactics game, comparable to a real-time Panzer General in the way it bridges the gap between traditional RTS (such as Company of Heroes) and dedicated simulations. Visually, it’s more spectacular than ever – see my above screenshot. Mechanically, it’s still the best RTS on the market, albeit weighed down by a steep learning curve and poor documentation (1). At this stage, AirLand Battle is more polished, and if you already own ALB, you can safely wait for a sale unless you are a series devotee like me. But taken in its own right, Red Dragon is a fantastic game that’s already given me many hours of enjoyment, whether in skirmish mode, the campaign, multiplayer (co-op or PVP), or simply theory-crafting in the armoury.

 

(1) The developers try their best, and they have made advances from game to game, but after three Wargame titles I feel safe saying this is not one of their strengths.

 

For series veterans, I elaborate below on what’s new:

 

1. New units and countries. Of the new countries I’ve tried, Japan and South Korea are traditional mechanised forces with noteworthy shock infantry, the ANZACs resemble AirLand’s Canada (lightly armed, motorised army), and China resembles AirLand’s France (elite infantry, powerful but fragile vehicles, good helicopters).

 

I do think that Red Dragon’s expanded timeline (from 1975 all the way to selected 1990s units) is pushing the limits of a game designed to model traditional armoured warfare – all the more so when players can mix and match World War 2 leftovers with their Gulf War descendants. If the timeline went any further forward, modern artillery and smart weaponry would be too powerful, and even as is, there are balance issues – how do you ensure that each ‘generation’ of unit remains an interesting choice for players?

 

2. Rule and balance tweaks. I like some of these (such as a crackdown on cheap plane spam) more than others (a return to European Escalation’s hard-cap on the number of cards within a deck category), but it’s still the same Wargame beneath.

 

3. Quality of life and usability improvements, with the big one being adjustable speed in single player. Given how quickly things happen once opposing forces come into contact, this is very useful! I can micro units far more precisely than in AirLand. It’s also now possible to assign custom decks to the AI in skirmish/co-op.

 

4. Amphibious vehicles and naval units. Stand-alone naval combat is almost a separate minigame, and from what little I’ve played, I wouldn’t buy the game just for this. There are far fewer ships than there are ground units and aircraft – every NATO country shares a common pool of ships, as does every Pact country, hence the Swedish gunboats in my American armada. This is also the one area where Wargame abandons its usual attempt to preserve the “feel” of real-world military tactics – naval guns are far more potent (and longer-ranged) relative to missiles than in reality. By contrast, I love amphibious operations. The marines’ landing was almost worth the entire price of the game by itself!

 

WRD Airstrike vs ship

 

5. Different campaign structure – I can’t compare apples and apples as I played AirLand’s largest and most freeform campaign, whereas I’ve only tried the first campaign in Red Dragon. Nonetheless, from what I’ve seen, AirLand‘s campaign was more ambitious in that it tried to present a simplified operational-level wargame. Players moved brigade-sized, combined-arms stacks around the large, wide-open campaign map, and “interesting decisions” revolved around whether to spend scarce income on new units (and if so, which units), or on strategic-layer buffs/debuffs.

 

By contrast, Red Dragon has smaller maps, is much more scripted, and is built around the idea that you mix and match your own stacks to the situation at hand. Battlegroups now comprise a few command vehicles plus a smattering of infantry or tanks, much smaller than their counterparts from AirLand Battle. Players then attach specialist units such as anti-air or artillery batteries or fighter squadrons, and all units in a province fight together as a single stack. This leads to interesting decisions of a different sort: you have only two helicopter squadrons, so which provinces receive the precious air support? Can you afford to pull an armoured battalion out of the line to refit? Do you use your income to call in a Hornet squadron or an Abrams company? This can produce interesting and unusual matches depending on the units committed by either side, such as pure infantry vs infantry urban fights. Conversely, it can also produce extremely one-sided battles if one side brings airpower and the other skimps on air defence.

 

Personally, I think both approaches have their strengths. I miss the larger AirLand campaign maps, and I don’t like the restrictions on unit movement in the introductory Red Dragon campaign. However, I like Red Dragon’s mix-and-match stacks, and its campaign has given me some great moments, such as the marines’ landing. If I have the time, I would like to try Red Dragon’s other campaigns. The developers have also promised to patch in another campaign at some point, so hopefully this will be more open.

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