The Operational Art of War IV (Steam Release), Review of

Operational Warfare could be considered the median level of wargaming. In terms of scope, one could place it in between grand strategy and tactical. The scope of operational wargames is broad enough that you can command one or more armies of 10-of-thousands, while small enough that you are still concerned with the topography and tactical positioning of these groups. It is objective-based gameplay that can have a limitless variety of flavor and scenarios.

This variety is what The Operational Art of War 4 seeks to make available to the player. It utilizes an engine with an insane amount of customization and parameter-setting along with a unique, though conceptually challenging, time management system so that the power is in the community’s hands to create dozens upon dozens of historically sensitive scenarios in addition to the dozens upon dozens of scenarios that are included with the game. And now that TOAW4 is available on Steam, and therefore to potential newcomers with access to Steam Workshop, the way is open for TOAW4 to blitzkrieg its way to becoming a fixed presence in the wargaming universe.

Starting Conditions for Plei Mei, 1965

The scope of TOAW4 is what exactly gives the game its variety of settings, and it is this variety of settings that the game does so well. The strategic concern is not all-out victory of an all-out war; the scenarios instead focus on specific battles. Specific battles equates to specific dates at specific places with specific armies utilizing specific technologies to achieve specific objectives. And with a range of pre-WWI to modern day conflicts, there is no shortage of stuff to do…

One scenario puts you on the isle of Crete in 1941, pitting axis against allies – pick whichever side you want to play as (or play both!) – elite paratroopers vs. entrenched defenders. Another scenario has you flushing out guerrilla militants out of afghan mountainsides. TOAW4 even has a hypothetical directory where the player can fly off the rails of history by asking ‘what if…’.

Each scenario differs from the others in terms of size, complexity, turn length, and game length. But the creators also provide plenty of optional documentation to pore through which orients the player in historical context and the initiatives of both sides. Hindsight being 20/20, many scenarios also have scripted events that can dramatically alter the course of attaining your victory conditions.

TOAW4 is not just a matter of scope, where the ‘focus’ is dialed into on the zoom. It is also about time management. TOAW4 uses a unique turn-based system that is essentially a layered turn-based approach. These sub-rounds are slices of time, so to speak, of that particular conflict in that particular hex. Time Stamp values are then assigned to hexes in an effort to reduce gamey exploits of the turn-based system that was present in TOAW3. For example, if a fresh chit with maximum round-count enters a hex where an engagement has already occurred it suffers a penalty in rounds because it has thus entered that slice of time where the passage of time has already progressed X amount of rounds, thus, potentially postponing the attack until next turn. This, in turn, promotes logistical planning on the part of the player, considering all the factors (for there are many) that have and will contribute to a chit’s efficacy and its place in the overall war machine.

Sevastopol, 1942

Time stamps, temporal shift penalties, rounds within rounds. If it sounds menacing and engaging and god-awfully clunky, that’s because it is. Many aspects of TOAW4 require some diligence not only to learn ‘how’ but to eventually determine ‘what’.

The game’s UI isn’t exactly the most pleasing to look at and use, thus getting in the player’s way of learning the ins and outs of the complexities and inner workings. The main menus are abysmally sluggish – not exactly creating a stellar first impression to newcomers. Many of the scenario descriptions and in-game battle reports tend to be nothing more than walls of text. But, those who persist and take one’s time will learn where everything is and will learn what information and commands are important to his decision-making…

Yes. After a while I began to see the game in a whole new way. The chits display more than just stats; they become a representation of a living mass of soldiers and specialists dedicated to the cause. The topography revealed more than just movement penalties; it tells the story of the place, the hardships and sacrifice that happened there. The END TURN command is the passage of time in this particular orb of history, and with it, events and situations that can alter not just the way you play toward the objectives but to also take a step back and consider the real-life historical implications.

Indeed. TOAW4 is an incredibly nuanced and historically-detailed game. No matter the scenario, no matter the objectives, no matter which side you choose, the same flexible game systems are in place. Even more remarkable is how the Scenario Editor puts these machinations into the player’s hands. Less remarkable though is that TOAW4’s Steam Workshop integration is not yet operational; you’ll have to dig through the Matrix/Slitherine forums for user-scenarios. The game also offers a universe of customization and advanced rule-setting – catnip for all you tweakers out there.

These gripes – the clunky,unhelpful UI, the uglyass appearance, zero Workshop integration – are merely that: Short-term, fussy complaints about QOL matters that will be ironed-out over time. What is solid – what does matter – is that TOAW4 has an operational wargame-generating system in place, which is now available to a much wider audience. The game will pistol whip any player without the patience to learn and will reward engaging, exciting, detailed and varied gameplay to those who are willing to jump into the muck and get his hands dirty.