The history of wargames saw a divergence of play styles back in the late 80s and 90s. There were hardcore traditionalists, who slavishly painted model soldiers and gained equal pleasure from showing off their models as they did from actually playing games with them. Then there were the board game enthusiasts who, spurning the use of models (OK, there were a fair number who either couldn't be bothered painting them up or just did not have the artistic skill), simply preferred boardgames with a military flavour.
This era saw the creation of a slew of different games based around the concept of hexagonal maps and stacks of cardboard counters. Many a happy hour was spent moving units across a detailed map board and feverishly resolving combat with a fistfull of dice. Just as the model based war games eventually made their way to computer gaming, so did the hex based map games. In fact, some of the earliest war games on the PC were based off of boardgames, as they were arguably the easiest to convert.
Despite the age of 3D, advanced graphic engines, and powerful computing, there is still a large following of gamers who like their games old-school. Unfettered by fancy explosions and detailed animations, their preference is still the hex based game, its counters, and the strategic challenge.
If that sounds like you, then it is hard to go past the team from Matrix games and their Panzer Corps series. Staying true to delivering good military gaming, they have recently released what is one of the best hexagonal based wargames we have seen. Panzer Corps: Afirka Korps, as the name suggests, is set in the western desert in World War 2 and is available as a stand-alone game or an expansion.
The game follows the campaign of the Afrika Korps from its initial reinforcement of the failing Italian army, whose ambition of an Italian Empire was shattered by the small outgunned British army. The campaign follows the back and forward battles where each side took advantage of each other's logistical constraints as the front moved further away from their bases. This is where Rommel made his reputation. Sticking close to the historical events and the technology available at the time, the game delivers wide sweeping battles and hard fought assaults on heavily entrenched units over 24 scenarios.
The game comes with a very good set of tutorial missions that introduce more and more of the game's units and talks you through how to use them to their advantage. Only one unit can occupy a hex at a time (with the exception of air units that can stack on top of a land unit) with combat taking place when you are adjacent an enemy. Each player takes a full turn of movement and combat and there is a simple combat animation sequence as casualties are resolved.
What is attractive about the game is not the graphics, but the tactical challenge of beating the opposition in what is best described as a wonderfully complex chess game with guns [Most times I play chess, I end up wishing there were guns available. - Ed.] Units are upgradeable as the game advances. This aspect gives a sense of ownership of the units and you lament the loss of elite units that you have carefully nursed from battle to battle.
The game has a lot of play options, including the ability to reduce the difficulty, remove the fog of war, and do away with the need to resupply your units. This makes the game very easy to get into, but later on in the campaign you will find the battles not only getting bigger but also more difficult. Minefields and the increasing dominance of the RAF will likely having you replaying games as you rebuild your army to cope with the differing challenges. Eventually you have a huge array of units to choose from, however you will need to make careful and balanced selections based on the limitations placed on units per game.
Overall we found the game very playable. We liked the inclusion of Australian and New Zealand units and the theatre of war was is very challenging. If you have a hankering for war games of the old school variety than this a game we highly recommend. Don't expect to find this at your game store though, but rather you will need to purchase direct from the Matrix games website for a very reasonable $26.99.