Review - Operation Crusader (DOS, 1994)

If you want a wargame that covers daytime and nighttime operations down to the last hour of sleep for the last soldier, and the last ton of food . . . and offers several types of offense, defense, and even types of movement . . . it's here. And judging from the history of The Avalon Hill Game Company, this is likely to be the principal direction of the World At War series of computer games, of which this is a part.

This is the sort of game that makes me want to time-travel – to go back to 1941 to grab generals Rommel and Auchinlek, sit them in front of my terminal, show them how to use the mouse, and (after the culture-shock has died to a dull roar and their eyes stop twitching) to ask them – do you RECOGNIZE this? Is this like anything you know? When a game's scale gets this close in, it's tricky to suspend MY disbelief, but Operation Crusader tried so hard that I have to pat it on the back a bit.

There are a lot of nifty features – menus will give you more information than you will likely be able to cope with at first. Fortunately, the early scenarios can be played without much attention to the number of options available, and the game comes with a handy (and essential) "quick-start" booklet to get you playing in about 15 minutes.

Particularly nice are the attack options. A unit may opt to "probe," moving forward "feeling out the enemy" for strengths and weaknesses, assault without advance, assault with intent to advance, or all-out assault, if you're desperate to grab a hex regardless of the potential loss of life. And heck – they're just numbers. Kill the little creeps. It's fun.

Game-play is not exactly simple . . . the most basic default game consists of three phases. The first is a "planning phase" in which both sides plot movement, assign artillery and air targets, and look at odds to adjust what they've plotted. This is where having several types of attack and defense reaches a point of critical judgement – can the designers give me that much choice and keep it SIMPLE? No. No, the designer can not – or at least DID not. The maze of buttons and windows necessary to really get the game played properly is pretty frustrating. If you like, you're free to just move your troops around in default mode, but you aren't likely to win that way – most of the scenarios require that you take full advantage of your options if you want to have a chance of stomping Rommel (or stomping the British, if you opt to play the Axis forces).

And that's just ground attacks – the way that air-strikes and artillery is done are both very different from the way troops attack, and there's still the matter of lines of supply . . . and have you checked the weather? Send out ample recon? Examined the probabilities in the attacks you have in mind? Looked over morale for your troops? Have they gotten enough sleep, or did you remember that when a turn takes place at night you're expected to just sort of sit there . . ? A few little design changes here and there could have retained all of this detail and made game-play a LOT simpler . . . but the designer apparently didn't feel that sort of effort was justified.

What's that? We're still on phase one and I mentioned three? That's right, but fortunately the second two are a lot easier . . . the Execute phase just plays out the plans so painfully arrived at in the first phase, and the after-action phase allows you to review detailed reports on any of the battles that took place.

The strong points are certainly there though – if you're going to HAVE a lot of info, make it accessible, and Operation Crusader does succeed on that level. And the choice of scenarios is a good one – stomping Axis Italians is FUN . . .

At least – it's SORT of fun. I could praise the level of detail and options all night, but it's really questionable whether I'll still be playing this game a year from now – or a month from now . . . I love wargames, even complicated and "pure" wargames. But I like a friendly interface with my strategy, and I like the level of detail to have a specific function in entertaining me, and not just in giving me something that's hyper-realistic. If I want to be educated, I can find the library on my own. Hard-Core or not, I play games to relax and enjoy a good challenge . . .

The real test of Operation Crusader, then, will come in the long run . . . already the game's nifty options are starting to lose their glow for me, and I'm finding myself turning more to SSI's Panzer General or to QQP games like The Grandest Fleet to get my strategy fix. I've enjoyed what I've played of the scenarios here, but I'm not sure that I'm really EAGER to explore the other ones. That's a bad sign.

Overall, I still recommend this game to the hardcores – even strongly. The level of detail here is downright ambitious, and Operation Crusader tries a few tricks that I've been waiting for for a long time. Behind the shortcomings, there's a very impressive simulation here that just needs to be nudged around a bit more before it becomes an impressive GAME. As a game . . . time will tell . . .