The winter of 1944. Hitler was still recovering from the attempt on his life, and at the frontiers of Belgium. Germany and France there was an uneasy stalemate. The Allies were waiting to push further and the Germans were resisting.
However, in a bunker deep in the French countryside, a daring plan was being conceived. A plan which Hitler hoped would turn the tide of the war once more in Germany's favour. It was called "Wacht am Rhein".
This codename (Watch on the Rhine) was deliberately misleading. The push was to be through the Ardennes towards Antwerp, to divide the Allied armies and cut their supply lines. Hospitals and even schools were stripped of men to provide troops for the offensive, and during the frenzied planning, the German High Command even regained some of its former vigour. And on the 16th of December, the Panzers rolled.The German objectives were clear: the SS Panzers in the north were to reach the Meuse, the central Panzer Divisions were to capture key towns, and the southern flanks were to engage Patton's Army.
The Ardennes Offensive took place in wooded country not ideal for tank warfare, but the Germans hit very hard and fast. They also parachuted in Commandos dressed in American uniforms to create chaos and misdirect American units. Initially, it worked. The Americans were caught out, the SS spearheads churned westwards with frightening speed, and the bad weather prevented Allied air-superiority from being used effectively.
However, the Allies fought back. The (mainly) American forces were tougher than Germany had anticipated, and the northern push was halted. Slowly, the central German attack petered out. Fuel and supplies ran low and the tanks died in villages and fields across the region. The war was coming to an end.
This scenario lends itself well to computer simulation because of the exciting nature of the battle. Consequently, several games about it have been written, ranging in quality from the excellent to the abysmal. Cases Computer Simulations' version is unfortunately not one of the best.
At the start of the game you can elect to control either the German or Allied forces, and you can play the computer or another earthling. Other options to change history exist, such as choosing clear weather or delaying Patton's relief army. The computer has an easy and a hard level and there are many variations which can be set up at the start of play.
The playing area extends approximately 70 miles by 70, encompassing the whole of the Ardennes battle area. This scale is fine, but it does take a lot of slow, jerky scrolling to move from one side to the other. It really should be possible to call up an overall map to display your units' current positions, but this option doesn't exist. Each unit is one standard character size, with a tank, gun or artillery symbol to distinguish it.
Information on the units is gained by selecting them with the cursor. This is also how they are moved. The unit is selected, an order is given by pressing a single key, such as R for Road movement. M for cross country movement, or B for Bombard, if it's an artillery unit. Unfortunately, there is no way of finding out what specific orders have been given to each unit. This can result in a lot of unnecessary duplication.
The cursor is placed on the point you wish to move to, or bomb. This order is then carried out, possibly taking more than one turn to complete, so keep a close track of your forces' orders.
The enemy is generally hidden until your unit gets close enough to see them. This is a nice touch because in life it is impossible to know the disposition of your opponent with proper recconaissance. You can use air recce later in the game, though. Until then, you have to rely on judgement and luck.
Combat occurs when opposing units meet each other. You aren't given battle reports; you must select each unit afterwards to determine the amount of damage done to it. Severely damaged units retreat automatically, usually losing sight of the enemy. These units then need fresh orders.
Road, rivers and bridges are the features which dominate the landscape. Using roads speeds up your armour's movement dramatically, but lays you open to ambush and interception. Bridges are strategically vital, so they tend to be the location of most of the battles. The Allies can blow up bridges to delay or halt the evil Nazi menace, who generally retaliate by blowing up the Allies.
Everything is done by turns, or phases. This takes quite a long time and involves a lot of 'press any key' operations. You are asked if you want to save the game every turn, which soon gets slightly tedious.
The graphics are clear, but not very special. The little symbols are simple, and the map is lurid green with, big black roads, many at 90 degrees to each other. Sound is limited to popping machine-gun noises during combat turns, and wheebang artillery effects. They don't add much at all. Combat noises in wargames often jar, and this is the case here. The sounds merely alert you to which phase the computer is currently processing.
The computer plays a competent game on hard level, and a rather simple one on easy. It's far better to play another organic lifeform; this is true of virtually all such games.
Historical wargames should be loaded with atmosphere, and should capture the feel of the conflict. While Battle Of The Bulge is accurate m detail, the presentation and somewhat pedestrian gameplay spoil the excitement. It lacks the slickness that allows the player to concentrate on wielding his (or her) tank divisions to maximum devastating effect, and just doesn't have the evocative feel of the snow and mud being churned up under the tracks, and the smell of burnt diesel and cordite drifting through the forest.
As with many 'serious' games, the graphics are uninspiring, and tend to put you off right away. Stick at it though, and a pretty solid little game appears. It could have been so much better though.
Halt the German advance on the easy level.
N. Clear enough, but very basic.
N. A larger scale map is needed.
N. They merely signify various phases.
Grab Factor 57%
P. Not overly complicated.
P. Controlling four SS Divisions is heady stuff!
Staying Power 63%
P. Enough variations to keep fans amused.
N. This might not put a Tiger in your tank.