Order of Battle: Pacific Review


Going in to Order of Battle: Pacific, two aspects were giving me pause. The first was the publisher, Slitherine, who I knew only as a distributor of the hardest of hardcore wargames. Strategy games with titles I imagined to be things like Napoleon’s Baggage: Peninsular Supply Sim 1808 or World War II Forever: 500 Hours of Hexes. Even as a vaguely competent Europa Universalis IV player, this felt a dangerous step into the territories of Grognardia.

The second was that suffix, Pacific. A strategy game in which boats are anything but a filthy nuisance is a rare one indeed. With two major campaigns focusing on the Japanese forces (complete with a fictional, victory-lap invasion of Australia,) and the Allies (though predominantly the Americans) in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, boats were going to be inevitable.

Neither, it turns out, were especially rational concerns.

Yes, it’s true, even specialist strategy games can be victims of prejudice. My own prejudice in this instance. Order of Battle: Pacific is not only an approachable title with (for the most part) clearly defined mechanics, it also manages to integrate naval conflict with air and ground troops in a satisfying manner.

Each campaign scenario is a turn-based affair, in which the player is allocated a fixed amount of resources (effectively your magic war bond revenue to spend on troops,) and command points for ground, naval and air units (how much high command is willing to let you send into the meat grinder.) These points can otherwise be spent freely, giving a welcome amount of tactical leeway over how any given mission is approached. You might spot that your objective is well served by roads, and opt for a more mobile, mechanised force. Or perhaps you’d favour a steady infantry advance supported by bombers and artillery. If it’s a naval battle, what balance of faster Destroyer class ships and heavier Cruisers or Battleships should be struck?

A third important factor is the concept of supplies. As your forces capture territory (and, particularly, cities or airfields) in Order of Battle: Pacific, a zone of control is established through which supplies can pass. If units become cut off from supply (or the AI re-takes a city and diminishes your stockpile,) they will perform less effectively. Without enough supplies, it’s impossible to deploy new units on the field. If you’ve already ‘paid’ for them with your command points and resources, they can be held in reserve until enough supplies are available.

Now, say the scenario calls for your troops to take a port, then sail across to the next island across and capture an airfield. You need to assemble a combined force that’s capable of securing the port city, protecting the transport ships as they cross to the next objective, and has hearty enough air support to fend off enemy planes while their airfield remains active. The best missions in Order of Battle: Pacific call for this sort of co-ordinated support between force types, while also remaining open-ended enough to make players think about how exactly they will carry out the plan.

Secondary objectives feed into this system too. Certain campaign objectives have tantalising long-term effects, like knocking out an enemy naval carrier for a future mission, weakening their air power. Of course, to do this, it’s necessary to commit additional resources and men to an objective you may not even achieve, or, worse, that will actually cost you the scenario’s main goal.

Some ‘core’ troops carry over between campaign missions as well, and collect both experience points and combat damage. These units won’t magically be healed between engagements, so if several of your core troops were heavily wounded carrying out your orders in the prior mission, you have to spend precious resources in the new scenario bringing them back to fighting capacity. If you can only afford to bolster them with new recruits (rather than the other, more expensive, option of experienced soldiers,) it’ll also dent their effectiveness.

Pretty much every action in Order of Battle: Pacific demands that the player first make a tactical or strategic choice. Which forces to deploy for the scenario. Whether to commit to secondary objectives. Is a lone fighter going to be enough to fend off air attacks long enough to achieve your goals? Should you beeline to the city and try for the “capture within 25 turns” bonus, or will that expose your units to too much risk and damage? Exactly the sort of dilemmas a good wargame should be creating.

Consistent, smart decisions are necessary, because the AI in this game is pretty ruthless. It’ll bomb your puny supply and transport ships, mercilessly cut off supply lines if you leave them unguarded, and aggressively focus fire on especially dangerous units. There’s some scripting involved to contribute to the illusion (certain bridges will be blown up the minute you get within range, for example) and I have my suspicions the AI was slightly cheating when it was somehow making a direct line for my “hidden” carriers in one particular mission. It also got stuck moving some trucks pointlessly back and forth at one point, which made its turns last an age; but the majority of its activities are impressive and challenging.

That challenge still applies to the mid-range difficulties (2-3 of 5,) as the AI’s capabilities don’t appear to either be crippled or boosted all that much between tiers. What changes are troop numbers and unit quality. Crank it up for the defensive US scenarios, and you’ll swear the AI just has an automatic tennis ball launcher stationed on the horizon spitting out Emperor Hirohito’s finest.

It’s important to pay attention on a more micro level too. The big picture strategy is all very well, but won’t succeed if your forces are poorly positioned, or ill-suited troops are being prodded into combat against heavily fortified positions. Send some tanks on a torturous slog through some dense jungle and they’ll reduce in efficiency (a factor that can affect all units, denoted by the reddening hue of their overall combat strength.) But pop them down a road instead, preferably one which ends up behind some tank-vulnerable infantry that are already being engaged by your army, and they’ll get a nice flanking bonus.

The mysteries of where to position naval vessels for best combat results are still somewhat vague to me, even after reading the manual (it seems like not moving, firing from a broadside against a stationary target and being neither too close nor too far away is best … I think,) but this is a rare moment of uncertainty in an otherwise pretty clear system. Even in this case, it’s possible to just move the cursor around and rely on Order of Battle: Pacific’s helpful combat tooltip to get an idea of how much damage you’re likely to do.

Overall, the scenarios based around pure naval combat (or naval with a hint of airbourne stuff) feel weaker than those where the full set of combined arms are in play. I also found the open-ocean based missions prone to suffering from some slightly irritating objectives involving chasing down hidden carriers across twenty thousand leagues of identical water hexes. It’s easy once you know where they are, but having to rely on prior knowledge of a scenario to beat it is far less satisfying than figuring it out dynamically.

Any completed scenarios in the main Japanese and American campaigns become playable as stand-alones from the main menu, and slot neatly next to the four well-explained tutorial missions that ease players into all the mechanics I’ve waffled about above. When playing them as stand-alones, you can apply a few different conditions (such as allowing units to rapidly gain experience to compensate for the map being a one off, or randomising some of the enemy encounters.)

For anybody who fancies creating their own alt-historical scenarios, Order of Battle: Pacific comes with its own mission editor too. I wouldn’t say this looks especially straightforward to use, but it’s a fine option to have available and may (or may not, depending how the player-base embrace it) prolong the title’s longevity even further than the already ample pair of 12 mission campaigns. You can also grab a nearby friend for some oft-neglected hotseat multiplayer, or get even more old school by doing a ‘play by email’ style online skirmish.

Order of Battle: Pacific surprised me in the best possible way. Not only is it a thoroughly approachable wargame in a genre that can be notoriously doughy in its design, but the emphasis on integrated support between ground, air and naval forces means almost every scenario forces the player to make constant tactical and strategic decisions. From the “big picture” layer, right down to micro decisions about flanking or mobility, this game keeps up the pressure of command in a way that makes eventual victory feel consistently rewarding.