Sunday, February 15, 2009

DEFENDING THE REICH



Your host enjoys computer wargames made by HPS Simulations. Even those which are the most massive and complicated, or which play imperfectly. And I don't really care if they come with or without lots of graphic detail and eye candy. I grew up on old Avalon Hill and SPI board wargames and they only infrequently (never, in SPI's case) furnished much visual pizazz.

Which brings us to this Sunday's offering, Defending the Reich, a simulation of Air Marshal Arthur Harris's nightbombing campaign against the Third Reich from the fall of 1943 to late spring of '44.

Since I can never find anyone who shares my enthusiasm for wargames of this nature (and HPS knows its patrons fall into this lonely category), DTR comes with a more than adequate AI opponent. So the buyer can play either the RAF or the German.

As the German, you're presented with managing the defense of the Reich over a critical period of months with the game split into weekly turns. Each turn, one receives resources called command points and employs them to spur research and development, augment production of upgraded nightfighters or bombers, as well as rest and refit wartorn fighter squadrons. Once the command points are doled out for each turn, the game shifts to a combat pulse in which the computer opponent launches bomber strikes against German cities. As the strikes unfold, the destinations and size are not initially clear from the radar and spotting network. This injects elements of confusion and chance into the game since the AI will use spoofing flights of Mosquito fighter-bombers to mask the arrival and destination of the main raid of heavy bombers.

The trick is to not expend one's squadrons on spoofing raids while at the same time mustering the defense so that the heavy bomber attack can be sufficiently worn down on the way to and from the target city. There is no stopping cities from being hit. But the idea is to wear down RAF efficiency and morale by imposing unacceptable casualty rates.

The AI opponent keeps you guessing with feints and varying attack strategies, flip-flopping between high value raids which go deep into Germany (which take time and can be attacked in detail) and strikes on cities near the border of the Reich. The latter arrive and depart too swiftly to be attacked by significant numbers of interceptors.

Research and development is key because it mimics the development of ground and air-based radar-and-emissions locating, a recreation of the historical fielding of measures and counter-measures by the warring nations. The game handles it as a bit of an abstraction but it is well described, works and seems sensible. If one doesn't spend treasure on R&D, preferring to use command points to simply repair damaged airfields and keep the interceptor force as strong in numbers as possible, one loses a technical edge and the global ability to achieve solid interceptions decreases.

If this sounds complicated, it's offset by the fact that the game is easy to get into and provides adjustable levels of difficulty from very easy to very hard. Sound files and short videos provide ambience as the combat pulse occurs. German language radio traffic is heard as nightfighter squadrons press home their attacks or cannot close with the enemy. Throughout, there is the sound of airplane motors, flak, raid sirens and cannon fire. The game is not a resource hog and plays without glitch.


Screenshot of combat phase in Defending the Reich. Cities which were the target of raids are in light orange, Chemnitz -- near the border of Czechoslovakia, and Mannheim in the Ruhr valley. Running combat reports scroll in a window at top center although they often go by too fast to absorb. This contributes to the fog of war feel in the game.

The result of the bombing campaign is graphed by the game. In this way, one's progress is measured against metrics involving loss rates, acres bombed, percentage of enemy force destroyed per raid, and sortie rates.



The graph shows the development of a decisive German victory achieved while playing at the level of very easy. Burnt orange is the loss rate for the RAF; the spikes toward the top of the chart show catastrophic numbers of shootdowns at the mid-point, followed by a regular decrease in British sorties (blue line) and acres destroyed per raid (little bomb markers). In this game, the loss rate averaged 16 percent per raid for the RAF by game end, although it started at much less. This was three times the historical average of about five, which was still considered a murderous casualty rate in the RAF during the war years, accounting for approximately 50,000 dead flying men.

Technically, if British bombing efficiency had trended the other way (which it was up until the midpoint of this particular game), the occasional firestorm can occur, burning out a German city. However, I've yet to see that happen. The game treats firestorms as a morale boost for the British, but an even greater inspiration for the Germans, who were hardened by them and inspired to strike back with ever more vigor.

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