There are some battles that are just really well-suited for wargames. Battles like Waterloo, Gettysburg, Hastings or the Normandy landings, despite being from very different time periods, have more than a few things in common. These are an intriguing tactical position, exciting or famous military units, colorful characters and, perhaps, an exotic setting.
The Battle of Ardennes, known also as the Battle of the Bulge, has all of the above. Its snowy forests serve as a great backdrop for the clash between famous units such as the 101st Airborne Division and the 2nd SS Panzer, being led by major historical characters such as General Patton, Field Marshall Montgomery or Joachim Peiper.
The Massive Scale
Decisive Campaigns Ardennes Offensive is truly a big game. It contains a huge array of scenarios, letting the players fight in every stage of the battle. These range from smaller-scale engagements to the entire sixteen-day campaign, with a giant map and a massive number of units.
DCAF plays on a massive scale. There are hundreds of units, unit types and HQ formations. Yet it doesn’t lack in detail, either. The game is incredibly accurate in its simulation, following the design premise that it’s “just above tactical level”. It certainly does feel deeply tactical with hexes, counters, HQs and lines of supply. Even those elements such as individual unit composition are modelled here with impressive precision.
The units range from your basic marching infantry to heavy tanks. The game even models the individual weapons. Here you’ll see German soldiers armed with historically accurate Kar98K carbines or STG44 assault rifles. As well as panzer units – the Panthers and the dreaded King Tiger. The game offers a dizzying variety of stats, with casualties, ammo, fuel and supply numbers for each unit.
The HQ units are crucial in supporting other divisions’ cohesiveness. As such, it’s vital to keep your wider formations together. It’s also important to make good use of artillery pieces, by constantly moving these to support the other troops. There are plenty of different strategies and tactics available to players. The soldiers can either shell from a safe distance, or just attack outright. As they go on the offensive – the game calculates all the odds and gives you multiple options on how exactly to proceed. Sometimes a probe attack is all that’s needed. At other times, a better choice may be a full-out assault on the enemies’ position.
The Visuals and The UI
Visually, the map is, admittedly, not much to look at. Yet it’s very functional and clear. It doesn’t take much effort to figure out what each hex represents. In addition, the game includes an entire weather system, with different conditions affecting a tile’s display. Certainly an important detail in a battle, so heavily impacted by those – as they rendered useless the Allies’ vast air superiority. Poor weather also slows down movement, and traffic jams can be a significant problem for both sides.
Like most hex-and-counter style games, Decisive Campaigns Ardennes Offensive doesn’t offer much in terms of graphics. Still – the visuals are not without their charm, and the unit illustrations are rather nice. The game also features a solid UI which is tried and tested in the other games from the Decisive Campaigns series, as well as in Shadow Empire. There are lots of tabs and things to click on. Yet, the game lays everything out in a very logical way. You’ll quickly figure out what to do, with but an odd look at the manual. There’s also a helpful set of additional maps overlays, to keep track of the weather and the supplies.
There are also plenty of useful extra UI elements to help you out. The movement and the firing ranges are highlighted. The units’ paths are also clearly displayed – making it easy to monitor the logistics. Interestingly, the game has many additional rules for nighttime engagements. Spotting and combat, in general, are much more difficult at night and the map is bathed in a blue shade.
Strategy and Tactics
Decisive Campaigns Ardennes Offensive is, truly, quite a challenge. Players will need to make use of all the units available and employ them in exactly the right way. Recon is vital as you’ll need to spot the enemy before you can fight them. Units that move towards unspotted divisions will be ambushed and shot to bits.
Once you spot the enemy – then it’s time to pin them down, batter them with artillery and then, if you need their territory, assault them. Your units can take heavy damage when they attack fortified positions. The geography of the battlefield makes a huge difference. Bridges can create bottlenecks. While key crossroads, like Bastogne, become vital objectives. Ranged attacks are far less risky, however. You can safely bring up artillery and other ranged units to pummel at the enemy. Although you’ll seldom do enough damage to actually take a unit out this way.
The developers also added a novel feature for the genre, which hearkens back to Shadow Empire. This is a special card system used to control the off-the-board elements. Among these are reinforcements, replacements, aerial recon, and other interesting additional mechanics.
Decisive Campaigns Ardennes Offensive does have some issues, however, that may intimidate new players. There is a huge amount of information and systems you’ll need to parse, and the game has no tutorial whatsoever. Those who’ve never played a game like this before will likely bounce off pretty hard. The game‘s graphics also aren’t much to look at, as I’ve already mentioned. Although they are totally adequate, and with a decent UI, that totally makes up for the unassuming visuals.
The Multiplayer and The Editor
It also features some multiplayer support, with players being able to fight each other in head-to-head battles. The well-crafted AI presents a really tricky opponent. It does equally well both as the Germans or the Allies. However, if you play as the Allies, you’ll generally have a rough idea of what moves to expect from the Germans as they push towards their key objectives.
The developers also included a really complex editor, allowing the players to completely fine-tune the game for a perfect experience. Every unit, from regular infantry to senior officers, is editable. Although these editors are somewhat daunting and, again, feature no tutorial.
The game does however feature a very decent manual. However – this somewhat old-school system certainly isn’t for everyone. It still requires some more effort to truly make the project approachable.
Since it’s a WW2 title, there is of course the need to talk, briefly, about the Nazi symbolism in the game. Decisive Campaigns Ardennes Offensive decides to evade this thorny issue by only presenting military flags, so you’ll generally only see the Wehrmacht icon. The presence of SS Units could be problematic for some, but they were in the battle and played a major role. I should add that during my playthrough, I didn’t see any events about the Malmedy massacre, and the game also has no graphics for killed or wounded soldiers.
It should be noted that the Battle of the Bulge is a very popular one among the wargamers. It’s entirely possible that if you’re one, you’ve already played a dozen versions of this conflict. From my point of view, this game is still well worth playing, even for the veterans of this particular campaign. It offers a completely unique scale and general approach. At the same time, its impressive number of scenarios, units and editors, means that you can tailor the game to your own specific tastes. Of course, you can’t forget everything you know about this battle for a completely novel experience. Yet, DCAF could definitely offer you a new challenge and perhaps a new way of looking at the event.
To conclude – Decisive Campaigns Ardennes Offensive is a monster of a game! While it’s somewhat of an acquired taste, for some players it’ll be exactly what they’ve been looking for. So grab your helmet, put on Band of Brothers in the background, load your M1 Garand (or K98K) and get ready to hold the frontline.