This is a must-have for anyone who wants to see how the genre can move beyond the conventions of turn-based, chit-based wargaming.
Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem is based on an ideal subject for a wargame. It centers on a battle with a lot of mobility, clearly defined objectives, and unique challenges for both sides. Couple this with Australian developer Panther Games' innovative gameplay system and you have one of the best single-battle wargames since Atomic Games' V for Victory series.
Airborne Assault is based on the World War II battle Operation Market Garden, an ambitious Allied scheme to drop paratroopers into Holland. The Allies' objective was to secure a crossing over the Rhine into Germany, thereby doing an end run around the logistical problems facing the Allied advance through France. If it had worked, it likely would have ended the war much sooner. The plan was for the 1st Airborne Division to land near Arnhem and secure the bridge there for the advancing 30th Corps. But for various reasons, including the 30th being delayed, the unexpected presence of two SS Panzer divisions, and a quick German response, the 1st Airborne Division was decimated and the 30th Corps served only to extract the survivors. Operation Market Garden was a spectacular failure.
The battle for Arnhem is an exciting subject for a wargame for a few reasons. Because the Allied troops arrived by parachutes and gliders, they began the encounter scattered out. The early stages of the battle involved the Allies gathering and positioning their forces for a drive on the objective, while the Germans were trying to find and disrupt them. While the Allies were using highly trained troops, they had no access to heavy weaponry. The Germans, on the other hand, had armored vehicles and artillery, but they were initially limited to whatever troops happened to be in the area. As the battle progressed (it lasted 10 days), both sides poured in reinforcements. It was a dynamic situation with plenty of opportunity for maneuvering and surprises.
Panther Games' new gameplay system does an excellent job of combining detail with ease of use. The action runs in real time (and gives you the option to pause the game), but the amount of information available is more than what you get in most turn-based games. Units are displayed with the conventional markers, or "chits," you've come to expect in a wargame, generally representing individual companies, their headquarters, or support units like artillery or armored assets. A variety of hotkeys lets you quickly display different types of information on the chits, such as facing, firepower, or morale. Enemy chits show information depending on your intelligence, along with an indication of how current and reliable that information is. A sidebar provides specific information on things like cohesion, fatigue, and the number of men, vehicles, and guns in each squad. There's even information available on which weapons and vehicles a unit is equipped with. You can see how many Tiger tanks are in a Panzer division or that a British paratrooper company has 85 Lee Enfield .303s, 33 Stens, 10 Brens, four PIAT antitank weapons, three 2-inch mortars, and a Vickers machine gun.
However, Panther Games didn't just dump a bunch of data into Airborne Assault. When you select a unit's headquarters, there's a tab that displays the unit's historical information. This lets you read about a unit's background and its contribution to the battle. These snippets of history provide an excellent sense of how the Germans had to scrape together whatever troops they could, from hardened veterans of the eastern front who happened to be refitting in the area to young untrained soldiers, Luftwaffe personnel, and tanker and artillery crews with no equipment to man. This is an excellent way to breathe life into what would otherwise be sterile, faceless scraps of data. Hopefully, more wargames will take this approach in the future.