Panther Games delivered an innovative new kind of wargame last year with Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem. Doing away with the conventional hex-based, turn-based paradigm prevalent in most computer wargames, Panther Games created an exciting new gameplay system that's the closest we've come to experiencing what it's like to be a real general. As much as we liked it, though, the game was a bit thin on content. Highway to the Reich doesn't have that problem--it's an expanded and improved Red Devils Over Arnhem, so much so that it's an entirely new product.
Whereas Red Devils Over Arnhem focused only on the experience of the British 1st Airborne during Operation Market Garden, Highway to the Reich covers the entire campaign from start to finish. Immortalized in the film A Bridge Too Far, Market Garden was Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's daring attempt to open a route into Germany's industrial heartland. The Allies dropped three airborne divisions into Nazi-held Holland to seize a series of strategically vital bridges. At the same time, armored divisions began rolling up the highway that linked the bridges in order to relieve the airborne troops. Unfortunately, due to stiffer-than-expected German resistance and the unexpected presence of two crack SS Panzer divisions, the Allies were stopped short of the final bridge at Arnhem. As a result, the British 1st Airborne, tasked with seizing the last bridge, was decimated. Only a quarter of the division's 10,000 men made it back to Allied lines, and Market Garden was a dismal failure.
Highway to the Reich features more than 30 scenarios, split into the four distinct theaters of the operation: the British 1st Airborne at Arnhem, the 101st at Eindhoven, the 82nd at Nijmegen, and XXX Corps' drive up the highway. All the scenarios can be played as either the Allies or the Axis, though some are designed to be played from a certain side. Given that Market Garden involved both lightly armed paratroop units and heavily mechanized armored divisions, there's a challenging mix of scenarios. In the airborne campaigns, you'll spread your paratroops desperately thin as you try to seize and then hold your bridges against waves of German counterattacks. In XXX Corps' scenarios, you have the challenge of trying to funnel two tank divisions up a long, narrow highway with Germans constantly nipping at your flanks. Even though you have an overwhelming advantage in artillery and armor, you'll find it hard slogging to keep up with the almost insane timetable. In real life, the Allies expected XXX Corps to reach its first objective in three hours. It ended up taking three days, and the airborne troops waiting for reinforcements found themselves holding out for far longer than expected. The innovative and elegant gameplay system that debuted in Red Devils Over Arnhem remains pretty much intact. It's a real-time system that can be paused to give orders and accelerated to speed the lulls between battles. But the beauty of the system is that it features a historically accurate order of battle that re-creates the chain of command; in other words, if you want something done, all you have to do is tell a unit to do it, and that unit will run with the task, issuing orders to its subordinate units to get the job done.
It may sound a bit confusing, so for an example we'll use Easy Company, which was featured in Band of Brothers and is an actual unit in the game. Easy is part of the 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment. There are two other companies in 2nd Battalion, Dog and Fox, and two other battalions in the regiment. That means Easy is one of nine airborne companies that make up the 506th. Now let's say that there's a town that needs to be seized. If you know the town is undefended, you can order Easy Company to do the job, and Easy will organize a company-sized attack. If the town is lightly defended, you can give the order to 2nd Battalion headquarters, and it will organize a battalion-sized attack using all three companies under its command: Dog, Easy, and Fox. If the town is heavily defended, you can give the order to 506th headquarters, and it will organize a regimental-sized attack using all three battalions, and all nine airborne companies, under its command.
It's hard to convey just how cool this system is, because not only does it eliminate the massive amount of micromanagement inherent in most wargames, but it does so in a way that makes it feel like you're really commanding forces in the field. The AI does a marvelous job of interpreting and carrying out your orders. Tell a battalion to seize a bridge five kilometers away, and the battalion will utilize proper tactics and doctrine; companies will march in road formation before stopping short of the objective to organize into attack formation. Mortar platoons stay back to provide fire support, and companies advance in line to the objective. You have the option to micromanage all the details, but it's usually better to let the AI do all the dirty work. And while the AI can make mistakes from time to time, humans do as well, so it's all part of the fortunes of war. The AI also does a competent job as your adversary, but there is the ability to play against a fellow human being over a TCP/IP connection. However, the game lacks a server browser, so you need to know someone who has a copy of the game and is willing to invest the time in a match.
There's also an option to delay orders in the game to realistically model the lag between when an order is issued and when it is actually carried out. It can take quite a while for orders to filter down to units in the field; when a unit receives an order, it has to organize a plan and then pass instructions down to lower-level units. The more levels an order has to pass through, the more time is required to execute the order. Tell a division to shift locations, and it could take hours before the first units start to move out. This makes it all the more important to plan wisely. While your subordinates are busy carrying out your orders, you have time to analyze the battlefield, devise a plan, and then adjust the plan in reaction to developments.
Highway to the Reich does an excellent job of taking a staggering amount of data and presenting it in a way that's virtually transparent to the player. Each unit is modeled to historically accurate detail. The airborne divisions dropped into Holland are elite troops, better trained and equipped than the garrison units they first encounter. However, unit performance is based on a number of factors, including morale, cohesion, fatigue, and supply. So the longer your parachute units are in action and the more losses they incur, the less combat effective they become. The game even keeps track of the number of bullets in the game, so when a unit runs out of a certain type of ammunition, its combat capability drops accordingly.
Keeping in mind that the graphics consist of nothing more than unit counters on a map, Highway to the Reich is a beautiful game and a marked upgrade from Red Devils Over Arnhem. Maps now have a hand-drawn look, along with better textures and an antialiasing option that sharpens the lines and text. Zoomed out, it feels like you're looking at the same sort of high-quality paper maps used by the military. Panther Games also included map and scenario editors, along with detailed PDF documentation on how to use them, so you can create your own settings and campaigns.
The game has a somewhat steep learning curve, and it takes an hour or two to pick up the basics. Thankfully, there's an informative 122-page manual that features a comprehensive two-step tutorial, along with tables, charts, and a glossary. We only wish that the text weren't so small, because you really have to squint to read it.
Highway to the Reich is a rich, rewarding game and a great example of how the designers are using the PC to push wargaming into new and exciting directions. The elegant gameplay system makes it one of the most accessible operational-level wargames we've ever played, and it's worth your time if you're a veteran wargame fan or if you've been thinking about jumping into wargaming.