Panzer Corps is a rare gem. This turn-based strategic wargame, set in the days when Europe was a two-dimensional hex grid, tries its hardest to replicate the appeal of the classic Panzer General series, and for the most part it succeeds. Unlike the campaigns in most World War II games out there, Panzer Corps' campaigns take a German (but not explicitly Nazi) perspective, opening the door for some fun alternative-history scenarios. The game is easy to learn but difficult to fully master, the campaigns are dynamic, and the turn-based combat is as fulfilling now as Panzer General was in the 1990s.
Panzer Corps' best moments come from its single-player campaigns, which together cover World War II from the German perspective. The campaigns offer a great deal of variety, both in their starting scenarios (that is, the invasion of Poland or the Battle of Kursk) and in the way the campaign unfolds, according to your performance. Each campaign's path diverges based on whether the last mission ended with a decisive victory, a victory, or a loss. For instance, a decisive victory in the Kursk mission leads to an invasion of Moscow, while failure initiates a defensive mission in central Russia. If you achieve a decisive victory in every mission that the 1939 campaign throws at you, then you'll be happily slogging your way across the Rocky Mountains in an attempt to crush the last bastions of American resistance. If your performance is less stellar, then you'll probably be able to take a streetcar from the eastern to the western front as you defend a besieged Berlin.
Regardless of your fortune, you have a persistent group of units, which, provided you keep them alive, will follow you through the campaign with unwavering loyalty. You can reinforce your troops back to full strength or upgrade to newer models by spending prestige, which you earn through battlefield exploits. Unfortunately, purchasing new units also costs prestige, which could force you to make some tough choices if your career hasn't been particularly glorious. Over the course of the campaign, these units can earn all manner of medals, and occasionally you get a message detailing how a single soldier's heroic actions have inspired the entire unit, granting a stat bonus of some kind.
Panzer Corps' combat system is pretty easy to figure out even if you haven't the slightest idea what a T-34 is. The user interface is fairly helpful for getting you into the fight. For instance, right clicking on any unit brings up information on its stats and role, letting you quickly determine if this esoteric vehicle is supposed to shoot men or tanks. Also, a handy tooltip gives a good estimate of how the battle will go if you attack an enemy unit. Furthermore, hexes that your selected unit may move to are highlighted, making it easy to plan how you're going to shoot and scoot your way through Europe.
Naturally, stuff is going to be blowing up in a wargame, and Panzer Corps delivers in that department. However, Panzer Corps turns exploding things into an engrossing intellectual exercise that favors refined combined-arms tactics over pedestrian tank spamming. First, send your reconnaissance vehicles to carefully probe their way through the fog of war and find your target. Then, use artillery to bomb the living daylights out of your enemies, suppressing them. Finally, unleash tanks and infantry to finish the poor blighters off, possibly with the aid of close air support aircraft.
Of course, the enemy also bears ill will toward your forces, so you have to be careful about where your units end their turn. Careless positioning leads to a merciless parade of Soviet tanks wrecking your army. Instead, a strong armored phalanx is useful for protecting especially vulnerable units like artillery. Also, when positioning your units, you need to keep in mind that artillery and antiaircraft guns may provide assistance to any defending unit in an adjacent hex. Likewise, fighters may assist adjacent aircraft, so you want to keep your air force together; otherwise, you'll see a mass of enemy fighters descend on isolated air units like a school of hungry piranhas.
Logistics also play a critical role in strategy in Panzer Corps. Each unit has finite supplies of fuel and ammunition that are naturally depleted through movement and combat. The artificial intelligence follows the same rules, so launching a series of doomed infantry attacks against a Joseph Stalin II heavy tank depletes that monster's ammunition, leaving it at the mercy of your tank destroyers. It takes a full turn to resupply all of a unit's fuel and ammo, so you must carefully choose when to stock up. Thankfully, an icon appears over units that are running low on ammo and fuel, so you are never caught totally unaware.
Difficult terrain and weather can do more than any other factor to sabotage your success. There is plenty of room to maneuver on the large 2D maps, but natural obstacles prevent your Tigers from roaming about willy-nilly. While marshes or mountains slow down your advance, rivers are the most pernicious bottlenecks to overcome. Bridges over rivers are important objectives and are often fiercely defended. If you can't wrest control of a bridge, then your troops may be forced to waste a turn crossing the river, during which time they are easy prey for enemy units. This problem may be overcome with the aid of engineers, whose presence on a river acts as a temporary pontoon bridge, letting your forces bypass heavily guarded river crossings and envelop your surprised enemy. Terrain can also be advantageous; your units may zip quickly down roads, and you can use railroads to strategically redeploy units over vast distances. Yet, even good infrastructure can't help you if the weather turns nasty. Nothing slows an offensive quite like mud or frozen ground.
Multiplayer is limited to hotseat and play-by-email, but the PBEM server works very well. For instance, it's extremely easy to initiate or join a game, and you can check the status of your games without rummaging through your inbox. The multiplayer scenarios place players on a generally even footing (though there are handicap options), which means that a lot of the tension comes from fretting over whether General Anonymous made better use of his prestige than you did. Diversifying your army is very important in multiplayer battles. For instance, heavy tanks may look awesome, but they can break against a rugged defense. If you spent all your resources on those monstrosities, you won't have anything to stop the enemy's reconnaissance vehicles from capturing all of your cities. Multiplayer games can last up to 30 turns, allowing for some truly epic battles.
Graphics aren't exactly the major selling point for 2D wargames, and that's certainly apparent in Panzer Corps. It's easy to differentiate between the many different types of terrain, and the vehicles, whether tanks, dive bombers, or armored trains, are all very detailed. However, it is a little harder to differentiate between the varieties of infantry units. One minor issue with the graphics is that the city terrain type looks the same regardless of which country you are fighting in. To be fair, some of the major cities have a famous landmark in them, like the Eiffel Tower or Saint Basil's Cathedral. Still, it would have been more aesthetically pleasing if there had been a little more diversity in city appearances.
The soundtrack is suitably martial, things go boom, and gunfire and engines all sound like they should. The problem is that it gets so repetitive. A mechanized horde of Russian tanks thundering across the plains to shoot your units devolves into a painful cacophony. It's probably best to just turn off the sound and listen to some Wagner instead.
Panzer Corps' few failings--annoying sound effects and dated visuals--don't diminish all of the things it gets right. For example, it is highly replayable, since you can play each individual campaign a few times and wind up with wildly different experiences. New players will appreciate the helpful user interface and the option to turn off the need to resupply and the fog of war, while veterans will appreciate Panzer Corps' intense multiplayer battles and classic hex combat. In short, Panzer Corps has successfully captured the magic of Panzer General and channeled it into a new and satisfying 2D wargame experience.