In a PC gaming world dominated by ultrarealistic 3D graphics and fast action, a traditional hex-based wargame like Korsun Pocket might seem like a throwback to the 1980s. And in many ways it is. This is a computerized version of a traditional board wargame, complete with electronic dice rolls and combat results tables. But don't let that fool you--Korsun Pocket is an excellent game, is compelling and addictive for anyone interested in deep strategy games, and is easily the best 2D wargame for the PC to date.
Korsun Pocket re-creates the epic WWII battle in early 1944 in which the Russians attempted to encircle and destroy one of the few remaining German strongholds on the eastern front. The game is played in turns representing 12 hours of real time, at a regimental scale, using a traditional "I go, you go" turn-based system. While it plays like an old-fashioned board game, from the hexes to the little square unit markers to the roll of the die for resolving combat, no tabletop board wargame has ever been this refined and user-friendly. The mass of rules and tables required for historical authenticity in this genre results in steep learning curves and thus has traditionally produced a struggle between depth and gameplay. Korsun Pocket's design handles this conflict with tremendous elegance.
While there are indeed many rules and nuances that must be considered while playing, Korsun Pocket provides almost all of the information desired with a simple hotkey or click of the mouse button. What could be discouragingly dense and confusing is made crystal clear and intuitive via pop-up boxes and color displays on the map. For example, determining whether a unit may be resupplied with ammunition requires a complex set of calculations involving terrain, interdiction forces, distance from supply sources, and more, but all you need to do in Korsun Pocket is click on the Show Supplies button and see if the unit is in green or red. Want to know which of your multitude of units can take advantage of replacements? Simply click on the replacements square, and all of the forces that can replenish are highlighted--another button will cycle you through each of those units.
The best example of how Korsun Pocket uses the power of the computer to make the complexities transparent to the player is the combat advisor feature. Combat odds are everything when deciding where to attack and defend; a five-to-one attack can be a very risky proposition, whereas a ten-to-one overrun can provide the rare guaranteed success. The rules for calculating those odds involve a wide variety of permutations of artillery, leadership, terrain, barrages, combat shifts, and much more. It's impossible to simply look at the map and know with surety where all of the best opportunities for attack lie. In previous wargames, you either had to tediously calculate every combination of factors for each opportunity, conduct numerous trial-and-error operations, or simply make your best guesses. Korsun Pocket's combat advisor displays every attack opportunity on the map with the associated potential odds. Click on the enemy unit, and it will highlight the forces you have to bring to bear to obtain those odds. There will be many situations where carrying out the attack will not be a good strategy--for example, if it forces you to move units in such a way as to weaken your line--but the combat advisor provides a simple and powerful overview of the battlefield and allows you to spend time in strategic planning rather than conducting calculations of minutiae. It's a great example of the overall design concept behind Korsun Pocket.
The game is deceptively simple to play, yet as you gain experience you will uncover the multiple layers of complexity at your own speed. Sure, you can simply point and click on your units and send them scurrying across the beautiful maps, attacking hither and yon. But as you spend more time with the game, even if you are a novice to the genre, Korsun Pocket will teach you to appreciate the importance of subtleties such as when to continue the attack and when to hold something back for defense, the difference between simply running away and conducting an effective retreat that inflicts serious casualties on your attacker, the critical importance of the effects of terrain, how rivers can be your best friend or worst enemy, why supply issues aren't the boring details you might suppose, and much more. The beauty of Korsun Pocket is that you aren't forced to understand all of these to learn to play, but their significance is revealed as you learn to win.
One key to the ease of learning Korsun Pocket is an excellent and thorough eight-scenario tutorial. Unlike many tutorials that merely teach you which buttons do what, this mini-manual not only instructs you on how to use the interface, but also guides you through the basic tactical and strategic aspects of the game. Once you've completed the tutorial you will have learned most of what you need to know to effectively lead your virtual army, and you can then use the full PDF manual on disc as a reference when needed.
One of the biggest criticisms players have of many strategy games (and perhaps most wargames) concerns their artificial intelligence and its failings. Fortunately, Korsun Pocket provides you with a very competent AI opponent (no surprise, since designer Roger Keating has been an AI pioneer for many years). A lot of wargaming AI is similar to the early days of chess simulations, in that it simply looks at the best calculated move for that one turn with no real long-term strategic considerations, thus providing a human player with a huge advantage. Korsun Pocket's computer opponent is not only tactically superb, but it is also quite strategically competent. It is certainly good enough to kick your butt back to Berlin if you are a novice-to-intermediate wargamer, and even veteran grognards will find plenty to challenge them. Still, there's no substitute for playing against a canny and unpredictable human, which is why the play-by-email function is so welcome. The game features an e-mail service that will capture, compress, and e-mail your turn to your opponent, along with any comments you care to attach, all without your having to leave the game.
Sound and graphics don't usually make or break a wargame in the same way they can impact other genres, but the graphics do impact playability. Korsun Pocket features some beautiful maps that effectively display terrain and unit data. The resolution is locked at 1280x768, which was perfectly usable on a good-sized monitor but provided a little bit of a challenge when trying to see the smallest unit details on smaller monitors of around 15 inches. Sound is minimal, as you might expect in a hex-based wargame. There's the typical sound of battle during combat resolution and the tromping of troops or clanging of armor as the units move, but it's really superfluous to gameplay.
While Korsun Pocket features a single battle, there's a lot of replayability packed into the game. In addition to the full campaign, there are four shorter scenarios focusing on battles that were key components of the overall struggle and a hidden gem in the inclusion of a fully updated version of The Ardennes Offensive, SSG's acclaimed treatment of the Battle of the Bulge. A game editor is included, and new scenarios are already showing up on the Internet. Further adding to the replayability is the ability to toggle on an option in which some units will show up with unknown strength, revealed only when coming into contact with them. Last but not least, the weather can be set to either follow the historical pattern or a more-random pattern. Weather has a very important effect on what you can and cannot do (for example, frozen ground allows for fast vehicle movement while mud may completely stall an advance, bad weather will prevent air operations, and so on) and thus can completely change the nature of an engagement.
Like most any wargame, Korsun Pocket isn't for everyone. The excitement provided here is much more intellectual than visceral. But if you're a fan of deep strategy games or a history buff, or if you have an interest in trying a wargame, Korsun Pocket is highly recommended. And if you are a wargamer, Korsun is an absolute must-buy.