Panzer General: Allied Assault is not the game that you might remember. The beer-and-pretzels SSI wargame from the 1990s has been revived in name only for Xbox Live Arcade by Petroglyph Games, returning to life a decade after the fact as a card-based game. So although old-timers may initially be disappointed at not finding the turn-based strategizing and hexes of the original franchise, they should stick around for the game's captivating matches set during the closing days of World War II. Mechanics are simple, but the gameplay is deceptively deep, only limited a bit by repetition when it comes to mission goals and battle terrain.
In many ways, Panzer General: Allied Assault is more reminiscent of a set-piece WWII board game, such as the Memoir '44 board game, than its '90s namesake. It's Americans versus Germans in turn-based battles on what looks like a chessboard, with cards and dice rolls handling virtually all of the unit placement and fighting. Every scenario sees the combatants starting on opposite sides of the board with set victory conditions, such as taking over tiles in the enemy's home row, conquering a percentage of spaces, wiping out all rival units, or taking the enemy's home base. The game system is a no-muss, no-fuss arrangement where you play cards to place units and then move around the battlefields assaulting enemies and using cards to assist in combat. Playing cards costs prestige points, which are earned through conquering territory and removing it from your enemy after victorious battles. Cards are varied, and the deck consists of three different classes. Unit cards include paratroopers, artillery, and various types of tanks and armored vehicles. Action cards add a range of special abilities, such as the chance to sabotage the enemy hand and strip away cards or lay down pre-battle damage to bad-guy positions through strafing attacks and bombing runs. Combat cards provide bonuses during engagements, which are handy when you want to increase your offensive or defensive values or soften up the enemy courtesy of something like a hit-point-draining sniper attack.
Combat is surprisingly deep. Board spaces all come with unique terrain features that have dramatic effects on battles. So you have to be careful about attacking enemies in forests and on hills, because the pluses gained from these locations stack the deck against you when calculating battle results. You also need to watch out for no-go areas for certain types of troops. Planning an infantry assault that runs through a swamp tile, for instance, isn't a smart idea. Tiles also have varying prestige value, so a town is worth more than a plain forest, for example. Units support one another from both adjacent and far-away tiles, making it a necessity to employ tactics when defending as well as attacking. Having a few howitzers in range of the enemy position being assaulted is key, as is surrounding the baddies with armor and infantry units prior to moving in. If you don't layer your forces and take their attack abilities into careful consideration, you'll quickly get chewed up by the enemy.
Cards are varied enough to provide a fair amount of variety to missions and give you a range of tactical options to consider, but not so numerous or convoluted that you get lost in their rules and intricacies. Chances are good that you'll have a couple of doubles in your 10-card-max hand at all times. And even when you encounter a new card, you can figure out its effects from a quick glance at the text summation and the black-and-white photo illustration. Cards can also be used outside of their stated abilities during battles. Every scrap has a stage where you can sacrifice a card for its stated combat value, adding that number to your attack or defend values. This adds a strategic layer to the entire game, because you have to be very careful with card management. If you burn through all of your cards during your turn, you'll hamstring yourself during the enemy phase, because not having cards to sacrifice during battles is tantamount to suicide. Unless you're in the mop-up phase at the end of a mission, taking out already weakened rival units in your final turn or two, you have to make sure you're loaded up with cards, or you risk being surprised by what the enemy plays. This ever-present danger, plus the damage-altering dice roll that the attacker throws, can flip what looks like a lopsided battle on its head.
All of these features really pull you into Panzer General: Allied Assault and make it awfully hard to stop playing. Just a few issues conspire to hamper your Nazi-smashing fun. The single-player campaign where you play as the US (Germany is available as a playable side only in skirmish and multiplayer) is impressively lengthy, starting with the D-Day landing and taking you through much of the last year of the war as the Allies roared across Europe toward Berlin. But the victory conditions are pretty static, so in some ways you feel like you're stuck in repeat mode. Skirmish play and multiplayer over Live are similarly limited. Being able to set up custom rules and victory conditions in these modes isn't a big plus when there are so few options to choose from, and deck customization suffers from a clumsy interface. Map terrain and unit types aren't varied enough for a video game where you can whip through multiple levels in a sitting. They seem more appropriate for an actual tabletop board game, where the number of cards and terrain tiles would be offset by the longer time it would take to play a mission. Things wouldn't grow so familiar so fast on the dining-room table. Yet despite the speed of matches, battles themselves are too drawn-out, with too many unskippable animations, slow dice rolls, and text prompts telling you what to do. The game isn't great-looking in the first place, being a simple board game with rudimentary frills such as planes making bombing runs and infantry tossing grenades. So you really don't need to sit through this stuff eternally.
Even though this isn't the wargame that you might have played on your 486, Panzer General: Allied Assault is an impressive strategy game in its own right. It might not please hardcore grognards, but anyone looking for a quick card-based board game with a WWII atmosphere will find this a great way to spend 800 points.