Wargames, once a dominant force in computer gaming, are undoubtedly in a slump. You can count on one hand all of the 1999 historical combat games, with a finger left over to salute the narrow-minded publishers who are abandoning the niche markets. So when games as fine as The Operational Art of War Volumes I and II come along, there's considerable reason for rejoicing. Wargames may yet emerge from the desert, and if they do, The Operational Art of War will be an example of how it's done right.
The Operational Art of War II is a continuation and enhancement, not a radical revision, of designer Norm Koger's ambitious operational wargame. "Operations" is the area between high-level strategy and close-in tactics, and it makes for fascinating large-scale warfare. Koger has taken the original Operational Art of War engine, modified it for the specific contingencies of warfare in the modern age (1956 - 2000), created a 1100-plus unit database of modern weapons and forces, and built 14 huge scenarios that offer well over 100 hours of some of the finest strategy gaming on the market. Some might call this nothing more than a glorified add-on disk, but that would be confusing it with Tomb Raider II and III. The database is so huge, the scenarios so detailed, and the engine revision has such a deep impact on gameplay that it feels like a very different game. It's obvious a lot of research, design, and programming went into this.
The result is the creation of 14 massive modern battles, some historical, some hypothetical, with new game mechanics reflecting the rapid pace of modern battles and the overwhelming power of the air force. The scenarios include three Arab-Israeli wars, three Vietnam battles, three hypothetical NATO-Warsaw Pact encounters in Europe, the Second Korean War, Desert Storm, and hypothetical Indian-Pakistani, American-Cuban, and Chinese-Russian wars. Oddly, no Balkan scenarios are included. Almost all of these are large, involved, time-consuming battles. Because of this, users new to the series should probably warm up with the first Operational Art of War rather than jumping in at the deep end with volume II. The largest map is the entire Tet Offensive, which requires an enhanced version of the executable file to run, a couple weeks to finish, and a patient spouse. Along with being an incredible wargame on its own, Operational Art of War II is also a wargame designer. The full editor is included in the game, and new battles are already circulating on the Web. The new editor can handle larger maps and more complex theater-wide event modeling, giving designers even more power to make custom missions.
The main changes to the engine reflect two aspects of warfare in the latter half of the 20th century. The first is air power. Air-to-air, air-to-ground, antiair, and air mobility are modeled more deeply. Interdictions are a more potent threat, as the Iraqis learned. The inclusion of advanced weaponry like the B-2 Spirit means the full power of America's Air Force can be brought to bear on pretty much any situation. Another key addition is air mobility, which allows units to rapidly deploy deep into enemy territory. From Vietnam onward this becomes increasingly important, as does helicopter support. Even more important in its effect on gameplay is the radical revision of the damage model. Rather than using a cumulative fire effect model (that is, when five units fire on one target, you add all the units' firepower together and use that figure to calculate the effect on the target), Operational Art of War II resolves each encounter on a shot-by-shot basis. Not only are the units rated, but the shots themselves are rated for things like penetration, shot type, and accuracy. This ups the realism ante significantly and allows accurate representation of the gulf between modern firepower and the ability to survive it, most clearly represented in the M1 tank. The last game I remember that modeled shots was Close Combat, and it was a squad-level game.
I found some flaky behavior (weird unit-movement glitches and so forth) while playing the initial release, but this was cleared up in V.02. I also noted an inability to deploy airmobile units later in some games, which is pretty serious. Knowing Norm Koger and TalonSoft, I'm confident any bugs will be rapidly fixed, but they cripple some important scenarios out of the box. Some hard-core gamers are going to nitpick with the damage modeling, but that's an infinitely debatable issue, not to mention a tedious one. The question is, is it fun? Does it play well? Is it historically accurate? With a yes on all three counts, there's really no question that wargamers will want The Operational Art of War II.