Marc M, 1 November 2023
I’ve had a lot of go-to-games over the years, from some Avalon Hill favorites when I was in middle school to real-time strategy games and racing games once I got a computer. I’ve even burned through 100+ hours on a train simulator. More recently however, I’ve regained a love of war games, and for now I’m going to put a digital spin on things and point to my current go-to computer game: Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital.
But I’ll admit my go-to often goes back to the physical world and I’ll pull out Heroes of the Motherland or another Lock ‘n Load Tactical board game to play. I’ll focus on the digital for now, but there’s going to be some overlap.
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As the name suggests, Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital is the computer version of Lock ‘n Load Publishing’s tactical wargame system. As in the board game, in the digital version you pit squads, leaders, and individual vehicles against each other. And, like the physical version of the game, there’s a lot of content you can pick up, dozens of battles, and a good range of eras.
You start Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital with the core game — a tactical computer war game that looks and plays like a board game. This is what caught my attention shortly after the game released…as did the price. For just a few dollars you get the core game and four scenarios, two from Heroes of Normandy and two from Heroes of the Nam. The core game is early access and has been for a while, but it plays smoothly, and the developers patch it regularly. This is a game unto itself, and you can get some decent mileage out of it without buying anything else. But if you like it, you can add battlepacks from Heroes of Normandy, Heroes of the Pacific, Heroes of the Falklands, Heroes of the Bitter Harvest, and many more. You can also get the Battle Generator and create your own scenarios using the maps and units you own.
There’s a multiplayer option but I’m going to stick to solo gameplay here, since that’s what I’m familiar with and what I enjoy. Once you launch a new game, you choose your scenario. Like most computer war games, you get a quick historical briefing of the scenario and see the order of battle for each side. And of course, you see the game length and victory conditions. From here you select which side you want to play and which side you want the computer to play (or you can play both). The digital platform makes it easy to tweak the balance of play a bit to favor one side over the other. You can also add fog of war, something not easily achieved in the physical game.
The core rules for the game system are available for you to read as well. And that’s good, because while you can pick them up as you go (sort of), you’re going to have more fun if you know what all the die rolls, modifiers and terrain details that’ll soon be flashing across your screen actually mean. And once you know what they mean, you won’t just be having more fun, you’ll be making better decisions, creating better plans and you’ll have a better chance of winning.
You’ll have several squads and a leader who can rally shaken units and may have a special ability to improve the performance of your troops. You’ll usually get a support weapon or two for extra firepower and maybe an APC or a tank. Assign your weapons, stack your counters, load your APC, and carefully place your units. Then start the game. Like the board game, you play Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital in turns, and each turn is made up of a series of impulses. During each impulse you activate a unit or stack of units to move or engage in combat to accomplish your objectives. With some units you can both move and fire (with a few restrictions).
At the start of each turn, the sides roll for initiative to decide who plays the first impulse. Play goes back and forth between sides at the end of each impulse. From time to time, an action triggers an event that could help your squads or make their job harder. Once all units have activated or one side has passed three times, play advances to the next turn. As you play, the game engine enforces the rules, applying movement costs for terrain, calculating attack and defense strengths, adding in die roll modifiers, resolving combat rolls and keeping track of victory conditions — all the calculating and bookkeeping you’d be doing in the physical game. Eventually, and often in a relatively brief amount of time, you reach the final turn and make a last-ditch effort to take (or hold) an objective. Play ends and you see who wins the scenario.
So why is Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital my go-to digital game? First, gameplay is fast and exciting. Strategy matters and there are key decisions to make. Do you keep your units spread out to present multiple targets that draw fire and illuminate opponents for your other units to attack? You can keep them stacked with leaders who can rally them if they become shaken, but one hit against a stack means they all take damage checks and risk becoming shaken or worse. How much do you risk to take out that sniper who hits your key units each time they’re spotted? If you’re expecting enemy armor, you’ll want to figure out the most likely path so you can make sure your anti-armor ordinance has a good field of fire and good cover. It’s challenging, it makes you think, and if you don’t think ahead and act deliberately, the game will be over, and you’ll have missed the objective.
The other reason this is a go-to game for me is captured in the phrase I’ve used a few times, “Like the physical game…” This really feels like a faithful recreation of the board game. I like the system — it has the right level of complexity for me to be really enjoyable, even as I’m learning it. As a new player to the system, it’s been helpful to see how rules for spotting, line of sight (there’s a handy line-of-site tool) and modifiers are applied (ok, there are some bugs, but as I said, the developers patch the game regularly). I have no real opinion of the skill of the computer opponent, but it’s been useful to see the digital side play since it handles situations differently than I would. Maybe I can learn something for the next game. And, if I want a game of Heroes of the Whatever but don’t have the time or don’t have the space to set up a board, counters, player aids, and rulebooks, I can be playing the digital version in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, sometimes I’ll go with both, just to make sure I’m interpreting LOS, spotting etc. correctly.
As a recreation of the board game system, Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital was an entry for me into the physical game series. I enjoyed it so much that I ended up with Heroes of the Motherland on my shelf. And then Heroes of North Africa, Heroes Against the Red Star…and so on. But it’s been worth it, and overall, that’s the great thing about Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital. Board games in general and often war games in particular, aren’t cheap. But, the Lock ‘n Load Tactical Digital core game is kind of is. It’s an easy, engaging way to try out what I think is a great wargame system. It definitely got me hooked.
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In gaming halls where grognards debate,
They argue about what’s deemed first-rate.
“True wargame!” they declare,
With a passionate glare,
Their opinions, they’ll never abate.
Some seek hexes and counters galore,
Claiming purism, nothing they’ll ignore.
Yet the heart of the matter,
Is the fun we all gather,
So let’s play and enjoy, let’s explore!