Michael Eckenfels, 11 February 2021
Some of the best wargames ever made recreate desperate, pitched battles where the stakes are as high as the ammunition expended. Thank God we never had to see a Warsaw Pact versus NATO showdown, but throughout the 1980’s it was a possibility, and it spawned so many computer and board games that anyone could become an armchair strategist and fight a modern, conventional World War III in Europe without the fear of having real intercontinental ballistic missiles land on their heads.
On #TBT, we bring you the occasional classic article – an older review or analysis piece we wanted to rescue
Nuclear Armageddon was a very real fear for me in the 1980’s, and while my fellow high school students, mostly in Army JROTC like myself in the mid-1980’s, would gush and fawn over becoming Airborne Rangers and SEALs someday, I instead watched “Wargames” incessantly and read “Red Storm Rising” about a hundred times. The idea of World War III scared me, not just for the very real possibility of such a war, but also because I knew so many people stationed in Germany at the time.
HPS Simulations is known for its classic boardgame-style depiction of combat, both modern and otherwise, and while some bag on how Tiller’s games are cookie-cutter imposters posing as new titles, I instead believe their work is excellent and choose to reserve my observations to what each game individually offers a gamer interested in the theme.
North German Plain ’85 is a depiction of, ostensibly enough, hypothetical World War III conventional battles in Northern Germany. Players control either the Warsaw Pact forces, including the Third Shock Army (and its four Guards Tank Divisions, as well as numerous add-on units) or NATO forces comprised of West Germany, the United Kingdom, French, Dutch, and a few others. The action is depicted on a map that is 2D look-down with an option to display in 3D that really doesn’t add a lot of visual clarity to the game over the default 2D view.
click images to enlarge
Over this map, players move their forces and try to control key locations for Victory Points. These points may also be gained or lost based on the number of casualties inflicted or taken, respectively. While the Warsaw Pact tends to be much more numerous than their NATO foes, the NATO forces tend to have better equipment. Also, units from the Soviet Union proper tend to have better equipment than their Warsaw Pact allies; Polish troops can be expected to not perform as well as their Soviet counterparts, for instance. Regardless, Warsaw Pact units have a lot more targets for NATO to shoot at and a better chance of losing points because of casualties inflicted.
RED BEARS RISING
Without a doubt, the subject matter is serious, but losses are dealt with in a typical HPS abstract, sterile way. There’s no suffering along with your troops, although their ‘pain’ is displayed on each unit’s counter; here the player can visualize the unit’s fatigue, strength, and morale levels. The feeling therefore garnered is more of a Front Commander sitting safe and secure (for the moment anyway) deep inside a bunker and far to the rear of the fighting, instead of being in the trenches and seeing the futility of ordering yet another Soviet assault by a depleted tank battalion against an equally depleted but powerful NATO unit that refuses to give ground.
This game concentrates a lot more on the ground component of such a conflict instead of detailing the air war. I assume that air superiority missions are beyond the scope and necessity of the player’s concerns, although ground support air strikes and recon missions are available to select. Also, both sides have helicopter units that are portrayed on the map as live units, and are extremely mobile and deadly but equally easily swatted out of the sky. I think back to a game by SSI entitled Red Lightning, which depicted all of these components; one of the most entertaining aspects of that was managing the air resources available and delegating them to different roles while dealing with the losses and strain such operations imposed on them. I do think such a thing is beyond the scope of North German Plain ’85, but it would have been a nice inclusion if at a reduced level.
North German Plain ’85 is made up of several scenarios; there are a few very long (160 turn) scenarios that essentially cover the entire North Plain campaign. However, since those take an enormous amount of time (and patience while controlling many units), there are several smaller (10 turn and up) scenarios that allow a player to get a feel for how combat is depicted in this title.
Several of the scenarios are repeats, with some basics changed (such as unit composition) so different battles can have different takes. This is a nice addition, but flawed in that if the player doesn’t like a particular scenario, then instead of not liking one of them they learn to despise two instead. Also, each comes with a recommendation to play as either one side or the other, and against an AI or human opponent. That’s a nice addition for new players, and a continuing theme throughout other HPS games (as is the entire scenario-driven system for each of their games), but this feels like shackles to other, more experienced, players. Then again, if the scenario recommends to play a scenario as, say, the Warsaw Pact, it may be seen as more of a challenge to play it as NATO. Regardless, some of the scenarios recommend a side to play but then caution the player that it will be difficult to win. Again, it’s nice to be warned ahead of time, but I’d rather learn myself instead of being told about it up front. A real commander may be faced with a daunting task, but I doubt they’d know ahead of time if one battle is going to be particularly gruesome when compared to others.
Since the game is scenario-driven, the players run their units through their paces while racking up (or losing) Victory Points in a turn-based environment. As is usual in HPS games, and true to boardgame roots, one side moves and/or fires then ends their turn, and the other side goes. When each side finishes their part of a turn, one full turn expires and they move that much closer to the endgame. There are no far-reaching results beyond the final Victory Screen that tells a player how badly they lost or how amazingly they won. No further scenarios extrapolate on any of these effects, which as mentioned are a usual HPS component, but it would be nice to have a string of scenarios that are affected by one another. Since a scenario following another could be greatly affected based on the outcome of the first, this would add a ton of replayability to the game.
The HPS brand of games presents its battles in very sterile, boardgame-like ways with a few bells and whistles such as battle sounds added for good measure. Sterile is not bad, necessarily – think of any hex-based wargame in this genre, such as NATO: The Next War in Europe or NATO Division Commander – but sterile for gamers used to pretty colors and lots of epilepsy-inducing screen flashes. No, this game (as any other HPS simulation is) in such a manner that demands concentration and detail, much like chess.
INSTALLATION AND TECHNICAL ISSUES
North German Plain installs easily, just as can be expected from any other HPS simulation. There are no system requirements that would make any recent PC choke with difficulties: 250MB of space off a hard disk and 32MB RAM make it easy for older machines to run. The only issue some may have is that Windows ’95 is not supported.
No physical documentation graces HPS product – it’s all contained within the CD-ROM. Players can refer to a PDF document on the CD and read much of the game system’s rules, although some pages have references to other genres (such as unit screenshots of Huey gunships straight out of the Vietnam War, decidedly out of place in a game about war in the 1980’s). However, most of the functions and descriptions are derived from the same basic game functions that exist in each and every HPS title.
The real kicker with the game is the ability to pull up rules on the fly, as I like to say, because the game features extensive help files; these files are pulled directly from the game’s rule pages, and they feature extensive hyperlinks throughout to guide the player to any resource of information, in case a term or concept comes up that is unfamiliar. This is very welcome and avoids the necessity of having to physically flip through a rule book or try to locate something that may or may not be in the Table of Contents or the index (if there is an index, that is). HPS’s brand of rule-access and the simple format make it one of the most player-friendly games on the market today.
Now that being said, it is important to note that the main User Manual is Vietnam-centric, which is inexcusable in a NATO versus Warsaw Pact game. I’ve seen this happen in other HPS titles, and while I understand that about 90% of the game’s mechanics are the same from title to title, what I don’t understand is why HPS does not take the time to update the documentation to reflect each separate game. For example, the User Manual states that hexes are 40 meters across; this is physically impossible given the size of some of the NATO or Warsaw Pact units. What I found a little later is that the User Manual is actually written for the Vietnam-era series of HPS titles. It just does not make sense.
GRAPHICS AND SOUND
Hazarding to guess what a modern battlefield may sound like – at least, a modern battlefield where a battalion of American armor is hunkered down and facing off against a regiment of T-80’s, while A-10’s and Su-27’s spit death and artillery shatters men and equipment – it may be something of an ear-splitting cacophony of serious pant-wetting sound. HPS’s game manages to not reliably mimic this, fortunately, and seeks instead to pass off explosions and shots, with jet engines heralding the arrival of precious air assets and thumps of artillery and mortar. Sounds are distinctive and played on their own, so that there’s no trying to pick out one noise from many others. No, players will hear these sounds and soon instinctively know what each means before the pop-up window displays the results.
Otherwise, this title is just like every other HPS sim, where graphics are functional, if somewhat Spartan. The player may show units in a top-down 2D mode or in a 3D mode that gives a stacked-hexes look to be able to view terrain elevation easier (higher ground is always better in combat than lower ground). This is yet another HPS staple. The only problem with the views that I have is that the 2D is zoomed too far out; I would have liked a more finite control over how far out I can zoom a map or not. The 2D mode gives the game more of a boardgame feel, while 3D gives it something of a miniatures feel.
SIZE VERSUS QUANTITY: THE ETERNAL QUESTION
One side’s strengths and weaknesses are magnificently offset by the other side’s strengths and weaknesses. NATO is saddled with overwhelmingly superior firepower but few units in the field. On the other hand, the Warsaw Pact is blessed with large numbers, but made up of lesser quality units with few exceptions. Usually the player controls Soviet-type units, which are almost uniformly of a higher caliber than their Warsaw Pact allies. However, it is truly a puzzle to solve a battlefield problem when employing Poles in T-55’s against US M1A1 Abrams. There’s really no contest, except through the judicious use of maneuverability and generous servings of artillery.
Another conundrum that affects the Warsaw Pact player involves invoking the ‘Bypass Rule’ or the ‘Hit-them-with-everything-you’ve-got Rule.’ These are not in-game choices but rather player perception of the battlefield condition. The latter is more often than not, unfortunately, the way to go since NATO forces are very particular about parking themselves on victory point real estate. The Warsaw Pact player may in real life had passed up such strongpoints to maintain the tempo of an advance, but in this game they are faced with having to hammer NATO forces into submission by bringing huge forces into contact. Bypassing is futile as all it does is serve to move the powerful front line units far away from NATO troops that will ultimately come out of hiding to smash a headquarters or artillery unit before the aforementioned Soviet line units can turn around to counterattack. Besides, the victory point locations are where the game is won or lost. There’s no real point to bypassing, then, which completely destroys the spirit of Soviet attack plans. Of course, no plan survives first contact with the enemy; however, it’s hard to justify the victory worthiness of Kessel being held by NATO forces when Warsaw Pact troops are washing their tanks in the Rhine River. Reaching that boundary almost completely nullifies the entire purpose behind rewards for holding specific pieces of real estate.
While that’s a nice strategic thought, North German Plain ‘ 85 is a tactical game at heart; battles do not involve the sweeping movements of Guards Tank Armies as they attempt to smash through weak NATO corps while NATO air wings rain constant death on their heads. Instead the player(s) imbibe themselves in a role that doesn’t see a higher level of responsibility than division command. Therefore, given the more limited tactical scope of the game, rewarding each side for holding pieces of real estate makes more sense. However, it still nags at me that Warsaw Pact troops are virtually forced to congregate their forces in an attempt to overwhelm scattered NATO pockets. It just doesn’t seem right. Then again I may be biased from playing years’ worth of NATO: The Next War in Europe. Concentrating forces plays into the NATO player’s hands more often than not but is required as NATO troops are like well-established weeds with lots of thick, sharp burrs. Trying to root them out is going to cause…bleeding.
Therefore, it is extremely easy for the Warsaw Pact player to get tunnel vision and concentrate solely on removing one NATO thorn/unit, while other NATO units congregate in even greater strength around more important (i.e., higher victory point value) locations. If the Warsaw Pact had trouble getting rid of one troop in a small German hamlet, imagine the problems of removing a full armored battalion dug into a city behind a river. It is important to maintain a keen eye on the other victory point locations as either player while trying to not stretch one’s forces out too thin. The Warsaw Pact player has more troops to play with here, but needs them because of the disproportionate number needed to eradicate a NATO unit a fraction of its size.
Each hex in the game is 40 meters across, according to the manual. I question the physical ability of fitting a couple of battalions of tanks, totaling at least 50 vehicles, in such a small space. Or at the very least, I question the tactical wisdom of doing such a thing on the modern battlefield. As with previous versions of HPS titles, there’s a wee problem with the documentation (see the Documentation section for further details). When the info in the manual does not jibe with the hexes on the map, there’s a problem. Writers must assume that the reader will find the wrong information each and every time, the very first time. It’s unacceptable to have it otherwise.
That said, the manual says that time is 5 minutes of real time but that this time varies by scenario. Again, the User Manual is way off base, as from the game one can see that each turn is three hours in length.
The units in the game represent the spread of units and the wealth of technology that the military boom in the mid-80’s has to offer – both for NATO and the Warsaw Pact. There’s tons of units from dismounted infantry to tanks, from transport helicopters to assault helicopters, and everything in between including air defense and artillery. Name it, and the producers of this title have painstakingly researched it. Since the HPS game engine has cut its teeth on games that were set in worlds that were much less technologically advanced than this one, it must have been a learning experience for them to find the information that they needed in order to scale the game forward appropriately. Since I’m not an expert on tank main gun muzzle velocity as it relates to the penetration power versus enemy armor, nor do I obsess over such things, the HPS team has taken it upon themselves to do so, keeping a giant level of detail in the game. Thank goodness, too, that this information is kept under the surface, making it run smoother and faster. The player only need worry about moving units from A to B and killing the enemy while doing so.
The AI is relatively decent, although I have seen it commit itself piecemeal. And once the player has tried a scenario one way, it will be much easier to play it the second time since they’ll know the enemy’s strengths, locations, and counterattack routes. Randomizing is not a factor in North German Plain ’85, which is a shame, as it is difficult to tell how good the AI really is without dropping it into an unknown fog and letting it go to town, instead of scripting objectives or attack routes. This may work better for an AI-controlled Warsaw Pact attacker, since they would likely have more or less charged mindlessly along into battle, whereas the NATO forces were likely blessed with more flexible commanders.
I’ve noted that most units come into contact and then fight until one side or the other is broken. Sometimes the player will need to maneuver their units against an enemy position to get a better tactical advantage over them, whereas the AI may not necessarily do the same thing. It does, however, somewhat predictably maneuver for the objective hexes in the scenario instead of to destroy enemy units. Objective hexes are the be-all-end-all of this game; each is worth a set number of points. Points are also earned from eliminating enemy units. The side with the most points wins, and levels of victory (major, minor, etc.) are granted depending on the point spread. The AI is very concerned with points from objective hexes, so if the player decides to move a unit out of one they should be prepared to have to fight over it as the enemy moves a unit into the hex. It is best to leave a guarding unit behind in an objective hex in most scenarios.
EDITORS, EXPANSIONS, AND REPLAY VALUE
Yes, no, and sort of, in that order. There is a rather powerful Scenario Editor program that allows the user to create their own games, which is a terrific addition. This allows the player to create unit organizations, formations, terrain, objectives, and a host of other details for a battle. The tool is relatively intuitive, making it easy for players who have created their own scenarios before. For those that have not, the ubiquitous HPS help docs are but a click away.
Unfortunately there are no expansions, per se, as there are none for any HPS product. However, the Scenario Editor is it’s own expansion, precluding the need for further support in that direction.
As for replay…well, as I mentioned, once a scenario has been played through the player will be aware of the enemy’s general dispositions, unit compositions, and objectives. Playing again will make it easier to win, but most of the fun comes from the unknown. Of course, alternate strategies can be employed by the human player, and there’s no guarantee of victory the first time in any scenario. There are 35 scenarios already in the game, ranging in size from a dozen or so turns to nearly 200 turns, so there is a lot to get through before anything becomes old hat. And if it happens to become just that, the Scenario Editor is there.
There are options for playing over a network, by e-mail, or hot seat, for those looking for human generals to fight. I did not get to test the game in this mode, but it is a worthy option. Both players must own a copy of the game, obviously, before taking advantage of these features.
Additional images from the game
What we have here is (yet another) HPS title that has been updated for modern combat purposes. Other than that, it does absolutely nothing to raise the bar, even over other HPS titles. That’s not to say this is necessarily a bad thing, however; I personally do enjoy HPS titles; since their interface changes very little from title to title, there’s a great deal of familiarity inherent in each. However, you know what they say about ‘familiarity.’
Players new to HPS games would likely do well to start with another title in the series, such as The Proud and the Few (original link now dead) or any of the Panzer Campaigns series (such as Market-Garden ’44 (original link now dead) or Tobruk ’41 (guess what?). If the player is already familiar with HPS games, they’ll be the best judge as to whether or not they’ll enjoy North German Plain ’85. Since I already greatly enjoy anything NATO vs. Warsaw Pact, I can recommend this title to anyone who has similar interests. It does not do anything new or spectacular over previous HPS titles, but instead chugs along relentlessly offering more of the same style of play.
- Red Storm Rising (by Tom Clancy – ISBN 0399131493)
- Red Army (by Ralph Peters – ISBN 0671676695)
- NATO: The Next War in Europe (Victory Games board game)
- NATO Division Commander (SPI board game)
- Warsaw Pact (Task Force Games board game)
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