Wargames, and the wargamers who play them, often feel like a very particular subsection of gaming, a tribe of hex worshippers inaccessible to all but the select few who can navigate mazes of enemy zones of control and execute perfect pincer attacks. There will be arrays of period units, large swathes of ground to conquer and enemies to crush. But, as traditional wisdom goes, it just won’t be approachable enough to drop right into. Panzer Tactics HD does have period units, sprawling scenarios to beat and all of the above, but developers Sproing have put just a little bit more into making it approachable to the uninitiated.
I’m a fairly shallow person, so we might as well start with the visuals. They really are quite pretty. The colours are exaggerated and the terrain has a good amount of detail without being cluttered, making the battlefields often look like somewhere I might quite like to visit. The units themselves are fairly simple, but are all easy enough to differentiate from a distance, whilst still fitting within each of the landscapes. Camera shakes and a fair smattering of explosions also work to add a bit of heft and impact to the game.
Aside from looking approachable, Panzer Tactics also feels approachable. There’s a full set of tutorials, and each scenario comes with a detailed briefing, so I wasn’t often entirely unsure of what to do. At points where I was stumped, a quick look at the intelligence reports that each scenario came with sent me on my way. Unit stats are also presented in a reasonably simple manner. Each unit has an overview screen with a simple arrow indicator of whether or not the unit is more effective, less effective or about normal. On top of that, there’s a simple system of blue and red bars, which indicate effectiveness on and weaknesses to the different types of unit. So whilst each unit has its own stats, and each terrain type affects these in different ways, the simplified presentation of these stats and terrain effects makes judging which unit should go where fairly intuitive.
There’s a rock-paper-Messerschmitt feel to it all – AT guns beat tanks, who beat infantry, without ever feeling too simplistic. Planes, of the bomber and fighter variety, alongside long range artillery and scout units add nuance to the proceedings, ensuring that there’s enough tactical variety to keep coming back, without falling into the trap of drowning you with options. There tend to be just enough interesting decisions per turn. More depth is brought in by officers, who can be recruited to lend buffs to your units – though, in truth, the investment never really felt as useful as buying just a few more Panzers, or splashing out for that tasty looking Stuka.
The AI also puts up enough of a fight to make progress forward a question of tactics, rather than brute force. On more than one occasion I’ve found my shiny, shiny bombers torn to pieces by fighters, or my more vulnerable units picked off by enemy artillery. That said, whilst you’ll certainly find a decent fight in Panzer Tactics HD, it does often feel like you’re pushing forwards against a mildly reactive enemy, rather than wrestling with something more dangerous.
The most striking feature of Panzer Tactics is the amount of scenarios there are to play through and the variety of units to do it with. There are three large campaigns of increasingly scale and complexity, from the German, Soviet and Allied perspectives, fighting through the war from the invasion of Poland to the final fall of the Third Reich. There’s a full range of land and air units, and some ships to (das)boot, all usable in scenarios ranging from amphibious landings to desert warfare. Most scenarios come with optional objectives, and all of them have three star ratings to achieve, stretching out the amount there is to do in Panzer Tactics no end.
The experience all this creates is very moreish – I found myself loading Panzer Tactics up during work breaks and pushing along with a save game for twenty minutes or so, each time making enough progress to satisfy my need for a spot of wargaming. It’s a tasty snack that you can keep coming back to – the salad bar of wargames – rather than a game which demands hours of investment. That said, twenty minutes here and there of Panzer Tactics certainly adds up over time, and I’ve now sunk a not inconsiderable amount of time into trying to find better, more efficient ways to solve each scenario.
It’s not without issues, however. There are a couple of control problems, at least on the PC version I played. Movement works through dragging an arrow from the unit you want to move to its destination, rather than simply being able to click on the destination; it’s not a major issue, but after a few hours it did start to grate. I get the feeling that this would work well on iOS, but it doesn’t work as well as simply pointing and click does with a mouse.
More importantly, the scenarios can feel like they lack context; aside from the size and construction of the maps, invading France didn’t feel massively different from fighting my way out of Moscow. This is at least partly because the units in the game feel more like their tier than the unit itself; a Panther or a KV-1 feel like heavy tanks, rather than substantially different units. Soviet infantry could be German infantry could be French infantry. That’s not to say that the stats on the units aren’t different, but whilst each of the countries in the game does handle slightly differently, I never really found myself playing too differently in each campaign. That being said, the set of units which you upgrade through the game and carry from scenario to scenario, and the officers that you recruit add some context to the game, but this never quite managed to build up enough attachment to my units to make me care when I lost them. All of this works to give Panzer Tactics a certain weightlessness – decisions don’t feel as important, and the process by which you reach those decisions doesn’t feel as agonising. When my units were picked off, I didn’t feel as much of a sense of loss as I was hoping, even when those losses brought me ever closer to mandated defeat.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though – I played Panzer Tactics on my computer at home, but I can imagine that playing the iOS version on the way to work would make for an excellent way to pass the time. The problem is, it just doesn’t have the weight to make me want to sink my time into it at home, or to at least not to the same extent as other PC wargames.
I don’t think Panzer Tactics is a bad game; it’s a fine game, it’s a good game and a great mobile wargame. It manages to find the sweet-spot between complexity and accessibility, the spot that shows you what wargames can be, even if you don’t know your Pershings from your KV-1s. It has problems, some of which do get in the way of enjoyment. But you can still get the satisfaction of storming enemy coasts without an in-depth knowledge of combined arms battle tactics, and without feeling like everything has been made artificially easy. That should be enough for a recommendation. But I could never quite shake the feeling that other wargames have done this better, with more subtlety and style. Panzer Tactics, even with its mountain of content and approachable manner, just isn’t Unity of Command or Battle School, both of which are similarly approachable, but have just that much more context and depth. It feels unfair to mark it down for not quite standing up to the level of those games, but it still makes it hard to fully recommend Panzer Tactics. It was excellent on the DS, and it may well prove to be a must on iOS but it isn’t quite so special on PC, especially when there are so many other wargames that are as good, if not better.
The Verdict – On target
Platforms Available – PC, iOS
Platform Reviewed – PC
Please see this post for more on our scoring policy. Steam review code supplied by PR.