Commander: Europe at War is World War II turn-based, hex-based wargame that's... hang on, where are you going? Yeah, alright - the phrase "hex-based wargame" is probably enough to see a fair percentage of people slump into an immediate, boredom-induced coma. It's a genre that's seen as notoriously difficult to get into and largely assumed to be the domain of amateur historians and military fetishists. Those screenshots aren't helping matters either, are they?
Still, before you drop face first into your keyboard, let it be known that, despite all evidence to the contrary, CEAW is a gripping, engaging strategy-fest that is no doubt going act as an entry drug into the genre for many previously disinterested people. Slitherine Strategies, the game's developer, should expect a lot of Christmas cards this year from other turn-based developers who will no doubt be delighted to find that their marketplace has suddenly expanded.
A quick overview, then. CEAW lets you command the entire Allied or Axis forces in the European Theatre of War between 1939 and 1945. Your ultimate objective is to gain control of more European capitals than the enemy when the game thunders to an end in 1945 (or, if you so choose in the pre-game options, keep plugging away until one side or the other is reduced to a smouldering heap). Conquered enemy capitals count for more than just holding on to your own. So, simply put, you'll spend all your time defending your cities while trying to manouevre around (or through) the enemy to get theirs. It's a "high-level" game, which means that each unit on the map represents a huge number of men and/or machinery. You're not going to be nudging individual soldiers across bridges, but rather commanding several hundred thousand soldiers to take Moscow, all with a few clicks of the mouse. For the more militarily savvy among you, you'll be conducting corps level operations.
Don't know/care what a "corps" is? Couldn't tell a Tiger tank from a Panther if it rolled right over you? Sick to death of all things world, war and two? Doesn't matter. You don't have to have the tiniest inkling about the who, when, where or what of WWII to enjoy the game, though you're almost guaranteed to want to know more once the game gets its hooks into you. Historical events occur in the game, roughly when they actually happened - the attack on Pearl Harbor, for instance - but you're at no real disadvantage if your general WWII knowledge doesn't extend much beyond Tom Hanks and snooze-inducing Sunday afternoon documentaries. The game fills you in on everything you need to know without burying you under a tonne of detail.
You start out with a set number of troops, tanks, planes, ships and whatnot at your disposal, and you can build more as the game progresses. The number of units you can build is limited by your underlying economy. It's up to you to make sure you have sufficient resources to keep churning out the Stuff That Goes Bang by capturing new cities and industrial centres, protecting your current assets and keeping research levels high enough to make constant improvements. Without going into exhausting detail about the game mechanics, suffice to say that it's all very clear and keeps you in the enjoyably difficult position of making constant, conflicting decisions. Do you churn out another two armoured units to prop up the faltering Russian Front, or spend the cash on repairing your battered air units that are patrolling above the recently captured London? Maybe it's best to build a few more research labs, so you can get oil consumption down to minimum before everything runs out of petrol at which point, well, you're stuffed. There's nothing like being frozen knee-deep in Russian mud with an empty fuel tank to put a crimp in your day.
Aiding you on the field of battle are special Commander units. Attach them to any ground based unit and they'll act as throbbing epicentres of military coolness, making anything within a certain distance pull their socks up and get stuck in like never before. Commanders come at different prices - the better they are, the more they cost - and can be reassigned as you see fit, after a short waiting period.
CEAW is astonishingly addictive, in that time-honoured one-more-go-before-bedtime way. The ebb and flow of the war constantly hurls new problems at you, and the joy of seeing a plan either go off like clockwork or fail terribly will keep you happily rolling on into the wee hours. It all feels so very epic, with new fronts opening all around and desperate, dug-in defences hanging on by their fingernails. And all the while, the clock is counting down to 1945. If you've ever played any of the Advance Wars games, then you'll have at least some idea of what you're in for.
It looks boring, though, doesn't it? Granted, it's not the most beautiful game on the planet, but you'll quickly come to appreciate the uncluttered interface and easy access to all the info you need. You can choose between having units drawn as military symbols - lots of Xs and Os - or as immediately recognisable tanks, troops and so on. The military symbology is ultimately preferable, as the map can start to look a bit busy with the graphical representation of units, but you can swap between the two whenever you want. It's worth noting that various mods have already popped up that improve the graphics while keeping things neat and simple. Check the official Slitherine forums to see what's available.
The sound is suitably crunchy, with lots of satisfyingly concussive bomb blasts reinforcing the idea that this is all happening on a Very Big Scale. The musical accompaniment is the kind of generic orchestral noodling that's both inoffensive and uninspiring. Much better to pop on a CD in the background - a bit of classical pomp or some hell-bent Norwegian grindcore, the choice is yours.
The only real niggle with CEAW at the moment is that the AI seems slightly troubled. It's still challenging, but has some odd quirks. It's possible to leave some areas lightly defended with very little risk of invasion, and the AI seems to have occasional trouble using the right tools for the task at hand - it's not uncommon to see underpowered garrison units try to take a city, rather than leaving it to better suited units. These are far from game-killing problems, though, and the developers seem keen to beef things up with a patch or two.
In the meantime, the perfect solution is to try out the Play-By-Email mode. It works flawlessly, and obviously the fiendishly sneaky ways of the average homosapien will provide a more interesting game than even the best AI could manage. There's a TCPIP mode included as well, which gives each player a time limit in which to complete their turn. This is, apparently, the best way to play multiplayer CEAW but is currently hampered by connection issues. Again, a patch is in the works.
It also has to be said that CEAW feels as if it's the first stage of a project that's going to grow into something bigger and better. Think of it as a very fine pencil sketch that will one day be worked into a full-blown oil painting - Commander: War in the Pacific, maybe? This is not a criticism as such, and there's no reason not to get on board now. It's just that, if anything, we're impatient to see the game's full potential given life.
Really, if you've ever been curious about turn-based, hex-based wargames but been put off by their typically dense and obscure gameplay, Commander: Europe at War is a great place to start. Even if you're just looking for something new and interesting to play, give CEAW a go. It's easy to get into, deep, addictive and immensely satisfying. More than anything, CEAW knows that it's a game, not a simulation, and is therefore obligated to be fun. It succeeds admirably.