The Best Psychological Wargames of the 1990s Were Just Re-Released

The greatest games of the Close Combat series have returned on GOG.
screenshot courtesy of Matrix Games

The Close Combat series just hit GOG.com today, making the original Atomic Games’ wargame series from Microsoft widely available for the first time in ages. A fascinating series that put a lot of emphasis on the psychology of individual soldiers, the Close Combat games were always among the most suspenseful and dramatic wargames ever made. While Matrix Games have published a number of more recent games that continue the series, few have matched the intimacy and intensity of the originals. Particularly the series’ greatest installment— Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far.

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A Bridge Too Far was the second game in the series, covering the Allies’ audacious and dangerous attempt to circumvent Germany’s defenses by storming through the Netherlands and into the industrial heartland of northwestern Germany. If it worked, it would basically outflank Germany’s defenses and, in theory, allow Allied forces to basically seize most of Germany’s heavy industry with hardly a fight. To do it, however, they needed to captured every single bridge along a single major road running from Belgium to the German border, most of which was behind enemy lines.

So the plan was, in the space of about a week, to drop paratroopers all along the entire highway, surrounded on every side by German troops (with tons of German reinforcements ready to move into the area), then have those troops capture all the bridges intact before the Germans could blow them up (including two massive and irreplaceable bridges over impassable rivers), all while an Allied tank army raced up the highway through German resistance and linked up with each group of paratroopers. Oh, and the Germans would continue attacking all along the road, trying to cut the supply line behind the advance. It was the military equivalent of a massive, impossible escort mission alongside an equally impossible series of last-stands.

Which is the game, basically, and the secret sauce for the strongest entry in the entire series. Because the Market-Garden campaign is the rare battle where the up-close and personal style of the Close Combat matches the scale of the battle itself. The entire thing hinged on these small, desperate actions by Allied paratroopers against increasingly powerful German units, and frantic defenses of an indefensible roadway by an increasingly overstretched and outgunned tank army, across a battlefield that’s increasingly scarred by earlier engagements. And you feel all the pressure, hope, and despair over the course of the game.

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That's the Close Combat series deals in psychology more than in “morale”. Games often reduce morale to a “bravery meter”, measuring how long a unit in combat will continue to function before it breaks. The better the unit, the more punishment it can take. And that might make sense for huge, massive engagements like in Total War, where hundreds of soldiers move in massed formations against one another.

But Close Combat’s troopers always feel less predictable that that. Sometimes panicked, novice soldiers who were pressed into the fighting line surprise you with out-of-the-blue heroics, doing things a wily veteran would never even try, like running out into the street in front of a German tank with a spring-loaded anti-tank weapon (seriously, the British equivalent to the bazooka was some Looney Tunes shit, but it worked surprisingly well thanks to shaped-charge warhead). Likewise, after days of intense combat, you might see your coldest, most competent squad sergeant reduced to a weeping wreck the moment the first shots start flying.

Which means that in A Bridge Too Far, when Corporal Jones dies in combat from an out-of-nowhere sniper round, it means something on both a personal level and a tactical level. That is a soldier you’ve watched in combat for days, who earned medals for bravery and who was the guy who took over a critical machine gun when his buddy went down. It also means that another hole has opened up in your forces, to be filled by someone new, untested, and unready.

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The scale of modern warfare can be tough to humanize, but the Close Combat series sure tried. A lot of wargames eventually developed more convincing depictions of combat, with better AI and (too rarely, I’m sorry to say) better graphics. But no other series really depicted the psychological toll of combat the way the Close Combat did. For that reason alone, they’re still worth playing today.