Games

'Unity of Command 2' Messes with Tactics Perfection—And It Works

The sequel to a landmark World War 2 wargame goes for a change of scenery, and of just about everything else.

by Rob Zacny
Nov 13 2019, 7:52pm

Screenshots courtesy of 2x2 Games

Unity of Command 2 has a tough act to follow. Designer Tomislav Uzelac’s original wargame of the Nazi blitzkrieg on Stalingrad and eventual Soviet counterattack was a masterpiece of simplicity. Units could move and attack, and that was it. At the end of each turn, the game checked to see if they could get enough fuel and ammo to fight at full strength the next turn, If they failed that check, they would become hollow shells until they were back “in supply”. All the other stuff that wargames tend to introduce to capture more detail or elusive “historical” accuracy was basically abstracted out of the game. The miracle was that it didn’t feel compromised or shallow. Victory was hard to achieve, but Unity of Command itself was streamlined to the point of being nearly frictionless to play.

Its sequel does not even attempt to repeat this feat as it moves the action from the Eastern Front to the Western Theater containing North Africa, Italy, and the liberation of western Europe. It’s a significantly more complicated game as it tries to wrestle with amphibious and airborne invasions, futile mountain campaigns, and grinding attritional campaigns amidst French hedgerows. What’s amazing is that Unity of Command 2 manages to encompass all these campaigns and their unique challenges with what amounts to a single new set of fairly self-explanatory game mechanics. It’s fussier than its predecessor, but still more straightforward than, say, XCOM 2.

This probably sounds strange, considering that we’re talking about a wargame after all, but the biggest change is how much more Unity of Command 2 feels like it is about fighting. The first game was about using breakthrough tactics and clever maneuvers to avoid fighting. You’d send your simple tank sprites racing along the sparse but evocative hex-grid map of the steppe. Here, that’s very rarely an option. The German armies you face are often on the defensive, but they hold strong positions and can easily retreat to even stronger ones if you manage to dislodge them. If the first game was like fencing, where you just wanted to find the thrust that would get through all the enemy’s defenses, this is more like boxing, where it’s more about wearing someone down by getting the better of each punishing exchange. A lot of missions still have you going for that logistical throat, but it’s usually very well-guarded.

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As you might expect, a lot of Unity of Command 2 is built around letting you select what kind of punch you want to throw. This leads us to the game’s biggest new idea: Headquarters. Just like in the first game, individual units can move or attack. But they also belong to different army headquarters that have command points available for special types of attacks abilities. If a unit is within the command radius of its HQ, it has the option of performing special actions by paying a few command points. What this mostly enables is combo-attacks that you can use to whittle down and break strong enemy positions.

For instance, if I simply send one of my always-precious British tank divisions against a strong division of German troops who are entrenched in a range of hills, my tankers are going to get demolished. But what I can do in Unity of Command 2 is have an adjacent infantry unit to use its attached artillery unit to blast the German position and suppress some of the defenders. Then I can employ another unit to launch a “set-piece” assault that inflicts even more suppression and breaks their fortifications. It still hasn’t done any real damage to the underlying German unit. After all, suppression acts like temporary damage, a bit like recoverable health in a fighting game: Within this one turn, its suppressed strength won’t be counted, but it would regain that strength on the following turn as the suppression wears off and the unit resupplies. But now it won’t get any bonuses from its fortifications thanks to the “breach” effect removing them.

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As complicated as this sounds, Unity of Command 2 employs the same simple math formulas that made its predecessor so “easy to read”. Most units have strength “steps” that function like both hit-points and attack power. Additionally, some of them have (or can acquire) specialist steps like anti-tank units or artillery units that provide special bonuses and abilities. The math is pretty simple and the numbers tend to be low enough to keep in your head, even without the aid of helpful info panels that show how the game will calculate each combat and what the likely outcomes are.

So now when my tank unit attacks, what would have been bad 1:2 odds, plus a bonus for the Germans for being entrenched and being on a hill hex has become a 5:2 attack with just the hill modifier. Now there’s a 90 percent chance that my attack succeeds, and a 50 percent chance I’ll overrun the German position, enabling my tanks to move and attack again after the German unit retreats. And this will be physical damage, not suppression, so this unit will not recover from the destruction inflicted. If I wipe them out, that will be one fewer unit in the German fighting line, and that often means gaps that I can slip extra forces through.

However, what I just outlined consumes a lot of command points, and that means foregoing other HQ abilities like constructing pontoon bridges or sending emergency fuel and ammo supplies to units that have outrun our supply lines. All of this makes for a lot of extra options to weigh. But it’s not that much more complicated: The functional core of the Unity of Command system, the “specialist steps” and the defense-shredding power of heavy artillery, are largely the same here. The difference is that it feels like you have more direct control over these tools. Unity of Command allowed for the possibility that routine attacks could go catastrophically wrong or shockingly right. Now a little more comes down to the player’s intent, and a little less to the fortunes of war.

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This has a nice knock-on benefit: There’s less incentive to retry a scenario hoping to get lucky on rolls so that you can get a higher score by completing the scenario faster. Like a lot of wargames, each scenario has a maximum time limit for completion before you fail the scenario. But the real challenge is in taking objectives “ahead of schedule” for a higher score. In the original, this could lead to a some repetition as you identified an optimal order of opening moves, then just repeated them until they achieved ideal outcomes. Here, there are so many different ways of tackling each objective, so many different decisions you can make beyond positioning, that the outcome to a single combat probably won’t make-or-break a scenario.

That’s not the only change that feels like it’s pushing against the kind of perfection-chasing score-setting that could define the first game. Now each scenario has mandatory objectives required to advance, and timed bonus objectives that ultimately improve the score you get at the end of the scenario. But you may incur extra losses racing for objectives, which could ultimately slow you down because you’ve weakened your army too much.

There are a couple other wrinkles that introduce more variety and some tough decisions into the game. First, between each phase of the campaign (for instance, this happens right before the invasion of Italy) there is an allied “conference” phase where you are issued a selection of cards (special abilities) that you can purchase for the prestige points you earn for completing objectives and scenarios. This is also where you have the option of buying HQ upgrades, such as upgrading an army HQ so it can execute some of those special suppression attacks I outlined above. Your HQ will also gain experience throughout the campaign and be offered some of these upgrades for free. But an inexperienced HQ may not even have the option to do things like feint or set-piece attacks, which means units on the front line will end up taking higher losses.

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The card abilities are one-offs that can make a very big difference at the right moment. For instance, the “Engima” card lets you lift the fog of war and see every German position for a turn. That let me conquer half of Italy before the Germans could even start to react, because I knew exactly where they were and where my units could operate safely. The “saturation strike” gives you a devastating heavy bomber attack to pulverize clusters of enemy units. Which ones you get issued can make a big difference to how a battle goes. It’s not hard to see how it could make campaigns change more on replay, and they cost so much prestige that there’s a definite pressure to make them count.

This is an awful lot of options you have for spending those prestige points, and that’s setting aside the fact that you can spend prestige to buy reinforcements for depleted units or kit them out with specialists. That also creates a cool tension within campaigns: For instance, I burned through a ton of prestige points trying to salvage a disastrous Italian campaign with reinforcements and specialists. It worked… but it meant that I had to do D-Day with almost no safety net and badly hobbled HQ units. Already, I am thinking about how I’ll balance those priorities for the next playthrough.

Unity of Command 2 took its time convincing me of its greatness. It departs in so many large and small ways from the near-perfect original that it seemed at first like a classic case of feature-creep. But those changes turn out to be just what Unity of Command 2 needed to bring this more claustrophobic setting to life. It’s a very different game this time around but then, the Western Theater was a very different war. The important thing is that it remains a simple joy to play, and deviously resistant to being “solved.” Once again, this is a wargame that invites a lot of delightful perfectionist revisiting for a long time to come.

Tagged:
Wargames
tactics games
Unity of Command