Strategic Command: European Theater is a simple and at times simplistic look at the epic sweep of World War II in Europe. It stretches from the huge sacrifices of manpower on the Eastern front to the submarines fighting the battle for the Atlantic. It addresses diverse elements such as technology, air power, amphibious landings, supply problems, and partisans in an accessible and streamlined way. For the most part, it's a satisfying re-creation of the struggle that defined the 20th century. But because it lacks a challenging AI, it eventually falls apart as anything other than a multiplayer game.
Strategic Command's level of detail strikes a perfect balance between getting bogged down in too much detail and glossing over important historical factors. In terms of complexity, Strategic Command is a notch or two above Hasbro's Axis & Allies board game and nowhere near the daunting challenge of Avalon Hill's intimidating Third Reich. Fans of SSI's Clash of Steel from 1993 will feel right at home.
The game is turn-based, and it is played on a map of Europe that is drawn with 50-mile hexes, divided into countries, and sprinkled with cities, oil fields, ports, and mines that produce resources. The map does a good job of focusing the action on historically important strategic considerations: The lure of Romanian oil, the rich resources of the southern USSR, the political importance of Moscow on the open steppes of Russia, Italy's rough terrain, Malta as a thorn in the Mediterranean, the slow going across North Africa, and the ever-popular English Channel are among the geographical features you'll find in Strategic Command. They're like familiar characters in a historical drama.
There are relatively few types of playing pieces representing each country's military forces. Land units are tank groups or infantry in one of two sizes (armies or corps). Air power consists of either fighter or bomber units. Naval units are battleships, cruisers, subs, or aircraft carriers. There are also headquarters units, which serve as mobile supply sources and give nearby units a combat bonus. A unit's distance from a supply source determines its fighting strength and how much it can be reinforced after suffering combat losses. Units even gain experience as they fight, which is then diluted as it receives replacements. You can even give each unit a unique name, which adds a nice bit of flavor to the game. Unfortunately, headquarters units are an exception to this rule, since they keep the names of their historical personages--so you can't put Colonel Klink in charge of your army group.
Strategic Command's coarse scale keeps the action manageable, but it causes a few historical problems. For instance, Germany's blitzkrieg tactics served them well as they moved through the Low Countries into France. But this isn't modeled very well in Strategic Command, where it's easy to use a couple of French armies to bottle up any attackers. The same is true of North Africa, where supply problems take a backseat to the fact that you can use only one army at a time to attack your opponent. Turns are of variable length depending on season, but this doesn't really serve any purpose other than to create a staccato flow of time. The hardships that the German army faced during winter in Russia are completely ignored. Instead, winter flies by in a few monthlong turns. Suddenly it's spring and no one is worse for the wear. For the most part, these concessions don't hurt the game so much as demonstrate the trade-offs that a wargame developer has to make in order to keep the gameplay simple.
Strategic Command's resource model is one of its strong points. Resources, called production points, are used for more than just buying units. You also spend them on reinforcements, operational movement (which represents loading an army onto a train and shipping it cross-country), and amphibious attacks. Because production points are used for reinforcements, Strategic Command does a good job of modeling things like the war of attrition fought between the Germans and Russians. Production can also be spent to buy research points, which you assign to various categories to improve specific types of units (this is where long-term games can get really interesting). When you damage a city or an oil field by bombing it, you reduce the number of resource points it gives its owner. When you conquer a country, you not only get to use its resources, but you also get a one-time windfall of production points.
The diplomatic aspect of Strategic Command is one of its weaker points. France, Germany, the UK, and Poland will always be belligerents, and the other powers can be set to stay neutral, enter the war on their historical dates, or enter the war on random dates based on the course of the war. You can track the chance of the US, USSR, or Italy joining their historical allies, but there's no indication of how likely the minor powers are to enter the war or whom they'll side with. This was one of the most compelling aspects of Clash of Steel, but here it's entirely under the hood.
The game's graphics are clear and simple and the interface keeps everything at your fingertips. However, Strategic Command will play a few tricks on your desktop computer. It'll reset your refresh rate when you start it up and coyly tuck itself behind your Windows menu bar. The game's play-by-e-mail support lacks security measures to prevent players from reloading and replaying their turns, but it does have password protection.
Probably the biggest appeal of Strategic Command is playing out various historical twists and "what if" scenarios. In this regard, the game is a great success. What if Germany had decided to take all the resources it spent on submarines and instead focus on keeping Allied bombers out of Europe? What if Germany had been able to use long-range bombers against England? What if the Allies hadn't bothered with Italy or North Africa and instead went straight for France? What if Germany had been able to bring her research into advanced rocketry onto the battlefield? What if US tanks hadn't been so markedly inferior to their German counterparts? What if France had held out for a few years? What if Italy hadn't entered the war?
Unfortunately, many of these elements won't come into play because the AI doesn't hold up over the long run. In the short run, it's good enough at scooting units around and keeping them up to strength. As the USSR, for instance, it does a decent job of pushing forward through Poland and into Germany. But when it comes to the sort of strategic thought necessary to actually play Strategic Command, the AI falls flat. As Germany in 1939, it can't even take France. As the Allies in 1944, it's easily dissuaded from landing at Normandy. You can set a difficulty level that alters some of the game's internal calculations, or you can give computer units an experience bonus, but these are just stopgap measures. Unless you can find a human opponent, Strategic Command is an interesting study in what the war would have been like if the enemy generals and politicians hadn't known what they were doing.