Second Front Is a Dream Come True for Armchair Tacticians

Second Front
Reviewed On
Steam (PC)
Available For

Almost all turn-based strategy video games have their roots in board games, which, if you think about it, are the ultimate in turn-based strategy. Traditionally, wargamers have had some of the biggest selections when it comes to choosing a board game, with publisher Avalon Hill contributing quite a few classic titles. Most of the Avalon Hill games that I’ve played were complex and highly detailed but took a lot of commitment just to learn the rules, much less to actually master playing the games. On the lower end of the complexity scale, there are board games like the classic Axis and Allies or Risk, and more modern titles like Memoir 44 from Days of Wonder.

Playing a deep strategy board game is a lot of fun, but is not always possible. For one thing, you generally can’t play them by yourself. And for another, learning all the rules can take a lot of time. Some friends of mine once got together to try out a new Avalon Hill game, and it took so long to learn the rules and set up the board that we didn’t actually have much time left to play that day.

That is where computer games can be a real godsend for players looking to get their strategy fix. Turn-based computer games are really popular today, although in terms of pure wargames (not fantasy titles like XCOM), they arguably had their heyday back in the late 1990s when the Close Combat series was the dominant title in the land. Developer Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI) also contributed quite a few amazing wargames over the years like Panzer General, Steel Panthers, Pacific General and many others. These days however, deep wargames of those stripe are few and far between. So, we were overjoyed to learn about Second Front from MicroProse, which is now available on Steam.

As you might have guessed, Second Front is a tactical, turn-based strategy wargame set during World War II. It covers quite a few pivotal battles in the European theater, and lets players take on the role of commander for American, German or Russian forces, depending on the scenario. Battles within the 48 scenarios that come with the game are always tactical, so at most you will be trying to conquer a particular city, although most of the scenarios focus on even smaller targets like a single block, a factory or even a lone house sitting at the edge of the woods or a field. In this way, Second Front feels a lot like Close Combat, which is a good thing for gamers who miss that kind of tactical gameplay and decision making.

All battles are played on hex maps too, just like a lot of those aforementioned board games were. A hex map, so named because each individual space is a six-sided hexagon, which makes it easy to determine things like what direction a vehicle is facing and whether or not terrain is blocking lines of sight. When I used to play with friends using physical, 3D terrain maps and miniatures, we would use a laser pointer to check for line of sight before each shot, but in Second Front, like most computer games, the interface takes care of all of that for you. Players will see a percentage of how likely a shot is to hit, and what the chance of a kill is should that shot land.

In fact, Second Front takes care of a lot of the backend calculations and rule applications that tend to bog down board games, including the detailed characteristics of 40 different types of infantries and 216 vehicles, tanks and large field-type guns. This includes special abilities like a tank firing HE (high explosive) or AP (armor piecing) rounds, or an infantry squad going prone and taking cover behind a wall or hedgerow.

Combat is turn-based, but readied units have the ability to interrupt actions whenever something crosses into their field of view. So, if you have a concealed anti-tank gun, it can automatically pause the actions and the movement of an unlucky vehicle zooming down a road that it was watching, taking a shot and resolving the rest of the vehicle’s action afterwards, assuming the vehicle survives. Infantry can, of course, interrupt as well, although mostly to fire at other infantry that gets in range. Good commanders will need to anticipate potential surprise actions, especially if they are creeping forward as part of an attacking side. Taken as a whole, Second Front is challenging, but the gameplay is balanced.

The graphics are not anything to write home about, although it is clear what everything is, either from zooming in and looking at a unit, or from the NATO-type map symbol that represents it displayed overhead. In reality, Second Front mostly looks like a board game or maybe one of those aforementioned 3D terrain maps used for miniatures. That is not a bad thing, especially if you like that style, but it’s more of a representation of combat and not a photo-realistic experience or anything like that. The sound is pretty good quality, with a decent soundtrack and really great combat sounds like big guns firing or a vehicle taking a solid hit.

There are 48 scenarios to play that come with the game, but also a highly detailed sandbox type creation engine where players can make any scenario they want using the game’s plentiful unit types. As of this writing, there are almost 200 player-made scenarios in the Steam workshop that cover everything including historic World War II battles, totally made-up situations, and ones that mimic the plot of popular movies. I experimented with building my own scenario too and found that doing so was almost as fun as playing the game, especially since I could jump in immediately and start playing the scenario I had just made. And if I found that things did not work out as intended, it was easy to dive back into the creation engine and tweak things until everything was perfect.

If I had one nitpick on Second Front, it would be the lack of artillery or air power in the game. It seems odd in a realistic World War II wargame for the American army to not have air superiority and the ability to call in air strikes, or for the Russians to advance without huge artillery barrages. I get that either of those could unbalance the gameplay if done wrong, but both were huge factors in WWII, and their absence is fairly obvious.

Second Front is a game that strategy wargamers have been waiting a long time for. It strikes a perfect balance of realism, rules and gameplay without becoming so difficult to play that it takes away from the fun. While experienced strategy and tactical wargamers will take to Second Front more easily, there is nothing in the game that makes it inaccessible to beginners as well. And the robust scenario creator makes for unlimited replay value too, either on maps of your own creation or those made by others in the very active Steam community.

Second Front is the modern game that armchair strategists have been waiting for. It easily earns 4.5 GiN Gems out of 5 for its war chest.

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