Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive Review – New Golden Standard

Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is racing hard to become my favorite game of the current year. I got to hand it to Slitherine. In 2021, the company went from being a small, relatively unknown publisher of strategy games to all-out hoodlums, beating wargamers and mugging their wallets every time they had a chance. The year started out strong, as Combat Mission Black Sea made its way into Steam’s storefront. The release of Field of Glory II: Medieval pushed the chronological goal post of the seminal franchise further into the first Millenium. War in the East 2 soon followed suit, becoming the end-all-be-all wargame for the eastern front. Warhammer 40,000: Battlesector brought the devastation of Ball Secundus, and this week, it was time for Combat Mission Cold War just a couple of days ago, and now it’s time for Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive. Let’s review it!

Overview– With the year 1944 coming to an end, Germany was outnumbered and outgunned by the allied forces, the Battle of the Bulge lives in military history as a last-ditch attempt to stop the allied advance into Germanic lands, splitting their assault in half and attempting to sue for a peace treaty that wouldn’t destroy what was left of the Axis powers. It wasn’t meant to be and the rest- as they say- is history.

There’s no need to sugarcoat things around here: Decisive Campaigns is my favorite operational-level wargame of all time, and I don’t even like operational-level counter pushing. You see, inventorying my army’s water reservoir, food stockpiles, and ammunition caches while moving around abstract squares isn’t my definition of fun. On the surface, DC: AO appears to be a very classic hex and counter game that doesn’t stray too far from the beaten path, but once the misty morning fog of the Ardennes starts to dwindle and the small details and changes to the hex and counter formula become more apparent, you’ll soon realize that Ardennes Offensive offers a much different experience than genre staples: War in the East, The Operational War of War and Warplan. If anything, Ardennes Offensive will appear similar to games like Battles of Normandy and other JTS Panzer Battles titles. If it is for the better or worse, it will eventually come down to personal preference.

Bridging the Gap between Operational and Tactical – It won’t come as a surprise for avid readers of this digital publication that the less abstracted and more detailed a game is, the more this writer will enjoy it. That’s Ardennes Offensive’s biggest strength: it zooms in a little closer on the action, bridging the gap between the abstraction that usually characterizes more traditional operational wargames and the nitty-gritty details of tactical engagements. Hexes are 1km wide, the main unit of maneuver is the battalion and each turn lasts 6 hours. This move to a closer look on the battlefield needed some adjustment (new rules and features) to better fit this “in-between” scale of the game, most impactful, but not limited to: line of sight, intercept fire, and the Battlegroup mechanics. Other notable additions are the nighttime operations and traffic jams (never saw this happen, or if it did, never noticed). The base units in Ardennes Offensive are now modeled per-squad, with vehicles (and guns) being simulated by single units instead. These changes instill a level of granularity and detail not yet seen in the franchise and rarely seen in games touching on the operational level. The line of sight mechanic is rather confusing at first, with convoluted rules but once a look at the manual is taken, you’ll realize it’s way more simple than it appears and it does its best to emulate the true-to-life line of sight, with a ton of nuance. So it’s not a simple case of “stand within a certain number of tiles from the enemy to spot” but it takes into account height levels and shadows provided by level differences, obstructions in the way (buildings, towns, and forests), weather conditions and recon points. This fine of sight mechanic coupled with the intercepting fire, which is basically the same thing as the fire of opportunity means that there’s the possibility to lure enemies into traps and pin them in place but, from what I’ve experienced so far, I’ve been ambushed quite a lot, with the AI stopping battalions dead in their tracks and, in fact, costing me the last remaining victory locations in one of the smallest scenarios.

Nighttime operations are certainly interesting and I haven’t seen it replicated anywhere near as good as in Ardennes Offensive. The map changes to a dark blue tone and it helps build an eerie feeling. The effect is not limited to graphical changes, as the entire game rules are affected by it. Regular attacks will suffer penalties, recon capabilities will suffer, and advancing with reckless abandon will lead to nasty outcomes as you might come face to face with an entire german battalion totally unexpected. Poor recon coupled with a decrease in situational awareness and combat proficiency can stall even the most resolute offensives.

The game features several other, but arguably less impactful changes, like the aforementioned “hex ownership”, which it boils down to unless you have a unit in a hex, you can’t be 100% sure it’s owned by your side. This makes total sense in the sense that it provides tactical opportunities to flank enemy units without alerting the enemy and penetrating enemy lines unseen. Basically, trying to avoid the ridiculous arbitrary borders that plague other games. Yes, Steel Division, I’m looking at you.

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One thing that really tickled my fancy in this game was the card system. Almost every action outside of combat can be done by using cards. Want a new unit? Exhaust 20 points on a tank battalion. Recon? Well, click the card and send the plane out there (availability might be subjected to favorable weather conditions). Need fuel? Just send the HQ a monopoly style card requesting 10.000 units of fuel, they’ll understand.

To round this topic off, combat will happen twofold: ranged or regular combat. A ranged attack will allow for more cautious commanders to bring all their nearby guns, tanks, and rifles to bear on an enemy position to soften some tough nuts. Have in mind that ranged attack is not limited to artillery units but to every unit. As showcased in the screenshot below, tanks, infantry, and anti-tank battalions are all in range to pound the germans units barricaded at Bitburg.

If a regular attack is the course of action, then there are four, self-explanatory options: Probe, recon in force, attack, and all-out attack, everyone with their very own mods. The game also does a good job of presenting information on how it calculates the odds by presenting all the information on the screen, on the left the estimation of offensive modifiers, and on the right the estimate of defensive ones. On the top right is the number of units involved in the attack.

Combat resolution is also descriptive.

On the content department, it’s fair to say that it’s pretty rich, with two major campaigns lasting 16 days, six medium scenarios, and four smaller ones. There are also two editors, simple and intermediate. I’ve counted more than a hundred units on the compare list and there’s still a ton to go, so there are must be nearly 200 or more units in the game.

Overall, the new mechanics work really well together and I doubt their novelty will upset traditionalists because most of them will become- eventually, after a couple of rounds- almost second nature. In the case you’re a newcomer to the genre, I’m afraid that over-exposure to Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive might spoil you, ruining your experience with other, less ornate wargames.

Graphics – Oh boy, you know that once you start talking about graphics in hex and counter games it’s either going to be fantastic or an absolute shit-show. Well, I’m glad to let you know, that Ardennes is an absolute treat for sore eyes. I don’t want to delve too much into this topic because this review is rapidly becoming huge. Unit artwork looks fantastic, looking like they are on the cover of an Airfix model kit. Those will always blend nicely in whatever background they’re contrasting against. See below.

The map’s main roads pop out without having to go into those alternative “special” views for different types of roads. Individual buildings can be seen from up on high with larger cities having a higher concentration of edifices and smaller hamlets with much less. Even the forest density is easy to ascertain from the birds-eye view. The counter’s colors are vibrant and pleasant, bright greens, strong blues, fiery reds, golden yellows, and distinguishable greys painting a clear picture of the battlefield at a glance.

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The UI- While cumbersome user interfaces won’t stop the most obstinate of grognards to enjoy a game, the endless slog of having to open and close windows looking for obscure information can be a hard pill to swallow for others. Personally speaking, over the years I have cultivated a fond distaste for shitty UIs and it still remains the main reason why I have a hard time enjoying games like Crusaders Kings II and Europa Universalis. The premise is fantastic, but clicking on dull, hard-to-figure-what-the-hell-this-is icons; navigating menu after menu while reading every single, paragraph-long will tiny letters tooltip is enough to destroy any enthusiasm.

Ardennes Offensive strikes a compromise. Sure, it bombards players with monumental amounts of information that are overwhelming (read: impossible unless you have an IQ of 170 or photographic memory) to process, but at least it lays almost everything out in front of you without having to click on a lot of things. Some stuff will take a while to figure out and a quick glance at the manual might be necessary, but once you’re aware of it, it’s unlikely you’ll ever forget. Here’s a quick example: On the left side after clicking a counter there are options to choose unit transportation type, the rules for intercept fire, and retreating. It wasn’t until a couple of games in I found out that those were clickable. Ok, that might have been my bad for not trying to randomly click on every single button, but other things are way hard to forgive- the Battlegroup system is hiding under an unsuspecting “micro” label. The point is that Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive will destroy your brain with enormous informational loads but at least it’s attempting to make it somewhat reasonable in most aspects. If there’s a fault to point out at the game, this would be it. In all honesty, though, I found it really easy to pick up and play without too much of a hassle so this might just be nitpicking and my early drafts read things like “the battle academy of operational level wargaming” but that award is still going to Unity of Command. A lesser game, in every aspect but this one, for sure.

The Manual – A contentious bit, for sure, but Decisive Campaigns is depleted of tutorials and can be difficult to grasp without previous experience with the genre. However, it packs a 116 pages manual that will satisfy even the pickiest readers. It’s concise and well written. It starts out by contextualizing the setting, and it jumps straight into the interface, explaining everything players will see found on-screen and explaining how it all comes together, with several illustrations for support. Go beyond page 48 and the manual will do its best to scare you away. The swift elucidations on the games’ mechanics are replaced by pages long explanations into the most minute rules, supported by percentage-filled tables about “supply bases statistics”, schematics on Line of Sight and and “shadow cases” (this one is actually important). Fortunately, and probably aware that this doesn’t make for the most interesting reading, the writers peppered the pages with random bits of trivia that do a nice job to break the monotony of the more boring bits.

Verdict- Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is the best operational-level wargame I’ve ever played, period. The decision to stay away from the more abstract aspects of other operational level wargames and to bravely implement novel features should serve as a textbook example of how a genre, considered by many to be stale and long past its prime can be propelled to new heights with the right knowledge, passion, and inspiration. For going above and beyond the call of duty, Decisive Campaigns is hereby granted the first, Golden Strategy and Wargaming Seal of Approval.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is available at Matrix Games Store for €37.99 or your regional equivalent.

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