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Posted on Jan 12, 2006 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Battles in Italy – Game Review (PC)

By Jim Cobb

Hard Thinking

The interface has to be user-friendly to handle the many details of play, but the heart of the mechanics lay in a simple, common concept: operation points. Operation points determine how far a unit can move, if it can fight and how many combats per turn, and if it can use any of its special abilities like bridge destruction or repair. Hence, players must consider the utilization and conservation of operation points at all times. Moving a unit far does it no good if it can neither attack nor defend itself after arrival. Worse, a move out of the supply net decreases the replenishment of operation points for the next turn. Thus, advances and retreats should be dictated by considering the use of operation points several turns in advance. To this point, players should calculate not only distances and enemy units but also point-sucking terrain and the use of point-draining interdiction techniques into their strategy.

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Axis troops always have an advantage in that they retreat into, rather than away from, their supply net.

Being a wargame, Battles in Italy has combat as its core. Players with a background in board games will feel right at home with the display and concepts of the combat results table (CRT). The taproot of the CRT is the ratio of adjacent attackers’ and defenders’ combat values. Yet, a simple 2:1 ratio with little hope of success for the attacker can be turned into an annihilating victory through odds shifts. These shifts come from terrain, the presence of armor and anti-armor assets, artillery and air units, off-map barrages, unit quality and entrenchment, and the application of leadership. A key shift, called tactical shifts, is the direction and number of adjacent friendly units’ attacks. Each nationality has a set number of shifts per attack directions, i.e., American troops may get a shift if they attack from two directions but the Italians may need to come from three sides to get a positive shift. These shifts are shown in an exploded pie diagram in the Combat Display along with all other shifts. The combat odds are shown in the six-row results column. The column has the possible defender and attacker losses and possible retreat per die result. A graphic six-sided die is rolled or two dice will be shown if the number of defending steps is large with the first die roll being the only one causing a retreat. Even with the optimum 10+ column, the attacker can lose steps, indicative of the vicious nature of the fighting.

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Elite American paratroopers get many shifts against a small Italian unit. The information in the upper left of the combat display indicates an overrun.

All these shifts and the numerous units could drive players to distraction when figuring attacks. Fortunately, help is at hand. Using the Combat Adviser will pinpoint where battle is possible. Moreover, the odds of the battles are shown with the desirability of the outcome color-coded from green to red. This adviser won’t fight the battles itself; players must move the necessary units to the appropriate site and choose the correct assets. By the same token, use of units and assets will change the odds of subsequent battles, making the choice of what battles to fight more than merely picking out the high-odds fights. Simply clicking on the MAX button may win one battle but will drain assets that could have won a few more. The Combat Adviser is, nonetheless, one more way that SSG balances play and detail.

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The Combat Adviser shows three possible battles for American troops moving inland. The blue dots to the left mark Axis interdiction.

Scenario lengths rule out a strategy for both sides of fighting a few battles one turn and moving the next. Advances and attacks toward victory hexes must be staccato blows reminiscent of a blitz. How can this be possible with operation point limitations? Battles in Italy provides two solutions. Overrun attacks of weak units in fairly clear terrain do not cost operation points, allowing the same units to daisy chain attacks until they exhaust their points. A few units doing this can create a hole for follow-along troops to exploit. The other solution is a new addition to the series. When low quality units are attacked at overwhelming odds, they may surrender, handing the attacker an operation point-free victory. The presence of a political unit removes this possibility.

Endgame

Battles in Italy’s game play recreates the problems and possibilities of both sides very well. The Allies have a great advantage in firepower and number of units. These factors are offset by the necessity of breaking out of a cramped area into rugged territory. Allied players must pick a schwerpunkt that allows rapid advances to victory objectives. The Axis must play with the reverse of the coin. Outnumbered, surprised and outgunned with a number of units just waiting to surrender, the Axis player is still in a position to deny his opponent an overwhelming victory. He can trade territory for time by detaching units to create speed bump strong points, by blowing bridges along vital roads and entrenching at choke points or mining them. Allied units that get aggressive can be spanked or cut off by a local counterattack with a well-husbanded reserve. The Allies will never be driven into the sea but they can be left holding the bag. The AI is very good playing both sides but multi-play will be even more intense where one slip will cost a player the game.

Battles in Italy recreates the Italian battles faithfully but does so in an extremely accessible manner. The situations are fascinating and well-balanced. This game represents a significant advance in an already fine series.

Armchair General’s Rating: 83%

37/40 — Gameplay
11/15 — Graphics
05/10 — Sound
13/15 — Interface
04/05 — Installation/Technical
04/05 — Documentation
09/10 — Reviewer’s Tilt

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