Wargame Wednesday: John Tiller’s Campaign Series Part I

Wednesday , 5, April 2017 10 Comments

With the possible exception of Sid Meir’s outstanding Civilization franchise I’m certain that I have played Campaign Series more than any other game and absolutely certain that I have enjoyed this game the most.  


The first in the series, West Front, was released by Talonsoft in 1998.   I was excited to find a digital substitute for Advanced Squad Leader (ASL) offering platoon level simulation with just the right mix of complexity and playability. Eventually, the popular East Front was released, soon followed by Rising Sun. Matrix  now has the rights and offers the full series in one download


Not covered in this review is latest in the series, Middle East 1948 – 1985 .   I have never played, though all feedback from friends has been good.

Despite the game being long in the tooth and containing some significant faults, I recommend picking up a copy. For anyone interested in WW2 there’s just too much goodness to ignore, and it’s well worth the  $30. If my description sounds interesting then this review, despite being in French, should whet your appetite, if only for the great screen shots.

2D Map

The game’s 2D mode mimics an old board game with hexes and “cardboard counters”. I took the image from this positive review.


The original documentation stated that each hex represents about 250 meters across, so, unlike the squad level focus of ASL, some aspects, such as close combat is more abstract. ASL veterans will notice that none of the counters represent machine guns of various calibers, explosive satchels and other carried equipment. For example, instead of a explosive satchel counter the demolition or anti-armor ability provided by the satchel is embedded into the unit’s anti-armor factor. Generally, infantry platoons of all types (rifle squads, light and heavy MGs) will have minimal or zero anti-tank strength points though engineers and Russian sub-machine gun platoons can pack a punch. Check out John Tiller’s Squad Battles  series if you want a closer ASL experience.  


I’d take the 250 meters measurement with a grain of salt. In the original Talonsoft documentation I remember a brief statement concerning the distance represented by a hex and that each turn accounted for six minutes of time. This caused a lot of contention on message boards, especially when players ran some time and distance problems and documented the infeasibility of a platoon to covering more than half a kilometer of ground and still have time to organize effective fire in a six minute time frame. When I play I do two things, one, I don’t worry about the 250 meter measurement and consider the distances to be some undefined shorter distance and two, I get on with enjoying the game.


This game is played by turn (you go, I go).  Even the head to head option is not simultaneous. Despite being slower my personal preference is to play by turn. I won’t knock those who like the thrill of simultaneous play but if I enjoyed making split second decisions while managing multiple events of various priorities with dwindling resources I’d just stay at work longer and earn more money…..


Victory is gained by capturing objectives (victory point hexes assigned a numerical point value).  Additionally, points are gained when destroying an opponent’s units.


Check out the French review again  for some excellent screen shots showing the 3d map. A player may switch between 2d and 3d at anytime. They have a good .gif in the upper right corner that shows the 5 different modes of play.


I mentioned significant problems with the game. I’ll list them first, then concentrate on the positives.


1: Minimal ability to play online: unless there has been an upgrade to address compatibility issues I found head to head play almost impossible. Some of my most enjoyable games were played live but the success rate of getting a connection was minimal. Recommend attempting via a VPN.


2: Ease of cheating: using the play by email (PBEM) format it is easy for a player to play a turn with the intent of drawing op fire from hidden units, exit the turn and start again. Every once in awhile one comes across an opponent whose tanks never miss and whose troops never fall for the well laid ambush. The good news is that one eventually develops an intuitive sense if something is not right. In worst cases it’s easy to resign and not play the opponent in question as eventually you’ll build a cadre of consistent and trustworthy opponents. That being said it is a shame that there is always an element of doubt as sometimes extremely lucky shots are possible.


3: Graphics and cluttered controls: most of the reviews I’ve read mention the out of date graphics. I don’t really mind but the latest upgrade added a plethora of command buttons on the bottom of the screen. It just made the interface too cluttered for my taste.


4: Anti-tank guns are too easily dispatched: There is an element of hidden cover in this game but once an AT gun crew is spotted they are not long for the world. I prefer Battle Academy’s  modeling in which an AT gun can remain firing and hidden longer but when spotted, the crew has a higher chance of survival than in CS. One reason for Russian success in WW2 was the sheer amount of effective AT guns that rapidly wore down any German advance (at least in 43’ or later, think Kursk).


5: Rising Sun isn’t “realistic”: I put realistic in quotes because no game is but Rising Sun went down the wrong path when trying to balance late war scenarios containing under equipped Japanese facing overwhelming firepower. A means to provide balance was a banzai charge feature which can be best described as a special ability. No doubt, banzai charges caused fear in those that faced them but a banzai charge was a futile act of defiance when resistance became hopeless, not an extra powerful close combat ability. That being said, there are a lot of good Rising Sun scenarios and the maps are the most aesthetically pleasing in the series.


6: Lack of support: any bug fixes and upgrades will now be slow in coming. Actually, the amazing thing is there is a dedicated group of volunteers that continue to support this platform and, I believe, it was only through their efforts that the Middle East version came out at all.


7: Weak AI:  not really a big deal for me due to the PBEM feature.


The positives (and by no means all of them).


1: Play By E-Mail (PBEM) feature: despite the ease of cheating, an excellent way to play a remote opponent. A player can view and play a turn whenever it is convenient. Once you build a cadre of players who send turns consistently you’ll have your game time fully booked.


2: Order of Battle (OOB): CS features an extensive OOB to include about all the minor allies of both the Western and Axis powers. Changing unit organizations and equipment upgrades throughout the war are accounted for. I love the ability to play scenarios with such diverse and obscure combatants such as the Dane, Belgian and Dutch defenders in 1940, Axis minor allies such as the Romanians and Slovakians and if you really want obscure there are Thai troops and Philippine constabulary units available.


3: Camaraderie: I’ll go into this more in my follow up post but if you can find a good online game club you are bound to meet interesting people from around the world. Personally, I recommend The Blitz .  Multiple games are supported using a ladder system (find them by clicking on the Ladders link). There’s pros and cons to this but, on the whole, I’ve mostly have very positive experiences with the gamers I met here. 


4: Excellent Scenario Designers: I will link to after action reports (AARs) I did for some giant scenarios which I especially enjoyed. Too many great designers to name but in all the Blitz’s forums there are always sections for modders and designers.


Instead of going on about the good points I can offer an one of my AARs that represent the best of what Campaign Series can offer: a well researched and outstanding scenario which demands planning and tactical prowess, a deadly opponent, and the means to gain greater insight into a historical event. This size scenario suits my game preference as multiple battles occur around the map, each with different tactical challenges with many battles decided before hand due to reconnaissance and maneuver.


If you read this far I’d say you will enjoy this AAR but it is long and full of information, so take a break, get a beverage and then settle in and enjoy.


Additionally, my opponent posted the game from his perspective, here and hereNote the fields churned up by artillery.


If you liked those reports then check out one from a master, his presentation is  solid.


Note: check out this interview with John Tiller  Great stuff in it to include his mention of the War in Europe game map “two weeks just setting up the units”.  Problem for me after watching is I now want to order a bunch of games.

  • Paul says:

    Your article has actually got me thinking about making a wargame site where you could play games like these in a web interface. I think it could solve many of the problems mentioned above.

  • Alex says:

    Looks cool. At some point, maybe I should get into play-by-mail again. Last time I did was Fantasy General when that was new…

  • Sky says:

    How easy do you think getting into the PEBM would be?

    • Scott Cole says:

      Easy and hard as finding a friend and the reason I mentioned the online game club. Technically it’s just downloading a file, watch a reply, play a turn, the attach it back. Easy to find opponents and after a while you’ll find a few you are comfortable with playing (sometimes the more important interaction is the communication and not the game).

  • Donald says:

    How does the gameplay compare to tabletop play?

    The hexagonal grid makes it clear that they’re trying to emulate tabletop. A computer game obviously eliminates the problem of where to set up the board, but do you miss the tangibility of the board and pieces?

    • Scott Cole says:

      Gameplay for CS is definitely quicker and less burdensome, especially when line of sight determinations are automatic.

      I don’t miss long set ups and the myriad manual tasks to play an old school board game (set up, move counters, figure odds, sometimes by sorting through a stack of units using tweezers to count attack points) but miss the slower “social” aspect of a board game. Different experience when standing around a table with friends and a slower pace of play while enjoying company. Beer & pretzels gaming, if you would.
      Notice in my list of mundane manual tasks above I didn’t put down rolling dice. That’s always good!

  • Zac says:

    What would you say is the best way to dip one’s toes into this sort of game’s interface? I’ve played many board games but your mentions of the PBEM feature is interesting enough to cross over to digital. Still, it looks a little intimidating.

    • Scott Cole says:

      Nothing to worry about. Each of the 3 CS games (all in one download) have multiple tutorial scenarios with accompanying documentation.
      After playing those there are many small sized scenarios that are good to play against the AI. Once you start beating the AI then it’s time for PBEM
      Actually, if you post on the Blitz that you are a rookie a few gamers would offer you a match and help you with questions

  • Mac says:

    I’ve been playing John Tiller games for ages.

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