Review: Frontline Road to Moscow, an IoS wargame from Slitherine

Publisher: Slitherine Software
Price: 2.99

When I saw the first glimpses of Frontline: Road to Moscow online, I admit I had mixed feelings.  On the plus side, this is a Slitherine product.  They are an outfit that knows military conflict simulation games– they’ve published dozens for the PC, and a few for the Ipad and other platforms.  They know their craft.  On the negative side, I have not been that impressed with Slitherine’s game interfaces on an Ipad, which often are straight ports from computer games and are hard to read on an Ipad.  Lastly, there was something about this game that seemed very familiar, as we will see!

Probably the smallest screen on the IPAD version

First of all, you should know, unless you’re remarkably lacking in perception, THIS IS A WORLD WAR II game, about war on the Eastern Front.  It is what most people would refer to as a “Wargame”, meaning it is a game that simulates conflict in a historical context, usually involving a war of some kind.  Veteran wargamers would call this a light or “not very complex” wargame.  In Frontline: Road to Moscow, you play a role– a sort of Eastern Supreme Commander.  You start with a few representative unit types, which become a coherent army of sorts, always heading East to the main objective, Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union.   Front Line is turn based, Igo-Yugo fashion, against an AI.  As a German general you fight 12 missions that are strung together episodically.  Slitherine definitely went for the “Storyboard” concept.. having the campaign unfold as an ongoing narrative that you play in a straight linear fashion, right to the finish line. I could see where this approach might get a little tiresome after repeatedly plays, but I’m enjoying it for now.

On the road to Moscow! You can see where I had success (green circles). The Airplane Icon on Minsk indicates that Minsk was an aircraft only mission. Next on the map is Mogillev (red burst icon directly to the right)

Along the road to Moscow, you’ll earn a kind of victory point called Prestige (or honor, or glory or whatever). Prestige will give you more SUPPLY during a mission, and Supply can be converted into new, tougher units with enhanced abilities. The scale in time and distance is somewhat abstracted. You are aware of the passage of time in a general sense by the progress of technological change. This impacts what units will be available the farther along you get on the road to final victory. For instance, your first mission will start you off with a pretty crappy German tank (the Panzer II, I think), Regular Infantry, Paratroopers (which are pretty great), and some artillery against the Soviets with some half tracks, a decent tank, regular infantry, and some other units in greater abundance. Each unit does one or two things unique to them, like Entrench, or Ambush, or Snipe, etc. As the game progresses, units will get tougher and you will have more choices of unit. There are apparently two expansion IGP modules that will expand potential units even further, but I haven’t felt the need to expand game play yet, it’s just fine as it is. So far.

A scenario/episode from fairly early in the game narrative. Unit choices on both sides are limited at this point; they will get better.

Combats between units are intense and bloody affairs, even when you are doing things right.  A typical battlefield is seen above.  There is an invisible hex overlay that regulates movement, and it recognizes terrain choke points such as rivers, bridges, woods, hills, etc. and will deny movement in certain circumstances and slow it in others.  For instance, a unit may not cross across most rivers, except on a bridge.  If another unit is on the bridge, it doesn’t cross the river this turn.  If it is next to blocking terrain, such as a cliff, river or dense woods, it will become evident when you select the unit where it can’t go. Actually firing upon opposing units is easy enough– move your unit within range and the opposing unit will display an overlay that indicates that it can be shot at.  Depending on what you’re shooting, you’ll have greater or lesser chances of causing damage. Regular Infantry, for instance, don’t do much damage to an enemy tank, but an anti tank gun surely does.  One thing I liked about combat is that it never a sure thing.  Bullets miss or ricochet all the time in this game, which is closer to reality than you’d think.  Combats can cause retreats, sometimes unexpectedly.   Missions (scenarios) are laid out with a pretty standard objective on some of them (take this town, bonus points if you take that town, etc.) but also they sometimes add in something unique, like “conduct an air strike for more victory”, etc.  Most missions seem like a race– you are funneled by the terrain into making a certain avenue of advance, or maybe two or three, but the maps constrain any wild sweeping maneuver around a flank.   Thus most missions become a flat out race to either bludgeon your way past resistance or fake them out and make an end run when an objective is lightly defended.

Only FAIR victory, hey, I had a single unit left! What the?

One thing I would point out for anyone new to the game– use your supply points very wisely!  You can heal a damaged unit up in the field with supply points and buy new units with them, but those points get used up fast, and in the early game, I found myself running out before achieving my objective once or twice.  Note a few obvious things; the enemy AI can heal up HIS units, too, and never fails to.  He also either purchases new units with his supply points or has reinforcements lurking in that foggy area you see around the edges of every battlefield.  I’m not certain if the AI is cheating or not; the Soviet AI player always seems to have more units than I do and always seems to have reinforcements that I do not. No matter, it makes the game balanced, and dare I say it, FUN. The opposing AI is NOT a genius.  I have end-run around it multiple times in the ten games I played for this review. However, it does seem to out-produce the German routinely, and it can win a game on numbers alone.

Unit Iconography, from the Tutorial. You can see the overlay that indicates the German unit may fire upon the Soviet unit, plus the opportunity for advancing fire.

Unit iconography and map graphics are quite good.  Normally, I find the little isometric soldiers and tanks to look a tad too cutesy..  not in the case of Frontline, however.  They are easy to figure out, not confusing, and I was never at a loss to sort out who was who with infantry and artillery.  Tanks do tend to look a lot alike, but you can always figure out who is a Soviet and who is a German by their orientation on the map.

So, in summary, that’s generally the game of FRONTLINE: ROAD TO MOSCOW:  you’re playing a role somewhat like a German field marshal, episodically advancing on Moscow, mission by mission.  You’re earning victory to spend on more units with more capabilities so you will eventually end up on the doorstep of the Kremlin.  Pretty cool and unique, huh?

Well, no, of course it isn’t.  We’re describing Panzer General from SSI from way back in 1994, aren’t we?  Ummmm, yeah, well, we kind of are.

As paradigms go, it may be done to death, but it’s still fun.

That’s not to say there aren’t differences. Frontline has a very similar flavor, but isn’t the same dish.  The Panzer General engine did tend to flood the game with units that were all rather bland and lacking any special functions– in Frontline, the units have much more individual character and there are fewer of them to move around. This cuts down on the micromanagement aspect of the older games. I liked PG back in those days; but I really wouldn’t go back 20 years to play it again. Or even Open Panzer, the direct clone of PG on the Ipad. Way too clunky on an Ipad for my liking.

“Hold the phone!” You might be saying. Doesn’t this game resemble TANK BATTLE: EASTERN FRONT, by Hunted Cow which was released a couple months ago? Thematically, sure. Tactically? Not the same game by a long shot.

Tank Battle: Eastern Front

You either like that standard engine of Hunted Cow’s or you don’t. I tend to like the Ancient Roman game of theirs the best. Hunted Cow has improved gameplay quite a bit, but it is still fundamentally the same hex-based scenario driven wargame that they make for many periods. I give points to Frontline for being a little more unique than Tank Battle.

So, further along in our summary, you have a game that is something of a blast from the past, kind of like a more narrowly focused Panzer General with much better graphics, fighting a linear series of engagements using a limited store of units to fight combats in. Is it worth my precious 2.99? The answer is YES, it certainly is a very entertaining investment for three bucks. I’m even going to pop for the expansions. Eventually. I imagine it will eventually run out of steam after you play it a few dozen times but it’s a decent gaming engine, with good graphics and an okay, not very great, but not too stupid AI that will try its best. I’ve played over a dozen games so far and I’m still very engaged with Frontline. Recommended for wargamers and non-wargamers alike- the game doesn’t have much history to teach beyond the broad brushstrokes, and the level of decision making is rudimentary at best,  but it is easy to follow and easy enough for new players.  For 2.99, I’d definitely recommend it.  For 6.99?  Eh, maybe not so much.