Well that wasn’t what I was expecting. After hearing that Panzer Corps was going to be my next review, I happened upon this brief article on Rock Paper Shotgun. It wasn’t promising. I find RPS a great read because its writers go into loving depth on any number of niche games, but in this case all that was merited was five lines, a press release and a video that presented a very backward-looking product with cheesy World War 2 music and grainy sound effects. It looked grim.
How wrong I was. Panzer Corps is a well put together title, providing tidy, expansive war-gaming with no frills but a good degree of depth. You’ll be able to read more about it in my review, which should pop up on Gamedot in the next few days (EDIT: here it is now), but for now I’d like to look at something else. I’m going mildly theoretical again, so brace yourselves for some rambling.
I couldn’t help but think about the nature of the entertainment offered by the game. Whenever I come to that most annoying part of reviews, the score, I inevitably end making a judgement not in isolation, but by looking at what I’ve awarded previous games. So, despite my only complaint against Panzer Corps being ‘Nothing new’, with some very healthy positives on the other end of the scale (‘good concept, well executed’ and ‘plenty of depth’), it lands a 7/10, which may as well translate to ‘meh’ for some readers. The truth is that there was nothing more that developers Slitherine could have done to hit the giddy heights of an 8/10, because, to my own mind, experiences such as these can’t get that high when they offer entertainment of this sort.
Some games might be art, conveying emotional experiences equally as potent as those provided by other media, but a game like Panzer Corps seems to me to be the gaming equivalent of a crossword or a sudoku; a mental challenge that gives your strategic powers a workout and can give you some satisfaction upon completion, but does nothing more. Obviously it has more depth and more paths to victory, as well as a narrative of sorts, in which the player can rewrite the history of WW2 if they win big enough victories. It’s not a story, though, just a bit of historical flavour layered on top of the game’s central attraction, that of pure, simple strategy. This is chess dressed in uniform.
The most interesting comparison I thought on was between this game and Civilization V, which I gave a 9/10 in my review last October. At their core, both games have similar mechanics, being games of conquest played out on a grid map. Civ, of course, is a very different game, but every other feature boils down to what goes on between your cities and armies on one side of the map and the opposing kingdom on the other. Panzer Corps executes this premise admirably, so is Civ better just because it has more stuff in it, like city management, technology trees and diplomacy? No; I can’t argue that a broadly-focused game is inherently better than a good streamlined one. Is it because it’s more fun? No; if fun were the only barometer of a game’s quality, I’d have given the bug-ridden Test Drive Unlimited 2 a 10/10. So why is it?
To be terribly facetious, it’s because a video game is about more than just its mechanics. In Panzer Corps, mechanics are king; everything else, everything, is window dressing. Civ wins because it has personality, because it weaves whole new stories every time you play through the details and sideshows, not just because the map is different. I’m tempted to say that you don’t ‘play’ Panzer Corps in the same way that you don’t ‘play’ a crossword, but that would be too critical. Nonetheless, you certainly don’t play this game in the same sense that you play a game of Civ. If anyone can come up with a new word somewhere between ‘playing’ and ‘doing’ a round of Panzer Corps, you might just help me to make this post 400 words shorter.