Wargame Review: War Plan Orange: Dreadnoughts in the Pacific

War Plan Orange is a turn based operational level war game from Matrix Games. Simulating a what if scenario of Japan and the rest of the world in an all out war for domination of the pacific it is an extremely powerful, flexible game for players to square off against one another PBEM battles or against the computer AI. Bluealien.org has taken a bit of time to examine this example of what is sadly a much neglected and under-covered genre of PC gaming.

Wargames are all about "What If" scenarios. Desktop and armchair generals all want to see if maybe, just maybe, they could have held the line agains screaming Zulu hordes at Isandlwana or if they could smash the American battle lines in December of 1944. War Plan Orange is a little different. Published by Matrix Games it is based off of US Navy plans for a possible war with Japan over the Pacific in the 1920s. 2by3 Games has their work cut out for them. Based on US Navy plans and research into the actual force dispositions of various powers at the time we have the chance to see what war was like at the height of the Battleship era. Carriers and submarines are still in their infancy, the dreadnought, the battleship and the 15" gun are the dominant forces at sea.

Like many wargames War Plan Orange has an interface that is intimidating at first. The action is resolved off screen or abstractly. Much like Risk the job of the player is to move and supply fleets, not to fight battles or direct troops in actual combat. This is strategy from the perspective of the war room with it's giant map tables, counters and croupier sticks. Because you are so distanced from the action the emphasis is on planning, planning, planning. Game turns represent hours and fleets will take days to reach each other, if they can find each other. Battles on this scale are as much a matter of accident and chance as they are of deliberate planning.

Unlike many games reading the manual simply isn't an option. While this is something that many gamers (myself included) simply don't do, preferring to jump straight into the action, to really experience the full depth of the game and to understand its inner workings the manual is absolutely essential. The greatest weakness of the game is the lack of a tutorial. I found a basic walkthrough tutorial that I printed off from a forums post at Matrix Games that helped introduce me to some of the concepts but aside from the manual there are no other resources directly included in the game to help players out. Matrix Games has a very large and active forums community for players to get together and help each other out.

The ultimate aim of War Plan Orange is seemingly to translate the experience of cardboard-counter wargames into an electronic format. There is the possiblity of single player against the AI but the multiplayer options are the focus. Traditional hotseat and PBEM are supported; game turns are simply too long to support any sort of live play. The AI in War Plan Orange isn't the greatest in the world. The large amount of time it takes to resolve turns and combat means that the game is much, much more suited to PBEM play against actual opponents.

I have always been a fan of high-end wargames such as War Plan Orange. Their lack of the twitch play that you see in games like Starcraft or Command and Conquer means that players have the opportunity to exercise some real strategic thought. This ultimately means a much slower paced game. I've already commented that the game seems much more suitable for PBEM play that for live action play. Every turn requires thought, you have complete control of the military assets of a nation (or in the case of the allies, several nations), no small task even when it is simplified into a computer form. Players will learn the geography of the Pacific very well.

War Plan Orange has a lot of play in it. The secenarios last for years at a time and turns can be set from one day turns to three day turns – games are going to take up a good bit of time to play all the way through. I have already mentioned the robust PBEM capability of the game. WPO includes, as any good war game does, a very powerful and robust scenario editor that allows players to create their own scenarios, units and orders of battle.

The greatest weakness of War Plan Orange is in the interface. Playing the game isn't that complicated but navigating around can be a pain. There is a ton of information to handle and quite simply WPO doesn't do a great job of handling it. Information displays are cramped; navigating around the map can be difficult at times and the simple act of finding task forces and units can be difficult. The inability to change the map view is a problem as well.

In short, War Plan Orange is a great game. It has excellent replay value from its excellent editors and good multiplayer support. The greatest problem the game has is accessibility – people who don't do war games are going to find it somewhat difficult to get into War Plan Orange. The problems I mentioned with the interface only make this worse – players will get the sense of a fish watching a nuclear submarine go by when they first jump into a scenario. I like War Plan Orange but I can't bring myself to recommend it to someone who hasn't played this sort of game before.