You have to be a little off to be a tanker. These men jammed themselves into a noisy steel warmachine and thundered across the countryside while other crazy men threw high velocity tungsten rounds at them. It was a confined hell that smelled of sweat and petrol. All they had was each other and their rolling coffin.
Tank Duel understands. This GMT release from Mike Bertucelli mixes elements of sizable abstraction with very specific aspects of simulation. It carefully curates its list of mechanisms to evoke a tight and claustrophobic experience where each shot rumbles and each fire smolders. It’s an intense game is what I’m trying to say.
It clearly owes its lineage to Up Front. That classic wargame was a revelation in abstracting the battlefield by removing the board and leaning heavily on card play. The experience is about providing just enough detail to frame the scene in your mind and allowing you to run wild with narrative authorship. As dramatic and unpredictable situations unfold the tension builds and your own war stories emerge, ones you will share with other hobbyists years later.
In Tank Duel the bulk of play is funneled through your hand. Whether you’re controlling a Soviet T-34 or German Panzer IV, you’re drawing from a shared action deck that controls the editing and pacing of our story. You won’t be able to fire or push forward on the battlefield unless you draw the appropriate card, which results in a lack of control and an excellent framing of fog of war.
I discussed the nature of card driven game-play in my article on Combat Commander. It’s a quirky thing that appeals to some and insults others. I find it uniquely satisfying in how it produces chaos and then requires you wrangle it to instill order. It forces tough decisions and has you assessing priorities as you often can’t perform your ideal maneuver. It keeps things exciting and fresh.
The cards themselves are a bit baroque though, coming off as complicated as the machines the game depicts. They include an action, sometimes two giving you a choice, a unique number used for firing, penetration information, and a slew of icons which for fire, explosion, smoke, and other effect triggers. If you tossed the card to a lay man he’d buckle at the knees and wash out of tank school.
Like many of this game’s mechanisms, it does all come together after a play or two. Mostly.
Even after several sessions you may forget the details of one of the many phases. If your tank is on fire and your crew is broken, which do you test first? Do you score scenario points – for instance from holding a hill – before or after this check? If your tank isn’t consumed by fire, how do you put it out?
You get the idea. This game can be a bit of a muddy field if you put it away for awhile and come back later. Sure, it’s not ASL and you will pick it up quick enough, but it’s still a concern as the detail is often heavy in very specific areas of the design due to those elements of simulation.
And this really leads me into my main concern with Tank Duel. It can be very choppy at times with players pausing to look up a rule or work their way through the procedural sub-systems. This stands in contrast to the rapid pace it often accomplishes as you quickly reveal initiative and play a single action. In fact, often the game will fly by with experienced players which is a bit of a double-edged 88mm barrel (yeah, I know that analogy makes no sense).
Here’s the thing: this one can occasionally feel as though it’s plodding when it should be scooting and scooting when it should be more restrained. These moments do not overtake the middle ground that forms the bulk of play, but they’re nagging at times and worth addressing with some ink.
At the opposite end of the persnickety rule structure is the lightning fast narrative. What can happen is that a tank suffers a critical hit and is lost due to brewing up or perhaps an explosion. Usually this is very good stuff as perhaps it was a wounded beast, maintaining operation by the slimmest of margins with a skeleton crew. When all that’s left of your commander and driver are bits of flesh and bone embedded into their leather seats, forcing other crew members like the assistant driver and loader to get their pants wet, that’s when things are hot and story is writing itself. But the author doesn’t quite know when to get out of the way.
Death in Tank Duel is tragic primarily from a perspective of victory points. It undermines any emotional investment by allowing players to respawn immediately. It’s oddly cavalier about casualty and is more concerned with providing a well-rounded and safe (read: modern) experience that keeps everyone involved.
I think this was the wrong call.
What it does is neuter any permanence of loss. Sure, the victory points burn a bit but the game is so swingy and can turn on a single lucky shot that it’s best not to sweat a death or two. By allowing tanks to respawn you get an immensely playable design that supports up to 8 players with ease. However, you lose the most dramatic touchstone moments the players deserve.
Tank Duel will never provide the intensity of a last remaining T-34, tracks blown and billowing smoke, to rally and go on a rampage as it takes down two flanking Panzers. It just doesn’t happen because the previously lost T-34 is already back on the battlefield and coming in hot. Status quo is furiously maintained at the expense of outlying situations.
This not only robs us of really special moments, it also devalues death as I said because we care less about losing battlefield position. Furthermore, it cements an element of repetition where you move forward, trade shots, and someone respawns only to repeat the entire thing. There is definitely a range of tactical maneuvering and tough decisions occurring in this script, but the overall story of each game is often mostly similar. It works to break this up by introducing new tanks and a surprisingly large number of scenarios requiring varied strategies to overcome. The results are a mixed bag in this regard as the dynamic is altered, but it’s still positioned within the boundaries of a somewhat predictable narrative structure.
The second real issue dovetailing into this is the lack of personality with crew. These men represented by counters should have been given names and perhaps even faces. I’m not mourning the death of ‘driver’ but if he was ‘Unterfeldwebel Schmidt’ I’d at least be given a chance. I want to care about these little warriors I’m staring down on from above and I want my heart to beat and thrash as their fate is determined. That simply doesn’t happen because Tank Duel doesn’t offer support.
In tandem, these two aspects of the design work against its strongest functions of narrative. As this is absolutely a game concerned with narrative it’s a bit of a bruise.
At this point you’re probably considering writing this one off. Yes, I’m being highly critical and pointing out some major structural issues. But you should not bail out yet. This one can be salvaged.
There is so much good here. The whole firing mechanism where cards are flipped and every single participant is standing and holding their breath is magnificent. The anguish of a surprising penetration or unexpected explosion really feels terrifying or thrilling in the moment. The details are at times very rich and there are small narrative paragraphs that stand out, even if the larger novel does not.
I also think the accomplishment of portraying a very mobile fighting force within a heavily abstracted movement system is surprisingly solid. Flanking, going hull down, and zooming into cover all feel a natural extension of the rules. There’s some familiarity hurdles with the process of playing movement and terrain cards, but once you’ve leaped those obstacles it becomes second nature and flows very smooth. It also handles relative distance about as well as you can and is an overall more friendly system than Up Front.
The streamlined technique of handling armor facing also integrates perfectly. It proves a necessary component to taking out some of the larger and more iconic tanks, such as the Tiger and KV-1, and allows for some exceptional moments to emerge in the heat of combat.
All of this abstracted positioning challenges the players to build a scene in their mind. By forcing you to do a small amount of work in piecing together the battlefield and solidifying the abstraction, it buys back some of that narrative investment it loses in the combat fallout. I found myself occasionally pausing during key moments in the game and mentally authoring a detailed description of the current situation. The combination of abstraction and detail works as a fantastic trigger in that regard.
And this is really the design’s lasting impact and how it fits into the greater context of wargaming. It offers an interesting approach of radically streamlining large swathes of elements that are considered staples of this type of simulation. By doubling down on a few key ideas it claims a unique focus that results in a solid payout.
Tank Duel also feels very complete. There are many different types of tanks, there are advanced rules for AT guns and infantry, there is even a whole suite of historical scenarios that offer delightful context to the battles.
Did I mention it has a bespoke solo mode? The ‘robota’ AI is solid and plays relatively logically while also pulling a surprise punch or two. It’s a comfortable half-way point between a mindless opponent and those huge branching decision trees in something like COIN. I prefer this multiplayer – precisely so that we can share in the drama and fuel reactions – but the solitaire mode is wholesome and entertaining. It does not feel tacked on or an afterthought in the least.
So this is not a perfect game. Like most, it requires you to give as much as you take. For those seeking an Up Front focused on AFVs this is an overall quality offering that hits most of the notes. Like the 2014 Brad Pitt tank film Fury, I don’t think this one has the right stuff to become a true classic, but that won’t stop us from enjoying it.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
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