I’m a sucker for touches like this: at minimum zoom, the battlefield looks like a sand-table exercise come to life. Stacks of chits topped by abstract unit icons slide glacially across the surface. Orbiting the camera around, I can make out the headquarters staff at work around the edges of the map. Signalmen sit at radar and communications stations. I am surrounded by the din of headquarters: phones ringing, wirelesses chattering, and the menacing, indistinct muttering of a PA.
Zooming in slightly, headquarters gets quieter and I can hear very faint sounds of fighting coming from the map. Mostly the dull crump of artillery. The stacks of units split into smaller stacks to better represent their positions on the board. I see three tall stacks of enemy tanks advancing against the crossroads on my team’s half of the map. I click on the “ruse” menu, since I have several of them and can afford to play one. I activate “radio silence” on the crossroads sector, which will mask my units there from enemy observation. Translucent bars appear across the sector, overlaid with “Radio Silence” and a timer. I have a few minutes of privacy there. I estimate his forces will be hitting my lines in about two.
We Have Incoming
I don’t have enough to stop him, assuming those tanks are real. It is possible this is a feint. The “decoy tank assault” ruse would make it look to me like a horde of tanks is approaching. So would the “reverse intel” ruse, which would make light units like recon cars and infantry look like heavy armor, and vice versa. So I hedge. My ally, Marcin, has the center right and right of our line pretty secure, but I’m going to have to draw troops away from my far left flank. I activate “spies” on the enemy sector opposing my left. I should see any build-up of forces taking place. With good intelligence telling me that my left flank isn’t threatened, I will be able to pull units off that part of the line.
But not yet. Right now I need more troops on the field to make certain that I can repulse this attack. I go into my “armor” and “antitank” menus and order up equipment to stop this assault. I’m playing the Italians, however, so my armor options are pitiful. My best tank, the Carro M15, still makes a US Sherman look like the HMS Dreadnought. My armor will be there to catch bullets and shells. But it’s cheap, and good for that kind of thing.
My antitank options are much better. I have a field-gun that can wreak some havoc from the lines of trees that bracket the crossroads and the field approaching it. I order two into the trees on the eastern end of the line. The two after that will hold the center. Now I can forget about them. There are no rally points to worry about: each unit I have ordered will proceed to the position on the map I have indicated. Production and reinforcement take place at the same time.
However, stopping this thrust will mostly be the work of my 90mm high-velocity anti-aircraft / anti-tank guns, which fill the same role as the 88 does for the Germans. Besides that, I’ve got fighter bombers waiting at the airfield. I repeat the ordering process for the high-velocity guns, putting two of them in the center. This places the entire line within their field of fire. Then I click on my airfield menu. In the lower left, I see the list of planes currently on the ground. I send all my fighter-bombers into orbit above the line. They’ll provide air cover, and I can use them to strike at tanks.
That done, I check out a stack of units on my left flank. It contains my heaviest artillery, a group of 210mm monsters, along with a lot of flak guns to shield them from bombers. I need them in the center to shell this group of enemy units, but the flak guns need to stay and watch the left. In the lower right of my screen, a group of tiles appear showing me what’s in this stack. I click on the 210s and send them to the center. They detach from the stack and begin moving east.
Less than a minute has elapsed since I spotted the German advance, and I have queued up all the necessary build orders and ensured that they will be delivered where they are needed. Momentarily bankrupt, I find myself with an unfamiliar luxury: a moment to think. Marcin is holding steady in the center and launching an attack on his extreme right. I think it’s premature of him to do this, but things still seem well in hand.
My free moment gives me time to worry, especially as I see another stack of unidentified enemy units converging on the crossroads from the center-left. He can’t pincer me – my line is in the wrong position for that – but I do worry that he will arrive with so many units at once that my center would give way. I pull my heavy infantry in toward the center from the left flank, and send my flak batteries to sit at the joint between my left and center left. My extreme left is now almost open, so I use one of my advantages as the Italians: Sahariana recon infantry. They’re very hard for the enemy to see, and have a great line of sight. I station a few on my left, and sneak a few into the woods on his side of the map. Now I know that he can’t sneak anything past.
The first new units are arriving on the front line, and I zoom in again. I need to position them carefully to turn back this attack. The stacks break apart again, into very small stacks of two or three units. I split my high-velocity guns apart and send them to different parts of the line. I do the same with the AT field guns and the tanks. Now the stacks are disappearing, replaced by oversize icons on the map. My center describes a shallow V, backed by antiaircraft guns and heavy artillery. Just as the last units are getting set up, his troops come into visual range.
The sounds of headquarters are gone at this level, and the sound of battle is markedly louder. I order the 210s to commence firing on different parts of his columns, and shells begin arcing up toward the camera before plummeting back to earth. His units start scattering, Panthers and Tigers racing for my line while his infantry get blasted to pieces. He shouldn’t have approached in clumps like this, but “radio silence” meant that he didn’t know he would run into this. Still, he’s got a lot of heavy tanks. They are quickly blowing through my puny armored units and shrugging off AT fire. My tanks begin to break and reverse out of the line. The panzers are driving closer to the guns. I order up a bunch more tanks and send them toward the center. They might arrive in time to soak up some more punishment.
At this point, I only hear pounding guns, shrieking shells, and growling engines. Now that my tanks are routing, the panzers are opening fire on the 90mms and the field guns. Some of the crews are starting to bug out and I’m yelling at them to stay where they are. Their only hope is to stand at their station and kill Germans, but they don’t have the nerve. They’re dying as they run, and the entire center right is in danger of collapsing.
I re-task the 210s to start firing on my own positions, which are being overrun. The troops there are dead either way. A few of my tanks have rallied behind the line, and I send them back into the fray. Then I start selecting my Sparviero fighter-bombers and issuing orders for airstrikes. They peel off and begin diving toward the battlefield. Panzers begin exploding everywhere.
Between the airstrikes and the 90mm guns, the German attack is starting to peter out, especially as reinforcements arrive. I’m about to order up a counter attack against their center when I notice what my recon troops are reporting: his right flank is unguarded. Completely.
I start queuing units up in the woods behind my left flank while the last of his units try to extricate themselves from the center. His bombers arrive to take out my guns, but get devoured by AAA. Heinkels are fluttering toward earth in all the color and splendor of autumn leaves. Only a handful deliver payloads.
Meanwhile, Marcin has met with stunning success. His enemy, the other German player, has been completely caught out by his attack. Marcin will explain after the game that he played the “reverse intel” card and spoofed his opponent into sending a wall of tanks and AT guns against light infantry and recon cars, while his heavy armor plowed straight into the enemy base. By the time his opponent caught on, half his base was a crater.
The rest of the battle is a foregone conclusion. My opponent’s attack, and the squandering of his bombers at the end of it, have left him without enough to regain the momentum, and his teammate is in his death throes. I use my recon infantry to spot for my heavy artillery while skirmishing using my tanks. He rolls up quickly.
Marcin and I have had a blast, and we’re both thrilled at the curious combination our team made. My Italians and his Frenchmen just pounded the Germans into the dirt. Two factions that most games don’t even bother to model are able to give the Wehrmacht a run for its money, using completely different methods. For me it was a game of information, line of sight, and opportunistic defensiveness. For Marcin, it was about holding the line early and then delivering a sledgehammer blow with his heavy armor. Both of us used our ruses to great effect, and neither of us can quite believe his reverse worked so well.
My opponent wasn’t particularly skilled, of course. His attack was sloppy and he didn’t support it with enough artillery or air assets. That he was using heavier German armor gave him a very slender chance of winning, but not enough to overcome my combination. But pause for a moment to consider a game that respects that the Italian army was not necessarily the demoralized, incompetent rabble of memory, or that the French were not mired in antiquity, meeting the panzers with nothing but trenches, rifles, and courage.
Afterwards, on Skype, we try and figure out what we really think of this game. This has become a ritual for us every time we play it. It is so very easy to play, and that keeps throwing me off. I’m used to wrestling with RTSs. I usually know what I want to do, the problems come when I try to do it. RUSE doesn’t seem to work that way. The interface lets me move about as quickly as my thoughts, and the game’s pacing gives me just enough time to consider each situation. It’s more like a fast-paced boardgame than a typical RTS.
Yet neither of us can quite figure out if there’s a lot there. It’s still a rock-paper-scissors game, with each faction having different strengths and weaknesses within that paradigm. There doesn’t seem to be much room for the kind of micromanagement that I associate with the power-users who dominate other RTSs. It’s so simple that it seems like it might be shallow.
On the other hand, I have a lot of games sitting on my shelf or in my Steam account that are models of depth and complexity that I have never quite managed to enjoy. Most of my RTS collection is aspirational, games that I keep promising to one day, some other day, get good at. In the meantime, I’m playing RUSE with my friend.