MS&T’s Michael Peck test-drives Panther Games’ recently released ‘Command Ops: Battles for Greece’.

Where is the line between game and simulation? For military training and education games, that's the ultimate question. The appeal of games is that they are to make training less onerous and more engaging. But too much gaminess negates the value of the simulation. For military games, fun is a means, not an end.

The Command Ops series of computer wargames from Panther Games, bridges this divide. Command Ops is a family of World War II operational-level wargames that are enjoyed by civilian gamers and yet have been used by the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College and the Australian military. Designed by former Australian Army reserve officer Dave O'Connor, Command Ops has been around for a decade, but the engine was updated in 2010 with the debut of Command Ops: Battles for the Bulge and Highway to the Reich. This summer saw the release of the Battles for Greece expansion, [] an updated simulation of the 1941 German invasion of Greece that ejected Commonwealth forces from their toehold on the European mainland. If nothing else, the choice of topic proves that the designer is Australian, because no Yank would design a computer game on the Greek fiasco.

The most striking aspect of Command Ops is that it looks exactly like a real military constructive simulation. The map and the square icons representing units would not appear out of place in a tactical operations center. The game is real-time but pausable, so players can think about their moves instead engaging in the clicking frenzy required by most real-time games.

Not surprisingly, the essence of Command Ops is command. Put simply, a player will have some control over his forces, but not total control. Players issue basic orders, such as Move, Attack, Probe, or Secure a River Crossing, to a company or platoon. In turn, there will be a delay depending on the distance from the unit to its HQ, as well as the quality of the HQ (headquarters are rated for the competence of their commanders as well as their staffs). The player can set waypoints, but otherwise the AI will choose the route and deploy the unit when it reaches its objective. Command Ops brilliantly demonstrates how a force with better command capabilities can more quickly respond to changing battlefield conditions. There is a big difference between the 1941 German army in Battles for Greece and the battered 1944 German forces in Battles for the Bulge.

Such a system is only as good as its AI, and Panther Games is not shy about claiming that its AI is the best. The pride is not misplaced. Playing the "Foothills of the Gods" scenario in Battles for Greece, I ordered a German recon company to scout what appeared to be a New Zealander defense line. The unit automatically chose to move down the highway, deployed into combat formation when it encountered resistance, and then retreated to high ground. Those were the same moves I would have made, except I didn't have to. The AI took care of it all, versus some defense simulations that require platoons of pucksters to sit at terminals and manually move a tank company down a road because the AI might drive it into a swamp.

Instructors will tell you that in the military classroom, there is too much material and too little time to waste learning a complicated game. Because much of Command Ops is automated, players don't have to make too many choices, which means a small scenario can be finished in an hour.

This can be a problem for some wargamers who play for entertainment, because many players enjoy diving into the details of battlefield command. And for those who do, Command Ops allows players to adjust everything from the tactical formation of an infantry company to the rate of fire and ammunition consumption of an artillery battery. Players who want to keep an eagle eye on their forces can click a few tabs to see a unit's unit morale, fatigue, supply, suppression level, and more. But what is important is that such micromanagement is an option, not a necessity.

Command Ops simulates well the C4I issues of World War II battalion-to-corps-level combat, and probably would work with modern battles and communications systems. Satellite communications and Blue Force Tracking notwithstanding, command and control is and always will be an issue. I'm not so sure how well it would handle the sort of "small war" combat of the 21st Century, but even in counterinsurgency, skillful battlefield command is still paramount. Besides, armies still must prepare for conventional combat.

Panther Games has unsuccessfully tried for years to interest the U.S. military in using its games as standard teaching tools (a challenge shared by other designers of high-fidelity games, such as Jim Lunsford's Decisive Point []). The reasons are depressing, such as "not designed here" and perhaps a little jealousy that a $70 game can deliver so much compared to multimillion-dollar defense simulation. That's too bad, because in an era of declining defense budgets, a small, efficient, command-focused computer game is just the ticket.