In this feature, MS&T’s Michael Peck reviews games, with a focus on those that approach an intersection with military training.

Tablets and defense simulations have had a troubled history. In theory, there should be a perfect match. Tablets offer convenience and portability, and the chance to play a training simulation on an airliner or the living room sofa. That's why militaries around the world are turning to mobile devices.

Yet for all the power and brilliance of an iPad, there is only so much that a designer can do with a magazine-sized computer in terms of computational power, graphics and user interface. Thus it is less than surprising that most entertainment games - even those purporting to be wargames - on the Apple and Google app stores are barely a step up from the sophistication of Angry Birds.

The most striking aspect of Drive on Moscow [], from Shenandoah Studios, is that it is a sophisticated game that works on iPads and iPhones. It's an honest-to-goodness historical wargame, with all the fidelity and attention to detail that this implies, and it plays smoothly on mobile devices.

Drive on Moscow focuses on the climatic German assault to seize the Soviet capital in late 1941. More than two million men and 4,000 tanks were locked in desperate battle that saw the Germans advance almost to the gates of Moscow, only to be thrown back by the bitter Russian winter and a Soviet counteroffensive led by elite Siberian reinforcements. How could a tablet or smartphone capture such an epic battle?

Engaging in head-to-head combat. All images Shandoah Studios
Engaging in head-to-head combat. All images Shandoah Studios

The answer is by playing to the strengths of mobile devices, and more important, avoiding their weaknesses. Traditional hobby wargames tend to use maps divided into small hexagons, which is fine for a board game spread on a dining room table, or a desktop PC with a large screen. But the constricted touchscreen of a mobile device is a trap for fumbling fingers trying to tap a tiny spot on the map. Drive on Moscow divides the map of the Moscow region into "spaces", or large areas like the countries in Risk, in which each side can have up to three formations each (infantry corps plus panzer and motorized infantry divisions for the Germans, and infantry armies and tank corps for the Soviets).

Mobiles lack mice and thus right-click menus, nor is there room for rows of buttons to click on. So there are severe limitations on the ability of the user interface to offer the player a wide choice of commands. Drive on Moscow wisely avoids this issue by keeping player input very simple. A player taps one space at a time, which activates all of units in a space. Tap another space, and some or all those units move to that destination. Combat is simple, with opposing units in the same space fighting. Each unit has a certain number of strength points that reflect its ability to inflict damage and absorb it. The deeper aspect of combat are the numerous modifiers that affect attack and defense, such as elite panzer and Siberian formations, tanks attacking infantry, lack of supply, and the effects of woods, cities and fortifications. But players have no control over these modifiers, other than trying hard to put the right kind of troops in the right battle at the right time.

These are solid features, but perhaps not brilliant. The brilliant part is how Shenandoah incorporates the key and unique aspects of the Battle of Moscow with a minimum of fuss. For example, the vital aspect of time is elegantly simulated. Each turn represents three to five days of real time. When a player activates a space, a random number of hours are consumed. When the time reaches three to five days, the turn ends and a new one begins, regardless of whether a player has had a chance to move all his units. Thus players rarely have the luxury of enough time to move all their troops.

Both sides also receive a certain number of Prepared Offensives, which reflect the tactical surprise and logistical preparations that make the initial phases of a well-planned offensive so devastating. The game mechanism is simple, essentially one to three free attacks per turn for up to three turns. Then the bonus stops, simulating how an offensive runs out of steam.

Then, there are the weather and supply features. The powerful German forces were hobbled by supply shortages, which the game simulates by randomly immobilizing a few panzer and motorized divisions to reflect lack of fuel. Rainy weather paralyzes movement during mud turns. When mud hardens to frost, the German offensive revives, only to be brought to a halt by blizzards at the end of the game.

It would be too generous to say that Drive on Moscow is a deep simulation. There are too many omissions and simplifications in command and control, logistics and airpower. The AI is lackluster at best (the game is much more interesting as an online human vs. human contest over Apple's Game Center). But it is accurate to say that Drive on Moscow is a remarkably deep and polished product for a tablet and smartphone game. What it lacks in complexity, it more than makes up in convenience.

Which is why the military should pay attention to this game. Not because the staff colleges need a simulation of the Moscow campaign. But rather because Drive on Moscow shows that it is possible to play a decent simulation on a mobile device. A highly detailed staff training simulation might be too much, but there are numerous opportunities - from COIN exercises to virtual staff rides of historical battlefields - where a game based on Drive on Moscow would shine. Let's hope that shrewd minds take advantage of this.