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Theatre Europe (Commodore 64) artwork

Theatre Europe (Commodore 64) review

"Theatre Europe is a wargame simulating a not-so-peaceful end to the Cold War, namely a Soviet invasion of West Germany and beyond. Taking turns, the NATO and Warsaw Pact players move their armies across a map, attacking each other, with the Warsaw Pact's ultimate goal being the capture of Bonn and several other NATO cities whereas NATO must keep the Red Army at bay for a month. The game plays out as turn-based strategy and is regretfully for one player only, which means the other side will be co..."

Theatre Europe is a wargame simulating a not-so-peaceful end to the Cold War, namely a Soviet invasion of West Germany and beyond. Taking turns, the NATO and Warsaw Pact players move their armies across a map, attacking each other, with the Warsaw Pact's ultimate goal being the capture of Bonn and several other NATO cities whereas NATO must keep the Red Army at bay for a month. The game plays out as turn-based strategy and is regretfully for one player only, which means the other side will be controlled by the AI.

The basic concept of Theatre Europe is simple. The playing field is a map of Europe divided in squares, with several cities, two types of land (open and mountainous), water, and of course the armies of the two sides in this Third World War. NATO's humble forces are represented by blue circles, whereas Warsaw Pact's numerically far superior forces are an ominous red. In several neutral countries, yellow circles represent neutral armies which do not move, but will defend their countries if either side decides to do a little neutrality violation. Overall the game is far from visually stunning, but the map is clear and effective, and gets the job done.

A turn of Theatre Europe consists of four phases. First, you are allowed to move your armies, one square at a time, and only once every two turns if in mountainous terrain. In the second phase, armies which are in contact with neutral or enemy forces may then attack, possibly driving back or destroying enemy armies. In the third phase, various reinforcements may be used to strengthen battle worn armies and finally, in the air phase you distribute your air force to conduct several kinds of missions which may significantly impact the ground war. At this point you may also launch chemical and/or nuclear attacks against enemy cities of armies, though this usually results in retaliation and may eventually spark a global thermonuclear war in which the game ends and everybody loses.

Armies in Theatre Europe are defined by three statistics: army strength, air strength and supplies. Army strength impacts how strong armies are when fighting against the enemy. Significant numerical superiority in this statistic is needed by the attacker (the defender gets the advantage), which is why the Warsaw Pact will need to use its superior forces effectively to punch a hole through NATO defenses. (NATO can pretty much forget about launching offensives of their own, and if they do manage to cross the Iron Curtain, a nuclear response from the Soviets will follow automatically). Air strength determines how well the army can defend itself against air attacks - neglect this and the other side will decimate your forces from the air without ever having to engage in ground combat. Supplies, finally, get used up as your army attacks and defends, and an army that runs out of supplies fights very poorly. Typically at the beginning of the game all armies still have good statistics, though some are more powerful than others. The feared Soviet ''3rd Shock Army'', for instance, is a massive unit, as are the US army units stationed in West Germany. On the other hand, the armies of the Netherlands and Belgium are relatively weak, capable of defending their territory for some time but certainly no match for the big Red steamroller.
Over the course of the game, both sides will suffer losses. Armies become weaker and eventually disappear from the map when they are routed entirely, air power diminishes as dogfights take their toll, and most importantly, Soviet morale dwindles if no quick results are achieved. The Warsaw Pact player must capture his objective cities before a month (16 turns) is over, or the entire Pact will collapse into quarreling nations and NATO wins the war.

Theatre Europe can be played on 3 difficulty levels, which has no effect on the actual quality of the AI, but only adds extra options to the game which make it more complicated rather than more difficult. On any level, Warsaw Pact has a significant advantage and the only real challenge is defeating the computer when playing as NATO.

While fun the first few times, Theatre Europe loses its replayability rather quickly when the game has been finished on all three levels. The main reason for this is that there aren't many different approaches that work. When playing as Warsaw Pact, the only truly effective way to play is to punch through the northern part of the NATO army, since all the powerful US units are in the south, and as NATO it pays to mass troops around Bonn and focus on building a few powerful armies rather than a bunch of average ones, and thereby create a rugged defense that the Red Army cannot penetrate in time. The game offers a few special units to add variation, such as an amphibious army that moves through water and a special airborne unit that can travel an enormous distance once, but neither can be used very effectively. The first usually ends up taking Copenhagen (which can be done with normal ground units just as easily) and the airborne army is suitable only for taking Bonn and holding it for exactly one day before being kicked out again. By the time the Warsaw player can rout the armies around Bonn to prevent this, he has pretty much won the game anyway.

Furthermore the AI in Theatre Europe is predictable and weak. As NATO, the computer does basically nothing except stand in place and add reinforcements to its armies, counterattacking only when the game is almost lost. As Warsaw Pact, the computer advances west, but not as quickly as they could, and spend far too much time destroying individual armies rather than taking cities. This is the only reason why they can be beaten at all, because if they would advance, they'd certainly win easily within the allotted time. If the game would have had a 2 player mode, the Warsaw player would win every game for sure.

In the visual and audio departments, Theatre Europe has taken a minimalist approach. The map and the armies on it are composed entirely of the Commodore equivalent of ASCII art without using any actual sprites. Sound effects are limited and unimpressive, and there is no music during the game (although before and after, a credible midi version of John Lennon's ''Give peace a chance'' can be heard). Perhaps the graphically most impressive moment in the game occurs when you foolishly decide to start a nuclear war. This will treat you to a picture of a city, the blare of sirens, a big explosion as the nukes impact, and then another picture of the same city, now ruined and adorned by a massive mushroom cloud. It's an image you will not soon forget, though to see it you'll need to start down the nuclear path that will certainly cause you to lose the game. And probably rightly so.

All in all Theatre Europe is hardly an exciting game. Those who are not interested in wargames shouldn't apply, as for them the game will be one big yawn for sure. For the rest, it is worth a play, but you are unlikely to spend more than a few hours on it before you've seen pretty much all there is to see. Fun while it lasts, but unfortunately it doesn't last long.

Rating: 6/10

sashanan's avatar
Community review by sashanan (June 19, 2009)

Sashanan doesn't drink coffee; he takes tea, my dear. And sometimes writes reviews. His roots lie with the Commodore 64 he grew up with, and his gaming remains fragmented among the very old, the somewhat old, and rarely the new.

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