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A Wargaming Titan of the 90s Is Finally Making Its Return

'The Operational Art of War' isn't just one game, but a construction kit for many great ones.

The Operational Art of War is not a promising name for a game, I'll grant you. It's one of those titles that seems more fitting a reference book, something you'd stick on the shelf next to The Chicago Manual of Style so that people think you're the kind of person who regularly uses it.

"Wow, you must be a real wargamer if you need this baby by your side!"

But for those of us who have gotten past its "reference section" title and hieroglyphic unit counters, news that The Operational Art of War IV is entering beta testing is like hearing there's a new Elder Scrolls or that Silent Hunter is coming back.

The Operational Art of War is part construction kit, part wargame. It takes an almost impossible task—creating a combat system that can cover any conventional conflict from the 1800s through to the near future, at almost any scale—and carries it off shockingly well. Not perfectly, of course. The modularity of the system means that it can't exactly capture the specific nuances of, say, the Iran-Iraq War versus the Allied campaign in the Solomons during World War II. But what the game can do is offer a really good scenario about any conflict you can imagine. And if one doesn't exist, well, you can always build one yourself.

The Operational Art of War III was the scene of some of the most nail-biting battles I've ever played. I came achingly close to capturing Paris with the German army in 1914, with three exhausted armies churning through the fields of and farms of northeastern France like a dissipating hurricane. I spent almost a month playing a massive rendition of the Italian campaign in World War II, with sending in one doomed amphibious landing force after another, only to watch them shatter against the mountainous strongholds of the Axis. I lay awake nights thinking about how my troops could break-out of the slaughter-pens they in which they were trapped.

Or there was my defense of Taiwan against a midnight surprise attack on Chinese New Year in the near future, as elite Chinese amphibious units swarmed into downtown Taipei and the only forces ready to oppose them were street cops pressed into front-line service. I'll never forget the cat-and-mouse games they were playing in the streets in the early hours of the invasion, as Taiwan's real military personnel were racing to their garrisons to report for duty and Chinese gunships effectively shut down the roads into the city.

Screenshots courtesy Matrix Games

These were my experiences, but it always frustrated me that they were locked behind such a hostile-looking interface. Good luck trying to convince your pals that The Operational Art of War is just the ticket after they got into Homeworld or XCOM. Maybe that's about the change, though.

The Operational Art of War was never a very modern-looking game—hexes are cool again but hexes and NATO-symbol unit counters are the doilies of video game aesthetics—but it's exciting to see what looks like a substantially cleaned-up presentation in this upcoming iteration. In addition to sharper resolutions, the new version at least looks like it's familiar with interface design post-Windows 3.1. There are also some concessions in unit status cards to players who don't feel like digging into an armored divisions' Table of Organization and Equipment in order to figure out the answer to questions like, "Is this unit any good and is it healthy?" Since obscuring basic info like this is a big reason why so many people get turned off wargames, it's exciting to see The Operational Art of War IV at least gesturing in the direction of accessibility. Especially because it was never as complicated as a game as it looked, a crusty old campaigner with a heart of gold.