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Decisive Action began life as a training tool for the US Army's Command and General Staff College, where officers learn to be colonels and generals. Now, with some interface and graphics upgrades, Jim Lunsford and HPS have unleashed it upon an unsuspecting public. Decisive Action is superb at what it tries to do, but it's not a title for the casual gamer. The learning curve is more like a learning cliff, but the payoff is well worth the effort if you are interested in the topic.

What exactly does Decisive Action try to do? It presents modern warfare from the perspective of a division or corps commander in scenarios lasting up to 40 hours (20 game-turns). It focuses on planning and decision-making: on the business of orchestrating the actions of your battalions and brigades into a coherent and devastating symphony. Decisive Action is not about micromanagement or fast clicking. It is about planning ahead and making the best use of limited assets. Many aspects of the simulation are abstract, but this serves to highlight the focus on planning.

Decisive Action ships with nine scenarios, set in Kansas, Germany, NTC, and Kuwait, all of which can be played as Red or Blue in either solitaire (against the AI), hotseat, or PBEM. The AI puts up a reasonable fight in the offense, and will crush a poorly conceived battle plan. PBEM runs fairly smoothly once you realize that the Blue player has to start the game, though note there is no password protection on the files, so unscrupulous players could get an advantage by peeking at their opponent's deployment. In addition, it contains a fully featured map and scenario editor. Two new maps have already appeared and word on the web-board is that fans are busily concocting more maps and scenarios, so the number of available scenarios ought to grow. Moreover, HPS and Jim Lunsford have been quick to respond with assistance when trouble arises, and open to suggestions (witness the inclusion of hotkeys in the 1.01 patch, which was requested by numerous users), which suggests that Decisive Action will get excellent developer and publisher support.

Decisive Action has two learning curves: the interface, and the game itself. While daunting at first, the interface can soon be learned, and the 1.01 patch adds hotkeys to streamline the most-used functions in addition to swatting a few bugs. Furthermore, each interface function is carefully explained in the 47-page manual (included on the CD in MS Word format).

The much tougher learning curve is learning to play effectively. In some respects, this is a good thing! DA has deep gameplay that will tax your strategic ability for a long time. Unfortunately, DA sorely lacks introductory materials or scenarios that can get a new player up to speed on the most basic aspects of coordinating the forces provided. That's the worst part of the learning curve: you've figured out what all the buttons do, but have no idea what to do next. HPS included four military manuals to help with this, but for an easier read, try Vincent Taijeron's Primer and a trip through the DA web-board for hints.

Eventually -- sooner if you are already familiar with military operations, later if you are not -- you'll have grasped the basics of how DA fits together. At that point the real fun starts, because you're still facing tough decisions about how to employ your forces every turn in order to accomplish your mission. DA shines once you get to this level of competence with the game. If it were easier to arrive at this point, DA would be much more accessible to a much wider audience.

A division on the attack at the National Training Center. The red and yellow boxes indicate how restricted the terrain is, red being worst. (325K)

How does the planning become complex? Start with the intelligence picture. You'll know about the enemy units you are in contact with. You might have a UAV or two to fly around and spot enemy units as well. Much of your intelligence, however, comes from "Named Areas of Interest", or NAIs. In real life, commanders and their intelligence staffs designate these to focus their intelligence-gathering efforts, and it works the same way in Decisive Action. An enemy unit whose footprint crosses into an NAI is spotted. Unfortunately, you don't have many NAIs and they don't cover a large area. Therefore, you have to think carefully about where to put them, analyzing the terrain, your objectives and planning, and likely enemy actions to figure out how to get the best use of the NAIs (in military jargon, "Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield" - and the US Army manual on the topic on the DA CD).

As a further complication, the NAI you put on the map this turn doesn't become active until next turn, forcing you to plan ahead. Similarly, you have TAIs (Targeting Areas of Interest), which direct your intelligence assets to provide target data. Artillery and air strikes directed against targets in a TAI are doubled in effectiveness, but, as with an NAI, the TAI requires a turn to become active, it doesn't cover much area, and you haven't got many of them. Get your intelligence lined up, and acting in concert with your artillery and airpower, and the enemy is going to have a bad day.

An ATACMS rocket battalion in Kansas. The black circle is the footprint, and the red circles are minimum and maximum range. (287K)

The enemy, of course, has no intention of letting you do this easily. Units may not drive where you expect. Artillery can be set to "counterfire", so that it pounds on enemy artillery batteries in range. Air defence units will try to knock down your airstrikes and helicopters, which you can counter to some degree by setting some of your artillery to SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences). However, you will probably only have a couple of units of artillery. If you set them all to counterfire and SEAD, none of them will be engaging the enemy's main force. If an enemy offensive cracks a hole in your front line, the tank and mechanized units will rampage through your rear, eating artillery, grounded helicopter, and logistics units for breakfast. To get effective air support, you need to knock down the air defences with SEAD or directed artillery strikes. To keep enemy artillery at bay, you need counterfire. To suppress and attrit enemy front-line formations, to help your own front-line units survive, you need direct support or interdiction fires. There isn't enough to go around, so you have to make difficult decisions on your priorities.

Interdiction working to destroy enemy air defenses. UAVs and NAIs have spotted the enemy, and you can see a TAI peeking out from under the unit getting shelled. (358K)

Things aren't simpler for the ground units. Every unit in the game has a "footprint" the area that the unit takes up. When enemy units' footprints overlap, they are in direct contact and exchange direct fires. The footprint varies by the unit's size (battalion or brigade?), the scale of losses it has suffered, or its mission. Units assigned to an attack take up the smallest space, while units on a security mission are spread out over a wide area, with consequent reductions in their combat power and ability to hold ground. You can pack as many units as you like into one spot, but an interdiction barrage will affect every unit that has a footprint in the targeted spot. As a result, packing lots of units into one area can be very painful. Moreover, packing units together causes traffic jams, slowing their rate of movement. On the other hand, single units may not suffice to overwhelm an enemy defence in the time available. Unit strength is a function both of its "Relative Combat Power" (RCP), which is an abstraction of its nominal capability, its percentage of losses, and its unit type. Unit type means that an artillery unit with an RCP of 45 will be powerful in indirect fire, but will probably get hammered in a direct-fire engagement by a small front-line recon unit with an RCP of 5. Since DA executes both players' moves simultaneously, you'll also need to think ahead about your movements, trying to anticipate where the enemy is going to be. As everywhere else, a coherent plan based on good intelligence and a good anticipation of the future shape of the battle is key.

Planning a corps offensive in Germany. Pre-game intelligence is limited and of poor quality. (389K)

DA also keeps track of fatigue, morale, and supply state. Fatigue and morale may recover a bit if the unit is out of combat and able to communicate with its headquarters. Destroy the headquarters, and morale recovery slows to a crawl or even drops. Supply comes to the unit on truck convoys that are vital and easily destroyed. The truck convoys route through rear area service units, which are also vulnerable to attack. Destroy the enemy's logistics, and the enemy force will be in real trouble. Normally, resupply is handed by the computer, but you can choose to step in and direct the convoys yourself if need be. Unfortunately, occasionally it is necessary: the supply convoys aren't very clever at finding a path around enemy units or rivers. In addition, proactive resupply on your part can increase the effectiveness of some units, such as attack helicopters.

Defending Kuwait in the Second Gulf War, and the Iraqis are taking losses. (178K)

All of these aspects come together to make a remarkably complete whole. No one aspect of the game is terribly detailed, but Jim Lunsford put a lot of thought into ensuring that they would interact in complex and realistic ways. DA isn't really like anything else on the market. While closest to TOAW2 in the scale of actions it covers, it is closest to TacOps in feel: a thin sauce of graphics and sound covering a rich, chewy, complex, and satisfying dish of gameplay and simulation. Yes, there are annoyances, such as the difficulty of selecting units that are stacked up, and the occasional failures of the logistics AI to navigate around rivers and enemy units. Yes, it's a hard game to learn. The payoff, though, is that Decisive Action has a lot to teach about modern warfare, and in the process, has an enormous depth of gameplay to offer you. Training tool or game? It's both, and if you have an interest in modern warfare, you'll love it. For realistic division/corps level modern wargames, Decisive Action is the state of the art.