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Game #78 : Operation Whirlwind (1983)

[Atari 8-bits, Brøderbund]

Who are we fighting ?

I don’t know either. They can’t shoot us if we don’t move so possibly dinosaurs !

A story as old as mobile warfare itself. An armoured division. A city. A schedule. Roger Damon’s Operation Whirlwind does not cover any specific historical operation nor does it specify who the opponents are ; maybe the French in 1940, maybe the Soviets in 1943, or maybe even the Germans in 1944-1945. But my objective is clear : secure the city at the bottom right from any enemy presence in less than 35 turns.

The battlefield spans 2.5 screens vertically and 4 screens horizontally

On paper, this should be easy. My force is overwhelming both in number and in quality. I have in total :

  • 2 Recon units
  • 12 Infantry companies
  • 2 Engineer companies
  • 8 Light Tank platoons
  • 4 Heavy Tank platoons
  • 2 Artillery batteries
  • and finally one battalion H.Q.

That’s 31 units in total, I am not sure OpFor has significantly more than that in the field. As for the quality of the enemy force, all they have is infantry and “tank or assault gun platoons“. Even then, the latter have a shorter range than my own tanks.

My line-up. The Batallion HQ has the same stats as a Light Tank platoon, so maybe I am Rommel ? Its only special trait is that it gives you a lot of extra points if it ends the game in the enemy city, and loses you a lot of points if it is destroyed.

There are three issues that complicate my task:

  • The enemy will receive massive reinforcements at some point turn 10 or shortly thereafter. Those reinforcements will beeline for the city, making it an unassailable fortress if I don’t block them,
  • Uniquely in Operation Whirlwind, enemy units have a chance to shoot at my troops every time one of my units moves while within their range, so if I ignore a well-positioned enemy tank it can shoot several times on every single one of my units. This could be manageable, if not for the last item :
  • In Operation Whirlwind, the attack phase is after I have moved all my units, so every time I want to destroy well-positioned enemy tanks covering the road, I need to stop all my units !

It happens in the first turn already : the first villages are garrisoned and I must stop my Northern and Southern columns to destroy the interlopers.

Northern village : hidden tanks at the crossroad, which luckily only damaged one infantry company at the top.
Southern village : some infantry one tile South and West of the crossroad. As their range is very short (2 tiles) I could get much closer and even bypass them with recon units.

After removing these initial obstacles, I need to take a first strategic decision : whether to regroup my two columns using the North-South road. The manual tells you that “there is no reason to bring those two forces together early in the game as they are capable of dealing with any resistance they will encounter on their trek“. Well, I don’t see any reason not to do it either : they are no supply routes to worry about, and more guns on fewer targets is always the superior choice. It also has a decisive advantage for me : fewer screenshots to take !

So my Northern column heads South while my Southern column continues East. The Southern recon unit does its job, and detects a bunch of enemy units – and by “detects” I mean “is shot by”. The manual states that recon units are a bit protected by their high speed, and indeed my unit completes its mission without receiving too much damage.

Turn 2. The bars below the friendly unit icons show how much health they have left

I manage to remove those defenses in turn 3, and my engineers repair the bridge across the river. Meanwhile, my damaged units are “dug-in” which allows me to both protect and repair them.

The crossing of the bridge is frustrated by an unlikely mine encounter. In Operation Whirlwind, your units can hit mines whenever they move, even if they move on a tile that has been crossed by a dozen of units before. Mines don’t damage units, but they stop them for the turn. As it happens, the enemy has managed somehow to sneak mines just in front (West) of the bridge after my 8th tank had passed through. Of course, the 9th tank being stopped also stops everything behind it, including all my artillery and all my infantry. Bummer.

After that, it is smooth sailing until I approach the second river, where a particularly well-positioned tank / assault gun covers the approach :

It takes two turns, but it is destroyed. Unfortunately, it is the first of many units defending the final approach :

Destroying an enemy tank. Note the artillery shells randomly falling here and there during the combat phase. They don’t do much damage but they force you to play quickly.

It is turn 10, and I reached the outskirts of the city in time. The enemy reinforcements could arrive at any moment now, but I will be between them and the city.

I also receive my first losses : one of my engineer units managed to rebuild the Southern bridge before being destroyed. My engineers are soon avenged by 5 tank platoons that start pouring through the bridge.

Several other units have received significant damage, and I dig them in to repair them (they are oscillating in green during the command phase below) :

Advancing 2 heavy tank platoons closer to their target and moving some stragglers at the beginning of my movement phase

The enemy reinforcements spawn turn 12, and immediately destroy one of my infantry units straggling behind. The reinforcements are very numerous, but I am confident I can stop them as I could form a defensive line with most of my infantry :

The enemy movements are quite erratic, and units block one another, so I have two more turns to move my defensive line to the East so it receives the forest defensive bonus. At this point, I have also destroyed all the enemy armours in the city.

The only enemies left in the city are infantry with a range of only two. It is now trivial to advance methodically at range 3 and blast them one after the other. I just need my line of defence to buy me the time :

Turn 16

And it works ! The enemy is blocked by my well-entrenched infantry. They shoot at my troops and even assault, to no avail. During my turn, my infantry can use its range 2 attacks to destroy most of the unfortunate enemies that moved to contact, while the heavier guns in the rear aim at the enemy tanks.

Still, I kill enemies more slowly than they appear. At the beginning of turn 17, the situation looks rather worse :

And at the end of turn 17, they break through, destroying 4 of my infantry units :

Not too little, but too late ! I cleaned up the city fully, and the game is won !

The end. Full disclosure : My initial victory was “questionable” because I forgot I had to move the company HQ and as many other units as possible inside the city for added victory points, so I reloaded and redid my last turn.

“Marginal” victory even though I took the objective in half the time that had been allotted to me ? Irritating. I guess HQ totally expected me to let one enemy infantry survive in the city so I can rack-up more points fighting off the reinforcements.

Rating & Review

Operation Whirlwind by Roger Damon, published by Brøderbund Software, USA
First release : July 1983 on Atari
Tested on :
Altirra (Atari emulator)
Total time tested :
5 hours
Average duration of a battle :
3 hours
Complexity:
Easy (1/5)
Would recommend to a modern player :
No
Would recommend to a designer :
No
Final Rating : Well-designed but obsolete
Ranking at the time of review :
11/72

A lot had happened for Brøderbund Software in the two years separating the Galactic Saga from 1983. Brøderbund’s co-founder Doug Carlston had coded a few more titles in 1982, most notably the shoot ’em up editor The Arcade Machine, but he had also realized there were fewer headaches and more money in publishing software coded by others, whether game or utility programs. Some of those games, like Lode Runner in June 1983, are still famous to this day, but a comparable chunk of Brøderbund’s revenue in 1983 already was coming from word processors (Bank Street Writer) or accounting software (Payroll, General Ledger, Accounts Receivable). Utility programs also offered a steadier revenue over time whereas games mostly sold for one year. No one demands the latest graphics for their spreadsheets.

Unfortunately, very little is known about Roger Damon’s background. Doug Carlston told me in email correspondence that he does not remember meeting him, nor does he remember any of the circumstances in which the game arrived in his catalogue. What’s puzzling is that Brøderbund was an unlikely publisher for a game like Operation Whirlwind. First, Brøderbund’s platform of choice was the Apple II and later DOS, and Operation Whirlwind was only ever released on Atari and Commodore 64. Just as importantly, Brøderbund had never published a wargame : SSI and Avalon Hill cornered the market, and the genre did not go well with the rest of Brøderbund’s catalogue. Henceforth, as Doug Carlston told me in an email : “We didn’t particularly look for them. However, if we did publish them, we did so because we felt they were very good“.

So how good is Operation Whirlwind ? Spoiler : Quite good indeed.

A. Immersion

Poor. Operation Whirlwind occurs during WW2, and that’s all we have for context – possibly because Brøderbund was not too keen on selling its business software in the same catalogue as a game where you play the nazis. The art on the game box and on the splash depicts German units, but they could very well be the hostiles trying to mount a final defence in the last phase of the war.

The game uses icons which did not age too poorly. Not a lot of chrome, but better than most of the games I have played so far.

B. Systems

Quite good. Operation Whirlwind has a simple but effective gameplay organized along 5 phases :

  • In the Command Phase, the player chooses which of their units will be active and which ones will be dug-in. The latter will not be able to move, but will still be able to shoot, in addition to being better protected and to being able to repair,
  • In the Movement Phase, the player will be able to move all their active units. Movement depends on the unit type, its health and the terrain. Units cannot stack, and movement can be slowed down or even stopped fully by mines or enemy attacks. Moving while in range of an enemy unit can trigger attacks which will eventually destroy the unit,
What would happen if I did not stop upon encountering enemy defences
  • During the combat phase, you can shoot at whatever is in range, or even at the ground. Your units can shoot twice if they have not moved or barely moved, once if they moved a lot and not at all if they exhausted their movement. While you are picking your target, artillery rounds fall around your troops, sometimes hitting them. The damage is marginal but still, you should do the thinking in the previous phase
  • During the assault preparation phase, the player can prepare assaults (infantry) or overrun attacks (armors) against enemy units in contact. In general, I don’t find this very useful. When I am on the attack, my units are going to be badly mauled long before they reach melee range. If I am in defence, then it is better to remain dug-in and use safe ranged attacks. It is also during this phase that you can order engineers to repair a bridge,
  • Finally, the assault phase solves the assault prepared in the previous phase. It is also during this phase that the enemy AI moves its units, and uses them to attack. You cannot shoot at the enemy as it moves, but the enemy can only attack once with each of them.

That’s all ! No smoke. No supply. No ammo. No air support. All very standard, all very beer & pretzels, but it works ! What’s unique to Operation Whirlwind though is its asymmetry: both sides play by different rules. Even not taking into account the better units available to them, the player has a lot more firepower as each of their units can shoot up to twice a turn. On the other hand, they have no “defensive fire” when the AI is moving. It works within the parameters of the scenario.

C. UI, Clarity of rules and outcomes

Average. The game mixes the best and the mediocre. On the “best” side, the game plays naturally, with drag and drop for movement and by moving a target around for attacks. On the “mediocre” side, the game hides some key information like the number of movement points available for your units (which is both important and not easy to guess given it depends on the damage received) or the results of your attacks. Some roads are neither horizontal nor vertical and so you don’t know whether you are moving on them or moving next to them.

The game also has a weird way to handle line-of-sight : you can shoot through obstacles, but you must move the pointer around the obstacles. This is best described by the animation below where I tried to hit an infantry unit with my tank:

Note that during all that time artillery shells are falling on my troops

D. Scenario design and balancing

Very poor. There is only one scenario, with four levels of difficulties. The first two levels of difficulty are tutorial, the third one is the standard and the last one is for veterans of the game. The AAR represents my second attempt at the third level of difficulty ; in my first attempt I was surprised by the vigour of the counter-attack.

Replayability is low, the first part of the scenario (the stroll to the city) is already boring the second time you play it : enemy resistance is nominal and the player’s plan is more likely to be jeopardized by mines appearing out of thin air near the bridge than by any enemy unit. The second part of the scenario is more interesting, as the player must balance their force between attack of the city and defense against the enemy reinforcements. Unfortunately, it is quickly marred by the terrible AI, and the fact that the weakness of the AI was compensated by spawning a seemingly endless horde of enemies. As you cannot move your own troops when there are five enemy tanks ready to use their defensive fire, the endgame feels more like a tower defense than a tactical game. Still, I would have loved more scenarios with this ruleset.

E. Did I make interesting decisions ?

Yes, every turn between advancing to shoot an enemy at close range and staying far away, and more strategically at the end of the game on how to split between attack and defence and on how to organize said defence.

F. Final rating

Well-designed, but obsolete. Operation Whirlwind was certainly less innovative than Combat Leader and less simulationist than Tactical Armor Command, but its slick UI and fussless design allows it to stand better than most athe test of time. With (much) better AI and more scenarios, it could have been a game I would have recommended today !

Contemporary Reviews

Being published by Brøderbund, Operation Whirlwind garnered attention. A LOT of attention – I don’t think I have encountered any non-Chris Crawford game that generated that many reviews. The reviews came from well beyond the usual magazines we have seen on this blog.

It would be tedious to quote all the reviews. Generally speaking, the more generalist the magazine, the more positive the review. I will exclude from this pattern Commodore Computing International but only because the reviewer outsourced his job : “I always measure the appeal of any programs I am asked to look at by letting my 12-year-old son loose on them.”

Without surprise, Mark J. Bausman for Computer Gaming World is pretty mellow in December 1983 (“Although not as complex as some computer wargames, this game provides the elements of a good tactical duel”). Another good-but-not-outstanding review probably not delegated to a 12-year-old comes from Dave Dempster, writing for TPUG in November 1985. Dempster reckons that Operation Whirlwind is “a sophisticated, professional piece of software that will provide many hours of enjoyment and challenge” but he also explains how he was frustrated by the mines appearing between two units and the weird line-of-sight rules.

Pretty much everyone else is at least “very positive”, for instance Softside (January 1984), Micro Adventurer (February 1984), Compute! (June 1984 : “Operation Whirlwind, however, is simple to play, yet authentic and challenging.”) or Analog Computing (March 1984 : “If you thrive on the science of war, Roger Damon’s Operation Whirlwind is definitely your cup of tea. This fine simulation proves that computer games don’t have to be part of the crowd to succeed”). Even Penthouse, yes, that Penthouse, reviewed the game in December 1983 (“The talented Broderbund designers have done a brilliant job in creating computerized armchair warfare, | seriously doubt that many of the Pentagon’s war games are much more complex or realistic“). Great reviews carry on until at least October 1985 with Commodore Powerplay.

The game was liked everywhere, but it was loved by two magazines that had an history of ignoring wargames :

  • Computer and Videogames Magazine, which put Operation Whirlwind in April 1984 among the trio of best wargames ever with Eastern Front 1941 and Legionnaire, and out of the 3 Operation Whirlwind is the most “elaborate”
  • Electronic Fun which, after a rave review in February 1984 that mirrors my own (“[Operation Whirlwind], like the conflict it models, isn’t unique or wildly original. But as a synthesis of the best of what wargames have to offer, it has no peer.”), puts it one month later in position #26 in its list of the #50 best video games. There are no other real wargames in the list, and only one wargame-adjacent game : Archon on the first spot.

Considering the volume and the nature of the reviews, one would expect the game to sell a lot ? Well, not at all ! Operation Whirlwind sold terribly. Carlston believes it may be because Brøderbund had little experience and marketing presence on the Atari and Commodore channels. I venture to say it may also be because the Apple II had become the computer of the wargamers, wargamers who were also more likely to browse the catalogues of SSI or Avalon Hill to pick their next games rather than the one of Brøderbund. In any case, the failure of Operation Whirlwind pushed Roger Damon into the arms of SSI for his next game : Field of Fire. Having checked a few screenshots, I am definitely looking forward to testing it.

4 Comments

  1. Gubisson Gubisson

    “Even Penthouse, yes, that Penthouse, reviewed the game in December 1983”
    Wow. Way to bury the lede there!

  2. Interesting, this one turned out much better than I would have expected. I wonder how hard it would be to hack the game to modify the map. Probably too hard to be reasonably accomplished of course, but as a programming exercise it might be interesting.

    • Indeed, I think it is one of the easiest wargames from the 80s I have encountered so far. I mean, among those wargames that are interesting, so I exclude games like Midway Campaign and other Squadron Leader games.

    • Porkbelly Porkbelly

      Nice review! This one passed me by, but I have fond memories of Damon’s Field of Fire.
      I’ll note that hacking the map seems possible. A quick peek with a hex editor I spy a large block of likely data which matches the dimensions. It looks like a straightforward left to right, top to bottom representation of the map, 1 byte per tile. Of course, there’s more work to changing the scenario than just the map, but it could be an interesting game to try and take apart.

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