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Video Game / Steel Panthers

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Steel Panthers is a series of Turn-Based Tactics games designed by Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors and developed by Strategic Simulations, Inc., the same people responsible for Panzer General. The first game focused exclusively on World War II (hence the name of the game), but the later games expanded its focus all the way to the Modern Era and beyond.

The games take place on the tactical level on a classic hex-based grid, with players directing individual vehicles and squads. Unit choices are broken down into four broad types (Infantry, Armor, Artillery, and Miscellaneous), with a wide range of diversity within these categories (for instance, Armor includes tanks, armored cars, and mechanized cavalry scouts; Infantry includes riflemen, engineers, snipers, etc.). In battle, in addition to killing the enemy, all weapons can also Suppress enemy units, which reduces accuracy and at high enough levels can pin units in place or even cause them to break and run. The principles of combined arms (using a properly balanced force) and overwatch (one unit moves while another covers them) are very important to remember, as is paying attention to terrain; those who don't tend to watch in horror as the enemy demolishes their forces in detail.

To date, four "official" games have been made:

  • Steel Panthers (1995)
  • Steel Panthers II: Modern Battles (1996)
  • Steel Panthers III Brigade Command: 1939-1999 (1997): Increased the scope and scale of battles, with individual units representing platoons / squadrons rather than squads / individual vehicles.
  • Steel Panthers: World At War! (2000): A further refinement of the III code made by Matrix Games after they acquired the rights and the source code. It once again limits combat to the World War II era. Available as freeware from the game's official site.

Additionally, The Camo Workshop has released two Fan Remakes of Steel Panthers II for Windows:

  • WinSPWW2: Covers the era of 1931-1946, allowing for some hypothetical battles (Allies vs. Soviets in Germany, U.S. invasion of the Japanese Home Islands).
  • WinSPMBT: Covers 1946-2025, with the option to use some currently in-development technologies 20 Minutes into the Future.

Both games are also freeware, available from Shrapnel Games' publishing site, though commercial versions with additional features are also available. Both games receive yearly updates, which add new features and update the forces available to each country.

All games come with premade scenarios and campaigns, both historical and hypothetical, allowing players to test their skills by trying to do better than what really happened. There are also both battle and campaign generators, which allow for more balanced battles (points-wise, at least) and map and scenario editors so that players can design and distribute their own content.

The series as a whole continues to enjoy an active multiplayer community, with its central hub being TheBlitz. They're also popular subjects of After Action Reports.

See also Harpoon, a similarly long running game that covers Cold War era warfare but which focuses on Naval and Aerial combat.

Some of the more prominent conflicts featured in scenarios include:

Steel Panthers contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Acceptable Breaks from Reality: Some countries have access to vehicles and weapons that were only prototypes in real life (like the Maus and the Black Prince), which are included for "what-if" scenarios, or are allowed to use vehicles and weapons long after they stopped using them for the sake of balance and/or varietynote .
  • All There in the Manual: Most manuals for these games include some details about what goes on "under the hood," mainly so that players can tweak the preferences to suit their idea of how the game should play.
  • America Won World War II: Averted. While the majority of scenarios and campaigns do feature the "major players" of most conflicts, there are some for the other contributing combatants of World War II (China, Poland, Australia, etc.), and even the ones featuring the major combatants often focus on other countries. As well, a fair number of scenarios in MBT focus on small African and Asian "brush wars" (Chinese invasion of Vietnam, Rhodesian Civil War, etc.), various other wars not featuring the US (the Arab-Israeli Conflicts, the Iran-Iraq War) and American allies in wars they did participate in (the South Vietnamese and Australians in the Vietnam War, the South Koreans as well as the other UN taskforce members in the Korean War, other NATO powers in the Gulf War and Afghanistan), and fictional conflicts focusing on other countries (often WW3 featuring other NATO members fighting Warsaw Pact countries. West Germany versus East Germany is fairly popular).
  • Anti-Frustration Features:
    • If a transport plane gets shot down before it has dropped all of its passengers, it will rapidly eject them before it crashes, so you won't lose entire platoons to a few lucky hits. Similarly, while helicopters will retreat if they take any damage, they will wait until the end of your next turn, giving you a chance to unload any damaged transport helicopters so you don't lose those units when their transport retreats off map.
    • A recent update to WinSPWW2 and WinSPMBT made it so that engineers and other units that can clear obstacles won't clear obstacles if they belong to their own side, unless they are moved onto the hex that contains them. Previously, a major issue with having any engineers (which includes a number of special forces units) as a defender was that you couldn't have barbed wire, mines or dragon's teeth in front of them, as they would clear them, opening a hole in your defensive line.
    • To allow the USMC to cover some weaknesses in their roster by using US Army units without having to deal with the penalties that come with taking allied units or captured units (something that would be unfair, since no other country with marines has their marines as a seperate faction), a number of US Army units are included in the USMC roster, primarily some heavy artillery and anti-air systems only operated by the Army, and, post-2021, main battle tanks, all which have descriptions stating they represent US Army units attached to the USMC.
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: Only 200 units are allowed as your "core" units during a campaign, i.e. they last for the duration of the campaign and can gain experience.
  • Artificial Brilliance:
    • If the AI has artillery or air support, and you capture a victory point, they may decide to bombard that area, as they know that at least one of your units was there recently, even if they couldn't see it, just like you can tell one of their units was in the area when they capture a victory point you can't see. They avert The All-Seeing A.I. as they will still carry out the bombardment even if you moved the unit out of the area immediately after capturing the point.
    • If your on-map artillery fires repeated barrages from the same position, the enemy will eventually figure out where they are. This goes for enemy artillery units as well. There are numerous techniques for figuring out where artillery is firing from in real life, and the game simulates them. Move your artillery every so often or you will receive counter-battery fire. This also applies to enemy artillery: if they fire enough barrages, there is a chance their exact position will be revealed to you.
  • Artificial Stupidity: Until recent updates, players had to put tight fire control on units that have low ammo counts. Otherwise, ATGM crews (usually carrying only 4-6 missiles) will waste their ammo on jeeps during opportunity fire and have nothing left for tanks and other heavy armour.
  • Artistic License – Military: In addition to the examples under Acceptable Breaks from Reality, a number of countries have access to units that never existed. For example, Canada in MBT eventually gets access to Leopard 2's mounting automatic grenade launchers. While Canada does have Leopard 2s and AGLs, they have never mounted the latter on the former
  • Authority Equals Asskicking: More "experienced" units like Navy SEALs will be far more effective than inexperienced guerrillas.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Many tanks, and some other armoured vehicles, have pintle-mounted machineguns mounted on them, officially for use against aircraft but more often used against infantry. However, most of them require a crew member to be partially outside of the tank to operate them, meaning that if the tank takes enemy fire and buttons up (closing the hatches), they will no longer use the pintle-mounted machine gun. Which is also why rifles and machine guns that can't actually harm the tank can still suppress them (that, and infantry aiming for their vision slits, making it harder for the crew to see).
  • Break Out the Museum Piece: There's a lot of this going on, just like in the real world. A notable example are the obsolete French tanks deployed by the Germans in Normandy in 1944. In WinSPMBT, some Latin American countries are still using the Sherman tank in the 21st century.
  • Butt-Monkey: The Italians in World War II-era games are quite weak for what is supposed to be a major power, mostly due to their low morale and badly outdated tanks. Winning a long campaign with them takes quite some skill.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Yep, you can play as or against Vichy France and a few other Nazi puppet regimes. The LWP, the Polish Communist Army created by the Soviets, is also a separate faction from normal Poland.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: Not as extreme as most video game cases, but still present. Most specialized units have a task they're designed for (antitank, anti-air, scouting, etc.) and usually don't fare too well when they try to do something else. ATGMnote  teams can kill tanks all day as long as they have the missiles but don't last that long going head-to-head against an infantry squad. In addition, each ATGM soldier costs significantly more than each rifleman, meaning you'll effectively be handing out victory points to the enemy.
  • Delaying Action: One potential mission type.
  • Do Not Run with a Gun: If a unit is moving, its accuracy drops. The faster it moves, the worse its accuracy gets.
  • Easy Logistics: The game ignores the effects of strategic bombing, supply interdiction, industrial capacity, etc. at the strategic level, meaning that, for instance, you can buy more Tiger tanks than Germany ever actually built as long as you have the points. Within battles your troops do have limited amounts of ammo, but they can be resupplied almost infinitely from ammo trucks and supply depots (and there's an "Unlimited Ammo" option in the game preferences if you find even this to be too pesky).
    • Of course, that is assuming you have the points. Higher-quality units tend to be much more expensive. Want to simulate strategic bombing effects or logistical strangulation? Lower the points available for your side. Watch as your elite infantry company or your MBT platoon becomes too expensive to buy, and you're forced to fall back on second-rank vehicles and troops.
  • The Engineer: Combat engineers are better at clearing minefields and other obstructions than standard infantry. They also tend to have absolutely brutal short-range weapons like submachine guns, satchel charges, and flamethrowers, making them useful in assaults on entrenched positions. And that's before you take into account various special forces units classified as engineers by the game.
  • Every Bullet is a Tracer: Whenever a unit fires a weapon, its path is always visible. This (and the range report) can help you return fire even when the firing enemy unit still isn't visible to your soldiers.
  • Friend or Foe?: It's impossible to directly fire on friendly forces. Artillery and airstrikes, however...
  • Fog of War: Simulated fairly realistically. Simply because a unit can see a hex doesn't mean that it automatically spots any units in its field of vision. Units can lower their chances of being spotted by either staying still or "sneaking" (moving slowly, about one hex at a time). On the other hand, stationary observers and / or specialized recon units have better chances of spotting enemies within their field of vision.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: The longer campaigns can result in massive upgrades from your starting forces. You could start a randomly generated campaign with ATGM vehicles, light tanks, mortar carriers and basic infantry but end it by turning those vehicles into elite heavy tanks, the mortars into massive artillery pieces or rocket launchers and the basic infantry into elite special forces units. In the World War 2 games it's common to start with the pre-war and early war fast but light tanks and some motorised infantry & mortars, and end it having upgraded the Panzers to King Tigers, Panthers and Sturmtigers, mortars to the classic Flak 88 or the super heavy 12.8cm Flak guns with your infantry riding around in late war half-tracks with significant armaments.
  • Gameplay Grading: Uses a variation of this. The exact measure of victory or defeat in a given scenario is measured by the ratio of victory points between the two players.
  • Garrisonable Structures: Buildings do provide some cover to infantry (as does rubble). Also, some player-placed structures such as bunkers can be actively garrisoned by "loading" infantry into them.
  • Geo Effects: Terrain is a major factor of every battle, especially in terms of cover and visibility.
  • Hero Must Survive: No matter how well the rest of your units do during a campaign mission, your HQ (where you are) must survive.
    • One fan-made scenario that saw the 1991 Gulf War continue into Iraq instead of stopping, has a branching campaign where high success would give you a final mission where Saddam Hussein was named as the Iraqi forces HQ unit.
    • There's also a WW2 scenario where the Germans are supposed to locate and kill/capture Yugoslav partisan leader Tito (also represented by a HQ unit). Victory points are irrelevant in that scenario, so losing the Tito unit results in an instant loss for the Yugoslav player, while its survival ensures a victory.
  • Guide Dang It!: The manual that came with the purchase edition of Steel Panthers 2 only gave instructions on the most basic control features. Otherwise, it did not explain what the different stats were or more detailed instructions on many of the controls (i.e. artillery, air strikes, loading/unloading troops on vehicles, water operations, etc.).
  • Hold the Line: Any mission where you're defending against another advancing force.
  • Home Guard: The Trope Namer shows up in the WW2 installments, though plenty of other examples are present, from the US Army National Guard to the Nazi German Volkstrum, to various militias. Several nations also have the option to deploy police forces, which are a mixed bag: Some of them have good morale but are less experienced than regular soldiers, like the Nazi German Ordnungspolizei or the Polish Policja, some have poor morale and less experience, like the Afghan National Police in the modern games, some are completely average, like the UN police in the modern game, and some actually have better morale and more experience than the regular infantry, like the Spanish Guardia Civil or the Italian Carabinieri. Most, however, have worse equipment.
  • Humiliation Conga: Happens when an infantry squad gets attacked, takes casualties, retreats, then gets spotted by another enemy unit, who attacks, causing the squad to retreat, spotted, attack, retreats again, etc.
  • Kill It with Fire:
    • Napalm bombs, flamethrowers, Molotov cocktails...
    • In the modern iterations, RPO-A Shmels and M202 FLASH rockets are on the table. That's right, rocket flamethrowers.
    • Fighters dropping fuel-air explosives or MLRS fuel-air rockets.
  • Macross Missile Massacre: The German Nebelwerfer and most Russian rocket artillery, starting with the BM-14 "Katyusha." The British have the Land Mattress while the Americans have the Calliope (meaning they have a medium tank that can also act as rocket artillery) and a version of the LCV landing craft.
    • In the modern games, several countries have MLRS vehicles that can do this.
  • Misguided Missile: Can happen with percision-guided munitions in MBT, though it is less due to clever manoeuvring on your foe's part, and more to your aircraft acquiring the wrong target in the first place.
  • Molotov Cocktail: A surprisingly effective weapon - no WW2 era tank is safe from them. Used mostly by partisan and militia-type units.
  • Morale Mechanic: The game has a Suppression mechanic, which indicates how rattled a unit is after coming under fire. Units under high suppression can be pinned down and refuse to move, or even forced to retreat, until they can be rallied.
    • The morale rules have the side effect of making the German Mk I tank much more useful against the Russians than it should be. Early on, the Soviet KV heavy tanks are just about immune to the guns of the available German panzers. That goes double for the Mk I as it only has machine guns. However the Mk Is are cheap to buy and fire six times a turn so the inexperienced Soviet crews can be panicked by a storm of machine gun fire even though it can't actually hurt them.
    • The game also takes into account what year and country it is when calculating base morale, at least in WW2. For example, the German base morale starts off at 70, and stays there until 1944, when it drops to 65 due to the war starting to turn against them, and then drops to 55 in 1945 when it becomes clear that defeat is imminent. Most of the Allies start off at the opposite end, with low base morale in the early years of the war, only for it to climb as they gain more experience and the war starts going in their favour, though a few smaller countries never have their base morale change, and there are some exceptions:
      • The British base morale remains at 60 every year until 1945, where it drops to 55 on the basis that victory is imminent and their soldiers don't feel like dying for a war that's basically over. The French and the Polish also experience a similar drop in 1945.
      • Japan's base morale remains at 70 for the entire war, being the only major nation on either side to not have their base morale change.
  • No Campaign for the Wicked: Averted. The random campaign generator lets you play a campaign as any faction, and there are a number of preset campaigns, both shipped with the games and made by fans, that let you play as Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and others. WinSPWW2 even has you play as the Nazis in its tutorial, and unless changed in the options, its editor defaults to Nazi Germany vs. the Soviet Union, with player 1 being the Nazis by default.
  • No Kill like Overkill: In any way you can imagine, there is just something therapeutic about using a AH 64 to scout for enemy positions then bring down MLRS, 155mm howitzers, 120mm mortars, and paladin self propelled artillery down on one poor guy with an anti-tank rocket, or just levelling entire cities with artillery before rolling in and clearing out the few remaining units with tanks, ATGM, attack helicopters and airstrikes just because you can.
  • No Range Like Point-Blank Range: Tanks, Artillery and all the other stuff you have at your disposal is pretty awesome, but if you want to take an enemy position, your infantry will have to get up close and personal...
    • Additionally, if an enemy armoured fighting vehicle ends up right next to one of your infantry units (or even on the same hex as one), that unit can attempt to assault it with any explosives they have, giving them a chance to take it out even if they don't have proper AT equipment. This is primarily meant to represent things like infantry taking out treads with grenades, or swarming the vehicle and dropping explosives into the crew compartment. Even if they do have proper AT weaponry, most of it has low range outside of the stuff used by ATGM crews, so they'll need to be close to have a chance of taking an enemy tank out. ATGMs (and most other guided missiles) avert this: Because firing at close range means you have less time to correct the missiles course, it is actually harder for guided missiles to hit a target at close range.
  • No Swastikas: The German flags in World War II use the balkenkreuz instead. Most games had the historical flag as backup and let you edit it back in instead (or vice versa), though, and WinSPWW2 has the historical flag enabled by default.
  • One-Hit-Point Wonder:
    • Helicopters are a unique variant. While they can survive a fair amount of fire, they will retreat off the map if they take any damage, and cannot be rallied. They can still be controlled on the turn they take the damage, which is useful for unloading any transport helicopters that take damage so they don't take their passengers with them when they retreat.
    • The majority of snipers. While there are a few special forces teams that carry them alongside other weapons, the majority of sniper units are made up of a single soldier, and as such will be destroyed with a single successful hit. The exception is the Heavy Sniper Teams some nations can get in the modern instalments, who first show up in 1996 and have two members, as well as a number of special forces or scout units that have variants that carry sniper rifles, though they usually aren't as accurate as dedicated sniper units.
    • While planes have multiple hitpoints, and in the case of strike planes will carry out their strike unless shot down, if they take any damage during a run, they cannot be called in for another, which goes for all types of planes, including scout planes.
  • Point Defenseless: Justified and zigzagged. As the trope page notes, the AA guns of WW2 and the early post-war era were manually operated and visually targeted, making it difficult for them to hit the smaller, more agile aircraft used for close-air support. Because of this, shooting down enemy planes is relies on luck and having a lot of anti-air guns, and even then there's no guarantee of even hitting an enemy plane, much less shooting it down. However, in the later years of the modern settings, you start getting SAMs and radar-guided anti-air guns, which have a good chance of hitting any aircraft that get in range. The exception is helicopters, who are slower and actually stand still at times, meaning even infantry units with bolt-actions have a fairly good chance to hit them at close range. And as the pointed out above, you don't need to shoot them down to get rid of them, unlike planes.
  • Possible War: Other than the aforementioned World War III scenarios, there are also some for other potential conflicts-that-weren't (or that may be in the future).
  • La Résistance: Some of the playable factions are this — apart from the French resistance, you can play as the Polish Home Army, Yugoslav Partisans, Greek ELAS, Chinese People's Liberation Army, and others. It's not easy to win with them, since you'll probably be badly outgunned and have few, if any, armored vehicles or field artillery, let alone aircraft.
  • Separate, but Identical: In the post-WW2 settings, most factions essentially use either an American or a Soviet equipment roster, although some factions (NATO nations, China, and Israel among others) do have their own designs. Justified in that this is what happened in real history; both sides of the Cold War sold surplus weapons and vehicles to their allies and affiliated resistance groups. A few countries (e.g. Yugoslavia, Iraq) use a mix of American and Soviet equipment.
  • Support Power: Airstrikes and off-map artillery. Usually negotiated between players due to their effectiveness.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Small arms fire may not be able to harm a tank, but it can force the crew to button down, decreasing their sight and accuracy, preventing them from using pintle-mounted machine guns, and generally startling the crew.
    • No matter how much armour it has, if a tank is hit by a large enough bomb or artillery shell, it might be damaged or destroyed. A direct hit from 2000 pounds of high explosives tends to have a negative effect on most armoured vehicles.
    • Paratroops and other airdropped units can take damage from landings, representing things like poor landings causing broken legs and arms. While this is more likely to happen if they land on rough terrain, forests, buildings, slopes, or anything that isn't flat, clear terrain, it can still happen on flat clear terrain, because accidents can happen even in the best conditions.
    • While you can air drop any vehicle that can fit into a transport plane, if it isn't very light and/or made to be air dropped, it will most likely end up badly damaged and immobilized upon landing, if not outright destroyed. M1 Abrams tanks tend not to react well to being dropped from several hundred meters, regardless of how many parachutes are attached. This can also happen with light vehicles or airborne vehicles if the terrain is bad or you are unlucky.
    • In MBT, signatories of the Ottawa Treaty which bans the use of anti-personnel landmines cannot use mines in any mission set after March 1st, 1999, the date the treaty came into effect.
  • Tank Goodness: The games feature hundreds of different armored fighting vehicles and their variations. For example, in MBT there are thirteen different models of the T-64 main battle tank.
  • Timed Mission: Scenarios usually give you a set number of turns in which to achieve your objective, such as capturing specific areas or preventing the enemy from taking them. Generated battles also have a time limit, and some of the games give you the option of randomizing it. For example, there is an option to have a high chance of getting extra turns if both players have units near multiple objective hexes (the idea is to discourage players from unrealistically rushing their units forward to snatch some objectives at the last moment, safe in the knowledge that their opponent won't get a chance to retaliate).
  • Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny: The random battle and campaign features allow you to pit any two nations against one another, even if they're members of the same alliance (the United States vs. Japan / any NATO nation), unable to interact in a meaningful way (Afghan mujahadeen vs. Cuba), or even haven't fought a war in the 20th century at all (the fact that Switzerland is playable, full stop).
  • Units Not to Scale: At least in the first two games, each hex is 50 meters to a side. Two units that appear to be "right next to each other" on the map are about half a football field away from each other, hardly point-blank range.
  • Urban Warfare: The games do a decent job at replicating just how brutal urban warfare is — short lines of sight and strong terrain bonuses for entrenched infantry (plus better opportunities to ambush unescorted vehicles from the sides and rear) mean that most engagements take place at very close range and result in lots of casualties.
  • Vehicular Assault: There is an option in the settings for "AI Tank Heavy." It explains itself.
  • Veteran Unit: The incentive for not treating your troops as cannon fodder during campaigns is for them to achieve this status. Unit experience rankings are green, regular, experienced and elite. Also, higher experienced troops can be bought, such as airborne and special forces.
  • Video Game Caring Potential: Every officer in your extremely extensive command has his (or even her) own stats, as do their units. If they survive, they evolve and become more effective. They don't, and you have to start back from scratch IF you are lucky. Let's just say that Save Scumming is very popular, particularly for campaigns.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential:
    • Asides from what you do to the enemy, friendly fire is VERY much in play, and you are free to treat your men as you wish, even using them as Cannon Fodder. There's also nothing preventing you from doing things like calling in an airstrike to drop napalm in an urban area, despite the fact that this would be generally inadvisable in real life.
    • Steel Panthers 3 in the WW 3/Israeli future conflict scenarios. Turn on fast artillery. Turn up your number of allotted points to the max. Buy half of it in BM-22 Uragans and the other half in BM-21 Grads. Annihilate the entire enemy side of the map on the first turn.
  • Video Game Cruelty Punishment: Just don't whine when you get wiped out one one of the late levels of a campaign because you needed elite troops that you used as expendable bullet sponges back when they were green.
  • Video Game Long-Runners: As mentioned on the trope page, the game has gone through six incarnations since 1995, two of which still receive annual updates.
  • Zerg Rush:
    • A common (though not always viable) strategy for factions with cheaper units.
    • Typically the setup in any scenario involving Tiger tanks. You can kill some of the T-34s, but not all...
    • WinSPWW2 features a campaign where you play as the Japanese in China in 1937. Expect to face swarms of poorly-equipped infantry.