European Conqueror 3D is a title that might inspire a bit of déjà vu in observant eShop gamers, coming less than a year after the release of CIRCLE’s slightly more ambitious-sounding World Conqueror 3D. Like its predecessor, this is a turn-based strategy game that takes cues from tabletop classics like Risk and Axis & Allies, and puts players in the commanding chairs of World War II’s most eminent belligerents — though this time the focus is squarely on the continental conflict. While it’s brought down by an uninspired presentation, balance issues and a feeling of repetition, its relatively streamlined take on wargaming is still enjoyable in the right rations.
Diving into European Conqueror, players are met with two main modes: Conquest and Campaigns. In Conquest, you’ll take control of one of twelve European countries involved in the conflict and attempt to dominate the entire continent — with the help of your appropriate historical allies — in either 1939 or 1941. The Campaigns mode acts as the storyline, and takes you through the events of the war as one of four countries — Germany, the UK, France, or the USSR — via a series of increasingly difficult missions. Each country’s campaign is unlocked sequentially, with only Germany open from the start, so while you’ll eventually get to live out your fantasies of liberating France, you’ll first have to invade Poland.
Whichever mode you start with, the basic turn-based strategy gameplay remains largely the same. The action takes place almost entirely on a map, and feels a bit like a digital board game: as your chosen country, you’ll start with a set number of areas under your control and move three types of units — infantry, tanks and artillery — over discretely-bounded regions to try and wrestle territory away from your enemies, with the ultimate goal of taking over their capital. Battles between units take place on an Advance Wars-style split screen, and come down to pairwise dice rolls; a maximum of five units from each side can square off at once, and the results of the tosses determine the outcome of the fight.
Units differ not only in their skills — tanks can move after attacking, while artillery can attack the other units without fear of retaliation — but also in the dice they use, which can vary again by country. The UK and France’s foot soldiers, for instance, both have a min-max roll of 1-7, while their tanks can roll 2-8, and artillery 2-7. Soviet soldiers show a solid 2-6, meanwhile, while German panzers roll in at a powerful 3-8.
Along with moving units and marching them off to dice-based battle, you’ll also take in cash each turn from tax collection; the more territory you control, the more money you make. You can use the revenue to purchase ‘military cards’ each turn with different effects, and these cards are the key to success in European Conquerer 3D. Three of the cards simply represent the three unit types, and purchasing one of these will allow you to recruit more of the relevant troops and place them on either your capital city or on appropriately upgraded territory. The next three cards are used for various upgrades: outfitting units with the Battleship card lets them take to the seas and move on water, the Fortress card will increase a territory’s defence while freezing its units for three turns, and the all-important Construction card lets you upgrade held territory through five levels — the higher the level, the more tax money you’ll receive each turn, and new troops can only be recruited on Level 5 lands. Finally, three more cards are designed to help you turn the tide in battle: the Airstrike lets you take a free attack on any enemy territory in range, the General card powers up units to temporarily do more damage, and the Marshall card grants a temporary defence boost.
In addition to this standard nine-card deck, each of the five ‘major’ military powers in the game — the UK, France, the USSR, Germany, and Italy — come with their own ‘special card’ that can be used only once every seven turns. Germany’s ‘Panzer Elite’ turns infantry units into tanks, the UK can call in the ‘RAF’ to reinforce a particular area with 35 soldiers, France’s ‘Maginot Line’ powers up all units with General and Marshall cards, Italy’s ‘Sea Raid’ adds 30 soldiers to conquered sections of the sea, and the USSR’s ‘Red Storm’ calls in 5 extra conscripts to each occupied territory.
In most campaigns, you’ll also have allies to help you along. Outside of Conquest mode, they’re not explicitly labelled as such once you get to the map, however, so if your history’s a little rusty you might want to take notes; otherwise you could spend the bulk of your first German campaign as we did, furiously trying to take over Budapest without realizing the Hungarians were on our side. Luckily, trampled upon nations don’t seem to mind your friendly fire, so if you really do need access to territory currently controlled by an ally, you can always wrest it away by force without fear of retaliation — or even a diplomatic snub.
On a related note, while the action in European Conqueror is almost completely abstract, and there’s certainly no blood or violence depicted directly — foot soldier sprites vanish innocuously when levelled by (invisible) tank fire, for example — sepia tone pictures of real-life soldiers, rallies, and military campaigns from World War II do feature throughout the game. Again, there’s nothing graphic at all, but depending on your comfort level with historical images tangentially connected to the atrocities of war, it could be a bit uncomfortable; if you don’t like the idea of progressing through a campaign where your ‘Victory!’ screen includes a background photograph of a Sieg heil-ing crowd, for instance, this is not the game for you.
As you might expect of a board game-inspired title, the interface in European Conquerer 3D is quick and easy to get the hang of: the Circle Pad moves the cursor, ‘A’ and ‘B’ are used to confirm and cancel orders, and the D-Pad and shoulder buttons provide shortcuts for increasing or decreasing troop numbers. There’s also an overview map on the touchscreen, and you can use the stylus to tap the top screen viewpoint to a specific point, or drag the rectangle around by holding down ‘Y’ while moving the Circle Pad. Our one issue with the controls is that there doesn’t seem to be any way to dig into the cards menu without the stylus. It’s a shame and an odd oversight; by simply having the menu assigned to a free face button you could control the entire game with buttons alone, but as it is you’ll need to dig out your stylus a few times each turn just to tap the cards icon — an awkward and unnecessary split between the two inputs.
In terms of presentation, European Conquerer 3D sticks very closely to its tabletop inspirations; perhaps a little too closely, in fact. The maps you’ll be staring at for the bulk of each campaign are functional, with colour marking territory possession, but they’re not terribly interesting, and they don’t feel especially optimized for their small screen home. We frequently found ourselves wishing for a ‘zoom out’ option, for instance, and had a trouble distinguishing the hit boxes of tiny pieces of adjacent territory from time to time. The Advance Wars-style engagement screens in which your troops do battle have some quietly appealing background art, though there’s no 3D to make it pop — the stereoscopic effect is limited to the map screen. The music fares better, with a rousing orchestral style that gets you geared up for greatness, even if individual themes repeat fairly often.
Unfortunately, that feeling of repetition eventually carries over to the gameplay as well. While positioning your troops, routing the enemy, and rolling the dice is good fun, and we enjoyed playing in short bursts, the end goal is always the same: capture the base and win the day. Even the separate Conquest mode is a long-form riff on this theme. Europe’s natural geography helps shake things up a bit from mission to mission — using the English Channel and North Sea to surround your enemies feels quite different from trying to march to Moscow through the USSR’s unending empire, for instance — but the single setting, with all due respect to the real world, still lacks the variety in visuals, terrain, and strategic possibilities that make games like Advance Wars and Fire Emblem: Awakening so much fun to play and revisit.
The small number of unit types doesn’t help either; while capping the combatants at three does keep things eminently manageable, it also cuts down on strategy, and ensures you’re constantly looking at and commanding the same three sprites. It also feels a bit anachronistic — it’s hard not to wonder what the RAF or Luftwaffe could do for your campaign as you saunter slowly across the continent. Then there’s the disappointing fact that you’ll only ever get to go to war against the computer; there’s no multiplayer support at all, which is a shame considering how well the board game-style mechanics would presumably work with human opponents.
There are also a few issues with balance; even with the vast swaths of territory under contestation, for instance, we found that success in individual missions almost always boiled down to making a beeline for the enemy’s base and hitting them with everything we had. Also, as long as you’re accumulating taxes, there’s little incentive to micromanage territory away from the front lines; since you can only move units one space per turn, we found it easier to continually upgrade territory as we went, recruiting new units in right where they were needed and leaving the rest of the country largely unoccupied. Of course, there’s nothing inherently less fun about that, and we definitely enjoyed the battles, even if they were less about tactics than tanking up and lucky dice.
European Conqueror 3D is not a particularly inspired effort, even putting aside its uncanny resemblance to last year’s World Conqueror 3D; a mediocre presentation, repetitive missions, small number of unit types, and lack of multiplayer all relegate it to second-tier status, and make it hard to recommend when classics like Advance Wars are within easy reach. That said, we still enjoyed the board game-style gameplay, which was surprisingly relaxing in spite of both its shortcomings and subject matter. Players after a truly strategic experience — or who don’t want their war effort sabotaged by a random number generator — will come away disappointed, but those looking for a simplified take on the Second World War will certainly find some fun in conquering the continent.