Challenging and complex, but at times frustrating
As an avid player of Civilization, Master of Orion and Master of Magic, I found the Battle Isle 2 refreshingly different. Instead of god-like, endless empire building here you apply your turn-fighting skills to completing tactical assignments, one mission at a time.
Just like in "traditional" you have (in most missions) the option to build new units, roads and portable resources (to supply key bases). But the way you do it is different, since you can't build factories (which produce units and resources) nor energy stations (which power all your factories) you must capture them. This quickly turns any mission into a sort of king-of-the-hill game with multiple strongholds to take over.
Additionally, your factories and plants can only produce that much materials in a turn (and some of them can't produce anything, but start with a reservoir of building points) which are used both for building new units and repairing old ones. This dictates the speed of the game, and makes capturing factories early (before the computer used up the resources) all the more important.
On the unit front diversity is the norm. There are dozens of units, almost all of which have several weapons designed to be used against land, water, air or roads and railroads. Some units have special abilities which allow them to refuel (even in mid-air), re-arm, transport, radar, stealth and transport.
Your battles will become complex endeavors where you'll think carefully how to combine armor, anti-air vehicles, sea units, artillery and various support units in key points of your battlefield.
All of these points make the game enjoyable, but what makes it really good is the tactical side of your play.
For one thing, your units aren't simple grunts - they gain experience after each battle and grow in strength (units with max experience are two-three times more powerful than a beginner), but lose said experience when you repair their damage (in this game units are composed of up to 10 combatants and repairing them restores lost combatants with new ones). This makes you think which unit to send where - veterans are more valuable, but if they get damaged they could lose their status.
Another important point is that your units are limited by their fuel tanks (some have little fuel and will stop unless refueled constantly), their ammo, the terrain they can traverse (roads, railroads, grass, sea, etc.) and their speed, sight and range. In a game where the terrain itself will work against you - changing seasons and turning passable grassland into a frozen tundra unpassable by some units - and where the fog of war is a real danger (move a unit there will make any enemy nearby attack you), this are additional concerns that can make or break a battle.
The maps are hard, even on lower difficulties, and are carefully designed for a challenging game.
I said before that I liked the challenging terrain, but on bigger maps this could get really annoying. It's one this to waste a few turns to get your tanks through snow, but it's another thing to find out that your entire force is grounded for the winter because you chose wheeled units over tracked ones.
Speaking of turns, you have a limited number of them. Yep, you could almost win a mission by being just one turn away from completing your objective, but if that's your last turn you'll need to start all over again. This is extremely frustrating if you just lost a massive mission just because on turn no.3 you loaded your commandos on a ship instead of a plane. For extra annoyance, try losing on the last not because you miscalculated your speed, but because the weather changed to something less passable.
But the very worst part of the game is the time it takes for the computer to think. Playing the game in DosBox with max cycles (i.e. the fastest setting for the CPU in that program) still makes the computer think for five minutes in the later mission where you have hundreds of units on each side. And since you'd want to replay certain turns (particularly if you just lost on the last turn), it makes the game very slow and unpleasant. Obviously the problem is non-existent in multiplayer, but it can ruin the main game for you.
The only plus side here is that after the first 10 turns or so, you and your enemy will exhaust most of your forces and the computer will think faster.
Just to wrap things up I'd like to say a few words about the story. Frankly, you don't feel like there is one, and the even if you pay attention the story is quite weak. That doesn't really matter, though, and you'll read the story-related transmissions just to get your objectives or find hints on how to proceed.
The Bottom Line
All in all this is a wonderful game, but not for those with little patience or time. The casual gamer may get overwhelmed by the complexity (though the game does try to ease you into it) or frustrated by the slow and boring thinking or by the unpleasant turn limit.
However, if you adore turn-based game, you shouldn't pass up this rough diamond.