Sunday, November 18, 2012

Scenario Design Notes: Delay on Tiger Route (Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy - Commonwealth Forces)


TWC Delay on Tiger Route was uploaded to the Battlefront.com Repository on 6 November 2012; this author was also the scenario designer. There were limited Designer's Notes appended to the scenario file. For those interested, a more detailed description of the genesis of this scenario is offered for review and, if desired, further discussion below.

Inspiration

The current evolution of the Combat Mission game engine favours smaller scale battles, and appeals by at least some in public venues, such as the official game forum, for small (i.e. company-strength or smaller) forces have been conspicuous. The author's interest has always been with historical situations (as opposed to obviously fictional engagements drawn up from whole cloth). 

There is a tradition among Combat Mission scenario designers in pushing the boundaries of what is available in the editor, to depict actions strictly outside the historical bounds set out by the program. For that reason, research into small-unit engagements taking place during Operation MARKET-GARDEN in September 1944 have been of interest to the author. Equipment, terrain, weather and order of battle information is adequately represented by that which is present in the editor, and scenarios set in that time-frame will hopefully whet the appetite for the promised official offering currently - it is said - under development.

Research

As the author discussed in detail in another venue1, there is some utility in reviewing the work of others before embarking on one's own design work. Not only is it a good idea to check on scenarios done for the same game/title to prevent duplication (though nothing says that multiple scenarios depicting the same action can't be widely different in design yet equally entertaining), but looking at scenarios in other game systems can also yield dividends as far as suggesting scenario design ideas, from basic idea inspiration to more detailed data such as force composition or suggested victory conditions.

Such was the case here. The scenario Delayed on Tiger Route (note the slight difference in the first word) was published by a third party publisher2, for the Advanced Squad Leader game system in 1996, accompanied by detailed designer's notes in the accompanying magazine.

Design

As with most ASL "conversions", major design changes had to be made to get this to work properly in Combat Mission.

Terrain

The most notable change was terrain; the wide open spaces of the Squad Leader boards are geared for a board game scaled at 40 metres per hex and contain large tracts of open ground. The boards are generic in nature and "woods" features are considered impenetrable at ranges past 40 metres, by either weapons or line of sight - though a type of "light woods" similar to the foliage in CM:BN is present in the form of "orchard" terrain. Line of sight is merely "hindered" through this terrain and represents less dense concentrations of trees.

The ASL map layout is featured at the ASL Scenario Archive (linked above) and appears as follows:


Michael Faulkner modified the "stock" ASL maps heavily (in addition to careful selection from among the 40+ extant geomorphic maps) to approximate the battlefield, suggesting he had done his homework on the actual terrain. Among the modifications were the removal of Level 1 hills, and addition of five overlays to increase the amount of buildings and woods hexes.

A modern Google Earth map of the battle zone, coupled with period photos and descriptions from a historical blog3, suggested a lay of the land quite close to what the ASL maps portrayed. The exact spot described in the historical snippet was only surmised; a thorough search of unit war diaries from archival sources, or even a better search of second-hand accounts in histories may have turned up better data, but the author was satisfied that a representative sample of terrain was found that would produce a workable scenario. 

Google View
 There were several key elements key to the terrain that needed to be captured on the map:
  1. The main road to Oosterbeek (actually the Heelsum-Arnhem road), which British forces were attempting to travel down, the main purpose of their presence in the area,
  2. A "side road", as mentioned in the source, from which opposing German forces were able to launch an attack,
  3. Woods, part of the forested area west of Oosterbeek conspicuous on period maps and photos,
  4. Fences; in actuality four-foot chain-link fences, mentioned as having influenced ASL scenario designer Faulkner's design choices (specifically, forbidding the use by players of a rule known as 'infantry bypass movement', restricting the mobility of infantry),
  5. Limited elevation changes/contour, consistent with the unique nature of the Netherlands.
Delay on Tiger Route map, looking towards the north-east

Other clues to the terrain were garnered from the book Retake Arnhem Bridge, which also includes a full-colour reproduction of a wartime 1:50,000 contour and terrain map of the Arnhem area.

Building the map was relatively straight-forward; the desire from the start was to permit interesting LOS combinations diagonally across the map, and so taller trees with limited underbrush were selected for the most part.

Wire fences were used to simulated the chain-link fences mentioned by Faulkner (and visible in contemporary photos, such as that below:)

On the road to Arnhem, September 1944. Note the chain link fence.
Forces

Forces appropriate to the map size were an obvious concern, part of the balancing act of any design where time/forces/victory conditions have to be coordinated to provide the player with something workable. As stated in the introduction, there is a perception, at least among some, that the new CM game engine is at its best in depicting smaller scale actions. The source ASL scenario was notable for only pitting 3.5 squad-equivalents against 6. 

The command, control and leadership models of CM purport to be more sophisticated than ASL's more primitive modelling, so a straight-across transfer of forces was never contemplated. The flexibility of options in the editor, however permitted the variability of the German order of battle to be better portrayed. The forces present in the actual engagement consisted of a Panzer Grenadier Training and Replacement Battalion. To reflect this, wildly varying Motivation, Fitness, and Experience levels were selected. 

Faulkner's design included two platoons of British paratroopers, and the original CM scenario featured this as well, with a more homogenous set of characteristics, selected from the upper range of options. While the 1st Airborne Division was a well-trained formation, it was relatively inexperienced, despite the earlier deployment of some of its component formations to North Africa, Sicily, etc. Nonetheless, in order that the relatively brittle infantry might be able to use the light anti-tank weaponry on which the scenario might hinge, higher than normal experience and motivation levels were granted as a balancing measure.

Victory Conditions

The most difficult part of getting a Combat Mission scenario design playable is working out a set of victory conditions (in the CM editor, this is a complex combination of "Parameters", "Terrain Objectives", "Unit Objectives" for each side). The second generation Combat Mission game engine has increased in sophistication as far as the types of interwoven factors that decide victory or defeat, though being hard-coded, the designer is still constrained to operate within those parameters.

Again, the designer could not simply ape what was done in the ASL scenario, given the more flexible VC of that system (permissible because of the manual nature of the system). Faulkner's scenario granted points for exiting British forces of the eastern side of the map - something the CM allows for - but adds or subtracts from this point total based on the number of forces the German elects to also withdraw from the map (simulating the strategic necessity to redeploy to meet other threats). While CM does allow the scenario designer to alter basic victory point totals with the addition of "bonus" points, they are not conditional - at least, not in the current iteration of the game engine. One hopes this might be considered for future developments.

Another consideration when designing "exit" scenarios is that units marked for exit must exit or the points awarded for their exit are lost. This is different than in games, such as ASL, where the player is not penalized for failure to exit, other than not receiving the points (i.e. units not exited count as zero, not a negative number as in CM). For that reason, a bonus of 100 points is assigned to the British player to offset an estimated "acceptable" loss of units in a typical scenario. This seemed to work out well in playtesting. Given a choice, however, another suggested change to the engine would be to give the designer the option between the two models of handling points for non-exiting units (i.e. either deducting their value from the point total, or permiting them to remain on map without penalty).

Comparison

Faulkner describes his ASL scenario as "a short, fast paced scenario that forces the British player (to) take some chances, the German player to be dogged in his defense, and for both players to use every advantage their nationality gives them." In ASL, nationality factors weigh more heavily than in CM, where nationality is not explicity modelled (British troops in ASL are immune to a "Cowering" rule, for example, where "doubles" on the dice reduces firepower, for just one example). Otherwise, in playtest, the CM scenario played rather quickly, given the small area, and the conspicuousness of key weapons systems means that the game can be decided quickly if not careful or a lucky hit is achieved. But, both sides have the tools to win the scenario if handled properly.

In reality, the Germans hit quickly and withdrew in a hurry, taking prisoners then pulling back down the same side road that they struck from. This was the thrust of the ASL design. Many ASL designs came down, in my opinion, to factor counting and last-turn mathematics, which are hard to replicate in CM, and perhaps rightfully so. It was for that reason that the VC permitted Geman exit points to count against British exit points in the original design. Since the CM scenario was being designed primarily from the British perspective, it was felt there was little reason to include this option for the Germans, and the VC didn't permit this kind of conditional VC in any event.

My Question To You

Any feedback on the scenario is welcome, though I'd be most interested in your thoughts on Victory Conditions, whether in CM or tactical games in general, and the kinds of additional parameters or improvements (or deletions) you would like to see. What works well, what would you like to see more of?

Notes
  1. Scenario Designer's Handbook, pp. XXX -XXX
  2. Schwerpunkt, issue 1, 1996 Scenario Designer:Michael Faulkner

Friday, April 20, 2012

Scenario Design, Historical Accuracy, and Rediscovering Stanley Hollis’ Sunken Lane

Whenever a new scenario-based tactical game depicting ground combat comes out, designers began anew in their quest to find situations to depict. Tastes vary, and while the quests may be different, for such things as balanced match-ups, armour-heavy battles, scenarios that highlight specific equipment, favourite (often ‘elite’) units, etc., the struggle for new inspiration is a constant.

The quest leads scenario designers to mine a variety of sources; I don’t know how common it is for designers in one medium to review scenarios in another, but I wonder if it isn’t more common than some may let on (a review of the extant designer’s notes for games like ASL, Combat Mission, Panzer Command, etc., leads one to believe that inspiration comes from either the heavens or the sacred scrolls of the Library of Congress, not “ripping off” a Flames of War booklet they bought second-hand on ebay).

Plagiarism would come most readily to mind as the most obvious hazard of this practice. Not just because of the taint of the accusation, which in reality is probably more harsh than any possible harm of actual legal repercussion. Some may recall the “ASL2CM” website which was a proponent of replicating ASL in Combat Mission. Rumours had swirled of legal action, particularly when the site closed down, though this thread on the CM forums seems to indicate nothing so drastic, and that the decision was simple time constraints on the webmaster. Before the end, though, the site developed into a detailed primer on translating the venerable boardgame's terrain into Combat Mission maps, and gave advice on reproducing force match-ups, leadership values, game lengths and other “conversions”. The end results, as far as the CMx1 game engine went, were mixed for the most part, as some scenarios really didn’t translate well, particularly the terrain, which was highly stylized to match John Hill’s concept of “Design for Effect” in the original Squad Leader board game. (For just one example, urban streets in SL/ASL were laid out in an abstract system 40 to 80 metres across while CM had a 20 metre terrain grid - directly translating the maps meant that crossing a street was unrealistically dangerous.) So the largest hazard of “plagiarism” was that in the end scenarios directly translated were often not all that good because of the differing natures of the games themselves.

Strange collision of two worlds; the "ASL Interface" seemed like a good idea at the time.
So did the terrain mods. "Fusion" is often better in theory than practice.
As inspiration, though, a scenario designer is missing out on a lot of opportunity by simply refusing to look at the work of others, with tens of thousands of tactical-level wargame scenarios set in the Second World War now in print for various game systems, probably at minimum 5,500 for Advanced Squad Leader alone. (As of this writing, The Scenario Archive has tracked 5,647, including one-offs and self-published works.) While not suitable for a straight conversion into a game system, like Combat Mission, that uses realistic terrain, order of battle, and command and control systems (ASL in its basic form has none of these), those printed scenario cards that the ASL community cranks out do have the stamp of historical verisimilitude on them and if nothing else provide the start point for one’s own historical research. Some designers, such as Evan Sherry of Schwerpunkt magazine, even go so far as to provide their historical source material references right on the cards.

And when you find a scenario design by a fellow like the late Ian Daglish, who has published bona fide and well-respected volumes on military history in addition to taking those scenario designs to the next level with “historical modules” based on actual terrain, you get the comforting feeling the historical background you’re holding in your hands is probably going to be pretty accurate even if the scenario itself is stylized for playability.

All of which presupposes that historical accuracy (as opposed to pure fiction) is a precondition for a good scenario, which is certainly not the case. More on this later on.

First Cristot
The more recent ASL products are based on more stringent historical research; the Normandy 1944 product is an example, and Ian Daglish's name looms large in the credits.

The scenario FIRST CRISTOT jumps out immediately; aside from the "hook" of involving Stanley Hollis, it had a unique proposition, or sub-plot if you will, presented alongside the main story-line. The basic story, or objective, was familiar - a British unit with little support was to attack across bocage and farm land up a hill and take heavy punishment from SS troops in the process. Daglish went further in modelling the lack of tank-infantry co-operation by permitting either infantry, or armour, to move in each player turn - but not both.

Scenario design for Combat Mission now involves story-telling as much as simply researching order of battle, and so the scenario was something of an inspiration. My initial design for FIRST CRACK AT CRISTOT revolved around exploring this theme; it was impossible to place restrictions on command and control in the abstract manner of the board game, so the solution was to widely divide the tanks from the infantry, but testing showed that the scenario didn't seem to go anywhere, and besides, it wasn't as interesting as historical source information that was uncovered, which gave fairly specific information regarding the location of German positions. To that end, the map was reworked, lines of sight re-tooled, and positions re-arranged. The ASL scenario included a single company of British infantry, and reviewing the historical notes, it seemed prudent to make use of the entire historical arena:

Reproduced from The Creully Club newsletter.
The map in "First Crack at Cristot"
The final scenario is much larger - beyond the company-sized comfort level that by consensus seems to be "just right" for squad-based tactical games. Given the limited tactical options that individual companies had on the actual day, the scenario designer is hard pressed to split off individual actions into anything playable. In the actual event, The Green Howards lost 250 men, which would represent over half of the fighting strength of the battalion when one considers just the rifle companies. The challenge for the player of FIRST CRACK AT CRISTOT is to better utilize the resources at hand, or perhaps see if his luck is any better, than his historical counter-parts.

Bil Hardenberger’s Sunken Road
It occurred to me a week into the project that it might be wasted effort if someone else had already published something on the topic. A search on “Combat Mission Cristot” led me to a thread on an existing scenario, but to my surprise, it referred to one on the release disc for the original Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord from 2000.

I had not been involved in the CM community until well after release; however, one of the pre-release highlights had been a publicly disseminated battle between scenario designer Bil Hardenberger and beta tester Fionn Kelly.1 The original scenario had garnered much attention.
Bil Hardenberger's THE SUNKEN LANE from the original CM:BO release disc.
Forgotten now is the fact that this may have been the first CM scenario to orient the battle at 45 degrees to the map edges.
Map Design
There is nothing new to the idea that books often get judged by their covers; in CM a scenario's worth is determined in part by its map design. Not just whether the map is an appropriate size for the forces involved, or offers interesting tactical choices to both sides (criterion on which it naturally deserves to be judged), but also on aesthetics. This too is natural, and there is something visceral about the notion that a pleasant looking map is more fun to play on. The map from THE SUNKEN LANE was particularly unique in that the action was oriented at 45 degrees to the playing surface, helping prevent unrealistic use of the map edge as a secure flank, and widening the possible avenues of maneuver for the attacker.

In CMx1, good designers came up with different methods of providing visual interest to their maps; mixing up terrain types in unexpected combinations or choosing well-known historical locations to emulate. Going over maps with an eye for detail was the best way to cement the notion that the designer had done his homework; roads were smoothed out and straightened, buildings not allowed to overlap other terrain, slopes were smoothed off and made to look natural, billiard-flat terrain altered for relief, foliage arranged with the appearance of randomness, as it would in nature, etc.

In CMx2, the increased palette available to map designers gives greater power to provide convincing terrain. The cynical might note it gives greater ability to disguise poor scenario designs. The designer also faces more labour in his efforts; while the new elevation shaping tools have assisted in levelling the ground, other details have to be added painstakingly, such as road tiles, individual trees and bushes, and "flavor objects" which add verisimilitude, as well as the personalization of buildings by altering details of windowsill ornamentation, balconies, numbers of windows and doors, etc.

The 3-D terrain depictions in CM have come a long way. The inset shows the actual "Sunken Lane" south of Cristot, the colour screenshot comes from the CM:BN scenario. Second inset are the unit insignia of forces participating in the battle.
Game Designer as Story Teller
As alluded to above, the (good) CM scenario designer is now a story teller. Certainly when designing for solo play, the creation of AI plans almost requires a script of the action beforehand. The strategic AI requires the scenario designer to plan moves in advance, and in effect, to anticipate the actions of scenario players. It's a difficult proposition, and the ability to make the Tac AI appear to be operating randomly is to provide multiple plans to select from, none of which are chosen by the Strat AI according to the evolving tactical situation. It's not a complaint, but a truism that the scenario designer now must be able to script these AI plans and predict well what a reasonable player might do when playing solo. It may be fair to say that the CM player today has to be a better player himself, when designing for the new game engine, than in the past, or at the very least, a poor player had a better likelihood of sneaking a good design into publication and past the discerning eyes of those who would play it.

Changing Appetites?
If there ever was an appetite for strictly historical scenarios - and I'm not positive there really ever has been a huge following for such things - it is clearly diminishing as Combat Mission matures, perhaps in inverse proportion to the average age of its followers. It would be interesting to see what the new CM: Touch and other Apple applications will do to the demographics. Sadly, BFC may jealously guard these details as closely as they guard their sales figures, which is their prerogative as entrepreneurs. But the appeal of wargaming has always seemed to be more of a 'war is fun' approach than a strict retelling of history. The most successful games seem to have taken that approach - Advanced Squad Leader, for all its pretend gravitas, and those 5,500 deathly serious scenario cards, is about as realistic as Rick Jason ordering Vic Morrow around on a Hollywood backlot. Boardgames like Ambush! are still fondly recalled for their homage to war-as-fantasy/adventure, and even CM's designers seem to have cut their ties to reality firstly with the unique (for its setting and backstory) Shock Force project in its entirety, but also by indulging their scenario designers on the release disc of CM:BN, with a number of fictional and "semi-historical" scenarios. The community has responded in kind, with the most popular user-submitted download on their Repository to date being a unique, story-driven campaign which improves on CMX2's linear structure by introducing decision trees and a character-driven narrative of a kind lacking in the official release fare. Devil's Descent seems purposefully reminiscent of Ubisoft's Brothers in Arms, which isn't such a bad thing. The most successful scenarios seem to be those that engage the desire for action-adventure rather than just a sense of reliving history.

My Final Word
Panzer Command:Ostfront, with its attention to historical fidelity (3D terrain models of historical locations like the Stalingrad Train Station trump even Combat Mission for "you are there" immersion), came and went with little fanfare. Is it the scale - company-level, squad-based tactics set in the Second World War - that is starting to seem 'done to death'? New game systems seem to be appearing in bunches; Fighting Formations and Band of Brothers are relative newcomers now in the boardgaming world. New miniatures sets appear with some regularity also - James Day's rework of his venerable Panzer rules is still highly sought. And on the computer, Tigers Unleashed and a number of other board-game like treatments have come along while Combat Mission continues to feel its way into new territory.

And in the meantime, first person shooters and massively-multi-player online role-playing games rake in the disposable cash of the mainstream, eager for action and adventure.

Perhaps we're just not getting it, but having tried World of Tanks, I can't get excited about resource gathering and treating tanks as if they were elves.

But I am getting the feeling that the strict history stuff is quickly going the way of the Dodo.

My Question to You
Whither next? I'm having trouble getting excited about iOS games if only because, from my limited perspective, they don't seem to offer much opportunity for community input, which is where traditionally the best scenario designers have come from, regardless of which game system one cares to name. Perhaps that will or is changing, but the PC communities have a lively feel right now. Can that be replicated if tactical wargaming makes a major shift to tablets as the platform of choice?

Notes

1. My only experience playing Fionn was in the so-called "CMBO Invitational Tourney of the Stars", which was a series of 1500-point purchase scenarios, all meeting engagements, on custom maps by Treeburst155 (Mike M.)  Fionn's stardom was assured by his known skill at the game; mine definitely not any great skill at playing CM. His reputation preceded him and his paratroopers drove me off the field in an 81-19 rout whose score probably doesn't reflect accurately the nature of the beat-down I was given. He gave some generous pointers on tactics after the game in a debrief though the exact conversation is now lost to memory and does not appear in my files.


Monday, April 2, 2012

Eight Thoughts About Combat Mission: Touch

Some people confessed to be stunned by the announcement of the release of Combat Mission: Touch, but there were signs that something like this was going to happen. Battlefront.com (“BFC” hereafter) has hinted about some unspecified “big news” for a long time – one presumes this has to be it. Anyone following the rise in popularity of devices and games, and the conversations among wargamers who are now clamouring for wargame-themed apps, may have even predicted this.

I would not have guessed nor am I in the camp of those desiring such things, but the news is nonetheless a thought-provoking one. Here are eight such thoughts of mine after having had a day to process the news:

The Timing – BFC has had a consistently inconsistent relationship with its own consumer base. When the first major change to the PC-based game engine was initially discussed (the passing from so-called "CMX1" that powered their first three releases circa 2000-2003 to "CMX2" in 2007), the developers announced, in advance and with candidness, that they were prepared to exchange some of their older customers/fans for new ones as a result of the new direction they wanted to take with their vision. In business, it’s a practical approach to adopt (not necessarily to admit), though the forum signature tag line of one of their customer service reps from the period still stands out in memory - “Battlefront.com – your best friend, your worst enemy” – if only as an indicator of what can be interpreted as an ambivalence towards those that support them.

Things have changed in many ways since then. Their most aggressive customer rep has moved on, and their public relations efforts have been improving. A case can be made that the rollout of the latest CM module was skilfully handled, with informative public videos, after-action reports (i.e. public replays) in advance of release, and generally much slicker pre-release material than that which preceded earlier CM titles – such as one memorable preview posted to their YouTube feed in which unedited footage of an outclassed enemy being shot to pieces (narrated in a matter-of-fact monotone) was used to sell the game. It’s one thing to note that playing Shermans against Tigers is a tactical challenge that nonetheless happened with historical regularity in the Normandy bocage; quite another to post a movie of the massacre of a third world opponent by American Strykers and then think it is going to act as an incentive to rush out and buy your game. However, they’ve come a long way since then, albeit not without the occasional glitch. The Commonwealth Module logo depicting a P17 rifle was quickly replaced on their website when the inappropriateness of same was pointed out by multiple parties.

The announcement of CM: Touch should have been an easy hit out of the park; tablet/iOS games are all the rage now, and wargame treatments for same are in high demand, as for example a recent and relatively popular thread at boardgamegeek demonstrated. How do you mess up the announcement of something highly anticipated, and completely unexpected?

Answer: make it look like an April Fool’s joke. Just about every bit of positive feedback on release day was tempered with caveats starting with words to the effect of “Highly suspect this isn't real, but…”

The lack of belief was understandable, given that BFC has not made a tangible peep about this specific product, and the screenshots and videos were just “alien” enough to BFC’s existing project line to lack conviction. But BFC didn’t help matters by replying on their official forums with characteristic “hey, if you don’t want it, don’t buy it” aloofness.

The Business Model – I’ve thrown in these thoughts in a couple of other places but will collate them here. Micro-transactions seem to be the way of the future, though as far as wargaming goes, aren’t really anything new, either. Multi-Man Publishing has made a killing in recent years selling scenario packs to die-hard fans of their Advanced Squad Leader board game empire, often selling out their pre-order lists in a single weekend. If it works for hex and cardboard gear, it’s far easier to institute in the digital domain, and companies like Turbine, who are using it to make MMORPGs such as Lord of the Rings Online lucrative even in a free-to-play model, are doing quite well at it. BFC had mentioned a similar scheme for micro-transactions once before, when their Repository went online in support of their PC-based games, as an online file-sharing site for scenarios and mods. There was an immediate backlash against the notion that some sort of fee schedule be instituted for the site, probably because there were already fan/community sites providing a similar service that were well-established. However, this brings us to:

The Content Providers – Combat Mission on the PC has always had the advantage of shipping with a powerful map and scenario editor; additional content for the games was instantly provided via the fan and community base. Outstanding effort was rewarded within the community by name recognition (compare to the ASL community, for example, where it took decades before scenario designers were ever recognized by having their names attached to their designs) and word of mouth. Often, community-produced designs exceeded the quality of those that came with the original games, since those that produced them had the advantage of spending far more time with the products than the beta testers who had deadlines and the disadvantage of working in a closed environment, rather than the open feedback of the entire community to draw on.

The financial success of the new micro-transaction model would appear to rely on a proprietary scenario format and the necessity for BFC (or their agents) to be the sole creators of same. But this is debatable, too; despite the lawsuit between Critical Hit and the publishers of ASL, the latter have survived the growing number of third party scenario designs published for sale, mostly because most aficionados will buy “official” scenarios before those of the so-called Third Party Publishers (TPP) that are held in lower regard.

At any rate, it is confirmed that CM: Touch will not have an editor, so the question is raised as to who will provide the new content. Given the surprise raised by some of BFC’s own regular Combat Mission beta testers on the official forums regarding the very existence of the new game, another question that comes up is – who has provided the content that is already there?

Duration of Interest – The last point begs another question though, which is ultimately how many scenarios does a 5 or 6 dollar “time-waster” really require. The game itself apparently has a time cap of 15 minutes (30 turns of 30 seconds each). The game is obviously limited by the hardware, and the interface (just your “war fingers”). None of which is a criticism, but an observation without even having seen the actual product personally. Will it be the kind of game one plays over and over? Will new scenarios really feel all that different? Will the intent be to sell new games every six months with different theatres of war to make up for that?

I would not be surprised by the latter, particularly given the interest expressed on the forums for the PC game in theatres such as the Pacific, the Eastern Front, or even France 1940 or NATO vs. Warsaw Pact circa the 1970s. (Though how alienated would the PC crowd feel if Touch went to France and the PC game never got there? Probably a bit, but BFC would survive it just as they survived when the Australian Army got a custom edition of CM:AK and the “paying customers” had to wait. I think by now the remaining BFC fans have something akin to battered wife syndrome; there wasn’t as much as a cross word on the official forums at the lack of prior discussion about CM: Touch. Surprise announcements are now just the order of the day in the tight-knit community there.)

Much would depend on how the revenue streams go, and of course – BFC doesn’t discuss that. Ever. In the meantime:

Development Stream – …the question raised by at least a couple of nervous fans in a couple of venues, is what impact this new game has had on the development of the current BFC flagship, the PC version of Combat Mission. What we do know is that the new game engine – CMX2 – premiered in 2007 to a rocky start but has maintained a loyal fan base. CMX2 has seemingly split into two development streams – Shock Force, a game about near-future combat in Syria (or perhaps “near-past” circa 2008, I’m not sure anymore), and Battle for Normandy (CM:BN), which apparently has one more module on the slate, to include, if I am reading things correctly, terrain and forces circa Operation MARKET-GARDEN in the autumn of 1944. The plan was then to create more games – which may or may not have been compatible with CM:BN (i.e. they may have been standalones), to cover the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and eventually the Eastern Front of World War II (in an ambitious scheme that would split the war into three or four games (1 per year) and each game into modules, or something like 9 or 12 products in total).

What hasn’t been discussed publicly is just how much manpower BFC has devoted to CM:Touch. They have partnered with a company whose specialty is producing apps for Apple. Any number of scenarios are possible, including the notion that BFC has simply licensed their trademark CM name and some of their in-game artwork (notably the disc-shaped icons) and let a fresh set of programmers do the heavy lifting in exchange for a share of the rewards. Perhaps they’ve hired more programmers to work behind the scene. Or, perhaps their already busy, and small, programming and development staff is hard at work shaping the future of CM: Touch. The latter would not be happy news for fans of CM for the PC, I think, given the want/feature lists for CMX2 that keep appearing on the official forums, alongside a sprinkling of nagging bug reports and/or requests for explanation of current features that just don’t seem to sit right with the existing community (things like World War II tanks firing on the move with Abrams-like accuracy, which have been officially explained as “abstractions”.)

The Splintered Community – There may be a debate in some circles as to whether CM: Touch is a wargame, presuming enough people are interested enough to engage in public discussion about it. Those discussions tend to take place when “popular” games hit the mainstream, so perhaps such a debate is premature. Twilight Struggle is the classic example from the boardgame world. These debates probably shouldn’t concern fans of BFC or even fans of the game; they’re just so much noise in discussion circles. What may be of more concern is how the developers themselves relate to their own creations, and where the CM series as a whole goes a year from now should one form of CM prove vastly more popular than the other. For those with an investment in the “serious” side of wargaming, there is more at stake.

Reaction among the fans at the official forums seems to indicate there does not need to be a schism; those fans of the PC game that also happen to own an iPad seem happy to pick up CM: Touch as an augment to their gaming library. A reasonable proposition that has been noted in the past is that games of a given genre usually appeal collectively. When it was suggested that Panzer Command was a “competitor” of Combat Mission, I added my voice to the chorus of those who said it was nonsense – anyone interested in Second World War tactical combat games was likely to pick up both games for their library. (Again, from the boardgaming world, when the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits hit the market as a “gateway” to the venerable tactical gaming system, some of the most ardent consumers of the new kits – were the oldest veterans of the system, some who introduced new players with the kits, others who just wanted to collect them, still others who genuinely just enjoyed the new feel of the ASLSKs and wanted something different to play.)

With this game, however, one wonders if BFC isn’t more interested in appealing to casual or non-wargamers than in engaging their existing hardcore wargaming fanbase. I seem to recall the same being said about much more hardcore products such as CM:SF. The best case scenario – perhaps optimistically, from BFC’s perspective – is that Touch serves as a gateway, so instead of just selling $1 scenario packs, you eventually hook people on $40 CMX2 games.

Any real “threat” to the PC Combat Mission community would come from a splintering of resources among the developers, but if the plan is to use Touch as a gateway, BFC would be foolish to let that happen. Despite their occasional marketing glitch, the fact remains they are still in business and doing what they need to do to produce what their fans apparently want.

The Right Decision – wargamers tend to think that the companies who make these games are charities who make these games for the love of the hobby. BFC wrote a manifesto in 1999 and appeared to their fans to be a little company that was different from the big bad corporations, but they’ve (perhaps sensibly) moved away from that. Their decisions, too, will be made by the bottom line. There would be no way for an outside commentator to observe accurately whether or not CM: Touch was a bold decision, or even a good decision, without access to BFC’s balance sheets. Time will tell. For now, the consumer simply wins by having a new product in their hands. It will all, ultimately, come down to how much money BFC can make off of it. That’s the reality of the wargaming industry (I don’t call it a hobby), no different than any other.

Staying Focused – But per the last point, one does note BFC’s track record of being side-tracked into unprofitable territory. They have burned through a number of ventures with other developers, and games have come and gone from their website with some regularity over the years as they’ve struggled to find relevant ventures to augment their flagship titles. CM:SF got off to its aforementioned rocky start by an unfortunate partnership with a retailer that forced a premature product release. Panther Games came and went with Airborne Assault, Histwar: Les Grognards was a non-starter, and some less-mainstream projects such as T-72 (a Balkans Wars tank simulator) passed through to little fanfare. Some stories were heart-breaking, such as Combat Mission: Campaigns, which apparently nearly bankrupted independent designer Bruce Poon of Hunting Tank Software as they struggled with BFC to design an operational-level interface for the flagship. Others were too strange to be believed, such as the notion that Drop Ship, the science fiction game, was being developed into a World War II tactics game (would there really have been a need for this alongside BFCs other two World War II tactics titles, Theatre of War and Combat Mission?)

Not as crazy as it sounds; Dropship had a realistic physics engine and 3-D modelling. At least one fellow saw the logic in a World War II version.
 A lot of these projects fall under the “sounded great at the time” category, though naturally it is very easy to criticize in hindsight. I’d still love to see a product like Combat Mission: Campaigns. As a member of the beta team, while not directly involved with the coding of CM:C, I was certainly witness to the enthusiastic support it received from the scenario/campaign designers. I am certain its failure was not due to a lack of effort.

No one will know whether or not CM: Touch will represent a drain on BFC’s resources or not; to speculate on a company stretching their resources against their better interests is probably foolish, especially with no inside information to back up any such assertion. The only lesson to be drawn here, however, is a general lack of success among a number of “side-projects” (which probably cost them little or nothing in terms of resources such as capital or manpower), which one can attribute as easily in the absence of any detailed information to bad luck. I know I wouldn’t want to try and gauge in advance what sells or what does not in something as volatile as the videogame market, in a niche as small as wargaming.

If I was in that position, I would never have guessed that Theatre of War would have been a success, and probably would have jettisoned it for being too much like Combat Mission. Yet there it remains, with its sequels, apparently none the worse for wear for its similarity in scope and theme to CM. So perhaps the smart money is to just figure BFC knows what its doing based on the successes it does continue to enjoy.

Conclusion

Most have said all along that if BFC does well – I suppose to mean remains solvent while producing games – it is good for the wargaming industry. I’m not sure I’ve ever fully agreed with that. Good games are what are best for the wargaming industry. Anyone that proves to be capable of doing that is by extension good for the industry.

This gets more than a little complicated. If CM: Touch fills Battlefront’s coffers, but takes away development time from the PC flagship, those who are fans of the latter but not the former will no doubt fail to see any benefit from BFC’s success, for themselves or the industry. But as noted, if managed well, the Touch has the ability to be a lucrative venture. It’s all in the hands of the consumer.

And, apparently, a small “chosen few” of scenario designers.

Or, thinking larger, other game producers, who may see a BFC success as a gateway of their own. Perhaps, for example, the most detailed, fully realized Sherman tank simulator to hit the market in the 21st Century will not be a PC game at all – but an app?

My Question to You

Should wargamers embrace this as the future of wargaming? The potential is for widespread, mainstream acceptance of this game, with its cute sprites and easy to use interface coupled with deeper gameplay. At best, it would augment CM for the PC for those that own it, and act as a gateway for those that have not yet experienced it.

Or should wargamers shun this as “not a wargame” and reject it as a threat to the hobby, for fear it will simply eat up production time better spent on “real wargames”, promote a further dumbing down of games and interfaces to the lowest common denominator, and add more fuel to the exodus away from games like CM, Close Combat and Steel Panthers and back towards Panzer Claws?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Player Typing

There is a need in certain quarters to categorize game players, whether it is to gather demographics for advertising, or to attempt to predict future sales, or to better enable fellow gamers to talk to one another. MOVES Magazine printed an article in 1975, breaking down board wargamers into the following:
  • The Military Establishment
  • The Military Historians
  • The Military Buffs
  • The Avengers
  • The Social Wargamers
  • The Mathematicians
  • The Supercompetitors
  • The Accidental Converts
  • The Shut-Ins
  • The Limited Interest Minority
  • The Wishful Thinkers
  • The Reluctant Gift-Receivers
  • The Elite Capitalists
  • The Reluctant Opponents

The categories, author Phil Kosnett admitted, overlapped. What he didn't admit in print was that the piece was probably meant as much as humorous filler as a serious attempt to define the wargaming community. As with all good humour, there was much truth in his descriptions. I recall turning a friend of the family into a Reluctant Opponent in a game of Wreck of the B.S.M. Pandora during a stay at his home. I think most of my early Squad Leader opponents were probably Reluctant Opponents, come to think of it.1

Twenty-five years later, Curt Schilling described the Advanced Squad Leader community as "cliques", breaking them down as "Competitor. Simulator. Historian. Socializer. Many of you may have seen wargaming broken down like this before."2

Somewhere during the intervening quarter century, however, it became possible to introduce a new dynamic into the mix; that of the Experiential Wargamer. The introduction of tactical level wargames, first person shooters, and legitimate solitaire gaming all helped develop that new category.

Early Roots and Shameful Pursuits

The first board wargames were intended to portray operational level clashes where the gamer filled the role of a general in command of an army group, army or corps commander. Tactical-level games didn't arrive on the scene until later - though miniature players had been recreating low-level tactical battles for decades by the time PanzerBlitz hit the scene in 1970. The "dirty little secret" among wargamers, however, was that the majority of gamers had always played solo. SPI began surveying its customers in the late 1960s with reader feedback cards and found in excess of 50 percent of those surveyed played alone - before the invention of board wargames specifically designed for solo play. "In the 1990s, the number of games played solitaire exceeds sixty percent."3 SPI recognized this phenomenon early on; in the very first issue of their "house organ", MOVES Magazine, they published a "how to" article on maximizing solitaire play.4

As the focus of wargames decreased in scope, however, the ability to picture one's self in the role of the commanders increased. It became possible to become personally involved in the events on the game board. It had been possible to picture yourself as the generalissimo of the Red Army in Tactics II, of course, but it was still a somewhat abstract experience to push entire divisions from square to square.

You Command The Action

In 1977, Squad Leader not only put the player into the role of a company commander, in charge of 100 or so men engaged in desperate battle, but with a unique Campaign Game and a set of blank "leader" counters, permitted the player to lend his own name and personality to the proceedings. For the first time, the 1/2-inch cardboard square represented one person - the player - and his skill at arms would have repercussions not just in the current game, but in a series of games, with the ability to rise in rank and ability.



Playing for Experience

What the Squad Leader campaign game permitted was the creation of another category of "casual" game player - the Experiential Player. Like the other categories that have been created (and none of these are set in stone, as they are creations of convenience for the specific purposes of those that create them) they freely overlap. They can be the bane of the Serious Competitor who wants to play him, or the Stolid Historian who wants to debate him. He might even be highly sought after by the Crass Commercialist who wants to sell extra historical modules to him because he knows he can "hook" him based on new "flavours" alone.

What the Experiential Player could do was actually relive some of the excitement the ad copy on the back of the box promised, which proclaimed "YOU are the Squad Leader." The game became less a function of calculating the chance of a 2:1 odds attack with three regiments at Quatre Bras, and more about whether or not he had the guts to order his last five men into close combat against that tank around the next block. Imagination became part of the game. The following was recently posted in an ASL-themed blog, and illustrates the imaginative approach still taken to Squad Leader's offspring:
If there's one hallmark that makes a good wargame it's the narrative generated from the game. This is something you're just not going to get out of a Euro like Agricola or Puerto Rico or whatever. For example, take the case of the Cursed MMG.
Early in the game, around turn 2, the Russians who would have been manning a MMG...ran off after taking fire. They left a perfectly good support weapon lying around and in the next rally phase I rolled a SIX -- what the HELL?! Pick the damn thing up you scrubs!
I should have known then that the MMG was cursed. Slick with the blood of the Russian who last held it, the MMG was to be an albatross on the neck of every German squad who managed to pick it up... By game's end, its bad mojo extended into the full hex and even squads who didn't pick it up were gunned down...5
Rise of the Individual

While SPI recognized early on the proclivity to play games solitaire, it did not result in a great number of solitaire titles, and of those released, success has been mixed. Games like Iwo Jima and B-17: Queen of the Skies were mainly exercises in dice rolling. Tokyo Express received greater attention, and the title most germaine to this article, Ambush!, was perhaps the most successful, spawning several sequels, including three follow-ups, a companion game with sequel, a two-player version, and a tank-based variant as well as a number of third-party variants and scenarios. Ambush! was perhaps the most intense expression of the notion that players sat down with wargames solely for the Experience - that is to say, to engage their imagination and to indulge in escapism, rather than emphasis on the other often-cited historical, educational or competitive aspects to wargaming which had often been used to "legitimize" the hobby in the early days when escapism was really not possible given the limited physical components and interactivity of the games themselves. Not coincidentally, Ambush! was a man-to-man level game, with each game piece representing a single soldier, and the player was given free reign to name each member of his squad as he saw fit. Like the SL Campaign Game, each "character" had the opportunity to advance in skills, rank and ability over time as the player campaigned his squad through several missions.

The rise of role playing games in the early 1970s must surely have had an impact on legitimizing how wargamers approached the experience also. The first military themed RPG was published in 1979 - SPI once again led the way, with Commando - followed by almost a dozen other titles in the 1980s, none of which came anywhere close to the popularity of the fantasy or science fiction RPGs. But it may have been a simple matter of technology.

In 1992 Wolfenstein 3D was released and began appearing on home computers; it popularized the First Person Shooter genre, had a tinge of history to it (there were "Nazis" in an underground cavern and the Horst Wesel song was accurate, if not slightly offensive to the sensitive), and there was no need to pull out cardboard pieces and paper maps. By 1997, Muzzle Velocity was offering something much more historical - accurate 3D models of historical equipment in camouflage paint jobs, first person tank crew and infantryman views, the ability to switch between the 3D world and a 2D map; not all that remarkable, given that M-1 Tank Platoon had done many of the same things in 1989, but with vector graphics and without the infantry. The games weren't about counting firepower factors, they were about being there on the battlefield and experiencing it. Just like role playing games, first person shooters and 3D battle games were letting wargamers set foot in other worlds.


Knocked out Sherman tank in Muzzle Velocity (1997)
Trends

The focus on solitaire play and on individual achievement/campaign play would seem to have been influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the fantasy and role playing worlds. Real militaries emphasize teamwork and the necessity to work together to overcome obstacles. Basic training is an ordeal that takes weeks to accomplish. Divisions are commanded not by single commanders, but by staffs of officers trained in administration and logistics who wrestle with problems well beyond the ken of the uninitiated. The trend in military gaming is towards games such as Brothers in Arms which, while touting its "realism" because it occasionally asks the player to maneuver riflemen to a flanking position, still manages to ignore most of the realities of modern combat, specifically but not restricted to the complexities of command and control.

In actual fact, first person shooters are so unlike military practice, they are usually not considered "wargames"; but a new category has slipped in - "tactical shooters." These are man-to-man games set in the first person with a level of realism and fidelity superior to the "first person shooters." The differences are apparent; tactical shooters have no "health packs" or ability to magically heal, for one. Operation Flashpoint and Armed Assault have been assigned to this category. They also claim to have actual restrictions on command and control, in both single- and multi-player mode. Kill ratios are way down in the tactical shooters, and just seeing the enemy is a real accomplishment - as it usually is in real life.

As the games increase in scale, to squad- and platoon- level, the level of abstraction also increases, to simulate command and control problems and various types of "friction." The Experiential Player becomes drawn out of the game, and makes decisions not just for one person, but represents in reality a syndicate of commanders. It's possible to lose one's self in the experience, but it doesn't become the entire point of the game. An example is the initial iteration of Combat Mission where watching the 3D "movie" is necessary to plan strategy each turn. Another is in ASL, where smaller "narratives" get naturally built around individual vignettes, as we saw illustrated above with the Russian MMG.
 Bartles

 Video gamers who play MMORPGs (massively Multiplayer online role playing games, which tend to be fantasy-themed in nature) have their own breakdown, for which there is even a test, the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology, which rates players on their responses to questions which measure four basic personality "types" - Explorer, Achiever, Socializer, and Killer. The test examines the primary motivations by comparing two situations and weighing them against each other - would you rather find a pot of gold, or make a new friend, etc. The test weighs each respondent in the four categories with a percentage - you may find you are 100% explorer, but still 13% killer and 40% achiever, as there is definitely some overlap in the categories. Is it scientific? Probably not.
My Final Word

At the most basic level, every wargamer is an Experiential Player, given that the point of playing a game is to have fun or be entertained. The point of the article is to describe a player who plays for escapism above all else. Anyone who has fired up Panzer Commander just to maneuver the camera around one of the maps will relate to him. So will anyone who has used a map editor to recreate their own childhood neighbourhood.

My Question To You

To whom should any of this really matter?

1. Kosnett, Phil "What is a Wargamer?" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 19 Feb-Mar 1975)
2. Schilling, Kurt "Can You Ever Be Sure? Historical Research and ASL" (ASL Journal 2)
3. Dunnigan, James F. Wargames Handbook, Third Edition (Writers Club Press, Lincoln, NE, 2000) p.304 ISBN 0-595-15546-4
4. Richardson, Jay "Solitaire Wargaming" Moves Magazine (Issue Nr. 1 Feb 1972)
5. http://triplepbf.blogspot.com/2009/0...ays-start.html

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Age Old Wargaming Questions as they relate to Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

The latest entry in the tactical wargamer's PC library, if he is interested in 20th Century ground warfare, is most likely Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. A demo is available at this link for those not yet familiar with the game. The various Wikipedia entries describe the history of the game, and you can find find some screenshots at videogamegeek. Anyone who has followed the game series since the first title can't help but be a student of the various changes - not just in feature sets, but in game design philosophies that have driven the publishers. Certainly, they have been the subject of much discussion, both on the official forums and elsewhere.

Definitions

It is sometimes useful to take a step back and define meanings of words and phrases that come up in conversation. As one spends more time navigating sites devoted to wargames - and even that word can be a loaded one, as not everyone agrees that Combat Mission, in its current form, represents their idea of a "wargame" in something other than a strict dictionary definition - one finds many of the same themes being repeated.

What is more interesting is to find out that those same conversations and words have been repeated for decades now. All fields of human endeavour often show a proclivity to repeat patterns of behaviour, and it seems that wargame design - and I'll use the term "wargame" because I believe it still applies to Combat Mission - is one of them.

My case in point is an article I recently uncovered in an issue of Campaign Magazine from 1978.

Simulation vs. Gamesmanship

In an article in Issue 87 of Campaign, Len Kanterman and Doug Bonforte had this to say:
Campaign Number 87
...Dr. J.E. Pournelle touched on one of the controversies facing game designers (in a recent article): simulation versus gamesmanship, otherwise known as Realism versus Playability. This was a big subject several years back...Since then, the philosophy of simulation has been largely adopted in game designs, due primarily to the phenomenal rise of Jim Dunnigan's Strategy & Tactics organization...Unfortunately, S&T's attempt to present historical information through its games has resulted in games that are difficult to play and not very enjoyable. While not all S&T games are difficult...even (the less difficult ones) lack something. This "something" is harder to put your finger on, but can be called for lack of a better word, flavor. S&T games lack the excitement, drama, and challenge the old Avalon Hill games had. Their rules may duplicate the mode of warfare at the time, but don't capture the "feeling" of the historical era.
Without a doubt, this article could not be mistaken for anything but an opinion piece. I've no idea if the opinion of the authors was widely shared or not. It does draw parallels to conversations currently taking place in the CM communities.

For the record, the official stance of the publisher was stated on release in this forum announcement (emphasis below in original):
Before you, our favorite Refresh Monkeys™, get your little paws on the Demo, I wanted to say a few words about the pending release of the Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.

What we're about to release is a GAME. It is something to be played with and enjoyed, hopefully for longer than the time to download/install Yes, it's also a serious simulation, but that's merely a means of providing a more enjoyable gaming environment. After all, if this wasn't about having fun then how many of us would be interested in it?

It is also important to remember that we're not releasing "the perfect wargame", or even "the perfect game". There are no such things, therefore by definition there will be issues to raise here on this Forum. It's important to keep this in mind as we start in with the discussions that dissect and reduce a massive game down to a few bits and pieces for a particular topic of discussion. It's all too easy to get so wrapped up with the minutia and have that detract from enjoying the fullness of what the game has to offer. In all cases let's remember to keep criticism constructive, respectful, and within reason. It's important because that sort of feedback opens the door to improvements, while the opposite is harmful.
The announcement reads as an interesting mix of rededication to the original Battlefront Manifesto and almost an appeal for mercy. The orginal manifesto is still available from an internet archive. The quote from it below is from April 2001.1 
Our strategy is twofold. First, we outflank the Retail distribution problem with technology: the Internet. It’s cheap, totally within our control, and is without the artificial pressures of The Industry. We can do this because we don’t have to to sell hundreds of thousands of units each and every 6 months just to stay in business. Therefore, we don’t have to produce games that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Battlefront.com is about enjoyable, intelligent gaming, not Hollywood budgets, hype, and mass-market insanity. The only limit is the interest of all you wargamers out there, and we’re one of the few companies who think your interest matters!
The complementary half of the plan is community building. We want Battlefront.com to become a haven where wargamers come to discover and discuss games, military history, favorite strategies, feedback, you name it. It will also be a place - perhaps the only place - on the internet or anywhere else where you can buy first-rate wargames that haven’t “sold out” and become watered-down, thin gruel for the twitch crowd. 
Relationships with "Gamers"

It is not unreasonable to take the developer/publisher at their word, and examine Combat Mission in its intended guise, as a game, though Battlefront splits the difference by their own words and tells us it is "also" a "serious simulation." Conversations, going back decades now, have popularly put the two notions in opposition to each other. But most telling in the pre-release announcement above was the plea for mercy - perhaps not so much a plea, as an announcement within an announcement that conversations about the direction of future changes would take a different tone. Which seems to be at odds with that original manifesto.

It matters, because there are some gamers who believe this interaction between gamer and publisher is crucial. Again from the article in 1978:

To revitalize wargaming out of the simulation doldrums it is presently in, game designing must be made a more dynamic proposal. As anyone who's ever tried designing a game knows, it's never really finished. There are always a few more "finishing touches" that can be added. Instead of being limited to the designers and a few playtesters, this process should be opened up to all gamers. If designers explain how games were designed, players can begin treating rules as something less than gospel truth. The player is now a passive partner in game design. He can only accept what is offered to him, and he has no real foundation for correcting what he doesn't like.
These words were written with respect to hex and cardboard games, but they are obviously applicable to hard-coded computer games. No one would doubt there is more to be done with Battlefront's CMX2 game engine. No one would suggest the engine itself should be literally "opened up to all gamers" to tinker with, but certainly a deeper understanding of how and why things work - beyond the purely mechanical of the game code - would be helpful.

 One commentator on battlefront's approach to "explain(ing) how (their) games were designed" had this to say:

Wargame rules can be arbitrary, but you get them written down in English and in paper, and quite often accompanied by a rationale under the title "Designer Notes". This approach to documenting the game might not appeal (to) the casual reader, but it's quite informative. BFC appeal to our intuition with 1:1 modeling and lush 3d graphics, but both the representation on the screen and the modeling are at odds with it.
Battlefront has been adamant, and with good reason, that involving the audience in things like adding free content will never happen. The rationale for not publishing more detailed "designer's notes" is less clear, but apparently is not confined to any one company, or wargaming medium, since it has been a topic of discussion for decades now. They might prevent these kinds of posts:

The best example is the stepped degradation of optics and fire control. There seem to be 4 or 5 standard steps that no matter where it hits, it gets reduced one step. There may be some reality to that with back up sights and such, but I had a Leopard 2 hit on the rear deck that ended up dropping optics down a level. I have no idea what that means or how it happens.
Similar questions continue in the Normandy title, as evidenced by this thread, which includes this comment:
Sub-system damage never made any sense to me in CMSF or this game. There are some indications it is hit-point based, but it never makes enough sense for me to work it out.
After three days of discussion, the publisher has not provided a response, or directed respondents to an FAQ.

Gamer and Designer as Equals

Kanterman and Bonforte ended their article by suggesting that "If players and designers begin interacting as equals, the hobby will take on a totally new dimension." It's an interesting proposition, though on the face ot if one would need to clarify before declaring it still valid, with respect to computer games. As pointed out in the post referenced above, expecting fanbases to directly contribute computer code is probably not workable. In many ways, fan contribution does happen already, inasmuch as games like Combat Mission depend on volunteer scenario designers and beta testers to populate their releases. As someone with direct experience working on several beta teams on various tactical wargame projects, both board and computer based, I can personally attest that there is a certain amount of input (dependent on the personalities involved) that testers may have on the actual design of the game, via feedback to the developers during the research stage.

The article from 1978 makes some interesting points that still apply, but I would suggest that they may have wanted to divide their attention between pre-release input and post-release input. A famous military artist once told me that his favourite come-back to "know it all" critics was to use the line "where were you when I needed you", i.e., before the project was completed and released to the public.

Conclusion

The "Realism vs. Playability" debate is not one I intended to enter into; merely comment that it has been ongoing for decades and will go on for as long as hobbyists enjoy wargames. Rather than be disappointed that this dichotomy can never be resolved, I think it may pay publishers - and gamers - dividends to look at successful models from the past to find strategies for communication. FAQ lists, Designer's Notes, and bilateral communication on design decisions seem like good models to adopt. Whether gamers and designers should be "equals", as suggested by Kanterman and Bonforte, in the design phase is still in my opinion open to debate.

My question(s) to you

Can a game designed by committee really be superior? Kanterman and Bonforte mention in their conclusion that a game author who "relates what his interpretation was based on" gives players a "guide to creating a better (game)." Battlefront has stated publicly that allowing free content additions to their games would be "competing with themselves." Is there a valid disincentive to publishing designer's notes?

Notes
1. Though the manifesto is referred to by Steve Grammont as having been published as early as 1998 in this post which references the current, 2008 version, which rewrites the 1998 version.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Buildings in Tactical Wargames



This subject seems to be coming up in various communities recently. One of the criticisms being levelled at Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy is that houses afford too little protection to infantry. In the Advanced Squad Leader world, the latest edition of their own journal devoted 12 entire pages to an article on "Key Building Defense."

Given the amount of discussion of the subject, you would conclude the topic is somewhat important; at first blush one might even ask: what's to conclude? Hiding behind a wall is safer than being out in the open - it's a non-starter.

Let's go back a bit, first.

Background

Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Jebb of the Royal Engineers, pictured at right, made a modern and scientific study of military approaches to attacking and defending not just military fortifications, but also civilian dwellings, and published his findings in Aide Memoire to the Military Sciences in 1853. His approach to the subject was thoughtful and measured, but above all, indicated that buildings could be successfully defended by infantry given the proper circumstances, notably solid construction, commanding lines of sight/fields of fire, and a clear path of withdrawal, among others. In 1862, as the American Civil War was being fought, the same publication printed an article discussing the concepts of house-to-house fighting inside built-up areas. By 1914, engineers in the world's armies - for centuries, the practitioners of siege operations - were studying and practicing for siege operations in miniature. New weapons were perfected in the 1914-18 war, such as the flamethrower, and old weapons - such as the hand grenade - were modernized with new twists, such as the friction igniter.1

Modern house clearing

So even as early as the ACW, armies were thinking about not just attack/defence of isolated strongpoints in individual buildings, but also urban combat, where entire blocks of buildings might become fought over by infantry. Large cities did not become objects of attention in the First World War - mobile warfare advanced at too slow a pace even when the front broke loose of the trenches - but things were to change by the time of the Second World War.

Tactics for street-fighting in the 1939-45 war were developed in many ways reluctantly. Most armies considered major urban operations as undesirable due to the resources it would require to fight within a large urban centre, and cities were usually considered best bypassed. While the Germans did have their own tactical training in place for urban operations in 1939-40, their operations in places like Calais or Warsaw were the exceptions to the rule.

Even in open warfare, though, individual buildings still had to be dealt with. German training manuals emphasized deception:

Individual farms or other isolated buildings required rather different treatment, as described in Der Feuerkampf der Schutzenkompanie (1940). In this instance the best plan was for a squad to be placed in cover a few yards to the rear of the structure while the leader adopted an inconspicuous forward observation position...Once enemy troops came into view the rest of the squad could quickly be signalled up into defensive positions in and around the house. In this way the enemy would be fooled into thinking the building was undefended until it was too late, when their own men were exposed to fire at disadvantage.2

If there has been argument in the gaming communities about the advantages/disadvantages afforded by buildings, so too has there been in the "real world" on which our tactical wargames are based, at least if some of the reports of the 1st Special Service Force from the Anzio beachhead are any indication. In mid-April 1944, a "lessons learned" document emerged from their experiences, gleaned from every soldier in the Force:

One of the problems it dealt with was houses: whether to use them or not. One member of 3rd Regiment (1SSF) pointed to their value: "Houses are not death traps but give protection from artillery and mortar fire," he argued, "and patrols will not be surprised in them if they are properly out posted." Someone had a different opinion:

If your intention is to secure a house, you do not get in it. Place your fields of fire to cover it. Basically you were probably not given the mission of holding the house but of engaging the enemy in that vicinity. The house will likely attract the enemy. That is all value the house has to your operation 90% of the time.

And a third added this warning:

A patrol from a neighbouring infantry outfit, 13 strong, was sent out to an outpost, a house. Nothing happened for two night. They assumed that nothing would. They relaxed. All members of the patrol were taken PW. A subsequent patrol went to search for them, found all their weapons neatly stacked...The enemy patrol apparently was not even large enough to carry off the captured weapons. Never get in a house at night.3

If tactical wargames reflect the reality that they seek to portray, then it's incumbent on them to address the modelling of troops in buildings. Most games do this with a simple bonus to cover and concealment, often with two or more categories (light/heavy, wood/stone, etc.). The actual tactics for breaching the buildings are not often modelled in detail, for example, rooftop entry, "mouseholing" by use of demolition charge, etc. There are exceptions to this. Cityfight (SPI, 1979) was a purpose-designed look at contemporary urban operations in great detail. Likewise, Combat Mission: Shock Force (battlefront.com, 2007) attempted to give similar coverage to 21st Century urban warfare in a videogame treatment.

Wargaming Examples

The axioms that Colonel Jebb outlined as early as the 19th Century were sound, and can be applied to any wargame. The ASL Journal advises players defending buildings to protect flanks and ensure escape routes lest defenders become trapped inside buildings.4 Test scenarios set up in both Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord and Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy reveal the wisdom of this, and you can try this on your own. Put a German heavy MG crew in a building on a flat open piece of terrain. Put three U.S. squads 200-250 metres metres away at three widely divergent compass points. They can all be "out of command" from their headquarters. You can even have the U.S. headquarters charge headlong at the German MG just to have the rifle squads sight the MG and get the test started. What will invariably happen is that the machine gun team, surrounded, will be picked off by rifle fire and the U.S. rifle squads will suffer little, or no, losses.

However, in CM:AK, when the American rifle squads are put on line, and the German MG is able to benefit from the cover of the building, the expected results occur: the German MG team will remain intact - suffering no losses and firing until it runs out of ammunition. Even under concentrated rifle fire at ranges of 200-250 yards, rifle fire alone will not be enough to have an effect on the MG. On the other hand, the MG will be able to return fire on the infantry in the open and inflict casualties.

In CM:BN, the German MG team acts uniquely - the Tac AI will almost immediately pack up the machine gun, and retreat outside the building and set up in the lee of the house, highlighting a self-preservation rationale in the AI's decision making. Even when playing from the German side, the Tac AI will override the player's orders and exhibit this behaviour; just one minute into the test scenario, the German MG team, faced with three rifle squads to its front, will pack up its MG and race for the back door of the house in order to redeploy in the lee of the building.


The tempting conclusion here, absent solid data to back up the assertion, is that the building does not offer solid enough cover to the infantry inside. Observational data seem to confirm it - i.e. repeat tests show the infantry inside do suffer losses when exposed to rifle fire at the same ranges as in CM:AK. However, the Americans use rifle grenades with greater frequency in CM:BN, and their use, like that of all weapons, is less abstract.

What is "correct"?

None of which gets one closer to the "truth". The fact of the matter is that given the wide variance of actual practice in real world armies, and the lack of consistency in which success or failure was reported, we may never know what is "right" or "wrong" with regards to the modelling of same on the game board or in computer simulations, or indeed, if such a thing can exist. Timothy Harrison Place, who wrote of Military Training in the British Army, tells us that "The scarcity of evidence makes it impossible to gauge the progress of units towards achieving fluency in minor tactics."5 He writes of the training phase, but certainly such confusion must extend to the actual battle phase, for which relatively few detailed technical examinations at the section/squad and platoon level have circulated in the public consciousness.

All of which is frustrating for the tactical wargamer, who has to spend time - perhaps in "test-bed" scenarios such as the one above - trying to figure out what works, and what doesn't, rather than having the comfort of an easily accessible manual or rulebook that will outline in clear "how-to" terms what to do and what not to do. Then again, that, too, is historical. The major combatants of the Second World War dipped their toes into major urban combat only reluctantly, as we have noted, and developed their doctrine for house-to-house fighting as the war progressed only out of necessity, not desire, particularly after Stalingrad. The British began honing their methods as the threat of invasion loomed in 1940, and in fact their Home Guard were among the pioneers of development, and it was contacts with them that prepared the Canadian Army for the bitter test of Ortona in late 1943 on the Italian front.

Still; in 1977, there was some comfort for a Squad Leader player of having a nice firm kill stack ensconced in a solid +3 TEM stone building, especially with a solid -2 leader directing the action. One has to ask what those fellows in CM:BN are doing - skulking (this is a term used to describe the specific tactic in ASL of moving one hex in the phasing player's movement phase, to avoid being fired on in the enemy's defensive fire phase, then advancing back into the very same position in his advance phase again, an exploit of the game's unique multi-phase system) - or sulking?

My question to you

The traditional breakdown of building types has generally been two - SL/ASL has had wood/stone buildings; CM's various incarnations has generally had light/heavy buildings; Ambush! had light/heavy, etc. Is this enough? Should there be more distinctions for a Second World War era game set in Europe? Just one? Which game has gotten the modelling just right - and which game has gotten it disastrously wrong? The parallelograms from the Sniper! games by SPI have never been popular, visually, but in practice seemed to work okay.


Notes
1. Bull, Stephen World War II Street Fighting Tactics (Osprey Publishing Ltd, Botley, Oxford, UK, 2008) ISBN 978-1-84603-291-2pp.3-4
2. Ibid, p.7
3. Joyce, Kenneth H. Snow Plough and the Jupiter Deception (The Story of the 1st Special Service Force and the 1st Canadian Special Service Battalion, 1942-1945) Vanwell Publishing Ltd., St. Catharines, ON, 2006 ISBN 1-55125-094-2
4. Pitcavage, Mark "The Last House on the Left: The Art of Key Building Defense in ASL" ASL Journal Issue Nine (Multi-Man Publishing, 2011) p. 47
5. Harrison Place, Timothy Military Training in the British Army, 1940-1944: From Dunkirk to D-Day (Frank Cass, London, UK, 2000) ISBN 071468091-5 p.67