Archive for April, 2010

Recipe for a Great Spring Day

This spring is making me ridiculously happy, in part because it’s the first real spring I’ve experienced in many, many years. In northern Wisconsin, where I used to live, the ground is covered in snow and ice until April, until it abruptly melts into mud, then bakes in the heat throughout May. “Spring” is what you call the nice couple of weeks that precede the summer heat wave. The weather isn’t much better in northwest Indiana.

Boston winter may have sucked, but it’s making it up to me with days like yesterday and today: sunny, breezy, and cool. It was so nice yesterday that I decided to go work elsewhere, and took  a stroll down to Toscanini’s ice cream in Central Square. There is nothing like eating Caramel Delight ice cream for lunch on a weekday morning to make you feel like being a grown-up is everything you thought it would be when you were a kid.

At the risk of seeming like an unprofessional novice, I will say that yesterday also marked the first time I’ve had two pieces of paid work published on the same day. I could and perhaps should let the occasion pass unremarked, looking on with a cool detachment that says, “This happens to me every day.” But the fact is that it does not happen every day, and yesterday’s milestone was further proof that I am continuing to move the ball down the field. Such morale boosts are important, especially when there are nothing but deadlines as far the eye can see.

The first piece that went up was my GameShark review of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. No reader of this blog will be surprise to find that I gave it a positive review, but I reserved most of my judgments for the review itself. This game would have been in “A” territory easily with a little more polish and a less infuriating interface, but even with the user-unfriendliness that I’ve come to associate with eastern European PC games, it’s a really good wargame. A patch was just released that I haven’t had time to play with. Hopefully it addresses some of my complaints.

The other piece that went up is a feature on The Hunter and its moral code that I wrote for The Escapist. I’ll definitely have more to say about this game and this piece later this week, but for now I’ll just point you to the article and let you read it.

One Move Behind – The Problem with Mechanized Warfare

Last week’s Three Moves Ahead was probably the most enjoyable one I’ve done in awhile, in part because it gave me a rare opportunity to get into a really detailed, nuts-and-bolts conversation about wargames and how they model certain aspects of warfare. The catalyst for this discussion was Achtung Panzer, but we ended up going in a lot of different directions, and there were a lot of discussion points that we didn’t quite hit.

Anyway, one subject we touched on but didn’t really address is the problems that arise when wargames attempt to model mechanized warfare. My feeling is that, generally, wargames flub mechanized warfare, and I don’t know whether this is a failure of game design or a problem of the subject making for lousy game design.

When I talk about mechanized warfare, I’m not talking about tanks, nor am I talking about infantry being driven to the front aboard trucks. I am talking  about the kind of combat that occurs when you have all these elements present in the combat zone at once.

It’s different from combined arms tactics. Classically, combined-arms meant employing artillery or ranged units, infantry, and cavalry in conjunction with one another. The “arms” were distinct from one another. Wargames don’t have much trouble translating these tactics into a rock-paper-scissors formula. Cavalry can devastate unprotected artillery, but get torn to pieces by prepared infantry. Infantry can slug it out with other infantry, but are vulnerable to artillery and cavalry assaults against unprotected flanks. These are straightforward combinations, and readily lend themselves to game mechanics.

In World War II, it all starts getting very blurry. The most powerful artillery is no longer physically present on the battlefield: fire missions are called in to distant batteries and there is nothing you can do about it. Cavalry have vanished, but now you have tanks that can move rapidly… but hit more like field artillery, and are impervious to most weapons.

Field artillery is now represented by the mortar and the antitank gun. But the mortar lacks the clear-cut advantages that the field artillery or archers of earlier eras enjoyed. The AT gun exists to kill armored vehicles, but has a multitude of serious vulnerabilities. It is worthless against infantry and exceedingly vulnerable to tanks, as it can’t move and tanks can engage it at range.

Infantry still fight like infantry, but can sometimes move like cavalry aboard vehicles. They are only useful against armor in specific cases: ambushes, forest fighting, and street fighting. But in any kind of open country, they don’t stand a chance against tanks and assault guns.

See what I mean about things getting blurry? Also, consider this: from the close of the 17th century to the end of the 19th, the type of combined arms warfare I described above remained largely unchanged on the battlefield. Technology and developments in military thought may have revolutionized how armies were raised and moved, but the battlefield was still a place of field artillery, cavalry, and infantry. Western nations spent over two centuries fighting roughly similar sorts of battles.

World War I overturned that order, and left more questions than answers at its close. In the space of 20 years, the great powers had to figure out what lessons they were taking away from the Great War, and then put them into practice. As it turned out, the Germans were about the only people who drew the right conclusions. The French put too much faith in fixed defenses but, more importantly, they never realized that armor could be employed as a separate arm rather than as a support weapon. The Soviet Army, and its doctrine, were devastated by the purges. With the exception of tank design, they spent the entire war playing catch-up to the Germans. The American tank program never came close matching the Germans on the battlefield. The Sherman delivered victory through its numbers and its reliability, neither of which are as important in a wargame scenario as they are on the strategic level.

If you accurately model all this stuff, is the end result a satisfying game? It’s one thing to model fighting in hedgerows and streets, where the terrain itself kind of acts to balance all the units, but when the maps open up a bit and units can see for hundreds of meters… suddenly tanks start to look a little daunting.

It’s not that there aren’t countermeasures. Tanks are incredibly vulnerable to other tanks and antitank guns, for instance. But that’s a problem right there: once these units engage one another, the kills will happen very quickly. Especially since most anti-tank weapons were designed to blow through whatever armor was protecting the target.

Which means that all too often, either through mismanagement or bad luck, somebody ends up with the last armored units on the battlefield, and the other guy has nothing to do but hope his infantry can somehow ambush the damned things. If you have a 25 turn wargame scenario where you have to take an objective, and you have lost all your armor by turn 10 and your opponent still has a tank or two left, you are almost certainly screwed. The enemy tanks can just sit on the objective, and you have no choice but to march into their machine guns and cannon, hoping for a fluke.

Realistic? Probably. Once an armored assault loses its armor, there isn’t much assaulting that can still happen. But it makes for a lousy gameplay experience. If you’re playing a game that lets you select your units, then, it usually pays to stack up on the armor. If the game forces you to make do with whatever a scenario grants each side, then you inevitably end up with no-win situations.

My broader point is this: the lethality of units on the battlefield has increased exponentially since the end of the Age of Rifles, and greater lethality makes for worse gaming. Why have so few post-WW2 conflicts proved to be rich fodder for gaming? Because WW2 is the last war where units could meet one another on the battlefield and not immediately tear each other to pieces, and even toward the end of that war things are getting iffy. When you’ve got tanks firing shells that rarely miss and almost always penetrate the target, you’re dealing with the kind of one-hit kill situation that gamers hate in every genre. How important are maneuver and tactics when all that work can be undone by a tank or a gunner that sees you first?

Now This Is More Like It

For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing Graviteam’s Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 for an upcoming review, and I spent today finishing up the copy and putting together some screenshots. However, there is one thing I find really impressive about this game that I couldn’t bring up in my review: the limited scope, and the price. Achtung Panzer is representative of almost everything that wargame publishers and developers should be doing.

I’ve written before about how wargame prices are too high, and how that’s a terrible thing for the hobby, so imagine my pleasure to fine a first-rate, brand-new wargame released at $20. Pre-orders got the game for $16 or $17. To offer a game of this quality, with such high production values, for less than half the cost of a typical wargame is both generous and brilliant.

It’s generous because, frankly, nobody ever expects to get this much wargame for so little money. The people most likely to buy Achtung Panzer would probably pay $50 for it without thinking twice, because that’s what that audience pays for a wargame that interests them. There is a possibility that Paradox have left some money on the table here.

But the cheap buy-in might entice non-wargamers to leave their comfort zone and give Achtung Panzer a shot, especially if the game gets good word of mouth. It’s an interesting experiment, and one that I hope pays off. Wargames should be bigger than they are.

The low-price ties in with another important element of Achtung Panzer: it’s not very big. There are only a half-dozen operations, which really means there are only three operations, and you can play them from the German or Soviet perspective. Neither side has a particularly expansive order of battle, and the maps are all roughly similar to one another.

That’s a wise decision, I think. Wargaming is too often afflicted by a sort of gigantism that puts too much strain on developers and scenario designers, and leaves gamers to sort through a lot of chaff. Think about the progression of the Close Combat series up to the third game. From Normandy to Market Garden… to the entire Eastern Front. One of these things is not like the other.

The Combat Mission games were similarly ambitious. The first game covered the Western Front from Normandy into Germany. The second game covered, once again, the entire Eastern Front. The third game covered the Mediterranean theater.

Then you have a game like The Operational Art of War, which explicitly set out to be the last operational level wargame you would ever need. For $50 or $60, you could enjoy, well, just about any and every major campaign from the Franco-Prussian War through Operation Iraqi Freedom. True, the design wasn’t actually that flexible and the game definitely handled certain types of warfare better than others, but that wasn’t really the point. The point was that by the time TOAW3 came out, you had a game that could semi-plausibly claim to model the entirety of modern warfare.

Certain things seemed to get lost in this drive for more. For one thing, the game that models a hundred battles is not inherently superior to the game that models a single battle. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! and Take Command: 2nd Manassas go into such exhaustive detail on these two engagement that you come to see how they are comprised of dozens of different, smaller engagements, any one of which could have gone a dozen different ways. Plus, focusing on a single battle or campaign lets a developer tailor the design to the subject matter, rather than attempting to create a system that can be adapted to all the myriad situations that arise over the course of a war or an era.

Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943 focuses on one type of combat at a single engagement, and its low price allows it to do that without apology. It’s not competing with games that let you re-fight the entire war. It has one type of warfare to show you. It wants to tell a smaller story that takes place within a much larger story. I don’t think that’s a weakness, but it’s discount price ensures that absolutely no one can look at this game and say, “That’s it?”

Where the Fun Never Stops

Last week, I joined some fellow bloggers and writers for a game of Neptune’s Pride. This was an impulsive decision on my part, and one whose ramifications I did not immediately understand. Now it’s several days later, and I find myself thinking about this game with almost every spare moment. God forbid I actually get involved with another game, a book, or talking to people, because I will be kicking myself when I realize I’ve neglected our game for almost two hours.

Whoops, I just checked on it again. I should close that tab.

Neptune’s Pride is a browser-based, continuous-time strategy game that uses very stripped-down 4X mechanics. The game I’m playing involves eleven other people across several time zones. Like Diplomacy, nothing is randomized. The strategy is all in the planning, the maneuvering, and the interactions with other players. You research new technologies that let your ships move faster, jump farther, see farther, and hit harder. But for the most part, you negotiate with other players and try to give yourself guarantees while preying on others and preparing to one day betray your erstwhile friends. Bear in mind, they are all doing the same thing.

I’ve been enjoying myself immensely, not least because if gives me a chance to play a game with friends I know from other sites and comment threads. Besides which, it’s actually a lot of fun hammering out defense agreements, building in escape-clauses, and cutting trade deals. But it does very little to assuage my misgivings about social gaming. In fact, it has kind of confirmed a lot of my fears.

The problem comes down to this: one of Neptune’s Pride’s best and worst elements is its synchronicity. Much of the tension and excitement in the game comes from the fact that something is always happening. There are no turns; instead, everything unfolds slowly over several hours. Even a short-range jump from one star system to another can take three or four hours. A larger movement across your empire might take two days.  Chris Remo described it as, “heart-pounding intensity in extreme slow motion. Fleets end up on accidental but inexorable courses for war–in 23 hours.”

The downside is that if you are really invested in trying to win, you are always playing it. Once things begin to happen (and your ships get faster as the game progresses, increasing the tempo), you start having to monitor more and more areas. A battle might be happening at 7 in the morning, and another fleet is arriving at a destination at 9:15, and you need to figure out what to do with it next, because time is usually crucial. At various points throughout the day, you have to confer with rivals and allies. An enemy fleet might appear on the edge of sensor range, newly arrived at an enemy world. From 10:15 to 10:45, you are watcing it to see where it goes. You can’t be sure until it actually enters a jump, at which point it can’t change its destination.

Around noon, you get your funds and a flurry of deal-making and investment takes place. Then it’s time for more order, and a new world will fall into your hands at 2 PM. On and on it goes, an entire day full of events to track and unending guesswork.

Like I said, I’m having a great time, but I can’t imagine playing this again for awhile. More accurately, I would love to play another game soon, but I can’t afford to have this game in my life that much. I could always put less time and attention into it, but time and attention are how you get a competitive edge in this game. That makes for a compelling and even mesmerizing experience, but not a healthy one.

Gaming for Haiti

Early in February I started noticing signs around the MIT campus advertising a videogame marathon for Haiti. The Complete Game Completion Marathon would involve several teams working their way through various games for a weekend, and people would donate in support of the effort.

I really didn’t know what to think. It was an odd kind of charity effort, and I had mixed feelings about its methods. I wanted to know more, so I decided to do a feature on the event for GameShark. It was published today.

This was kind of an unusual piece for me. It’s rare that I do field interviews and interact face to face with my subjects, and I have to admit that it felt a little strange to be having long conversations with people whose intentions were so plainly good but whose efforts left me a little skeptical. I felt an ambivalence that they didn’t, and I knew that my piece would probably cast their marathon in a slightly different light than they would. They knew this too, of course, but this is one of the first times in my career that working as a reporter and observer left me feeling slightly uncomfortable. It’s rare that I’m writing about people, you see. Most of the time I’m covering an issue or a creative work. This time, I was observing people doing something they felt passionately about.

That’s part of the bargain, of course. In her foreword to Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Didion remarks that a writer is always selling someone out. Yet you’re also dependent on the kindness of your subjects, and their willingness to let a stranger hang out with them and observe them. But eventually, you have to write about them. And just figuring out what to say means making some judgments.

Reflections Regarding RUSE

Commando Supremo

I’m a sucker for touches like this: at minimum zoom, the battlefield looks like a sand-table exercise come to life. Stacks of chits topped by abstract unit icons slide glacially across the surface. Orbiting the camera around, I can make out the headquarters staff at work around the edges of the map. Signalmen sit at radar and communications stations. I am surrounded by the din of headquarters: phones ringing, wirelesses chattering, and the menacing, indistinct muttering of a PA.

Zooming in slightly, headquarters gets quieter and I can hear very faint sounds of fighting coming from the map. Mostly the dull crump of artillery. The stacks of units split into smaller stacks to better represent their positions on the board. I see three tall stacks of enemy tanks advancing against the crossroads on my team’s half of the map. I click on the “ruse” menu, since I have several of them and can afford to play one. I activate “radio silence” on the crossroads sector, which will mask my units there from enemy observation. Translucent bars appear across the sector, overlaid with “Radio Silence” and a timer. I have a few minutes of privacy there. I estimate his forces will be hitting my lines in about two.

We Have Incoming

I don’t have enough to stop him, assuming those tanks are real. It is possible this is a feint. The “decoy tank assault” ruse would make it look to me like a horde of tanks is approaching. So would the “reverse intel” ruse, which would make light units like recon cars and infantry look like heavy armor, and vice versa. So I hedge. My ally, Marcin, has the center right and right of our line pretty secure, but I’m going to have to draw troops away from my far left flank. I activate “spies” on the enemy sector opposing my left. I should see any build-up of forces taking place. With good intelligence telling me that my left flank isn’t threatened, I will be able to pull units off that part of the line.

But not yet. Right now I need more troops on the field to make certain that I can repulse this attack. I go into my “armor” and “antitank” menus and order up equipment to stop this assault. I’m playing the Italians, however, so my armor options are pitiful. My best tank, the Carro M15, still makes a US Sherman look like the HMS Dreadnought. My armor will be there to catch bullets and shells. But it’s cheap, and good for that kind of thing.

My antitank options are much better. I have a field-gun that can wreak some havoc from the lines of trees that bracket the crossroads and the field approaching it. I order two into the trees on the eastern end of the line. The two after that will hold the center. Now I can forget about them. There are no rally points to worry about: each unit I have ordered will proceed to the position on the map I have indicated. Production and reinforcement take place at the same time.

However, stopping this thrust will mostly be the work of my 90mm high-velocity anti-aircraft / anti-tank guns, which fill the same role as the 88 does for the Germans. Besides that, I’ve got fighter bombers waiting at the airfield. I repeat the ordering process for the high-velocity guns, putting two of them in the center. This places the entire line within their field of fire. Then I click on my airfield menu. In the lower left, I see the list of planes currently on the ground. I send all my fighter-bombers into  orbit above the line. They’ll provide air cover, and I can use them to strike at tanks.

That done, I check out a stack of units on my left flank. It contains my heaviest artillery, a  group of 210mm monsters, along with a lot of flak guns to shield them from bombers. I need them in the center to shell this group of enemy units, but the flak guns need to stay and watch the left. In the lower right of my screen, a group of tiles appear showing me what’s in this stack. I click on the 210s and send them to the center. They detach from the stack and begin moving east.

Less than a minute has elapsed since I spotted the German advance, and I have queued up all the necessary build orders and ensured that they will be delivered where they are needed. Momentarily bankrupt, I find myself with an unfamiliar luxury: a moment to think. Marcin is holding steady in the center and launching an attack on his extreme right. I think it’s premature of him to do this, but things still seem well in hand.

My free moment gives me time to worry, especially as I see another stack of unidentified enemy units converging on the crossroads from the center-left. He can’t pincer me – my line is in the wrong position for that – but I do worry that he will arrive with so many units at once that my center would give way. I pull my heavy infantry in toward the center from the left flank, and send my flak batteries to sit at the joint between my left and center left. My extreme left is now almost open, so I use one of my advantages as the Italians: Sahariana recon infantry. They’re very hard for the enemy to see, and have a great line of sight. I station a few on my left, and sneak a few into the woods on his side of the map. Now I know that he can’t sneak anything past.

The first new units are arriving on the front line, and I zoom in again. I need to position them carefully to turn back this attack. The stacks break apart again, into very small stacks of two or three units. I split my high-velocity guns apart and send them to different parts of the line. I do the same with the AT field guns and the tanks.  Now the stacks are disappearing, replaced by oversize icons on the map. My center describes a shallow V, backed by antiaircraft guns and heavy artillery. Just as the last units are getting set up, his troops come into visual range.

Contact

The sounds of headquarters are gone at this level, and the sound of battle is markedly louder. I order the 210s to commence firing on different parts of his columns, and shells begin arcing up toward the camera before plummeting back to earth. His units start scattering, Panthers and Tigers racing for my line while his infantry get blasted to pieces. He shouldn’t have approached in clumps like this, but “radio silence” meant that he didn’t know he would run into this. Still, he’s got a lot of heavy tanks. They are quickly blowing through my puny armored units and shrugging off AT fire. My tanks begin to break and reverse out of the line. The panzers are driving closer to the guns. I order up a bunch more tanks and send them toward the center. They might arrive in time to soak up some more punishment.

At this point, I only hear pounding guns, shrieking shells, and growling engines. Now that my tanks are routing, the panzers are opening fire on the 90mms and the field guns. Some of the crews are starting to bug out and I’m yelling at them to stay where they are. Their only hope is to stand at their station and kill Germans, but they don’t have the nerve. They’re dying as they run, and the entire center right is in danger of collapsing.

I re-task the 210s to start firing on my own positions, which are being overrun. The troops there are dead either way. A few of my tanks have rallied behind the line, and I send them back into the fray. Then I start selecting my Sparviero fighter-bombers and issuing orders for airstrikes. They peel off and begin diving toward the battlefield. Panzers begin exploding everywhere.

Between the airstrikes and the 90mm guns, the German attack is starting to peter out, especially as reinforcements arrive. I’m about to order up a counter attack against their center when I notice what my recon troops are reporting: his right flank is unguarded. Completely.

I start queuing units up in the woods behind my left flank while the last of his units try to extricate themselves from the center. His bombers arrive to take out my guns, but get devoured by AAA. Heinkels are fluttering toward earth in all the color and splendor of autumn leaves. Only a handful deliver payloads.

Meanwhile, Marcin has met with stunning success. His enemy, the other German player, has been completely caught out by his attack. Marcin will explain after the game that he played the “reverse intel” card and spoofed his opponent into sending a wall of tanks and AT guns against light infantry and recon cars, while his heavy armor plowed straight into the enemy base. By the time his opponent caught on, half his base was a crater.

Post-Battle Assessment

The rest of the battle is a foregone conclusion. My opponent’s attack, and the squandering of his bombers at the end of it, have left him without enough to regain the momentum, and his teammate is in his death throes. I use my recon infantry to spot for my heavy artillery while skirmishing using my tanks. He rolls up quickly.

Marcin and I have had a blast, and we’re both thrilled at the curious combination our team made. My Italians and his Frenchmen just pounded the Germans into the dirt. Two factions that most games don’t even bother to model are able to give the Wehrmacht a run for its money, using completely different methods. For me it was a game of information, line of sight, and opportunistic defensiveness. For Marcin, it was about holding the line early and then delivering a sledgehammer blow with his heavy armor. Both of us used our ruses to great effect, and neither of us can quite believe his reverse worked so well.

My opponent wasn’t particularly skilled, of course. His attack was sloppy and he didn’t support it with enough artillery or air assets. That he was using heavier German armor gave him a very slender chance of winning, but not enough to overcome my combination. But pause for a moment to consider a game that respects that the Italian army was not necessarily the demoralized, incompetent rabble of memory, or that the French were not mired in antiquity, meeting the panzers with nothing but trenches, rifles, and courage.

Afterwards, on Skype, we try and figure out what we really think of this game. This has become a ritual for us every time we play it. It is so very easy to play, and that keeps throwing me off. I’m used to wrestling with RTSs. I usually know what I want to do, the problems come when I try to do it. RUSE doesn’t seem to work that way. The interface lets me move about as quickly as my thoughts, and the game’s pacing gives me just enough time to consider each situation. It’s more like a fast-paced boardgame than a typical RTS.

Yet neither of us can quite figure out if there’s a lot there. It’s still a rock-paper-scissors game, with each faction having different strengths and weaknesses within that paradigm. There doesn’t seem to be much room for the kind of micromanagement that I associate with the power-users who dominate other RTSs. It’s so simple that it seems like it might be shallow.

On the other hand, I have a lot of games sitting on my shelf or in my Steam account that are models of depth and complexity that I have never quite managed to enjoy. Most of my RTS collection is aspirational, games that I keep promising to one day, some other day, get good at. In the meantime, I’m playing RUSE with my friend.