Posts Tagged ‘ tactics

Playing Optimally

My latest article is up at Gamers with Jobs. It’s about cover-based shooters and how cover mechanics push shooters in a lot of bad directions. I used Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption to illustrate how cover usually goes wrong. But what’s been interesting to me is how many people have come back with a variation on what I call the Hocking defense: “If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring.”

I call it the Hocking defense because of a remark he made at a talk I attended. One criticism a lot of people directed at the otherwise excellent Far Cry 2 was that it was repetitive. You could play just about every mission using the same three weapons, and one random encounter or mission tended to look a lot like another. Hocking laughed and, admitting he was going to come across like a jerk, said, “I think if you find Far Cry 2 repetitive, then you’re probably repetitive.”

Hocking’s view was that he’d created a game where there were dozens and dozens of ways to approach the same problem. Players had access to different weapon combinations and weapon types, an incredible fire and physics model, and a beautiful open world in which every battle was likely to be different. If your reaction to all that freedom was to do the same thing over and over again, that was on you.

If that Krogan ever managed to get close, I would have been in mild danger.

In the case of Mass Effect 2, the problem isn’t with the game, but with the way I played it. The argument goes that it is my fault for, first, picking the soldier class. The soldier only has access to guns, and the only opportunities to use biotic and tech powers come from her AI squadmates. Had I played a different class, I would have been less tied to cover, and been able to adopt more variable tactics. Second, nobody made me play every encounter the same way. I could have tried different strategies than the “stand in cover and shoot” tactic that saw me through most of the game.

Now, in Mass Effect 2, there are several reasons why I suspect changing classes or approaches will still leave every battle in the game feeling generic and boring. But I’m more interested in the widespread assumption that because other options are available to players, they should use them. The existence of these other options apparently makes boredom or repetition the fault of the player.

The argument seems a little churlish to me, because I don’t generally consider it my responsibility as the player to locate the fun and variety in some aspect of a game. Besides, if a game is not fun or appealing while I am playing it, that makes me less inclined to try alternate approaches. The games that I experiment with are the ones I loved while playing in whatever was my natural style for that game. That’s what gives me confidence that experimentation will be rewarded. Great games invite you to consider other options, and they often show them to you.

Bioshock 2: where crazy stuff is always about to happen

But the argument is also naive about the powerful draw of optimal play styles. If the same tactics work again and again, players will use them again and again. Even if they don’t want to, because it is a guaranteed way to pass the next challenge. In fact, it becomes a vicious circle. The optimal tactic works everywhere so players use it too much, their overuse of the tactic makes the game boring, their boredom and frustration makes them want to rush through the boring parts, so they use the optimal tactic.

Second, if the same one of two tactics work in every situation, there is a problem with the game. Optimal tactics should be situational, not universal. Is the sniper rifle turning every encounter into a shooting gallery? Take away long lines of sight. Is the assault rifle slaughtering everyone from cover? Have enemies that can close quickly and deal massive close-range damage, before the rifle can whittle them down. Or simply deny the player cover and force him to close and assault. There are so many ways to introduce and force variety that it’s hard to forgive a game, even an RPG-shooter, that lets you coast through using the same tricks.

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?

Stalemate through Airpower

In case you still thought stupidity was in any way a disqualification from being printed on the New York Times op-ed page, let’s a take a look at this gem from Thursday’s paper. A piece from Lara Dadkhah, titled “Empty Skies over Afghanistan”, argues that the US forces have become far too cautious about using air power in the war against the Taliban.

It’s possible she’s right, of course, but her argument  seems naive of basic tenets of counterinsurgency warfare, political philosophy, and military history. You need only have opened a newspaper a few times a year in the last five to know that there are many fine reasons to reduce our dependence on air support. Somehow, Dadkhah and her editors didn’t feel the need to address any of them.

American and NATO military leaders — worried by Taliban propaganda claiming that air strikes have killed an inordinate number of civilians, and persuaded by “hearts and minds” enthusiasts that the key to winning the war is the Afghan population’s goodwill — have largely relinquished the strategic advantage of American air dominance. Last July, the commander of Western forces, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, issued a directive that air strikes (and long-range artillery fire) be authorized only under “very limited and prescribed conditions.”

So in a modern refashioning of the obvious — that war is harmful to civilian populations — the United States military has begun basing doctrine on the premise that dead civilians are harmful to the conduct of war. The trouble is, no past war has ever supplied compelling proof of that claim.

Astonishing, isn’t it? She dismisses in just a few words practically all of 20th century military history, and the work of countless officers and scholars who have contemplated counterinsurgency warfare. Her piece does not even acknowledge the possibility that she is wrong on this crucial point, and her editors apparently did not feel that an argument like this needed to bother with likely counterarguments. She does not even provide evidence in favor of her claim.

You might be able to make an argument that civilian casualties were irrelevant or even desirable to strategists of antiquity. But I’m not interested in those examples, really, because the rise of mass media in the 20th century has completely changed the importance of civilian casualties. As propaganda has increased in reach and effectiveness, civilian deaths have emerged as one of the most difficult problems a modern military can face.

You could make a strong case that Germany lost World War I because of civilian casualties. Germany’s reputation was irreversibly damaged by the campaign in Belgium, despite the fact that the German troops in Belgium were neither particularly inhumane nor particularly destructive by the standards of that war. Yet the saga of “Brave Little Belgium” cemented Germany’s identity as the vicious aggressor in the European melee.

Unrestricted submarine warfare would ultimately hand Woodrow Wilson the casus belli, partly on the grounds that submarine warfare was a uniquely immoral way to wage war. The innocent victims aboard civilian vessels like the Lusitania proved to be far more consequential than any war material within its hull.

We might also consider the role of civilian casualties in eroding domestic support for a war. It is important to remember that Americans did not turn on the Vietnam War solely because they objected to the draft. As the war dragged on and American firepower was increasingly employed indiscriminately, the war itself began to look less defensible. The US military came out of the war with its reputation a shambles in large part because its prosecution of that war struck many as monstrous.

Then we come to the specific type of war we are fighting right now. Dadkhah’s dismissive reference to “‘hearts and minds’ enthusiasts” is strange considering that the war in Afghanistan is almost universally considered a struggle for the support of the civilian population. In this kind of war, American air power is not a strategic advantage. It is, at best, a tactical advantage. And the tactical and strategic concerns do not always align.

Then she unleashes this statistical observation upon her readers:

While the number of American forces in Afghanistan has more than doubled since 2008, to nearly 70,000 today, the critical air support they get has not kept pace. According to my analysis of data compiled by the United States military, close air support sorties, which in Afghanistan are almost always unplanned and in aid of troops on the ground who are under intense fire, increased by just 27 percent during that same period.

The only way this is a problem is if you believe that the number of close air support sorties should be directly related to the number of troops in the the theater. So if 30,000 troops need 100 sorties a month, 60,000 troops must need 200.

But why should these numbers be locked to a fixed proportion? One of the many, many reasons to employ more troops in a counterinsurgency warfare is so that they are less dependent on supporting fire from air and artillery. An overstretched, undermanned occupation force is going to get into some tough scrapes in which airstrikes are going to be the only way to stave off disaster. A too-small patrol or outpost on the cusp of being overrun needs helicopters and jets to come to the rescue. But a stronger force has the luxury of using less destructive tactics. That’s one of the reasons we sent more troops: to have the luxury of flexibility.

Dadkhah is also sick of all this hand-wringing about civilian casualties, and the ridiculous confluence of moral and strategic concerns that led to tighter restrictions on airstrikes.

Perhaps the directive against civilian casualties could be justified if one could show that Afghan lives were truly being saved, but that’s not the case. According to the latest report by the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, the number of civilian deaths caused by Western and Afghan government forces decreased to 596 in 2009, from 828 the year before. But the overall number of civilian deaths in the country increased by 14 percent, to 2,412, and the number killed by Taliban troops and other insurgents rose by 41 percent. For Afghan civilians who are dying in greater numbers, the fact that fewer deaths are caused by pro-government forces is cold comfort.

There is also little to indicate that the “hearts and minds” campaign has resulted in the population’s cooperation, especially in the all-important area of human intelligence. Afghans can be expected to cooperate with American forces only if they feel safe to do so — when we take permanent control of an area.

This is to willfully miss the point. For one thing, the goal is not to save more Afghan civilian lives but to prevent fewer of them being lost to NATO fire. For Dadkhah, this is an empty and fundamentally hypocritical gesture. If more Afghans are being killed overall, and there’s a chance they could be saved if NATO forces went after the Taliban with every available weapon, then the moral course is to use those weapons. A few more Afghans might die in NATO airstrikes, but more would be saved over all.

The problem is one of human nature. No one who just lost his family to a stray bomb or artillery shell is going to see the big picture that Dadkhah thinks she sees. Most of NATO’s victims would probably decide that NATO is their enemy, and the argument that more Afghans are being saved on the macro-scale is not going to cut it amidst the rubble and the dead. And since the worst mistake you can make in an counterinsurgency is to convince more people to fight you, or at least give tacit support to those fighting you, the planes should stay grounded.

I might also add that her impatience with the “hearts and minds” campaign is premature, to say the least. We botched the war in Afghanistan for 8 years, and among many crucial mistakes we made was an excessive reliance on air power to hit insurgents. The problem is that we frequently did not hit insurgents, just people who looked like insurgents, a group that includes the entire population of Afghanistan. While I personally feel that eight years of screwing up a war is quite enough, I will at least say this for McChrystal: he seems to have some understanding of why we were failing.

Dadkhah concludes with this sober reflection on war.

Of course, all this is not to say that we should be oblivious to civilian deaths, or wage “total” war in Afghanistan. Clearly, however, the pendulum has swung too far in favor of avoiding the death of innocents at all cost. General McChrystal’s directive was well intentioned, but the lofty ideal at its heart is a lie, and an immoral one at that, because it pretends that war can be fair or humane.

Wars are always ugly, and always monstrous, and best avoided. Once begun, however, the goal of even a “long war” should be victory in as short a time as possible, using every advantage you have.

I have no idea what she means by “victory” here. All she has demonstrated is that reducing the number of close air support missions has made tactical success more difficult. Body counts will not bring Afghanistan any closer to stability, and that’s all that airstrikes can give us.

Worse, however, is her dismissal of efforts to make war less monstrous and less ugly. It’s not hypocrisy to spare civilian populations as much suffering as possible. The real lie is to say that war is so inherently horrible that we should give up trying limit it.

(Since I wrote the above, this happened. This is my problem with airstrikes in general: no matter how carefully they are employed, they are fundamentally imprecise and subject to a number of variables. Not only do mistakes like this infuriate the families of the victims, but they also alienate the Afghan and international forces with whom we share an alliance.)