Posts Tagged ‘ wargames

Man Down, Man Down!

Back in June I started playing Valkyria Chronicles, a turn-based, squad-level wargame for the PS3. I suspect many of its fans don’t actually know that’s what they’re playing: VC does a very clever job of not looking like a wargame. Characters are controlled from a third-person shooter perspective, and they behave mostly like shooter characters except for the way they have a limited number of movement points and a single action for each round. It also looks more like a good anime than a videogame. This distinguishes it from most other Japanese games, which largely take their aesthetic cues from trashy anime.

On the other hand, let’s not get carried away praising Valkyria Chronicles’ tasteful sensibilities: your second in command goes into combat wearing a miniskirt and blushing like the vaguely eroticized schoolgirl she is.

In fact, Alicia comes very close to ruining the game, especially if you play it in Japanese with English subtitles. The only thing worse about the way the typical Japanese game visually portrays women is the way it characterizes them: overwhelmingly shrill, perky, and prone to mood swings that make Naomi Campbell look like St. Francis. Or they’re painfully demure, barely able to speak or look someone in the eyes. Or they’re perpetually pissed off and speak in a freakishly deep voice. There’s hardly a convention that Valkyria Chronicles doesn’t drive into the ground.

Rosie, left, an unpleasant but useful member of the squad.

Thank God there’s an inoffensive English voice track.

Anyway, I recently went back to my save game, which was on hold at a point where the difficult was rapidly increasing. This is mostly a good thing: the early part of VC is so easy that the only real challenge is how quickly you can walk all over the opposition. However, since the AI is fairly poor in VC, the missions get more difficult through construction and event triggers, which takes it into more trial-and-error territory. In a wargame, that’s really not where you want to be.

One thing works brilliantly in this game, however: rescuing incapacitated teammates.

You can’t tell in the early missions, because it’s a rare event. However, in the mid-game you start having teammates get shot down, and that’s when the rescue mechanic comes into play.

When a teammate goes down, you have 3 turns to get another squad member to his position and summon a medic. The medic instantly transports the wounded squaddie from the battlefield, and he can actually be brought back into play on the following turn. However, if you don’t get there within three turns, your squad member is dead.

There’s a dark brilliance to this system. Chances are, your squadmate is bleeding out on a dangerous patch of turf, which means you really have to think about whether you want to send more teammates out to rescue him. You can easily fritter away the entire team trying to get one wounded trooper off the field. But if you don’t do it, the soldier is dead. Gone forever. And as annoying as some of these characters can be, they’re my annoying characters.

I saw this scenario play out in tragicomic fashion during my last mission. The enemy commander was taking his super-tank (basically a land-dreadnaught) on a rampage through our bases, and we had to cripple and then destroy it while avoiding its powerful main guns. Midway through that little endeavor, he received massive reinforcements along with an honest-to-God valkyrie. I was completely caught out, and thanks to the Valkyrie’s enchanted spear of death, I lost three troopers almost instantly.

Two of them were in positions where they could be rescued. But one of them, my lead assault trooper Rosie, was lying in a trench that the tank had already overrun, and the valkyrie (who is unkillable) was basically corpse-camping her.

Rosie is extra valuable because she provides an extra command point each turn, which basically means I get an extra move when she’s on the field. Still, with two anti-tank trooper and an engineer nearby, I thought we could get her out.

The medic, who scurries into any situation and rescues the wounded

The engineer made a last ammunition run through the squad, replenishing their stocks, then bolted for Rosie’s position. The valkyrie spotted him and hit him with the lance just as he made it to Rosie’s side and called in the medic. Then he  went down. He was slightly closer to the edge of the trench. Trouble was, the engineer is one of the fastest guys on the team. My AT gunners are better armored, but also lumbering and slow. Predictably, the next one I sent on a rescue run got shot down. Worse, he never even made it to the engineer.

So with one anti-tank Lancer remaining, and two soldiers bleeding out in dead ground, I was starting to panic. Rosie was saved, and she was more valuable than the rest of them, but I really didn’t want to lose anyone to this stupid, unfair valkyrie attack.

My solution was inelegant. I took my CO’s tank, drove it between my last lancer and the valkyrie, and used it as a moving shield. Her weapons damaged it steadily, but not enough to destroy it before it reached their position. My other lancer moved up behind the tank, rescuing my soldiers. She barely made it out of the trench before the valkyrie killed her.

I was stunned at the rush of relief I felt as we backed away from the lighting-touched lady with the glowing lance. We’d gotten everyone out alive, and now I was free to concentrate on the super-tank. But in the melee to get Rosie out of harm’s way, I’d completely forgotten about the larger mission, and was now in danger of losing it.

But that’s the point of this mechanic: it dangles the hope of preventing casualties in front of you, luring you into destructive decisions in the name of leaving no man behind.

RUSE Roundup

It’s funny to think how unenthusiastic I was about 2010′s strategy prospects when the year began. I was indifferent to Starcraft II, had no idea a new Civilization was in the making, and had never heard of Achtung Panzer: Kharkov 1943. The only game that sounded interesting, and this was me really reaching for something to care about, was Ubisoft’s gimmicky-sounding RTS, R.U.S.E. But nothing beyond the deception mechanics sounded interesting, and the thought of a WWII RTS from a developer I’d never heard of was profoundly unappealing.

But here we are in the September of what has been a solid year of strategy gaming, and RUSE has proven to be one of the best entries so far, and an almost ideal cure for what ails the RTS genre. The beta showed that RUSE had a great interface and some good faction balance, and the final product confirms that Eugen Systems unexpected bridged the gap between wargamers and RTS gamers, and put the  casual gamer first.

My review is up at GameShark. It’s the highest score I’ve awarded a game yet, but I simply adore the genre blending at work in this design. I’m in good company. The gentlemen of Rock, Paper, Shotgun have said that, “It’s a game men should play.” And indeed they should.

However, my review would have been even more positive had Eugen Systems not created an utterly dreadful campaign. Almost against my will, I had to dock the game for making something so shoddy a part of this excellent package. Over at Gamers With Jobs, I explored some of the major sources of disappointment with this campaign, and some of the troubling things it, and other games, have revealed about the state of game development in France.

But really, there’s no limit to the nasty things one could say about this campaign. It’s sexism is utterly appalling, with a completely fictitious femme fatale introduced as a major player in shaping Allied strategy in WWII. Okay, we know that’s pretty much crap, women working for the War Dept. in the 1940s were more likely to be stuck in the typing pool than made an emissary to front-line generals, but we can roll with it. Except that the only reason this woman is a part of the story is to play the role of Lady Macbeth, using sex and manipulation to bring men to ruin and turn them against one another.

You know, like women always do.

But all of that is secondary to what RUSE is really about: multiplayer WWII combat. On those grounds, it’s a smashing success. Now go read my review and learn why.

Us Surrender? Aw, Nuts!

Some people like to be buried before they are dead. A friend of mine started calling himself an “old man” at fraternity events within fifteen minutes of graduating. He’s younger than I am, but that doesn’t stop him from taking stock of his diminishing powers and and freedoms every time we meet for drinks. I fear he’s willing his youth away by constantly telling himself that it’s leaving him.

Wargamers and hardcore PC gamers can be like that. Like Elves they talk in weary, faraway voices about the world that was before the age of metal, steam, and consoles. They lament the vanished kingdoms of SSI, Dynamix, and TalonSoft while constructing the ships that will bear them to Grey Havens. The industry has changed. It has evolved. Things will never again be as they were. We understand.

Julian Murdoch observed on a recent Three Moves Ahead that most people like to be on the bandwagon, on the winning team. But strategy gamers and wargamers always seem defeated, evangelizing with all the charisma and conviction of Eeyore. “You probably won’t care. I couldn’t blame you. But Scourge of War: Gettysburg is out. It’s pret-ty good. It’d probably bore you. You probably just want to play Red Dead.

Sometimes we are guilty of this on TMA, but on balance we spend far more time celebrating strategy and wargames and checking out under-the-radar projects like Gettysburg and AI War. I wouldn’t go so far as to say we make strategy gaming sound cool (in what universe are Bruce, Julian, Tom, Troy, and me at the “cool kids’ table”?). At least you can tell we’re having a lot of fun, and you’re invited.

Grognards, seen here fending off an aggressive probe by mainstream gamers.

On the other hand, when Alex Macris, the publisher of The Escapist, writes something like this, I get a little frustrated. I am in complete agreement with him on most of his points. Like him, I sometimes feel alienated from gaming’s mainstream. Like him, I have been a harsh critic of the industry’s drift toward the blockbuster business model, and I’ve expressed that opinion at The Escapist.

What bothers me is the fact that Alex Macris laments the slow death of the type of gaming that he loves, but he of all people is in a pretty good position to champion it. Yet you would never guess, from looking at The Escapist, that the publisher is an old-school PC gamer and a dyed-in-the-wool grognard.

It’s not that The Escapist caters solely to mainstream interests. If you look at the features and columns they run, to say nothing of their video series, you’ll find quite a lot of diverse content. They review all the major AAA game releases, but you’re also likely to find some reviews for manga  and the odd indie puzzler. Just about the only things The Escapist ignores, in fact, are strategy and wargaming.

So when Macris writes:

I don’t blame Creative Assembly or Matrix for adapting to the new ecological realities. They needed to in order to survive. I’m the one who hasn’t evolved.

So at E3 this year, I’ll be prowling around like some sort of saber-toothed tiger of videogaming. My food supply has grown scarce; my days as an apex consumer are limited. I’m rated E for Endangered.

I can’t help but think, “Well I wonder why.”

Is there no room in The Escapist for a grognards’ corner among the science column, the tabletop RPG column, the game design column, the movie column, etc.? Is the publisher of The Escapist so resigned to going extinct that he won’t use his platform to try and reproduce? Surely, if he is still buying games from Matrix he could take space to review one or two of them.

More grognards, deploying for an attack on the marketplace of ideas.

Admittedly, it’s easy for me to say this. The only thing I publish is this here blog, and I’m my only employee. I know my readers by name, and I pay my hosting fees with change I find underneath the futon. Nor am I responsible for churning out the volume of content that The Escapist editorial staff have to manage. And I will absolutely confess to feeling proprietary toward The Escapist, a combination of pride that I’m a part of it and frustration with the fact that it is not always the exact site I would have it be if I ruled the internet.

Still, it’s disconcerting to see the publisher of a major games site acting as if he has no agency when it comes to the decline and disappearance of his favorite types of games. The least he could do is tell readers what he likes. Maybe a few of them would decide they like it to.

I know a few of mine do.

Update: Irony

A couple days after writing the above, I dropped by The Escapist and noticed a new column, “The Game Stash”, by Steve Butts. This is exciting for a couple reasons. First, Steve Butts was the only person I ever made a point to read regularly at IGN, and I’m glad to see such a good writer showing up with a column at The Escapist.

Butts is also a great wargame and strategy reviewer. He kept reviewing them at IGN and was one of the few people I could trust when I came to gnarly, hardcore wargames and strategy games. I remember that the guys at the Wargamer forums used to go batshit when he teed-off on a Matrix game, screeching that he was being unfair to wargames and IGN wasn’t fit to review anything deeper than Peggle… but what really drove them nuts was how fucking right he so often was. Butts didn’t slap wargames around for the hell of it: he knew that they were mired in outdated production values and design philosophies, and that the standards for videogames had gotten tougher in a lot of areas. He was unwilling to grant the “well, it’s a wargame” absolution that so many grognards dispense.

I don’t know whether his column will be focusing on strategy and wargames, nor do I know what types of games he will be reviewing for The Escapist. But from his past record, I can only believe that Butts’ arrival at The Escapist will go a long way to plugging the gaps I mentioned above.  I’m looking forward to seeing what he does with the space.

Rise of Prussia Review

GameShark just published my review of Rise of Prussia. This was a big disappointment for me, since I’m a Seven Years’ War nerd. Metacritic will convert my “C” into something much harsher than it actually is, but there is no avoiding the fact that I did not enjoy myself a great deal with this game, and was really put off by the whole package.

That’s where I put most of my focus in this review. I could have gotten into a much more nuts-and-bolts discussion about how the game models Frederican warfare and whether or not the AGEOD system really does a good job of modeling it. It does and it doesn’t. There are far too many battles where only a fraction of the forces in a given territory actually take part in a battle. The AI, although generally quite good, is too fond of laying siege to every fort, everywhere, rather than concentrating its efforts. I was astonished when the Austrian army practically dissolved itself along the Oder river, laying simultaneous sieges and Breslau, Schweidnitz, and a bunch of other places.

I could have talked about some of the annoying gameplay quirks, like the maddening ease with which you can destroy a friendly army simply by forgetting to triple-check its rules of engagement, thus destroying the work of over a hundred turns.

A section on the astonishing amount of administrative tasks you have to perform would not be out of place. I loved building and organizing armies, but the frequency with which I had to reorganize was off-putting. I also had stacks of unassigned generals roving the map looking for brigade commands, who seemed never to be where I needed them.

But I focused on the other elements of the Rise of Prussia package, things you could argue are external to the core game, because they are where the whole experience started to turn sour. It just did not seem very interesting to rehash the AGEOD wargame system again, especially since most of the people who are genuinely interested in Rise of Prussia probably already know what they think about it. AGEOD’s bare-bones approach is what really dragged this game down.

So let me be honest about some of my expectations. With a mature series like this one, I start to look for more refinement and polish in later titles. When Birth of America came out I thought it was a breath of fresh air: handsome art assets, a solid and inventive portrayal of Revolutionary warfare, and a smart treatment of command and logistics. I wrestled with the interface a bit, and always felt like I was being asked to hunt down and interpret too much information. That paled beside the game’s obvious achievements.

But with Rise of Prussia, I find that I’m still battling the same problems. The core game is as good as ever, and AGEOD have made some nice improvements, but shouldn’t the presentation be better by now? Should I still be tasked with being my own supply officer? Couldn’t the ledger have some better sorting options by now, so that I spend less time hunting for specific units and generals?

On top of that, there are far fewer scenarios, and everything is large-scale. With the first game, Birth of America, AGEOD wrote a lot of different scenarios at different scales. I could try a grand campaign covering an entire war, I could focus on Montcalm’s opening offensive against the British, or Amherst’s sprint up the St. Lawrence. I could play Birth of America on my own terms. Rise of Prussia can be played one way.

Even little things, like the way you run email games, seem clumsy and user-unfriendly. Why do I have to do so much file management for a play-by-email game? Why can’t the game do it for me?

Personally, with experienced developers iterating on a familiar design, I look for signs of caring, thoughtful craftsmanship. Rise of Prussia did not have them.

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?”