Saturday, March 29 2008

Casualties in Miniature

There's a fascinating discussion at Twenty Sided about micromanagement in Real Time Strategy gaming, always a pet peeve of mine.  But Shamus, in his posts, brings up something more interesting.

I think the strategy parts are unfulfilling because I never feel like I’m doing well. No matter how carefully I guide my units, I always leave the battlefield with the impression that I oversaw the wasting of potential. I spent so much effort carefully crafting this army of badasses, and half of them perish because they are too stupid to fight in a sensible manner and I’m too busy to tell them how to do it right.

This is, to some degree, the problem that keeps nagging at the back of my brain when playing any game involving combat.  I can't help but feel that I took way too many casualties.  I don't like throwing troops away, especially to no end, but the games tend to require successful players to sustain casualties, often massive amounts of casualties to sustain victory.

Let's take Flames of War as a more realistic example.  The game attempts to enhance realism by placing on the table enough miniatures to accurately represent the real number of combat troops in a real-world unit.  A World War II US Army rifle squad is 12 troops, so I should have 12 miniature figures on the table, and I do.  For game purposes, two to five figures are mounted together and treated as a single entity for game play, but I can see 12 little helmets in my squad.  A rifle platoon has 41 troops, compared to a real world list strength of 46.  The reinforced US Rifle company I fielded on Friday night has 226 troops and five armored vehicles, roughly comparable to the 198 troops in the real world US Army rifle company, circa 1942.  My company has some battalion and higher level support elements, and the force on the table in the game doesn't have its full compliment of rear area support troops, but the general idea still holds.

The game on Friday was relatively light, as games go.  My troops spent most of the battle sheltered in foxholes, and my tanks faced almost no serious threat from the early-model German and Italian tanks.   I lost two 57mm AT guns and their four man crews (eight soldiers), the platoon command for my weapons platoon and the crew for a 60mm mortar (six soldiers), half a platoon of infantry that faced the brunt of the German assault (six bases with four soldiers each for 24 soldiers), and one M4 Sherman tank lost to a flank hit from an Italian tank (crew of five).  I sustained a total of 43 pretend casualties.  The game doesn't differentiate between the actual results that take units out of combat, so those casualties could be dead, wounded, or otherwise out of action;  the difference is unimportant in game terms.  Still, that's one sixth of my force out of action.

And that's a relatively easy battle.  It's not unusual for my all three of rifle platoons to be more than half casualties by the end of the game.  In my March 10th entry, I described having lost more than three quarters of my tanks in a series of games.  On the one hand, it's just a game.  On the other hand, I can't help but feel I'm a lousy commander for losing so much of my forces.

In part, that's because the meeting of equal forces is a relatively rare thing in war.  The whole idea behind being a great strategist is that you meet the enemy with a stronger force to begin with, while the mechanics of the game require that both sides be comparable.  Fairness is what you want in a game, not in a real battle.

The other problem may be that I'm looking at it across the gulf of decades of the changing nature of warfare.  The real battles, especially the ones where the enemy picked the field of battle and had the stronger force (Kasserine Pass, the Ardennes, etc.) seem unbelievably bloody to someone in a world where 4,000 killed [UPDATED Was originally "casualties" - my unfortunate mistake, see comments] in five years in a force of 100,000 is viewed as unsustainable.  The idea that the Soviet Union lost an average of more than 10,000 people per day spread across the entire second world war is completely incomprehensible to me.

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Tuesday, March 25 2008

Aria: The Kid Gloves Come Off

Aria: the Origination, Episode 9, "Enveloped in that Orange Wind..." should be studied as a textbook example of anime storytelling done right.  It both builds off the history of the series and adds enough new material to build something incredibly special.

I've always liked Akira's character because we've seen enough of her past in flashbacks during the series that we can see how she's grown.  It's been subtle, but Alice has grown as well, and this series brings it all together to see at once.  Akira's changes are obvious due to the presentation of her history as flashbacks, so we can immediately compare Akira as she was with Akira as she is.  Alice's changes have been subtle, stretched across almost 45 episodes in three incarnations of the series, such that you don't notice them until you look back.

When we first are introduced to Alice Carroll, in Episode 3 of Aria: the Animation, we see Alice's schoolmates idolize her because of her stardom as a rookie Undine recruit by Orange Planet.  Alice doesn't react well to the sudden interest, and awkwardly drives away a few that try to ask for an autograph.  This episode, then, opens with Alice's graduation from school, and we see Alice reacting rather graciously to the attention of her fellow students.

We then see Alice's journey home from school.  Alice has a habit of adopting silly challenges on her route home from school, such as trying only to step on shadows, or (in this case) doing the route backwards.  In previous episodes, she learned to accept Athena's kindness and help, and we see in this episode that she now is willing to treat Athena as a special friend.

But that's incidental to the meat of the story.  Once in her room, by the orange light of the setting sun, Athena asks Alice if she'd like to go for a picnic the next day, and Alice accepts.

The journey starts in earnest the next morning.  Athena asks if Alice wouldn't mind pretending that she was Alice's customer for the trip.  We catch Athena complementing Alice on her smile, for which Alice credits Akari's tutelage.  After all, that's why Alice sought out Akari in the first place, to learn how the perennially good-natured Akari could smile so naturally.  Alice is also complimented on her skills as a guide, to which she credits a strict senior that can only be Aika.  The journey itself is long and beautiful.  Towards the end, ascending one of the canal locks, Athena drops out of customer mode and gets Alice to admit that the one thing she is still unsure of is her singing ability, to which Athena applies some sage wisdom.  Finally, free of the lock, the pair round the canal bend to find a party waiting for them under the setting orange sunlight.

Aika, Akari, President Aria, the lock operator (actually a repeating character in the series), two gentlemen from the gondola association and the head of Orange Planet wait on the canal bank under the windmills.

This is one last joke on Alice, as Athena asks her for a final song.  But, miraculously, after crediting her tutelage from the legendary Undine known as the Siren (Athena herself), Alice sings.

There's a reaction that the animators use in Episode 11 of the original series during a flashback when Akira and Alicia first hear Athena sing.  Time slows down.  The surroundings, the people in them, everything just stops and listens to the song of the Undine eventually to be known as the Siren.  That reaction is repeated here, but instead of Akira and Alicia with the startled reactions, it's Akari and Aika.  And me.  And one more reaction...
With that expression, Alice wins.  The student has surpassed (or at least surprised) the master.

In the series so far, only Athena has actually sung on camera.  Singing (Canzone) is supposed to be a skill all Undines are trained in, but we've never actually see anyone but Athena actually sing until now.  I don't know if this is the actual voice actress or a stunt voice, but it's an excellent job.  The cuts between Alice, the reactions of the onlookers, and some brief flashbacks to important moments for Alice in the series, all serve to draw the whole thing together.

At this point, Athena congratulates Alice on behalf of the company, says that they've been waiting until she had finished school, and then gives us what we have been waiting for...
...She removes Alice's glove.   And then, on behalf of the Gondola Association...
...removes Alice's other glove.

Alice is now officially a Prima, and is the first Undine to be promoted to Prima directly from Pair.  Her honorific title is Orange Princess, after the orange glow traditionally associated with the Martian sky, and hence the source of the name Orange Planet. (I thought Mars was the red planet?  Shhh... you're ruining the mood!)

Congratulations to Alice Carroll, the Orange Princess!

Of course, not to be outdone, Maa takes this opportunity to strike at his hated foe...

Random thoughts after the break.

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Monday, March 17 2008

Aria: The Undine Suspects

Now that the convention is finished, I've finished my post on Aria: Episode 8 "Within that precious person's memories...".  I've also managed to hold off watching Episode 9 until after I get this finished.

Episode 8 is Alice vs. Athena, as opposed to Episode 6, which was Alice vs. Alicia.  As Alicia won the last round of mind games, Alice is stuck in a battle of wits with the notoriously dopey Athena...

The episode opens with Alice discussing going on a picnic with Athena.  This gets Akari and Aika excited, as the 'picnic' excuse is normally used a cover for the promotion test to Single, which for Alice is long overdue.  The excitement of the pair fades when Alice mentions that she's the one who came up with the picnic idea.  (I'm still curious as to what code of Omerta the Undines have that the whole 'picnic on Hope Hill / single promotion test' hasn't been exposed yet.)

Alice returns to the apartment she shares with Athena at the lavish Orange Planet citadel, where she makes elaborate trip plans and prepares lunch, during which it is revealed that President Maa likes to eat bananas (see previous post).  It's a pleasure to see her genuinely happy for once, and the fun of the character is that we've seen her ability to express emotions has developed as the series has progressed.  She returns from taking the least fan-servicey bath in anime history (unless you're an ankle fetishist) to find Athena asleep.  Alice leaves a copy of her itinerary for Athena.

Alice wakes up to find Athena gone on what was supposed to be her day off.  She broods angrily in her room until Athena returns unexpectedly and out of breath.

Athena apologizes for the sudden call to duty, and Alice makes a half-hearted attempt to accept the apology before stalking off angrily.  Athena attempts to follow, but fate... or President Maa... intervenes.

President Maa... in the Bedroom... with the Banana Peel.

A frantic call to Aria company ensues, and Akari and Alicia arrive to find a distraught Alice and a seemingly normal Athena, and not a normal-for-Athena Athena, but a coordinated, quick-witted, alert Athena.  The downside of the new Athena is that she's also lost her memory.

Athena's memory slowly returns as Alice spends the day trying to prod Athena's memory back into shape.  Athena eventually remembers everything but Alice, which saddens Alice to no end.

Athena asks Alice what kind of a mentor she had been, and a sobbing Alice is forced to admit that she likes Athena.  Then Alicia intervenes, forcing Athena to give up her trick;  she'd been faking the amnesia to get Alice to open up.

Poor Alice.  This is the second time she's been completely outwitted in the past three episodes.

The fake Amnesia plot is pretty standard fare, but Athena's ability to turn off the clumsiness and dull-wittedness she normally displays is rather impressive.  She claims that it takes most of her attention to act normal, of course, but it's tempting to compare the usual Athena to Verbal Kint, Keven Spacey's character from The Usual Suspects.

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Thursday, March 13 2008

Aria: Maa

I'm still working on the Episode 8 post for Aria.  Preparing for the second convention in as many weekends has taken a lot out of me.

While Episode 8 largely covers Athena and Alice, we do get to see a fair bit of Maa.  I'm even more convinced that Maa isn't an ordinary Earth cat.  I'm not saying he's absolutely a Mars cat, but whatever he is he has monkey and piranha genes in him.  How else can he eat five whole bananas that are larger than he is?  And whatever he is, he's smart enough to peel them first.  Perhaps President Aria is right to be scared of Maa's attempts to eat him;  one of these days Maa may very well succeed.

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Monday, March 10 2008

Historical Accuracy in Games: an Example

I just got back from the HMGS East Cold Wars convention in Lancaster, PA, and I am preparing for my Alma Mater's "CollegeCon" alumni weekend and boardgaming event next weekend.  I'll have a longer post up after both conventions are finished.  I hope to have a post on Aria episode 8 up this week as well, unless episode 9 is translated in which case all bets are off.

Quick example of historical accuracy in wargaming:  I played three rounds of Flames of War in the 1500 point mid-war (1942-43) tournament with my American Rifle Company and finished a solid 2-1 with 13 points.   Each round, I deployed a three tank platoon of standard US Army M4 Sherman tanks, for a total of nine tanks fielded.  Seven of my nine tanks were destroyed.  I lost one to a combination of point blank artillery fire followed by an infantry assault.  I lost two to 75mm fire from Panzer IV tanks, which is a suitably historical face-off for the Sherman (there's a little historical glitch in that particular scenario, but that's for later).  I lost four to self propelled 15cm assault guns, three to Sturmpanzer IV Brummbars and one to a STuIG33 (kind of a beta-release Brummbar).  The Germans built almost 1500 early model Panzer IV ausf G tanks with long 75mm guns.  The Germans built around 300 Brummbars, and only 24 STuIG33s, almost all of both of which were used for city fighting on the Eastern front until late in the war and therefore the US army of 1942-43 really didn't need weapons designed for fighting them.  I also probably wasn't alone in cursing the Brummbars, as it seemed almost every German army had a pair of the damnable things.  Why?  Because the rules and the tournament itself make the Brummbar worth more in game terms than it was worth historically.

In game terms, the Brummbar's front armor is impenetrable to Sherman fire, and for that matter to gunfire from just about any mid-war medium tank (despite the claims of the occasional evil German players, the Panther is not a medium tank, I don't care what the history books say.)  It takes a lucky shot from an American tank destroyer like an M10 to kill the damned thing.  The side armor is penetrable, but is rated the same in game terms as the front armor of an early Panzer IV G.  The main gun packs a wallop.  A hit on a Sherman kills it instantly, and it is rated as having better armor penetration than the aforementioned M10 tank destroyer against heavy tanks (it is packing a 15cm howitzer designed to reduce a fortified building to rubble).  The Brummbar's cost when putting together an army list is 85% of the cost of an early Panzer IV G, less than half the cost of a Panther, and less than a third the cost of a Tiger 1E.  The Brummbar's weaknesses are simple:  the gun is fixed forward rather than turreted, it's slow and prone to getting stuck,  the size of the gun reduces its rate of fire, and it's got a very limited range.  The fixed forward gun is rarely a hindrance in Flames of War rules, as mobility is such that tanks can generally turn on a dime.  The rate of fire is more of an issue under Flames of War rules as the ROF for the Brummbar is so low it imposes accuracy penalties for movement.  (The StuIG33 has less armor than the Brummbar, so it is, barely, killable with a front shot from a Sherman.)  General game ranges for the main gun of most medium tanks are 32", which is significant with a 4 foot by 6 foot table.  The Brummbar's range is a pitiful 16", meaning that if you do have a tank destroyer you can sit well out of its range and pound away with impunity until you get lucky.  Given the severe range limitation on the Brummbar, it's a little cheesy but not enough to justify the numbers deployed in the tournament.

That's where the tournament administration guys came in to the picture.  I have the privilege of gaming against them on a weekly basis and they're great players and really fun opponents.  Part of the fun is setting up memorable games, and the one thing memorable that the tournament administration guys have control over is the detail of the battlefield.  And they go all out, from the shores of Tunisia to the snow-covered Russian steppes, from Sicilian airfields (the infamous yet beautiful 'Dulles Airport' board) to Stalingrad in miniature.  Each and every board is packed with detail.  The problem is that that detail tends to be between your troops and the enemy.  You can be admiring the scenery one minute and cursing it the next when you realize that it's blocking you from taking your shot.  And that is why weapon range is not as important as the game designers intended.  Most battlefields are such that experienced players can keep their Brummbars from taking more than one or two shots before they're close enough to fire, and that's rarely enough shots to get a lucky penetration.  Simply put, the tournament battlefields are such that points spent on long range direct fire are not as valuable as the game designers intended.

One of the good things about computer games is that game designers often can rebalance unit cost / performance repeatedly with each new patch to deal with unbalanced abilities that players uncover over time.  The game environment is such that the battlefields are designed by the same designers that balance the forces, meaning the possible field balance is known ahead of time.

My army gave as good as it got.  We destroyed three Brummbars, one with a flank Sherman shot, three Panzer IV Gs, and two StuIG33s.  We American players also can't complain about broken units, as we've got another unit worth significantly more in game terms than in history, my beloved M5 Stuart. 

And I earlier mentioned that there was some ahistorical irony in the Panzer IVs I destroyed?  They were crewed by Romanian crews in an army based on the Romanian units which accompanied the Germans into Russia.  What they were doing fighting the US army is anyone's guess.

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Aria: Bonus Artwork III

Everyone's favorite Undines.

Wonderduck has a long post up which ponders the inner workings of the world of Aria.

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Wednesday, March 05 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork II

For your viewing pleasure, another bonus Aria artwork.  This is just about the complete cast of reoccurring characters in the series at around the end of Aria: the Natural except Ai.

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Tuesday, March 04 2008

Aria: Bonus Artwork

Today's bonus Aria artwork. This is obviously an Origination promo piece, as Atora, Anzu, and Ayumi are visible off to the left. It also has Akino, the glassblower apprentice from Aria: the Natural (season 2), Ai, Akatsuki, Woody, the postman and the cafe manager. Maa-kun has acquired a small Orange Planet tie.

Look closely at the hands of the foreground Undines. Notice anything interesting?

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Halting State

I've taken a break from anime and painting to catch up on my reading, getting through several books that had accumulated in my 'to read' list.  I had difficulty putting down Halting State by Charles Stross, and not because I'd gotten glue on my hands building miniatures.

I've read Stross's more traditional sci-fi novels Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, and found them to be entertaining and worth a read, but not great.  I also enjoyed The Atrocity Archives despite my aversion to the whole horror genre.  Halting State was an impulse buy;  I recognized Stross's name but couldn't place any actual books he had written until I went home and checked the bookshelf.  It was the plot summary in the book jacket that drew me in: in the near future, a police officer must investigate a bank robbery conducted in a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying game).

The summary, while not lying, doesn't actually convey the book's plot.  I was expecting something like a modernized version of Larry Niven's Dream Park, where the game is the focus of the plot.  It doesn't quite work out that way, probably for the best.  While a bit of the plot does take place in a virtual world, most of the story takes place firmly in the real world, and the game is only a small component of the overall plot.  The book is actually more a look at a possibility of what a future where society, culture, economics, and business are all networked together.  It's not about the technology, which is not at all far-fetched, but at the effects of linking all the information networks that exist today together and integrating them more thoroughly into people's daily lives.

It's interesting to see this book as representing another facet of 'cyberpunk' (for lack of a better word) science fiction.  William Gibson and Shirow Masamune separately look at the technology layer of information technology;  how changes in hardware, from computers to cybernetics, will change the world.  Neil Stephenson looks at the power of ideas and memes at what might be the wetware layer of information technology;  how individual ideas will change the world.  In this book, Stross looks at the power of networks to control and route information, in a sense bridging the gap between hardware and wetware.  (In a sense, this is a simplification.  Stephenson does cover hardware, especially nanotech in the excellent Snow Crash, while Shirow and Gibson do get into the level of ideas and minds.)

Another thing I love about this book is that Stross effectively combines a number of different interests of mine into the story.  At the detail level, there are references to both electronic gaming and tabletop roleplaying games, spy fiction, technology at the programming and business levels, geek culture, and even anime.  Stross also sounds like he at least partially understands most of what he's referencing;  the jokes seem natural, not forced.  The overall plot combines a healthy technothriller intrigue story with a mystery and a science-fiction look at the possibilities of technology.  Furthermore, the plot isn't preachy or too obviously cliche, and the technology fits into the story well and doesn't require tedious explanation of how it works.  The intrigue is well done, with a story formed from multiple plots working at cross-purposes leading to a couple of surprises.  (Stross combined genres even better in The Atrocity Archive, mixing black IT humor, spy fiction, and Lovecraftian horror into an incredible tapestry.  If only I didn't loathe the horror genre...)

Overall, this is one of the best books I've read in quite some time.  It did take me some time afterwards to get the title, however, so I'm slowing down a bit...

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