Friday, July 18 2008

Please Stand By...

Posting has been light for a while (*cough* understatement *cough*) due to stress, stress, stress, and stress.  Also writer's block.

Partially, my stress issues have been compounded by a lack of any way to burn off stress.  The DC weather has been too hot or too wet (or both) to do any reasonable outdoor activity at any time I might actually be awake.  My other choice method of stress relief, mass slaughter of pixels, has completely failed me.

I've been playing computer games for a long time.  The genre's that I've most enjoyed over the years have been real-time strategy and first person shooter, both of which I've played from nearly the beginning.  Neither genre has evolved beyond recognizability.  The recent games I've played in both genres have been technically superb examples of the genre.  And yet, more and more, I find myself completely uninterested in actually playing the games.

Give a choice between the two genres, I've had more recent luck with the real-time strategy (RTS) genre, and it's the one that still holds my interest more.  I've got four big name recent RTS games sitting around my computer.  What I want from an RTS game is as follows:

  • I want to sit down in front of the game for about an hour and play a full round with all nifty options available in the game.
  • I want to play against an enemy that is capable of forcing me to react and yet can be beaten without too much difficulty (this is supposed to be stress relief).
  • I want the game to draw my attention, either by keeping me on my toes (and yet not to the point of panic) or by making my own actions fun to watch.
  • I want the game to be different each time, both by battlefield, by allowing me to choose different strategies and by varying enemy behavior.
  • I don't want to spend too much time micromanaging unit behavior, and too much time waiting for stuff to happen.
  • I want to be able to play both by myself and with a friend as ally.
The first RTS I really got into was Command & Conquer.  I have Command & Conquer 3 on my shelf.  It looks pretty.  It's got a robust skirmish AI with varying personalities.  Unfortunately, of the three sides, only one is interesting and usable enough to play, and my strategies are limited to Tank Spam and Air Spam.  While there are a number of maps, all are basically post-apocalyptic wasteland, which is dull.  Combat and base construction requires a little too much micromanagement, although resources are plentiful.  Overall, too much of the same old thing.  I'd do much better going back to C&C: Generals.

I had a lot of fun with Total Anhillation back in the days, and Supreme Commander is a successor to the line, with its predecessor's merits and faults.  Base construction and resource generation require massive amounts of micromanagement.  The AI varies randomly from slow to crazy.  The three sides are practically identical until you get to the super units, which require seeming hours of micromanagement to actually deploy.  My viable strategy is limited to Artillery Spam.  The battlefields are generic rock, generic grass, generic sand and generic ice, although the sheer scale mitigates this to some amount.  It is fun to zoom out all the way and watch the games nukes go off, however.  Overall, takes too long to play, with too much micromanagement of base construction for a short payoff when the fur actually flies, and half the time the enemy dies due to random gunfire before I can volley off a personalized salvo of destruction.

I should like Company of Heroes, and at some level I do.  It's World War Two at the platoon level, and looks it.  The four forces available (US, British, and two different Germans) are all surprisingly different and all playable with several strategies I can use for each.  Unfortunately, there's only so much you can do with your wrecked European towns and your wrecked European countryside.  While the AI can be fun to play, it varies with the board.  The resources are so limited, however, that it takes forever to get to the good stuff, and once you get it, you wait forever for it to drive to where the action is.  Units require a good deal of micromanagement, from cover and alternative weapons, to tank facing and specific damage effects.  Overall, fun when I need a WW2 fix, but that's so rare these days.

Finally, there's Dawn of War, the Warhammer 40,000 themed RTS, with it's three integrated expansions.  On the plus side, this gives nine playable sides, each acceptably different.  It requires some dull early-game micromanagement, but the play speeds up when the economy is up to speed.  While the worlds are a further variety of sci-fi wasteland, it comes off as more varied and interesting than C&C 3's wasteland.  Although you can micromanage combat, you don't have to, and the shooting and other violence is sufficiently pretty.  This game is probably the best of the four.

What strikes me as worrisome is, that while I occasionally will get the urge to fire up one of the four games above, I spend a lot more time painting up little miniature tanks to play tabletop wargames than I do sitting in front of a computer actually gaming.  I shouldn't find it more fun to paint my 300th German panzergrenadier (which will happen any day now) so I can use it to play a game in a couple weeks than to actually play a computer game right

Update 7/21:
From the ever-resourceful Steven den Beste I find that C&C Red Alert 3 is in the works.  From what little I can see, this hopefully represents an improvement in the C&C franchise.  The Red Alert series has always been a bit goofier than the regular C&C series which in some ways made it more fun, and Red Alert 2 was significantly more fun than C&C 2.  I don't have a problem with introducing Japan as a third playable side, but the super infantry unit is admittedly a little too much, especially the sailor fuku.

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Saturday, June 07 2008

Brand Identification

As a dedicated fan of old-fashioned tabletop roleplaying games, I had to pick up a copy of the new 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons just to see how much the game has changed in its new incarnation.

Before I get to my thoughts, a little tangential story, which does relate back to Dungeons & Dragons.  Twice a week, I eat at Subway for lunch.  It's generally better quality and variety than other fast food restaurants, but I still lump it in the same general class with McDonalds, Burger King, etc., and not with more trendy quick-service establishments like Panera Bread, Quiznos, or Chipotle.  While all are not traditional restaurants, the differing price point and style is such that I view the latter chains as a separate class.  Having eaten there twice a week for years, I'm something of a regular, and on good terms with the manager.  At one point, I commented to the manager favorably on a new menu option, and was rewarded with the candid observation that the chain was looking to adjust the menu and correspondingly increase prices to be more comparable with places like Panera or Chipotle.

To me, this seems a major mistake.  Subway, for me, is the best of the fast food class of restaurants, which for me is defined by low cost, fast service.  When I go out for lunch at work, these are the two traits I am looking for.  That Subway has added quality and variety are bonuses and as such the deciding factors in my preference for Subway. They are trying to establish brand recognition in the more upscale trendy quick service restaurant class, which is defined by having better quality and more variety than the limited fast food menu, but at a higher price and with a longer wait.  Subway doesn't compare as well with the restaurants currently in this class on quality or variety, so I'm not as likely to think of going out to Subway when I could go to one of the other restaurants in the class, and its value over other fast food restaurants has lessened because they've increased prices.  Subway has traded established brand recognition away in one class for the hope of developing new brand recognition in another class.

Wizards of the Coast is likewise trading away the established brand recognition of Dungeons and Dragons among the general roleplaying game class, because the fundamentals of the game system has changed significantly from the previous edition.  That's not to say that the mechanics themselves are worse or wrong, but given the magnitude of the changes involved, there's no reason not to look into other systems at this point.


  • The game has gone to almost a purely board and miniatures driven tactical combat system.  If I want to micromanage combat that badly, I'll play a boardgame built for the purpose.  I want RPG combat to be quick.  I'd much rather say, "I attack the monster with my sword", roll to hit, roll to damage, then spend an hour pouring over the board micromanaging tactical combat.
  • With that being said, the addition of one hit - one kill minion monsters changes combat dynamics, in part in a good way.  I hate micromanaging hitpoints for monsters that won't last more than two hits anyways.  This is more of an odd change for some players than others.  I know one old school roleplayer that can't wrap himself around the idea that a monster fit for a high level party can have 1 hit point.  It is odd, however, as most of these high level minions should be suitable as boss monsters for lower level parties.  The whole minion idea makes more sense for more realistic genres than high fantasy where most bad guys only can take one hit anyways.
  • Likewise, the mechanics of the rolerplaying aspect of the game has been diminished in the emphasis on tactical combat.  There are fewer skills and non-combat abilities such as spells, and these are managed less and are built for "adventuring" in dungeon or wilderness environments, not roleplaying.  I like roleplaying my characters.  I find it fun.
  • In some respects, the game is more MMORPG like, with all characters having a number of spell-like powers they can use, these being the source of the tactical micromanagement.  All characters have elaborate power tables and so forth.
  • The combat system is changed dramatically, with the 'to hit' system combined with most of what was the 'saving throw' system to form a unified mechanic that, while it makes the general flow easier, requires more memorization of details for specific powers, and requires relearning the basic system.
That's my impressions of a quick run through of the Player's Guide.  Overall, there are a lot of changes, and the game is very different than 3rd edition D&D, so much so that it's an entirely different game.  Aside from the stats, everything you know is wrong and will need to be relearned.  While I won't go and say the game is not Dungeons & Dragons, it most definitely is not 3rd Editon Dungeons & Dragons.

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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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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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Sunday, December 30 2007

The Cardinal Rule of Gaming

As far as I'm concerned, every game has an unstated rule:
If everyone isn't having fun, you're doing it wrong.

There are three general types that people fall into when playing games:

Type one are those who follow the rule.  I try as much as possible to stay clearly in this way of thinking when playing a game.  This sort of player tends to be sportsmanlike if not chivalrous, and they find that losing a fair and closely fought game is better than winning in a blowout or due to some obscure rule quirk.

Type two are those that need to win to have fun.  This sort of player will use any twist or loophole in the rules to his advantage, and tend to be completely ruthless in crushing their opponent.  Mercy is not a word in their vocabulary.

Type two behavior is not always wrong;  thinking like a type two player while the game is in session is a necessity for tournament play in one on one games, but people who are type two when a game is over or especially on a consistent basis are real pains in any group.  Further, type two players tend to cause opponents to think the same way, in that defeating the guy that is pissing you off and knocking him down a peg tends to take over as the reason for playing.  With the inability to communicate directly with your opponent, type two behavior prevails on online gaming.

Type three behavior is more interesting, and only really shows up in games with more than two players.  These are the players that don't care about winning, only having fun, but only care about their fun.  These are the players that exist to play strategies that have no chance of winning but only serve to piss of one or more of their opponents.  I've seen it happen in strategic games when it becomes obvious that one player has no shot at winning due to the actions of another player.  The offended player will then devote his time and attention to attacking the player believed responsible for being out of contention.  This sort of player makes any sort of strategic planning next to useless because you can't assume they will make rational decisions, and may deliberately throw the game to another player.

What's odd is that a similar sort of thinking can be attributed to poitical campaigns.  Type one campaigns are those that think that the system is more important than the election outcome;  type two are those that view the results as more important than the system.  Type three are those that don't care about winning, only making a statement regardless of the effect on the system itself.

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Sunday, September 09 2007

Flames of War: Barbarossa

I just returned from the local game and hobby shop where I participated in a big Flames of War game. I always prefer a friendly game against a human opponent over playing the computer, and miniatures gaming has presented itself as the preferred pastime of choice these days. The scenario was interesting in that it represented an unusual period and presented several different tactical options for the players.

The people at Battlefront Miniatures that produce Flames of War had divided up World War II into three distinct periods for the purposes for army construction. Early war is 1939 - 1941, mid-war is 1942 - 1943, and late war is 1944 - 1945. They have recently revised the rules into a second edition, and started with the mid-war time period for releasing army lists, and have since expanded into late war. First edition never had official published lists for early war, but lists were released online and removed when second edition was released. So when this month's Sunday battle was announced as Early War Eastern Front, I was doubly screwed: I have no early war specific units, no army lists, and I'd only started on Eastern Front forces in general about a month and a half ago, so I had to form my list at the store from Afrika Korps forces and loaner equipment from my German allies.

The scenario itself was interesting as well. The board was 5 feet wide by 15 feet long. It was divided in half length-wise by a river, spanned by two bridges. It was then filled with assorted hills and woods, and a road and two villages were positioned along one of the long edges. The two Soviet players set up on the middle third of the field length-wise, and were told to divide their forces across both sides of the river. I, with one company of German armor, was the main line of advance, and was set up along one of the five foot edges of the board. The soviets objectives were to destroy German units and to advance what they could off the board on the far five-foot edge from me. The complication was that two other German players would be advancing from the sides of the third of the board between the Soviet players and their exit edge, with the idea of closing a pincer on the Soviet forces. The Soviets also had a time limit of ten turns before there was a chance every turn that the pincer would close completely; any remaining Soviet units were considered lost. The picture below shows most of the battlefield; toward the camera is the Soviet middle third with the river. The far edge along the wall is the Soviet escape edge.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

The Soviets deployed two anti-tank units, two infantry units, and a tank unit equipped with fast BT-7 tanks on my side of the river. They deployed an artillery battery and five armored units on the far side of the river, three with BT-7s, one with heavy T-26s, and one with armored cars. I deployed my forces back along the road. The Soviet tanks on the far side of the river immediately began to advance towards the rear and safety, while the AT guns prepared to make a last stand to cover the tanks and infantry as they jammed the bridges. Below are my forces as they approach the AT guns on the left side of the board.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.
I concentrated my entire force along the road, figuring that I could both amass my firepower on one set of guns and destroy it faster and that any bypassed guns would still count as destroyed when the encirclement fully closed. You can see the mixed nature of my forces. Four of the incredibly fearsome and deadly (by early-war standards) Panzer III auf H in Afrika Korps colors are on the right. Behind them are five Panzer 38(t) tanks in German gray, with my company CO in a very stowage-overloaded PzIIIH. Along the road are trucks carrying a full platoon of Pioniers. Along the left are three Panzer II auf F light tanks and two Sd Kfz 222 armored cars. In front of them are visible six Soviet 47mm anti-tank guns, just out of range. I then closed with and engaged the guns with my entire force. The first results are shown below.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Four of the six AT guns destroyed. The unit is pinned down, and even some 'persuasion' from the commissar is unable to rally them before they are wiped out on the next game turn, and my forces regroup before the next set of Soviet troops. Meanwhile, all the Soviet tanks have crossed the river, and a fierce tank battle is engaged further down the road, leaving a number of destroyed tanks for both sides. The German forces attacking along the road have deployed a screen of Pz38s protecting a pair of 76mm AT guns and a massive 88mm AA gun, sighted right down the road. Along the other side, the German Pz38s are hitting and running from the forest, and the lighter Soviet tanks are hiding behind the hills rather than advancing. The Soviet infantry, meanwhile, is jammed trying to withdraw across the river. The infantry unit along the road bridge left a doomed rearguard of troops in the village on my side of the river to stop my advance from rushing across the bridge, while the other bridge is covered by the surviving AT battery. The Soviet artillery, meanwhile, is dug in on the far side of the river where it can cover both bridges, and the Soviet 76mm artillery makes an impressive anti-tank gun. The overall situation is as shown below.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Across the river, the fighting was fearsome. The Soviet forces sustained heavy losses as they pushed towards freedom, but one of the Soviet players unwisely retained a rearguard of tanks on the hill behind their artillery, and left some of their armor unengaged in the middle of the field. In the photo below, you can see the flames of the burning Soviet and German armor in the distance.The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

In order to have some effect on the battle and keep the Soviets attention divided, I needed to attack, and ideally take out the artillery battery. To do this quickly, my Pz38s needed to risk the Soviet AT battery, but I threw everything I had into the fight, with the Pz III's closing as well against the only guns on the Soviet side easily capable of taking one out with a front shot, as shown below.

Close behind the armor were the now-dismounted Pioniers, with the armored cars and the PzIIs raking the Soviet infantry in the buildings blocking the bridge. The Pz38s succumbed to the combined fire of the AT gun platoon, artillery battery, and the tanks on the hill behind, and one round from the artillery hit home on a PzIII, blowing it up. But the results were worth it, as shown below.
The artillery battery is down to one gun (which dies shortly thereafter), and the buildings are clear of Soviet troops (one surviving group flees across the bridge), with light casualties to the attacking Pioniers. The building on the left was incidentally cleared by the PzIIs basically running into the building, and it was quite lucky that one didn't end up stuck in the wall. On a shot of the right you can see the remains of the valiant Pz38s (the two not destroyed retreated off the field) and the slowly advancing Soviet AT gun battery.
The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

My forces cross the bridge, mopping up the stragglers, while the surviving Soviet armor circles the wagons between my forces and the surviving tanks of the pincers, one of which is largely untouched. At this point, the game is called. Overall, a German victory. We lost four complete units, my Pz38s and a tank platoon, an armored car platoon and a Pionier platoon belonging to the pincer that came from the road edge. Three Soviet tank units, the armored cars, an AT battery, and an artillery battery were already wiped out, with the rest of their forces unlikely to survive. One Soviet tank made it off the board to report the loss (not enough to score), and the commander was promptly shot for desertion.

A fun game, overall. The Soviets were hampered by bad luck and hesitation to engage the German pincers en masse. I probably should have been more careful with my Pz38s, but by keeping the one Soviet tank platoon engaging them, they probably kept the Soviets from mounting a unified defense where it would have done some good.

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Thursday, August 30 2007

Bioshock: The Review

I've been incredibly stressed out at work for a while now, and last Tuesday was particularly bad.  My boss got upset with me, and I got upset with her and held it in because I knew letting it out would be a really really Bad Thing.  So, trying to find some outlet, I stopped at the game store on the way home, and there it was:  Bioshock.  From the legendary team that created System Shock.  Bought it, took it home, installed it, and some of the stress went away with each swing of the dreaded Wrench Of Dooooom!

Wednesday, fired up the computer and went to Shamus Young's excellent site.  And what awaited me there?  The game I had just gotten addicted to is loaded with more DRM than I can shake a stick at.  It has truly insane system requirements and doesn't even work on some systems that meet those requirements.  And server overload means that most people who purchased the game can't even play it.  <Sigh>

Well, it works on my system, it installed just fine, and I was stuck with the game and the damn DRM.  So I may as well play it.  And it is a fun game.  Not great enough to be legendary (but then again, I'm noticeably picky) but probably the best story-driven FPS I'd ever played.

What's not to like?
The DRM.  The DRM.  The DRM.  The System Requirements from Hell.  The DRM.  (You get the idea.)  It takes a long time to load each level, so it doesn't hurt to have some reading material.  The game itself is relatively short;  it's about 10-15 hours.  Most of the weapons seem astoundingly inaccurate at long range, so no real sniping here (as I love sniping in FPS games, this was a disappointment).  The plot had a fair amount of cliche FPS elements scattered about.  The 'moral choices' bit was overplayed, as there's basically one thing you do that offers you a moral choice, and it's not particularly expensive to take the right choice  (Dark Forces II offered a much more diverse moral choices in a FPS).  The moralizing is a bit heavy-handed at first.  The enemies got a bit repetitive after a while.  The DRM.  The DRM.  The... (just a reminder)

What's to like?
The world itself is beautiful, and Rapture is a fantastically realized landscape.  Each level had a completely different feel, with at least new "wow" moment looking around at the world, and most were not the usual FPS fare.  The plot has its share of twists and turns, and when the big twist hit, it had an effect.  The game designers used various messages left scattered around to tell the story and give sometimes tantalizing hints as to what the big story was, and they pulled it of perfectly.  The variety of powers available gave me many different approaches to combat, and I spent a lot of time wondering if I could have done things a better way.  The surprise factor was enough to keep things interesting but not enough to give me the shakes.  Amazingly enough, the game played without a noticeable bug or graphic hiccup;  I've seen a fair amount of games get good, only to have a show-stopping bug halfway through.

I'll post a more thorough, spoiler-filled analysis below the fold this weekend (hopefully).

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Sunday, July 15 2007

Games and History Part 1: the Fog of War

I recently received a "homework assignment" from the gaming group that I play with.  This consisted of a copy of Against the Panzers by Allyn Vannoy and Jay Karamales and instructions to read it with an eye towards what lessons could be applied to my tactics in wargaming.  Reading the book has indeed given me some insight into American infantry tactics in the second world war, but on another level, reading the book has given me insights into how history relates to games development to a degree that will require several posts to analyze.

One of the first things I noted with regards to game development and game tactics and strategy when compared to historical scenarios is the role of what has come to be known as the "fog of war", the limited information available to a commander with regards to the current situation, be that situation real or simulated.  The one thing that is obvious in retrospect when reading about the second world war is how little each side knew about the disposition and conditions of the opposing forces (and occasionally their own forces).

In tabletop gaming, its hard to represent the fog of war on a meaningful level without major investments in time and resources.  Simple board games can accomplish this by hiding the values of the pieces from the opposing player, but still intelligence can be gleaned from watching what moves where, and where the opposing player is focusing his attention.  More complicated games require a neutral party capable of determining when the opposing sides notice each other.  This adds complexity and therefore time to the game, and requires the attention of an additional gamer that does not get the satisfaction of actually playing the game.

With computer games, the computer itself is able to act as a fair, transparent third party.  This means that for casual gaming, the computer has an advantage over the traditional tabletop game as a means of providing a 'realistic' tactical model.  The recent staple genres of computer games emphasizing tactical decision making have been the real-time strategy (RTS) and tactical first-person shooter (FPS) genres.  Real-time strategy games generally emphasize an overall battlefield level of control, as the gamer directs units from an overhead perspective, and make decisions as to unit aquisition and overall strategy, while leaving the micromanagement of combat to the computer.  First-person shooter games have always put the player in the role of a single battlefield unit, and emphasize reflexes and situational awareness.  The modern tactical breed of FPS games adds the additional level of encouraging small groups of players to work together with a variety of roles in combat, where a balanced, coordinated team can effectively deal with larger numbers of uncoordinated opponents.

Real-time strategy games have almost always featured a two-level awareness limitation.  First, the player screen normally shows only a small portion of the field and the units under the players control at a time, requiring the player to shift his attention between locations.  Second, the information displayed is generally only valid for a short distance around the players units and their allies, meaning the current situation in a large portion of enemy controlled territory is unknown.  On the other hand, units in RTS games are perfectly coordinated;  what one unit can see is available to the player and any friendly unit.  Additionally, units in RTS games also have perfect friend or foe recognition, and will not target friendly forces unless deliberately ordered to do so.

FPS games have a different set of issues approximating the fog of war.  Normally, the player's visibility is the simulated line of sight from a single soldier or vehicle (although some games allow special extras, such as forward observation for beyond visual range artillery, remote sensors or camera-guided weaponry).  As the limits of visibility in computer games is a factor of computer power and screen resolution, this visibility distance is very short and of poor detail at distance.  Computer games tend to approximate this in some respects by providing a limited friend-or-foe system, but this tends to limit the realism of trying to identify a potential hostile.  In addition, to provide the fun expected by people who want the fun of a fast-paced game with friends, FPS games normally provide the player with a running casualty tally, indicating the casualty, the killer, and the weapon, often valuable information.

Posted by: Civilis at 08: 59 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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Thursday, June 07 2007

Midway, Tigers, and the Romance of History

Wonderduck has a fascinating post up about the popular myths surrounding the battle of midway, the anniversary of which I forget about in the run-up to the anniversary of D-Day.  As I said in my last post, I was fascinated by the military history of the second world war back when I was a kid (and still am to some degree today) and most of what was in his post was new to me.

One thing I did want to comment on was the way we distort history even when directly addressing it. The second world war has long been the war that has figured largest in popular culture for a number of reasons:  it was a good war fought against the baddest bad guys of history.  It was fought with courage, cunning, and gee-whiz technology.  It provides cinematic moments of all types all over the world.

And yet, with all that, in fact because of all that, it gets distorted in the lens of culture.  It even gets distorted in the eyes of history buffs.  There is so much to be fascinated on in the small scale that one loses track of the big picture.

I play a World War 2 historical miniature wargame that involves pushing small models of troops and tanks and guns across a table.  The guys who do this sort of thing are all history buffs, many to a degree much greater than I am.  If you have an interest in history and a lot of patience, it can be quite fun.  But it's both educational and a distortion of history at the same time.  Take German armored fighting vehicles for example.  The names are often quite familiar to history buffs: Panther, Tiger, Konigstiger, Ferdinand, Elefant, Jagdpanther, Hummel.  And those are just the big monsters.  You've got a half dozen configurations of the common Panzer III, Panzer IV, and StuG.  If you're putting together a German armored force, you've got tons of types of tanks to choose from, all used at one point or another, and all laid out in a hand set of values and formulas for use in the game.  What the books don't necessarily say is that some of these models were only produced in limited numbers and saw combat only a handful of times before falling out of the picture entirely.  Sure, they're neat vehicles and all, but in fact they're historical curiosities.  [American players have it easy.  You have a M4 with a 75mm gun or a M4 with a 76mm gun to choose from for most of the war.]

There is just so much ground to cover that if you look at the little picture you often miss how it figures into the big picture.  If you look at the big picture, you miss all the little pictures.

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 10 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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Thursday, April 12 2007

Objectives, Games, and Ludicrous Conspiracy Theories

(Before we get started with a discussion of games and how they relate to logical analysis of current events, read this article by Bill Whittle at Eject! Eject! Eject!)

As I have mentioned, one of my hobbies is playing games of all sorts.   Card, board, miniature, roleplaying, computer, console... you name it. Although it may seem simple to say, the key to success is to always remember what the objective of the game is.  Again, this is often something that seems simple to do.  In chess, your objective is to put your opponents king in a position where he cannot save it from capture.  In Clue, your objective is to determine which suspect, location, and weapon card have been set aside.  This is generally pretty easy to do.

Matters are complicated when you start determining what series of steps are necessary to reach that final objective.  There is an old board game called Assassin.  It's generally similar to Monopoly, in that you travel around a board amassing money and resources, with the added step of then using the money to hire assassins to attempt to kill the other players.  The objective of the game is to be the last player alive.  But you can't do that without hiring assassins to remove other players, and for that you need money, and so most of the game is about making money.  The problem gets to be with players who focus on making money to the level of forgetting about the part about spending the money to off the other players.  He who dies with the most money, still dies.

Posted by: Civilis at 09: 06 PM | No Comments | Add Comment
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