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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1 I play a lot of turn-based operational games, and it's gotten to the point where even full fog-of-war drives me nuts with the inaccuracy of the situation. The problem is that I control all of the units, and can see all of my own units, and what they can see. This means that I have an advantage given to no real-world commander prior to the invention of Blue Tracker: instantaneous transmission of information. If the 81st Pennsylvania is bumbling along in column & slams into the 4th Texas in a line aligned to the south-west, I should *not* be able to bring the 20th Maine into line, shift them onto a blind flank of the 4th Texas, and knock living hell out of the Texans in the same turn. The 20th Maine has no way to learn the location and disposition of the Texas regiment aside from the magic of their omniscient general's instantaneous command.

At least fog-of-war still leaves me open to carefully walking the 20th Maine into the 1st Texas lying in an en echelon ambush to the immediate north of the unsuspecting 4th Texas.

Posted by: Mitch H. at Aug 26 17 13 (iTVQj)

2 There's an argument to be made over fog-of-war effects in real-time or turn-based computer games. Most turn-based computer games (and board games, for that matter) involve a staggered turn, where each unit is moved and resolved one at a time, where realistically, all units are moving at the same time. So, likewise, if I have a bazooka team and a Sherman faced with two oncoming Panzers, realistically, both would target the lead Panzer. If the bazooka scores a lucky kill first, suddenly the Sherman was firing at the rear Panzer all along. But with modern computer AI, real-time combat isn't much better, as the computer can instantly command all the forces it controls perfectly, and often does not suffer from the full limitations of fog of war.

Posted by: Civilis at Aug 30 19 49 (qkqi/)

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