The Proving Grounds

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #11

There has been a dearth of posts from me lately but rest assured I’ve been busy. While the game isn’t finished it’s now in a fully playable state.

Vic and I have been PBEM’ing several test games recently. Which is akin to taking a prototype, new model, car out of the garage for the first time and fanging it as hard as you can down the local highway. The good news is that the engine didn’t blow up, nor did the wheels fall off. It all hung together pretty well although the steering was, in a local colloquial phrase, ‘wonky‘.

Our first game came to an early halt when it became apparent that the Blitzkreig was more of a ‘Fizzer’ kreig. The Germans had enough punch to knock holes in the Soviet lines but there wasn’t enough to fully exploit them with the consequence that their advance was like a strong man trying to run through waist deep mud in order to get to the river.

After a rebalancing, and introducing an initial ‘shock penalty’ to the Soviets, we started up a second game with Vic as the Germans. This time nobody had any doubts about the effectiveness of the opening Blitzkreig. In fact I was worried that I might have gone too far with the balancing as there were massive pockets of encircled Soviets in all directions.

Vic ran the numbers on the casualties and they, to my surprise, turned out to align closely with the historical reality. It certainly didn’t feel right, sitting watching entire Soviet Armies get swallowed up willy nilly. Not a happy time to be playing the Red corner. No wonder there was confusion in the Kremlin in those early days.

The encirclements created their own problems. It only took a round or two and the trapped Divisions became virtual ghost units as they were bereft of supply and fuel.

In AGS, Vic swung the 1st PG well north of Lvov and managed to trap large numbers of Soviet Divisions in a huge pocket but, having done so, came to a grinding halt as his Truck Columns, one by one, broke down after having to traverse extreme distances cross country.

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It took him another 3 turns (12 days) for his Infantry to reduce the pocket enough for him to clear the rail line. He then had to wait 3 more turns for his Forward Supply Base to relocate to Lvov. Aerial Resupply of Fuel didn’t work way down south as the 1st PG had out run the effective reach of Luftflotte Four and was forced to remain idle until their Logistics were untangled.

Overall this all worked as intended and highlighted the dangers of spearing your Panzers off into the wilds, away from the main transport routes. It did, however, cause a fair amount of discussion about how the game treats encirclements.

On one hand was the German point of view that, once having encircled a pocket, it should begin to dissolve of it’s own accord. On the other was the Soviet player’s opinion that by simply being there the trapped Divisions are serving a useful purpose in denying access to crucial rail infrastructure.

We both found it frustrating that the trapped units were so passive – the Germans because it was a grind having to neutralise them and the Soviets because they couldn’t play any useful role other than that of static blockers.

As a result I’ve added a couple of Action Cards to the Soviets. The first allows the Soviet Player to deliberately ‘Dissolve‘ a trapped Division and have it reform into irregular bands and conduct guerrilla warfare. This allows the Soviet’s to remove a single Division, per turn, and have it add to the Partisan level of the Front.

The game system that handles Partisans hasn’t been mentioned in a blog post yet but there’s a net figure for each of the three Fronts (or Theatres, depending on what side you’re playing). This is dynamically calculated based on the number of captured cities, the policies followed by the German Civil Governors and the effect of any ‘Incidents‘. Offsetting these are the number and type of Divisions you’ve assigned to Security duties. Over time they’ll get better at their job.

If the overall Partisan level for AGC is 11% , for example, then that’s the probability of a Partisan event each round. These can temporarily interrupt your Trains, permanently destroy your Truck Columns or cause casualties to your Rail Construction Battalions.

So from the Soviet Player’s perspective having the ability to deliberately remove a Division in order to influence the effect of Partisans is an interesting cost/benefit decision that makes encirclements less of a passive occurrence. It also provides a short term boost to the German’s situation at the cost of a long term hindrance.

 

Knocking on the Gates of Leningrad. Note the Finnish units held back by Politics

Knocking on the Gates of Leningrad. Note the Finnish units held back by Politics

Encirclements have been given an even bigger profile with the addition of the second Action Card – Breakout! Vic made the astute observation that there were many instances of Soviet forces conducting violent breakouts after being encircled for several weeks or more. This isn’t something that could happen at present, in the game, due to the deleterious effect of no supplies.

Hence the Breakout! Card which allows the Soviet player to choose a single Army HQ (once a turn) and have it resupplied (along with any subordinate Divisions) and given a moderate action point (movement) bonus.

The catch is that the Army HQ must be located in a city or town. Aerial resupply was a non starter for the Soviets in the early stages of the campaign so the only other potential source of supply and ammunition would be from magazines located in urban centres.

While this might not be historically accurate (I couldn’t find any information to prove or disprove it) it’s a good game outcome. The Soviet Player, if he’s careful, now has a limited capacity to make a surprise counterattack from within an encircled pocket. This is no small thing as, in our game, Vic ran his Panzergruppes way forward of his infantry, exposing more flanks that a Saturday night hooker, confident that any encircled Soviets would be glued to the spot.

Any breakout would be a do or die attempt given the one time supply and movement boosts but it’s enough to provide the Soviets with some counter play and to keep the Germans on their toes.

Both Action Cards will be free to play which is a direct result of another balancing issue that arose from the encirclements.

A key plank of the game design was the German Player taking the role of the Operational Commander of the Eastern front. Lots of decisions to be made with the currency of decisions being Political Points (PP’s). To make this work there needs to be an element of resource scarcity. Lots of decisions that need to be made but not enough PP’s to go around.

The scarcity forces you into compromises. You’d like to do this but you can’t afford to because you also want to do that. There are times where you’ll have to go with a worse option because that’s going to be better than doing nothing or delegating the decision to your Chief of Staff.

It’s having to make the tough calls that give you the sense of being in Command. It’s where the real juice of the game is.

Or should be. I stuffed up. Hitler’s first Directive (no. 21) gave destroying the Soviet Armed Forces as his top priority. For each Division Vic wiped out he received 4 PP’s. Guess how many Divisions went down in the first five turns?

Enough to make Vic the German equivalent of the kid in the candy store with his pockets full of money. He could afford to choose any option for any decision at any time.

It was like putting Warren Buffet in charge of my personal stock portfolio. As there are hardly any zeroes involved Warren wouldn’t care what happens to my favourite shares. I’d be asking him to give me an update on my financial position and he’d be staring straight back at me wondering who the h*ll I was and what the heck was was a kangaroo doing hopping past the window when he thought he woke up in Omaha?

I’d reassure Warren that he’s having a Senior’s moment and to concentrate on making me rich but I doubt that it would do any good as he wouldn’t be suffering from any sense of ‘scarcity’.

Yep, there was a great big chunk of the game design totally negated by a simple oversight. Scary how the little things can trip you up.

I’ve changed it such that you now only get PP’s from destroying Army HQ’s, not Divisions. There are still a lot of HQ’s out there but not that many that you can get rich quick off them.

A canny Soviet Player could deliberately choose to pull his HQ’s back out of reach and abandon his Divisions but that would likely prove to be self-defeating (Command and Control wasn’t a strong feature of the Soviet Armed Forces in ’41) and difficult to do anyway – I may have mentioned the ‘Activation’ system for the Soviets in a previous blog.

Smolensk is captured but there is still a distance to go before Moscow is reached

Smolensk is captured but there is still a distance to go before Moscow is reached

The Soviet side of the game also needed a fair bit of love which is to be expected as it was put together shortly before our games and received only limited testing.

The design gave the Soviet Player a wide range of Strategic and Tactical choices expressed through various types of Action Cards. Stalin (the role you take if you play the Soviets) is only given a small ration of Political Points per turn and, while he has plenty of options, he has limited resources with which to exercise them.

All good. His country is being invaded. He’s been caught with his pants down and chaos abounds. He should be suffering from acute scarcity.

A further aspect of the design was that most Cards, once played, doubled in cost. The idea being that Stalin needs to choose very carefully where and when he deploys his limited Command Resources.

In practise this turned out to be overly proscriptive. Stalin rapidly priced himself out of the market early on and, at the time when he needed certain Command Options the most, couldn’t afford them.

The solution was to tone down the doubling mechanism (there’s a 50% chance of a card doubling in cost, when played vs. a 100% chance as previously) and to make a lot of the lower cost cards free. Stalin now has half a dozen options that he can play at any time, regardless of his Political Point tally. He still needs to be mindful of exercising his big ticket Command Options but they will, on average, increase in cost at half the previous rate.

One new card suggested by Vic, is ‘Fortifications’. Once a turn the Soviet Player can construct a sizable Fortification anywhere on the map (provided it’s Plains or Forest, not cut-off and not knee deep in mud). It’s one of the free to play cards and provides a neat little mini-game for the Soviets.

At one Fortification per turn you can decided to ring Moscow and Leningrad with moats and anti-tank hedgehogs or take a more forward approach and recreate the Stalin line. As mud shuts down this option you’ve only got so many turns of use.

At present I’ve allowed it to be played in Snow conditions to reflect the desperate efforts that Soviets took to mobilise their civilian population, regardless of the conditions.

In keeping with the games streamlined approach to ancillary units there are no engineers or artillery units on the map for the Germans. What’s in place, instead, is an automatic reduction in Fortification structural points whenever there is a German unit adjacent to it that is receiving Theatre Artillery support.

It’s assumed that the Pioneer Battalions will swing into action against any fixed Fortifications only if they have sufficient artillery cover (which is my understanding of what happened historically). Hence, as the German Player, you’ve got an incentive to concentrate your Theatre Artillery Direct Fire support in order to deal with Fortifications.

You’re also going to find it difficult to over run Fortifications with Armour alone as Panzergruppes can’t receive Theatre Artillery Support as they were to fast moving for the tractor and horse drawn Artillery to keep up with.

An argument could be made that the Panzergruppes could apply their Tactical Air Support against the Fortifications in the same manner as Artillery. It was the Pioneers that did the damage here, not the brute force of dropped explosives and they could only safely do their job when protected by carefully targeted Artillery support.

You could also, quite reasonably, point out that the Soviets should have an existing number of fortifications already in existence, at the start of the campaign. Which, apparently, they did. Lots of them. Very few of them, however, were in good shape (they lacked steel doors on the bunkers, fire lanes were overgrown, tank traps were in disarray, moats silted up, etc.).

Allowing the Soviet Player the ability to construct his own Fortifications, one at a time, isn’t that far from reality, and provides scope for a range of different strategies.

 

Praying for Rain. Rostov is currently Hitler's no.1 priority. As Vic has chosen to support Hitler's goal, taking Rostov would be a win provided the Führer doesn't change his mind beforehand.

Praying for Rain. Rostov is currently Hitler’s no.1 priority. As Vic has chosen to support Hitler’s goal, taking Rostov would be a win provided the Führer doesn’t change his mind beforehand.

Another major hiccup with the Soviets, once more a balancing issue, was Stalin losing control and going into a Paranoid Death Spiral around turn five. As the Soviet Player I had immediately given the Central Front priority (gives a big boost to activation chances for all armies) and ordered Marshal Zhukov to proceed to Central Front HQ and kick things into order, pronto.

This gave me almost full activation of all Armies in this Front each turn at the expense of a lot of inactivity on the other two. I was able to pull back enough Armies to form a rough front at the river gate at Smolensk and managed to give the Germans a minor bloody nose (I surrounded and wiped out a couple of over ambitious Panzer Divisions). This brought me enough time for reinforcements to arrive and construct a reasonable barrier in front of the Gates to Moscow.

Unfortunately, once this was done (Zhukov, by now, had instilled sufficient backbone into Marshal Timoshenko and was confident he had the matter in hand), I had a crisis brewing down South.

Vic had taken advantage of his good relations with the Führer and ordered Gudierian’s 2nd Panzergruppe down into AGS where it was running rampant. Between it and von Kleit’s 1st Panzergruppe they were effectively pincering their way east, chewing up everything in their path.

I was desperate to get Zhukov down to the Southern Front HQ to help sort out the mess but Stalin nose dived into his Paraniod frenzy and stayed there for the next ten turns.

You can refer back to a previous post on how the Paranoid Episodes work but one side effect is that the Soviet Player loses the ability to play any Action Cards that turn (except Reinforcements). Zhukov was stuck in the Central Front and I had no ability to make any meaningful decisions.

Stalin, ranting and raving, began executing Army Commanders. Every turn he decided to shoot an additional one. Like a maniacal serial killer, high on speed, he kept going until it seemed like the entire Red Army Command Structure was brand new, inexperienced and very frightened.

All due to the level of Stalin’s paranoia going in the same direction as his blood pressure. Which interestingly enough was a direct result of another subtle deficiency in the design.

When Vic rolled his Panzergruppes eastward he was able to either punch through or bypass most of the Soviet Forces. Once clear he proceeded to capture many empty cities and towns. A number of these were classed as ‘Politically Important’ and their loss contributed to Stalin’s paranoid meltdown.

Vic made the good point that there should be, at the least, low level militia forces in all urban locations to prevent the Germans advancing at will.

The Soviets have the ability to play a ‘No Retreat’ Action Card which raises a large, well-equipped garrison in a Politically Important city that drew supplies from the city itself (eg. being cut-off wasn’t an issue for them).

I did this in Kiev and Odessa before the cost of doing so (the doubling…) put the option out of my reach. Odessa is still holding, surrounded by Romanians, but Kiev fell after a determined attack. This worked well (apart from the escalating cost) but it was too limited.

I’ve added a ‘Garrison’ card which, like a lot of other cards, can be played at no cost but only once a turn. It’ll add a low level Garrison unit to any city or town which, like the Fortification card, creates another mini-game. You can choose to put multiple garrisons in a single location or spread them thin to impede the Germans advance.

At one a turn you won’t be able to cover all threatened locations so the Germans will still be able to over run certain locations unopposed. Vic’s of the opinion that I need to auto generate them in all locations once the Germans approach within a certain distance but I’ve opted to give the Soviet Player control over the process at the cost of a smaller effect.

Yet another balancing item that awaits Beta testing – which will be in the New Year if you’re interested (email me at cameron.tasmania@gmail.com or place a comment below).

One other item worth mentioning before I bring this post to a long winded close, is feedback. Up until we started the test games the only person who had any prolonged exposure to the game was myself, the developer. This can lead, as you’d imagine, to tunnel vision.

The main manifestation of this was in the games ability to provide adequate feedback. This isn’t to say that it was absent, only that the game throws a lot of information at you and some of it wasn’t as obvious as it could be.

Vic struggled to get to grips with a few key mechanics and complained that the feedback wasn’t prominent enough. This is a fair comment and a lot of remedial work has since been put into improving this area.

Courtesy of some additional functionality provided by Vic there are now more visual clues as to what’s going on and the whole game is (or soon will be) sprinkled with detailed mouse-over tool tips. This has enabled a lot of streamlining and simplification of how information is displayed.

 

The yellow areas indicate mouse-over areas which bring up detailed tool tips such as this one.

The yellow areas indicate mouse-over areas which bring up detailed tool tips such as this one.

It’s an ongoing process with further improvements in the pipeline but it’s definitely heading in the right direction.

As is the rest.

Cheers and Festive wishes,

Cameron

 

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 11 Comments

The editability offensive for DC3

Time to share the big push I am preparing. While Cameron Harris is actuality doing the design of the DC3 game I am investing some time in some engine improvements. One of the improvements I have been postponing to long is to make editing easier.

There are new editors planned to be shipped with Decisive Campaigns 3. The new editors are: the Simple Editor, the Troop type Editor, the Historical units Editor, the Officer Editor… and of course there is still the Advanced Editor.

Starting scenario designers should use the Simple Editor and use it to import existing libraries and maps. Read a relatively basic tutorial on how to use the Simple Editor, configure a few settings that the libraries will need, place some units and voila: go!

overview_editors_and_libs_1

More advanced scenario designers can create their own map files and use the intermediate editors (troop type editor, historical units editor and officer editor) to create all kind of extra functionality and new historical data sets.

Here is an overview of the whole editor and library ecosystem I am designing:

overview_editors_and_libs_3

My two targets with this whole new setup is threefold: (1) make it much easier to create a scenario, (2) make it much easier to work together to design something bigger and (3) make it easier for me to support existing mods by releasing new libraries and new versions of libraries now and then.

But there is a caveat. Since the engine is so versatile I have to make some hard choices regarding unit, turn and hex scale for the default ruleset. There will of course be the option for players to create their own rulesets, but these will basically be similar to forks in open source projects and the default ruleset will probably be dominant.

So I’d like your input :) since it concerns tools for the community I should ask the community.

What default scale would you prefer for the simple/intermediate editors?

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Best wishes,
Vic

Posted in DC3:Engine, Upcomming releases | 6 Comments

Down But Not Out

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #10

Hitler gambled on conquering Russia. In ’41 he came dangerously close to winning. He didn’t and ended up losing the campaign, the war, his country and his life. Invading Russia has, historically, always been an all or nothing roll of the dice. Nobody invades Russia hoping for a draw.

If Hitler had won an argument could be made that it would have been enough for Germany to secure Europe long term and that D-Day would have been nothing more than a logistical pipe dream. Hitler was playing for very big stakes indeed which makes Barbarossa such an interesting campaign. Two giants facing off in a cage fight to the death.

The game models the German side in great detail and enables you to experience the dramatic opening thrusts, the massive encirclements, and the increasingly desperate drive to victory before a cruel winter brings everything to a halt.

But what about the Russians? You could take any period of the Eastern Front and find a way of giving the Russian player a fighting game of parry and counter punch. Any period, that is, except ’41, the time period portrayed by Decisive Campaigns 3.

If you stripped away all the frippery the role of the Russian player in ’41 is to be dragged out onto the street and publicly beaten to a pulp. All he can hope for is that he’ll still be able to stagger to his feet once it’s over.

The single biggest design hurdle I’ve had to overcome is how to make getting kicked in the head fun. I could, off hand, think of ways to do this but they all require the game to don high heels and a feather boa before discreetly removing it’s ‘historical simulation’ badge and lobbing it into the nearest rubbish bin.

Which isn’t acceptable as this is a wargame with a strong historical bent. It has an obligation to model the key factors that influenced the Red Army. If the over arching narrative for the Russian player is to get beat up then that’s what has to happen. The degree and extent of the beating can be allowed to vary and there can be scope for a skilled Russian player to achieve a plausibly non-historical outcome but at the end of the day the player is still going to have to get violently punched to the ground and kicked in the head.

Finding a way to resolve the conundrum of turning such an unsavory historical experience into an enjoyable gaming outcome has been a challenge.

Does it have to be fun? Well it wouldn’t be much of a game if it wasn’t. A strongly historical military simulation still needs to be fun to play. It’s a game, not a masochistic endurance test of your pain tolerance.

Before we talk about my resolution to the problem it’s worth mentioning the different factors that affected the Russians.

There are any number of these but if I had to isolate the main ones I’d go with the unpreparedness of the Red Army (caught, as they were, in the midst of major doctrinal and organisational change), the rigidity of their centralised system, the dearth of experienced commanders, the panic and confusion caused by the German blitzkrieg, the constant reconfiguring of their Command structure and Stalin’s guilt.

A lot of these are intertwined with Stalin’s guilt probably being the most dominant. For reasons lost to history, Stalin chose to ignore any number of repeated warnings that Germany would invade Russia on the 22nd June ’41. Intelligence can be nebulous and flaky at times but when there were multiple corroborating sources it’s difficult to conclude anything other than abject failure to correctly assess the situation.

This was Stalin’s failure alone. It was he who refused to heed the warnings. It was he who deliberately positioned the bulk of the Red Army as far forward as possible against the advice of his senior military advisers. It is he who filled the Red Army with Political Officers and gave them equivalent authority (three quarters of them had no military training). It is he who had ruthlessly scythed through his experienced Officer Corps in the Purges of ’37 and ’38.

When confronted by the reality of Barbarossa, Stalin’s first reactions were shock and denial. He spent the initial days of the invasion in an alternate universe where the Red Army would soon be sweeping through Poland on their way to the Brandenburg Gates.

When he finally came to terms with reality (around D+5) he subsided into a funk and disappeared to his country Dacha for three days, leaving it all for others to deal with. There is speculation that, having caused the mess, Stalin was doing his level best to avoid shouldering the blame.

As it turned out he was asked, by the Politburo, to return to Moscow and assume the post of Supreme War Leader. But the guilt at his misjudgment of Hitler’s intentions and the fear of others blaming him was a factor that fueled his, already, not insubstantial paranoia. Stalin was, in ’41, a man constantly looking over his shoulder.

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The Russian Experience

It was clear from the beginning that the player would assume the role of Stalin. Not for him is the well oiled machinery of the Wehrmacht and the multitude of masters. No, he will fill Stalin’s shoes and take on the persona of a ruthless, cornered, dictator. This, all on it’s own, is a good foundation for an enjoyable experience.

The game mechanics have been heavily pruned and streamlined. Large components such as the Logistical system have no place here. The Russians had the benefit of interior lines and in falling back onto their own resource base. While there were occasions where logistical restrictions played a role, overall, relative to the Germans, they had minimal impact.

Involved systems such as Mechanical Reliability aren’t needed. You can, as the Russian player, simply assume that every time you move a mechanised force you’ll loose tanks from breakdowns. There is no need for ‘Refit’ cards and a multitude of decisions revolving around repairs and workshops. Tanks that broke down were simply abandoned. The Russians lost more tanks from mechanical failures in ’41 than they did from combat. A large portion of this was due to the lack of parts and basic knowledge deficiencies of the inexperienced tank crews.

There is no point in differentiating this commander from that one in their ability to wage war. In an environment when getting an order to an Army and having it respond in any meaningful manner was a touch and go proposition who was in charge was often irrelevant. How many field radios did the entire Red Army possess in ’41? It’s a ridiculously small number. Communication was done mostly via telegraph and telephone, both highly susceptible to breaks and useless once an Army retreated from previously prepared positions.

The large amount of artillery possessed by the Russians? Not much good once they retreated and were unable to contact, or coordinate with, anyone due to a shortage of field radios. The Russian Air force? Did it play any meaningful role in ’41 other than targeted harassment towards the end of the year when they were flying from heated airfields and dealing with an overstretched Luftwaffe?

Note that all of the above items were eventually successfully addressed by the Russians but in ’41 there was no time to do anything other than hang on tight with white knuckles.

Having streamlined the mechanics the Russian side has been focused, laser like on the aspects that matter. New systems have been put in place to make playing the Russians completely different to that of the Germans. Schnapps and Rollmops, while listening to Opera in the background, it isn’t. Instead it’s a more utilitarian, straight Vodka in a dirty glass, experience.

Commanders are modeled down to the Army level. They have two numerical characteristics, Initiative and Threat, along with a generic ‘type’.

The over riding concern for Armies is their ability to ‘Activate’ (gain Action Points) each turn. A random roll is made that is influenced by the Army Commander’s Initiative, the Front Commanders Initiative and a number of situational factors.

A Division in an Army that doesn’t activate still receives a number of Action Points (40 AP) so it’s not a complete loss. It can also ‘Partially Activate’ as well as the obvious ‘Fully’. Importantly, whenever an Army achieves a level of activation (Partial or Full), it’s Commander’s Initiative increases, thus making it easier to activate as time goes on due to learning on the job.

Threat is the central point of the design. In the game a commander’s Threat rating is how he is perceived by Stalin. Each turn the cumulative Threat ratings of all Commanders are tallied in addition to a range of other factors (loss of Politically Important cities for example). A random roll is made and if it’s less than the total Threat level then Stalin is assumed to suffer a ‘Paranoid Episode’.

What this entails is the total shutdown of your ability to pull the levers of power (you lose access to all Action Cards), a measure of confusion throughout and a number of your Commanders being dragged outside and shot. Best avoided.

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Now I’m not inferring that there is any chance of a military, or political, coup that would remove Stalin but it’s quite feasible that there would be a perceived threat of such in his own mind given his rather dubious historical record. And, yes, he did have Commanders shot for no other reason than to cover up his own blunders.

By early ’42 onwards Stalin was secure enough in his position that none of this was a problem but in the desperate days of ’41 it wasn’t so clear cut.

The dual Initiative/Threat mechanics is straightforward but there are a lot of interesting game mechanics hanging of it.

Commander’s are assigned one of a number of generic ‘types’ which determine their starting Initiative and Threat ratings. A TSARIST is an experienced, well trained Officer who has, miraculously, survived the Purges and can be expected to have a high Initiative level. Any Army he commands can be considered mobile and responsive. But he’ll be a threat.

On the other end of the scale is a TOADIE. Not hard to guess how he got the job. Poor Initiative will have his Army marching in circles when they should be hitting the flank of a Panzergruppe. You won’t have to worry about him though as his Threat rating be at an appropriate level for a subservient ‘yes’ man.

Hence the basic conflict. Good Commanders generally have high Threat levels. Whenever a Commander’s Initiative increases it’s likely their Threat level will as well. To much Threat and you’ll begin having ‘Episodes’.

To keep a lid on the rumblings of discontent (the Army Cdr’s are assigned a random type at game start which is heavily weighted towards the dud end of the scale) you have Marshals, each commanding a Front (equivalent to a German ‘Theatre’). Marshal Budenny, historically a ‘WAR BUDDY’ has a big Negative Threat rating which tends to damp down any boisterous subordinates. But how long are you willing to put up with his poor military acumen (low Initiative that acts as a global modifier to all his subordinate Army Activation rolls)?

Note: I’ve had to take a ‘mean line’ through the scatter graph that was the ever changing Soviet High Command structure in ’41.

Stalin has two trusted ‘troubleshooters’ at his disposal. Marshal Georgy Zhukov and Commissar Nikita Khrushchev. Historically these two gentlemen were trusted and used by Stalin in various roles. (I’ve taken a few liberties with history here but they are minor transgressions). As the Russian player you are able to dispatch these gentlemen to any HQ, Army or Front, on the map.

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Zhukov will give an immediate boost to an Army, or an entire Front’s, activation chances. Stalin didn’t ask him to take charge of the defence of Leningrad and Stalingrad for nothing. He’s the man who makes things happen in a military sense.

Commissar Khrushchev is your hatchet man. He’s the person you send if one of your Commanders is getting above themselves. There are a number of things he can do on arrival. The ‘Loaded Pistol on the Table’ is my personal favourite.

Stalin also has, at his disposal, a range of Command options. These allow you to manipulate a handful of key variables that have big picture effects. Importantly, the cost of exercising these options (in Political Points) doubles each time. This represents the rigidity imposed by the centralised Military and Political systems in place. Yes, you have a lot of options but you need to be very careful when and how you exercise them.

A typical game as the Russians might start with you facing the onslaught with an army commanded largely by no-hopers. They’ll be a sprinkling of competent commanders that you’ll be leaning on and you’ll be tearing your hair out trying to decide which crisis needs Marshal Zhukov the most. He’ll be a busy man. Hopefully he won’t get delayed in transit as he races from one HQ to another ‘Instilling Backbone’.

You’ll start with barely any Political Points (the opposite of the Germans) to reflect the initial shock and panic. Do you gamble and ‘Prioritise a Front’ knowing that it’ll be a while before you can afford to change your mind? (doing so grants a global Activation bonus and a funnels more Reinforcements to your chosen Front, away from others).

As time progresses and your surviving commanders gain experience you’ll find yourself squinting at your shadow as the cumulative Threat rating starts climbing above zero. Commissar Khrushchev will need to be active, if he hasn’t already been out there ‘Blaming’ or ‘Investigating’ a recalcitrant Marshal.

If the Germans are still clawing their way eastwards you could try ‘Exhorting Victory!’, heaven forbid ‘Admit to a Crisis’ or declare that there will be ‘No Retreat!’ in a key city. But be careful as there are only so many speeches you can give and so many times you can plead mea culpa.

Remember the cost in PP’s is doubling each time. It doesn’t take long before nobody is listening to your apologies or your speeches. And how many red lines can you draw on the map and tell your soldiers to die where they stand defending them before they, also, stop paying attention?

Is it time to bite the bullet and release a TSARIST Marshal from the Lubyanka basements in the hope that he can pull a demoralised Front together? But never forget that you’re a RUTHLESS DICTATOR. Assemble the Politburo and ‘Demand more Power!’

At least you’ll die standing. And that big Germanic thug that’s been beating you up?

That’s his testicles rolling around in the mud over there.

Cheers,

Cameron

 

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 14 Comments

Focus, Man, FOCUS!

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #9

In Decisive Campaigns III you are dealing with Armies. They each have a Commanding Officer. Nobody wants blancmange Officers in charge of their Armies. Having the same General Blobbo with the same blobbo lack of characteristics in charge of every Army isn’t much fun. It’s safe to say that we all prefer a measure of individuality. Some way of delineating this Officer from that one.

This creates a design dilemma. The Germans have around twenty Armies, each with it’s own Commanding Officer. I can easily give them all a set of numbers representing various characteristics but that’s a lot of numbers.

When are those numbers used? Are they turn by turn modifiers for various acts that the divisions under their command perform? That’s a pretty obvious route to take, give an Officer an offensive or defensive bonus that peculates down to all it’s divisions.

The disadvantage of this approach is that it’s very passive. The Player has ‘x’ Army with ‘y’ Commander and he gets ‘z’ bonus. What decisions can he make here? Swap Commanders willy nilly between Armies until he gets the right combination of bonuses where he wants them?

Well that might make sense if the game was pitched at a lower level but Army Officers weren’t flipping around the place like contract cleaning ladies as a rule. Whoever was in charge of the 9th Army, for example, at the start of the campaign was likely going to be the same person in charge at the end of the time period portrayed by the game. Not much scope for interesting decisions here.

Another way of tackling the problem is to use Action Cards. Each Officer can get access to a different hand drawn from a deck of Cards. This is the approach taken by the previous Decisive Campaign games and it works well with the cards adding variety and interest.

However the current iteration of the series has a strong focus on Command Decisions. With twenty odd Officers, each having their own set of cards, this isn’t really Command, it’s more like busy work.

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I’ve taken a different approach.

In Decisive Campaigns III each Army Officer is treated the same. Yep, hello General Blobbo. This is clearly not the case in reality but from the perspective of the Operational Commander of the entire Eastern Front, an Army Officer is an interchangeable cog in the big machine. He has to deal with what he’s got and he’s isn’t going to send the 9th Army over there just ’cause it’s Commanding Officer is better at Defence.

From a long term, strategic, viewpoint he might but it would be unfeasible from a tactical point of view as Armies aren’t something you can shove around here and there. They’re big, gnarly, inflexible organisations of thousands of men which move with all the grace of a beer-gutted, club footed, ballerina.

But…

An Army is part of a larger Theatre. an Army Group. The Theatre Commander, for example F.M von Bock of AGC, has at his disposal a range of theatre level resources. At any point in time he could decide to focus on a particular Army within his group.

Doing so might entail releasing specialist battalions, prioritising logistical support, allocating staff time to facilitate plans or simply giving the Army Officer their head. Whichever way it happens he is putting his finger on the map and allowing this Army and it’s Commanding Officer greater operational scope.

Game wise the Army Officer, who indeed has a unique set of numbers, is given a set of Action Cards. The Cards he is given depend on his current Posture. The numbers influence the effect of the Cards.

This isn’t a lot different from what I’ve previously described but the key point is only one Army in each Theatre can have focus. This means you are only dealing with three Armies at a time that have Action Cards, not a whole tribe of them.

The set of numbers that defines the individual Officers also only comes into play when an Army has focus and a Tactical Card is played. An Officer, like anyone from a lowly grunt all the slippery pole to the top, will only shine when they are given sufficient space to do so.

Do you want a cookie cutter, generic wife or girl friend? All you have to do is insist that she dress in the same work clothes every day, talk over her every time she ventures an opinion and demand she serves beans for dinner at five o’clock every evening. With sauce.

On the other hand if you leave the choice of clothes, dinner and opinions to her good self you’ll find yourself with a unique individual. Hey, it may even be you doing the cooking. You do know that real food isn’t fried?

It’s the same thinking with Officers. By focusing on their Army of Panzergruppe you’re giving them room to be themselves. They are no longer just a cog in the machine, they are an individual.

As the overall Operational Commander, the Player gets to decide which Armies have focus. As there is only one per theatre this decision matters. The Tactical Cards that are enabled through this decision matter. Now, with a handful of decisions that have meaningful impacts, we’re close to the sweet spot.

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But this isn’t the whole story. The Player, as Operational Commander, is instructing the relevant Theatre Commander to focus on a particular Army. As he’s your subordinate he’ll snap to attention and carry out your wishes. Or will he?

One of the fault lines that ran through the German campaign was the ongoing conflict between the New Age Panzergruppe Commanders and the WWI Old School, Infantry Commanders. Men like Guderian, Hoth and Hoepner were determined to advance as far and as fast as possible in order to sow confusion and chaos. Lagging far behind them were the resentful Commanders of the slow moving Infantry Armies who were left to reduce massive pockets of Russians without the aid of armoured support.

It was a conflict that was never satisfactorily resolved. At times it festered away in the background but it occasionally flared magnesium white hot and people got burnt. Guderian, the leading exponent of fast moving armoured warfare, found himself sacked before the year was out.

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As this was an important theme I wanted to model it in some manner. I initially tried calculating the distance between a Panzergruppe HQ and it’s associated Infantry Army HQ. The longer the distance the more strained relationships might become. However this approach ran into spatial problems. Distance needed to be matched with direction. What if the Panzergruppe was behind the Army HQ? Even this didn’t tell the full story because a large distance with the correct inclination still might not make sense if the PG and Army HQ’s were both well behind the front lines.

Too many edge cases. Too complicated. My second pass at it was to wrap the conflict up into a series of Decisions. This was an improvement but it still suffered from the same problem of when to trigger the decisions. Lots of maths, lots of scope to get it wrong. Having a Decision pop-up that is completely out of context is worse than not having a Decision in the first place.

But what if it was tied up with the relationship system? The Player already has an ongoing relationship with the three theatre commanders. By playing a ‘Focus’ card you are asking them to carry out your orders. The theatre commanders were all old school. None of them were inflexible but they all found difficulties in accommodating the new style of armoured warfare with the need to protect theatre flanks.

They’ll happily help out any Infantry Army that you care to Focus on. No problems. These are Armies that need all the help they can get, tasked as they are with reducing the bulk of the Red Army.

But ask them to provide extra assistance to a Panzergruppe raging far ahead of everybody else and their natural instinct to carry out your orders will rub hard up against their fear that doing so will only make a bad situation worse. Those extended flanks that they are personally responsible for will only stretch further.

If your relationship is positive then they’ll grudgingly obey. If, however, you aren’t getting along, this will be enough for them to find a way of saying yes but doing nothing. Experienced subordinates are good at that.

From a gaming viewpoint, when you play a ‘Focus’ card, you can select an Army HQ at any time but you can only play the card on a Panzergruppe if you have a positive relationship with the relevant theatre commander. There are appropriate messages in your Daily Logs indicating which way the wind is blowing.

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From my point of view this is a good solution. It’s straightforward, easily understood and gets the message across. It also gives yet another reason to pay attention to your web of relationships.

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A counter shuffling experience only really becomes fun, and immersive, once people get involved. The more you can bring these people to life, the better the experience.

Yep, it’s all about People, Planning, Preparation and Persistence.

Then again I’m the person that grew up wanting to be a crocodile wrestler.

“It’s not a l-o-n-g term career option, is it? You might loose an arm.”

‘It’s O.K Mum, I’ve got two of ‘em!”

Cheers,
Cameron

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 3 Comments