Barbarossa Developer Notes #10: The Low Down


How information is presented is a big, topical, subject. A game can live and die by it’s ability to provide adequate feedback to the Player. Game mechanics that chug away in an information vacuum are no fun for anybody. If there is something going on you want to know why and how.

Being presented solely with the outcome is like finding yourself married to a woman whose personality changes every day. She’s still you wife, you’re still married, but why she keeps morphing into a different woman is a mystery. One day she fawns over your dog, the next she informs you that Chuckles the Chihuahua has left, in dubious company, to start a career in the restaurant trade.


The amount of information that needs to be presented to the Player is proportional to the complexity of the game. For Pacman a score and a timer readout constitute adequate feedback. For DC3: Barbarossa, with it’s multitude of game mechanics, there is a dump truck’s worth of information that needs to be thrown at the Player each turn in order to convey what is going on.

Straight up there is a problem. Information overload. Drowning under an excess of data is a feeling that we all familiar with, one way or another. Nobody wishes to replicate the experience in a game. The information needs to be presented in an easily digestible format.

The primary way the game tackles this is by making the information optional. There are, if you’re playing the German side, dozens of reports available in the report tab each turn. Do you need to read each and everyone of them in order to play the game? No. You can, in fact, ignore them all.

Delegate all decisions and fill your virtual wastebasket up to the brim. Of course there will be a train wreck at some point. You’ll lose the game. Probably get slaughtered. But not immediately. Importantly the game will keep ticking over without any input from the Player. If all you want to do is shuffle counters across the map then you can do this. For a while. Until your fast Divisions run out of fuel and a number of other, cascading, disasters catch up with you.

The game is about Operational Command and it assumes that you are going to at least make an effort to stay on top of what is going on. It also assumes that you’ll make a few decisions and read a few reports. But only a few. The rest are there to be dipped into at your leisure. The degree at which you choose to do that is up to you.

Which fits in nicely with the Operational vibe of the game. You’ve got a pile of reports on your desk. You can read the ‘need to know’ stuff and wing all the rest. Or you can be the one of those Commanders who are regarded as ‘on top of their brief’. Up to you.

Which of the two archetypes would you consider to be the better Operational Commander? Probably the second. I say ‘probably’ because Mr ‘I-don’t-fight-the-war-from-behind-a-desk’ might have other, equally valid, ways that enable him to keep his finger on the pulse. Which he would need to because there is no way to dodge around the fact that he would have to be on top of what is going on before he could make informed decisions. Does this mean that you’ve got to brew up a cup of stiff coffee and wade through endless reports each and every turn? No.

Information is presented in multiple ways and in multiple formats. You can access it textually or visually, or both. The game goes out of its way to provide you with different information channels and allows you to pick the one the suits. It also layers the information. Get the big picture and then peel away, Shrek-like, for further details.

Is it perfect? Nope. But the design has made a big effort to provide ample feedback, in a streamlined manner. Here’s how it is done.

Lets start with reports. There are a heap of them. Most of them are contextual. You would reference them only if you wanted specific information, the headquarters equivalent of asking your staff to provide a detailed breakdown on such and such.

The core, important, reports are the Daily Logs. They contain all the goings on in one place. If something has happened in the game, at a level that you need to be aware of, then it’ll show up in the appropriate Daily Log. They are divided into topics but, once the campaign gets underway, there can be a lot of stuff in there.

To provide a quick reference filter for the really important, need to know information there is the Aide de Camp which is essentially a distillation of all the major Daily Logs into a single, heavily condensed, report showing only the vital stuff. It’ll serve to give you a gentle prod if you’ve forgotten to tell the Luftwaffe what to do, for example, or have Theatre Artillery assets sitting around, twiddling their thumbs.

Tool tips. They are like rabbits in a breeding frenzy. Everywhere you look there is a tool tip. Pregnant and about to drop another litter of little tool tips. A lot of them are static. They provide the same information every time you read them. They are the dull neighbours or the boring in-laws type of rabbits.

But lots of others are dynamic. They are hopping around faster than a rabbit has a right too. They are the exciting, razzle dazzle, rabbits. The Matrix versions. Their little bunny brains neurally shunted directly into the virtual construct, constantly updating.

Report Status! Originally this was an Action Card but it received pride of place as a special button. It’s not happy if you aren’t pressing it. Everything you need to know about a Division or an Army is right there. With tool tips.

If you’re playing the Soviets you may find that the cogs of Command grind to halt at unexpected times. But that’s life in the Red Army. The rabbits and buttons are all on tranquillisers. As are the channels of communications that feed STAVKA with reports from the front lines. If your playing Stalin you might want to give your entire Command Structure a decent shake. Wake everybody up. Unclog the blockages. Have all the dopey ones who haven’t snapped to attention taken out back and shot.

Where ever applicable, Action Cards have dynamic text that updates after being played. If you want F.M Von Leeb, up North, to change his focus you’ll be able to see who currently has it before issuing new orders.

Status icons adorn the Unit displays to indicate various conditions. Logistical icons march across the map enabling you to accurately ascertain the state of your logistics purely from their colours, without the need to read a single report.

A comprehensive mouse-over is available for every hex with dynamic information on movement costs and combat. Small icons adorn the map letting you know of any additional, non-standard movement costs as a result of recent combat, or ZOC’s, for example.

Then there are the Special tabs down the bottom. Three for each regime. All of them aimed at a particular aspect of the game. All of them with extensive dynamic tool tips that serve to condense most of the information contained within the numerous related reports. One stop information shops.



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Decisive Campaigns : Barbarossa is released!

DC:Barbarossa is now for sale over at Matrix Games.

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Barbarossa Developer Notes #9: The Fiddly Bits


A lot of people equate micromanagement with depth, detail and decisions. Fair enough, but I’d take a different point of view. The presence of micromanagement, is to me, a failure in design. It’s something to be avoided at all costs. The game has all three of the aforementioned elements in spades but it is a micromanagement free zone.

There is a suburb in a city I used to work in that had council erected signposts all over. They stated, in pedantic terms, that you are entering a ‘Nuclear Free Zone’. It was a comforting thought to know that nobody was going to nuke you while ever you were between the signs and that a Fukushima nuclear power plant wasn’t just around the corner, slowly melting into a gooey, fizzing, blob. You could relax, knowing you were safe and confident that the red skin on your chest was a result of exposure to the sun and not an indiscriminate radiation burn.


The same council had signs on the local beach explaining that, if you swam between the flags, the lifeguards would keep an eye on you and that you were entering a ‘shark free zone’. As sharks were higher up the probability scale than being nuked I got less of a warm fuzzy feeling from those signs. Of course the alternative reality dimwit in the council who authorised such bold statements had forgotten to inform the sharks. I’m also confident that they hadn’t fronted the United Nations and pushed a bill through requiring all nukes to avoid detonating within 100 metres of a designated ‘Nuclear Free Zone’.

Yet here I am, erecting a ‘Micromanagement Free Zone’ sign, to be seen by all and sundry. B*lls of steel. Not really. As I’m the designer of the small slice of virtual life that is Decisive Campaigns : Barbarossa all the sharks and missiles work for me. They do as they are told. Just for fun try moving an infantry division into the Black Sea. Or the hex that is the location of the current day Chernobyl Power Plant. Put your darkest shades on and stand well back.

Micromanagement does indeed provide depth, detail and decisions. But not in a good way. The depth and detail is of the fiddly, busy work, kind. The decisions are micro. Too small to matter. Next time you play a game that features micromanagement ask yourself, what is it adding to the experience?

DC3: Barbarossa eliminates micromanagement in a number of ways.

Firstly by throwing decisions at the Player. Big ones that have a meaningful impact. Take an Army. It’s got plenty of subordinate Divisions but your main focus is on the Army as a whole. You can set the posture of the Army, assign Theatre based Artillery, Tactical Air Support, ask your Theatre Commander to focus his specialist resources on it, for example. Any decision you make with regards to the Army will automatically flow through to the subordinate Divisions.

Importantly, once an Army based decision has been made, it stays in place until you wish to change it. Fire and forget. The decisions matter because, if you’ve assigned something to an Army, all the other Armies within that theatre miss out. Changing your mind matters because there is an element of command friction and inertia involved. Armies don’t, for example, reconfigure from a full-on Blitzkrieg posture to a Defensive posture overnight. Doing so is a major undertaking that involves a transitional state of vulnerability.

Secondly the unit count has been ruthlessly pruned down to the bare essentials. Which, for a game portraying Barbarossa, still is a reasonably sized number. The fewer units on the map the more important each of them become. Saturating the map with counters is just another form of micromanagement. How the unit count is minimised is discussed extensively elsewhere

Finally the elf that lives within the engine has been given the job of handling all the details. He’s a busy elf who gets booted out of bed every time you fire up the game. It’s his job to work flat out and handle all the numerical detail that churns away in the subterranean caverns of calculation. I pay him nothing and every time he slips up and drops a digit I make sure that his big elfy ears get tasered. Zzzzzttt! Don’t feel sorry for him as he’s an elf.


To give him credit he does a good job. Consider Logistics. It’s detail with a capital ‘D’. How fuel moves through the three separate pipelines, stage by stage, is a marvel of calculation engineering. It would be very easy to provide the Player with a range of levers to pull and buttons to push at different points in the process. You could make an entire sub-game out of the logistical mechanics by having the whole process ascend up through the clouds into micromanagement heaven.

But that would do the elf out of a job and that wouldn’t be right. He deals with all the nuts and bolts and leaves the Player to make the big picture decisions that matter.

When do I relocate the Forward Supply Base forward? Should I halt my Panzergruppe for a turn to build up enough stockpile to cover the interruption? Do I keep my Panzergruppe HQ within cooee of the transport grid or spear off into the wilds, hoping that the elf can cut me some slack and keep the fuel flowing?

Don’t count on it. The elf has no empathy or compassion. Probably because he keeps getting zapped. But what can you do? He’s an elf.

All three approaches; meaningful decisions, streamlined unit count and having the engine take care of all the details, combine to ensure that the game can present a lot of depth without bogging the Player down in needless micromanagement.



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Barbarossa Screenshot #5

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Showing the Soviets contemplating to send Zhukov south to try to stop the German-Romanian advance on the Black Sea coast.

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