Let’s Talk about Tires

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #3

Assume that you’ve been left in charge of a big lump of machinery. There are pipes and valves everywhere, steam vents abound and there are a multitude of gauges and controls. It’s a complicated mess of equipment and you know that you’ll be spending a lot of time twiddling the controls to keep it running. This was me quite a while ago. I spent most of a four hour watch period in a never ending feedback loop, chasing my own tail. I’d tweak a control then run around and check gauges. Tweak a few more controls, check again. I never really managed to extract myself out of the loop by achieving an ideal set-up as the dynamics were constantly changing. It turned me off a career as an engineer.

Now consider the same piece of complicated machinery. Instead of having to run around a noisy, hot, dirty engine room there’s an air conditioned control room with a window and a coffee maker. All the information you require is right there on a screen. The multitude of controls have been semi-automated. Instead the Engine Control Room program running the whole show pops up decisions from time to time. It tells you that something is out of whack and asks what you’d like to do about it? Instead of drowning in micromanagement you are making high level decisions and letting the ECP take care of the details.

It would, however, be unwise to be lulled into a false sense of security. The Engine Control Program, left on it’s own, will, sooner or later, bring everything to a grinding, screeching halt, typically followed by a fire. You still need to know what you’re doing. You’re still in charge, all that’s changed is that the system allows you to concentrate on the decisions that matter rather than spamming you with micromanagement irrelevancies.

Which is the game.

Decisions that matter. Strong feedback. Micromanagement not found at this address.

It actually goes further than simply providing a bunch of decisions. The focus of the game has shifted. The game has been streamlined. The number of units on the map has been reduced to the minimum number required for the AI to function effectively. Entire sub systems have been abstracted. The composition of units has been reshaped and smoothed over.

About now you’ll be reading this and thinking that the game has been turned into the kiddies version of War and Peace, that there’s no longer a game there, not a real man’s game.

Nope.

Real men, men that slurp straight whiskey out of a dirty glass and spit ‘baccy onto the floor, would be happy to play this game. There are detailed and complex underlying mechanics. Right down to worrying about the supply of tires for your truck columns.

What there isn’t is micromanagement. What there is are decisions. Decisions without the fiddly bits.

Take the Tires as an example. It’s a good one to use as, on a scale of one to ten for potentially interesting game decisions, it would be down there among the dead men. If I had to pick the most boring decision in the game, Tires would be it.

Who the heck wants to be bothered by Tires? How can that be made even vaguely interesting? Does it even matter?

Lets see how successful the game is at turning Tires into something you might want to care about.

tire_1
(click image to enlarge)

Up front you’ve got a report from General Wagner, your Quartermaster General. Over to the right in the Report Bundle are other reports. There are always at least two, often more, and they can be supplemented by a range of other messages. Here’s the second one.

tire_2
(click image to enlarge)

This one is from Mr. Funk. He’s sounding stressed. As befits a person with such an unfortunate surname.

A couple of reports from interested parties have reached your desk and a decision is required. Note that there is little agreement on a way forward. This is typical of a decision. If it was straightforward and obvious, your staff would have already taken care of it. As you’re the man in charge you get to resolve the curly ones.

If you glance back to the first screenshot you can see a range of options down the bottom left. For Tires it’s a case of who do you give them to? Why is there a choice anyway?

Historically the Germans divided Russia into three distinct theatres.

tires_3

Decisive Campaigns 3: Barbarossa, with its strong operational focus, enforces these boundaries. Three theatres, each with their own command structure, their own logistical system, air, artillery, internal security systems, etc. Units from one theatre wandering into adjoining theatres will cause your organisational fabric to rend and tear.

Yes, it’s possible to shift a Panzergruppe from one theatre to another, as was done at the time, but you’ll need to obtain permission first. That’s a decision.

Back to the Tires. Three theatres, each of them in need of tires but there’s only enough tires to supply one.

Well that’s a resource allocation decision which is a bit more interesting but I’m sure that Tires still haven’t lit your fire.

Have another look at the first screenshot. The options. If there are three theatres then why do the costs differ? Surely it would be the same cost for each?

Here’s why.

tire_4
(click image to enlarge)

Each decision has a full breakdown of why a particular option costs what it does. You can see different factors at play here. There is a base cost. This is fixed. Costs vary depending on what level of time and Command Authority are required on your part. A base cost of 3 Political Points is considered a low level decision.

Cost is important because you have a limited amount of Political Points. Not enough to go around. There are considerable demands on your time and authority and you’ll have to pick and choose where to spend your limited command resources.

Any decisions that you don’t get around to making are delegated down to your Chief of Staff who will make a decision on your behalf. Perhaps not the one you’d prefer. Will he win the war for you if left on his own? Like the Engine Control Program, it won’t end well.

Talking Tires, the first decision is whether you’ll even want to deal with it personally or whether you’d be best to delegate. How important are Tires? On their own, not much but your truck columns don’t tend to go very far without them. These are the same truck columns that are currently shuttling fuel to your Panzergruppes from your Forward Supply Bases.

Let’s assume that you feel the need to take control of the Great Tire Crisis yourself. Decisions generally involve you asking/ordering/requesting somebody to take a course of action, in this case, your Quartermaster, General Wagner.

If you glance back at the Option Cost breakdown above you see that your Good relationship with General Wagner has resulted in a cheaper cost. He’s happy to help.

The game tracks your relationship with a number of key characters and where you sit on the relationship spectrum has significant ramifications.

Let’s take a look at the cost of resolving the Tires conundrum at a time when General Wagner is no longer sending you birthday cards.

tire_5
(click image to enlarge)

Tires, and all other decisions involving General Wagner, have suddenly become a major drama. Because your working relationship has effectively broken down it will take a greater amount of your time to cajole him into doing something that he’d rather not.

The technical term for this is Command Friction but you can experience it at home. Ask your better half to pass the salt to you at the dinner table tonight. You’ll either get handed the salt shaker with a smile or be rapidly calculating incoming ballistic trajectories depending on your relationship level.

Well if Tires are that important you could resolve to remain in General Wagner’s good books. Which is achievable but at a cost of other relationships. There is a war on. People are under pressure. They have their own agendas, their own priorities. There are underlying fault lines in the historical command structure of the Wehrmacht that virtually guarantee that not everybody will get along.

Assume that you’ve given the Tires to Armeegruppe Zentrum. They’ll be happy. But the commanders of AGN and AGS may not be. Relationships will change. Choose to do nothing and General Wagner might get upset at the lost opportunity.

Then there is the Führer. You’ll notice the option costs are affected by his strategic vision of what you should be doing in Russia. An option in line with his thinking will be easier to achieve, decision wise than one that contradicts his preferred approach.

In both the above examples he has similar priorities but this isn’t a given. He’ll call conferences from time to time to discuss overall strategy. His priorities will change. There are opportunities to influence his thinking. More on this later.

The Tires decision is one that will pop up occasionally depending on available rubber stocks. Each time it occurs you’ll have a different relationship with General Wagner. The Führer will be leaning this way or that. Other factors, not show could be in play. Your need for Tires in a particular theatre will vary as will your relationships with the three theatre commanders. Your pool of available command resources (PP’s) may be adequate or nothing but a stagnant, frozen pond.

Each time you play the game the decision over Tires will vary. This isn’t a decision system that devolves down into a puzzle that needs to be solved in order to find the correct path. It’s extremely dynamic and deliberately designed to keep you juggling more balls than you can handle. It’s inevitable that you’ll drop some.

But that’s Operational Command.

If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.

Cheers,
Cameron

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 13 Comments

“CAN SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME WHY THE HECK MY PANZERS HAVEN’T GOT ENOUGH FUEL?”

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #2

What determines if a game is enjoyable? Well that depends on the type of game. For a Shooter you are after adrenalin, tension and action. For a strategy game, which is more of a slow burner, there is a different set of criteria. These differ from person to person but immersion and decisions would be on most peoples lists.

Immersion because nobody wants a dry, mathematical based exercise in counter shuffling. You want to, ideally, put yourself in the shoes of the commander of the day and breathe the smoke and worry in the room that comes from a group of concerned subordinates, fretting, huddled over a situation map.

If mechanics are the bones of a strategy game, Decisions are the meat. They provide the muscle that propel it forward.

There are games out there where you can toggle a few switches, crack open a beer and sit back and watch it all unfold, doing nothing, deciding little. More of a movie than a game.

Then there are other games where you find yourself in a veritable snowstorm of decisions. But just like snowflakes on a sunny day each decision melts into insignificance leaving nothing but a wet dribble on your hand. You might as well get your dog to bang the keyboard and make them for you.

The sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Decisions that are both interesting and meaningful.

The whole design of Decisive Campaigns III: Barbarossa pivots around this concept. Vic has extended the engine to accommodate the strong emphasis on decisions.

promo_decision_system_small
The new Decision system interface (click image to enlarge)

Decisions need a context. Ask somebody to choose red or green and you’ll get a question straight back, ‘red or green what?’.

In Decisive Campaigns III: Barbarossa the context is the player as the Operational Commander. You are in charge of the conduct of the Eastern front but you aren’t an omnipresent God. You have subordinates and you have superiors.

Imagine yourself – mid morning, a murky mug of ersatz coffee in hand, staring as junior Oberleutnants mark the latest updates on the big operational map smeared across the wall of your drafty headquarters. Squinting suspiciously at the growing pile of reports on your desk. There is another pile, equally as big, full of requests. The phone rings constantly. Your staff are spiking teletype printouts ever higher and Colonel Rat Face, currently in dispute with your Quartermaster-General, is impatiently waiting for you next door, demanding that you intervene.

That’s the game. Right there.

Each turn you are presented with a number of decision that cover a broad range of topics. The kind of decisions that an operational commander would face. Every decision impacts the game in one form or another. They matter.

You have limited time and command resources. There will only be so many decisions in a given turn that you can deal with. The rest you’ll have to delegate. Deciding where to spend your command resources and which decisions you’ll have to handball across to your Chief of Staff are key elements of the experience.

You’ll be dealing with people. Strongly defined personalities. People under pressure. They can be difficult and demanding. You aren’t going to be able to please everybody. This has consequences.

Once you’ve dealt with all that you can get down to business and happily shuffle some cheery looking Divisional counters around the hex map that comes with free chocolates and the most detailed climatic model this side of the Urals.

But some of those Divisions aren’t going to want to move. Perhaps you shouldn’t have delegated that particular decision. Damn.

AND CAN SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME WHY THE HECK MY PANZERS HAVEN’T GOT ENOUGH FUEL?

Because there is a shortage of signals on the Army Group North rail network it appears that there has been a collision. Deliveries have been delayed. Because you chose to allocate the limited Signalling supplies to F.M von Rundstedt’s Rail Construction Battalions way down South several weeks ago. Because it was easier to do that than send them North when the Führer had shifted his priorities to the Ukraine. Because you have a better working relationship with F.M von Rundstedt than the overly cautious whinger who is holding down Armeegruppe Nordwärts.

Above all you are in COMMAND. It is this gnarly, gritty experience of front line operational command that the game seeks to capture.

Cheers
Cameron

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 4 Comments

Introducing Decisive Campaigns III

dc3I’m Cameron, the developer of the next game in the Decisive Campaigns series. Some of you may know me from the Matrix forums where I created the Enhanced Mod Suite for ATG.

This is the first of a series of blog posts about the forthcoming game that provide some background into its design and development. The game is not complete but there is enough of it there already to for me to begin a conversation, confident that it will turn up on your doorstep one day, dressed in it’s finest, sporting a cigar and a big silly grin.

Lock up your daughters.

I was given free reign by Vic as to what period/campaign/genre I would like as the basis for a new game with the Decisive Campaigns III engine. While I considered many alternatives, in the end I chose Barbarossa. Personal favourites such as the WW2 North Africa and a raft of other, more obscure conflicts, failed to pass muster because they either weren’t suited for the engine or were a niche within a niche.

In the end the deciding factor was the popularity and awareness amongst gamers of the Eastern front. The game has to sell.

Luckily there is a significant body of literature, war diaries and other source material covering the campaign and it was, fortuitously, one of the more fascinating ones. You could argue that the start of Barbarossa was also one of the 20th centuries great ‘roll of the dice’ moments, on par with Pearl Harbour.

Unfortunately it’s not all roses as there are sizable challenges that need to be overcome. One of those challenges is generic to historical wargames and the other is specific to the chosen campaign.

Challenge 1: How to make an historical game replayable?

Historical games, are by their very nature, games strapped firmly into straight jackets. People buy them to recreate a major military event and to gain an understanding of the various factors that were in play. Historical buffs love them for their attention to detail. Moving a game away from it’s historical roots is fraught with peril and protests.

These constraints are typically dealt with by providing a range of scenarios and the occasional ‘what if’. The replayability comes from providing multiple variations of the main theme. There may be some game mechanics that enable the player to ‘mix it up’ a touch, but generally this is only tweaking things on the margins as anything more risks losing the ‘historical’ description and having the game being forced to turn in it’s uniform and being gonged out of the army.

A title such as Decisive Campaigns III : Barbarossa is firmly in the historical camp. It can present arms and drill with the best of them. The amount of historical detail contained within is at a higher level than most. People who buy an historical game for the history will be pleased.

Does it contain the usual breadth of scenarios? No. It makes no pretense to do so. The focus is on the main campaign. Granted, it is playable from both sides but this is a case of smoke and mirrors as the nature of the campaign is such that the Soviets had a pretty miserable time of it. Taking command of the Red Army in the face of an overwhelming onslaught isn’t much fun other than for those who enjoy being beat up (a significant effort is underway to make the Soviet side enjoyable but even with this the majority of players will opt for the German side).

Which leaves a single campaign and a single, preferred, side awash with historical detail. Not a lot of variety here and limited scope for replayability.

If you’re the type of player, like myself, that enjoys a ‘build your own world’ type of game, for example Civilization or ATG, there isn’t much, if anything, in the above description to entice you.

Definitely a design challenge.

Challenge 2: How to bring something new to the table?

There are numerous games covering the same campaign at all levels of detail and scope. Each is different. There isn’t any point in making another also-ran. How many games are there that deal with the invasion of Russia in WW2? I did a quick web survey and came up with a list going on fifty.

That’s a lot. Each has their own theme. Many are different variations of the same theme.

Perhaps it’s like writing a novel in that there are only so many plots to choose from?

Maybe everything that could be done, has been done from detailed tactical combat simulations all the way up to monster strategic time sinks?

You could ask does the game even need a fancy new approach? What’s wrong with an well executed game using a proven engine (DC)? It might not be a ‘wow, look at that!’ car but there are plenty of people still buying and driving around in everyday commuter vehicles.

Well that’s certainly doable but it’s not going to get anyone excited. More likely it will have them nodding off with ‘not another game about…’

So there is a requirement for a new approach. A new angle.

This, in itself, isn’t hard. There are many things you could do which haven’t previously been done. Nobody else has tried them, however, for the very good reason that they don’t add anything to the gaming experience. In most cases they detract and distract. Who wants more micromanagement, more decisions that have little impact or excessive amounts of decorative chrome?

Once again, a challenge.

Summary

DC3: Barbarossa has taken on both challenges.

Will it end up triumphantly goose stepping across Red Square or is it destined to expire, crawling with lice, huddled fetal-like in a frozen ditch, in some nameless field?

Till next time…

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

Fog of war and possible enemy presence

One of the big changes in Shadow Empire compared to all my previous titles is that I dropped the system where players actually own the hexes on the map. In Shadow Empire players only own their locations and units.

This might seem like a bit of a trivial change, but the reverse is true. With hex control the player is always aware of any enemy maneuvers entering his territory. He might not know what enemy units are involved, but he is aware of the movements. Without hex control he only sees what his units and locations see.

A wealth of tactical possibilities is opened up with this increased fog of war. For example it is now possible to wage true guerrilla warfare, infiltrate enemy lines and disrupt the enemy supply system. This is basically your chance to be like the Desert Fox and outwit the enemy, take his rear supply bases and win almost bloodless victories. This possibility is a real reason to keep some reserves behind the lines and actually keep your lines tight to avoid such infiltration.

I like to add game rules that give at least in theory a smart player with less forces the possibility to outwit and defeat a much larger enemy.

Furthermore on a more strategic note it makes it possible to escape out of a dire situation and for example find a wild unclaimed part of the map and rebuild without the enemy knowing where you are. (might have seen The Empire Strikes Back one time to often)

What is important to realize is what the player sees as his supply system is always just a prognosis. Since it is possible that enemy units might be unseen and make the ideal logistical plan impossible at execution time (at start of the next turn).

fow1

Here we see a typical supply network with two supply units and a number of regular units. The dark shade indicates the fog of war. The arrows the flow of supply. In this example the supply will flow as normal.

But if an enemy unit would have infiltrated the lines it could block this supply network and cause all the units in the south to become cut of from supplies:

fow2

In play it turned out to be sometimes confusing to see units out of supply that should have been in supply and for this reason I created what I call Possible-Enemy-Presence (PEP) markers. In the screenshot above the PEP-markers are shown as the red blocked area. As you see the enemy unit blocking the supply chain between the 2 supply units is thus partly exposed. But note that the 2nd infiltrator a bit to the right of the exposed unit is not.

These PEP markers help a lot in the gameplay experience since they tell you more or less where there must be some enemy presence causing your supply network to dysfunction. They are basically just a tool and remove the burdensome task from the player of deducing where the enemy must be. The idea behind them is that they should betray (more-or-less) no more information than some sturdy think work by the player could have deduced. The PEP markers are most of the time not exact and with a complete break of the supply chain whole regions might be indicated.

These PEP markers are only shown when the optimal supply system is actually disrupted or broken. So if an enemy infiltrator would for example keep to the forests and not occupy (of all things!) a crossroad then no detection would take place.

Other rules related to fog of war are shroud of darkness rules and ambush rules. But my time is up and I’ll have to talk about those in a future post. Hope you enjoyed the read and feel free to comment.

Kind regards,
Vic

Posted in Game Design, Shadow Empire | 21 Comments