Information Flow – A Torrent or a Trickle?

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #6

Before we return to the Wehrmacht’s continued advance through a deserted Russia, as a way of seeing how far we can stretch the logistical systems, we need to talk about information.

Nobody likes to play a game where the underlying mechanics are opaque. You make a decision and something happens but the game won’t tell you what or why. It’s frustrating to find yourself poking around in the dark.

The cornerstone of any decently designed game is that it provides ample feedback to the player. If you are going to provide a decision space you need to also provide the necessary information that enables players to make those decisions in an informed, educated manner.

Decisive Campaigns 3, as already mentioned, is striving to be micromanagement free as possible. It also has a fairly high level approach – divisions, 30 km hexes – to it’s chosen subject. Does this mean it there will be straightforward and simple game mechanics?

Half right. Straightforward yes, simple no. The underlying mechanics are involved and detailed.

Which creates a dilemma. In order to provide the player with adequate feedback there are all manner of reports. Squillions of them. Add to this a variable number of decisions that need resolving each turn. The end result is the player having to wade through an awful lot of reading each turn to find out what’s happening.

Clearly that isn’t workable. Who wants to spend twenty minutes each turn reading endless reports on this or that? Some of us, perhaps, but not all.

To bring some order to the raging torrent of information flowing through the game there are a series of ‘Daily Logs’. These act as summaries. There is one for each theatre, one for staff matters and one for game related items, making a total of five.

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The daily logs are dynamic. Sections within the reports will only show if there is anything of interest. Your staff know you are a busy man and won’t bother you with trivialities

The intent of the designer, that’s me, is for the player to imagine themselves pacing up and down their headquarters, staring at the latest updates on the operational map. Before them on the desk are a big pile of reports compiled by their staff from information provided by the various components of the forces under their command. There’s another pile of reports that are decisions needing the player’s input.

The headquarters staff have put together summaries, daily logs, that highlight everything they consider important. Everything they think the player should know in a concise, short form.

The player can scan these each turn and has the option, if he wants, to then delve deeper into the big pile of reports to get further information on a particular item.

None of the matters highlighted in the daily logs will resolve themselves. It’s up to the player to deal with any problems. Which isn’t easy as there will be, as time progresses, more and more of them. He has tools and resources at his disposal to resolve various issues but these don’t include the ability to handball the important stuff over to a minion.

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The other pile on this desk, all those decisions needing his approval, or otherwise, can however, be delegated. The player’s Chief of Staff is on hand to deal with any decision that are sitting in the pile. But that’s all he’ll do. He won’t run the war for you and his judgment isn’t always going to coincide with yours.

The game presents the player with a few, key, pop-up messages at the start of each turn. Need to know stuff – Weather, Panzergruppe status, pending decisions.

Once the turn begins the player can click on the report tab and have everything available to him in the one spot. Right at the top is the ‘Decisions’ pile. Followed by the Daily Logs. Below this are all the detailed reports.

A typical turn would have the player scanning the list of pending decisions, dealing with some, delegating others. He’d also look at his Daily Logs. Doesn’t have to, but he can expect a short command if he chooses to remain ignorant of what’s happening. The detailed reports are there to be dipped into at his convenience. The player can choose to be a ‘big picture’ or a ‘tell me everything’ commander.

The information flow is layered. You can play the game by interacting with the outer layer only or you can start peeling away, Shrek-like, and go deeper. It’s up to you.

An additional aspect of the games approach to information management is how it deals with individual units. Each division can have a wide range of factors influencing it (ammunition shortages, command problems, fatigue, counter battery artillery support, cold weather preparations, postures, interference from the Führer are some examples to give you an idea of the scope of these) and there are multiple ways of accessing this. But that’s a topic for another blog.

Cheers,
Cameron

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 15 Comments

How to Make Logistics Fun

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #5

Now might be a good time to have a chat about logistics. This is a very difficult concept to get right in games.

Most people tend to bounce off logistics faster than a rubber raindrop. Wargamers have a higher tolerance setting but not by that much. Logistics aren’t inherently fun and they involve, typically, big doses of micromanagement.

Yet they are always present in one form or another in wargames as it’s difficult to do justice to your chosen topic without a logistical system of some kind.

An awful lot of wargames tend to take the easy way out and provide a token, bare basics, logistical model. Which is O.K for a lot of situations and ensures that game play isn’t affected by the Many Tentacled Logistical Beast. The designer has ticked the box without managing to upset anybody.

Unfortunately this isn’t a route that can be taken with a game simulating the invasion of Russia. For Barbarossa this is a make or break topic as it was a key plank of the campaign. There is going to have to be a decent, detailed, model lurking in there somewhere.

The overall design of DC3: Barbarossa has, at it’s core, a rabid desire to strip out all forms of micromanagement. This is a GOOD THING but it puts a ball and chain around the implementation of an involved logistical system. How do you manage to portray the complexities required without being able to insert a mess of variables that need to be actively manipulated by the player?

The basic requirements for a Barbarossa based logistical system would be that it delves into a higher level of detail than normal, is easily understood by the player and, as mentioned, is micromanagement free.

Here’s how it is done.

Firstly there is an underlying structure. In each theatre, eg. AGN, there is a base, referred to as the ‘Main Depot’. This is a fixed location close to the border that is constant throughout the game. It has as much variability as your local, geologically stable, boring, mountain.

All the action happens at your Forward Supply Base (FSB), which is, once again, unique to each theatre. This moves forwards or backwards according to the whim of the player. The game will offer you, at frequent intervals, a list of possible locations that it can be relocated to. All of these exist on the main rail lines for obvious reasons.

You don’t have to physically move a counter on the map. The decision system handles this for you. There’s an example of how this works in the previous blog post. The map shown dynamically portrays the position of your Main Depot, your FSB and any Panzergruppes.

Which brings up another topic. The logistical system is all about getting enough Fuel to your Panzergruppes. Ammunition and supplies are handled as well but these are secondary issues to fuel.

The Wehrmacht that invaded Russia was a straightforward organisation. There were a large number of slow divisions (line infantry) and a small number of fast divisions (panzer). This was a result of a conscious decision by High Command to concentrate all mechanised and motorised assets into the four Panzergruppes at the expense of everybody else.

It is these four, highly mobile, hard hitting, PG’s which will win or lose the war for you. Attempting to march on Moscow, supported by horse drawn panje carts and a lot of spare shoe leather, would be an exercise in futility hence the strong focus on providing fuel to the Panzergruppes.

Back to the main topic. Your FSB’s will leapfrog their way forward in each theatre as you advance. A simple analogy here is looping a large rubber band over a fixed point at one end and your left hand index finger on the other. As you move your hand forward (the FSB) the rubber band back to your Main depot (fixed point) stretches. The ever-stretching link between the two is your rail network.

How many trains per day are you going to be able to get through the rubber band link? The further you move your Left hand into Russia (FSB) the more tenuous the link will be.

The analogy goes further. There’s a second rubber band looped between your Left hand (FSB) and your Right hand (your PG/s). This link is handled by your truck columns. Advance your PG’s to far ahead of your FSB and your truck columns will struggle to get enough fuel to where it is needed.

Unlike DC1: Warsaw to Paris and DC2: Case Blue, there is no global pool of fuel. Instead there are individual allocations to each theatre (which you can change via decisions) which then have to be rail freighted from your Main depot, along the first rubber band, to your FSB. From here it needs to be shuttled via your truck columns along the second rubber band to your PG HQ’s.

Whatever Fuel makes it to your PG HQ’s is what your fast divisions draw down from. As time goes on you may well find that you have plenty of Fuel but it’s either stockpiled back at your Main Depot or at your FSB, because your trains or truck columns are unable to move it forward. You’ve overstretched your rubber bands.

So there is the basic structure – Rail link from Main Depot to FSB, truck link from FSB to PG’s.

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All of this is handled automatically by the game. The Player is given plenty of feedback on what’s happening and can, if desired, delve down into the nitty gritty detail and immerse themselves in the numerical soup bowl. Importantly, the Player doesn’t have to.

They can, if they wish, approach the logistical system solely as a high level operational matter.

To enable this we have, with a flurry of trumpets, the DECISION system. This allows the game to throw all kinds of logistical detail at the player but in a straightforward, easily digestible, manner. Decisions are micromanagement free zones. A previous blog post highlights ‘Tires for your Truck Columns’ as one example of this.

The Player makes a decision on Tires and this flows directly into the Logistical system. There are a heck of a lot of decisions covering all aspects of the system that will occur as the game progresses.

Design wise, we now have a pretty good simulation of the logistical difficulties with no micromanagement involved and with the player having input into all the key factors via the Decision system.

To enable them, if they wish, to get a closer look at the inner workings and to see the effect of various decisions that they make, there are many detailed reports. With numbers. Lots of them.

I’d call this a win but only a marginal one. It’s interesting and playable but it isn’t necessarily fun. Not yet.

To make logistics fun you need to get people involved. People under stress. Sometimes they are happy but mostly they are grumpy. Who are they angry with? You. Why? Because you’re the person in charge.

The logistical system described above is practical, functional and playable. But it’s just a bunch of numbers being manipulated and shuffled around. Now place a person in charge of each part of the system and, all of a sudden, it comes to life.

There is a problem with scheduling on your rail network? Rather than this being another set of numbers indicating a problem, you’ve got a report in front of you from General Gercke who is DEMANDING you take action against the dorftrottel’s who run the truck columns. Which would be General Wagner and he’s FURIOUS with the lack of consideration being show by General Gercke’s transport staff who run the rail network.

YOU get to decide how to untangle the mess. Whatever you do will have consequences, not just with the provision of fuel but with your relationship with both men, as well as your theatre commanders. Relationships have consequences. Good begets good and bad begets headaches.

You are no longer interfacing directly with the logistical system. You have lost your god like powers to manipulate the underlying numerology. Instead, just like in real life, you have to ask/cajole/order/plead with a small, eccentric, cast of characters to do your bidding for you.

Now it’s fun.

Cheers,
Cameron

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design, Upcomming releases | 6 Comments

A quick update on Shadow Empire

Shadow Empire design blog #3

Just a quick word I am still alive and kicking. Designing a new engine is not easy. I have to juggle a lot of different tasks at the same time, but slowly everything is moving forward and integrating. The unit and landscape map artwork is close to completion, I am almost halfway through with the design of the campaign scenarios and the random game maps are starting to become more and more interesting.

The gameplay has had some live testing against friends and with a few select alpha testers from previous games. And it is good! As you might remember there are 3 modes of play: simple rules, basic rules and full rules. Especially the advanced parts of the rules need more fine-tuning. They were often a bit to overwhelming and confusing. But I am making a lot of changes for the better that keep the depth but provide a more tranquil playing experience.

I guess everything is taking a long time because I am not choosing the easy route very often. With the landscape artwork for example I chose to have dynamic generation of maps, but also dynamic generation of some hex tile artwork, moving water and quite some animation with some units and locations.

The same for the campaign. Definitely not the easy route… Every scenario has a semi-randomized map, meaning that the core logic of a scenario stays the same, but every play is subtly different. The campaign comes with a story that can be influenced by the player. Every scenario is a little mini story where you can actually make some choices and in between the scenarios you’ll find some time to wander around your base and talk with your leaders.

Big task ahead of me now is the creation of the final user interface. Moving your units around on the map is already a pleasure, and just a few days ago I worked on improving the flow for combat. It is quite amazing how approaching combat between two units like a little movie script pays off. Also experimenting with some audio feedback. Which works amazingly well, although I get tired of my own voice used in the placeholders. It is a lot of work to make sure the key rules are visible and audible to the player, but it pays off. Also a clear game flow and visibly transparent rules makes me reflect more on my own design and it already happened quite a few times a change in the game flow or interface also caused a change in the game rules.

The interface and the game flow are the areas where I really try to make an enormous improvement compared to earlier engines. We will soon see if I succeeded or not :)

Best wishes,
Vic

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Russia on Ten Barrels a Day

Decisive Campaigns III design blog #4
Note: Screen shots show an Alpha version with graphics being either missing or subject to change. Except for a few stragglers, the Soviet military forces are otherwise occupied. Somebody mentioned Manchuria.

Let’s invade Russia. Right now. While nobody is looking.

The bulk of the Wehrmacht can sit this one out. All we’ll need are the four hard hitting Panzergruppes.

Russia. Empty. Nobody home. Drive straight down the main road. All over in a fortnight.
Knights Crosses, first class with Golden Oak leaves all around.

Glory awaits.

How hard can it be?

D+0
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All Panzergruppes report in at one hundred percent operational capability. Ample fuel. Morale excellent. Smartly creased uniforms. Square of jaw. Stare down the sun expressions. Forward!

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The weather forecast is all roses and sunshine. Kiev is the place to be. Warm, almost tropical. The Abwehr informs us that they’ll be girls in bikini’s waiting to drape flowers garlands over we steel-eyed warriors as we roll past in our shiny Panzers.

D+4
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Minor resistance on key avenues of approach. Nuisance value. Envelop and eliminate. The men are enjoying the outing and the opportunity to fire their weapons.

D+8
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Now that the Luftwaffe has achieved air superiority we’ll switch their focus over to providing Tactical support to our fast advancing Panzergruppes.

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Glancing at Armeegruppe Nordwärts, we find that the Luftwaffe is all conquering. Nearness to the main theatre airfield, the excellent flying weather and the well prepared airbase all combine to give Col. Gen. Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe an iron fist as he steamrolls through the token Russian resistance.

Everything is right in the world, The Fuhrer is, we have been informed, bouncing off the walls with excitement and contemplating pushing the Bolsheviks even further eastwards, beyond the Urals.

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Col. Gen. Hoth’s 3rd Panzergruppe, thrusting eastwards in AGC isn’t gaining the same benefits from his close air support due to an increasing distance from the main AGC airfield and poor weather. Even so, the Luftwaffe clearly rules the skies.

D+12

We are suffering some schedule slippage. There are cracks developing in the master plan. Not many, but enough to create some concern.

Col. Gen. Hoepner’s 4th Panzergruppe at AGN is suffering it’s first bout of mechanical failure. Panzers, sadly, aren’t built like Volkswagens. On the other hand Volkswagens don’t have to thump and bump their way cross country at a rate of knots.

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Of greater concern is Col. Gen von Kleists 1st Panzergruppe down in AGS. They appear to be outrunning the ability of their truck columns to keep them resupplied.

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This is a matter that warrants further investigation.

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The situation is somewhat stretched at AGS but still manageable. It is important that the Col. Gen. Kleist maintains his momentum. The Führer demands it!

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It may well be worth moving the AGS Forward Supply Base up to Lvov as Kleist is going to be beyond Krakau’s ability to support him within the week.

Right now all our FSB’s are still behind the border and it’s our truck columns that are doing the heavy lifting. General Gercke and his trains will have to take up the slack sooner or later.

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Col. Gen. Kleist has broken through and is sending back reports of endless rolling steppes. He appears to be concerned about the vastness of Russia.

The man is clearly dreaming.

To be continued…

Posted in DC3:Engine, Game Design | 9 Comments