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 | 17 Comments

Why I love stacking and dropped it

One of the things that Shadow Empire will not have (much) is: stacking. For the uninitiated: stacking is the ability to put more than one unit in a hex. In my Decisive Campaigns and Advanced Tactics titles you can stack for example up to 16 units in 1 hex.

old1b

Above is an example of stacking. It cost me a lot of emotional effort to drop this mechanic. But I am pleased with the result. A game without stacking is much easier to play by non-grognard players and allows for nicer graphics. And.. as I will argue can provide the same gameplay. Also it is nice to get some diversity between my new engine and existing engines. I never did a game without stacking rules.

First I was resistant to dropping this mechanic, but when I took the time to analyse why I loved stacking I found a design method around it. The thing I found is I do not love stacking in it self, but rather the type of thinking stacking rules allow me to do. It is mainly two things: It allows to keep continuous frontlines and it allows to put a focus point (or schwerpunkt if you like) on a specific part of the front. Actually an important third thing is that it allows mixing units, but that is beyond the scope of this blog post.

old2

Initially I figured if I abolished stacking rules and subsequently would want to focus my power on a specific part of the front I would get this pile up of units behind the frontline.
And that would feel wrong. (as you can see above)

However I arrived at the obvious solution after some time: reduce the number of units, but increase their area of effect. By introducing opportunity fire units do not need to be on every hex in a frontline to keep that line. You can leave a hex open every hex and the enemy will have a hard time penetrating that line. You could even leave two hexes open every hex to have the same effect.

mediumfront

As you can see in the example above an enemy unit trying to break through the line will suffer opportunity fire in two hexes on its path of advance. Probably the opportunity fire in the first hex will already stop the unit in its tracks or boots, but even if not there still is a second hex with opportunity fire to move through.

A determined enemy with lots of units could force a breakthrough, though not in 1 turn. Well.. unless they have really superior equipment or are supported with artillery and bombers of course :)

Now if I really would like to keep my line I would add more units to it.

fullfront

As you can see in the example above a breakthrough is really impossible in such a heavy line. Any attackers will first all suffer opportunity fire just moving in and making contact. Then they will still have to attack and break a unit in the line. And then they’ll have to consolidate the hex and suffer opportunity fire from the neighboring defenders.

Essential for this approach is of course making sure that the unit count is in balance with the size of the map. So the player will not be able to have full frontlines on all fronts. In my test games so far I am not missing stacking at all. The ability to choose between different densities of frontline occupation works well for me with Shadow Empire.

And yes of course I have to admit that the level of subtlety and micro-management stacking provides in for example Decisive Campaigns could not be replaced by this approach. But that is a different kind of game. For starters it is historical. Sometimes you just need 10 divisions to be in Stalingrad. Shadow Empire is a post-apocalyptic era game aimed at a slightly less hardcore audience and for it I think I struck the right balance.

Next time I’ll discuss some other mechanics. For almost all battle design decisions my aim is to simplify gameplay but keep the core decisions of more complicated games in there.
In a few months time there might even be some graphical sneakpeaks :)

Best regards,
Vic

Posted in Game Design, Shadow Empire | 10 Comments

And we will name you: Shadow Empire

Just a quick note. I finally can stop cautious talk about ‘Workname Empire’. I have decided on a final name. The name for my new engine is ‘Shadow Empire’.

Like it or hate it… names are like that. Most important thing is probably that I like it myself and that it is a flexible title concerning time periods. If the first game works well I can use the same name for different settings as well.

As you will find out in the future the name is actually tied in with the story for the campaign.

And as you may have noticed I have switched my development updates to Twitter. But planning to write a few articles on mechanics soon.

Best wishes,
Vic

Posted in Shadow Empire | 1 Comment