Warhol compilation of the 57th infantry division

First row: default mode, ownership shading, zoomed in
Second row: minimalist nato, minimalist siluet, zoomed in minimalist
Third row: siluets, zoomed in with siluets, zoomed out with siluets

DC:Barbarossa has three settings for displaying your counters.
First you can choose between ‘nato’ and ‘siluet’ mode.
Second you can choose between ‘default’ and ‘minimalist’.
Third you can choose one of three zoom levels. On top of these three settings when you are in ‘zoomed in’ mode you can opt to use smaller sized counters (as shown in the center image) to avoid the well known graphical obstruction caused by stacking.

Almost everybody should be able to configure the counters to their personal tastes!

Best wishes,

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Barbarossa Developer Notes #8: The Dark Side

Ethics and Morals

In days of yore battles were fought by men chosen for the task in places specially selected to be well clear of everybody except the combatants. Slings were slung, spears were lunged and swords were clanged against shields with the only people getting hurt being those involved. It was a neat, contained, affair that allowed matters to be decided by force of arms alone.

It wasn’t civilised. Whenever men decide to kill each other it is always going to be shades of ugliness and horror. But, and it’s a big BUT, innocent bystanders didn’t get harmed. The violence was constrained to the field of battle.

That’s not the case nowadays. In any given conflict the single biggest casualty count will be that of civilians. If you bothered to research and chart the ratio of military personnel killed vs. Civilians over time then you’d likely end up with a graph that looked like the Stairway to Heaven. It’d be Heaven only because of the ascending nature of the graph. Other metaphors may be more appropriate but they couldn’t avoid the unpleasant fact of ever increasing civilian casualties in proportion to military ones.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. Battles today aren’t fought on a wide, flat, field over yonder hill, far from the town. They are conducted inside the town with no consideration given to it’s population cowering in the basements. The lethality and reach of artillery has far surpassed that of the longbow and enabled the point of conflict to spread, amoeba like, over vast distances. Air power has brought the ability to directly target civilian centres and further smear the conflict zone into areas previously presumed safe.


The advent of smart weapons has only accentuated the trend. Once you have the ability to target this building in amongst a street full of them you are more likely to do so. Hope you flattened the right building. Smart weapons are only smart in a targeting sense. They don’t have the ability to check every room in the building for sleeping families before leveling it in an explosive cloud of concrete and plaster dust.

That group of people milling around the courtyard in the high angle, black and white, satellite image that is being peered at by operators on the other side of the world? Are they militants or a wedding party? There is an AGM-114 Hellfire toting Predator drone doing it’s best to look like a nonchalant eagle waiting on the decision.

We could keep talking about all manner of other modern day horrors that have become an integral part of armed conflict. We could, but we won’t. It’s enough to acknowledge that a Dark Side of war exists and that it is a significant part of modern day conflict. We aren’t here to judge or take a moral or ethical stance, simply to accept the fact that it is, sadly, what it is.

Was it a factor in Operation Barbarossa? How could it not be? This was the single biggest conflict in the history of the world. The Guinness Book of Records doesn’t deal in this area but it is yet to be beaten. Over twenty seven million people died. The biggest casualty count was civilian.

It was an existential war. Both sides were playing for their very survival. Negotiated peace settlements were never an option. Destroy or be destroyed. No quarter given.


You could fill pages with a list of atrocities carried out by both sides. The Dark Side of the war had a particular sinister tinge to it in Barbarossa. Two ruthless dictators throwing millions of fighting men at each other in a struggle for their countries, their beliefs and their own lives. The lady selling peace, happiness and roses was doomed to close from a lack of customers given the stakes and personalities involved.

Yes, there was a Dark Side. It was a significant factor in the War in Russia. But does it belong in our model of Operational Command?

In most war games the answer is a definitive no. It’s a touchy, very political area that is best steered clear of. There are people still alive who have personal experience of the events. Besides, who wants to be confronted by the uglier aspects of a knock down, fight to the death, that was Barbarossa?

They are all good arguments. There appears to be little upside in dealing with the Dark Side.

The game isn’t interested in politics. It’s agnostic. It’s also not the role of the game designer to take a stance, one way or another, on all the bad things that happened. It’s a game, not a recreation of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century.

The core focus is of Operational Command. Juggling the balls, trying not to drop them. The Dark Side of war has become a necessary, and important, element of this. It can’t be anything else. If we are going to fight wars in amongst civilians there will be a multitude of decisions, big and small, that revolve around this aspect.

It’s an important part of Operational Command. A grey area that, if omitted, would be leaving a sizable void. If we are going to a lot of trouble to model all the other elements involved why leave this out?

Including the Dark Side requires walking a fine line. There are, as it turns out, quite a few fine lines involved in the design of this game but this is the most delicate of them all. Just as well my ballet shoes still fit. Which they would if they came in size 14 (Euro size 47). Good luck with that.

An essential requirement would be to keep any mention of the Dark Side as generic as possible. There is no need for specific details that might confront a Player. The literature, and media, of the conflict is sufficiently broad and well established that the Player will automatically fill in the details themselves. All we need to do is provide a broad picture outline of generic events that touched on the ugly side of the war. Along with this comes the aforementioned need to remove any hint of political statement.

There should also be the option to switch this part of the game off. In fact it is OFF by default. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea and that’s fair enough. But for those after a more nuanced command experience, it’s there.

In the time period portrayed by the game it is largely a German Player experience. It’s woven into the game mechanics of relations, decisions and partisans. There are some tough decisions to be made. Scope is provided for the Player to take the line of least resistance or to assume the high morale ground.

Why would anyone not chose the best, most ethical, course of action? Why indeed? Do psychopaths play war games? Who knows? It’s a reasonable assumption that, if they did, they would be an insignificant minority.

The reason why a Player may chose to take the easy way out is that the high moral ground requires a commensurate cost in Political Points. Recall the German Player’s position in the hierarchy. A number of his superiors, including the man at the top, were strongly pushing an ideological position that wouldn’t sit well with anybody other than those with short circuits in their neural networks.

Yes, you can oppose and protest the Dark Side but as you are going against the wishes of your superiors it will come at a cost in Political Points and relationships. To add some spice to the mix at the end of the game the Player is scored in a range of intangible areas. One of these is his likelihood of having to answer to the war crimes tribunal.

Of course the International Criminal Court will not be dispatching it’s minions to knock on his door in the wee small hours if he clocks in a dubiously low score. It’s a piece of game chrome, nothing more.

With the focus on Operational Command the real juice of the game is in the decisions it requires of you. The tougher, more challenging that those decisions are the better the game is at generating that experience.

Deciding on fuel allocations between theatres is a decision of import. It is a straight strategic judgement call that involves winners and losers as well as a realignment of relations that will affect your ability to prosecute the war going forward.

Deciding what line to take when confronted by atrocities committed by some of the more unsavoury forces present, perhaps not under your direct command, is a matter of a different dimension. It has relationship ramifications but there is no direct on-the-map impact. It taps into another part of your brain – the part that determines what is right and wrong. The war crimes score serves to bring this into sharper focus. You are dealing with a moral decision.

These aren’t decisions that can be easily tossed to one side. They make you think. The Political Points you will have to expend to hold a righteous line could be better spent elsewhere. It is unlikely that you’ve got a reservoir of spare PP’s to burn. Game wise it’s a cut and dried decision to go with flow. Sweep it under the carpet. Move on.

But there’s that voice niggling away at the back of your head. It’s doesn’t feel right. Nobody wants to do the wrong thing. Nobody wants to front a War Crimes Tribunal. Yet are you willing to burn a few bridges and a lot of Political Points when you badly need them to lobby for additional Divisions to be transferred from the West?

Welcome to Twentieth Century Operational Command.


Posted in DC:Barbarossa, Game Design | 6 Comments

Barbarossa Developer Notes #7: The Ends Justify the Means

continued from developer notes #6


Stalin provides a diametrically opposite command experience. This time it is the Player who dominates the command structure. There is no need to play politics when you are the alpha male, the top dog.

Which creates a new set of design challenges. How do you provide a sense of hierarchy in this situation? Where is the necessity to cooperate with other people when you can have any one of them executed at will? Does placing the Player at the top of the hierarchy completely negate the people element that we have previously identified as crucial to any model of Operational Command?

It’s tricky. Take away the people and you end up with the typical God-like approach of many other war games. But if those people have no direct impact on the Player’s actions they quickly morph into window decorations.


The game has taken a different approach. The people are there and they do indeed exert a strong influence but it is an internal one. Before looking at this in detail it’s worth taking a step back and contrasting the two different command experiences on offer.

The German Player is part of a hierarchy. He is required to be a political player just as much as a military one. He has at his command arguably the, at the time, world’s best army. The Wehrmacht was the arch typical well-oiled machine that conquered all before it. The martial tools available to the German Player are honed to a sharp edge. They are proven and are interchangeable. Everything meshes together into a synchronised whole. A world class symphonic orchestra in full flight at the peak of it’s power.

The Soviet Player, on the other hand, is in possession of a smartly attired but discordant, back alley rabble where half the musicians are asleep and the other half have rarely held an instrument, let alone had to play in harmony with others. The conductor is way off in the cheaps seats, well to the rear of the auditorium. The musicians have to squint to see the movement of his baton.

This has come about because the owner of the Orchestral company had, a few years previously, rounded up all the competent musicians and taken them out the back where they were summarily shot. Others he locked up in the basements of notorious prisons and threw away the key. To fill the gaps and maintain a full orchestral roster he collected a bunch of hanger’s on and flunkies and told them that, henceforth, they were to be a violin player. Everybody got a shiny new uniform.

Anyone can pick up a violin and create sound. Just like anybody can command an Army. On a good day, when the sun is shining and the biggest potential problem is the lack of decent refreshment.

Stalin’s Great Officer Purge of ‘37 and ‘38 was aimed at eliminating the last remaining threat to his power. In doing so he eviscerated the Red Army. A consistent historical motif of Dictators is the need to clear the decks of any competition once they themselves have clawed their way to the top by fair means or foul.

We are being too kind to Dictators here. None of them used fair means. A ruthless, take no prisoners, climb over the bodies, style was the norm. Anyone who had assumed power on this basis would be paranoid about others doing the same to them. He who trades in knives spends a lot of time with his back to the wall.

Stalin was no different to any of history’s police line-up of successful, brutal, dictators. Paranoia be thy name.

It was the reason he instigated the purge. It was the reason he remained highly sensitive to any threat emanating from his Officer Corps. It is also a great solution to our design conundrum.

The people in the Soviet hierarchy aren’t important in the sense that Stalin needs their help. It will be given, regardless, as they are ruled by fear. They are, however, important in how they affect Stalin’s state of mind. His level of paranoia.

At no point did the Red Army Officer Corps have any realistic prospects of mounting a successful coup. What mattered more was Stalin’s perception of the threat of this occurring. He was genuinely paranoid at the prospect of being terminally removed from his post by those beneath him.

Every subordinate presented as a potential threat. The cumulative tally of these individual threats, along with a few other factors such as the loss of politically important cities all contribute to Stalin’s level of paranoia.

At certain points the pressure cooker inside his head will blow and he will suffer a Paranoid Episode. There are consequences. Army Commanders will be shot, the wheels of command will stutter and seize. The Player’s freedom of action will be temporarily constrained.

Here we have a workable mechanic that allows for a top down command experience while elevating the subordinates within the hierarchy as people who have an impact on the Player’s experience and who need to be taken into consideration.

It also aligns with reality of Stalin. Yes he did have Army Commanders shot for no other reason than he perceived them to be a threat. Whether he suffered paranoid episodes in the manner and frequency depicted by the game is debatable but we’ve already decided that game play trumps strict adherence to historical fidelity.



Posted in DC:Barbarossa, Game Design | 2 Comments

The long evolution of the Decisive Campaigns series

The upcoming game DC:Barbarossa is a very complete experience. It is a game build on top of a system and an engine that has been in the process of fine-tuning and improvement for a very long time.


The evolution
I remember starting the system with People’s Tactics way back around 2003. The system was then modified during the years and finally resulted in the game Advanced Tactics that was subsequently published by Matrix Games in 2007.

DC:BlitzkriegThen somewhere in 2008 I started work on the first DC. Decisive Campaigns : Warsaw To Paris. Instead of building a new system I decided to build it on top of systems already well tested and in place for Advanced Tactics. This meant a wealth of rules and detail was already present in the engine like FOW, ZOC, entrenchment, recon, landscape modifiers, morale, supply systems, intricate combat calculations, etc.. (lots of etc..)
On top of this I added everything that was necessary to make the game a more serious historical simulation. Like generals, their action cards, the ability for allied players (belgium and france for example) to share hexes, historical unit counters and more rigid chains of command and TOEs. Some of the improvements where visual (like the revamped interface) while others where more rule based. Two examples of the additions that will not have been noted by everybody that I am still proud of were the combat delay points (causing delays on conquered hexes for subsequent units moving through) and the persistent attack stack penalties (that avoided the stack-of-doom techniques).

Case BlueThen later in 2010 work on Decisive Campaigns : Case Blue commenced. Build on top of the DC1 engine. To really support the long scenarios (500+ units, 100+ turns, 160×120 hex map) in this game compared to the scenarios in DC1. The focus for the engine turned to giving the player the tools to sustain a long campaign and really present the player with a flexible OOB that could be modified to cater for whatever might happen during the very long fight.
I could say a lot more about unique DC2 features (like the oil rules and troop replacement systems that were added) but it is outside the scope of this short post. What matters is that I started here with some limited interaction between the player and the high command. The player could use PP (political points) to change the mind of the high command concerning objectives or for demanding more replacement troops of some specific kind. This is something that turned out to be one of the seeds for the explosion of cards and decisions in DC3.

B-DCIII_Materials_Box_3D_800Then end 2013 I teamed up with Cameron Harris and we build Decisive Campaigns : Barbarossa on top of DC2. I spent most of my time on further fine-tuning the engine, creating the best AI for DC so far and adapting the engine to allow for a wealth of immersion provided by the game design by Cameron. Reports and decisions now look the part and are well integrated in the rest of the systems (like statistics, counter shuffling and extra info tabs).
It was a very good decision to team up with Cameron, since with the previous titles I always lacked a bit the time to add everything I wanted those games to have. Working on a game together doubled the effort and made my dream DC game possible.

The AI
The AI got better every game. And I learned a lot. I coded a complete new AI for DC1 and then again for DC2. In DC3 I chose to build the new AI on top of the DC2 AI with the focus being on sustaining a frontline better and retreating if necessary and being able to keep a sustained offensive going by focusing on particular frontages. By not coding up the AI once more from scratch I freed up the time to do some serious scripting for the AI in Barbarossa. Resulting in the AI being very sensitive to the particularities of this game and both AIs having different plans available to them each play through to ensure replayability.

Each DC is special
Each DC game has been an handcrafted product and although the DC games share a lot of things they have all turned out to be really special in their own way. And for all three there will be things you can only find in one of them and not in the others.

I think DC1:Warsaw To Paris is maybe the most simple one to play with a relatively low feature set. But it is also a real ‘pearl’ of multiplayer wargaming. The game allowed for example the Germans to be played by up to 5 human players with one being in overall command and the others in army command.

DC2:Case Blue distinguishes it self from the two others in sheer size (units, number of turns and map) and giving the player an amazing amount of micro management freedom. Want to disband a regiment? Want to change the divisional type of the 113th infantry division? Want to form a new independent Motorized Regiment and slowly see the replacement troops trickle in? Want to shuffle your officers around? etc..

And well… DC3:Barbarossa I consider it like the crown on the series (for now).
Concerning counter shuffling there is much less micro management, but the decision systems and advanced reports we added make this game into something much more.

To me personally it feels a bit (and with all humility) like ‘king of dragon pass’ meets ‘wargame’. The addition of so much robust writing and decision points really makes the system shine. The decisions influence the units on the map, but the units on the map also influence the decisions. For example to have a detailed combat report in your ‘inbox’ on how the 10th panzer division failed to hold Rzhev just brings a sense of wonder to me… especially when I then have to make a decision based on the after effects in the chain of command of that battle as well.

Community Project
More news will still follow on DCX:Community Project. Its the free BETA title for future DC3:Barbarossa owners that basically builds upon an expanded DC2 ruleset and finally makes it much easier to create your own scenarios for Decisive Campaigns.

Best wishes,

Posted in DC:Barbarossa, DC:Blitzkrieg, DC:Case Blue, DCX : Community Project, Game Design | 6 Comments