Barbarossa Developer Notes #9: The Fiddly Bits

Micromanagement

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.

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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.

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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.

Cheers,
Cameron

 

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Barbarossa Screenshot #5

Click to enlarge
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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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Warhol compilation of the 57th infantry division

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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,
Vic

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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.

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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.

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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.

Cheers,
Cameron

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