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A Different Kind of Digital Warfare

Combat Mission Shock Force real-time tactics game

If you read my column on board wargames this time last week, you may have been struck by something I glossed over completely. Namely, if the focus of the wargaming community is so squarely on simulations that it results in games so long and complex that they verge on the unplayable, why don’t they play more computer simulations where the processor can do the heavy lifting? To which the simple answer is that I have no idea.

I can see why a board game may be more appealing than a computer one: you have a face-to-face opponent to interact with and a complete grasp of the game state so you can develop a mechanical approach to the strategy. But those things are, surely, anathema to the idea of making the game into a simulation of something that’s real-time, chaotic and in which no one person ever has a total understanding of the situation? Furthermore if you want to model something that requires complex rules, isn’t it a better idea to program all those rules into a computer and let it handle the detail rather than spend hours internalising rulebooks? These things seem obvious to me and that’s why I like my board wargames to be relatively light and quick-playing and why I like to play my conflict simulations on the computer instead.

To their credit, wargame designers (along with the more enlightened members of their target audience) realised this early and got in on the act. During the 80’s, Avalon Hill and Strategic Simulations Inc (SSI) relased a constant stream of turn-based wargames across all sorts of scales, times and theatres. One of the best of these was the tactical game Steel Panthers which spawned two sequels. All of these did exactly what I was alluding to in the introduction. The player was given only the briefest understanding of the mechanics behind the game, much of which involved some fairly complex physics under the hood to determine whether shots hit and penetrated armour, and there was a complete fog-of-war effect in which the computer hid everything you couldn’t see, leading to some real trouser-wetting moments when entire brigades of infantry would suddenly appear at close range and devastate your armoured columns. As well as a wealth of historical scenarios to play through in each game, they featured scenario generators where each side could pick their equipment and forces and campaigns in which surviving units improved slowly with experience from one game to the next.

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When SSI was purchased by Take Two and eventually wound up, the Steel Panthers franchise went along with it, but the game was too much of a cult classic to die. In a slightly strange development two competing editions of the game appeared for modern PC’s, the free World War 2 and modern Main Battle Tank games from SPCamo Workshop, and the semi-commercial World at War from Matrix Games. The general consensus amongst gamers was that the free titles were actually slightly better, but Matrix added something new to make people part with their cash: Mega Campaigns. Rather than the simple linear chain of linked scenarios from the older games, these campaigns had a basic plot, a variety of new missions that didn’t fit the standard attack/defend template and a large number of branch points based on decisions and levels of success that meant two plays through could be completely different. I only ever played one of these and while it was a lot of fun, the bells and whistles couldn’t really justify the price difference between full-price and freeware. And given that they’re freeware, it’s well worth checking out the SPCamo games if you’ve any interest at all in the genre.

Meanwhile, as computer games entered a new era of big, mass-market productions, wargames in the traditional turn based model began to look exceptionally old fashioned. The last shot at anything like a mass-market wargame was Panzer General III in 2000, the final commercial iteration in a series well-beloved by gamers and, at the time, a damn good game. There’s currently a freeware implementation of the Panzer General games for Windows if you want to try it. But sales were relatively disappointing and the franchise wound up. The response from the development community was to utilise bigger budgets and bigger processors to do something wargamers had dreamed of since first laying out wooden blocks on a map two centuries earlier: model warfare in real time. The initial fruit of this direction were real-time strategy games which, of course, were certainly real-time but entirely devoid of strategy. But the games were nevertheless skillful and lots of fun to play, and they sold by the bucketload and completely dominated the strategy game market for the 90’s and beyond.

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However, while real-time strategy games hogged the limelight, interesting things were happening in more niche areas of the hobby. The first shoots were the Warhammer Fantasy games Shadow of the Horned Rat and Dark Omen which featured fixed forces, realistic real-time maneuver and combat and a ground-breaking fully zoomable and rotatable 3-D map. Those games were, in a word, brilliant. They were also innovative enough to spawn a new genre, confusingly called real-time tactics even though they were actually more strategic and less tactical that their real-time strategy counterparts.

Historical gamers weren’t far behind. The most interesting early historical real-time tactics games were the Combat Mission series which blended turn-based and real-time game play by allowing players to program in orders and watch them play out on the screen. In common with Steel Panthers they also had a realistic physics engine underpinning movement and combat. More recently Matrix Games offered the Command Ops games that married real-time elements with a more traditional top-down view of the action, although thankfully without the burden of hex grids. These, however, are products aimed at specialist hobby wargamers. At the turn of the millennium, historical games got into mainstream the driving seat of the genre with the first in the Total War series, Shogun. Totally real time and highly realistic, Shogun and its various spawn set the standards by which other games in the genre would come to be judged. I also can’t help mentioning that I’m amazingly, spectacularly bad at them: I sit and form complex plots and strategies and then panic and freeze as soon as battle is joined, leading to my troops being massacred by the AI. But they’re clearly wonderful games and I went back to Steel Panthers highly disgruntled that I couldn’t get to grips with them better.

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In the wake of the burgeoning success of the Total War series a slew of these sorts of games appeared between 2007 and 2009 but since then the genre seems to have slowed and stagnated. Partially I think it’s a victim of its own success: once you can provide a passably realistic real-time simulation of actual combat command it’s hard to see where you can go with the concept besides porting it to new times and places, and that’s going to get old very quickly for the usual video gaming hobbyist who likely isn’t overly interested in the specifics of history. It’s also fallen foul of the way in which massive budget first person shooters have come to dominate the hobby. But I can’t help thinking how amazingly well suited these games are for a touch screen interface: trying to control your forces in real-time pressure situations with the speed and sensitivity limitations of a mouse was a major frustration for me in playing games of this type. I haven’t seen any moves in this direction yet. Real-time strategy games abound but I got heartily sick of those a long time ago since they all basically seem to follow the same pattern of building up and then rushing the enemy. Wargames are almost non-existent on iOS and all the ones I’ve seen are turn-based, although just this week the very first “proper” wargame hit the iPad in the form of the eye-wateringly expensive Battle Academy. Curiously, they’re more common on Android, a result no doubt of the lower barriers to entry and the slew of wargamers who are also programmers wanting to try their hand at exporting their hobby to a mobile device. Perhaps hardware limitations are currently to blame but either way, I wouldn’t be surprised to see moves into this relatively unexplored territory in the near future.

Matt Thrower

Matt is a board gamer who plays video games when he can't find anyone similarly obsessive to play against, which is frequently. The inability to get out and play after the birth of his first child lead him to start writing about games as a substitute for playing them. He founded and writes there and at

15 thoughts to “A Different Kind of Digital Warfare”

  1. Also re: Panzer General the “new” version of that game is really quite good.

    As to your point Matt, this is exactly WHY I started playing PC wargames back in the day.

    1) playing vs the AI because finding people to play with was a bitch
    2) Complexity working/crunching data behind the scenes.

    Wargames on the table I can only take so far when it comes to complexity. Barnes keeps telling me to play ASL but I just cannot get myself to do it.

  2. “Namely, if the focus of the wargaming community is so squarely on simulations that it results in games so long and complex that they verge on the unplayable, why don’t they play more computer simulations where the processor can do the heavy lifting? To which the simple answer is that I have no idea.”
    The answer is your premise is incorrect. That is not the focus of the wargaming community.

    “I can see why a board game may be more appealing than a computer one: … and a complete grasp of the game state so you can develop a mechanical approach to the strategy. But those things are, surely, anathema to the idea of making the game into a simulation of something that’s real-time, chaotic and in which no one person ever has a total understanding of the situation?
    And here you have the answer and let it slip away. Lack of knowledge of the internal workings of the system is precisely one of the major problems wargamers have with computer wargames.

    Any ‘simulation’ is a model; there are going to be abstractions somewhere. The frustrating thing is not knowing what is and is not modeled in a situation. Humans are very good at finding patterns… even when they don’t exist. I lost four of the five last battles, did I do something wrong, or were the dice against me? In a boadgame you can say ‘I let myself get flanked’. In a computer game you often have to ask, ‘does flanking matter? how much does it matter? did that even count as flanking? was the problem something else entirely’ Not being able to start making base assumptions about a game is a route straight to frustration.

    And then there is the problem of detail for detail’s sake. This can be a problem in boardgames, but the nature of the medium makes it self-limiting (and note that many celebrated wargames are actually very simple systems, The Russian Campaign, Victory in the Pacific, A House Divided, Commands & Colors Ancients, A Victory Denied…), whereas on the computer side, such tendencies are allow to run riot to little beneficial effect. Bruce Geryk had a wonderful rant about that on Three Moves Ahead at one point.

    1. I’m not sure I did let it slip away. I get what you’re saying – it’s what I referred to as a mechanical approach to the strategy. I also get that all games are models, not simulations. What I don’t get is why you’d bother playing a game that’s very heavy in mechanical detail on a board – it seems the worst of both worlds. I said in the article that I love playing board war games that are fast and light, including many of the ones you mention. But of I want something approaching an actual simulation far better to play a computer game which not only means not learning excessively complex rules but can do realistic things a board game cannot such as fog of war. And if the computer Mae is too detailed, so what? It’s hidden from me, so why do I care?

      1. Well… the point is that learning the rules is the point. I think more wargamers would play more computer wargames if you could have any awareness of the rules. I know I would. It comes down to the frustration I mentioned before. How can I play the game well if I don’t know how to play the game?

        Another factor, that should not be underplayed, is that for many wargamers, a game where you can’t touch the counters and roll the dice isn’t worth playing. (I thankfully, am not one of these—I like Vassal too much.)

        As far caring about the details… well, if it’s hidden from you, why do you want it in the first place? Wouldn’t it to be better to have time spent on the AI instead of details? (And the AI will have an easier time with fewer details to juggle.) Anything that goes into a game should have a purpose. If the purpose of putting more detail in is to have more detail… you’re in a self-defeating cycle. Now, if you want to say something about morale, or command and control, or the effects of visibility… then there’s a reason to put it in. And that’s usually why complications show up in board wargames, the designer wants to say something about the subject.

  3. Good article, until the end: “speed and
    sensitivity limitations of a mouse”
    Excuse me?! The mouse is the control interface blessed by god himself as the ultimate in control, speed, sensitivity, comfort and options!

    But you want a touch screen!? Touch??! Have I not used the same iOS device as you? I would not want to play any strategy game on that. The PC continue to be the perfect (and nearly exclusive) place for serious strategy. Am I the only one that’s tired of every game discussion these days devolving into talk about silly touch screen time wasters aimed at parents that have too much money to spend on a phone? Just hope there can still be some discussion of serious games, in what is already a marginal genre..

    1. Don’t get this at all. If I’m using a mouse to direct the action in the top left of the screen and all hell breaks loose in the bottom right, It takes precious milliseconds to get down there and sort it out. You also can’t carry on controlling what’s going on in the top left. Both issues are solved by using a touch screen. And I fail to see how this discussion is devolving into time wasters – I’m arguing the opposite, that touch screens have great potential as a control system for serious, complex, demanding games. Developers are waistline the potential of the technology by trying to shoehorn it to play daft games to which it’s not entirely suited. Just because that happens too often doesn’t obviate the potential of a touchscreen, indeed shouldn’t we be trying to change it?

      1. I saw an article elsewhere that discussed how Days of Wonder is increasing sales of physical board games by creating miniature iPad and iPhone versions. People learn mechanics for miniatures warfare (or other piece-heavy boardgames) on the touchscreen versions, then go on to buy the real board game anyway.

        Wouldn’t it be cool to introduce friends to board gaming by sliding an iPad at them at a cafe and saying, “your move”?

        As Matt says, there’s a lot of potential. And it doesn’t necessarily come at the cost of PC or board gaming, either.

    2. I’m completely with you, Huxley. Really tired of everyone jumping on the iPad ‘strategy’ game bandwagon. I have an iPad2 and have played most of the big names. I have yet to find something that comes remotely close to a serious PC strategy game, and nearly without fail, I wish I could play them on my PC instead, at least from an interface perspective.

  4. By the way, what are the games ‘like Total War‘ that appeared in the 2007-8 era? I completely missed them. (Not that that would be hard, I wasn’t paying so much attention to computer games at that point.)

      1. No, that’s a much broader category than I was envisioning….

        The terminology tooth-gnashing too (at least if I didn’t have to be careful of a temporary crown). They’re calling it ‘real-time tactics’ to differentiate it from ‘real-time strategy’, citing lack of resource management, base building etc as differentiating the two (so far so good), and then define the terms in relationship to military strategy and tactics, which has nothing to do with the naming of RTS (which are almost uniformly tactical from a military point of view), but is named for the in-game concepts of tactics and strategy… *bleh*

        But the lack of 2010 and 2011 titles is interesting. Looking at the page history, I get the idea that the people who put this together probably stopped working on it around February 2011, which could cause some of that drop off, though the lack of 2010 titles still suggests that the games have indeed died off.

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