Is it Live, or is it Memorex?


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In reaction (presumably) to the U.S. suspension of diplomatic relations with Russia, the Soviet Russian Bomber Command demonstrates they can easily hit Spain (as well as everything in between, we are expected to infer). Norway, UK, France, and Spain all scrambled interceptors. Perhaps to demonstrate that we can shoot down those bombers? Perhaps actually intending to down the bombers should they get too close to a target? Hard to if what’s going on is more “War Games,” as the linked headline suggests, or a Cold War redux? Or are we on the verge of an actual shooting war?

Or maybe I’ve just been staying up too late playing these Cold War games and I’m confusing reality with fantasy. That would also explain this whole Presidential Election thing.

Long cold winter without your love


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Part 2 of a 2 part post. See Part 1 here.

Many, many (many) years ago, I started a personal project coding a computer opponent for the game Twilight Struggle.

Twilight Struggle is a top selling and top-ranked board game covering the span of the Cold War. It is in its 8th printing, an evolution that has involved several significant facelifts. It has also been part of the inspiration for the game Labyrinth by designer Volko Ruhnke, also from publisher GMT, which uses many of same mechanisms as Twilight Struggle. That in turn has lead to a Counterinsurgency series of games from GMT.

While I began programing my game years ago, I had only got so far into it before my interest moved on to other things. It wasn’t until some months ago, when I was again thinking about Cold War era gaming, that I decided to dig out my old project.

With my second push, I’ve managed to get a game engine that can play through from start to finish, handling the majority of the rules. I have developed a programmed opponent for both sides – in fact, a necessity because testing manually would just be too tedious. I need to be able to run through the game Computer versus Computer for testing purposes. The “AI,” if you can call it that, is pretty rudimentary. I actually have programed two. One that makes decisions mostly randomly. The computer knows what it must do and, occasionally, what it should do; but randomly selects from the options available to it. The second opponent uses a combination of history and the scoring system to focus play on particular countries or regions. The two are roughly on the same level as each other, which should tell me something. Perhaps sometimes being “random,” doing the unexpected for no particular reason, can pay off. Sometimes you get lucky and “anticipate” something that no amount of logic could have foreseen.

Programming logic for the game has made me think a lot of about it. Certainly more than I would occasionally getting out the board and playing. For one, I think a understand its popularity.

There is trite phrase used so often in gaming and it’s one I just cannot stand. “Easy to learn but hard to master.” It might be easier to count the number of game reviews or marketing pitches without the phrase, rather than those with it. Nonetheless, I think a large part of what makes this game so popular is the different levels at which in can be enjoyed.

If two game players, guys who had never seen the game before, bought this game and took it home. They could probably read through the rules in the afternoon and play through the game that night. I suspect that game would be a fully satisfying one. The rules are not that long, and there is a fairly limited number of choices you have during your turn. Most of the complexity is involved in playing the events on cards (see inset), where the gameplay is detailed on the card being played (generally not requiring remembering or referring to complex rules). Furthermore, that first game would give the players the feel of reliving the Cold War.

Of course, that probably would only work with two first-time players. A first time player against an experienced player would be almost certain to lose. As you grow in your knowledge of the game, you realize that some cards can be played in combination for far more effect than their individual worth. A truly advanced player has in his head an idea of all the available cards and how they interact. The playing of one card may depend not only on the other visible cards, but knowing what cards are still in the deck versus what cards have already been played, all (of course) with an eye on the current positions on the game board. Thus, players with hundreds of games behind them can compete in tournaments with an entirely different style of gameplay than that original game.

I’ll come back to this point, but I suspect that tournament game has far, far less feeling of reliving the Cold War than the first game between two novices.

As I said, in programming opponents, I created a game where two computer opponents played each other. The first game where the code was stable enough to actually play through for a bit without crashing ended in a nuclear war in the mid-50s. The problem was my computer players were not programmed to avoid the bomb, so they just went ahead and pushed each other’s buttons until – BOOM. I wonder how many first-time players have ended their own games with a sudden, unexpected nuclear war because they didn’t realize the kinds of traps to avoid? No doubt a few.

Twilight Struggle in 30 seconds.

Twilight Struggle is a board game with a card mechanic that drives most of the game play. Players compete for control of the world as either the U.S. or the Soviet Union during the period of the cold war. Play takes place over a series of 10 turns, each of which involves playing a hand of cards randomly drawn from the deck. Cards can be played for their points, or for the historical events that they describe. Some cards trigger a tallying of score. Players win by dominating the score (scoring 20 points more than their opponent) or dominating all of Europe. However, a player will lose if he starts a nuclear war.

The designers notes were an interesting read. I re-read them as I picked back up my project. A few things from them stuck with me.

First, the designer points out that Twilight Struggle is not meant to be a simulation of the Cold War, it is a game. While there is plenty of historic content in the design, where a decision had to be made between playability and “accuracy,” playability always won.

One you get past that initial familiarization period, I think the “game” part would start to heavily overshadow the “history” part. Veteran players have conversations about the necessity of “spacing” a “DEFCON suicide card.” I doubt Kennedy had those kinds of conversations with his advisors.

As part of the explanation of how the game deviates from “reality,” the designer hits on something that may be far more important to “historical” gaming than he realizes. He explains that the game implements and rewards, not the world as it was, but the world as we thought it was at the time. Or in his words,  the game “accepts all of the internal logic of the Cold War as true—even those parts of it that are demonstrably false.”

I’m thinking this concept may be critical to the both the playability and enjoyability of many historical games.

Sometimes, as I read historical accounts of battles it seems that victory goes to the side who has screwed up the least. While both sides make major mis-estimations, mistakes and blunders, when one can commit a few fewer errors, it gains them the day. Hindsight can avoid those critical errors. And while part of replaying a famous battle is exploring the “what if” that might have changed the course of the battle or the war. On the other hand, if all players knew then what we know now, historical battles would rarely resemble history.

World War II, the favorite for wargames, should probably never have happened at all. Czechoslovakia had an army to rival Germany’s both in manpower and technology, especially once you consider what Germany had committed to the defense of other fronts. Had the French and British simply allowed the Czech’s to defend their own country, perhaps with a threat of French invasion on Germany’s western border, the war would have been over before it ever started. Nobody can play a grand-strategic treatment of the second world war and not see how vulnerable Germany is to early allied intervention.

So a game that can enforce the outcomes, not that we know should have happened, but that everyone knew at the time must happen, should provide a more historical and probably more challenging and engaging gameplay. This wouldn’t apply to all games or all genre’s, but I’m sure it has plenty of uses. The example given in Twilight Struggle is the way that the “domino theory” is enforced through gameplay, in a way that is not supported by scholarly analysis of the military and political situation of the Cold War.

Also in his introduction, the designer pays homage to the Chris Crawford computer game, “Balance of Power.” Those old enough to remember playing the game probably remember it as the first and, thus the definitive, treatment of Cold War gaming. Among the features that stick in one’s mind is a something reference in the Twilight Struggle manual as well as in other articles throughout the years. In Crawford’s game, starting a nuclear war is an instant loss. The end-game message sternly admonishes the player for expecting a rewarding fireworks composed of mushroom clouds (I’ve got Missile Command in my mind’s eye) for essentially destroying humanity. We are now better than our cold-warrior ancestors, who risked the future for the sake of the egos and some politics.

What got me in this: While Crawford’s game was used as the inspiration for the Twilight Struggle’s mechanic that turning the cold war hot ends the game, it is not as simple as the instant defeat. The loss goes to the player that causes the nuclear war. Meaning that forcing your opponent to start a nuclear war is actually a win!

It makes me wonder, given Crawford’s original tone, what are the implications of such a victory. Does it say it is OK to annihilate the human race as long as you make it look like someone else did it? Or should one read more complexity into the “simulation.” Perhaps a “DEFCON” victory (in the terminology of the game) actually should imply entering into one of the World War III scenarios from a position of strength. Perhaps the winner is the one that can keep a NATO/Warsaw Pact showdown non-nuclear. Or perhaps winning means having overwhelmingly superior technology or numbers so as to win a nuclear face off. Or maybe it does mean achieving that first strike victory and a decisive advantage in offsetting megadeaths.

Or is this an excellent example of where the gameplay takes precedence over historicity or simulation. It is a nifty gameplay mechanic. No matter if you are behind in every single measure of the game, even if you are one card-play away from losing. If you can attempt (attempt, mind you , you need not succeed) a coup in a “battleground” country during the opponent’s turn while DEFCON is a 2, you win. Instantly.

Speaking of Crawford’s game, while this is largely a review of the Twilight Struggle board game design, the post is ostensibly about a computer version of the game that I may or may not ever finish. Others have been working on computer versions of this game longer than I have, perhaps even officially. Within the last year or so, a computer version of the game has been released. While it is available for a fairly modest price ($14.99 on Steam as I write this), I have not yet purchased it. I decided what I really wanted to do was think about the game, not necessarily play it. In fact, given how expert play can be decidedly anti-historic, I don’t think I want the distraction of trying to win the game to take away from my enjoyment of the game.

So, for now, I’ll watch my two clueless AI’s face off against each other again, and again, and again, until they can enjoy a bug-free world.

It’s gonna be a long cold winter…


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My first post about the Cold War is about making the transition from WWII wargaming, where there is a multitude of treatment for most every part of the war, to the Cold War where, well, there isn’t. The post going to be divided into two parts, because the two games I kick of the Cold War with are not really related, except by starting date.

The Operational Art of War, Volume III

Twilight Struggle

The greatest battle of the Cold War is the one that never happened.

While the Cold War ultimately touched nearly every corner of the globe and involved some decidedly “hot” fighting, preparations were for the massive showdown between West and East in Germany. Initial confrontations of the era took place across borders created by the position of troops at the end of the Second World War.

No border was more important than the division between the Western and Soviet occupied zones in Germany. Initially, the powers agreed that the goal was to prevent Germany from ever again amassing the power to start a World War. The unity of effort began to dissolve when the West saw that their policies were driving the population to Communism. While the original plan was a political reunification of Germany, it was clear that the West and the Soviets had very different concepts of what that unified Germany would look like. As tensions rose and the border between the occupations zones became the border between the world’s two great ideologies, a political reunification became impossible and a military unification seemed more and more likely.

For the next forty years, the powers prepared for battle between the Soviet Union and  the West in Germany. Preparations for that battle determined the outcome of conflicts elsewhere in the globe, and vice versa. While wargames can be, and of course are, made about the various proxy wars, police actions, and revolutions that took place in lieu of that battle, the armchair commander will always long to command the full power of NATO or the Warsaw Pact in virtual battle.

My first game is a an Operational Art of War scenario that puts this battle into perhaps its earliest possible spot in the timeline. What if, as the U.S. and Soviet Russia squeezed the remnants of Nazi Germany between them, the ideological conflict between East and West turned immediately hot?

The Scenario is Patton 45, a scenario which shipped with the original “The Operational Art of War: Volume I” in 1998 (and was subtitled “Patton’s Nightmare” in that version), was designed by Doug Bevard to model a Soviet Offensive against Patton’s 3rd Army in Czechoslovakia.


The last Soviet Offensive of World War II was the drive to “liberate” Prague from the German Army. Hostilities lasted beyond the cease-fire in Berlin as jockeying for position in the new order of the Cold War began.

The Scenario starts with the very real tension which mounted in the final weeks of World War II as both the Soviets and the West attempted to control territory before the Germany’s surrender.The final major offensive of the war took place in Czechoslovakia, as the Soviets sought to force the surrender of Germany Army Group Center and seize Prague. While the Americans had agreed on a demarcation line between U.S. and Soviet operations, the Czech army itself rose up against the Germans and threatened the possibility that they would defeat the Germans, possibly with American assistance. For the Germans themselves, there were many that were fighting their way Westward, preferring to surrender to the U.S. rather than the Soviets. Stalin forced a rapid attack, at significant human cost to the Soviet army, to insure that that post-war Prague was in Soviet hands.

The Scenario is based on negotiations taking place before the final creation of German Occupation zones at the Potsdam Conference in the summer of 1945. According the the scenario notes, when the a British negotiator suggested that the rebuilding of liberated Czechoslovakia should take place under the oversight of the West. In response, the Soviet negotiators not only rejected a loss of influence in Czechoslovakia, but demanded control over Southern Germany as well. While this discussion, apparently, never went any further the scenario hypotheses and alternate reality where the Soviets insisted on their position and, when further rebuked by the West, launch an offensive against the unprepared American army to physically occupy the ground.

The Operational Art of War is a game that I will certainly be coming back to. Originally released in 1998, it is currently being modified for a “Version 4” release. The current version is TOAW 3, which was released in 2006.

At the time in game out, it was a major game release, with top billing at many of the retailers of its day. Going from my own memory of my impressions at the time, I recall three unique features.

  1. It was a system capable of simulating virtually any battle from the World War I era to current events and beyond. The game released with scenarios spanning this range, but the system was also open to user-developed scenarios covering any battle or timeframe of interest. (I’m not sure if there is a definitive user-made scenario count, but I expect it is in the range of 1000 or higher)
  2. The focus was on simulating the Operational aspects of battles. Perhaps novel at the time (although fairly common today) was the emphasis on things like supply, as opposed to simply movement and combat.
  3. The combat factors were derived from the ground up, by modelling the individual units, weapons, and vehicles. This was intended to give a level of fidelity, particularly when modeling hypothetical scenarios, that simply assigning relative combat factors might not. In this, it still retains its novelty.

There are a lot of factors with this gaming system and the scenarios I’d like to discuss. How suitable is the hex-and-counter model for maneuver, when tactical factors are not present? (Compare, for instance, to games which use area movement). But for this post, my main focus is going to be on the difficulty of modelling a hypothetical situation like this. One where not only did the battle never take place, but where it didn’t take place was on ground which has not seen a modern battle.

While we are all familiar with the “high ground” of Gettysburg, the bridges leading to Arnhem, and the beaches and hedgerows of Normandy. But some stretch of terrain on the border of the Czech Republic and Germany doesn’t have that infamy. When modelling a battle that actually took place, there was a house, a church tower, a farm, an Orchard, or a series of bridges and the game just has to call these images to your mind. But what if it has to create that key crossroad out of whole cloth? It’s an intriguing proposition if it works, but also very difficult to pull off.

When playing the scenario, I based my plan on the assumption that the Soviet Army was a force that had spent itself defeating the Germans. This may or may not have been common knowledge at the time, but I suspect Patton would have made a similar assumption. I initially gave ground before each enemy attack until I had sufficient reinforcements available to make a stand.

The technique was extraordinarily effective. Whether it was in the design of the scenario, or just an artifact of playing against the computer*, I don’t know. I ended up with an overwhelming victory, which usually isn’t the case for me when playing TOAW.


Victory is all but achieved as I close in on Prague from the West and North. This is one of the more interesting sections of the map, with a major city, a major river, and lots of (now blown) bridges. The real fight, however, took place well to the west.

Not that it bothers me. Giving the opponent a good walloping can make for a satisfying experience. In fact, given the choice between an nearly-impossible-to-win scenario and a cake-walk, I’d probably prefer the latter.


Very similar map section from Google maps. You can see the similarities, but also the differences. Note in the game map, there is a river flowing West to East the is missing from the real imagery. I suspect that a river was the scenario designers best attempt at modeling the bridges, ravines, etc in the actual terrain. The fact that the “river” is doesn’t exist takes away from immersion.


A modern-day photo of the road, down which I am about to launch my attack. Does the game map invoke the sense of the terrain that you see here? For me it does not.


However, the experience did fall flat for me. I suspect the problem with the scenario design was, as I alluded to above, one of no familiar features to provide the hook. The chrome. Not knowing my Czech geography, the map largely was a set of random features. Woods, roads, rivers, and towns were all represented, but provided no structure; no story.

The scale of the units also adds to the “generic” feel of the gameplay. The counters represent the regimental-scale subunits of a division. As the screenshot shows, I’m about to complete my encirclement of one of the last Soviet pockets, leading with the reserve combat command (CCR) of the 11th Armored Division. That unit has a mix of medium M4 and light M24 tanks, and a whole lot of halftracks. How well do these match up against the Soviet T34s? Who knows? Who cares? While all these factors are included in the combat calculations, in actual gameplay the details take a back seat to just getting units (any units) into position and winning through weight of numbers.


That’s a lot of tanks. I guess.

Yes, it “matters” that my division is split up across the map, in that the combat factors are slightly degraded. But the loss of turns to try to reorganize would be a lot more costly than just absorbing that loss of efficiency. And this is realistic. It was not uncommon that battles were fought with whatever mix of units were available, independent of actual command structure. I’ll also guess that more than one attack ended up being spearheaded by the “reserve” command, when circumstances made that expedient.

My point is that when all this can be ignored, it will be ignored. Then the only difference between this battle, a battle in Normandy, or the Bulge or near Kursk, becomes different coloring on the units. I come away from the game, a little smug in the knowledge that George and I kicked some commie butt. But I gained no knowledge about how American Armor might have faced off against the great Guards Tank Armies of the USSR. Or how pitting Patton against Zukov might have actually played out.

At this point, I’m going to blame the scenario. It is a rather vanilla design, as far as the capabilities of the TOAW engine goes. There were no triggered political, weather or historical events (except some color commentary about goings-on elsewhere in the world.) I suspect the key to designing a scenario of this type is to put in a good amount of these kinds of extras to help drive a narrative.

Let’s see what happens the next time the U.S. meets the Soviets on a hypothetical Cold War battlefield.

(on to Part 2).
*Computer opponents in single player games are notoriously bad on the attack. I suspect the winning strategy for the Soviet side would be to take advantage of the initial superiority to defeat the waves of U.S. reinforcements piecemeal.

Pyrrhic Victory


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Summer of 2015, I decided to play the Pyrrhic War. This review is taken largely from a Usenet post I made, answering a question about PC games covering the ancients era.

Games Reviewed:

  • HPS: Punic Wars
  • Field of Glory
  • Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome
  • Europa Universalis: Rome

The first two games seem to have fairly loyal followings, largely for multiplayer. I play games in single player mode only. I tend to rank “immersion” higher than innovative and/or challenging game play.

This exercise started when I tried playing Rome: Total War, and felt the disappointed at the lack of realism and depth. I that caused me to begin digging through older games, sure that somewhere, someone must have done better.

HPS battles started off my “comparative gaming” exercise and, despite its shortcomings, ranked as the best available ancients tactics options in this exercise.

HPS: Punic Wars

For those unfamiliar, the HPS product line is a series of games based on the work of John Tiller. The look-and-feel of the game series has largely remained unchanged from the 1995 Battleground series debut from Talonsoft, Bulge-Ardennes. I’ve never played that game, but had the second in the series (also 1995), Gettysburg. A big-budget title at the time, the game featured 3D figures, invoking table-top miniatures, and video of live re-enactments to augment the combat resolution. As the series developed, the latter was dropped quickly, while the former de-emphasized over the years. I still remember those musket crackling in the pop-up window like it was yesterday.

The HPS Ancients series was developed from the core engine, but by developer Paul Bruffell. It is a turned-based, tactical-level treatment of the great battles of Rome, Greece, and Macedonia.


Turn-based hex gaming, which seems to be targeting Play-By-Email for table-top gamers.

The screenshot above looks nice enough, but I find it to be incredibly impractical for actually playing the game. The functional view is one of the 2D levels, shown below with roughly the same section of the battle


The much more functional, but considerably less asthetic, 2D view.

Not so pretty, but functional.

The modelling of the battle seems pretty good. As far as the product itself, there are lots of scenarios, plus a scenario editor. Each scenario takes a brutally long time to play so you get a whole lot of hours for your money spent on a particular HPS module.

On the downside, the scenarios take a brutally long time to play.

A longstanding complain about first the Battleground series and then the HPS follows-ups was ability of the computer opponent. The AI, while not obviously incompetent, probably will not beat you in any of the scenarios (mostly designed for balanced play-by-email).

Playing the scenario, goes through several phases. The gameplay starts out OK as you close your army towards the enemy and need only make minor adjustments to your lines. Mostly you move forward using group moves, meaning (for example) you give a single movement order to all of one legion’s principes (10 counters) together. This works until the armies make contact, at which point the group move is useless and you have to give orders counter-by-counter. This isn’t too bad when you’re working on a tactically interesting section of the battle field. (Can you break his right wing before he punches a hole in your center?) But you pretty much have to visit every counter, every turn, whether you want to or not.

Another complaint about this product is while the army detail is simulated to a lower level of detail compared to most other games (Example Scale: for legions, one counter represents a maniple), it is still the same mechanics as any other hex-and-counter game. That is, the difference between a roman legion and allied heavy infantry is in the stats of the units. There is no simulation of the manipular system and its unique advantages. Indeed, there is no enforcement (or advantage, as far as I can tell) for keeping your units in the historical formations and combat roles. This is up to you as the player to do for your own satisfaction, often expending a lot of on-screen clicks to do so.

Field of Glory

You’d think, then, that Field of Glory would be a breath of fresh air. Counter representative sizes are bigger (although, I’ll note, they are set by the scenario designer, so it really could be anything) so micromanagement is less. The AI can give a challenge, particularly in scenarios designed for single play – although this too is primarily a play-by-email game.

Field of Glory is a PC game based on the table-top rule set of the same name. The PC game has a large following, perhaps consisting of a significant number of table-top players who want additional remote play opportunities.


Field of Glory looks decent and has a very accessible UI.

These are also the same rules that form the basis for the more recent game Pike and Shot, which is among my favorite new releases. But for some reason FoG doesn’t do it for me.

Similar to my criticism of HPS, there is no game enforcement or advantage to historically-correct formations. In fact, optimal gameplay seems to involve using the larger scale (and thus, greater movement-per-turn) to scurry around to an unexpected attack position.

I also find the unit stats to give some results that don’t match my gut.

Finally, linear combat and hexes just don’t match. The Pike and Shot system, while using the same rules, is based on a square grid system rather than hexagonal.

The advantages of Field of Glory are many. A huge number of scenarios and an active community, especially for multiplayer. The scenario editor is simple enough that you can actually throw together your own, plus there are army builders to create balanced, hypothetical match-ups. Most importantly, the battles are fairly quick. Even if a particular scenario model falls flat, you’ve wasted only an evening on it, not a month of your life.

The combined experience with these tactical-level games makes me wonder if the right battle simulation for ancient armies isn’t the “General simulator.” Rather than simulate the board game or tabletop and push all the units around, shouldn’t you sit in the saddle of the consul and give only the appropriate orders?

As the few games on other eras that do this demonstrate, this requires a level of AI (especially friendly AI) that doesn’t exist for ancients.

Alea Jacta Est: Birth of Rome

Enter Birth of Rome, which simulates the operational level and deals with the tactical battles in considerable detail, but outside the control of the player. You can set up the size, quality and makeup of your armies and, through the commander assignments, control its tactics. But once the armies are marching towards each other, there isn’t much micromanagement for a general to do – so why not just have the computer resolve everything. This game answers that question: it’s kind of the worst of all worlds.


A battle occurred. I wasn’t much involved.

Roman Republic games have two interesting aspects. One is the spectacle of massive formations of soldiers colliding and the fascinating rock-paper-scissors that actually played out as the army organization of the different cultures helped to dictate the fates of their nations. For the battles in question, the phalanx vs legion is the obvious, but most ancient battles are characterized by an array of unique units. At the other end is the political aspects of the Roman Republic. Control of the Senate, control of resources, the ability to install consuls, generals or governors. This creates an opportunity to design good games around even a nearly-invincible Rome against the world.

Birth of Rome lands right between these two interesting wings in the dull middle. At the strategic level, all the decision are made by the scenario designer. At the tactical level, all the decisions are made by the computer. Leaving what? A historical account might describe how the Romans, upon hearing of Pyrrhus’ arrival in Italy, mustered 80,000 men and divided them into four armies. Do any of us wish we could micromanage the makeup and lower-level command of the Roman response? I didn’t think so.

Europa Universalis: Rome

EU Rome is a game that I ignored when it came out. It seemed like easy way to capitalize on Rome: Total War’s popularity with their existing engine. But I assumed it would just be the same game, reworked with different window dressing. I finally picked it up in 2014 when I saw it for a buck or two.

In retrospect, the design was an intermediate version of the Crusader Kings system; improving upon the, at the time existing, Crusader Kings but not yet to the level of the outstanding Crusader Kings II. EU Rome does manage to immerse the player in that interesting strategic top end of the Roman era. In particular, whereas the RTW family system has little connection with historical politics, EUR does start to capture the feel of it. Once you stray outside the historical bounds of a scenario setup, EUR moves toward the classic 4X gameplay with build queues and constructing the right buildings, a mechanic without much connection to historical reality. But it is slower to silliness than most of its competitors and therefore, in my own Pyrrhic exercise of last summer, actually was the most satisfying attempt to play the Roman Republic.

Honorable Mention: Great Battles of Caesar

When I originally posted this article on-line, some comments were made about the Great Battles series. At the time, I did not expect it to challenge the two tactical games I was playing. One of the comments I made was I thought I had some troubles with stability in the original game. It was mentioned to me that the GOG version had fixed stability issues and compatibility with modern system. I’ve since picked up the GOG version when it went on sale, but I’ve yet to install and player. Maybe next time I get to this era.

A History of Games


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Wargaming Is Dead

Popular sentiment, at least in the corner of the internet where I do my reading, is that PC Wargaming is “dead.” The area of historical simulations is seeing some activity in board game development, but very little in computer games. PCs games as a whole seem to be taking a back seat to mobile game development effort.

But I’m not sure I agree.

Long Live the Wargame!

While the number of new games are down, there are still great games released recently and being released. Historical PC game development is clearly still underway.

It’s not the same market as, say, ten years ago when dozens of games were released every year, and where one could drool over the lists of games under development. These days, the pace of development has slowed way down, but there are still some intriguing new titles as well as many decent games that are being supported and improved.

Once upon a time, wargames aligned with the “blockbuster” game model. Games were released and fought for good shelf space at the Gamestops and Best Buys. While wargames never competed with the top-tier commercially successful PC games, it was possible to have a “hit” and serious financial success. That, in turn, justifies serious investment in the development of new products. However, to command top billing, the games had to be polished. When you, the player, got your new game home, read the manual, and then put your CDs (or maybe floppies?) into your system, you expected the game to work. Patches could be obtained, but a big patch often seemed to be all-but-impossible to download without errors over available internet connections. So any patching, bug fixing, or customer support was just “cost” eating into the profits from that original game sale. But the developer who tries to balance those books by turning out “Game of War II” would risk losing the goodwill of the original “Game of War” customers who resent paying AGAIN for simply providing what they thought they’d purchased when they bought the original game. So, unless the new version also expanded upon the original fan base, there might be a decline in profits as compared to the original version.

Profits, I might add, that were split between retailer, distributor, producer, and maybe even developer.

Today’s environment is very different. Distribution of products is almost entirely digital. In any software, frequent patching is the norm and no longer seems like such a indictment of the product. Combinations of free and low-cost paid content (DLCs) now are common, and seem to provide a structure around which a different kind of profitability model could exist.

The variety of publishing models, from DYI to Steam to more traditional publishers, should create an opportunity for developers to avoid the publishing traps that have sunk them in the past. Development platforms (such as Unity) hold out at least a promise of rapid development of decent content, resulting in lower development costs.

Will some combination of this actually create a sustainable environment? I think it will. But it could also mean that the industry is devouring itself chasing less and less money from a smaller and smaller user base. Only time will tell.

The model for success these days, at least in terms of quality product,  seems to be the incremental releases. The best wargames of the day seem to be those in their second (or third or fourth) iteration.

But I’m not a wargame developer. I’m a wargame player.I’m certainly pleased with the quality and support for a few of the best titles that are active today. But there are so many older games that are still “new to me.”

A Virtual Bargain Bin

The “bargain bin” of decades ago was the place to augment your wargaming budget. Games that weren’t quite worth the risk at $45 might be worth a try at half price. Under $10, could be worth a shot in the dark and, for under $5, if the box art looked cool, well why not? The problem was, that bargain bin had only limited selection, and you may or may not be checking every so often. So despite the occasional lucky find, the bulk of purchases came of the main shelf.

As the digital store replaced brick and mortar, it certainly became easier to grab something that went on sale. But prices only went so low. Then there was shipping to consider.

These days, there is a vast digital bargain bin. On Steam, on GOG, plus other discounts like Humble Bundle. With a little bit of patience and perseverance (yet considerable less than it took to sift through the bins at Gamespot), one try out many, many of the top-dollar titles of years past for pennies on the dollar. And no shipping to boot.

As an added bonus, my circa-200x gaming machine is not at all disadvantaged when playing circa-200x games. But maybe that’s just me.

Historical Games: A Walk Through History

Lastly, this cornucopia of games of all shapes and sizes encourages a new approach to choosing which game to play. Rather than playing whatever is the most interesting to come out recently, I am choosing games from this vast digital pile based on theme. Over the last year or so, I’ve been playing groups of games comparatively. I pick a battle, or theme, or era in history and play multiple games (three is good) that all address the same subject. It can end up being a comparative review of different games attempting to do the same thing, and how each one gets it right or wrong. It can end up being views of the same battle, looking simultaneously from the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
In any case, I hope to be able to share what I’ve learned and am learning here on this forum over the coming months.

Shootin’ Blanks


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The things you notice sometimes.

I was watching Blood Simple last night, because it was on its final days of free availability on Amazon Prime. Early on in the movie, Abby (Frances McDormand) loads her revolver. As I’m watching, I think “Hey, didn’t it just say on the box those are blanks?”

I had to look it up. But, yes, it did.

I also wondered at the end (minimal spoilers) why nobody ever bothered to count rounds once the shooting started.

Playing the Trump Card


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The big story on the Republican side of the ballot these days is the Establishment versus Trump. Assuming (a fair bet) that Donald Trump does not have 50% of the delegates going into the convention, can he still win? Can the “not Trump” faction get the 50% of delegates necessary to defeat him? Can they do it without gaming the convention? The establishment has backed several candidates; first Jeb Bush then Marco Rubio, whom they have seen fallen by the way. Other Candidates, like Christie, got the beginnings of support before being abandoned. Is Kasich capable of taking on that mainstream mantle? Can they stomach Cruz, who in any other year would be the one they’d want to see defeated?

Described this way, the race seems all about the personalities and (almost to a lesser extent) the politics of these individuals. For many, those things are really about the electability of the candidate when it comes to the general election. How will a conservative, a libertarian or a moderate stack up against Hillary?

Yet, there is another reason why a Donald Trump candidacy spells chaos for the GOP establishment. His nomination would throw a YUGE wrench into the election methods and mathematics that have been so hard-won over the last 8 years.

Briefly, the traditional way to look at an election is this. You have an electorate that is made up of a (and I’ll use the liberal-conservative dichotomy as a shortcut, without stipulating that the electorate is truly this one dimensional) core of liberals and a core of conservatives. These voters can be counted upon to reliably vote for “their” party, but are not numerous enough to get an actual majority. For that, you need the “swing voters,” those whose priorities are neither all-left or all-right and who make up their minds after considering the details of the candidates positions and personality as well as the circumstances surrounding the election. In many cases, these voters don’t make their final selection until the last moment, resulting in elections that appear too close to call even when they turn out not to be.

The traditional politicking says its all about winning the hearts and minds of these swing voters. Candidates must come out of the primary able to convince the massive of the moderate bona fides. Aligning a party or candidate with the voters’ top concern (economy, national security, etc.) becomes the name-of-the-game so as to win over those “Reagan Democrats” or “Republicans for Obama.” On this the Republican Party spent their efforts for both McCain and Romney. And they got schlonged.

Obama, with an army of computer wizards and the power of Big Data, took another tack. Instead of going after the undecideds, who can be incredibly fickle and quite expensive to actually convince, he went after the, shall we say, decideds. Obama’s machine targeted those people who were hard and passionately left – either generally or on particular issues – but were not certain to vote. They needed no convincing that they were liberal, only that it was necessary to their interests to go down to the polls on election day and cast that vote.

Clearly it worked. Of course, you can win an election on math and data mining alone – Obama, especially in 2008, has been popular in the traditional sense as well. But the Romney versus Obama result was a lot closer than most people give credit for.

Republicans (I think) have learned their lesson. They are preparing software and databases modeled after what Obama used so successfully and they have been gearing up to beat the Democrats at their own game for the better part of four years. But it won’t work if The Donald is the nominee.

It is become clear that that many of your most traditional and staunch Republican supporters are not for Trump. In fact, many have been telling pollsters that they would not vote Republican if Trump is the nominee. Instead, Trump makes his numbers from a non-traditional supporters, including some of those independents that the GOP is ready to de-emphasize. Which would all be par for this year’s electoral course except for one thing…

The Presidential Election is only a small part of what really matters.

The November 2016 ballot will contain choices all up-and-down the ticket for other Federal Positions, State Positions, Local offices,  ballot initiatives, etc. And each of these has a role to play in the politics of our Great Republic. While the perception and the story is that the party who wins the presidency is the victor, piratically speaking that is not the case. Certainly, if as Obama did in 2008, a party wins the presidency and a majority of the legislature, that President can push forward with a major partisan initiative (i.e. Obamacare). However, there is no guarantee that an election will award all levels to one party. Even as Obama has demonstrated a newfound power in the Presidency, the other parts of our government still matter – at least for the time being.

Control of the House of Representatives allows a party to put forward lots of legislation and define its principles. These initiatives are easily countered by a Presidential veto and a Senate which requires a super-majority to consider legislation. And this ignores the States, each of which have their own systems and subtleties. Another amazing aspect of our electoral system is the disconnected between the office of governor and the elected representatives. States like California, New York and Massachusetts, which will never, ever see a Republican legislative majority, nevertheless elect Republican governors.

Rather than dwell on the nitty gritty, I merely want to point out that a Donald revolt does damage to this system that even a weak McCain or Romney run doesn’t do. The traditional methods turn out voters who “vote the ticket” or are otherwise persuaded to cause a coattail effect. That is, the party mostly focuses on electing their candidate for President and knock-on effects benefit all the other levels of government. But if Trump is eschewed by the traditional voter and supported by the non-traditional voter, all of this goes away. It threatens the party in a way that even a Sanders revolt couldn’t harm the Democrats.

And that is one, completely rational, reason that the GOP Establishment fears Donald Trump’s winning the convention.


After Apple-Picking


My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.
But I am done with apple-picking now.
Essence of winter sleep is on the night,
The scent of apples: I am drowsing off.
I cannot rub the strangeness from my sight
I got from looking through a pane of glass
I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough
And held against the world of hoary grass.
It melted, and I let it fall and break.
But I was well
Upon my way to sleep before it fell,
And I could tell
What form my dreaming was about to take.
Magnified apples appear and disappear,
Stem end and blossom end,
And every fleck of russet showing clear.
My instep arch not only keeps the ache,
It keeps the pressure of a ladder-round.
I feel the ladder sway as the boughs bend.
And I keep hearing from the cellar bin
The rumbling sound
Of load on load of apples coming in.
For I have had too much
Of apple-picking: I am overtired
Of the great harvest I myself desired.
There were ten thousand thousand fruit to touch,
Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall.
For all
That struck the earth,
No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble,
Went surely to the cider-apple heap
As of no worth.
One can see what will trouble
This sleep of mine, whatever sleep it is.
Were he not gone,
The woodchuck could say whether it’s like his
Long sleep, as I describe its coming on,
Or just some human sleep.

Robert Frost

After Apple Picking