Between the Wars

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My History of Games series is intended to be an exploration of wargaming. Here I take a little diversion into some different genres.

L.A. Noire was billed as a major innovation in gaming at the time it was released. It had been developed using live actors and proprietary motion capture technology to use not only realistic looking 3D graphics, but to use the lifelike qualities of those graphics in-game. The player interacts with characters and can, indeed must, interpret their tone, body language and facial expressions to read between the lines of what is being said. A critical gameplay element is to observe suspects body language during interrogations in order to determine whether or not they are lying, and it is the motion capture that makes that body language realistic enough to read.

But in many other respects, L.A. Noire has the classic game elements that have been around for generations of PC games. Inside the overall L.A. Noire narrative, there’s the driving game, the the chase and shoot game, the button-mashing fisticuffs, and the pixel hunt. Even the “interview” innovation is probably very similar to many previous efforts – at its core, you are given a statement that you have to choose whether it true, false, or something in between.

So how do does one talk about this game? Is the focus on the facial reading? Is it on the “classic game?” Is it meant to be a “Grand Theft Auto” goes to Hollywood in the 40s?

Say Goodbye to Hollywoodland

One of my first reactions after starting up the game was wondering how much was made up. After all, they had replaced the iconic Hollywood sign with Hollywoodland! What I didn’t know then, but I know now, was realistic. Indeed the reproduction of Los Angeles paid meticulous attention to detail. The original sign was put up to advertise a new housing development called “Hollywoodland” and it did in fact still read that way in 1947, when this game is set. It wasn’t until 1949 when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce assumed responsibility for maintenance of the sign and, as part of that effort, removed the “LAND.”

The things you learn.

L.A. Noire has a minigame, of sorts, that involves spotting various landmarks in Los Angeles. When driving by a landmark for the first time, and key or button is pressed to glance at it, after which you receive some sort of bonus points for having found it. The rest of Los Angeles is also very detailed and varied, and the experience of driving from crime scene, to bar, to apartment, and then back to the police station does give the impression of being there. I don’t look for, and haven’t noticed, the repetitive scenery which often fills out games. It is obvious how much work has gone into the details. It does make me wonder about its accuracy. How close is this to a Google Earth from 1947?

Beyond the scenery, the style of the game is a mix between ripped-from-the-40s-headlines and the film noir of the period. Probably more the latter than the former. Any semblance of historical immersion, though, is pretty much limited to the visuals. Driving, shooting, as well as any other activities are meant to be gamey, not realistic. Dialog is meant to mimic movies, and modern ones at that. The story arcs are an exaggerated form of what we know to expect from this type of thing.

The Uncanny San Fernando Valley

So how about those graphics?

The game was some $50 million dollars and 7 years in the making. The concept of using live actors to provide realistic body-language in-game was heavily marketed in the development phase and meant to be a big new thing in the world of gaming. I don’t know much about video game marketing, and what constitutes a commercial success, but I’ve read it sold some 5 million copies. It sounds like it did OK.

On the other hand, I’ve yet to see any further use of this technology in any other games. There was initially some talk of a sequel, which I think people assumed meant more L.A. detective stories. Later, the developer announced a game taking place in China in 1936. That project was eventually shut down before release. One assumes that, whatever success of the original game, the costs of this style of graphical interface exceeded its value.

Back to the Basics

Putting all the rest of it aside, it isn’t a bad gaming experience, although for me not in that “best game ever” category by any means.

My impressions are marred by a few problems, mostly part and parcel of porting a console game to the PC.

One is the save and load system, necessary for console games but out-of-line with most made-for-PC games. Besides hardware and software limits on consoles, fixed save points can be used to up the challenge of a game – you can’t save right before a difficult task and then replay it until you get it right. Of course, it is frustrating have to go through a cut scene and some action to get back to the point that you actually want to play, because you couldn’t save where you wanted. It is also annoying to want to stop playing for the night, only to have to wait until the game decides it is time to save.

Another point of irritation is the lack of support for left handed mice. This game is hardly the worst offender, because some of the clicks can be remapped. But it forces me to think backwards with other menus. I plan to call out other culprits in future articles.

Speaking of key remapping, I’ve never been able to drive properly with WASD keys. I don’t have a console controller, so I dug out my wife’s old steering wheel. Unfortunately, this doesn’t quite work either. Besides the fact that I keep reaching for a non-existent turn signal, the steering is designed around a controller, and doesn’t respond to the wheel in a natural way. I frequently find myself swerving down Ventura, as I try to get my steering back under control.

Then, to add insult to injury, with the steering wheel mapped in, some of the other controls don’t work as configured. In order to interrogate a suspect, I need to use one of the buttons on the steering wheel to interact with my notebook. I don’t know if it is a buggy port or just an unexpected controller fighting with other inputs.

Some of my issues with the game are not related to UI, but are baked into the design. As I said, despite all the 3D, the interrogation game comes down to a dialog tree with three choices. You can believe, disbelieve, or accuse them of lying (given proof found elsewhere). Choosing launches you into a further dialog. If you guessed right, you get additional choices or information. If wrong, the characters (you and the suspect) generally get mad at each other. The problem is, the apparent intricacies of the story don’t always fit this simple model.

I’ll give an example, hopefully without spoiling the plot. I am at the home of the husband of the victim, where I find a clue that would seem to indicate he had bad intentions toward his wife. However, other clues point towards someone else, yet to be discovered. In the dialog tree, I accuse the husband of killing his wife, which he vehemently denies. I believe him, but I do want to ask him about the clue. The problem is, the only way to bring up the clue is to accuse him of lying, bring up the clue, and then allow him to explain that it isn’t what it looks like, and he wasn’t lying after all. Not at all intuitive.

However, having learned my lesson, I’m faced with another suspect later in the game. Again, I’m pretty sure he’s innocent, but when I ask about his contact with the victim, he seems to be hiding information. So, this time, I accuse him of lying, referencing witness accounts of him being seen with the victim to back the accusation up. Turns out this isn’t the answer the game is looking for and the suspect gets all sullen and refuses to give information. Never did quite figure that one out. This guy, like a number of characters, seem to lie to the police for no reason whatsoever. I know they’re lying, but also know they have no involvement in the crime.

One part of the frustration is, unlike the traditional puzzle game conversation tree where you can generally get through all the branches eventually, in this game it is very easy to shut yourself off from the solution by picking the wrong choice. And when that choice starts to feel like a random stab at one out of three options, well, I don’t like those odds.

Overall, though, I can’t complain about the game. While it didn’t appear good enough to make it as a high-end development, top-tier game, as a bargain bin puzzle/action game with some very cool technology – it was worth what I paid for it.

Another Story about Night Vision

As it happened, the next book on my to-read shelf happened to be based in this same period. Once again, a fictional story based on real events.

Hot Springs by Stephen Hunter is a novel expanding out the story of his protagonist Earl Swagger. Much like L.A Noire, it starts with Earl’s return from the Pacific War, release from the (in this case) Marines, and beginnings as a officer of the law.

Rather than risk a review that might give away too much of the plot, I’ll offer a few impressions. However, if you want to know nothing from the book, skip ahead to the next section.

This book is what I would call a literary version of gun porn. Gun erotica, perhaps (although I’d advise against googling that)? The story describes firearms and their functionality in detail, including thorough and accurate descriptions of training and firefights. I suspect firearm aficionados love this stuff, and others probably don’t so much.

I was a little taken aback when I hit a point in the novel where an early version of night vision technology once again took on a major role in the plot development, as it did in several earlier novels by the same author. It became just one plot point of many that was built upon technical details of historic firearms models and tactics. And as I said above, this is good.

I do wonder how well the story holds on its own, without the “gun erotica.” I’m not sure it does, but I’m also not sure it matters. When we pick up an “Earl Swagger” novel, we expect a well told narrative peppered with guns, fights, and gun fights. It did strike me that this story would translate well to the big screen, and that may even be by design. If I were in the movie biz, I think I would enjoy paring this book down into a screenplay. It seems like it would fit just about right into a feature length film.

Día de Muertos

To wrap up this post, I give you Grim Fandango: Remastered.

Why? Why? Why? you may ask.

I started playing this at the same time I started L.A. Noire, in part to amuse my children around Halloween. And amused they are – they regularly ask to continue with the game. I also had never finished the game when I bought it in the CD jewel case, probably a year or so after it came out.

No, it’s not a wargame. It’s not even historical. It isn’t even an attempt to create a self-consistent reality. However, if I had to date it, I could see putting it sometime in the late 40s. The scenes back in the land of the living have a 40s look and feel, and the cars look shortly post war. Plus, the vibe of the game is, like L.A. Noire, that same film noir style.

At the time it came out, it was touted as one of the best of its genre – the puzzle game. The genre is one that I’ve generally avoided, although I have played enough to form the opinion that I don’t like it. At their worst, puzzle games involve hunting through the graphics for hidden hot spots, and then using the found items in non-intuitive combinations to “solve” the particular puzzle. I find it extremely frustrating. I suppose it would be one thing if the puzzles were truly brain teasers that could be worked out with some effort and knowledge. Too often, it seems to me, the only useful knowledge is a background in puzzle games, thus knowing what tricks tend to be thrown at you.

Grim Fandango was an improvement. It had a better story, better dialog and genuine humor. The puzzles themselves were supposed to be a bit easier than the norm for games at the time. At the peak of the puzzle games’ popularity, it was a game targeted a bit more towards the mass audience.

Back then, I was working on it at the same time as my wife. We would both try to do the same “level” at the same time, and help each other out if one of us figured it out first. Problem was, I’m not sure we very often figured it out. Eventually, she would crack and look up the solution on some cheat site. We only got so far. I decided that I was going to figure out the thing for myself, and I guess she lost interest to the point where she wasn’t looking up the answer. So we stopped.

At this point, I’m not yet back to where I’d left of before. Somewhere in Year 2, if you know the game.

It is worth making a gameplay comparison to L.A. Noire. The main difference between the two is that some of the L.A. Noire puzzle involve physical reactions – the driving, fighting, or shooting pieces. In Grim Fandango, all interaction (at least as far as I have seen) is simple moving and clicking. Unlike Grim Fandango, L.A. Noire has the ability to “fail.” However, if you fail on an action sequence or die in a gunfight, you’re simple given the opportunity to try it over. If you “fail” in an interrogation, you’re given a poor rating on the case, but you move on to the next case anyway. Effectively, not that much different than the keep-at-it-until-you-get-it mode of a Grim Fandango.

So in many ways Grim Fandango is an easier, “lighter” version of L.A. Noire. One drawback of Grim Fandango is that it can’t entirely get away from the puzzle game solution that is built of seemingly unrelated stuff you’ve found. L.A. Noire at least has you matching the clues in an intelligent way to the facts of the crime you are trying to solve.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the “Remastered” part of this game. It really does look and play great, post-facelift. In fact, a few UI anachronisms aside, I’d say the game could easily hold its own as a current title. Maybe not the A-list title that it was in its day, but its likely worth its full asking price of around $15 and definitely worth picking up on sale (as I did.)

And as I said, (quite unlike L.A. Noire), Grim Fandango is something that can be played with the kids.

How do you solve a problem like Korea?

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In my previous post, I found that the Theatre of War 3: Korea package didn’t quite measure up. Yet it seemed close enough that perhaps there is a possibility of redemption. Many of my criticisms were a function of scenario design, and so I wanted to look into putting together a historical scenario and if that improves my opinion.

To help out, I go to a game that, despite its age, is still one of the best treatments of this level of tactical warfare available. I am speaking of Steel Panthers. In one of its current incarnations, Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank, the second scenario is a potential test for for my ideas.

The battlefield focuses on a ridge between two low-lying areas of rice farming. The North Korean invaders had crossed the Naktong River, where the armies of the South were holding a defensive perimeter centered at the city of Pusan. The ridge at Obong-Ni was a natural defensive point and became the focus of intense fighting over the course of several battles in August and September of 1950. From a wargaming standpoint, these battles were an inflection point, where the U.S. marines began turning their desperate defensive position into an offensive to retake South Korea.

The particular focus of this scenario on the first hour of the North Korean counter-offensive on August 17th. The communists had overwhelming numbers as well as superiority across different weapon classes (advantages in artillery and armor as well). The advantage wasn’t to last. As the US was able to bring up both superior numbers and weapons, they were able to overwhelm the Korea positions and force them back across the river within a matter of days. In this brief snapshot of the battle, however, the U.S. Marines were attempting to turn back an assault with T-34s using bazookas and Recoilless Rifles. However, the U.S./UN had air superiority. The Marines advantage is that, while they are likely unable to stop the enemy tanks on their own, they can call in airstrike after airstrike.

Pixelated Soldiers of a Forgotten War

Amazingly, before this exercise, I’ve never played Steel Panthers. The game itself is old enough to drink, having been released by SSI in 1995 (see timeline here).

I think I initially didn’t get it because of the price. Later, it began to look dated and criticisms of the computer opponent and “gaminess” deterred me. Even when the price was “nothing,” there was some on-line arguing about the functionality of the game and whether it actually ran properly. Long story short, I never got the game until just now when I wanted a comparison scenario.

I’m playing with the free version, which has a limited resolution. The choice is either to have a very small window that graphically looks decent, but is kind of hard for me to see text and other details – or to run it in full screen mode where, to quote someone far more articulate than I am, it “looks like every element on the screen was printed with a boiled potato.” I haven’t done enough to really evaluate the AI, but I’ll assume from the on-line criticism it remains a weakness.
Nevertheless, in many ways Steel Panthers has yet to be surpassed for what it does. It provides a highly historical (see previous) treatment of small-unit action from World War II through to the present. It does so with a wealth of available scenarios, a battle generator, and editing tools that are limited only by the skills of the program’s fans. I won’t dwell too much on either the game system or this scenario, but I’m sure I’ll be back to it later.

I will mention a couple things that really stood out as I played this. The system seems to have struck a pretty good balance between simplicity and realism. The number of “attacks” per turn feels pretty decent, while “defensive fire” is completely automated (subject to user-defined parameters). It’s slow compared to the more-modern “real time” systems, but better than most out there. Second – smoke. The computer uses smoke to mask its movements both retreating and attacking. This is one of the few games I’ve seen it used properly. I also like the mechanic where sustained firing on a defending hex creates smoke, which then obscures future shots into and through the hex. I’m sure it has been done elsewhere, but it hit me as something I hadn’t seen before.

As to the details of this battle, I found an archived turn-by-turn description for your viewing pleasure.

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Observation point, village center, and the northern point of the defensive ridge. The graphics look much better in windowed mode than distorted to fit a full screen at modern resolution

Tank Country

Initially, the UN troops found themselves facing North Korean armor with infantry, generally a distinct disadvantage. One of the reasons is that the American high command didn’t consider Korea to be “tank country,” and so neglected to deploy armor formations. The necessity of countering T 34/85 attacks made them rethink that position.

The first step in creating the battle was to recreate the battlefield. One of the reasons I chose this particular battle is there are multiple sources available to recreate the battle down to the level of detail necessary for the Theatre of War engine.

My first thought was to attempt to edit terrain in one of the existing maps. The game comes with a map editor, which appears to support tools for everything from creating a new map from scratch to editing an existing one. Unfortunately, there is no documentation so I simply tried everything. As far as I can tell, the basic terrain cannot be modified. Terrain height and type appear to be fixed on the provided maps, essentially limiting all scenarios to the nine provided maps. This also seems to apply to the trees, for which an extensive set of menu options exist, but all appear to do nothing.

What is editable are the roads, and what they call “statics,” basically buildings and trenches. Add to this that the each map is actually larger than the playing area, and there is some variation to be had. The terrain can be repositioned within the battlefield window and then the villages, roads, etc. moved to create a wide variety of setups.

So my next step was to find some terrain that seem to approximate the battlefield in question, and then reposition roads, trenches and buildings to get something semi-historic. The process was tedious, but not impossible.

50korea

The battlefield taken from a military map from the period. The ridge is the series of crests following the dot-dash line passing diagonally through the center of this picture.

pusan_map17

A sketch of the battlefield showing troop positions and movements. Note that this map is rotated about 40 degrees from North-South so that the ridge is straight up-and-down on the map. Also, the arrows depict troop movements from after the scenario we are modeling.

1016korea

Google map version of roughly the same terrain as in the first map is enlightening about the actual terrain. Ridges alternate with low-lying rice-farm valleys.

spobong

Steel Panthers scenario, initial positions, zoomed out to match the other views.

With all this material to work with, I thought I had done pretty well at reproducing it on my TOW3 map.

mapview1

From the air, I felt I had the gist of the battle taken care of, if I ignore the mountain where the second ridge should be.

Once I zoomed into the ground level view, however, it was clear to me that while the map may look fine, the terrain I was working with was far from what I was trying to model.

ridge1

Down in the trenches, that isn’t really much of a ridge, now is it?

What looked like a good-enough approximation of the historic ridge line was really just a patch of rough terrain that really did nothing to block sight lines. The entire battlefield has pretty good Line Of Sight from one end to the other, meaning that as soon as I start running, everyone starts shooting at everyone else.

The TOW3 scenarios I’ve played start out with opposing forces separated by those large mountains you see in the background. If everyone starts out on the same side of those mountains, there does not seem to be much to limit contact.

Still, this is a learning exercise so, aside from the lost effort of placing all those trenches, what else did I learn. Is there still hope?

The next step, having created my terrain, was the placement of the forces. I started with the American side, and was able to mostly recreate the forces defending the ridge, as provided by the Steel Panthers order of battle. I left out the reinforcements scheduled to arrive through the scenario and also limited the off-board artillery and air support to what fit into the TOW3 editors parameters. But having got things pretty close to how I wanted them, I moved on to set up the North Korean attack.

And found that any more than about 3 tanks and a couple of mortars maxed out the unit allowance.

I’ve seen video of large numbers of units on screen at any one time. So the unit limit is likely in the editor and not the game. The game comes with, in addition to the map editor, an “Editor” and a “Simple Editor” for creating scenarios. I’ve used the “Simple Editor” in this. The battle itself is saved in an XML file, so there seem to be ways around the limit if needed.

But again, still a learning exercise. So I decided to scale down the scenario to the first 20 minutes, and exclude everything that wasn’t either initially on the front lines (for the U.S.) or in the first wave (for the North Koreans).

Even with my best efforts, I still couldn’t populate the North Korean side with enough for their human-wave style attacks. The key challenge of this scenario, however, are the North Korean T-34s, so I focused on getting the tank and mortar count right.

Upon running the scenario, the terrain problems were immediately apparent. I had placed the North Korea infantry at the far edge of the map, intending them to provide indirect fire (as in the SP scenario). I did not build any defensive system for them, which meant they were immediately targeted and fairly quickly destroyed. Absent any ability to alter terrain, it may be possible to shield indirect fire units with a combination of trenches and buildings, which can be moved in the editor.

In the Steel Panther’s scenario, the infantry advanced to a point where smoke could be targeted, which then covered the final advance. In the TOW3 version, the advancing infantry was both fewer in number and without terrain cover, and was eliminated before closing. The armor, on the other hand, had similar feel in both games – pretty much immune to infantry. One different was the U.S. recoiless rifle. Not effective against tanks in SP but deadly in TOW3.

Overall, the inability to add off-board support except through “purchases” limits the ability to get the historical situation correct. U.S. superiority via artillery and in the air is a key component of any Cold War or Modern conflict. On board artillery is an option, although that exacerbates the until limitation issue. In my setup, I added two 155mm howitzers to substitute for the missing off-board options. It should have been two 155mm batteries.

Furthermore, the on-board artillery seems to have targeting problems. As nearly as I can figure, the problem is that artillery cannot fire indirect under several circumstances. If the guns are loaded with direct-fire ammunition (i.e. AP shells), they cannot target indirect fire until the loaded ammunition is discharged at a direct fire target. Secondly, if the guns can shoot at targets directly, it seems that they will not fire indirectly. Or maybe not. Whenever I think I have it figured out, I seem to quickly find holes in my explanations. I can say it is very difficult to target the enemy with indirect howitzer fire, although indirect mortar fire and off-board artillery fire will work in the same circumstances.

The manual is of limited use. There are a few bits and pieces of information, but not the kind of detail necessary to resolve the problems I have. The manual seems primary written to explain the intricacies of armor penetration modeling. I assume the details are because the models are, in fact, implemented in the game, although even that wasn’t entirely clear. While it is nice to know that your game has high-fidelity models, the actual effect on gameplay (the experience of playing) would seem to be minimal.

Other Battles, Other Shortcomings

Following my Obong-Ni Ridge scenario, I looked at some of the other Steel Panther scenarios created for this same time frame. That is, the beginning of the U.S. offensive in the fall of 1950. I have not yet tried to implement matching TOW3 scenarios.

A few parting thoughts.

The units and weapons available in TOW3 are “representative” rather than exhaustive. Meaning, creating a historically accurate battle will almost certainly involve some substitutions. In all of the SP scenarios that I’m looking at, the U.S. Marines are using the M26 Pershing. This vehicle was already out-of-date at the start of the Korean War, but as the Marines were caught with a shortage of armor (because Korea wasn’t really tank country), they were forced to use what was available. In TOW3, one can use the M4 (Sherman) or the M46 (Patton). Only.

One of the available SP scenarios is very similar to what the automated Mission Builder will create in TOW3. The U.S. is move a small, mixed armor and infantry force along a road with poor sight lines and a village. Along that road, the North Koreans have units set up for an ambush. The U.S. has no air or artillery to call in. If there were a bit more customization capability to the TOW3 Mission generator, a satisfying approximation could be created. However, if I want strictly limit the types of units, I’d probably need to create the mission in the editor. I have yet to do so.

Another one of the SP mission involves repelling and assault on the recently recaptured Kimpo airport. The Steel Panthers documentation is lacking, in this, case, but it would seem to be a night action. Visibility is restricted to 150 yards, meaning the large flat ground of the airport does not allow engagement at a distance. This is another shortcoming of the TOW3 engine in which the variations in weather conditions seem, to me, to impact only the lighting effects rather than actual game play.

The last scenario I tried in Steel Panthers was simulating an Island landing, securing the harbor in preparation for the main Inch’on landings. It served as an illustration of how much is missing from TOW3. The scenario uses landing craft to place the U.S. Marines on the board and massive naval artillery bombardment to prepare the ground. The available air assets exceed my ability to properly use them, and there are also spotter aircraft both off board and on board (a helicopter). On the North Korean side, there are a variety of defensive positions, bunkers, caves and other cover as well as terrain that prevents the Marines from engaging at a safe distance. The size of the battlefield and the numbers engaged also clearly exceed what I could do with TOW3.

While I wouldn’t expect TOW3 to do all these things, its inability to do most of them points to why I have to, despite giving TOW3 a second chance, once again withhold a mark of approval.

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Green Fields

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The sun shining down on these green fields of France
The warm wind blows gently and the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished long under the plow
No gas, no barbed wire, no guns firing now
But here in this graveyard that’s still no mans land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man
And a whole generation were butchered and damned

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Legacy

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This case, involving legal requirements for the content and labeling of meat products such as frankfurters, affords a rare opportunity to explore simultaneously both parts of Bismarck’s aphorism that ‘No man should see how laws or sausages are made.’

  • Community Nutrition Institute v. Block, 749 F.2d 50, 51 (D.C. Cir. 1984) ; decided December 5, 1984.

What Makes a Wargame?

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What makes a fun game? That’s a question easier asked than answered.If the formula were out there, then every game on the market would be oodles of fun, wouldn’t it?

I’ll continue to consider this in future posts, as there are a lot of different genres each with different formulas that make them fun and successful. Hopefully there is a correlation between the two. When it comes to wargames, there seem to be some rules that apply, or rather, some additional specifics that are required.

Naturally, the game should still be a “good one” by the measure that games in general are judged. Although, sometimes that might be secondary to its wargamey-ness. Wargamers may put up with a lot of rough game design if the game gets the battle right.

So for a wargame, it should be an accurate simulation, it should be historically accurate, and the play should be related to the period. That is, for a  historical wargame, the package is graded on some or all of these three factors in addition to the gameplay. This may sound like three ways of stating the same thing, but I’ll try to explain the differences.

Some gamers are most concerned that the game “model” something of the battle in question. You might want to see penetration factors and fuel/ammo consumption, not “hit points” in your WWII tank game. But this can be a matter of degree. A mechanized infantry regiment could determine its strength by counting up men, guns, halftracks, ammo, etc. Or it could use “factors” for combat and movement based on decades of wargame experience. How much abstraction is tolerable could be quite a discussion.

Of course, no matter how detailed or abstract the modelling, the proof of the pudding is in how well it simulates historical puddings of the time in question. Or something like that. That is to say, the detail of the model is no good if it doesn’t recreate the historical outcome of the battle. This can be a real trick. Would a simulation (absent the knowledge of the historical outcome) ever actually predict the Battle of Midway? But if yours doesn’t, how can it be considered a good Midway game?

Then there is the gameplay. A game that gets every bit of detail that it is modelling exactly right, but doesn’t lend itself to “play” isn’t a game: it’s just a simulator of military operations. You might think I’m talking about the “fun” factor I mentioned in the beginning. But I’m trying to make a distinction. For example, a system that lets you line up every soldier, cannon and horse in Napoleon’s army and accurately simulates casualties, morale, fatigue, etc. might make a beautiful simulator, but an awful game if you are literally spending your time lining them up. A game where you sit in a tend and send and receive dispatches might actually make an excellent game, because you’re getting the experience of reliving a battle exactly as Napoleon may have lived it.

But is that fun? Don’t we want to see sunlight glancing of the bayonets, the horses charging, and the cannons belching fire, even if the commander never would have actually seen these things? I remember one of the earliest of the John Tiller games, then under Talonsoft, for the Gettysburg battle. Each volley resolution was accompanied by actual live video of reenactors firing. An expensive-to-produce resource hog that was left out in the subsequent version of that series. Players and reviewers said it was the first thing they would turn off when they played the game. But I would actually leave it on. Seeing actual men actually shooting brought life to the pixilated squares to which I was giving orders.

So my two games today are looking at the next phase of the Korean War. In the last post, I was watching the Northern troops completely overwhelming the South Koreans. In the weeks after, ig only got worse. But what happens after the U.S. troops start to show up? Do they stop the red menace at Pusan? Can they retake Seoul? Can they toss Kim’s government out of the North? And, most importantly, can the game be both historical and fun?

The Operational Art of War III: Korea 50-51 and

Theater of War II: Korea.

Both of the games have a formula in place to get things right. For the first, it is based on tried-and-true board game designs upgraded to the PC’s capabilities. Gameplay is enhanced by the computer’s ability to track complexity without the difficulty tha players sitting with board, counters and paper would have. It has every hope of being an improvement on what we looked at earlier. As for the second, it traces its roots to the very-popular RTS genre, where we know what a blockbuster looks like. But do either of them take the ball and run?

The War, the Whole War, and Nothing but The War

As I said, the Operational Art of War scenario has has something of a pedigree. The general concept, scale, play is familiar to those who’ve played board-based, hex-and-counter wargames. In fact, games of this scale did predate the computer versions, although I don’t know well enough to say whether they were a direct, indirect, or incidental inspiration here.

Secondly, the author of both the scenario and the game itself, Norm Kroger, released an earlier Korean War game. Again, I have no direct knowledge of that earlier version, but I believe it sold well enough. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think that this Korean War scenario was, while not the sole inspiration, perhaps one of the key battles the designer had in mind when creating his Operational Art of War package.

The Korean scenario is one that shipped with the original version 1 of the game, and continued through the various improvements in the re-releases. They certainly had the opportunity to get this one right. And so they did.

incheon

Situation right after the Inch’on landings.

Already we see improvements over the previous scenario. The scale helps – quite a bit. The scenario design seems to be more involved as well (I didn’t try it in the editor, that’s just my impression from playing through it). And, of course, the fact that there was a real war and we can compare what’s going on to that – this helps out enormously.

As to the scale, we now have an interesting map. There’s the entire Korean Peninsula, with historic coastlines, major cities, rivers mountains, etc. Along with the significant political boundaries – the 38th parallel, The Chinese border. Some of the advantage is that we are far more zoomed out than with that map of Czechoslovakia. This can be done because the turns are now week long, rather than one day long, and so it is 15 km per hex rather than 5 km. With Korea being smaller than central Europe, the map can fit it all in.

The week-long turns also help with the operational scale. At one day /one turn the game felt either too abstracted (the makeup of the units didn’t matter) or not abstracted enough (too many units too maneuver, with no incentive to maintain unit integrity). In this battle, the maneuver and battle seem to have a better feel relative to the regimental unit scale. At least that’s my sense.

As I said, while I didn’t look at the scenario to analyze the modeling, there is a load of events that constrain and enhance the play to create more than a hex-and-counter simulation. There are political triggers which simulate the results of one side or the other being too successful. If the initial U.S./ROK losses are too high, will the U.S. use nukes? Will the conflict spread when the U.S. crossed the 38th parallel, transitioning from a defensive to an offensive war? What if they approach China? What if they cross into China? Additionally, the scenario models away some micro-management. Reinforcements are placed on the map by the scenario engine, not player movement. (Although some units are deployed to Japan, and the U.N. player has the ability to chose where to land them in Korea). For the Inch’on invasion, the Marine force was delivered in Japan on the correct date, and the Inch’on harbor remains a U.N. controlled port, thus simulating the ease of the initial landings rather than forcing the game to play out an amphibious operation.

Which brings us back to the historical aspect. It’s mid-September. I know that I’ve got to land my marines in Inch’on, and then use my Army units to try to trap the fleeing North Korean units while they’re overextended. I know that because… that’s what happened. In a hypothetical scenario, I never would come up with an Inch’on landing. It seems too unlikely to succeed – perhaps even more so if it is subject to dice rolling, beach defense modifiers and the like. I may not have even retreated onto the Puson perimeter, if I didn’t know that’s what happened.

As in the real world, once I landed at Inch’on and retook Seoul, it was a matter of chasing, isolating, and wiping out the vastly outclass North Korean enemy. I did so, and apparently successfully. My game ended as an overwhelming victory at the end of 1950, as I was isolating the last of the North Korean holdouts in the northern portion of North Korea. I did not trigger the Chinese intervention. There was a nice bit of afterward as it predicted various effects of my total victory, including a re-united Korea under Western influence, a coup in China, and a timid Soviet Union unable to respond forcefully to the Hungarian revolution.

Having won as the U.S./U.N., I’m thinking the game may be more interesting and challenging as the communist player. Getting the triggers just right would be the name of the game. You might win by beating the historical performance of the North and take Pusan, but might lose if that triggers a nuclear counter attack by the U.S. Failing an initial knockout blow, it would be necessary to trigger the entry of China or even the Russians in order to even replicate the “draw” that history seemed to achieve. I’ll leave that to another day, should I ever feel like taking on the role of evil.

Evil Incarnate

If you’re a game developer from Russia, playing the Soviets in a historical game probably feels more like being the “good guys” rather than the unmitigated bad actors that most of us of a certain age from the United States see. A few rumors of overpowered Russian units in certain games aside, however, the roles are not reversed. More typical is a simple equality between the historical sides in a conflict.

Take Theatre of War 3: Korea. There are three sides; North Korea, United States and the Soviet Union. All are nicely balanced, presumably making for good multiplayer scenarios. It makes for good gameplay, but does it all make a good game?

As I said at the beginning, this game starts out by taking tried and true formulas to create that elusive fun factor. Rather than start with the traditional wargaming world of board games, it is fundamentally based in the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre. The 3 in the name indicates, presumably, a mature series and the developers are veterans of a range of historically-themed war games.

Let’s start with RTS.

Real Time Strategy

From its start with titles like Herzog Zwei and Dune II, the category has advanced, refined and perfected gameplay into a hugely popular, and hugely successful gaming category. Recent titles will be expected to build on the streamlined UI conventions and gameplay elements developed over multiple generations of many successful series.

The RTS formula usually consists of a combination of resources, technology and military units. Territory is developed, by building “bases” or “cities” or some such element, which are then used to exploit the resources, develop technology, and create new units (or repair existing ones). Battle then takes place between the opposing forces in which victory generally consists of destroying or seizing the enemy base.

A key element in the “fun factor” is often described as a “rock, paper, scissors” mechanic. At its simplest, Unit A is vulnerable to Unit B which is Vulnerable to Unit C. But modern iterations will consist of complex layers involving, perhaps multiple cycles of units, multiple resources, and new technologies. The quantity versus quality trade-off is often a key mechanic, forcing players to choose between producing more units, or investing in technology to produce fewer, but better, units often later in the came.

Even in some of its earliest iterations, the genre used “realistic” or “historical” settings, in ways that were integral to gameplay. However, I would credit Company of Heroes as an early attempt to cross over from the “RTS” genre into the “wargames” genre, particularly for the 20th century battlefield.

I’m probably heavily biased by my own personal experience. I found both the Company of Heroes series and the Theatre of War series when searching for something beyond the first iteration of the Combat Mission games.

The first three Combat Mission games; Beyond Overlord, Barbarossa to Berlin, and Afrika Korp were first released in 2000 and were revolutionary in taking the serious simulation-style wargame and putting it into a real-time, 3D environment. The games were very popular, both in terms of sales and with the fan base. They featured a huge database of vehicles and formations, allowing coverage of most of the war available in an easy-to-use scenario editor. On top of that, the quick mission generator could allow an instant fix approximating almost any battle in the covered fronts.

Combat Mission continues to expand on the series to this day, but largely managed to drop the ball after that first go. I’ll not dwell on the details here; maybe another time. Suffice to say, I found myself searching for the “next decade’s” take on the Combat Mission magic. Small unit action, but realistically simulated.

Company of Heroes (CoH) was not that game, although it has been a huge success being what it is. It tweaks the RTS strategy to eliminate the base building and resource collection components traditional to the genre. Instead, battles are fought within realistic-looking environments, where control over keep points substitute for the construction of buildings. There remains, though, within that context an accumulation of points based on that control that, along with the nature of the buildings controlled, allow the construction and repair of replacements, similar to traditional RTS play.

The popularity of the series seems to be, at least to a large extent, the detailed and realistic graphics. This produces a movie-like quality to battles wherein the historic context and makeup of the armies are grounded in the actual events. Obviously, the ability to generate (as an example) new engineering units if you’ve controlled the Church for long enough is a long way from the “realism” of the Combat Mission scenarios. Worse yet, the actual fighting looks a lot more like a traditional RTS game than an actual, historical battle. Units swarm at each other at very close range and then trade hitpoint damage until one side’s unit prevails (after some impressive destruction graphics). All the while, both sides are frantically building and repairing units, and feeding them up to the front line (assumeing they haven’t hit some imposed unit cap).

Theatre of War (and I’ll talk about particularly the Korea game, even though I’ve up to now used World War II as the discussion’s point of departure) promised to do things differently. It was developed by the same team responsible for the IL-2 simulator, meaning they should understand the realism angle. The game uses realistic modelling of weapons and armor, allowing the units to function at historically realistic ranges rather than the nose-to-nose combat often found in the RTS series. It also forgoes not only resource collection, but also the map-control system of CoH. The concept is still there (it’s still meant to have RTS-style gameplay), but points are awarded only for eliminating the enemy. Scenarios are (in my experience so far) focused on a single geographic objective, with one side tasked to defend and one to attack, and the combination of seizing the object and eliminating the enemy (while minimizing one’s own losses) determine victory or defeat. The point system is still there, but is used for more limited purchases. Sometimes reinforcements are available, or the player might call in an off-map artillery or air strike. Not exactly realistic (“Captain, we’ll have some air support available, but first you’ve got to show us that you deserve it!”), but also not a game killer if it works.

Another key gameplay element is taken from the Total War series. While individual scenarios can be played, they can also be played in the context of campaigns where units are moved from territory to territory on the full map of the Korean peninsula and, when opposing units meet, that generates a detailed, tactical battle. The outcome of the tactical battle then determines who occupies the territory back in the turn-based campaign. ToW incorporates the mechanic where the units involved in the battle earn “experience” which is then carried over to their next encounter. Supply and losses carry over to future battles, so repeatedly catching and defeating the same enemy will make each following encounter that much easier. This, too, has been an immensely popular genre.

The Good Guys Strike Back, or try to at any rate…

I started out the U.S. campaign, which begins right where the US goes on the offensive with the invasion of Inch’on and the rapid reoccupation of South Korea. Since we’ve seen where that’s headed (in the screenshot of TOAW), I start right up using the X Corp to invade the beaches and my I and II Corp to push north.

And things start to go wrong.

The “Total War” -style campaign does add to the game play. I’ll give it that. But it completely wrecks an semblance of a historically accurate game. I started with my X Corps, which in game encountered the North Korean 21st Ind. Marine Regiment, defending the Seoul area. Not the historical lineup, but no matter. That encounter then launches me into the tactical battle.

When taking territories in the strategic map, it appears that all the generated tactical battles are pretty similar. You have a force consisting of anywhere from a couple to a dozen vehicles, supported by a platoon or two or three of infantry and some indirect fire (usually 2-4 mortars) and some transportation units, which consists of some mix of trucks, halftracks and helicopters. Always the helicopters. In this Korea, it seems, no matter how small your command, you’ve got at least a pair of helicopters at your disposal.

The maps are not terrible. But they give me an impression less of historical Korean locations than computer-generated maps with Korea-like features. But they are not even that. There is a limit of something like 9 battle maps. They have that “optimized for multiplayer” feel, so they almost all consist of a pair of villages, separated by mountains and passes (so there is no line of sight to the enemy positions at opening). In between is sometimes some other villages and a series of prepared positions – trenches, tank pits and gun emplacements. These seem to be pre-positioned, independent of the details of the battle. So you are generally launching your attack out of a fortified position, moving through some (perhaps) unoccupied trench-works to encounter the enemy in their own fortified position.

Contrast this to the formula of Combat Mission’s success. Scenarios were on an infinite variety of maps, either generated or designed to duplicate the key features of a historic battlefield. Scenario times were short, but units were positioned at their launching-off point and so the game depicted the key elements of the historic battle right from the scenario start.

takevillage

A pair of M4A3s provide overwatch while a rifle squad occupies some buildings in my objective village.

I note that the size of the battles are approximately the same as in Combat Mission, but the mix of units and the random nature of the match-up (you can build your force, subject to limitations in unit mix based on type and a total points) make the forces feel wrong. For the size of the battle – mixed infantry, artillery, air and armor, trying to capture a fortified village – a couple of platoons of infantry with a few tanks in support seems way too small.

lz

The village taken, a mix of armor and infantry provide security for a landing zone, bringing in another squad of riflemen. Pay close attention to that building directly behind the wheels of the helicopter. I’ll show another shot of that.

The campaigns seem to be set up so that, to progress, you have to win each individual battle. So any failure at the tactical level leads to replaying until victory. Again, this ruins the historic immersion. If I’ve encountered unexpected resistance in taking a village, maybe the campaign should have me collect up greater resources and try again. Not just keep at it until I “beat the level,” as it were.

So back to Seoul. In order to take “Seoul,” I have a mission where my 2 platoons of infantry, with 6 tanks and 3 helicopters in support, have to dislodge a North Korean unit of, also, approximately company size from a fortified village. Having done so, I win “Seoul.”

There’s absolutely no character of the battle that reflects the actual “Second Battle of Seoul,” which incidentally could make a great campaign.

Think about it, the Americans have some initial fights on their hand to defend their beachheads against North Korean armor, but quickly develop overwhelming superiority. However, unless that superiority is quickly exploited, veteran reinforcements to the North Korean defenses pour in. Ultimately, the fight for Seoul turns into a tough battle with, I’m sure, many opportunities for small unit action.

But, instead, I keep retaking the same 2-3 villages, dislodging a very similar mix of North Korean infantry and armor.

taketrench

Having wiped out KPA defenders with my tanks, I rush forward infantry to secure the position. Those guys in tan are the good commies (i.e. the dead commies)

So close and yet so far.

Even as I write this, I have to wonder if I’m not missing something. Taken on its individual parts, this game has so much to offer – features that I wish we’d see in many more games. The detailed modeling of the vehicles and individual soldiers, down to each grenade and bullet. Armor is modeled in tremendous detail, and there is a hotkey to show each hit with direction and penetration – perhaps one of the better UIs for this. There is small unit AI, including effects such as morale, fatigue and minor injuries. Although, I have to say, the AI is frustrating at times. You’ve really got to babysit all your units (fortunately they aren’t that many). A unit may decide it’s just not gonna advance no more, for no obvious reason, while another unit decides to rush off to the sound of the guns. And this despite the fact that your orders were to deploy in a line abreast behind a ridge in preparation for a coordinated assault.

building

Some more neat features that most games wished they had. Buildings are fully developed, inside and out. Both man-made and natural terrain is fully destructible. Note, this is the same building as in the previous shot, but I’ve now moved my squad forward to secure it.

The manual boasts an open system for modding and expansion. In theory, if I could get the details of that historical, small-unit action between Inch’on and Seoul, I should be able to put it together in the game. Unfortunately, the section of the manual documenting the editors for the maps and the mission is all of four sentences.  Combined!

So my bottom line is while I’m left with some pretty graphics that genuinely look like the Korean War and some confidence that I’m modelling the Korean War, I come away with no insight into the war. Except that tanks are good to have around.

So win one, lose one.

I Wanna Fly Jets!

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Korea is an interesting wargaming subject.

It is the first confrontation between the Cold War superpowers. In the scheme of things, it may seem an unlikely corner of the globe for that to take place, but there are a few factors that funneled us to the Korean war.

I was recently reading the book Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East that is worthy of its own review. It is particularly noteworthy in contrast to a handful of other recent histories on the same subject. A number of books have been written based on the opening of the Soviet archives, and so are written from the Russian perspective. This one is German-centric.

The book explained how Hitler assumed, with each major battle fought and victory not won, that he had weakened the enemy to the breaking point. The Soviet Union in the second World War (in a pattern soon to be repeated with  practically all communist armies) wasted huge amounts of Manpower and equipment in the winning of their battles. Hitler assumed that the Russians must exhaust themselves of their man and material resources  and thus succumb to Germany. Of course, that never happened. However, the book speculates that perhaps by the end of the war the Soviets had truly depleted their ability to fight and reached that breaking point, if only the German forces hadn’t been even more spent. If so, the perception that the West had about this massive Soviet Army, having just defeated the Germans, may have been overblown.  The Russians, at some level of government, may well have had the only realistic picture of their strength relative to the West.

In addition, whatever their beliefs about their conventional forces, clearly for the first few years after the second World War the Russians lacked the atomic capability possessed by the United States. This clearly prevented the Russians from pushing the West too hard.

Back to Korea.

The conflict in Korea start as did so many of the conflicts of the Cold War. The defeat of the Japanese left a vacuum of power and authority on the Korean peninsula, and the barely-0n-the-same-side powers of the United States and the Soviet Union vying for post-war influence. The solution was to arbitrarily divide the administration of the country between them, until such time as a reunification under self-government could be implemented. Of course, the influence of the Soviets versus that of the West produced very different governments that offered little hope of a smooth reunification.

In Korea, as the respective governments became self-sufficient, both the North and the South wanted to invade the other so that unification would take place under their respective terms.  It is particularly interesting that both the US and the Soviets did not want that to happen for fear of provoking a larger war with their opposite number.

In Russia’s case, however, once the Chinese communists had won Civil War they became open to allowing Kim to invade the South with Chinese backing. China could then shield the Russians from any unplanned escalation.

On the US side they actually withheld arms from South Korean president, Syngman Rhee, in an effort to prevent the south from initiating a war.

In terms of wargaming, this opens up all kinds of what ifs.

What if either the North or the South that started a war before the Chinese Civil War was complete? This would essentially create a combined war between communists and the West covering China and Korea. With such a mix of some combatants, likely the Soviet forces would be drawn in as Chinese were in the real war and it could have quickly spread from there.

There were plans and active orders to use atomic weapons against the Chinese as they entered the war as well as plans to nuke the Soviets if they joined in as well. Seeing how close the U.S. came to actually using their atomic arsenal, one can easily imagine how even a small escalation might have quickly ramped up into World War III.

This is all ripe from Wargaming on all levels. The tactical scale can focus on both the real operations and the what-ifs that might bring in more Chinese or Soviet troops. The operational scale has a unique conflict which consisted of large-scale conventional warfare that was nonetheless confined both politically and geographically to the Korean peninsula. A strategic treatment could be fascinating as well.

Given all of that, the conflict seems terribly under served. Games, of course, do exist and, in addition to this one, I’ll look at some others in future posts.

My Flying Machine

One exception to this perception of slight is the air war. The serious flight simulation market doesn’t have the raw numbers that the game market in general has, but the Korean War era gets proportional attention.

In addition to being strategically interesting, the Korean War era was technologically fascinating. In some ways, the forces look like World War II. New weapons, such as those atomic bombs, the helicopters, called airstrikes, and medical evacuation all made the Korean battlefield look a bit different than Germany just a few years early. But the most dramatic, especially to most of us today, was the introduction of the jet fighter.

The War started out using essentially the technology which ended the Second World War. The North Koreans were flying Soviet equipment from the end of the War. The U.S. had a mix of end-of-war and post-war aircraft, but the technology was still essentially what was coming on line as the war was ending.

north_american_xp-82_twin_mustang_44-83887-color

While some aircraft were very much the same as their WWII versions, others looked like WWII via a Science Fiction movie.

In particular, the Lockheed P-80 Shooting Star was a 1943 design. Lockheed had a contract to produce the aircraft for use in the Second World War, but the platform was never brought on-line. Unfortunately, it’s straight-wing design (as was used on propeller-driven aircraft) made it unable to take full advantage of the upgrade to a turbojet power plant. It was, in fact, inferior in performance to its almost-contemporary, the Me 262. Even more unfortunately, the Soviets had captured German plans and personnel and had based their own jet program on the Germany foundation. That program produced the MiG 15, which was superior to both the Shooting Star and the other propeller-driven aircraft that were being used in Korea.

But fortune did smile on all of us wargamers yet-to-be.

At North American (the developer of the still-in-use-in-Korea P-51 Mustang) they had found themselves unable to distinguish their jet designs in government procurement competitions. At the end of the war, like the Russians, they gained access to the German design and testing data.Their subsequent redesign led to a production fighter, the F-86 Sabre, rolling out just before the start of the war. When MiG 15s began to appear in the skies over Korea, the F-86s were moved into counter the new threat.

And thus was born a match-up that has captured imaginations ever since. MiG Alley. Jet age dog-fighting. The near-even contest between the best of Soviet pilots and technology against the best of the West.

But first, let’s start from the beginning.

Day 1

The first game is a user-made (Community, in their own lingo) scenario for Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations. Affectionately dubbed CMANO by its fans (to differentiated from the 237 other wargames out their called Command), an acronym I will use from here on out. And for those of you playing at home, I like to pronounce it si mano, as a Spanish-speaking George Costanza might.

The scenario is called Fall of Seoul, written by George Ross. It covers the first three days after the North Korean invasion of the South on June 25th, 1950 from a U.S. perspective.

The United States had virtually no forces on the ground and was forced to sit mostly helpless and watch, against all expectations, as the communist forces overran their ally. America did have air a sea assets which, in the scenario, are put to use evacuating key personnel ahead of the invading armies. You have a multitude of air resources in Japan, some airfields in Korea, and a few warships.

The scenario is a wonderful example of what can be done with the game system. The battlefield is huge, particularly for a “real time” scenario, covering the entirety of South Korea, the surrounding seas, and portions of Japan. Despite the large area and high unit count, the gameplay is quite manageable as the scenario design guides your actions. Various tasks are pre-constructed, allowing you to simply add the units their assignments rather than figure it all out on your own. Tasks include things like the various Combat Air Patrol (CAP) locations (high and low altitude for jets versus props), air-lift missions, and sea patrols.

Decisions still have to be made, however, but the pace of the decisions are rather slow. With the bulk of your air force based in Japan, you cannot respond to events around Seoul as they happen. Instead, you must plan well ahead so that the CAP in place when the enemy shows up is sufficient to the task. Do you base part of your force forward in Korea? How much? It all balances out very well to be enjoyable and engaging without the micro-management that could easily consume the player when the scale is real-time/ one unit per aircraft.

The time period pushes the game and the interface to its lower limit. The database of aircraft and weapons is limited to the Cold War era and beyond, so the ability to create scenarios from an earlier time is limited by that. In addition, the graphical interface is very appropriate for the level of command when talking about modern combat. Certainly in today’s environment, when a new contact is identified, the location would be expected to be almost immediately available to the command center, and reaction could be nearly instantaneous. It surely feels realistic if a modern commander were to immediat reroute a pair of fighters based on an unknown contact, and to have those fighters respond almost instantaneously. The interface itself, look and feel, is in this way “realistic” when applied to modern operations.

In 1950, however, nobody had big, animated screens showing the current location of aircraft. In fact, even the state of the art probably wasn’t available given the surprise nature of the attack. Whatever manual support would normally be available for a complex air/sea operation was probably not set up for a war nobody expected to happen. Yes, radar technology existed, but was generally lacking in this time and place, again for the same reason. One is tempted to jump on any new piece of information almost immediately when, in fact, responses certainly were in minutes (if not hours) rather than seconds.

The game model does account for this. It is very difficult to spot, identify, or track enemy units. This is probably meant to model the communication issues more than a situation where my pilots keep losing track of enemies that are right in front of them. Nose-mounted cannons and 250-lb bombs are all, of course, fully modeled by the CMANO system and database, but the game is clearly designed for the age of missiles.

The scenario was challenging, and in a good way. I scored “average,” probably at the low end, which leaves me feeling satisfied I put up a good fight. There were a number of things I should have done differently, had I understood what was going on. Initially, I was instructed by the scenario designer to establish air-superiority over Seoul and then use my transports to accomplish the evacuation mission. I know from reading about the Korean War that air and, especially sea, superiority was a given for the U.S. forces, particularly in in the initial days. So I figured my goal was just to keep 2-4 jets in the air to make sure my reconnaissance and transport aircraft weren’t caught without escort.

Once my I first starting contacting groups of enemy fighters; Yak-9s, La-9s and IL-10s, I realized that without numerical superiority, I was just going to be swapping kills. Even coming across some Po-2s, an early-WWII biplane that was, in fact, successfully employed by the North Koreans during the war, I found it very difficult to down them with my Shooting Stars. I also encountered some early shock when I first tried using my A-26 Invaders. The scenario briefing warned me that these were not to be used for combat support for the South Koreans, at least initially, so I held them back. At some point, however, I got reports of a South Korean commercial vessel being shot up by the North. I figured a couple of A-26s could, if not provide direct support, at least spot and identify the culprit. For some reason, however, I had several bombers (it recurred later in the game as well) take off without fuel. When they immediately tried to turn back to base, I figured they had got confused and again ordered them towards the sound of the guns. They ended up ditching in the ocean.

seouldogf

A dogfight just north of Seoul. A mix of Mustangs and Shooting Stars catch an unknown number and make of enemy aircraft inbound. Thankfully, it seems like I’ve got them outnumbered this time.

In about the final third of the scenario, I finally got into the swing of things. I had enough of a CAP to prevent getting my jets wiped out by unexpected enemies, plus I had some “alert” Shooting Stars on the runway just south of Seoul to deal with any surprises. I figured out what targets the scenario had in mind for the Invaders, and was starting to take out some key bridges and other assets as the Korean People’s Army swept south. I also managed to keep my airlift going, not losing any of the transport planes.

Then I hit a bump. A group of half-a-dozen-to-a-dozen IL-10s appear minutes away from my airfield, headed towards my train of transports headed, fully loaded, back for Japan. I vectored all my air assets to an intercept point just south of the airfield (at Suwon). I kept my alert jets on the ground, figuring (given how much trouble I’d had against IL-10s), the last thing I’d want to do is give up my speed and altitude advantage by trying to engage the enemy on take-off. Turns out, the “Beasts” target was the airfield itself. I ended up suffering severe damage to all my grounded planes, and point-wise lost a good chunk of my hard-earned score.

In the end, as I said, my score was satisfactory and the game was fun. However, my losses were hugely unrealistic. As far as I can tell, the U.S. did not lose any fighter aircraft in the initial days of the war. The specific operation covered by this scenario was notable in the vast air-superiority of the U.S. planes and pilots. It makes me wonder why the discrepancy. It could be in the scenario design. If the North Koreans are modeled to be much more aggressive than they actually were, it could result in higher air casualties all around. It may also be due to the models in the underlying game. Possibly in the jets versus propellers, the guns-only attack mode, or the experience gap between the U.S. pilots and their North Korean counterparts.

Clearly, there is something in the way of the games ability to simulate the actual battle. But as far as a compelling scenario goes, I’d say this one works.

No, I Want to Fly Jets!

Of course, when one speaks of simulating air combat, one is often talking about flight simulators; That sub-genre of wargames where the player actually experiences the game as a pilot in a single aircraft. The world of simulators is an entirely different one that those inhabited by most games. The premium put on realism exceeds almost any other genre and, indeed, sometimes the belief of non-flight-simmers. To those outside thier world, this focus puts the flight simulation into a category apart for games but more of an actual, dedicated hobby.

For myself, I’ve yet to take it that far. I generally struggle with take-offs and landings and usually rely on my simulated squadron-mates to get the bulk of the mission accomplished. Still, it is one of the most immersive ways to go back in time; to actually experience a battle as one of its participants.

As I started taking a look at the state of some of the older games, I was really surprised at the level of dedication have for some of the older flight sims. Perhaps I’ll come back to others later, but for this battle I’m using the IL-2 simulator, and in particular the package IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946, the final release of the original IL-2 series. The 1946 refers to the inclusion, in this release, of various end-of-war aircraft that didn’t quite make it into combat in the second world war.

IL-2 was released more than 15 years ago, and the even the 1946 release is 10 years old. However, as I said, the fans of the game have been busy adding to, enhancing, improving, etc. I’ve installed the Community Universal Patch, an amalgamation of various mods built and support by users over the years. This package is broken into different modules by time frame, including one called The Jet Age 1946-2016, aiming at the cold war period.

Simulating jet combat is very different than simulating WW II combat, and I’ve read criticisms about the later Korean War and Vietnam simulations. This can wait, however. In the initial days of the Korean War, as I said, the combatants were using essentially second world war technology, albeit technology that was not quite fully deployed by the end of the war. I expect that this is one that, whatever its capabilities once you get away from WWII, the IL-2 engine fully on the mark.

Up until this point, I’d only played with IL-2 in WWII, either the Russian front scenarios or the Pacific War (the Pacific Fighters expansion). It was pleasantly surprised to find what the CUP mods did for me “right out of the box.” A map of the Korean’s theatre is already put together, with the right airbases all in place. The “Quick Mission” generator has Korean War missions already to throw together with a few mouse-clicks. Add to that, the current version of the full mission editor makes it fairly straightforward to map exactly the tactical situation that I’m looking at on the CMANO screen into a flyable IL-2 skirmish.

And I did exactly that.

harborint

An F-82G Twin Mustang has spotted an IL-10 Beast going after some South Korean Commercial shipping. I ordered a pair of Mustangs and a pair of Shooting Stars to intercept. The identical parameters can be quickly set up in the IL-2 simulator.

 

On top of all that, the Jet Age package has, as one of the default campaigns, the opening weeks of the Korean War. It’s a little different than the Fall of Seoul. It takes place a few days later after the arrival of Task Force 77 for support. You play as a Grumman F9F pilot flying from the USS Valley Forge.

One of the “Quick Mission” setups is nearly identical to the raid that did me in during my CMANO game. With a couple of clicks, I have the same aircraft attacking the same airfield, me with the same dozen or so planes on the ground. Except this time, I’m actually scrambling my fighters, not waiting until they’re blown up in their hangers.

airfielddef

After scrambling, I’ve got behind the attacking IL-10s just after their first run at my airfield. They still got away.

My first impression with the P-80 was how I encountered the same, unexpected difficulties in the pilot’s seat as I was seeing as the commander. When I encountered equal numbers, I was trading losses pretty evenly. It was only with significant numeric superiority that I’d see clean victories. I also tried shooting down the Po-2, and the result looked just like in my CMANO game; In pass after pass I was missing my target, unable to get a good shot on the slow moving biplane.

Of course, as I’ve said, I’m not much of a flight simmer.

I Ain’t Got No Where Else to Go

Even with that caveat, I had a problem.

I’m using a flight stick and throttle combination that I’ve had for, also, somewhere between 10 and 15 years. I’d not used it for a while, but broke it out again about a year ago. As the year progressed, I’d noticed a number of problems. First off, the whole setup had gotten sticky. Both, literally, sticky on the grip surfaces but, more annoyingly, the controls would have a tendency to lock in place. The shove needed to move them would of course throw off whatever I was actually trying to accomplish in-game. I also noticed that several of the controls, but especially my throttle, was out of tune. One game I’d be unable to throttle all the way down to zero. The next game, I couldn’t throttle up past the 80% mark.

I finally got the hang of re-calibrating before a session. But with my Korean flights, even that didn’t seem to do it. The calibration wouldn’t necessarily survive past a flight or two.

Then it got even worse. In flying the Shooting Star I was getting constant engine trouble. Any time I’d try to increase throttle, I’d get a couple of compressor failures and the finally an engine flame-out. The first time I tried the base defense mission, I spent the entire battle coasting over the airfield, trying to get my engine restarted while the commies destroyed the place.

Again, not all that different than the CMANO outcome.

While I applaud the modelling of the engine characteristics, which are genuinely a problem, I couldn’t believe the real aircraft was as bad as this. I would think that, in the heat of a battle, pushing the throttle forward in an attempt to save one’s hide wouldn’t be uncommon. If the engine were really this sensitive, surely they’d have been dropping out of the sky like summer rain.

By contrast, the Grumman Panther did not have the same tendency to flame out. Again, whether the design was less sensitive or the model for that plane less realistic, I wouldn’t know enough to say.

Finally in my last game, back in the Shooting Star, I was starting to get compressor failures without even touching the throttle. It seems that my flight controls were throwing all kinds of crazy numbers into the program.

Time to buy some new equipment.

I ended up buying a Thrustmaster Hotas X, incidently at considerably less than I originally paid for my old Saitek.

As I write this, I only have a couple of flights with the new setup. So far, much improved. My only compressor failure was because the new throttle sticks at midpoint, and I gave it too hard a shove to get it out. Control is a lot smoother, and I get the performance I’d expect from a jet. So far, I haven’t got all my controls remapped quite right, so I’m still performing miserably. (I usually dump all my ammo without any kills).

But at least now, I have only myself to blame.

Way to go, Paula. Way to Go.

So my conclusion from this episode?

While I’d played C:MANO before, this scenario really impressed upon me the capabilities of a well-designed scenario. I look forward to playing more.

I think I’m going to be a lot happier with my new flight stick, and I look forward to more of that, too.

I suspect that the USAF and USN pilots during the Korean war were a lot better, and the North Koreans considerable worse. than the computer simulations of their skills predict. In particular, the it may have been that if the North could have exploited their initial air superiority in this battle, they would have had the confidence to use their skills to the full potential. I’ll be interested in other simulations of asymmetric warfare to see how such one-sidedness gets handled.

Referenced:

Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East

Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations

IL-2 Sturmovik: 1946