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 tent sending and receiving 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 off 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 video of reenactors firing a salvo. The live-action video was 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, it 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?
Both of the games have a gameplay 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. The player’s experience is enhanced by the computer’s ability to track complexity transparent to the player, eliminating some of the tedium that 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.
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. crosses 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 outclassed 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.
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 game.
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 wargaming 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 key 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 (as an example) generate 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 (assuming they haven’t hit some system-imposed unit cap).
Theatre of War (ToW) (and I’ll talk about particularly the Korea game, even though up ’til now I’ve 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 genre. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.