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This second in a series of posts covers the history of Divided Ground. (No, don’t buy it from Amazon*, I’m just linking for for illustrative purposes.) The previous post in the series is here and click here to go back to the master post.

Thirty-five or so years ago, we were at the crest of a wave of military boardgames from the likes of Avalon Hill and SPI. We were also entering the era of the personal computer. For players of these games, we expected that nirvana was right around the corner. First, the computer could provide us with opponents**, rather than forcing us to draft our girlfriends or younger brothers. Second, as the rules of board war games got more and more complex, simulating all the details of the wars they modeled, we saw the computer as a handy bookkeeper. No longer would we have to cross reference results across five different tables. Just select attack and let the machine work it all out.

As games began to develop, they often disappointed. Getting a computer to do everything we wanted it to was a lot harder than it seemed like it would be. Still, our dreams seemed just a few iterations away.

As an Avalon Hill guy, my list of games were:

  • Tactical – Advanced Squad Leader
  • Grand Tactical – PanzerBlitz/ Panzer Leader
  • Operational – Oddly, I had no go-to WWII board game. The Operational game I owned was Waterloo.
  • Strategic – The Rise and Decline of the Third Reich
  • Honorable Mention – Submarine (I always thought this would have been the easiest to convert)

The Operational game, for me, was solved for the computer early on. The amazing Chris Crawford created Eastern Front in 1981 and provided an early example of getting it right. It was available across platforms; I had a copy on my family’s Atari 800.

Perhaps supporting my theory, and perhaps showing us the way of the future, the computer game Silent Service was released in 1985. It was not, however, a “board game simulator“, reproducing the hex-and-counter movement of a game like Submarine. Instead, you are put inside the submarine, using the gauges, maps, and periscope as your interface. Much of the wargaming world would take decades to learn the lessons about what works better and worse on the computer screen.

In the other areas, direct conversions of the games themselves proved to be elusive. Avalon Hill’s Third Reich (1992) conversion was largely a disappointment and the in-the-works Squad Leader development for the PC never seemed to materialize. However, as we progressed through the 1990s, computer games which were actually capable of replacing those board games began to appear on the market.

Everyone’s list is going to be a little different, but for me this was how it happened.

In 1992, High Command fulfilled the promise of Third Reich that the official game never could. Yes, it lacked all the nuances in the rules that made the original board game what it was, but it was playable and it was fun.

The floodgates seemed to open after games began releasing on Windows. Programming for games started to be less an exercise in trying to get more speed, memory and graphics out a system and more reliant on a common base structure. Perhaps it was just that the machines were more capable, or perhaps because this freed developers to write games instead of graphics optimization, but the games that starting coming out then still can look passable on the modern desktop***.

In 1996, Close Combat finally brought the tactical WWII game to the PC in a way that satisfied the hard-core wargamer’s thirst for realism. We’ll not argue on how Advanced Squad Leader may have fallen short of realism all along, but Close Combat brought the right pieces together. Although for me, it was Combat Mission (1999) that changed landscape and finally provided the long sought-after experience. See the Submarine/Silent Service comments above.

For PanzerBlitz, we were given our fix in 1997 when East Front was released by Talonsoft as the final installment in their Battleground series. Interestingly, while Battleground was mostly Civil War and Napoleonic War scenarios, it was book-ended by two World War II games. East Front fulfilled the PanzerBlitz niche by providing the toolkit for grand-tactical level combat on the Eastern Front. But Battleground 1 was a Battle of the Bulge game (1995). Amazingly, the look and feel of the latest in John Tiller’s game at that scale, Panzer Battles: Battles of Normandy, would be very familiar to the purchasers of Battleground: Bulge-Ardennes.

Battleground 11: East Front was followed by the titles West Front (1998), East Front II (1999), and Rising Sun (2000) to round out the World War II experience of Panzer Leader, PanzerBlitz and beyond to the Pacific under the heading the “Campaign Series.” In 2001, the Arab-Israeli Wars equivalent was added as the final iteration of this set of releases.

Quite forgotten, until I started looking at the release dates, was Battleground 10. Battleground 10 was a Middle East game, but one I don’t remember anything about when it came out. Searching finds precious little on it, so I wonder if my experience is not typical.

I myself bought Divided Ground, perhaps as a part of a Campaign Series package with all four games. This was considered to be the Ugly Duckling of the series. It had considerably less innovations than the releases that preceded it and had complaints about bugs that, unlike East and West Front, seemed never to be fixed.

All this reminiscing and I never got around to actually playing the game. I suppose you’ll have to wait until my next installment for that.

But, still, the saga continues.

In late 2015, the same “ground” was covered by a Matrix Game release, Campaign Series: Middle East. Looking very much like a Divided Ground II, it actually is based on a different evolution of the engine. To get there, we have to go back again, this time to 2007. Matrix aquired the Talonsoft rights and released the World War II games as the John Tiller’s Campaign Series product. This product is supported and upgraded to be compatible with current operating systems, as well as additional content and improved performance. It can still be bought, new, for probably significantly more than I paid for my Talonsoft CDs when I picked them up. Part of the plan was to, at some point, bring the Divided Ground code up to date in a similar manner. Instead, the decision was made to completely re-implement the Divided Ground concept within the current version of the World War II engine and release it as a new product.

For me, this proves to be an armored combat simulation too far. The new Matrix Game has the advantage that it is new and under active support. It also appears to have quickly developed a fan base for mods and scenarios. (One interesting mod allows the use of Arab-Israeli War counters as game icons). But at its core, it is based on the Talonsoft series and still looks like a 20-year-old gaming engine. Compare Europa Universalis with EU IV – that’s what I’d expect for a “new” version of a 15-year-old game, worth full price.

And still the tale goes on.

John Tiller’s took his gaming system first to HPS and then to his own John Tiller Software. What he did not take is the 250 km scale hexes. He has scaled up, to 1 km hexes and down to 40m hexes (with unit sizes of individual vehicles), but has taken neither system into the Arab Israeli conflict. While at HPS, he also created the Modern Campaigns/Panzer Campaigns engine (1 mile hexes) as an operational wargame. This system is used to cover the Arab Israeli Wars. In fact, the Tiller product line includes a tablet version of the game. More on this to come.

Return the master post or go on to the next article.

*I’m not trying to tell you what to do. But Divided Ground is abandoned software that nevertheless requires full price on Amazon. Furthermore, it is unlikely that it going to work on your computer. I was unable to install, perhaps because it was 64-bit machine and the installer software can’t handle that. It also may not work with Window 7 or 10.

**Bad AI seems to shadow the computer wargame industry to this day. Interestingly, the PC has also solved this problem, just not the way we wanted it to. Modern gamers can find opponents any time, day or night, through Skype and through computer-assisted gaming tools like VASSAL.

***One interesting aside. While High Command can be downloaded and run on a Windows 10 machine, Divided Ground pukes at the site of the Windows 7 box on which I first tried to install it. I got it running on older XP, but it is ironic that many of these early Windows games used special tricks which limited their life much more than all the wildness of DOS games.