I reminded myself of what I don’t like about the Campaign Game in Squad Battles: Tour of Duty by playing the first of them, a U.S. Marine campaign. The campaign strings together a series of hypothetical scenarios where you have a few goals in addition to winning each scenario. You also have actions that will earn you “Leader Action Points,” bonus points that come about by using your persona to accomplish actions in the scenario (rallying, leading attacks, and coming under fire are examples). This is intended to discourage you from leaving your marker safely behind the front lines. The other requirement is that you must survive each battle; if you die, the game is over.
Conceptually, it doesn’t sound so bad. Players always want more depth than their games provide, and this is one way to do it. If the game is played at the strategic level, the players want to fight out the battles in detail. If they have detailed battles, they long to put those individual battles into a greater context. In can be a difficult itch to scratch, however, especially when a game is aiming towards realism and authenticity.
The standard campaign wrapper for detailed battles might be the old Panzer General -style campaigns. You are given a “core” army that moves from battle to battle. Keep your units alive and they gain experience as they go. Unfortunately, this may be particularly unsuited for Vietnam in general and for Squad Battles in particular. As tenuous as Panzer General‘s grip on reality may be, the Second World War did have units advancing from battle to battle as the tide of the war pushed forward. In Vietnam, there were no lines nor would there be an obvious connection between subsequent battles. After a battle, a unit might be airlifted out, or reinforced, or provided with air and artillery support. While there is obvious feedback between the tactical performance and the operational reactions, it wouldn’t necessarily be “progressive” in that you would easily connect a success to a campaign-level reward. Perhaps more importantly, the units in Squad Battles don’t “upgrade” or “gain experience.” If a rifle squad suffers a casualty, it might be pulled offline for the next mission or it might receive a replacement. Any “veteran” status of the squads or the men within them, even if tracked (and in contrast to Panzer General), have no meaning within the game. Similarly, there is no concept of “upgrades.” You wouldn’t supply a veteran squad with better weapons (at least not from the American side) than it’s green equivalent. You don’t get your M113s upgraded to Pattons because your armored company won a few battles.
What that does leave is Squad Battle‘s modeling of the leaders as separate “pieces”. As the player, you are essentially taking on the role force commander and therefore have a representation on the map, the most senior officer in the scenario. Although the player’s ability to control isn’t limited by what the leader counter is doing, the campaign game ties the two together more tightly by making the player mortal; if your leader is killed, you also “die.”
Here is my problem: I started my campaign game and won the first scenario, an attack on a generic village. However, in my second scenario my “character” was killed. Having been killed, the only way to attempt to advance further is to restart the campaign over. Now,there may be a way around it by managing your save files, to try something right before you die, but by default the loss wipes out any progress made so far. It appears to be set up to “punish” the player for having gotten himself killed. Certainly there is a realism factor in that when “you” die, you lose everything. That’s fair enough, but it doesn’t necessarily make the game more fun.
In this case, you can even say the loss was my fault and I deserved to be punished. The second scenario is, as you might have surmised from the title in the above screenshot, an ambush. My captain was marching with his middle platoon on the trail and, when the company was hit, decided to charge up the trail by himself to hunker down with the forward-most platoon. While he was racing down the trail alone, he was shot and taken out of play by some hidden VC. I probably shouldn’t have made that run. However, leaders must lead, so you’re bound to come under fire no mater what you do. Even if you cower behind the trees, there are always stray mortar rounds that might subject you to a roll of the dice and a potential early death. Point being, any campaign can be brought to an abrupt end by a bad roll of the dice.
Now, there is a mitigating factor. When you begin your campaign, you get to chose which battle to start with. What that means is, having lost once, you don’t have to actually go back and replay the battles you’ve already won to get to the one you lost. You could start your new campaign at the battle which defeated you. You could also choose to play only the battles you haven’t tried yet. In this way, you can attempt to beat the more challenging structure of the campaign without feeling like any loss forces you to suffer all the way through the campaign you’ve tried so far. Still, there are, in this campaign, five battles in a set order. So if you lose one of the middle battles you can play a foreshortened campaign consisting of the “second half” of those battles. Or even a campaign of one battle, the final one, if that’s all you’ve got left. This might work much better if there were more potential battles (say 15 possible, but you don’t know which five you’ll get). Even better if there was a well-made random battle generator so that each campaign was a unique experience. However, Squad Battles requires that each scenario be hand-crafted so we have what we have.
More recent experience and more information has not soothed the bad opinion I had of the Tour of Duty campaign option. It doesn’t really satisfy that contextual problem in that the campaign is mostly hypothetical and, except for the survival of your officer, there is no feedback to a larger campaign or the war in general. Rather than a campaign game as I was usually understand it, I look at this as more of a higher difficultly level. If you’ve grown bored beating the individual scenarios, this requires that you beat five in a row and accumulate “Leader Action Points” while also keeping yourself alive. Incidentally, this is one of the other universal complaints of players relative to single-player games – playing the AI is too easy and they want more of a challenge. I suppose that, in that regard at least, the campaign game does its job.