Part 2 of a 3 part post. See Part 1 here.
Having failed to find any historical meat to chew on in my strategic-level games, I will instead look at two different CMANO scenarios set in 1961 and 1962. These specifically deal with nuclear weapons. The first of the two scenarios takes place during the Berlin Crisis of 1961 and involves positioning a nuclear armed submarine. Think of it as a CMANO-as-subsim scenario. The second is an imagining of a World War III nuclear scenario, circa 1962. It is an equivalent of the WarGames first strike/defense scenario, except set in a time when strategic bombers were still the core of the both sides’ nuclear capabilities.
A little CMANO aside, first. Matrix/Slitherine has been regularly updating the core program along with their DLC mini-game releases. That’s a good thing. What’s not a good thing is that every time I try to update, I manage to mess up my installation. It all seems to trace back to the fact I have two versions installed from my original disk. There’s the version as it first was delivered. Then there is a second version, the Wargame of the Year edition, which was a (free) upgrade from the publisher. It is that second installation that seems to be the operative one, and yet it is the first installation that seems to have a hold on Windows’ fiddly bits. Ultimately, I have always been able to go to the Slitherine website, download the updates directly, and manually correct the mess I’ve made with the auto-update program. Probably, if I remembered everything that went wrong, I’d also remember not to get into the same problem the next time. But by the time I’m ready to update again, I’m sure I will have forgotten what happened this time.
So back to that first scenario, called Regulus, after the nuclear weapon featured therein. It isn’t quite the “subsim” that I alluded to above. In the scenario, you actually command three different boats: one, the Growler, armed with Regulus nuclear missiles and two GUPPY class (1960s versions of the World War II Tench class), armed with torpedoes. The three need to maneuver through Soviet-patrolled waters in order to threaten Soviet land targets (with the nukes) and Soviet launch platforms (with torpedoes, one presumes) in the international, but isolatable, waters near the Kuril Islands. So commanding three subs simultaneously is not exactly subsim territory, it is still a game of slinking along blind and listening for signs of threats from the enemy.
Still playing, as I am, Bioshock, I can see some real contrasts between these two game styles. I consider both Bioshock and CMANO to be great games; the state-of-the-art for their genre. However, those genres are very different.
As I said in that earlier article, one of the tricks of the First Person Shooter genre is to take a linear game and present it in a way so that it feels non-linear. Bioshock does a good job with this. The world is fairly open, you can ride around in the underwater Metro going visiting any of the locations that you’ve discovered so far. However, the story moves you forward through the locations and through key events that are structured and preprogrammed. To put it another way, you are free to go backwards to previous levels in any way that you choose to do so, but you cannot skip ahead. The game has various artifices, a broken transport system or a locked door, that help to keep you on track without necessarily seeming like it does so. In this way, you are at almost any time facing exactly the environment that the developer intends for you to face. He has prepared you in both (player) knowledge and (in game) capabilities for the challenge you are about to face.
Contrast that with a military simulation. In the game engine as a whole (distinct, for the moment, from scenario design) you want the player to be free to take nearly any action. The program’s job is to simulate the “world’s” reaction to the player’s moves. The more varied its response, the more unpredictable (while still remaining effective), the better the simulation for most purposes. Of course, that unpredictability can be programmed in from the start – think of scenarios with triggered scripts – but the best of CMANO‘s genre stand out in their ability to handle the widest variety of situations and hold up throughout gameplay, whatever the player decides to do.
When it comes to the generic “sandbox” style wargames, the onus for a good battle will tend to fall onto the scenario designer. If the game can take an arbitrary pair of adversaries and reasonably handle one of them under a multitude of conditions, then obviously that initial setup might well be a bad one. One side or the other could have an edge that makes the game unwinnable (or unlosable). The forces could be so far out of contact that the game times-out before they get a chance to fight. Or perhaps it is just the that choices that you are required to make, while all reasonable, aren’t particularly fun within the parameters of how the game plays. Good scenario design is required to balance all these things that could go wrong in the hope that it will all go right.
Again, focusing on the sandbox games, the developers often depend on the the user community to develop such scenarios in order to fulfill the value proposition of their game, a proposition for which quality control becomes nearly impossible. So for a game like CMANO, there are a handful of scenarios (plus DLC add-ons) from the developers themselves. With those the customer might expect a certain quality. But developer-designed scenarios can’t possibly, of course, cover the whole range of the capabilities of the engine. So for a particular era I’m interested in (say, a war going nuclear circa 1961-2), I probably have to rely some hobbyist about whom I don’t know anything and who probably didn’t have me in mind when he made his scenario. Will it be too easy? Too hard? Focus on parameters different that the ones I’m interested in?
One example, I recall a CMANO scenario I played years ago where the key to it was organized around choosing the initial load-out for your attack aircraft. Perhaps an interesting question to some. But what if you don’t know and aren’t particularly interested in solving that puzzle? Does it leave the scenario unplayable do you? And when do you find out – how many times through the scenario might you play before you realize you are doing it all wrong(ly).
Going back to the top. Let’s say you’re playing a shooter that wants to choose between one of three approaches. That choice is probably presented, you take it, some cuts scenes might explain your choice, and then you’re in the action. It is also unlikely that, by making the wrong choice, you automatically lose the game. But it any case, you would expect the decision to take you right back into the action. Compare and contrast with the Regulus scenario. As the commander, you need to choose between several different passages where Russian patrols and minefields may lurk. Some are less heavily guarded and others have more natural advantages (e.g. deeper water or wider channels). So which do you take? What if many of the answers are outright wrong?
Suppose, too, that you’re not really up on the technology of this period. How easy or hard is it going to be to avoid detection? Is there a speed/depth combination that will outright kill you every time? And its not simply a case of knowing the technology (as big a hurdle as that might be itself). How “alert” is the enemy? How many assets are deployed looking for you? What kind of research, experience, pre-planning does it take to know what choices to make?
In the Regulus scenario, the way the choices are presented are by placing you far enough out, away from the action, that you can freely choose how you want to approach. So far so good. How could it be done any other way? CMANO simulates the details and that means approach. The problem comes is that your are at least a day away from whatever action might take place. So even running at 1 minute = 1 hour, that still a minimum of a half-hour of doing absolutely nothing except staring at the screen and waiting for something to happen. It’s made worse by the fact that you (or at least I) don’t know where that “action zone” is. And if things start happening while you’re running at 1 minute = 1 hour, you can suffer a whole lot of losses before you find the pause button*.
The reason I wanted to dig into this scenario in the first place is I remember when I saw the actual USS Growler. It is currently (I think) on display in Manhattan along side the USS Intrepid floating museum. The boat has a Regulus missile on the deck. The Regulus is a design based on the German V1 rocket and was the first ship-based nuclear missle deployed by the U.S. Navy. I recall the protests in the early 1980s that brought the cruise missile technology into the public eye and, up until I saw the Growler, I associated the technology only with “modern” weapons. Just seeing the technology on display got me thinking about the differences between the nuclear age of the 1960s versus the nuclear age of the 1980s.
How about another genre comparison? Since my reinstall of Patrician 3, I’ve been playing it way too much. I’m in some 71 hours in less than two months can be explained, perhaps, because Patrician is a good go-to game when I want to engage in a kind of low-stress but non-trivial game/time waster. As I said, it is quite addictive, for what it is, which is basically a dynamic spreadsheet. It takes some time to learn the layout of land – where to buy, where to sell, and what are fundamentally good prices for each. After that, you’re engaged in a a repetitive cycle of small decisions that gradually build up your wealth and prestige. Each time you feed a town that has run out of meat or improve mood of the poor, it feels like a little bit of victory. It doesn’t take any deep analysis to make good decisions, and the nature of those good decisions are wide open. There are certain goods that I use to make most of my money, and others that I only trade to fill demand. Those decisions I can adapt to my own style while other players are equally (if not more) successful with a different set of choices. Regrets, I’ve had a few. But small mistakes are easily absorbed by all the good decisions you make.
Forward 950 years. For Regulus, it is the opposite. It seems that even one or two mistakes will spell the end of the game. Since you can’t make mistakes and learn from them, without restarting the scenario, you need to learn about the “right” way to do things (really) before attempting the scenario. If you don’t, you fail, and really have no way of knowing why.
In the above screenshot, taken from my 3rd attempt at the scenario, I’m attempting to run my submarines deep through a channel between the islands. After painstakingly waiting for them to move into position, they are finally approaching the choke point. So far, I have no contact with any enemy. No sonar search, no depth charge patterns, no engine noises of the enemy moving about above. Then my first message appears – Boom! you’re dead. The scenario does not give any significant feedback about what went right and what went wrong. Likewise, while there is occasionally forum discussion on user-made scenarios, there is also often not.
With this one, I find it not fun and not educational. I think all my issues could have been solved, however, with a nice “debriefing” at the end. Making it dynamic (here’s what you did wrong) might be beyond the capabilities of the CMANO scenario creator, but at a minimum a set of hints about what you need to do right would be helpful. If indeed it is a scenario about how effective the anti-submarine warfare of the OPFOR was and, for even a good strategy, a bad “die roll” can kill you, then make that explicit. If there is a right way to detect when you are in danger of being detected, explain that.
During the development of this scenario, one user explained how he won. He waited for the hot war to start and then began nuking airbases, wiping out the capabilities of his enemy. I suppose that once you’re giving the “weapons free,” anything is fair target, but I would think I should be taking seriously the operational instructions which designate specific targets. Using nuclear cruise missiles as defensive, tactical weapons not only seems like bad form, but a quick way to end civilization as we know it.
(on to Part 3).
*As an aside, at some point (after I finished with this scenario) I finally realized that the Enter Key will shift you back to real time, which does give you a fairly good way to halt time compression in an emergency.