Does Complexity Define Wargames?

This interesting question was posed by the folks over at Slitherine: “Does Complexity Define Wargames?” 

In a word: No.

For me, what defines wargaming (as opposed to strategy games, a broader category which includes everything from Starcraft to Clash of Clans) is instead fidelity to reality. Wargames pose real world tactical or strategic problems that require real world tactics to solve. The setting doesn’t even need to be historical – one could imagine a near future wargame featuring plausible technologies and tactics, but that’s neither here nor there. 

What matters to a wargame is not complexity or difficulty, but whether the world makes sense and the combat feels real. For example, one of my favorite strategy games (and a client), Unity of Command, is mechanically extremely simple. You move units, they have an attack and armor value, and the factors that go into combat are easily understood. What drives the game and makes it compelling is its supply mechanics, which attempt to replicate the effects of units being pocketed and cut off from food, fuel, and ammo. What happens is these simple mechanics come together to produce a larger whole. When you take all factors in to account, it is much more effective to bypass and pocket strong enemy formations than to take them on – which is exactly how real life blitzkrieg worked. 2×2 didn’t need to simulate every halftrack and rifle in a formation to guide the player down the path – instead they set out broad mechanics that encouraged that sort of gameplay.

Let’s look at a counter-example. Gary Grigsby’s War in the Pacific is a unique game – it simulates every squad, plane, and ship in a battlefield spanning half of the globe. It is a triumph of historical detail and fidelity. I have had fun with it, but it is a deeply flawed game. That very complexity (combined with an obtuse interface) means that it becomes very slow and can be annoying to play. It will always have a place on my hard drive, but I can’t really bear to play it for more than a few days at a time. And even with all its accuracy and with every unit possible simulated in the game, it still isnt’ always realistic. There are so many “gamey,” unrealistic exploits that most multiplayer AARs contain a laundry list of ‘house rules.’

My point is this: realism does not necessarily require complexity and complexity doesn’t guarantee realism. So, if you define “wargaming” by realism, wargames do not have to be complex.

The Mighty Jingles: An Interview, Part 2

For Part 1 of this interview, featuring more information about Paul’s early life and military service, see ArmchairGeneral.com.  

A few months ago, Paul Charlton kindly answered a few questions for me and Armchair General Magazine. Paul is the soothing, witty, and very British voice behind his gaming YouTube channel, The Mighty Jingles. He has a big following – over 300,000 subscribers – mostly in the War Thunder and World of Tanks/World of Warships communities. I asked him a few questions about his passion for games and the secrets to his success on YouTube.

Matt: When did you get into video games? What was your first game?

Paul: My first game was Pong on the Atari 2600 (also known as the Atari VCS). For people who have no idea what the Atari was, it’s so old it was made out of wood. No, really. It was released in 1977. After that it wasn’t until I joined the Navy and started earning money that I could afford an actual computer to play games on, and my first computer was the Commodore Amiga 500. My first game on that was called Shadow of the Beast. It had (wait for it …) parallax scrolling! The Amiga was great, I played most of my favourite games on that, particularly the Monkey Island games. I was forced to buy a PC, however, when I heard that Lucasfilm games were doing a Star Wars space combat game they were calling X-Wing. The rest is history.

Matt: You’ve become famous within the World of Tanks and War Thunder communities for your YouTube videos. When and why did you start uploading replays and videos?

Paul: My first upload was around June 2012. It’s pretty terrible. Well, the match I played was good, the video was awful. I was using the free version of Bandicam—which meant the videos were limited to 10 minutes in duration—and Windows Movie Maker to edit. You can get pretty good results with basic software like that but I had no clue how to edit at the time. I started uploading as a way of saving my better World of Tanks matches so I could watch them again even after Wargaming.net updated and patched the game engine. These days I just keep separate versions of the World of Tanks patches on my PC, but back then I didn’t know how to do that, either. I figured if I was going to record the matches I may as well say something about them and, inspired by YouTubers like Highflyer15, Quickybaby, and Pandy, that’s exactly what I did.

Matt: When did you realize that your videos were catching on with the community? What was your “Oh wow!” moment?

Paul: That would have been the first time I was playing World of Tanks and someone asked in battle chat if I was the real Jingles. Everyone else, of course, said “Who the hell is Jingles?” but you REALLY know you’re getting somewhere when the question gets asked and chat erupts into an argument over whether you are the real me or just one of the numerous fakes.

I think the real milestones are when you realise you’ve now got more subscribers than the guys who inspired you to start doing commentary in the first place, and when you start getting your first trolls and haters. That’s when you know you’re doing something that people actually care enough to rage about.

Matt: What do you think were your keys to success? What advice do you have for aspiring YouTubers and livestreamers?

Paul: Be yourself. The temptation to try to be like the people who inspired you to start can be overwhelming, but people can spot a fake. No-one watching a grown man gushing about steak knives on the Shopping Channel seriously believes he cares about anything other than his paycheque, and if you try to fake enthusiasm for something or try to talk about it in a way that doesn’t feel natural to you, people will spot it just as easily.

A lot of people watching my videos don’t speak English as a native language and feel self-conscious about how they sound to an audience. Don’t worry about it, we English-speakers love your accents, seriously, we do. Speaking passionately and enthusiastically about a subject is more important than sounding like Sir Christopher Lee, although sounding like Sir Christopher Lee doesn’t hurt.

And if you really don’t want to speak into a microphone, don’t. Good replays speak for themselves.

I think the key to my success was that I was doing things no-one else was doing. For a start I was putting a video up every day (and still am) whereas the guys whose videos I liked to watch were doing one a week. My videos were also longer than anyone else’s, sometimes too long, at least until I got my editing under control. People also seem to find my voice very soothing, and for some bizarre reason people find my inane babbling amusing. It must be that English accent.

Matt: Have you ever done any performing or other creative work before you started on YouTube?

Paul: I’ve never been afraid of speaking in front of a crowd of strangers. I used to do amateur dramatics in school. I played Dick Deadeye in a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera HMS Pinafore. I’ve performed in a production of Billy Liar. I used to have to give presentations to rooms full of Admirals when I worked at Victory Building in HM Naval Base Portsmouth. Having the confidence to do things like that certainly helps when it comes to speaking in front of a microphone and knowing that hundreds of thousands of people are going to be listening and criticising.

Matt: What tools do you use to record and edit your videos?

Paul: I started with the free version of Bandicam screen capture software and Windows Movie Maker, both of which are still perfectly fine for YouTube work. I upgraded to the paid version of Bandicam to remove the watermark and be able to do videos longer than 10 minutes duration, and switched to Cyberlink Power Director to be able to do slightly more fancy editing. I wouldn’t recommend Power Director, however. It has a nasty habit of crashing at the worst possible time or failing to render your video in the resolution you told it to. But it’s paid for and now I’m stuck with it. These days I use nVidias’ Shadowplay software to screen capture gameplay more than Bandicam. Bandicam’s good, it keeps small file sizes because it compresses as it records, but that comes with a performance hit. Also, Shadowplay’s free!

For sound I use a RODE Podcaster microphone rather than the gaming headset I used to use. Expensive, but worth it. Sound issues with my voiceovers were the single biggest issue with my earlier videos.

Matt: Wargaming is famous for having a very active fan community, including YouTubers like you, Circonflexes, and many others. How does WG work with semi-professional contributors like you? What do they do especially well? What could they improve/what would you like to see them do in the future?

Paul: Wargaming have done a lot to help people like me do what we do. When I started uploading I spent hours going through the World of Tanks EULA and Terms of Service trying to find out if I was going to get sued for uploading video of their game. I shouldn’t have worried. They’ve actually gone as far as to offer to intercede with YouTube on behalf of any uploader who does a video on YouTube of their games in the event that it gets flagged for copyright. Not many developers can say that. They’ve also instituted a Community Contributor programme, where certain prominent community content providers get access to a special subforum where they can give us advance notice of whatever new things are on the way that we may find useful. It’s not just YouTubers, there are people who livestream, blog or just write historical articles about tanks who’ve been included in the programme. With the release of patch 9.3 for World of Tanks on the test server they arranged priority logins for us, too. 50,000 people in the test server queue? No problem, instant access for me.

Of course, they’re not doing this just to be nice. They get as much out of my putting up a World of Tanks patch 9.3 video on the day the test server goes live as I do, but there aren’t many developers who realise this or take the trouble to take advantage of it. Gaijin, the developers of War Thunder, are pretty proactive in dealing with their community too, although they’ve never actually reached out to me. They have their favoured YouTubers and I’m not one of them, but I speak my mind about what I play, and I’ve criticised both their games and Wargaming’s games in the past. Gaijin have never tried to obstruct me, of course, and they don’t need to do anything to help me out, I’m still doing War Thunder videos regardless, but they don’t go out of their way to help, either. The difference with Wargaming is that I’ve said some pretty nasty things about their products in the past (Yes, World of Warplanes, I’m looking at you.) and I still get preferential treatment from them. Not that I would ever be so petty as to start trash talking their games if they withdrew Community Contributor status from me, but I think the point is that Wargaming know I say what I want to say, good or bad, and they realise that means people trust that I mean what I say. If I think their game stinks, I’ll spend a lot of time explaining exactly why, so when I do spend time praising one of their games, people believe I mean it.

Matt: Through World of Tanks, War Thunder, and World of Warcraft, you’ve played with gamers across the world. Do you feel that different countries tend to have different gaming cultures or playstyles?

 

Paul: Definitely! I play on the EU server, but I also have a NA server account and have played with the Russians on the test server. The Russians are definitely the most aggressive players; they don’t hesitate to get stuck in. You know you’re playing on the North American server when everyone spends as much time trash-talking as they do playing. And when everyone’s getting very angry in fourteen different languages … welcome to the EU server.

 

Thank you, Jingles! It was a pleasure to interview you and I look forward to your videos every day.

Again, if you would like to read more about Paul’s early life, military service, and other views, please see the rest of this interview on ArmchairGeneral.com.​​

 

Ender’s Game: Still Heartbreaking After All These Years

I bought Ender’s Game again – my well-thumbed paperback was negligently left gathering dust at “home” with my parents – and devoured it in a night on my tablet.

I picked it up because I caught the movie on HBO. The movie has flaws, but that’s not what I’m here to discuss.

The subject matter – space battles, diplomacy, military life – might seem remote, but to me this is a deeply personal story.

The first time I read it, I was little older than Ender – it was sixth grade and I had started my first year at St Mark’s, a private school for gifted boys, my own little Battle School full of cruel, pubescent geniuses. And I was every bit as isolated and bullied as Ender.

Like Ender, I was told from an early age that I was special. Gifted. A genius. And I believed them, but I was timid and scared and uninspired. And whereas Ender had laser like focus and absolute objectivity, I was a bundle of nerves and ADD, retreating to a fantasy world not unlike Ender’s own Mind Game. A world where I impressed everyone with my brilliance and grew up to be Someone Important – a general, a politician, a movie director, a novelist. I never got there – Most of those fantasies have been eliminated one by one – but still I strive for some measure of achievement.

Gifted children have a special kind of arrogance. We believe that all we need to do is show up and others will reward us with the authority we believe we deserve by right of IQ and sheer processing power. In adulthood, though, I discovered that we need experience and maturity, and even then achievement in life is determined not by brainpower, but through resumes and drudgework and persistence. Ender’s Game sounded so perfect to me – a world where adults sought out the gifted and gave them that opportunity to excel with their peers. It wasn’t until later rereadings that I understood how twisted characters like Colonel Graff were, destroying children to make them into Caesars and Napoleons.

I am thankful we had no Colonel Graffs. Among my many teachers, I had a few who understood me – Ploegstra and Adams, Barta and Owens, Seay and Mank, Rummel and Brandenburg, Blaydes. I owe them, and the other teachers at St Mark’s, a debt I can only repay with a life well lived.

That little boy reading Ender’s Game in study hall, the scared little launchy at Middle School (a Battle School if there ever was one), was hemmed in by bullying and disdain. Even among the gifted, I was an outcast. I didn’t like the right music and books, I was terrible at sports and didn’t understand them, and I was smaller than the others. I was not a classmate; I was a target. I remember bullying and mockery and tears more than I remember any other lessons from Middle School. Not all was terrible – I had my circle of friends, my own jeesh – Brian and Luke and Thomas and others.

Ender didn’t cower and cry. Ender wreaked terrible vengeance. He beat his bullies, then kicked them while they were down. Massive retaliation. Two of them, we learn later in the book, never woke up again. I was too timid and kindhearted a boy to ever be a fighter, but I did have that rage bottled up.

Only once did it come out. There was another boy, a year ahead of me, who was smaller. We called him “The Evil Gnome.” He could be cruel, but I think it was only his way of defending himself from others who would push him around. One day, in the aisle of lockers behind the gymnasium, all my rage came out. I don’t remember why – I don’t think I even knew at the time – but I boiled over and fought back. Started pushing The Gnome around, wrestling with him – more like flailing. My friends broke us up. I don’t remember if I apologized, but I remember the horror when I realized what I had done. I’d done him no lasting hurt, but for a moment I became what I hated most. I became a bully, a Peter, and lashed out at the one person I might be able to hurt. And I told myself never again.

I was in High School when the wave of school shootings, kicked off at Colombine. My chief tormentors taunted me, asking if I was going to “Pull a Columbine.” I laughed along with them, putting up a sneering bravado, and played along with the joke. It became unfunny very fast. They never tried that taunt again.

Thank God they never told anyone.

Luckily for everyone, by then I had graduated from my directionless anger. I was no longer Ender in the shower, kicking Bonzo’s brains in. I was Ender after the War, swearing off violence, learning to love my enemy even if I still hated myself.

I can say these things now, because I am a different person. Through years of work and focus, I have changed. I no longer hate others and I’ve learned to love myself. At my ten year reunion last year, I reacquainted myself with old, beloved friends, and made peace with those who had dished out petty cruelty. Scars from childhood may remain, but they heal over until they are only distinguishable if you go looking for them.

One criticism leveled at Ender’s Game is that the children don’t sound like children. They don’t act like we expect them to. Bugger that, I’ve been there, and that is exactly how gifted children act and think of themselves. My classmates and I had all the delusions of grandeur and all the cruelty of the Battle School cadets, and if you don’t believe me, it’s been too long since you’ve known (or been) a middle school boy.

There’s one last ironic parallel between my life and Ender’s Game. My hobby, and a small part of my income, come from working on the internet and computer games that Card so vividly imagined the year after my birth. Ender’s Game itself has at its core The Game, the obsession of all the boys at Battle School. And just as Ender and his classmates used military games to prepare themselves for war, I play military games – action games like World of Tanks, strategy games like Unity of Command. On a field of ones and zeros, I have cut down Pickett’s Charge; on the plane of a hard drive I have lead the Blitzkrieg through the Soviet Union. My earliest memory is playing a simple coloring game on my parents boxy PC before I could read. And now, in adulthood, I’m trying to bootstrap a gaming social media and PR company, tentatively titled “Hyperactive Gaming.” Irony within ironies.

 

This has all been a very rambling way of saying – when I tear up when I finish Ender’s Game, here is why. Because I was Ender and Peter and Bean, and this is my story, too.

 

Our world has no Speakers for the Dead to tell the truth of our lives, so I’ll be my own and Speak my own life, as best I can.

Strategy Games For My Girlfriend

First off, no, I’m not being sexist, I am literally looking for strategy games that my girlfriend, specifically, would enjoy. I don’t assume that all girls are like my girlfriend or vice versa, I’m trying to just deal with her preferences and way of thinking on her own terms.

A little background – Amy and I have been together a long time and we’re trying some different things to strengthen our relationship. One idea that she brought up was “role reversal night” (get your head out of the gutter, you), where once a week “like, you could go work out and I could play videogames.”  I’ve latched onto this idea – I hate exercising, but this could be a great opportunity to show Amy my passion for gaming and why I spend so much darn time in front of a computer monitor.

Specifically I want her to try out strategy games, as that’s the genre I’m most passionate about and that could, potentially, work out the best for her. She’s not a violent person and expressed visible distaste watching me play Left 4 Dead 2, so maybe sprites and hexes are more her style. She’s already shown some promise in the area, having taught me a thing or two about Plants Vs Zombies, so I think it’s worth exploring.

So, let’s blow the dust off my back catalogue of games and see if I can find anything that fits.

RTS’s are all out for various reasons, either because of a sci-fi setting that she doesn’t care for (Starcraft, Command and Conquer) or being ridiculous clickfests.

The first proper strategy/wargame I ever played was the Close Combat series, but that won’t do because of all the blood and gore. Combat Mission is great, but it’s a little too technical for a newbie – fiddling with LOS and reading armor penetration tables doesn’t really sound like a gentle introduction.

The Panzer General series and Panzer Corps are renowned for being simple, “beer and pretzels” wargames, but they run into a couple problems. First, they ask you to learn and remember the difference between, say, a Pz-38(t) and a Pz-III ausf J. Second and more importantly, both series more or less assume you’ll play as the Nazis, and that’s uncomfortable for her.

Anything by AGEOD is right the hell out. I could barely untangle their American Civil War game, and I wrote my senior thesis on that conflict, so . . . yeah.

Unity of Command boasts a simple, transparent interface, great artwork, and no need to memorize unit stats. It’s more of a game of chess against a canny opponent than a stats-and-tables wargame, so it has a lot to recommend it. But, again, Nazis.

Sid Meier’s Gettysburg is delightful, has simple mechanics, and a great tutorial, but good luck getting it to run on a modern OS.

Speaking of Firaxis, the Civilization series would probably be a safe bet – familiar subject matter, a great tutorial, and a superb interface. Her laptop is elderly, though, so we may have to do one of the earlier versions, maybe III or IV. Ooh, or there’s Alpha Centauri, if she can get over her aversion to Sci Fi.

Crusader Kings II is an incredible good time and I think the potential for storytelling would appeal to Amy, but I can just imagine having to explain the differences between cognatic-agnatic gavelkind vs cognatic primogeniture.

Tower defense is another promising avenue. Some grognards turn up their nose at tower defense as not being proper strategy, but it’s got the basic elements – resource management, timing, and balancing priorities. As I mentioned, she was charmed by Plants Vs Zombies. I enjoyed the heck out of Defense Grid, which has a lot of personality and even a sense of humor, so maybe that might work for her.

In thinking about this topic, it brings me back to a common sore spot within the strategy and wargaming community – the barrier to entry. In wargaming especially, developers seek to make their games ever more complicated with heftier manuals to appeal to an ever-tinier niche market – and don’t get me started on the prices. These developers would be more successful and our hobby would prosper if they stopped more often and thought about how they could better appeal to completely new players who haven’t read Armchair General since birth – people like their wives and girlfriends.

What suggestions do you have? What would be a great strategy game to get a new player started on who doesn’t have a background in the hobby?

TOGII*: It’s Big, It’s Heavy, It’s Wood – RPS Sample Piece

Just for giggles, here’s the sample piece I submitted to Rock Paper Shotgun. Now with images!

The mighty TOG II is the most fun you’ll ever have in a deathtrap. Created by “The Old Gang” who invented the original tanks of World War I and designed to cross the trenches and mud of Passchendaele at 8 mph; the TOG would have fit into a Blitzkrieg about as well as a tortoise in the Kentucky Derby.

33 feet and 80 tons of paper armor, the TOG could not bounce a shell to save its life. The TOG can only work in an arcade game like World of Tanks. In a more realistic tank game, like War Thunder, the TOG would always brew up on the first hit. But in WoT, I laugh maniacally as my massive health pool swallows 122mm shells like peanuts.
The real reason to buy a TOG isn’t performance, but hilarity. When I show up in my TOG, everyone takes a break from typing racial slurs to tell TOG jokes. “I have a great TOG joke . . . but it’s too long” is a classic. I’ve had half a dozen other tanks spontaneously form a train behind my TOG, killing everything we saw in a hundred-foot-long conga line of death.

The TOG’s a premium tank, which means it costs real money, because “free to play” (F2P) really means “Pay to not tear your hair out in frustration at the broken economic model” (P2NTYHOIFATBEM). Every time I spend real money to buy fake tanks, I imagine my dad getting more disappointed in my life choices. But dad is just going to have to suffer, because I need to be at the helm of an eighty ton mutant boat tank, leading a train of crazies across the map at a brisk jog, cackling like a madman.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Tanks – World of Tanks – TOG II* Part I

Welcome to “These Are a Few of My Favorite Tanks,” what will hopefully be a semi-regular series of posts about my favorite tanks in World of Tanks and War Thunder, summing up why I like these tanks and how to play them. Today, let’s talk about the mighty TOG.

The first thing you need to know is – I like weird tanks. I find well-rounded, jack of all trades tanks like the T-34 or Sherman to be kind of boring. I prefer tanks that are tricky to use, if not outright frustrating. I want my rides to have weird quirks that have to be worked around. I don’t mind ugly tanks either.

It should be no surprise, then, that I’m particularly fond of the island of misfit toys that is the British tree in World of Tanks. And above all of them, my favorite is the mighty, misunderstood TOG II.

The thing about the TOG is, most people misunderstand its appeal. When I first floated the idea of buying one past people on the SomethingAwful forums, they talked down about the TOG. Oh, it’s not good at making money, they said.It’s just an XP pinata, they said. You can’t carry a bad team in it, they said. These points are all more or less true, but they’re completely missing the point.

 

The TOG is, in the delightful words of The Mighty Jingles, “the party tank.” It’s the tank I drive when I want a good laugh. 

First, some history! The acronym TOG stands for “The Old Gang,” an acronym for the veteran tank designers of the First World War “Landships Committee” who all came back together during World War II for one last hurrah. And the TOG II is very obviously a WWI design – created to cross the muddy trenches and no man’s land of The Great War, the TOG is absurdly long. I mean, just look at it! There’s a reason one of the most popular jokes I hear in chat when I load up my TOG is “I know a good TOG joke . . . but it’s too long.”

Speaking of jokes, in pretty much every random battle, someone cracks a joke. Even if someone trolls me by telling me how much the TOG sucks it’s still funny. The mood in a TOG game just . . . lightens up a bit. People get a little less serious about their internet tanks and even crack a smile.

I’ve seen people driven to do bizarre hilarious things around my TOG. In one game, the other players on my team literally formed a train behind me and we rolled across the map, killing everything we saw. It was GLORIOUS.

 

All hail the TOG!

Scrapes and Skirmishes in STALKER – Part 2

I think maybe the last post deserves a bit of explanation. I wanted to include this post with the original, but it was getting too long already.

What made that encounter with the bandits compelling was its unscripted, random nature. STALKER is a shooter designed around the open world of the Zone. For most of the game, you’re wandering about a living, breathing world, crisscrossed by enemies, NPCs, and animals going about their business. There are few scripted encounters. It is the anti-Call of Duty.

The group of bandits above were probably on their way to either attack a group of friendly stalkers or repopulate one of the bandit outposts I had cleared out earlier that day. Their presence was independent of mine and the fight between us had nothing to do with advancing the plot. I could have left them alone, been about my mission, and it wouldn’t have mattered to the overall game. But as my impulsive attack got underway, I loved how intense and variable the combat was. I had to play through a few times to get it right (grenades are tricky) and each time it played out in a significantly different way – the bandits scattered in different directions, I missed a throw, or maybe a lucky burst caught me. And in STALKER, there’s little margin for error.

Another encounter I had not long after does a great job of showing how much freedom STALKER gives the player. When you first come to the Agroprom Institute, you get a distress call from the STALKERs holed up inside, who are under attack from the army. My first instinct, which had worked for me on my first playthrough on normal difficulty, was to rush through the front gate and take the soldiers head on. It worked fine before, but on hard I got slapped around a few times. STALKER is not known as a forgiving game – you can take a couple shots, but that’s it. Early in the game, when your armor is paper thin and your weapons are half-empty rubbish, you really have to think your way through fights.

So on my third try, I decided to exercise the freedom the wide open map afforded me. I went left before the gate and worked my way around the walled Institute, eventually finding a way through the fence on the back side. After offing an unwary sentry, I was in scott free. So I went up – scaled a couple ladders to the roof of the compound and worked my way back towards the gate. By then they had finished off most of the friendly STALKERs, but I had the drop on them from above. The fight was a mad scramble from rooftop to rooftop, using hit and run tactics, but the soldiers acquitted themselves well before I took them down. They had full length rifles against my shortened Kalashnikov, so they didn’t let me off easy.

In most games, this battle would have been a scripted set-piece with a single ‘correct’ solution. But here it became a brilliant piece of emergent behavior as the AI tried to adapt to my unusual angle of attack. How many other games would let you take such an unorthodox path?

The best parts of the game are definitely the unscripted pell-mell fights like the ones I’ve described. Rob Zacny inspired these posts with his excellent piece about some similar STALKER fights – and I agree that STALKER gets weaker when it forces the player into a bottleneck. I stopped playing Shadow of Chernobyl the first time when I got to Pripyat, the finale near the end, because it just wasn’t what I came for. I came to wander the wastes, scraping together money and gear so I could take on the next pack of bandits.

This sort of gameplay also makes me sad that all of the big budgets (and profits, let’s be honest) in gaming these days is focused on highly directed and polished, movie-like experiences, instead of creating a dynamic system that can throw up surprises. I’d trade a dozen Call of Duty flashy action movies for a single game like STALKER that creates a world, then trusts the player to make their own game.

Interview – The Future of Unity of Command

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Tomislav Uzelac, lead designer of the hit Unity of Command and owner of 2×2 Games, and ask him some followup questions via email about the lessons learned from his latest release, Black Turn, and the future of the series.

Matt: In your interview with Charlie Hall for Polygon, you implied that Black Turn will be the last DLC for now. Where is the series going next? To the Western Front? To the Mediterranean? How must the game change to fit those theaters? What additional dynamics do you need to add?

 

Tomislav: The game system is currently being expanded so that it can reasonably represent all fighting in Europe on this scale. Much more weight will be placed on air and naval components, and a further emphasis will be placed on proper use of combined arms.

We will do incremental work on the AI and tuning the combat equations. If you look at the “Taifun” scenario from Black Turn, this is about our current limit in terms of scenario size and number of turns. We want to try and push this a little further. So, in really big scenarios, combat attrition needs to come out just right; otherwise, over many turns, errors will accumulate. Also, the AI should have some idea of the strategy, whether it should go for attrition, trade space for time, etc.

No decision has been made on content yet (which campaigns), but it’s safe to assume that whatever works best with the revised system will be pushed to the front. Don’t rule out re-visiting the Eastern Front either.

 

Matt: What lessons have you learned from Black Turn? What surprised you?

 

Tomislav: There were no great surprises. There’s a certain style of play required for the German side, which many players find more satisfying than the methodical way of the Soviets. That played into our hands, and then also, historically, the Barbarossa campaign naturally progresses from easier to harder.

We did try to push the limits with Taifun, and also be more aggressive with the AI in the what-if scenarios. I think both experiments turned out well, and we want to explore further along these axes in the future.

 

Matt: What do you think other game designers can learn from Unity of Command‘s success?

Tomislav: That it’s possible to reach a mainstream audience with a game like this! You do need a good user interface, which is the critical bit in my opinion. Graphical presentation only needs to be reasonable though, and likely nothing more. I get the impression that flashy, expensive art is not needed at all.

 

Matt: If you could go back and change one thing about the Unity of Command series, be it a mechanic or a scenario, what would it be and why?

 

Tomislav: I’m quite satisfied with the game as it is, actually. Improvements can be made, and we’re working on them for the next game, but none is of the simple “flip a switch” variety. Eventually, when we’re done testing and tweaking, the new game will be its own, new thing.

 

Matt: Unity of Command has a lively and growing community of players using the scenario editor. What are a few of your favorite fan-made scenarios so far?

 

Tomislav: Without question, my favorite scenario is Zitadelle/Kutuzov by Daniel Mellbin. There are other great scenarios by this designer, perhaps the ones for Winter War (Talvisota) and Continuation War (Jatkosota) stand out. If you’re a fan of the game, I recommend you check them out.

[Ed. Note: I’ve played all three. Talvisota and Jatkosota are both solid and cleverly designed. I can’t give a proper review of Zitadelle/Kutuzov because it keeps kicking my butt in the true Unity of Command tradition.]

 

Matt: How do you guys feel about porting Unity of Command (or something similar) to tablets? It feels like it would make a fairly easy transition to a touch interface and there seems to be a critical lack of serious war and strategy games available. The success of Shenandoah Studio’s Battle of the Bulge shows that there is a market for these games. So, are you considering a mobile version or are you ruling it out?

 

Tomislav: There are considerable technical difficulties with porting UoC to tablets. We are now working on the new game, which will be relatively easy to port to tablets, so it’s more likely you’ll see that on tablets right after we release it on PC.

 

Thank you, Tomislav, for your time and the opportunity to catch up.

 

Some helpful and finely crafted links:

My previous interview with Tomislav.

My interview with Ante Turudić, lead AI developer for 2×2, for Armchair General.

My reviews of Red Turn and Black Turn, also for ACG.com.

Is the Crimea the Next Sudetenland?

You’ll pardon me if I digress from gaming for a bit, but this is the only avenue I have to express long form opinions, and I’ve needed to get this one off my chest for a few days.
Invoking the memory of Munich and Czechoslovakia to stir up indignation is a cliché on the American Right, but the more I read about the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea, the more worrying the parallels get.

  1. Both involve Great Powers bullying a smaller, newly independent nation once considered part of its sphere of influence.
  2. Both crises were nominally on behalf of an ethnic minority outside of the Great Powers borders.
  3. The “plight” of the minority was heavily played up and, in some cases, provoked by the intelligence services and propaganda arms of the Great Power.
  4. Both contested regions are crucial for the security of the smaller nation. The mountains of the Sudetenland contained Czechoslovakia’s primary artificial and natural defenses. Likewise, the Crimea contains Ukraine’s main naval base and, under Russian control, could harass any shipping between Ukraine and the outside world.
  5. Hitler felt free to bully Czechoslovakia largely because earlier provocations – the reoccupation of the Rhineland and the annexation of Austria – were permitted by the West. In the past few years, Putin has gotten away with mass repression of his own people, the invasion of Georgia, and the propping up of the murderous Syrian regime.
  6. NATO and the US, like France and the UK of the 1930s, are uncertain of how to respond and reluctant to use force.

This article by Richard Ganske is somewhat breathless in tone, but he does identify the larger stakes here – a successful, unilateral takeover of the Crimea would embolden Russia to take other aggressive actions far beyond a small peninsula on the Black Sea. Immediately, the question is open as to what will happen to eastern and southern parts of mainland Ukraine, populated by a large number of ethnic Russians.
So, how do we respond? This is a delicate question, as Ukraine itself is still unstable and no one wants to go to war against a nuclear power lightly. A lot will depend not only on what the US says and does, but on the choices to be made by the fledgling Ukrainian government and regional powers, such as Turkey, Poland, and other former Soviet satellites. Unfortunately, the Crimea is geographically easy to isolate – it would be trivially easy for Russia to block the narrow isthmus between Crimea and mainland Ukraine. And if the new Ukrainian government wants to reassert control over Crimea, they would likely have to shoot their way in – which may not even be an option, given the divided and uncertain loyalties of their army.

I’m no expert in foreign policy, but I’m fairly certain there’s still room for a diplomatic solution, but that window of opportunity is passing quickly. Once Russia entrenches in the Crimea, the way they have in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and presents the world with a fait accompli, the situation may be irredeemable. It’s possible that, if the West and the Ukrainian government take a strong stand, Russia may be persuaded to agree to something like a withdrawal of their troops in exchange for a referendum on Crimea’s future. But as long as Putin is confident that the West and NATO will sit idly by, he will have no incentive to agree to such a deal. So now, I hope the US and NATO will walk a very fine line, making it clear that aggression will not stand, but not charging blindly into a war that could quickly spiral out of control. But I’m afraid that sitting idly by and allowing Russia to takeover Crimea unopposed will bring terrible consequences.

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