Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Video Wargame Conversions from the Tabletop

I've recently become quite interested in conversions between video games and tabletop games, especially wargames.  I've been recruited by a large publisher to propose a book about wargame design that will first be about video games because that's where the big market is.  On the other hand, there aren't many video games that are real wargames, at least in the definition I'm going to use, which requires games where reasoning is the primary requirement for winning the game, as opposed to the athleticism that's necessary in shooters and real-time strategy games.  In fact, the book will probably be called “Strategic Wargame Design” because I need to limit the topic, so as to cover it reasonably in not much more than 100,000 words.  Tactical games, whether video or tabletop, will be practically excluded.  E.g. miniatures will get about 500 words in the entire book.

So I was happy to find that Shenandoah Games was at WBC.  They are group of people who have been involved in tabletop games for many years who decided to form a company to make video games that are essentially conversions from tabletop games for the iPad.  Why the iPad?  First, it's a very large market.  Second, it provides a convenience of use that attracts many people and is particularly suited to the kinds of short session games that are now very common in the video game world, where you play a game for 5 minutes and then do something else and then play the game again for 5 minutes, perhaps later in the day or on an other day.  Their first product is a Battle of the Bulge game.  (World War II is as popular as all other eras and settings for wargames altogether.)

The company actually creates a paper version of a game before they program it for the iPad (and some iPhones).  Unfortunately, this means that the strengths of the computer for realistic wargames are ignored.  For example, the computer is obviously stronger for fog of war than the tabletop.  It is also stronger for command-and-control simulation than the tabletop, because the computer can keep track of details that would be onerous for tabletop players, and that ought to be hidden from the players.  But there's always a dichotomy in wargames between what's actually realistic - war is a “big mess” - and what's fun to play as a game.  Wargame players like to control what happens, they like to feel that they succeed or fail because of their own actions.  Yet in war there's an awful lot of chance, as epitomized by the poem about a nation being lost for want of a nail in a horseshoe.  So we can present the wargame player with a big mess that he tries to sort out, and that might be attractive to the improviser style of player.  But for the planner style of player (more in the chess player mode) this is absolutely horrible.  Perhaps that's one reason why I prefer strategic and grand strategic rather than tactical games (for the most part - I like old D&D), because as you go to a higher scale there's less messiness.

Perhaps I ought to explain what I mean by "messy".  In a real war, a commander barely knows what's going on within his immediate sight.  He doesn't know how well his units are going to actually act under fire, he doesn't know where most of them really are, he doesn’t know where the enemy is for the most part, he doesn’t know how well the enemy units are going to react under fire, he doesn’t know how well his commanders are going to follow orders, he doesn't know how well his commanders are going to react to changed situations when they receive orders that are an hour old or a day old, and the situation is changed from what the overall commander understood - or he never understood it to begin with owing to all these limitations. 

It's one hell of a big mess, and I haven't even thrown in supply problems and problems of cooperation with air forces and navies and large-scale units that are not under the command of the particular general.  Successful generals have to be very flexible, though paradoxically they need to plan a lot before the action. And to be successful they need "Yomi", the ability to read the minds and intentions of their opponents.  Yet this is not what the minimax player is particularly interested in, and frequently is not what the planner is interested in.

(For more about styles of play see my book, or read an online version: http://fortressat.com/blogs-by-members/3216 )

Shenandoah chose to be able to create a paper prototype that would be very closely emulated on the computer, despite the limitations this imposed on the computer's ability to reflect the reality of the big mess.  In Battle of the Bulge there is no fog of war, there is no calculation of movement of orders and successful or unsuccessful understanding of orders, of orders getting lost, orders being ignored, subordinates being insufficiently competent (or quite brilliant), and so forth that would emulate the reasons why command and control problems occur.  Instead, they try to emulate the way a commander may not be able to control everything by using “activations,” but these are activations that the player chooses rather than activations determined by pulling random chits out of cups or being dealt random cards.  So in each day of the Battle of the Bulge, the player chooses in his turn one area that has not yet been activated, then he can move all of the units in that area wherever they choose to go.  Battles caused by the movement are then resolved.  A random interval of time passes and it's the opponent's turn to choose one area and move.  No area can be selected more than once in a day. The command and control difficulties really come into it because of the passage of time after each move.  The day may end before all the player's units have been able to act. 

The game includes supply lines.  It also recognizes that the Germans literally ran out of gas and reflects that at the appropriate time, by choosing a German unit that cannot move that day, and it recognizes that the weather changed and made things very difficult for the Germans owing to Allied air superiority.

The other advantage of this limited activation design is that there is relatively little downtime between play by one player and play by the other player.  It's a back-and-forth choosing of one area at a time and moving a few division- or occasionally regiment-sized units.  This also simplifies what the computer needs to calculate, such that the developers have been able to get the Battle of the Bulge to work on iPhones down to the 3GS, with a few minor changes because the small screen.  The program also works on all iPads.   It's also possible to use the computing power in conjunction with iOS to provide a computer opponent or "AI" for those who aren't playing against another human.  The AI doesn't need to deal with much change because the opponent has only been able to activate one area since the last turn of the computer opponent. 

This also makes it easy for play through the Internet.  A player can take his turn and send it to the Apple Game Center whose use comes free with iOS, I'm told.  The turn goes to the opponent's computer where it executes on his iPad, and he can then take his own turn and send it back to the first player.

iPad/iPhone owners are willing to pay much more for apps than Android owners, with less piracy as well.  Shenandoah is able to sell their game for $10, more than typical mobile apps but much less than a typical tabletop or well-known video game.

I was able to talk at some length with Shenandoah producer Jeff Dougherty at WBC.  They come from the boardgame side and their primary market is boardgame players, although buyers tend to be somewhat younger than the wargamers we see at WBC, and they get more people from the video side than one might expect.

Jeff explained a technical reason why they don't use fog of war.  It turns out that the "model view control" method of programming (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Model%E2%80%93view%E2%80%93controller )  means that it's a lot harder to program fog of war that I thought. 

As related to wargames, in this method of programming the "model" is all the information the computer needs to be able to act, the "viewer" shows the particular player what they can see, and “control” is what the player does to manipulate the game.   To have a computer opponent you effectively must have a separate viewer for the computer opponent, because otherwise it uses the model itself, and then has access to information that a player shouldn't have.  In other words, if you use fog of war the programming becomes more complicated.

A Complete Digression:

Some readers might be interested in the following.  The first draft of this post was "written" as I was driving from WBC to my home in southern North Carolina.  I dictated it to a Sony digital voice recorder that has been recommended for use with my Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition program.  When I got home I transferred the file to my desktop, ran it through the transcription program, and then edited it and added to it as necessary.  Why would I do this?  Well, when you become a senior citizen your efficiency in simple tasks like typing begins to deteriorate.  In addition, I have arthritis in my fingers, which is a big part of the problem.  Though I used to be a demon typist, I would much rather talk to the computer, even to the proxy of the voice recorder, than type.  Voice recognition is still far from perfect, even on a quad core I7 processor with 9 gigs of RAM, but it's not too bad.  And it is ever so much more relaxing than typing.  Last of all, of course, I can't be typing while I'm driving.  But when the traffic on the Interstates is light as it was on part of the trip,  I can dictate while I drive.

This dictation takes some practice, but I've used Dragon NaturallySpeaking quite a bit.  It's not like writing at a computer, however, as I don't see what I'm saying, whereas when I use Dragon Naturally Speaking at a computer it recognizes what I say and shows it on the screen almost immediately.  When I'm talking to the voice recorder I have nothing to show me what I've said in the past.  But it's still a lot better than nothing.
My brief, free, audio-visual class Introduction to Game Design is now open at

My book “Game Design: How to Create Video and Tabletop Games, Start to Finish" is available from mcfarlandpub.com or Amazon (paper or Kindle). (Books-a-Million has an eBook version at http://bit.ly/PQQqh3.)  It's currently discounted on Amazon to less than $26 for the paperback.

I am @lewpuls on Twitter.  (I average much less than one post a day, almost always about games, not about other topics.)  Web: http://pulsiphergames.com/

1 comment:

Haven House said...

Nice informative article ...