Tag Archives: Gameplay

A Tale of Two Wargames

I first conceived of General Staff as a very simple, introductory wargame that might be the first real wargame to be released for the Xbox (clearly, an under-served market). However, two things stopped this plan dead in its tracks: first Microsoft closed down the independent online games channel for Xbox and then, after being approached by a major wargame publisher, I was told that there was, “no market for wargames on the Xbox,” however a new version of my UMS series, could, “sell 25,000 units in its first year.”

So, I went back to the proverbial drawing board but I also asked you, the Grognards, what kind of a game you wanted. And here are the results:

Clearly, almost as many people want a simple, Kriegsspiel type game as want a complex military simulation.

After pondering this conundrum I had an epiphany: ‘simple’ wargames and ‘complex simulations’ actually share about 80% of the same code and data. Why not make a wargame that the user can decide which he wants to play? Sometimes people aren’t up for hours long complex simulations; other times people are.

Screen capture from General Staff showing the set up for ‘Simulation’ mode (note the button in the upper-left hand corner). Click to enlarge.

In the above screen capture the user has selected ‘Simulation’ mode. Note that there are headquarters units displayed. Headquarters play an important role in General Staff in simulation mode. All orders are given through the commanding general to the subordinate commander (via courier) and then (again via courier) to the actual unit. For example:

In this screen capture an order from Marshal Beresford will take 8 minutes of game time to be delivered to ths subordinate commander. (Click to enlarge)

It will take 8 minutes for the courier to ride from Marshal Beresford headquarters to the subordinate’s headquarters.

It will take an additional 6 minutes for a courier to deliver the order to the subordinate infantry unit. Click to enlarge.

Additional time (based on the headquarter’s Leadership value) will be added before the next courier is dispatched to deliver the order to the infantry unit. So for a command to go from Marshal Beresford, to Major General Stewart to Colborne’s Brigade will take a minimum of 14 minutes of game time plus additional time penalties based on the leadership abilities of Beresford and Stewart.

Detailed information about a unit in Simulation mode. Even the number of volleys remaining are tracked. Click to enlarge.

Lastly, the leadership of Colborne’s Brigade is used to calculate how quickly the unit will act upon the received orders. This is an example of the detailed Simulation mode for General Staff.

However, in Kreigsspiel mode,  all headquarters units are removed and the user issues orders directly to the units that immediately respond to the commands.

General Staff in Kreigsspiel mode. Note the button in the upper left-hand corner, headquarters units have been removed and unit strength is either 1,2,3 or 4.

Also, all unit information except a simple value (1-4) is ignored. Kriegsspiel mode is the simple, introductory wargame that I originally envisioned.

 

Video Demonstrating the Scenario Design Module!

Below is a video describing how to use the Scenario Design Module for the General Staff Wargaming System. Yes, it really is that simple: just combine two armies previously created in the Army Design Module with a map created in the Map Design Module and create a new battle scenario.


Also, there’s a gameplay surprise in this video!

Gameplay Survey 1: Unit Complexity.

When I first started thinking about designing General Staff I envisioned a simple game that was almost chess-like in parts and that was designed to introduce novices to wargames. I thought that the Xbox would be the ideal platform.

After talking to two major digital wargame publishers I was told:

There is absolutely no wargame market for the Xbox and it was idiotic to even think that there was.

Traditional wargame buyers want more complex games; not introductory games.

Wargame buyers (can we just say Grognards?) still fondly remember UMS, UMS 2 and The War College (UMS 3) and would certainly support a major update.

Consequently, I have had to readjust my thinking about the gameplay and design of General Staff. Maybe the wargame you want to buy is different from the wargame that I was planning on making. To better understand what exactly customers want from General Staff I’m going to be posting a series of surveys about very specific gameplay and design issues. I’m going to lay out the pros and cons of the various options and then I’m going to ask you to please vote and give me feedback.


Simple unit details:

My original design called for a very simple unit structure. Other than a number of bookkeeping variables (such as location, facing, speed, orders, etc.) the only values that we would store were the unit’s type and strength.

The screen captures below show examples of this design.

Screen captures of various unit types and facings in General Staff. Note that unit strength is obvious (1,2,3 or 4). Click to enlarge.

The rules on unit type and strength are:

  1. In any given square there can be a maximum of 4 artillery units, 3 cavalry units or 2 infantry units.
  2. Different unit types cannot occupy the same square.

Advantages of a Simple Unit Structure:

There is a very appealing simplicity to this system. The user can immediately see the strength of forces at any location. As a unit takes losses the number of symbols displayed in the square are decremented until the unit, itself, is removed.

Less data is required to create a scenario.  But, the real problem is trying to assign values to variables like ‘morale’, ‘experience’ or ‘leadership’. Inevitably, these are just value judgments.

It presents a simple and less intimidating interface (no names, ‘strength bars’, etc.) for beginners.

Visually it fits right into the Napoleonic and Victorian topographical battlefield map engravings style that I want to emulate. I, personally, am greatly enamored by this style and would love to maneuver units on these incredible contoured maps:

Bataille de Molino del Rey : 1ere Position [y] 2éme Position (1820) .From: Biblioteca Virtual del Patrimonio Bibliográfico. A superb example of 19th century battlefield map engraving. Click to open link in new window.


Complex unit details:

How much information can we store about every unit on the map? The only limit is the size of available storage; in other words, on modern computing devices, there are no real limits. Below is screen shot (with explanations) of the variables used to calculate combat results in UMS II: Nations at War.

Unit variables used for combat resolution in UMS2. Click to enlarge.

Among the most likely variables to be included in the unit structure are: unit name, leadership value, morale level, strength, fatigue and unit type.

Advantages of a Complex Unit Structure:

Theoretically, the more data you have the more accurate the simulation. Obviously, this depends on the accuracy of the data but as long as the variables are relevant to the simulation and your model is good, the more variables the better.

Simply having a more detailed model with a lot of unit variables may help to sell more units to Grognards.

Disadvantages of a Complex Unit Structure:

More data has to be researched, compiled and entered into the Create Army Module (see here).

This data needs to be displayed in a way that doesn’t overload the user. Below is a screen shot of some tests that I did for an earlier version of General Staff:

Screen capture showing one method of displaying information about a unit. In this case the stored values include Melee attack value, maximum range, ranged attack value, strength, unit quality, formation, morale and fatigue. Click to enlarge.

Screen capture showing one method of displaying information about a unit. In this case the stored values include Melee attack value, maximum range, ranged attack value, strength, unit quality, formation, morale and fatigue. Click to enlarge.

Inevitably, at some point the scenario designer has to make some very arbitrary decisions about a unit’s morale and leadership values.

What is the maximum strength of a unit? Remember we’re talking apples (artillery) and oranges (infantry divisions) here. What does the value ‘strength’ actually mean? Is it the number of men in the unit? Clearly 50 men in an artillery battery have more ‘strength’ than 50 men in a line infantry company. Is there some other modifier (perhaps ‘unit type’) that is necessary to convert a unit’s strength to its combat power? And, what if a scenario designer creates a unit with a strength of 1,000 while other units have values of, say, 10? Will this be an unstoppable behemoth on the battlefield?


So, now it’s time for you to make your feelings known about these issues. Simple or complex unit data structures? What information should be stored about each unit?


You input is very important to us. Please feel free to give us more feedback either via the online form or by emailing me personally at Ezra [at] RiverviewAI.com

A Wargame 55 Years in the Making (Part 2)

After The War College I created a couple of non-wargames including Online Mysteries, a massive multiplayer online mystery game that was written for AOL’s WorldPlay. WorldPlay was envisioned to be a 3D online world populated with avatars. It was similar in concept to Second Life but, like a lot of great ideas, was ahead of its time. AOL shut WorldPlay down before most of the games, including Online Mysteries, launched.

Mysteries Unlimited screen shot (Windows) was a massively multiplayer online mystery game created for AOL/WorldPlay (click to enlarge).

Mysteries Unlimited screen shot (Windows) was a massively multiplayer online mystery game created for AOL/WorldPlay (click to enlarge).

By 2000 the game publishing industry  was going through another convulsion of consolidations, buyouts and contractions. Publishers were producing fewer games but the ones that were being created had large teams, long development cycles and massive budgets. The days when an independent developer could pitch a game idea, get an advance and then develop it outside of a publisher’s studio were gone. And the last thing that the big publishers were interested in were wargames.

Over the previous fifteen years I had received inquiries from active duty military and Pentagon project managers about my wargames (known as Commercial Off The Shelf, or COTS, in Pentagon-lingo) and if I would be available to consult on various wargaming projects. Unfortunately, I was lacking a key prerequisite for this: a doctorate. I returned to academia, first to a small local college where I also taught computer game design and in 2003 I was accepted in the computer science PhD program at the University of Iowa (one of the oldest computer science departments in the world).

Before I ever set foot in MacLean Hall (the home of the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa) I knew what I would spend the next six years of my life researching and studying: tactical and strategic AI (I would eventually coin the phrase ‘computational military reasoning’ to describe this field).  What I soon discovered was that very little work had ever been done in this research area. What was even more surprising was my discovery that most ‘professional’ military wargames (i.e. wargames used by the US Army, NATO, England, Australia, France, etc.) had absolutely no AI whatsoever. Instead, they employed ‘pucksters’ (usually retired military officers) who made all the moves for OPFOR (Opposition Forces, AKA ‘the enemy’) from another computer in another room.

Pucksters, or humans (usually retired military officers) who make the decisions and moves for enemy (or OPFOR) units during a wargame.

Pucksters are humans (usually retired military officers) who make the decisions and moves for enemy (Opposition Forces = OPFOR) units during a wargame. Note the sign OPFOR & EXCON (Exercise Control) over the puckster’s work station.

To earn a doctorate at an American ‘Research One’ university requires 90 graduate credits (about 30 classes), a GPA > 3.5 (out of 4.0) and passing three major examinations. The first examination on the road to a doctorate is the Qualifying Examination (or Q Exam as everyone calls it). The topic of my Q exam was “An Analysis of Dimdal’s (ex-Jonsson’s) ‘An Optimal Pathfinder for Vehicles in Real-World Terrain Maps’.” This is the area of computer science and graph theory known as ‘least weighted path algorithms’. GPS devices and Map apps use a least weighted path algorithm, except they’re only interested in roads; they don’t consider terrain, slope and other things (that are important to a military unit maneuvering on a battlefield).

Now, if you were to wander into the ivied halls of academic computer science  (like MacLean Hall) and inquire of a tenured faculty member how to calculate the fastest path between two points on a sparse grid they would almost certainly reply to you, “Dijkstra’s algorithm.”  Dr. Dijkstra invented his algorithm in 1956 and it works like this: first calculate the distance between every point on the map and every other point on the map. Then figure out the fastest path. Yeah, it’s that obvious, and painfully slow. In fact, it’s so slow that it isn’t used for GPS or game AI. In computer science we us ‘Big O’ notation to describe how fast (or slow) an algorithm takes to run. Dijkstra’s algorithm runs in O(|V|2). This means that as the number of vertices, or points on the map, (that’s the |V| part) increases, the time it takes for the entire algorithm to complete goes up by the square of the number of vertices. In other words, as the map gets bigger the algorithm gets a lot slower.

Dimdal, and I and most of the gaming world do not use Dijkstra’s algorithm, Instead we use A* (pronounced ‘A Star’) which was designed in 1968 primarily by Nils Nilsson with later improvements by Peter Hart and Bertram Raphael. Below is an example of A* used in General Staff (note that the algorithm doesn’t look at every point on the map, just ones that it thinks are relevant to the problem at hand). A* runs in O(n) time.

A screen shot of A* algorithm running. The green areas are where the algorithm searched for a least weighted path, the brown line is the shortest path (mostly following a road).

A screen shot of A* algorithm running. The green areas are where the algorithm searched for a least weighted path, the brown line is the shortest path (mostly following a road).

Graph showing the difference between Dijkstra's algorithm and the A* algorithm. The blue line that increases rapidly shows that Dijkstra's algorithm gets much slower as the map gets bigger. A* is not affected as much by the size of the map.

Graph showing the difference between Dijkstra’s algorithm and the A* algorithm. The blue line that increases rapidly shows that Dijkstra’s algorithm takes much more time as the map gets bigger. A* (the green line) is not affected as much by the size of the map.

As part of my research into computational military reasoning I made further modifications to A* to take into effect the slope of the terrain (which can affect speed of some units), the range of enemy units (OPFOR ROI, e.g. areas controlled by enemy artillery) and to avoid enemy line of sight (LOS). My MATE (Machine Analysis of Tactical Environments) project used all of these options:

A slide from my presentation to DARPA showing how my modified A* avoids enemy range of weapons.

A slide from my presentation to DARPA showing how my modified A* avoids enemy range of weapons. The likelihood of taking casualties is indicated by the darkness of the red coloring.

While working on General Staff I came up with a new optimization of the A* algorithm which I’ve called EZRoadStar. EZRoadStar first looks at the roadnet and attempts to utilize it for rapid troop movement. Only after ascertaining how far using roads will get it to its goal does the algorithm look for nonroad paths. EZRoadStar is much faster than traditional A*; especially for wargames and military simulations.

An example of the EZRoadStar least weighted path algorithm. What's the fastest way point A to point B (the yellow line)? Taking the road, of course. This algorithm looks at a battlefield like a commander and utilizes the roadnet first before looking at other options. Click to enlarge.

An example of the EZRoadStar least weighted path algorithm. What’s the fastest way from point A to point B (the yellow arrow)? Taking the road, of course. This algorithm looks at a battlefield like a commander and utilizes the roadnet first before looking at other options. Click to enlarge.

Well, this wargame may be 55 years in the making and it looks like describing some of the key things that went into it may take almost as long. Clearly, I’m going to have to continue this story with yet another post. We’ve just barely scratched the surface of my work on wargame AI. The next installment will (hopefully) cover algorithms for ‘the five canonical offensive maneuvers’ (i.e. The Envelopment Maneuver, The Turning Maneuver, Penetration, Infiltration and Frontal Assault. These are the algorithms that are ‘under the hood’ of General Staff. If any of my readers would like to know more about these topics (links to my published papers on the subject or whatever) please drop me a line at Ezra [at] RiverviewAI.com.

 

A Wargame 55 Years in the Making

I was introduced to wargames (Avalon Hill, of course) about 55 years ago when I was seven years old by my buddy Carl Hoffman who lived down the street. Carl and I ended up owning every Avalon Hill wargame and we played them all. Eventually, Carl and his family moved away (I think Carl became a professor at LSU but I can’t confirm that) and I was faced with the grim realization that all of us Grognards inevitably confront: there was nobody to play wargames with.

Tactics II from Avalon Hill. The first wargame I played. What was the first wargame you played?

Tactics II from Avalon Hill. The first wargame I played. What was the first wargame you played?

Over the years I would occasionally find someone interested in playing  (or, more likely, coerce a friend who really had little interest in wargames) to set up a game but rarely would we ever complete a full campaign or battle.  By the late 1970s playing wargames for me was a rare event (the one exception being my good friend from my undergrad college days, Corkey Custer). Then, about this time, I saw an episode of PBS’s NOVA on what was then the infancy of Computer Graphics (CGI). There, flickering on my black & white TV, was what we would eventually call ‘wire frame’ 3D. Wire frame 3D just shows the edges of 3D objects. They are not filled in with a texture (as CGI is done now). Computers just didn’t have the processing power to pull this off back in the late ’70s and ’80s. But, I immediately thought to myself, “this technique could be used to render 3D battlefields!” And that was the spark from UMS: The Universal Military Simulator was born.

Screen capture of the original UMS running in 640 x 400 x 2 resolution in MS DOS. This is an example of wire frame 3D.

Screen capture of the original UMS running in 640 x 400 x 2 resolution in MS DOS. This is an example of wire frame 3D.

By the mid 1980s I was about to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer animation and, more importantly, a working demo of UMS. I had hypothesized that one of the biggest selling points of computer wargames was the ability to always have an opponent handy (the artificial intelligence or AI). I borrowed a copy of the Software Writers Market from the library and sent out dozens (maybe even hundreds) of letters and, eventually, papered an entire wall of my apartment with rejection letters from game publishers. But, Dr. Ed Bever, who designed Microprose’s Crusade in Europe, Decision in the Desert and NATO Commander (pretty much the only computer wargames that were out at the time) saw my pitch letter and gave me a call. Microprose wasn’t interested in publishing UMS per se, rather their CEO, “Wild Bill” Stealey, wanted me to come work for Microprose (and they would own UMS). That deal didn’t appeal to me but a short time later, at the 1986 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago, Ed Bever introduced me to Microprose’s competitors, Firebird/Rainbird. Within 48 hours I had my first game publishing deal.

Crusade in Europe from Microprose (1985) designed by Dr. Ed Bever, originally programming by Sid Meir.

Crusade in Europe from Microprose (1985) designed by Dr. Ed Bever, originally programming by Sid Meir.

UMS sold about 128,000 units and was the #1 game in the US and Europe for a while.

The European Microdealer Top 30 Chart with UMS as #1 with a bullet on the 16 game chart. What other classic games can you find on the charts? (Click to enlarge)

The European Microdealer Top 30 Chart with UMS as #1 with a bullet on the 16-bit game chart. What other classic games can you find on the charts? (Click to enlarge)

Ed Bever helped on the design of UMS II: Nations at War which was an extremely ambitious global wargame that had unprecedented detail and allowed the user to edit numerous variables and equations:

UMS II: Nations at War screen shots from the MS DOS version. Click to enlarge.

UMS II: Nations at War screen shots from the MS DOS version. Click to enlarge.

UMS II screen shot (Macintosh) showing active weather systems.

UMS II screen shot (Atari ST) showing active weather systems.

An example of the numerous variables that the user could adjust in UMS II. Click to enlarge.

An example of the numerous variables that the user could adjust in UMS II.; in this case adjusting the attrition level based on experience for ground units. Macintosh screen shot. Click to enlarge.

UMS II was named “Wargame of the Year” by Strategy Plus magazine and enjoyed strong sales. In many ways it was the ‘ultimate’ in complex wargaming.  It was far more detailed than any other wargame I’ve seen before or since (and that includes my work on DARPA, Department of Defense, US Army, Office of Naval Research and Modeling Simulation Information Analysis Center (MSIAC) wargames. Ironically, it was published by Microprose because they bought out Firebird/Rainbird and with it my publishing contract.

My next wargame, in 1993, was The War College.  We used data from US Geological Survey to create the 3D maps. Again, it was very detailed and allowed the user to edit combat values and featured an interactive hyperlinked history of each scenario (it shipped with Antietam, Austerlitz, Pharsalus and Tannenberg). Unfortunately, our publisher, GameTek, pretty much ceased to exist just as we were about to release this game. To this day I have no idea how many units it sold. We never got a royalty statement.

Screen shot (MS DOS) of the Austerlitz scenario in The War College. Click to enlarge.

Screen shot (MS DOS) of the Austerlitz scenario in The War College. Click to enlarge.

The War College also had an interactive history for each battle (screen shot from MS DOS, click to enlarge).

The War College also had an interactive history for each battle (screen shot from MS DOS, click to enlarge).

The War College allowed users to adjust melee effectiveness and values. MS DOS screen shot, click to enlarge.

The War College allowed users to adjust melee effectiveness and values. MS DOS screen shot, click to enlarge.

I also would be terribly remiss if I did not mention my good friends who worked on various ports of the above mentioned games, Ed Isenberg (Amiga and MS DOS), Andy Kanakares (Apple IIGS and MS DOS) and Mike Pash (MS DOS).

(left to right) Ed Isemberg, Andy Kanakares, Ezra Sidran. Not pictured; Mike Pash.

(left to right) Ed Isemberg, Andy Kanakares, Ezra Sidran. Not pictured; Mike Pash.

One of the problems of getting old is that your stories get longer to tell. This blog post is far longer than I intended and we haven’t even got to this century and all my research into computational military reasoning (Tactical and Strategic AI) and my new wargame, General Staff.  I’m afraid we’ll have to end this here and pick up the story in Part 2 next week.