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A Question of Leadership

September 2nd, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Ancients, Design, Imperium

War is a human endeavor, and the quality of the humans in charge matters.

The challenge for game designers has been how to separate the impact of the leader from the quality of the troops under him. What is Patton’s value added to a well trained armor division? How much of Prussia’s power was based on the military reforms and not Frederick’s battlefield brilliance?

In his latest post about the military model in the development of Imperium, Michael Akinde outlines how he intends to reflect both individual qualities and cultural preferences.

The plan is that some cultures (for example Gallic culture and some variants of Hellenistic culture) may have a Heroic ethos, meaning that their armies will actually fight worse if the General does not fight in the front line (reflecting the cultural pressure). Whether fighting in the front line or lurking at the back like a smart Roman, the Combat skill will be important for the General, as it determines the likelihood of the general surviving episodes where his life is put into danger… such as of course in battle.

His model is an familiar one, emphasizing three particular aspects of generalship. It’s not a big leap from Command/Combat/Guile to the Fire/Shock/Maneuver/Siege in Europa Universalis or Ageod’s long list of traits or even the numerical rating for various abilities in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. The assumption is that specific types or phases of battle will call on specific skills, each of which will have to be judged independently – as Akinde puts it, “The player should notice, in short, the difference between a Varro and a Hannibal.”

But wherever leaders have been involved, the differences between Varro and Hannibal or Bazaine and Moltke or Haig and Foch have never really been the issue for me. Someone gets bad stats and someone gets good ones. The difference between Pyrrhus and Antiochus matters more; it’s the margins of greatness that will matter to people interested in this sort of game.

Historically based games that deal with leadership have the problem of familiarity. If I am playing a game about the American Revolution, familiarity pushes me to use Francis Marion as a guerrilla leader and Benedict Arnold as a battlefield commander – or maybe resist giving him a command altogether.

But there comes a point where great fame means, for the developer, great stats. And if I can use Francis Marion to tear up British troops in civilized Pennsylvania, then is he still the Swamp Fox or is he just an agglomeration of numbers? What’s his “kill” factor? Paradox got around that by just killing historical leaders for most games; sure you can start with Wallenstein and Tilly, but most people won’t. If Caesar, however, is straight eights or nines, and so is Pompey, then how do you capture the essential differences between the two, the effective recklessness of the former and the efficient caution of the latter? In the war against Hannibal, Fabius and Marcellus had very different approaches, but the only distinction that Akinde’s three numbers would catch would be the latter’s willingness to expose himself to danger – the “combat” variable.

Games are, often, math. Plus here, minus there. And your situation will determine which pluses and minuses matter. But there’s an inevitable disappointment when, say, Hannibal gets killed in a shipwreck at 18. Or when a player decides that Pompey’s administrative brilliance means he’s more useful collecting taxes in Spain than fighting the hordes of Mithridates. In strategy games that use leaders, historicity always runs headlong into player choice. It’s inevitable and desirable; these design conflicts are where brilliance is born.

It’s still much too soon to consider Imperium anything like brilliance. But keep an eye on Akinde’s blog for more as he explains his military strategy.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • Thomas Kiley

    Do you not think that in most war games, the player is trying to imagine himself as the general, so if the general’s stats are too significant in the final outcome, then the player feels more like he is watching an mildly interactive movie rather than playing a game of skill.

    I think superior generals should get some special abilities and maybe a small number advantage. For example, a particularly maverick like general may get the ability to attack twice in a go, whereas one known for his cunning could deploy units outside the deployment zone. Also, maybe better generals can rally better.

    Off the point, a while back you posted about how hard can path finding be. Back then, I was going to reply, very complicated, but I find many programming things very complicated so I didn’t want to appear stupid. However, I thought you might be interested to know that Will Wright, in an interview with Click (a BBC program) said it was the most complicated part in any game.

  • Troy

    “Do you not think that in most war games, the player is trying to imagine himself as the general, so if the general’s stats are too significant in the final outcome, then the player feels more like he is watching an mildly interactive movie rather than playing a game of skill.”

    I think it depends on the game and the player. If it’s a straight up wargame, like a single battle (Waterloo, Gettysburg, etc.) then most players, I think, would prefer to play with leaders mostly as organizational objects – command, HQ, and the like. In these types of games, the challenge is to win a specific battle in specific circumstances.

    But once you get beyond a single moment and the game hits a more strategic or theater level, then some designers and gamers want to be able to see differences between commanders. It doesn’t make much sense to give Lee high stats at Gettysburg (which he lost) but if you want to reflect his general impact on the Civil War then you may want to give him some sort of advantage.

    But a lot of pure wargames have tried to represent issues of command quality, either by giving leaders more command options or by giving their troops higher morale in certain circumstances or relaxing victory conditions.

    Thanks for the tip on the Will Wright interview – I could listen to that man for days.

  • Alan Au

    Yes, the player is meant to take on some of the responsibilities of the general. The question is then about which qualities are reflected by the game mechanics, and which depend on the player. That is, how do you distinguish between player skill and character ability?

  • JonathanStrange

    Well, wouldn’t choosing to employ a general to command a certain army and sending it on a mission (say to Hispania) be the player’s strategic skill while the character’s ability would be generally be his effect on the course of a specific battle – perhaps also the character ability would affect attrition rates, movement (both tactical and strategic), morale, etc. As long as I understood and could see how a general modified his army’s effectiveness, I’d be satisfied. Actually, haven’t we already seen similar situations like this before? Both in old-style boardgames and current wargames, we already see how leaders modify attack odds, casualty results, morale status, etc? Am I missing something new here? Hmmm…perhaps I see Troy’s point: which was really the decisive factor? Alexander? or his Macedonians? Could Phillip have done as well? Or better? Still, I wouldn’t expect to a game to know that with any more certainty than professional military men or historians claim.

  • Thomas Kiley

    There would only be strategy if there were pros and cons – like the special abilities. However, if one was just better than others, then it would be a no brainer to choose that one.

  • Michael A.

    In Imperium, the player represents the family (not individual characters), so there should be a clear character/general divide. The player’s job – I think – in these kind of games is to do the best possible job with the limited resources (i.e., persons) available.

    What-if history is usually about what would have happened if people had acted differently. If Hannibal had drowned, would the catastrophic Punic wars still have occured? What if pirates had killed Caesar? Ideally, a historical game should allow the player to play with these kind of possibilities.