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Three Moves Ahead Episode 99: War in the East

January 13th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 20 Comments · Matrix, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead, Wargames

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Scott Jennings (Lum the Mad) fills in for an ailing Rob as he and Bruce and Troy welcome Joel Billings (2by3 Games) and Erik Rutins (Matrix Games) to talk about what Gary Grigsby’s War in the East means for wargame design, scale, realism and detail and marketing of wargames.

Pardon some of the sound issues from time to time.

Listen here.
RSS here.
Subscribe on iTunes.

Bruce’s classic take on realism vs detail in wargames
Peter Berger on wargame UI

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20 Comments so far ↓

  • CFKane

    Looking forward to listening to this podcast. I just finished a play through of the Road to Smolensk scenario on my blog, and have a review of the game in the works. You can find that at fogofwargames.wordpress.com if interested (or you can click on my name).

    I think War in the East does a lot of things right when it comes to the “hardcore” war game. If only I could understand the air mission system better…

  • With Me, It’s Really Only Two Moves Ahead

    [...] If you want to hear my incredidorky voice, tune in here! [...]

  • Scott

    Can’t wait to hear. Even though I don’t MMRPG, I read Scott’s blog religiously.

  • MikeO

    Will listen later tonight.

    I haven’t had a whole lot of time to play the game yet, but my first impressions are that it is the best of the typical Grigsby ‘monster’ type games I’ve played. War in Russia was probably the one I liked best up to now, so not a huge surprise, I suppose.

    The two big differences I see right off in this one as compared to WiR, PW, WitP etc etc arethe UI, which while hardly perfect, is much better than I’ve been accustomed to, and the manual, which is finally worthy. The manuals for WiR and PW, particularly, were little more than UI overviews, in my opinion. I really appreciate the work put into this manual.

    I wish you could have had Gary on, too, but I don’t think he’s ever done many interviews…

  • Sam

    I want to be Bruce Geryk.

  • Radigand

    I liked the concept of (e)-mailing games, but I’ve never experienced them myself. Aside obvious dating issues (I wasn’t around 70s :)), I’m kind of curious about taking mailing gaming to the next level.

    You and I get a client for a turn-based game. I make my move and save the fully completed turn to a file, which then I attach to my e-mail and send it to you (or the client does it for me). You import the file into you game client which then reflects all the changes I’ve made, and you then get to do you turn, send your results to me, rinse and repeat.

    This way you’ll be taking just as much time as you need to complete a turn (day or two for example), but you also employ the game client for presentation purposes.

    PS: welcome to PCGamer US team, love reading your column. When are you going to be their reviewer, you’re obviously know what you’re talking about? There was a positive reaction from Elemental re-Review, patch 1.1, on the web, readers enjoyed your detailed story.

    PPS: check out this turn-based middle ages fiction strategy game that evolved from a mailing RPG: http://battlemaster.org/. If you need a hand in starting the game (it’s free), shoot me an e-mail with your questions, I’ve been playing it for a number of years now.

    PPPS: thanks for reading my comments on the show regarding entry to the 4X games genre; I forgot to sign my nick. Now I’m trying to enjoy Galactic Civ 2, even though it took me a while to understand that over complicating tech tree.

  • David

    A wargame cannot be “realistic” in the sense that no game system can capture the difficulties of command and control, much less so across an entire theater of WWII.

    Bruce seems to miss a critical point. No commander ever knows the specific odds of an attack succeeding, even assuming perfect intelligence. His comment about learning exactly how the game works, optimizing strategies and tactics, then playing a game is not itself a very realistic model. In reality, both sides developed their strategies and tactics over years. It isn’t “realistic” for the Red Army to utilize 1945 tactics in 1941.

    The entire “abstraction” v. “realism” argument has been done to death over the years. I don’t have much to add, except that some levels of detail are completely immaterial. For example, there is no practical difference between a K98 Mauser and a 1891/31 Mosin Nagant, even at the skirmish/squad level. In terms of range, external ballistics, and terminal effectiveness, there is no practical difference between these cartridge/rifle platforms. (In “real life” terms, the Mauser is better suited to mounting a scope; the Mosin-Nagant is a little easier to clean.) These two models accounted for the bulk of small arms issued in the theater, even as late as 1945.

    I do agree with Bruce that I would LIKE to know how the system works, but I haven’t seen a PC wargame with that much transparency for at least a decade. Even old-timers like Civil War Generals 2: Grant and Lee were too complicated to spell out what was running “under the hood.”

    To sum up, I think many of the issues raised by the panel (and guests) fall into the chicken/egg category. They simply cannot be resolved. However, I greatly enjoyed your podcast, as always. I really appreciate that you make the effort to post every week. Keep up the good work!

  • David

    O.K. I just read Bruce’s article on “realism,” linked above, and I now think I have a better understanding of the point he was trying to make in the podcast.

    I would still argue that knowing all of the various modifiers actually detracts from my gaming experience. For example, so long as I know that occupying the high ground is “good,” I really don’t need to know “how good” it is. The fact that Hill 242 would confer another +10% bonus to defense if it had been another 50 meters higher remains moot. (It would then be a hypothetical Hill 292 that simply isn’t there on the game map.)

    When gamers know all of the modifiers, it can lead to extrememly “gamey” tactics and strategies that ruin the game for me. I suppose the worst offender for this is Advanced Squad Leader, which is a mishmash of “real” and “abstract” elements. This has led to some gamey tactics like lurking, vehicle by-pass freeze, etc.

    I don’t consider myself a “realism” fetishist, but I definitely expect for games as long and complicated as War in the East, ASL, or even Achtung Panzer to correctly model the RELATIVE differences between Mark IV Panzers and T/34 tanks, just for example. By this I don’t mean that vehicles need to move at the correct scale per turn (as in miniature gaming), but the T/34s should cover more distance over a turn than the Mark IVs under the correct conditions (moving along a road network, enough fuel supply, etc.). Obviously, War in the East is at a larger scale where many other factors come into play when determining the speed of an entire formation, but I hope you get my basic idea.

  • spelk

    Enjoyed the show folks, especially the insights Joel brought to the table and the future refinements and plans for the next games in the series. Time to mop up the drool, methinks.

    I think the stand out point to make about War in the East, is that although it is a niche hardcore monster wargame for the true grogs, there have been roads made in making the initial gameplay much more accessible or at least approachable.

    As a lightweight wargamer, with too much History to learn, some of the more heavier games (like War in the Pacific) just don’t have back door small enough for the likes of me to sneak in and get a taste of their beauty. They are big, they are overwhelmingly complex, micro-management nightmares, and almost impenetrable. War in the East manages to jam a wedge in the back door, and allows me take the first steps in, allows me to jiggle some chits around and get a sense for the operational play, whilst taking care of all the managerial jobs behind the scenes. Once I become a little more confident, my interest piqued, I then begin to WANT to learn more about the games detail. And I can add the other sub-systems to my management schedule as and when I want.

    For me, this is a major step forward for a wargame of this size. And I think others are following in this explorative mechanism for introducing players to a game. The beauty being, that once you’ve familiarised yourself with the overall basics there actually IS more depth to explore. Most strategy games try to get you to the point of understanding the mechanics and then you’re often left with nothing more behind it. I felt this sort of “let-down” happen with RUSE. Once you’ve mastered the basics, theres no more depth invovled. Or at least there didn’t seem to be.

    Lastly, I just wanted to say a little something on the games transparency. Without getting into the usual debate over boardgame rules and realism, War in the East is using the computational power of the PC to go beyond the limits of boardgame abstractions. Boardgame rules have to be so constrained so that we mere mortals can learn them and process them during a game and still make it an enjoyable experience. PC wargaming doesn’t have to follow the same creed. PC wargaming should be evolving and using the actual raw processing power afforded to it. So that the games deliver something extra over what a few cardboard chits and a combat resolution table could give. Let our wargames evolve! The boardgame era can still be simulated on PC’s or iPhones, but allow the cutting edge of wargaming to find other new paths to enjoy the “what ifs” of these historical conflicts.

    I mean, take a look at the Panthergames series, pushing the envelope on how wargaming is being played. Hopefully the newer iterations of the War in the East style games will takes us further down the evolutionary line, and will bring new players into the genre.

  • CFKane

    It seems to me that “realism” in wargame design is a red herring. I think what many players are looking for in a wargame is a game, grounded in history, that produces historically plausible results.

    For example, an Eastern Front wargame that starts in June 1941 should not see the frontline Soviet units repulse the entire German army. That being said, if your game produces a variety of potential outcomes that make sense historically, it does not matter how complex your system is. I’m not sure that there is an appreciable difference between a standard CRT and a deep simulation that goes down to the individual squad, unless they produce different results. You wouldn’t prefer the more complex system unless you thought that it would produce more plausible results.

    A good example of increased complexity as a tool to provide more plausible results would be the fantastic Magna Mundi mod to Europa Universalis 3. The Magna Mundi mod added a number of systems that were designed to channel the gameplay of EU3 in ways that produced historically plausible results. This managed to cut down on the blobbing that was a severe problem with the game upon release.

    If I see a game that produces plausible results, I am generally satisfied, regardless of the complexity of the CRT (or other underlying systems).

    Also, a review of War in the East is up on my blog (which you can find by clicking my name). This will be the last time I promote it, I promise.

  • Mauricio

    FYI, they are talking about you. =)

    http://www.matrixgames.com/forums/tm.asp?m=2688989

  • MFToast

    Very interesting discussion. While I do like detail in a game, I like it within reason. Too many moving parts, especially ones hidden in the background with the code, make a game too uncertain and cluttered to really be a game.

    “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery

    Right? Right??

  • Shaun

    A good episode. I’m still wrestling with the idea of buying War In The East. I want that sort of experience, but as with HoI3 and EU3, I know I’ll probably never finish a campaign. Part of me just can’t reconcile with not “winning”.

    @MFToast – Great quote. ;)

  • CFKane

    @Shaun – I really think that the game is worth it, even if you just play the shorter scenarios. I have found them quite enjoyable in their own right.

  • Kingdaddy

    I was really looking forward to this episode, and it did not disappoint. I appreciate the hard questions you were trying to put to the Matrix guys, even though they didn’t really quite answer them. The basic argument you wanted them to answer, as I understood it, was nicely summarized by Bruce G.: Whether you can simulate something is a different question than whether you should simulate it. I didn’t get the impression that the Matrix team understood that proposition fully, or maybe they were just trying not to answer it.

    Their counterargument was, “Our customers want this depth of complexity and detail.” That can be an argument for progressively walling yourself into a very small market space in the company of your most enthusiastic customers. It might also be a sign that there are more grognards out there than we think. I would have liked to hear more about that point: how many copies of their games does Matrix sell? Do they, or anyone else, have any sense of the market size for hardcore wargames?

  • David

    Dear Kingdaddy:

    I think there is a HUGE untapped market for complex wargames with a competitive AI. VASL and Cyberboard have a lot of inherent problems. While none of them are insurmountable, they do pose real obstacles for some of us.

    Let’s face it, a PC game can be saved for months at a time or even abandoned without violating some form of “social contract.” You don’t have to worry about matching skill level, etc.

    In my opinion (based on limited and anecdotal evidence), a lot of people using VASL, Cyberboard, etc. would be more than happy to play wargames against a competent PC AI. The question then becomes does War in the East (or any PC game) have a competent AI?

    An $80-$90 pricepoint would not be an issue with this sort of hypothetical PC wargame. That’s the same pricepoint as the ASL Rulebook, just for example. Many of the “monster” board wargames routinely run $100-$150 these days. How many of those games are actually hitting the table every week, or even every month?

  • Tom Grant

    David, I agree with you. Matrix is making its money from someone. We just don’t encounter their fan base that often, which makes me think that there isn’t much overlap between that group and wargamers who prefer the cardboard medium.

    I’m also convinced that Vassal and Cyberboard would have several times more users if they overhauled the user experience (UX). Not just the UI, but the UX, which starts from the first download of those tools and whatever modules look interesting. Unfortunately, as open source projects, the people who work on them are a little defensive about criticism. For example, after describing a frustrating experience with the Combat Commander module for Vassal, I got the typical “Since you don’t contribute to it, why don’t you just shut up” response from some fans or contributors who epitomize one of the downsides of open source.

    Imagine a really usable Vassal, designed to get you hooked from the first minute you start. What would it be like if it were easier to set up matches from within the tool? How about a little VOIP to boot? Actually, I’d love to help, but I’m not sure even how to get started. (Something that would take a little work perhaps, and maybe it’s my fault for not initiating that conversation.) Cyberboard needs even more UX work.

  • Kingdaddy

    By the way, Tom Grant and Kingdaddy are the same person. I just forgot to remain consistent about which username I’d been using.

  • David

    Dear Kingdaddy:

    I think that there’s not much overlap between the PC wargamers and the FtF and/or VASL gamers because so many of us have given up on PC games. In all seriousness, there could be a lot of good PC wargames out there, but I wouldn’t know. I sort of gave up on PC wargames years ago, because once you truly learned the game, the AI posed no serious challenge.

    I’m not a computer expert (or even that knowledgeable about them), but my understanding is that even the best AI has trouble with sticking to a consistent strategy. AIs seem to do a pretty decent job at identifying their optimal moves on any given turn. However, AIs seem to have problems with identifying the correct move for a particular strategy, provided that move is not optimal in the short term. For example, the AI in the PC version of Puerto Rico makes a decent opponent, precisely because in that game, the only legitimate strategy requires making the optimal tactical decision each turn. Similarly, an AI can play a mean game of chess, but it would have major problems with something like a Fabian strategy.

    I’m afraid I’m not being very clear, but I can try to explain further if anyone doesn’t follow me. Again, I’m more of a FtF chit flipper/dice chucker, so my estimation of PC AIs may be hopelessly outdated as well.

    I agree with you 100% in that just getting the hang of most VASL modules is almost like relearning a complicated wargame. You have to be dedicated; that’s certain.