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One If By Sea. And Maybe Another Later.

September 21st, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Design, Firaxis

Unlike Champ over here, I don’t have F1 2011 yet. So, I decompressed last night with Civilization V, a game I haven’t really spent a lot of time with lately because its tactical military issues were never quite resolved to my satisfaction. Re-reading Todd Brakke’s thoughtful (and frustrating) game diaries over at No High Scores made me want to go back and see what has improved, so I loaded up and luckily drew one of my favorite nations – the Persians. Hello, 30 turn Golden Ages.

There is one large continent, but this continent has an arm that jutted prominently over my nation’s northwest. Across this narrow channel lay the Danes – the Vikings. Their great strength is amphibious raiding because their units can land and move at the same time. A great and useful power in the hands of a real Viking leader. Harald Bluetooth, alas, must have been suffering from some interference, though, because his idea of an amphibious assault was to land one pikeman by one city, a swordsman by another and a horse guy roaming around empty space.

I fended off these weak efforts, waited a bit, got some riflemen and took Copenhagen when I landed with four of them plus two cannon. And the single Viking trireme was no match for my impressive navy of caravels. (Yeah, my naval tech lagged. Didn’t need it, really.)

The amphibious attack is one of those things that paralyzes grand strategy games. Civilization IV wasn’t really great at it for one or four patches, either, since by the time it learned mass movement of troops on transports it still hadn’t learned the importance of escorts. But eventually it did and Shaka’s galleons were something to be feared. Scouting naval units on your sea borders were crucial early warning systems.

Empire: Total War was infamous for not being active at all in cross channel shipping, so England was impervious to attack. The Hearts of Iron series would have AI build more transports than it had troops and then nothing to defend them with – and might not even have the transports. Even your typical real time strategy game from the classic late 90s era would often struggle to understand how to get that beachhead set up, but with fog of war the AI could at least be depended on to land its forces out of sight and then bum rush your villagers.

It was, when you think about it, an abstraction that we wouldn’t tolerate today, but the Imperialism games let you move troops across sea zones based on how many ship guns were targeting the enemy territory. There were never questions of transports or landing too few troops – you landed as many as you wanted depending on how big your navy was, with an assumption that a large navy would have an equally large transport fleet.

The problem with water is that strategy games treat it as partly passable. With a clear goal and a limited map (like in an RTS) you can usually do OK even without resorting to extreme measures like “row your own damn self” in Rise of Nations, in which ever unit became a weak self-transport as it crossed ocean.

But with a larger map and variable goals, a partly passable zone becomes an AI nightmare. Is the water route the optimal path to the target? Which target? If I need transports, how do I mix the units on them? How many escorts will I need? What is the ratio of distance to transports needed? If I don’t need transports (like in Civ V), when and where do I hit first? Frankly, it’s amazing Civ IV ever got it right, considering issues like bombardment.

On a land map, you don’t really need any of this since land zones are either passable or impassable. Get your army or armies or units together and eliminate things in a path to your high priority/proximity targets. It’s not that path finding is easy; early RTS reviews would inevitably compare pathfinding as a major element of game design. But when there are fewer things to worry about movement wise for an AI, then the pathfinding seems to be clearer.

Now, keep in mind that this is mostly speculation on my part. It could also be that developers and programmers don’t care about naval movement all that much. I have argued that naval warfare in and of itself is tactically boring beyond the hide-and-seek part of the game, you are dealing with smaller numbers than the thousands of men you mobilize in your stacks in Total War or Hearts of Iron, and we really haven’t had a great naval/amphibious rivalry in history where two roughly equal powers were landing on each other’s shore and doing great feats of war. If we had a Sea Lion that failed and then a D-Day, maybe developers would look at amphibious raids more seriously.

At any rate, Harald is no more, Copenhagen is part of the Persian Empire and the French are getting uppity.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Punning Pundit

    I think the sea power is a lot like air power: so advantageous to the possessor that warfare doesn’t become decisive until one side or the other has full control of it. The Pacific War, for instance, was basically over as soon as the Japanese ran out of gas for their fleet. Carthago wasn’t delenda until Rome built a fleet– and wrested control of the Mediterranean from them. (Rome was so proud of this that they called that body of water “our sea”.)

    I think one of the reasons most games don’t do navel power well is that most games don’t do navel _trade_ well. If sea lanes were visible, and players could do economic damage to their opponents by parking ships along those lanes, you’d see more of a historic flavor to how the sea has been used.

    To take Civ5 as an example: if the convoy bringing oil from one nation to it’s ally could be intercepted by a third nation, all 3 sides would have enormous incentives to build and maintain navies– the same incentives that history has shown to exist. And it would be a fun mechanic.

  • Rindis

    I’ll admit that I missed the same boat to ‘modern gaming’ as Bruce Geryk, but whyever wouldn’t you accept an abstraction like Imperialism’s? I mean, abstractions are what allow games like that to work.

    After all, in this case, the main ‘detailed’ choice is to spend time and brainpower building units that have one purpose: driving other units around. Which means that you can count on a lot of time for the units not to be doing much, until they’re needed. Or waiting around for the units to be built now that you have a need for them. Not very fun, and often aggravation-inducing.

    By the way, are you sure on that with Imperialism? I was thinking the transportation of units also consumed space in your merchant fleet for the turn. It would certainly make sense for that to be so.