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Something in the way you move

February 15th, 2005 by Troy Goodfellow · No Comments · Uncategorized

I recently acquired a copy of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord, the Battlefront classic tactical game set in Europe after D-Day. Think of it as X-Com with Nazis if that helps. After having spent hour after hour with the more recent Combat Mission: Afrika Korps, CMBO is a real step backward in terms of interface, usability, command options and mission variety. Frankly, once you’ve played CMAK, there is no real reason to go back.

Still, in spite of myself, I am having the time of my life thanks to a couple of friends who also have CMBO. This means multiplayer. And multiplayer is the only way to play wargames.

Every wargame should have a strong single player component, of course. In fact, I would argue that every strategy game should emphasize single player since a single session can take a long time in some games, and even the lunch break type games (like Rise of Nations) need to be booted up without fussing to find a friend.

I have come to conclusion that wargames are something different. And it has nothing to do with the AI.

In fact, the Combat Mission games have pretty good AI. Though a little prone to suicidal charges up hill, it knows how to set and ambush and where to lob its mortar shells. Give it a small advantage and it will put up a good fight. Not every wargame is so lucky, of course, but the limitations of the genre mean that CPU intelligence is not that hard to work out.

I have come to the tentative conclusion that wargames are among the most personal of games. Even if they take place on large battlefields (like some of the scenarios in the Operational Art of War series), the mental space can be quite small. With very little scenery to distract you and limited sound, the war becomes your world. Plop in even rudimentary 3D units, like in Combat Mission, and you *are* there. And there is still limited stimuli around you.

Now you add in a human opponent. I don’t buy that humans are inherently more unpredictable than good AI, at least in wargames. Some of the guys I play have certain tendencies that I can count on. But humans add a mirror to your own involvement in the war game.

And nothing beats the aftermath once a hard fought skirmish is done. It’s like swapping war stories, only you get to have full intelligence. “Yeah, I thought I had you but then your bazooka killed my Panther.” “That was my final rocket, too. If he missed, that would have been it for me.” etc.

This is certainly possible in other genres, but it loses something. The debriefings after an Age of X game often boil down to who should have grabbed which gold mine or whether the tower rush should be banned the next time around. It’s hard to keep up the energy for a multi-week Europa Universalis type of game, so players peter out or choose to throw their lot in with another player, often leading to hard feelings.

In wargames, it’s just you and the other guy. None of the backstabbing that you get in other strategy games. There is a good guy and a bad guy, and you can talk about the battle afterwards like gentleman. It’s two sided. It’s collegial. It’s the only way to play.


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