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Developer Interview: Jean-Michel Mathé

November 13th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Battlefront, Interview

Histwar: Les Grognards is an upcoming Napoleonic wargame from Battlefront and Jean-Michel Mathé. You can probably think of it as a serious wargamer’s Imperial Glory. No release date has been set.

The screenshots look good, but what does it have that keeps it from being Blucher: Total War? M. Mathé agreed to answer a few questions about the design of Les Grognards.


What’s your background in game design?

I have worked for many years in a public research laboratory as a specialist in real time imaging systems. Besides my job, I have always been interested in history, strategy, and wargames. My experience as a game designer started back in the 90’s when I spent almost 10 years developing my first wargame, La Grande Armée at Austerlitz. This was my first attempt to introduce the concept of the “First Person Commander” (i.e., the player is put in the saddle of an army commander and bears all of his responsibilities). LGAA was then distributed by Matrix Games in 2001. I learned a lot from this first project, and, since players seemed to appreciate the First Person Commander concept, I decided to follow on to the next version of the project. As a result, I have been working on HistWar: Les Grognards for the last five years with the main objective of addressing LGAA player feedback, and, most importantly, developing the game engine to its full potential. The near future should tell us if I have succeeded in my objective or not.

Why Napoleonic combat?

Simply because the Napoleonic era, and most generally the 19th century, is a pivotal period in the history of warfare. It offered a tactical depth unrivaled by any other period. Consider a single man in charge of tens of thousands of soldiers deployed on a tiny battlefield. Then imagine him searching for a tactical plan for triumphing over his opponent, knowing that an unimaginative frontal assault will end in disaster. Here you will have all the ingredients for a perfect wargame. As the military theorist Jomini argued, engaging yourself in a frontal assault will have little benefit. So, the tactician-player will then need to formulate a response to this challenge, choosing the optimal organization for his army, attacking at the right time, defending the right position, and sending in the reserve when it is necessary…Add to these difficult tasks the fact that the real time feature prevents the player from simply sitting back and reflecting at length on matters. Add also the pleasure of watching a battlefield packed with colorful regiments, and you can then understand why Napoleonic combat was my first choice.

The most astonishing thing about the listed features is the scale. Thousands of men, the ability to play in real 1:1 time…Why go so big?

HistWar: Les Grognards clearly seeks to immerse players in the ambience of Napoleonic battles. Since I had no choice but to try to reproduce masses of soldiers, I needed to get as close as the 1:1 scale as possible. I have chosen a ratio of one 3D figure for ten real soldiers so that dimensions of units remain accurate while their density is still well-represented on the screen. HistWar: Les Grognards is a true wargame because it models Napoleonic battles on multiple levels: from the hierarchies of armies and realistic casualty rates — ones that mirror historical results — to the dimensions of units …

Now, regarding time scale, players will be able to adapt the game pace to their needs by adjusting the time compression from six to 60 real-time seconds. The game’s pace is generally slow, so you won’t need to be a “mouse-freak” to win battles. You may just want to take your time to study and react to what’s happening as those two lines of 200 regiments exchange volleys in a brutal fire fight. I think, by the way, that the game plays fine at 15 seconds per minute. This time scale is high enough to let players manage all their troops.

Is the promised scale posing any problems you didn’t expect?

The transition from sprites to 3D design has been more difficult than I at first thought. Difficulties were further increased by the large number of soldiers I had to represent in the game. Therefore, from the very beginning, I had to set up systematic code optimization so as to keep the balance between an acceptable graphical rendering and a minimum of resource usage. As a result of my quest for optimization, HistWar: Les Grognards is able to manage more than 550 basic uniforms, many of them modified to reflect the colours of the current 1300 historical regiments included in the game. As you know, graphical systems cannot handle more than 50 000 3D models and still get a suitable FPS rate. Consequently, when seen at middle range, 3D models are replaced by their 2D images. However, these 2D sprites are often loaded from graphical files, a task which requires heavy memory usage — especially when, as I said above, the program has to display regimental colours. Therefore, I chose to calculate all these middle range 2D sprites in real time, because it neatly manages the animations and the color changes. In short, it makes the transitions between the 3D and 2D sprites quite seamless. Finally, the large maps (up to 30 square kilometers for the largest map) and the large armies required a good deal of work to optimize, but I believe I have succeeded.

Strategy gamers today are big on replayability. With only ten historical battles and no campaign, what will bring players back to Histwar again and again?

HistWar: Les Grognards will indeed include ten historical battles (nine battles and one mini-campaign around Ratisbonne in 1809). The intent is to help players get used to the game concepts without spending too much time at first on creating armies and scenarios. What’s more, the mini-campaign mode will allow players to fight battles for several days as losses and morale levels for the units are updated daily. However, the main objective for HistWar: Les Grognards is to put players in the boots of an army commander, allowing them to experience all of the responsibilities of such a position: building an army, selecting its doctrine, and eventually leading it on the battlefield. To achieve such important tasks, players will be given access to the Order of Battle and Doctrine Editors, which they will need to master if they want to be victorious. As an example of how important these tools are, victory may very well elude the player who understands tactics but organizes his army badly. With these tools, players will have the ability to develop their skills at their own pace and regularly improve their organizations or tactics based on their previous experiments. Eventually, together with the third editor, the map editor, players will hold in their hands all they need to recreate scores of real battles. What’s more, they can compete with the historic Napoleonic generals, or they can simply invent completely new, non- historical scenarios. As you can see, the list of battles waiting to be fought in HistWar: Les Grognards is infinite.

Will the player have any control over deployment before the battle?

Yes, indeed, freedom of deployment is necessary if you don’t want to play the same battle again and again. As with real warfare, the initial deployment often reveals the intended tactics. What’s more, it will be very difficult, if not unrealistic, to move and relocate tens of thousands of soldiers right in the middle of a battle.

As a consequence, players must work out their tactics at the beginning of a game (they will be able to use an integrated graphics tool that helps with drawing orders; this tool will be essential for communicating with fellow generals in the multi-player mode). So, for example, players will need to define each corps’ mission, reassign units from one corps to another one, and position the different units on the map…

In HistWar: Les Grognards the battle starts well before the first round is fired.

How does the 3-level AI work? What does it add beyond flexibility?

There are three independent AI levels in the game: The Grand Tactical AI (only active in solo mode), the Corps AI, and the Regimental AI.

The Regimental AI simply follows doctrine (set by the Doctrine Editor I mentioned earlier) and tries to perform the assigned orders. With this AI, the morale level plays a major part as orders will be carried out if the unit’s motivation is high enough. A unit’s morale is based on several important parameters: losses, the presence of friendly entities in the vicinity (i.e., an army or corps commander, another friendly regiment), status, environment (is the Line of operation still protected?) and cohesion. As an example, front units could experience a sudden drop in moral should they witness a Guard or an elite unit being routed and put to flight. To summarize, the Regimental AI is always trying to execute its orders, but a variation in the morale level may prevent it from doing so. Of course, the Regimental AI can also act on its own initiative if the player so wishes.

The Corps AI manages the corps organization according to the orders it has received. Thus, the Corps AI deploys units on the front line, replaces fleeing units by reserve units, and relocates a rallied unit in the corps; the Corps AI is also able to stop the corps’ movement and order its canons to shoot at the enemy if necessary, but such initiative is limited as the Corps AI must strictly observe player’s orders.

The Grand Tactical AI works out the tactics, builds its own army organization, and periodically evaluates the tactical situation so as to be able to execute specific actions. Here lies the challenge for players who will have to fight this AI and try to trap it, deceive it…and eventually beat it.

Now, at a global level, the combination of these three AI-levels helps to recreate the operational activities of a real military structure. Even more importantly, because the operations are divided between the three different AI levels, command chain dysfunctions that any wargamer would expect become possible, further adding to the game’s realism. Let’s take the example of a Corps AI sending an order to a regiment. This unit may not perform the order, for whatever reason. From its point of view, the Corps AI will then continue its operations, fully believing that the order has been executed. The AI will be informed of the failure of its order only by the absence of its execution. As you can imagine, such a situation could jeopardize the integrity of the whole corps. Should I have based “HistWar: Les Grognards” on one single AI, I would not have been able to reproduce this example of dysfunction; that is because the perfectly unified AI would have immediately recognized the problem and taken the corrective action. Simply said, with the three AI levels, we will avoid some typical “gamey” (or unrealistic) unit behaviors.

Customization is another theme in Histwar, with a battle editor, a doctrine editor and even the ability to create new uniforms. What is the place of this sort of original material in your design vision?

In essence, the three editors of HistWar: Les Grognards are the pillars upon which the game is built. I am sure that players will be surprised by their hidden resources once they have mastered the fighting operations. For example, the Map Editor will allow you to create historical or fictional maps manually or automatically. If players choose automated creation, they can build a battlefield in a single click, and soon they are ready to play. On the contrary, if they decide to painstakingly recreate a historical map, they will have an interesting option: they can display a map or photograph of a battlefield in the background so they can trace it as they create their virtual maps. Of course, a similar feature is included in the Order of Battle Editor, which will allow players to build historical armies or fictional organizations, depending on their requirements. My vision is to serve different types of players: Napoleonic fans or hardcore grogs will be given the tools to recreate strictly historical environments, whereas green players will be able to have fun with a friend in a minute’s time. On top of that, the maps, OoBs and doctrines can be shared among the community so that “HistWarians” will learn from each other as they reuse data other “Grognards” have generated using these three editors.

How did your partnership with Battlefront come about?

Martin (van Balkom) simply contacted me in mid-2004 to get some info and see if we could work together. At that time, the HistWar project was still in development, so we just kept exchanging info for one year until I felt ready to give it a go. Then everything went fast, and now I am about to finish developing the game. I sincerely hope players will like it — and allow me the possibility of working on related projects, as there are still many interesting things to do.

Are there any features you wanted to include that you’ve had to cut?

Nothing was really cut… in fact, a few features were even added, many of them based on players’ comments. For example, the two additional AI levels for divisions and brigade were put in based on the comments of supporters who wanted even more historical accuracy. Although I think the three initial levels would have been sufficient, I have developed these two AI levels so that players can now detach a specific division or brigade in order to execute a specific mission during the battle. I would like to add that I am always pleased when HistWar fans ask questions or send me constructive comments. It helps me to give them interesting features in return. And who knows, my designer’s pockets might still contain some secrets!

What’s your favorite book on Napoleonic Warfare?

Among the English titles on Napoleonic warfare, I would say that Imperial Bayonets by Nafziger is a must read. Austerlitz by Scott Bowden is also a reference as well as the great Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars by Elting and Esposito. Well, in fact, there are so many of them… A whole life of reading would not be enough. I hope that it will be the case for HistWar: Les Grognards and that players will enjoy it for many, many years!


One Comment so far ↓

  • Peter Rodriguez

    Where can I get this amazing game?
    What well-known retailers carry this title as of 11/01/2007?
    What well-know online retailers carry this item as of the same date? and –
    if so, can the game be purchased only by downloading them or is the game available on CD/DVD for shipping to my address?
    Contact me.