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On Site Mini-Review: Guns of August

January 21st, 2008 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Matrix, Wargames

Guns of August (Adanac Command Studies/Matrix Games) is a rare example of how to capture the seemingly uncapturable. Making a good game about World War I requires a design that forces the player to accept stasis on some fronts as a matter of course. It means creating rules that limit how much progress the player can make in a turn without making the player angry that he can’t make more progress in a turn. The Eastern front can have wild and crazy fronts because of the expanse; the West needs to make every hex count. Otherwise it’s not really WWI.

Consider the number of war and strategy games that sell themselves on how they will let you do everything. More units, more research options, tactical minigames under a strategy layer, etc. The philosophy of interesting decisions has often been interpreted to mean lots of little ones, not a few big ones. That’s where Guns of August differs. It takes a central board game conceit – limitation – and sells it.

We often forget that limiting the number of actions in a board game is fundamental to making the game run smoothly. Since a board game is designed to be played both with other people and in a reasonable amount of time, you can’t have players doing every possible action more than a couple of times per turn at most – less is better. You’ll be there forever. So by using a deck of cards, or allocating action points, or using attrition, you can quickly move the turn on to the next person, keeping everyone involved. You want short turns where every action matters, not long turns where people have time to read the rulebook and realize that you’ve been doing it wrong for the last two hours.

There’s no reason for computer games to be like that. Auto-calculation means that turns move very quickly, there are pretty lights to distract people, and PBEM moves with a rhythm all its own. But for some settings, limiting actions proves to be essential to getting the right feel. And the stop-and-start of the First World War proves to be such a setting.

In Guns of August, the first few 1914 turns are full of action. Your headquarters (to which troops are tied) have lots of activation opportunities and the Central Powers can push hard against Belgium and Serbia and France and Russia. But as the weeks drag on, these activation opportunities deplete. You might have time for a single major offensive on each front. The other hexes might get an artillery barrage, maybe with some mustard gas for that added pop, but you can’t do everything everywhere. This isn’t Operational Art of War where you pause an attack to get supply; you pause an attack in Guns of August because you have to choose between taking Liege or stopping the Cossacks. This sort of limitation repeats itself in research, diplomacy, naval orders, recruitment, etc. It’s all about carefully spending scarce resources when everything looks so appetizing. This is what makes it a strategy game more than a war game.

The other big board gamey thing is the rule book. You will need to read and re-read it before a lot of stuff become clear. How does research work? How does the naval interface work? Why can’t I launch a diplomatic overture to Italy? Depending on the screen or menu, the interface veers from functional to appalling. (Part of the reason this mini-review is so late is because it took me a while to find the time to comprehensively learn what the hell I was doing.) The buttons are too small with too small text and no menu has any explanation for what does what.

Guns of August, for me, ends up in some sort of netherworld of journalistic recommendation. Is it a good game that rewards the attention of careful readers and planners, or is it merely a good World War I game once you get past all the interface crap? Can you celebrate a game for its great board gamey feel and then complain that the computerized interface is 10 years behind the times? Since I did just that for Armageddon Empires, it would be stingy to change the rules for Guns, but then AE is self-published and constantly being tweaked.

I’ll say this. It is one of the most satisfying original games to come out of Matrix in the past year. There is a lot of great stuff in this game, and I hope to say more about how it treats history and diplomacy in coming weeks.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Donald R. McClarey

    I have had this game since it first came out and I still haven’t figured it out. I seem to spend just as much time fighting the interface as I do WWI. I have downloaded the most recent beta patch and hopefully it will help.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    You ask: “Can you celebrate a game for its great board gamey feel and then complain that the computerized interface is 10 years behind the times?”

    I would say that the answer is “no”. If the interface is so convoluted that you can’t figure out how to do things even after turning to the manual multiple times, the game has failed. At that point it is not fun, which is the whole point of anything calling itself a “game”.

    I take my cue on this point from the boys at Old Man Murray, who wrote many years ago:

    We used to think that we needed to solve a game before we unleashed a review of it. We’d bought into the line of crap delivered by some of the more sanctimonious gaming pundits which states that a “real” reviewer always slogs through the whole thing, because it “might get better.” You know what? Hell with that. We’re not getting a degree from the U. of Firing Squad. Here’s a note to developers regarding what we hope will become an industry-wide policy: if your game has some good parts, try to put them at the fucking beginning.

    [H]ere’s our new rule: if a game can’t manage to provide some thrills in the first hour, it gets a bad review. Welcome to the new era of common sense. Developers have one goddamn job: entertain us. And we mean now, goddamnit, not in six hours.

  • Bruce

    That’s certainly a valid opinion, but I think if you apply that to wargames, you’ll miss most of the audience because many wargamers play these things for reasons other than just “gaming.” Some love figuring out how the game mechanics interact. Some don’t even necessarily like them as “games” – one former PC gaming magazine editor has posted multiple times about how he prefers one hex-wargame to another, even though he admits the latter is a much better “game” with a better interface, more competitive, etc., because the former game allows him to “dork around” while reading about a campaign since it has so many units and hexes (even if this make it impossible for him to complete the campaign scenarios). It all has to do with what people enjoy about the particular product – as I said, it may not actually be the “gaming.”

  • Troy

    I guess the issue is the “dorking around threshold”. How quickly and how much does the game pull you in to make the dorking around worthwhile? It’s the promise of a greater reward based on a string of small carrots.

    I probably have more patience with this sort of crap than most people, but as I get older and see how many now basic interface/tutorial tools get tossed aside, I wonder how much longer I’m willing to invest in understanding the relationship between sliders on different menus.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    It all has to do with what people enjoy about the particular product – as I said, it may not actually be the “gaming.”

    Which is fine, if strategy games want to be confined forever to the ghetto market of obsessive-compulsive history nerds.

    There’s nothing about strategy games in particular that says they can’t be approachable and discoverable. Troy’s article says that Guns of August‘s interface is “10 years behind the times”, but if it’s as hard to grok as it sounds, calling it 10 years behind is probably being generous. Panzer General came out more than 10 years ago and it managed to be approachable — and today’s games have access to resources (3D acceleration, tons of RAM and storage, video support in every PC) that PG’s developers could only have dreamt of.

    I guess the story here is that the strategy gaming market is one of the few remaining markets that still accepts obtuse interface design — which might go a long way towards explaining why the strategy gaming market has become a tiny corner of an otherwise booming industry.

  • Troy

    Actually, the strategy part of the market does just fine sales wise, if not hype wise. Check the ESA’s numbers for PC games. The big RTS franchises and the Civ series are prime examples.

    Of course, Civ IV has a brilliant interface. Age of Empires 3, however, did not, and Company of Heroes was notoriously underdocumented, both in terms of in game clues and a terrible manual. I thought Europa Universalis 3 had a much improved interface, though, frankly, it was a series starting with a pretty low threshold. But there are lots of good interfaces in strategy gaming – probably no worse than in many shooters or simulations.

    Wargames with a limited audience are another matter. I agree with you, Jason, that the learning curve is a huge barrier to expansion of the market and there is, curiously, a group of people that actually revel in the obtuseness of it all. The big problem is that so many wargamers (to whom Guns is targeted) are satisfied with the way things are because, for them, things have never been different and there’s so much self/indie publication going on that there’s little pressure to make things clearer.

  • Scott R. Krol

    I think when folks think of the strategy genre RTS is a completely different beast. In that respect I’d have to agree with Jason that the market has shrunk immensely.

    UI definitely plays a huge part in it. I know folks screamed bloody murder about the Dom II interface and I’m sure that also meant a few hits were taken in sales. Although Dom 3 improved on the UI, it still takes folks to read the superb manual to fully appreciate it. Again, I’m sure it’s taken a few hits because of that.

    And talk about a UI far behind the times…imagine what Dwarf Fortress would be like with a decent UI?

    I don’t think folks put up with poor UI solely because that’s what they’re used to. I think it’s more like what choice do we have? If you want a deep TBS game, you suck it up and deal with it. In a way computer TBS games are about 30 years behind their board game counterparts. In the ’70s you’d slog your way through a poorly written AH or SPI manual because that was the only way. Over time though publishers and designers learned how to overcome that and today’s manuals look nothing like the old ones.
    It’s about time computer designers follow suit.

    Of course, even with great UI, I’m not sure if you could crack out of the “ghetto market of OCD history nerds”, because the topics portrayed tend to be only of interest to OCD history nerds.
    And that’s okay, because everything doesn’t need to be the next Panzer General.

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Actually, the strategy part of the market does just fine sales wise, if not hype wise.

    That’s definitely true, though I was thinking more along the lines of the product you see from outfits like Matrix and Battlefront.com. So “wargames” is definitely a more apropos description than “strategy games” is.

  • JonathanStrange

    Are wargames inherently a niche product? Even if they are, I think there surely should be some growth potential. There must be more potential wargamers like me who would buy more “real” wargames if only they didn’t have to pay AAA prices for 1990s-era graphics and UIs. I think many would-be wargamers are/were seduced away by the relatively cheaper prices, better production values and low-barriers to beginners of many mainstream games.

    Supposedly wargames are for those who like more attention/access to detail and realism. I wonder though when I play a game like Punic Wars and it takes a lot of searching to find out basic info like how many men per rank a unit may have or have to read a relatively disorganized description of the game’s phases.

    I think developers/designers count on being given alot of slack from wargamers grateful to get a game on their favorite historical era and so we find: introductory missions that can’t be won, rules that are wordy about obvious introductory stuff and vague/missing on more complex questions.

    I’ve been playing and (relatively) enjoying HPS Punic Wars, HPS Squad Battle Advance of the Reich, AGEOD’s Birth of America and I have all those problems. Want to know how many Roman legionaries per rank? Whether a large unit’s morale is better than a smaller unit’s? At what range is my AT gun ineffective against enemy tanks? Are we firing HE or AP? Why didn’t Washington just build a “killer stack” during the Revolution like I did? You have to really dig through the PDFs to find out this “stuff” which sort of negates virtually all of the so-called accessibility to info or realism wargames seem to promise.

    Frankly, non-wargames can have just as much complexity and realism (within their alternate worlds) but are often far easier to access. There’s probably Warcraft III players or Civ gamers that are just as knowledgeable of the subtleties of build orders or tech research as wargamers are of armor penetration rates or sonar range detection limits. But they don’t have to fight their game to get there.

    As for GUNS OF AUGUST: if people who enjoy wargames, who are interested in WW1, and who spent money to acquire the game, if these gamers find its UI 10 years out-of-date, its rules unclear, and are having to spend a considerable amount of time just figuring out what’s going on…well, I’d have to pass. Life’s too short.

  • Michael A.

    Great discussion.

    I believe Jonathan is right; there is surely growth potential in the “wargame market”; and providing accesibility and good (as well as attractive) interfaces, would surely go a long way toward opening up that market.

    It’s difficult to ask for this from independents though; basically, because the studios generally are as small as they are.

    Developing games *can* be fun. Building accessible user-interfaces is boring. Actually, building accessible user-interfaces is a royal pain in the fundament. I keep contacts with a fair number of independent developers of strategy games; and I’ve yet to discuss with anyone who thinks differently.

    Given that there are never enough resources (time) to do everything, it is not surprising that UI are shorted most of the time. GUI development is expensive in terms of time; and the core customer base is usually willing to settle for less. The business logic makes sense; even if it perhaps a bit short sighted.