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Three Moves Ahead Episode 118 – This Fully Operational Art of War

May 26th, 2011 by Rob Zacny · 11 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Ralph Trickey takes a break from updating and improving The Operational Art of War III to talk about the series with Rob, Troy, and Bruce. They discuss how the game is changing through patches, and then debate whether TOAW is a game so much as it is a set of tools. They also talk about how scenario designers have put those tools to use, and what shortcomings afflict the system. Everyone shares his favorite scenario, but Rob cannot contain himself and names three. Ralph mentions plans for The Operational Art of War IV, but it’ll be hard to sell that if he keeps making TOAW III better and better.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  • maroule

    looks nice but… nothing on the new Combat Mission Normandy? it’s not as if we’d been waiting for 5 years for a return to the bocage… I just downleaded it but didn’t have time to play it => would love your opinion on it

  • Ralph Trickey

    I’ll post here to continue the discussion if Bruce wants to about where we differ and agree.

    Here is where we agree.
    Anything hand-crafted for a specific purpose is (almost) always going to beat something that’s general purpose. I feel that it’s also going to take a lot longer to build, and the person building it is going to need a much higher level of skill and you have to know different disciplines. Unless you’re creating everything from scratch, you’re going to have to take whatever level of abstraction that the wargame provides when creating your scenario.

    As a mathemetician, I can agree that Bruce is right that TOAW isn’t demonstrably more valid that any other option (say dice rolls.) There is also no proof that mathematics has any correlation to reality. As an engineer (programmer) I would say that it’s also not really relevant, both methods should work, and if that’s true, then it’s a matter of preference.

    I understand his point that people (not just wargamers) feel that mathematics is gospel, and I agree that it isn’t. It is handy in modeling certain behaviors in the real world. Newton’s laws are handy for modeling the world, but they break down in some circumstances. When you’re talking about human behavior, the mathematics becomes even more fuzzy. Warfare isn’t just about modeling combat equipment. I feel that TOAW does an excellent job of modeling that. It’s also about modeling people and behaviors, and those are a lot harder to model.

    Here is where we disagree.
    The design of TOAW emphasizes starting with basic mathematical equations governing how combat equipment operates. It then has various levers like Readiness, Supply, Proficiency, and many others that can be used to alter the behavior of those equations. If those equations do a reasonable job of modeling reality (my job), then in many cases, you can set the levers at a position where the in game results model the behavior of the real-life. If the conflict you’re trying to model (modern assymentrical warfare, or pre-Napoleonic warfare with it’s communications delays) doesn’t match the mathematical models that TOAW uses, then you’re going to have problems designing a scenario that ‘feels’ right.

    The big issue I see is that if the equations and levers aren’t suitable, then the conflict is going to be ‘off’, and ‘fixing’ it to work is going to be very, very hard to do since they are so complicated. If you have a simpler model, then changing it to get different results is much simple.

    I (obviously) feel that this model is a great way to design a wargame, and that doing this, simplifies the creation of a scenario since you aren’t starting from a blank piece of paper, but from a solid foundation. I believe that those benefits outweigh the potential pitfalls. It also has benefits that if it is a reasonable model, and I change the model (3.4 does terrain effects differently. they ‘stack’ now in a sum of the squares manner) then that effects ALL scenarios, and should help them model things better. It can also unbalance them, but that’s a different matter.

    Here is where I don’t know if we agree or disagree.
    I think that the question of scenario design is unrelated to the level of abstraction that you’re using in the engine design. It is possible to design a great scenario using TOAW. It’s also possible to design a great scenario not using TOAW. I would say that it’s easier to design a GOOD scenario using TOAW than it is from scratch. You can start with an idea, an OOB and a map and iterate your way towards a solution. Without using TOAW, it’s going to be a lot harder, but you’re going to have more flexibility. I’m not sure about designing a GREAT scenario, and whether TOAW helps of hinders. I would guess that it’s more of a wash, and that designing great scenarios is a lot more about the designer than the tools he uses.

    Scenario Design comments
    Scenario design is very much an art. Boardgames actually have general rules for best unit counts, maximum movement, and map size. These were known as far back as what I would consider the golden age of SPI in the 70s, although I haven’t seen them written down anywhere. I think that some people use these as the benchmark for computer games also. Some people agree and like the smaller unit counts and tighter scenarios that are designed this way. There are also a fair number of people in the TOAW community that disagree that’s the best way to do things and they enjoy the high-unit count scenarios. I disagree that those are ‘bad design,’ I think that they are simply different tastes in design.

    I think that the trend in game design is actually going the other way towards games which can be played in 30 minute chunks, not in games which take 30 minutes minimum per turn. Given the amount of time I have that I can play, I can sympathise. My eventual goal is to allow (not force) you to play at the level you want, either per unit, formation, or whatever. I would actually enjoy a game where the computer is moving a lot of units, and I’m making the interesting decisions (10-20 units/formations/whatever per turn.) There are games out there like this, but they are RTS games. I’m not saying that the number of units make the scenario better, but I feel that they don’t make it worse, as long as the AI can move them for me. They can add a flavor and allow me to make the critical ‘interesting decisions’ in micromanaging places where I need to.

    Even though I said things like the UI was a 20th centry UI, that was NOT meant to disparage the UI. TOAW was written in the 20th century, and for it’s time, was a great UI. Time has moved on and things have changed. Norm did a fantastic piece of work and I have nothing but respect for it.

  • Serge Renault

    I’m very disappointed with this episode. As a Toaw fan I really was hoping to see, after years of indifference by the specialized midia, a real discussion about Toaw’s qualities, flaws and improvements. But all resumed to a personal support of philosophical positions about a particular aspect of the game engine.

    I understand and even agree with Bruce’s statement that systems are complex entities which owe their behavior to much more than the sum of their basic building blocks. The sum of individual pieces of equipment on a unit ignores a whole lot of particular circumstantial variables that can change results completely. The mere attribution of synthetic strengths values and modifiers based on statistical research for a particular circumstance can provide more precise results than the detailed reproduction of OOB. After all, the statistics for a particular battle or campaign will bring included in itself all the variables then present. Yet, Bruce seems to ignore the fact that most scenario designers won’t have time to grab data in order to reconstruct precise odds for particular situations. If they were given an editor which asked for a strength number, probably they wouldn’t have a hint and without a complete understanding of the ‘under the hood’ mechanics of the game engine, those numbers would be totally off.

    Using OOB to set a strength factor, allows Toaw scenario designers to get a backbone from where to start. Those who are willing to get deeper into research, have the means to tweak it further and get more precise values; those who don’t, will at least sometimes, get a playable scenario, which with some playtesting can bring a reasonable game, even if not extremely precise from a historical point of view. And so what?

    Take Combat Mission, for instance. A simple patch/mod tweaking the power of mortars or the tendency of infantry to rout can completely change outcomes. Yet it is theatre specific, dealing with very specific conditions etc. It isn’t more precise than Toaw. The feel SEEMS to be authentic? Is it fun and challenging? Then it’s ok.

    One of the points focused was the ambitious scope and its validity. Is it actually worth discussing this after more than ten years of success. Wasn’t it valid, the game would already be buried.

    It was this philosophy what allowed this game to survive more than a decade and still be considered one of the best operational games around. It allowed a lot of conflicts, which wouldn’t see light in the shape of a game, to be represented.

    “Oh, but you can´t say me that all those scenarios are precise simulations of the portrayed conflicts!”. Sure not, but we need to get rid of the idea that games are simulations. If I’m to establish statistics on accidents caused by wing stall induced by sudden rudder application when landing an airplane based on flight simulators, which ARE dedicated simulators, I would notice that, probably, it would diverge from historical real world numbers. Even dedicated simulators present wrong results because of the exclusion of important variables present on real world specific situations. So, a game like Toaw can’t be stated to simulate precise battle results by using the sum of very simplified representations of equipment. It wouldn’t, even if those equipment models were precisely represented.

    That seems to be your point and I completely agree, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is a valuable designers tool. It made it possible for Toaw to accumulate hundreds of scenarios on different conflicts. Some good and some bad. Well, is there any game based on users made scenario which doesn’t present a reasonable number of bad ones?

    The bottom line is that most of the episode was based on the fact that someone is offended by a sophismatic line of though which defends that Toaw’s sum of equipment approach is enough to get a historical precision. And the game (which goes much beyond this discussion) was totally ignored. The proof of that is that the improvements were quoted “en passant” and they have nothing to do with equipment allocation.

    What is the final conclusion? Games should be theatre specific? Not like Toaw with its ambitious scope? Any wargamer will admit that something would be missing without Toaw.

    Bruce admits to have had fun with Toaw, but the impression one gets from this episode is that Toaw has a flawed design, based on flawed premises; yet, the debaters concede that it can be kinda fun. This is kinda snobbish if one considers the discussion is about one of the most successful operational games around.

  • 3MA Fan

    As a loyal listener that waits for the download weekly, this one, I’m afraid to say, was below par. Bruce makes a valid point about theory that requires maybe 3-5 minutes of discussion, not 40. I wanted to hear more (or anything?) from Ralph, and more about the game. Droning endlessly on about one truly moot point made the show unlistenable (and more than mildly insulting to my intelligence) after a time. I believe this is the first episode of 3MA that I haven’t listened to in its entirety.

  • Rob Zacny

    I am surprised by the negative reaction to this episode, but I do understand it and feel compelled to say a few words in response.

    First and foremost, if the conversation got stuck on a particular point at the expense of a good, comprehensive discussion, that is my fault as host. I should have moved the conversation on from that so we could address other points about TOAW. For instance, I immediately regretted that we did not address how TOAW handles the passage of time within a turn, and the difficulty of coordinating large groups of forces. Any good discussion of the game should have hit this, and yet we did not.

    To those of you saying you wish Ralph had talked more, well, I think Ralph himself would concede he was a bit reticent on the air and we did not have the discussion we might have preferred. This is the nature of 3MA. You are not listening to a show so much as a conversation among friends, colleagues, and (in this case) new acquaintances. We sometimes fail to have as wide-ranging and fruitful a discussion as we might hope. However seriously we try to take 3MA, we have just an hour or so per show to do a topic justice. There are no-retakes. We get a brief chance to talk, and sometimes that is all we need, and other times it barely scratches the surface.

    Anyway, I am sorry this was not the episode you might have wished, and that it was not perhaps the discussion that TOAW deserved. It’s a big topic, and we are as prone to getting lost in our tangents and debates as anyone else. I will, as always, try to do a better job, but this is a hazard of our format. I hope you enjoy our future shows more than this one.

  • Chris Nahr

    Well, I enjoyed the show. I thought it was a given that everyone who listens to this podcast already knows TOAW, so there’s little point in going over the basics. Simulation based on historical strength & equipment numbers is TOAW’s unique feature, so it seems obvious to focus on that aspect.

    But I actually didn’t know the game was still actively being maintained, much less by Ralph Trickey. That was a nice surprise. He’s the one from Usenet and CGS+, right? Congrats, you’re famous now! :)

    And then the show even quoted the historic Jeeps vs Tiger review. Truly, the only way up from here is a dramatic reading of F*CKING BIG MOUSE. By Bruce Geryk, please.

  • MikeO

    The “100 Jeeps vs Tiger tanks” effect is one unhappy consequence of trying to somehow model everything, rather than just abstract stuff. In a board wargame, a transport unit will usually just have no combat value, and you’re done. I have never tested it, but the Panther Games sims probably get some skewed results due to this, too.

    It’s just two different ways of doing things, and I can see it from both sides.

  • Shaun

    So uh…

    Where does one go for TOAW Scenarios? I’ve found a website called Games Depot, but no France ’14.

  • Brad

    Just wanted to say I enjoyed this show. I’ve never played TAOW (and don’t intend to, it’s not my to my taste) but I really enjoyed the discussion regarding the design philosophy. Keep up the good work!

  • Jon

    For a while now Ive been searching for good strategy games, particularly one’s that better portray real war strategy, and by complete accident I found this podcast a few weeks ago and this game TOAW. And I certainly was in for somewhat of a treat in the discussion that took place, though I think you guys spent a lot of time arguing some null points which I intend to point out. I haven’t played the game yet, but I will be giving it a try soon.

    But before I say anything else Ive got to point out one thing: you guys were wrong on so many levels for inviting Ralph onto your show, then bashing the game that he obviously cares about so much. I understand to a degree constructive criticism, but this was a bit tasteless. No to the game…

    Like I said I haven’t played the game yet but from what I understand the fundamental problem you guys have with the game is not only the way war is portrayed as a system in the game, but the philosophy of valuing units. While I do believe as others have said that in complex systems, the sum will make something different that the parts that it’s composed of, from a designer’s perspective I think this is a much more complicated decision than you all portrayed. Keep in mind that this game is attempting to represent a huge amount of history, and along with it all the weaponry and war philosophies that come with it which in itself is a tall order. To create a tool set with this scope, a simple way to portray the units for the sake of the players designing scenarios seems necessary. Is this a flawed philosophy? It really depends, but I think it’s more a design choice and less an overall philosophy. Does this undermine game design? I don’t think so. Once again I see simply a design decision that makes sense in the context of the type of game being created. In fact, I think there is a fundamental dilemma that we see here.

    Somewhere in the discussion you guys discussed the realism and being able to look up units. I think if this game instead had another setting with completely arbitrary units, that the value system wouldn’t be so much of a problem. However, with a strategy game of this scope, allowing for real units saves an enormous amount of design time that could be used for other aspects of the game. The problem is that when you add real units, the players will automatically assume realism, and thus the game has to act realistically. And of course everyone wants to recreate the old battles and attempt to answer those historical what-if situations. Creating such a system necessary to allow for those “plausible” outcomes (and we can argue what is plausible but that’s another discussion) is an extremely difficult thing to do, as we still don’t even fully understand how complex systems work.

    Here’s the problem I see, and if Ralph is still here, I would like to know his thoughts on this). It seems to me that the designer would have a difficult time having a voice in a single player experience, and to Ralph I would ask did this question arise when he was working on TOAW?

    What I find ironic is that you guys were so quick to pick on this one flaw of the game which is null from a game designer’s perspective, as it makes sense for the scope of the game. It was especially amazing to me that you all were so quick to go beyond constructive criticism and paint it as bad design which was a bit irrational. You even went as far as to insult your guest’s opinions. No wonder Ralph was so quiet; he came into a discussion that he wasn’t really prepared to have. It is very easy to criticize the flaws of a game, but extremely difficult to create something on your own, which in this case was a pretty amazing feat. I find it especially ironic as you both claim that you all enjoy this game so much. Maybe it’s just me but I have reservations for people who are willing to bash something in the respect you guys did without offering solutions.

    I personally believe that a game like this allows others to make their own experiences, and hopefully in the spirit of their own scenario design platform spark their own game design decisions. In this respect it is probably one of the best game experiences you can create. Those are my thoughts. Overall interesting podcast though I would have like to hear more about TOAW. And thank you Ralph.