Saturday, November 29, 2008

Seeing The Future: Thoughts on Combat Results in Tactical Games

Stephen B. Patrick presented some detailed thoughts on Combat Results Tables (CRT) in the February 1972 issue of Moves magazine that are interesting not only in their ability to briefly summarize their history but in exploring ongoing issues as today's game designers - both board and computer - continue the quest to best marry playability and realism in a single vehicle. I presented some thoughts on the subject in November 2008 on another site, which I'm presenting here in revised form. ("Professor Professorson" just found a link to the entire archive of back issues, incidentally, which Greg Costikyan uploaded to - read the details here.)

At the time the article in Moves was written, wargaming at the tactical scale in board games was in its infancy though miniatures rules had been promoted by pioneers in the hobby such as Jack Scruby in the U.S. and Charles Grant in the U.K. for many years. While Avalon Hill's PanzerBlitz contained many innovative concepts compared to the standard fare since board wargames first appeared on the market in 1958, such as isomorphic mapboards and a multiple scenario format, the method in which the game produced combat results remained unremarkable. When SPI began producing tactical games - including Soldiers: Tactical Combat in 1914-15, and Grunt, set in Vietnam, the CRT was similarly - speaking purely from hindsight - uninspired.

James F. Dunnigan defines a CRT in the 3rd Edition of his Wargames Handbook as

A Probability Table that shows the possible results of all combats allowed within a particular game. The greater the ratio of attacker to defender strength, the higher the chance of success. Because so many things can go wrong during the combat itself, a die or other random-number generator is used to determine the actual result. These tables are usually calculated based on what information is available on actual historical losses.

Stephen Patrick noted the trend in games in the late 1960s and into the new decade of the '70s was to simply re-use CRTs from game to game. In his article in February 1972 he identified correctly "the touchstones of authenticity and playability" and how the two concepts inter-related:

One can start with full authenticity and back off far enough to gain playability, or start with a purely playable system and work toward realism by adding the elements of historicity to give the right flavor. There will be a gray area where the playable takes on the flavor of war and where the war becomes playable. Moreover, this point will differ depending on the point of origin.

He then contrasted the Avalon Hill approach to games with the SPI approach; he contended that Avalon Hill's "playability" perspective simply produced games with similar rules for every game while SPI produced more historical games with tailor made rules sets. As an example of Avalon Hill's devotion to playability, he cited their CRT, which was a standard in their line of games to that date:

A - Attacker back 2
D - Defender back 2
Elim - Eliminated

When Strategy & Tactics began to publish tactical games (and it produced tactical titles outside of the "modern" genre on which I focus my attention), they similarly retained a common CRT with simple results in the platoon and company level games of the time:

"No result"

Patrick's thesis was that this "tactical Combat Results Table is the most archaic element in S&T's bag of tricks - the most playable/non-realistic element currently in use."

What Does It Mean?

Simply put, the CRT delineates the results of combat, and Patrick suggested that any action in which two opposing forces meet can result one of a limited number of results at the end of a fixed period of time.

* Melee (both forces remain locked in battle)
* Attacker repelled
* Defender repelled in good order
* Defender routed

Patrick noted that there were other possibilities; a pyhrric victory in which the attacker was severely damaged in the battle, for example. Tertiary considerations were fatigue levels, whether an attack was an initial action, a continuation of a previous attack, or the end of a battle. His main question, however, was how to transpose the basic CRT results to a game such that it adequately represented the history being portrayed.

The easiest result to simulate, according to Patrick, was the "no result", and a "dispersed" unit he felt was better described as "shaken" - temporarily unable to fight. He felt "eliminated" was draconian, as

...few battles result in an entire unit being destroyed to a man in a given time period, particularly during the brief period of time portrayed in the tactical games. Thus, there must simultaneously be some way to reflect the decline in strength from being in the thick of it and, at the same time, to get units off the board. After all, pasteboard pieces don't really have morale or take losses, so something must be injected to bring the authentic within the realm of playable. The 1914 solution of stepped units is obviously the best way to reflect casualties short of going the bookkeeping routes. But even (this) is viewed with displeasure by some (and) requires the injection of a whole set of pieces. The object here is to consider the requirements of a Combat Results Table which can be inserted in any game without actually having to totally revamp the rules.

Another solution was to add an increased dispersion rule, whereby a second retreat caused elimination, and a third option discussed by Patrick was to consider two retreat possibilities - retreat and rout - and have routed units equate to eliminated for purposes of the game.

Patrick also talked about using different CRT for different phases of the battle - for example during the initial phase of a battle when morale of an attacker was high, and again when units were tired during the last phase of a battle. In effect, he felt a battle might need three separate CRT to adequately model the distinct phases of a battle. He felt that not only fatigue, but fanaticism and the effects of good training would make themselves felt in the latter phases of a battle and should be reflected in the game mechanics.

Theory and Practice: Soldiers

Tellingly, in Moves issue 4, in August 1972, detailed articles on the development of the game discuss the history of the development of infantry and artillery, show images of the different drafts of the map, talk about rules development and scenario drafts, but have no discussion of the CRT. It's not known if a non-standard CRT was ever even contemplated.

Predicting the Future

Patrick ended his article with the following:

Returning to the real life situation...if the research is good (the result) should be a Combat Results Table which can complement the accuracy of the rest of the rules in evoking the period in question. The obvious point, though, is that the Combat Results Table now becomes an integral part of game design, rather than a handy plug-in section, such as the initial description of the pieces and the game map, and it is as important to make the Combat Results Table valid as it is to calculate the Attack Strength of a crossbow.

Logical Outgrowths

CRT development stagnated in tactical games at the squad and platoon level; two years later,Tank! still had simple odd-ratios driving the results of the CRT, though there were now panic results. Game development was focusing on whether play should be simultaneous movement or sequential and the CRT was still being viewed, perhaps, as simply a given.

When man-to-man games like Sniper! and Patrol came along, however, their very nature caused further development of the CRT as there were a greater number of weapons systems in play.

Which brings us to John Hill. He viewed the possible combat results in Squad Leader as still a fairly simple proposition. Despite the fact he was contemplating what would be an enormously ambitious and complicated game system in which multiple weapons systems would interact, he argued that it didn't matter if a squad of ten men were machine-gunned in the open, shelled moving through woods, pelted in their foxholes with grenades or burned out of a bunker with a flamethrower, the results would be the same - they would be killed, they would suffer some form of morale loss, or there would be no appreciable impact at all. "Design for Effect" became the mantra for Squad Leader's development, and was used to explain away inconsistencies in the design, wherein European streets became 80 metre wide boulevards, and physically fit men could only move 160 metres in two minutes. He simply "factored in" grenades as part of "close combat" and "point blank fire" and did away with the need for special rules or counters for them altogether.

PC Games

The first Combat Mission titles remained partially faithful to the notion that players wanted to see CRT results; while there were no visible dice rolls or interventions of fate, there was lip service made to such things as "fanaticism", and moreover, firepower stats were presented in unit information screens, and was available in the game via mouseclick during the orders phase, as was cover stats for infantry units, morale and fatigue levels (though not necessarily the explicit effects of same), as well as detailed armour value for AFVs, general penetration capabilities of weapons, blast values for artillery, etc.

Firepower and cover stats were available right in the main game space of Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin.
While there was no longer a CRT for the player to refer to, enterprising players could recreate specific battlefield phenomena in the editor to determine probabilities - if he was curious how often a specific tank type would bog in a particular type of terrain and weather conditions, he could create a sample scenario and run it repeatedly until he had a sample to estimate from. Websites and collections of forum postings with links to just "research" have taken the place of the CRT in some cases. A "Player's Guide" was released for Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin with tables of unit stats, which players could look up. The handbook was not billed as a "scenario designer's guide" - though it did contain interviews with scenario authors as an appendix and the data was likely aimed as much at them as players.

Hidden Outcomes and the Deletion of the CRT:

Given everything that was said in 1972 about the importance of having a valid CRT, there seems to be a trend in video games to keeping game routines hidden from the gamers who play them. The obvious desire is for "realism" and the common argument is that real life commanders "don't count firepower factors." Nonetheless, the player has to have a way to relate to the game, which has to use mathematical equations and logarithms to simulate results. Having access to the data increases understanding of how the data works - and the more "realistic" the simulation, the less likely the player is to have access to the data. In Panzer Command, for example (based on the Panzer War miniature rules), players have the ability to modify unit data if it doesn't fit their perceptions of reality, though the data isn't easily accessible inside the game (altering it is done via editable "xml" files - text documents which are loaded into the "back end" before the game is started). In the second generation Combat Mission game engine, where small arms and tank fire is ostensibly tracked by a real world physics engine, there is very little way for players to anticipate "hit chances" or probabilities beyond very general assumptions regarding terrain and situation - which is exactly what the developers intended. They would argue "CRTs" are a wargame construct, and that their wargame should be devoid of them!

My questions to you:
Patrick starts his proposition with "if the research is good". How much is actually "knowable" about what goes on at the tactical level, that would justify things like firepower factors or combat results to begin with? And must the designer choose between accurately modeling the proceedings (tracking every exchange of gunfire with precision) or the outcomes (10-25% killed in every average engagement, 25-50% wounded)?

This screenshot of Tigers Unleashed was unveiled on another gaming site. Do wargames really have to have hexes and counters in order for players to be able to reasonably access detailed data about their own troops' capabilities?

Addendum: in the comments to my original article, James Lowry noted that Anzio's CRT permitted step-reduction results as early as 1969. Advanced Squad Leader added a form of step-loss results to the CRT as well, an extension of a game function started in the original SL game series.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Special Editions of Wargaming Magazines

There has been some confusion about the release of Operations magazine Special Edition No.1, particularly among fans of Advanced Squad Leader here at gamesquad. Perhaps a look at the history of wargaming magazines might ease some of the tension.

Magazines and House Organs

The first name in wargaming magazines was The General, which went into publication in 1964, as a bi-monthly periodical devoted to supporting Avalon Hill's line of wargames, with articles on game tactics, history, and industry news. Wargaming in the modern recreational sense was in its infancy, and AH had been producing wargames for a mass market for only five years. The General was intended at first as a general interest magazine, but developed into a "house organ" in which discussion was restricted to AH published games.

Strategy & Tactics was founded in 1966 as a wargaming "fanzine", or amateur publication, by US Air Force Staff Sergeant Chris Wagner. It was intended as independent competition with The General. The magazine did not meet with commercial success, and James F. Dunnigan bought it out for a dollar, founding Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI) to publish it (it was also published under the name Poultron Press).

The rest, as they say, is history. The General went on until 1998 until AH was sold to Hasbro. SPI was bought out by TSR, and S&T eventually ended up in the hands of Decision Games, who also acquired Fire & Movement, another wargaming magazine started in 1976. F&M was a true hobby (or industry, if you prefer) magazine, whereas SPI was more of a military history magazine with a game in every issue.

Other titles appeared in the early 1970s; Moves was SPI's own house organ, and discussed strategies and published variants for the games published in S&T. Panzerfaust was another fanzine that turned into Campaign when editor Don Greenwood left for Avalon Hill; it folded its tent in 1982. The Wargamer was another magazine that offered a game in each issue between 1977 and 1986, and then was resurrected in a second volume briefly from 1987 to 1990.

As The General was nearing the end of its run, The Boardgamer was founded by Bruce Monnin. Avalon Hill had been bought out by Hasbro and the future of their games was in doubt. Monnin intended to continue support for Avalon Hill products in the same way The General. The magazine never achieved high circulation and boasted only 200 subscribers although it did manage to survive for nine years. The magazine also lacked color and professional graphics.

The Gamers, under Dean Essig, who had been producing such games as the Tactical Combat Series starting with Bloody 110 in the late 1980s, had their own house organ called Operations which began publication in 1991. Many threads came together when Multi-Man Publications acquired the rights to Advanced Squad Leader as well as The Gamers line of products. Bruce Monnin later, in 2004, became editor of Operations. The stated aim of Multi-Man Publishing was to have Operations be to their line of games what The General was to Avalon Hill's line of products.

Advanced Squad Leader
ASL had been considered by many to be the premier game in the Avalon Hill line; with a dozen modules and a rulebook set in a 3 ring binder representing years of rules development, it occupied a special pride of place. It had its own periodical under Avalon Hill - the ASL Annual - which became so popular it was published twice annually for a brief period. Under MMP, a new periodial, the ASL Journal, was begun.

The development of Advanced Squad Leader into a sophisticated and complex game system made it difficult for newcomers to get into the hobby, and so the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kits were printed by MMP; additional scenarios were published for these ASLSKs in Operations, but other ASL content was restricted to the Journal.

Operations Special Edition No. 1
In the fall of 2008, the first Special Edition of Operations was announced. For the first time, full ASL content was to be included in the magazine; including a full Historical ASL module with map, campaign game, and two scenarios, as well as a scenario for Valor of the Guards. The magazine also offered a complete mini-game (unrelated to ASL) depicting the battle for Iwo Jima complete with map and mounted counters, as well as a wealth of articles on other products in MMP's line, for the price of $40.

The controversy among some ASL collectors who now have their noses out of joint is that they feel put out by the fact that they were unable to obtain the ASL material except by purchasing the special edition of the magazine.

Special Editions in the History of the Medium

The number of "special editions" that have been produced by other publications has been low and the Operations special issue may in fact represent the most content-rich special issue ever produced for a wargaming magazine in terms of practical content. A complete game and an HASL CG between two covers seems to be something unmatched, especially with the additional scenarios, and articles for a variety of other games.

The "special editions" of Strategy & Tactics were basically historical articles and minor variant rules - they actually had less content than their normal "game in a magazine" regular issues.

The General did a "special" issue for Origins in 1988 that was basically reprints of issues they had previously run, from issues ranging from Volume 8 to Volume 24, on arcane stuff from how to pronounce Japanese ship names to a glossary of fighter pilot terminology. There was no new content.

Moves had at least two special editions, but they weren't printed out of sequence. Issue 71 in Aug-Sep 1992 was simply sub-titled as Special Edition #2. The issue was designed for the beginning wargamer, and featured an introductory mini-game, a "Basic Wargame Library" article, an article index to Moves and S&T by military period, and an article on "Basic Tactics for Beginners" as special content.

In my opinion, Operations presented something truly unique, especially in comparison to what other publications have historically offered up in their own special issues.

The goal
The goals of these special issues seems to have been the same in all cases - to welcome new players to the hobby, to provide "special" content to veteran members of the ranks, and to give a wide view of what the hobby has to offer. The General did it by offering up a broad base of its past articles. Moves did it with a handy index to its past articles and an introductory wargame. Operations hit all the bases by covering many of its popular titles with various articles, as well as appealing to new and older gamers alike with a brand new introductory-level title. It's loyal ASL fans were treated to brand new content as well - though interestingly the Singling situation had been covered in not one but two previous scenarios in "official" ASL and was now being done in "historical" form on the actual terrain.

In short, Operations was doing what all special editions had done in the past, offering broad coverage of what MMP had to offer its customers.

My final word
If Ladies Home Journal has a cover story on Barack Obama that I really want a copy of but nothing else in the magazine interests me, I have the option of either buying the magazine knowing that my money will largely be invested in that single article, or I can simply pass on the issue altogether if I feel my money is poorly spent by doing that.

My question to you
Why should that be different for ASL players?

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Disappearance and Death of 15-year old Call of Duty Player

It is with great sadness that I draw the attention of readers of gamesquad to the fact that one of our own has departed our ranks. A fellow Canadian, a gamer, a tactical wargamer, and more importantly, a fifteen year old boy.

I've been following this story in the news with special interest since his disappearance was announced on October 22nd, 2008, and desperately hoped that there would be nothing to report in the end, aside from a disagreement over access to online time. It would appear from this report that everyone's worst fears have come true.

The briefest of background is in order: Brandon Crisp was a devotee of Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. His parents exercised their prerogative to take away his access to the game when they felt his other household obligations weren't being met. Apparently angered by a decision to take away his console, he stormed out of the house on October 13th. His bicycle was found the same day. A body believed to be his was recovered today, November 5th.

CTV News Story

The story spoke to me if for no other reason than I recall being 15 years old and interested in losing myself in military and adventure-themed escapism. I can't and won't speculate on states of mind or discipline, and really, don't think it would be responsible or, frankly, anyone's business to second guess either Brandon or the parents. The events were tragic and any reasonable human being was wishing for a happy outcome. Nonetheless, the superficial similarities and the memories of my own past gave me pause to reflect.

In some ways the gaming landscape has changed a lot, with online access to opponents, but I think at its core, things are fundamentally the same. Whether the opponent is in the imagination or another human, the interface is still a video screen, and the indulgence of the parent or guardian is still key. I wasn't aware of that then, but at 12 or 15 years of age, probably few are. I was lucky enough to be able to skate through schoolwork, and so devote more time to "important" pursuits. My parents were very indulgent, when I look back; we had several small color television sets in the house, one of which was devoted to our Intellivision, and I spent hours in simulated combat over Europe playing B-17 Bomber. It was captivating enough for me that I devoted a page of prose to it and submitted it to the junior high school literary journal. Such "accomplishments" have the power to mildly embarrass me now, but were part of my formative years and in the end it would be dishonest to hide from it. My trusty Squad Leader set made the rounds to several friends in an attempt to drum up interest, but by high school, girls started to attract more attention among my friends than the prospect of killing imaginary Germans, Russians or Americans.

Some may shamefully, crassly and opportunistically use this tragedy as evidence once again of gaming as a harmful influence on impressionable young minds. I think suggesting too much about this case without facts in evidence would be irresponsible so I won't go too far in rebutting such suggestions, never having met any of the people in question. But speaking from my own experience, I did eventually grow my own interest in the fairer sex, did eventually move out of my parents' basement, get a job, earn a living - but was able to balance all that with an interest in conflict simulation and hobbies that are not unhealthy, and in fact have been rewarding in many ways. I've been published in the hobby press, but moreover made friendships and reaped other intangible rewards from an international community I enjoy participating in. Then again, I was never at risk in ways that children - that's what he was - of Brandon's age are today.

We will not know what rewards Brandon would have lived to see; perhaps, like many - most - gamers, he simply played because he liked the game. That's reward enough to justify it. He liked it enough that he was upset when made to stop. It's a testament to a lot of things; the quality of games today, or the relative comfort and ease of life in Canada, bought and paid for by real soldiers, in which the worst hardships a 15 year old boy might face are not enough time for a game. We still don't know what happened or why; it may also speak to a more sinister element of society - there are hints of it in the story, though the latest report today says there is no evidence of foul play - that may make themselves known as the investigation develops, but no evidence has been presented of that yet.

Whatever fate befell him, I can say with reasonable certainty that it was not the game itself that led to his demise - nor his parent's decision. The question of "blame" won't be for onlookers to determine, but for the police via their investigation. Blaming either a game company or a 15 year old boy for wanting to play their offerings would be tilting at windmills. If the relatively repetitive and sterile environment of B-17 Bomber could keep me captivated for hours on end, I can't even imagine what it would be like to be that age, and have access to online opponents and photo-realistic environments in 3-D.


The closest I came at that age was Treasure of Tarmin, a first person fantasy game which was at the time cutting edge technology. I never endured the loss of having it taken away, so I can't say how I would have reacted. I think the whole episode may ultimately be a series of perfectly natural decisions that have been marred by a horrible and tragic ending.

That no foul play was involved can't make this easier for the parents. I never had to deal with the possibility of interacting online with strangers; our highest level of stress was when a friend would invite an unfamiliar classmate over to your house as a third party, and he would ask to use your bathroom, or ask to drink your soda and your unformed adolescent mind would wonder if it would be okay with your parents. We thought we had it tough when that happened. Parents thought they had it tough, too, not knowing who their kids were "hanging out" with. At least they could see them, down there in the basement, at least when the lights came up.

Whatever happened to Brandon or why, I can say that while I never knew him, I'm sorry he is gone, and equally sorry for his family. I get the feeling he was one of us.