Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Hunting Good Will: How Much of a Good Thing is a Good Thing?

The announcement on August 16 (2010), after many months of near-silence from Matrix Games, regarding the status of the Panzer Command series, has initiated more than a few conversations among the few die-hard tactical gamers still milling about in the squad-based, company-level, 3-D turn-based “strategy” tactical wargame niche (hopefully I haven’t left out any other major descriptors – oh, I suppose we can add in “World War II era” for good measure).

History of the Niche

A quick review of where this niche has been for the last few years: Combat Mission moved to a new game engine after their successful trilogy with the original game engine (the so-called “CMX1” games – Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord (2000), Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin (2002) and Combat Mission: Afrika Korps (2003)) and fans are awaiting the first World War II title in the new “CMX2” game engine, yet to be titled, but taking place in Normandy. Close Combat, which like Combat Mission, had started its development life as a planned electronic version of the Advanced Squad Leader boardgame but instead went independent, has shuffled along with a series of sequels, the most recent being remakes of their earlier titles. Steel Panthers apparently quietly retired with a release of World at War, never transitioning to simultaneous or 3D play.

So here we sit; there have been other games on the market or in development in the interim but few have seemed like serious entries; Lock ‘n Load still uses hexes and counters for pity’s sake. Yet even Panzer Command doesn’t seem to have drawn much attention. Perhaps the question to ask is whether or not the entire genre (I won’t repeat the cumbersome description here – see para 1) has shot its bolt.

Ostfront worth waiting for

For that dying breed that still remember the new-game smell of a Squad Leader box, though, Panzer Command: Ostfront is something worth waiting for on the face of it. I admit to being one of those who are feeling at least a slight twinge of anticipation. I was left cold by Operation Winter Storm, the first installment of Panzer Command (PzC hereafter), mostly because it meant unlearning one interface (Combat Mission’s) and techniques in favour of another. I didn’t much like the “reaction phase” and some other aspects, and especially didn’t like the lack of a map editor. Apparently I wasn’t alone. I bought the Kharkov title in 2008 – PzC’s second installment – out of a desire to support the developer and in hopes the series had improved. It had, but not in the ways that really grabbed me. Maps were larger and their public relations front was certainly professional – a GoogleEarth installation that put all the game maps into the current world, with historical front lines and scenario descriptions accessible via one click. It was pretty slick.

What Ostfront offers is pretty impressive. If you have never played either Winter Storm or Kharkov, you get all that content for free when you buy Ostfront. If you already own the first two, you can download Ostfront as a free patch. More on this later. The feature list for the Ostfront expansion brings the game into line with what user feedback, as expressed on websites such as Matrix’s own forum, or third party sites like, have been asking for. The “reaction phase” of the turn sequence, while still the default, can now be turned off as part of several optional turn length settings. It’s just one example of how the developer was willing to listen to the fanbase and make what promise to be constructive changes. But, of course, the entire patch appears to have been largely fan-driven as much of the content has apparently come from third party modders, scenario designers and even coders. How well will it work? The beta testers seem to think it has come together nicely, but Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) pretty much assure that they always will.

But the announcement has been low-key rather than boasting; I won’t speculate on the meaning of that. I know that I prefer it and always like to see products speak for themselves. I’ve been rooting for this team for a long time mostly because I liked the direction that Combat Mission (CM) had taken and was disappointed to see some of the later design decisions with the new game engine. I think PzC could do very well to pick up where CM had left off, particularly if the new map maker/scenario design function helps produce some entertaining match-ups. Not sure I like the pre-set map sizes, but I won’t be one to kvetch about “only” having 4 square kilometers to set up on.

Commitment to Good Will

As stated earlier, the new Ostfront product will combine three different PzC games into one, for one price, and you only need to purchase one to get all three. I am sure there will be skeptics or pessimists out there who view this in a negative light, but I’m inclined to accept it favourably as a desire to establish the game on a firm new footing. Tactical wargamers have had to deal with a lot of different models of “regeneration” over the years as developers stumbled around trying to find the best way to model squad-based, company level action during World War II. SPI led the charge in “sequenced obsolescence” with a series of releases in the early 1970s, first releasing games like Red Star/White Star with plotted orders and “Si-Move” (simultaneous movement) which were hopelessly cumbersome to play but supposedly pushed the envelope of realism, and then replacing them a couple of years later with games like MechWar '77. Avalon Hill notoriously replaced almost all of the counters in its Squad Leader game during the three-game run of sequels, and then replaced all those new replacement counters and rules just three years after that, with a sequel to the sequel, or rather, a reboot of the entire mess, called Advanced Squad Leader. There are still two competing camps, with die-hard fans of the original series that refuse to subsidize the usurper. The developers of Combat Mission stated very earnestly that they needed to embrace new markets to grow their company, and that new methods of gameplay, including real time, would be found in the second-generation game engine. Their up-front admission that they expected to lose some customers but gain new ones did not prevent bitter backlash from a vocal online minority. It is also not known what benefit the changes have brought; the new game engine has not performed as well critically, and sales figures are not made public.

Which brings us to Matrix and their interesting model of providing previous releases for free every time a new game is released. This was the case when Kharkov was released (content from Operation Winter Storm was provided at no charge on the Kharkov release disc). The Ostfront release deal has been described above.

It isn’t my practice to look a gift horse in the mouth but one presumes this practice will cease at some point. The developers have promised to move on to other theatres – the western front 1944-45 being a natural, especially as the vehicles for one of the major combatants are already finished. One supposes North Africa, the early war campaigns, or even the Pacific couldn’t be too far off if Ostfront manages to strike a chord and/or turn some kind of a profit. The inevitable debate that follows on in public forums for popular tactical games is how quickly to move on to the Arab/Israeli wars, fictional Cold War scenarios, and even science fiction themes (and with some exceptions like ASL or Steel Panthers, they rarely seem to actually get there).

The questions – largely unanswerable by us – will be whether Matrix sees a reason to continue. Did Panzer Command already reach its maximum audience – and the free patch will just be salve to an already sated core group? Or will it be the springboard for a revival of squad-based, company level 3D World War II strategy (did I get them all in?) gaming that has been largely neglected for several years now?

It should be no secret what I am hoping for. I would have gladly paid full price for Ostfront, but reading some comments on various message forums, I realize my views are not predominant. The “free patch” idea seems to be a good one. Perhaps a better one would be a demo for those who need convincing, but screenshots, videos, and at least one After Action Report (AAR) are finding their way onto the official website even though release is not scheduled until the fourth quarter of this year. I’m going to buy a copy of Ostfront just because I like the idea of subsidizing companies who make games that I enjoy, even though I qualify to download it for free. As a collector, I prize having a physical box or jewel case in my collection in any event; to me they’re part of that “rich historical tapestry” I spoke of in my very first blog entry. They're also like trophies for the unathletically inclined.

There is no reason to presume Matrix can’t “afford” to give away this content. Those pessimists referred to earlier might suggest that free content can’t be good content, and that this distribution method will mask shortcomings in the Artificial Intelligence (AI), game play, or expanded content, perhaps indicating bugs or software issues making this an unofficial “beta” version. The actual beta testers insist this is not the case; having interacted with several of them in the CM community, for going on years now, I’m inclined to believe them or at least give benefit of the doubt. Personally, I hope Matrix starts to make money hand over fist with Panzer Command – including my money – and that the series becomes a strong contender in this little niche of ours. I also hope other games in the same genre do well also; there is a mistaken belief that games like Combat Mission and Panzer Command “compete” against one another, but I suspect that if two games in a very small niche are both well done, those that are passionate about the niche will usually invest in both games. At any rate, Combat Mission’s new game engine has successfully diverged from the original vision of CM that the similarities between the two game series are much less apparent than they were with the original game engine.

My Final Word

As work progresses on the second issue, just a reminder that the premiere issue of Tactical Wargamer’s Journal is still available. Reviews by Panzer Digest and at Consimworld have been favourable, and a number of articles will be of direct interest to anyone thinking about Panzer Command: Ostfront. There is a direct comparison between Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin and Panzer Command: Kharkov, as well as a historical piece on the actual battle of Kharkov that inspired the game. As well, there is a detailed article on characteristics of Soviet armour in the Second World War and a discussion of how different wargames have chosen to deal with some of the peculiarities of Red Army equipment. I’d love to include articles on the “new” Panzer Command in upcoming issues; if you’re interested in writing them, please contact me.

My Question to You

Is Matrix doing the right thing giving away so much milk for free?


Matrix Announcement of Panzer Command:

Monday, July 19, 2010

Accuracy in the Trivialization of Human Experience

I will inaugurate this new web log with the same caveat I gave with my previous "blog" at this link

I've never been a fan of blogs; the concept initially seemed to me to indicate a frustrated writer who couldn't get published by conventional means because of a lack of something significant to say. That may still apply in some cases, though my view is softening. Given the ability of people with nothing significant to say to actually get published in book form in today's desktop world, the distinctions between online and virtual publishing mean much less. But I think now that blogs are losing their 'newness', and the truly insignificant are moving to Facebook, the blogs are starting to gain in importance once again. It still bothers me that I will probably need to edit this to add an insipid smiley face to indicate that the previous sentence was intended as a joke. Sort of. What isn't a joke are some of the high quality writings of other blog writers (I have encountered...)

...and continue to encounter. But it also doesn't hide the fact there are still some dreadful ones. The reader is left to judge how useful this will be, and if I am one of them. I still don't read all that many blogs. Actually, for the joke I made about Facebook in my original comments, I think perhaps I could easily have been far more serious about "podcasts" which are now running on average of about two hours for some of them. At least you can scan an average blog posting in about five minutes.

Revisiting Old Heroes

I know nothing of war beyond what I've read and gleaned from those I've talked to. But I can extrapolate enough to realize that those who knew the most are as often as not likely those who died in it. From what I've read, it wears you out and ultimately, if you're left to toil at it for too long, it consumes you. One way or another.

Manfred von Richtofen died as a result not so much of a bullet through the head but as a result of earlier brain damage. He was target fixated the day he died, exhibited classic symptoms of brain injury and simply pushed his luck beyond the breaking point. There is reason to believe now that Tiger ace Michael Wittman may have done the same thing. The arguments about which Allied soldiers can get the credit for exterminating them are a little beside the point; their suicidal final charges simply put them in position for others to pull the trigger. Not to take away from the bravery or dedication of the Allied troops who were in position at the moment of truth; Roy Brown was equally tired on that fateful day when he was in the air at the moment that Australian machine gunners, firing from the ground, fired the fatal shots that killed the legendary German pilot.

Richtofen's fame had not been gained in glorious man-to-man combat of the type later glorified by Joe Kubert and Russ Heath and Bob Kanigher in the thinly veiled tribute pages of DC Comics' Enemy Ace series. Where von Hammer kept tin cups on a pristine mantelpiece and spoke of honour and chivalry, von Richtofen in real life fought desperate battles in the sky, picking off stragglers on occasion, and was at best a medium rated marksman. It is also intimated in some sources that he never flew a complete loop in his aircraft, and that his flying was similarly not above average. And yet the legend persists of the crack shot, the expert flier, and the impeccable gentleman aviator.

In June of this year, I crouched in the loft of a barn in Cintheaux by a round piece of metal, purportedly one of the few pieces remaining from Wittman's tank. Humbling, if true, that the once mighty Tiger 007 was now reduced to a hayloft curiosity. It is human nature to be drawn to to the morbid and the absurd, and to seek to be entertained by it.

The intent isn't to open the "debate" on the legitimacy of conflict simulation; that ship sailed a long time ago. I think we can take it for granted that we will always look to conflict as a means of entertainment.

What is more interesting is the degree of accuracy and the types of messages we hope to learn from our modelling of these events. The familiar game-vs.-simulation question has been around for a long time. After our battlefield tour left Cintheaux, leaving behind the battlefield debris in the hayloft, meatier questions arose.

We visited the site at Poperinghe where British military executions took place; the cells are preserved as is the post where the firing squad did their work. It is believed now that some of the condemned men may have suffered from what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder - a malady little understood at the time. The human condition has changed dramatically since British soldiers killed other British soldiers in this courtyard, as has the lens through which we interpret their world.

My Question To You

If we are going to trivialize the accomplishments of the veterans of these wars anyway, is it better to trivialize them in ways that are clearly meant as entertainment - Medal of Honor games where the depictions are so clearly not meant to be taken seriously, or do we continue to march into the Uncanny Valley and try to stamp our understanding of "what it was like" so imperfectly on the history of military history, and continue to distort the true picture (whatever that is) of important events? The further we get from those events, the less able we are to understand them in context. Geography shifts (I noted with interest that the sea-wall on Juno Beach has been all but consumed by sediment), mores and morals change, technology baffles past practice. It may be that the point of no return for accurate portrayals of many conflicts - recent or not - may have been reached. And the only ones who can tell us for sure aren't in a position to tell us.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Death of Fire & Movement

 This article was originally posted at

With the arrival of Issue 150, Fire & Movement has ended its 33 year publication run. Those unfamiliar with the history of the magazine can review a brief rundown of that topic at this webpage.

As is well known now, the magazine began life as the brainchild of Rodger MacGowan, who set the tone for the board wargaming industry - that is what it had become - in the mid-1970's through his graphic design and his all-encompassing approach to coverage of topics in his magazine (it was not a "house organ", but devoted itself to covering works by all publishers, large and small).

Since 1991, Decision Games has published Strategy & Tactics, Moves and Fire & Movement (at one time, S&T and Moves were house organs for SPI, and competitors for F&M). The three magazines went hand in glove to provide global coverage of the wargaming scene, as described by the publisher:

Fire & Movement: Helping you decide which wargames to buy

* close-up reviews of new wargames
* profiles and player's notes
*guide to computer wargaming
* annual year in review issue

Strategy & Tactics: Exploring decisions which made history

* wargame in every issue
* game design forum
* articles on historical and current events
* professional wargaming column
* media notes

Moves: Helping you decide which strategies and tactics to use

* analysis, strategy and tactical tips
* variants and new scenarios
* art of computer wargaming
* annual index and mini-game
* previews of upcoming games by their designers

Recent years

Editorship of the magazine most recently passed to J. Bernhard (Jon) Compton. In an interview in 2005, he stated that he had been in the industry for "15 years", citing Miracle on the Marne as his first design. He had previously worked as editor and publisher of Gamefix Magazine and his designs also included Foxhole, a "grand-tactical" (platoon level) game (or microgame) which was originally published in Gamefix. In the Spring 2009 issue (Issue 149), Compton revealed that he planned for Issue 150 to be his last, citing a new job, relocation, family commitments, and recent automobile accident (in which his computer containing his F&M files) as being demands incompatible with delivering a quality product in a timely manner.

By this point, F&M had reached a very erratic publication schedule; what had been published at one time every two months had fallen drastically. There were only two issues in 2007, three in 2008, and one in 2009 (my "Summer 2009" issue actually arrived in January 2010).

Another blog entry of mine discussed some of the challenges F&M was apparently facing in terms of physical quality, with poor black and white imagery and few illustrations to support their articles:

Jon Compton responded to a statement that the magazine's layout was "bush league" at consimworld:

The entire budget for the editing, art, layout, proofing, and contributor issue shipping was all of 550 dollars per issue. I did what I could with what I had. That said, by any real standard the layout was not bush league, although the printing and over-saturation of everything certainly was. I'd dare say that more attention was put into the layout of F&M than any other DG pub. No trapped white space, solid widow and orphan control, even margins, and no broken-up articles in any issue. But the graphics were what they were since we had to take what we got and had no budget to do anything more professional. DG starved F&M of resources until it just wasn't possible to continue. The printer continued to cut the pages wrong until I finally gave up complaining about it.

Mr. Compton makes a valid point about the difference between layout and printing quality. Personally, I feel there is a certain irony in that the last issue made it to press with a proofreading snafu. The masthead contains a call for submissions for future issues. A simple oversight, easily overlooked, but still, I can't help but feel it is somehow emblematic of something. But I digress. It is mostly just too bad that Decision Games starved this magazine of resources.

Isn't this inevitable?

The argument is being made now that the internet is simply replacing magazines and that with so much "free content" available there is no room for magazines. I think this is a ridiculous proposition. I would agree that there is no room for poorly done magazines.

My final word

The notion that the internet is "competition" for magazines is false, and given the proper resources, there are two main reasons that a decent magazine should be able to do well.

a) wargamers are tactile creatures - its one of two reasons that board wargames still continue to sell in the first place (the other being the social dimension). Nothing compares to being able to hold a physical object such as a counter, mapboard, rulebook or yes - glossy magazine - in one's hands, or display it on one's shelf. Tangible products are still sought after and cherished.

b) If someone enjoys or is even passionate about a subject, they will not read just one thing and then stop or find themself sated. They will tend to pursue their interest or passion through multiple media. They will watch movies, television shows, play games, and yes, read books and magazines about their favourite subjects, in addition to surfing the web, talking to friends, and other forms of recreational endeavour.

My question to you

How many times have you heard people complaining about the "noise to signal" ratio on your favourite internet forum? Isn't it true also of most internet sites of any kind? Doesn't the risk inherent in publication require editors and authors and publishers to bring their "A-list" material to any printed endeavour - unlike "free" and unvetted material thrown onto the internet?