Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Age Old Wargaming Questions as they relate to Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy

The latest entry in the tactical wargamer's PC library, if he is interested in 20th Century ground warfare, is most likely Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy. A demo is available at this link for those not yet familiar with the game. The various Wikipedia entries describe the history of the game, and you can find find some screenshots at videogamegeek. Anyone who has followed the game series since the first title can't help but be a student of the various changes - not just in feature sets, but in game design philosophies that have driven the publishers. Certainly, they have been the subject of much discussion, both on the official forums and elsewhere.


It is sometimes useful to take a step back and define meanings of words and phrases that come up in conversation. As one spends more time navigating sites devoted to wargames - and even that word can be a loaded one, as not everyone agrees that Combat Mission, in its current form, represents their idea of a "wargame" in something other than a strict dictionary definition - one finds many of the same themes being repeated.

What is more interesting is to find out that those same conversations and words have been repeated for decades now. All fields of human endeavour often show a proclivity to repeat patterns of behaviour, and it seems that wargame design - and I'll use the term "wargame" because I believe it still applies to Combat Mission - is one of them.

My case in point is an article I recently uncovered in an issue of Campaign Magazine from 1978.

Simulation vs. Gamesmanship

In an article in Issue 87 of Campaign, Len Kanterman and Doug Bonforte had this to say:
Campaign Number 87
...Dr. J.E. Pournelle touched on one of the controversies facing game designers (in a recent article): simulation versus gamesmanship, otherwise known as Realism versus Playability. This was a big subject several years back...Since then, the philosophy of simulation has been largely adopted in game designs, due primarily to the phenomenal rise of Jim Dunnigan's Strategy & Tactics organization...Unfortunately, S&T's attempt to present historical information through its games has resulted in games that are difficult to play and not very enjoyable. While not all S&T games are difficult...even (the less difficult ones) lack something. This "something" is harder to put your finger on, but can be called for lack of a better word, flavor. S&T games lack the excitement, drama, and challenge the old Avalon Hill games had. Their rules may duplicate the mode of warfare at the time, but don't capture the "feeling" of the historical era.
Without a doubt, this article could not be mistaken for anything but an opinion piece. I've no idea if the opinion of the authors was widely shared or not. It does draw parallels to conversations currently taking place in the CM communities.

For the record, the official stance of the publisher was stated on release in this forum announcement (emphasis below in original):
Before you, our favorite Refresh Monkeys™, get your little paws on the Demo, I wanted to say a few words about the pending release of the Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy.

What we're about to release is a GAME. It is something to be played with and enjoyed, hopefully for longer than the time to download/install Yes, it's also a serious simulation, but that's merely a means of providing a more enjoyable gaming environment. After all, if this wasn't about having fun then how many of us would be interested in it?

It is also important to remember that we're not releasing "the perfect wargame", or even "the perfect game". There are no such things, therefore by definition there will be issues to raise here on this Forum. It's important to keep this in mind as we start in with the discussions that dissect and reduce a massive game down to a few bits and pieces for a particular topic of discussion. It's all too easy to get so wrapped up with the minutia and have that detract from enjoying the fullness of what the game has to offer. In all cases let's remember to keep criticism constructive, respectful, and within reason. It's important because that sort of feedback opens the door to improvements, while the opposite is harmful.
The announcement reads as an interesting mix of rededication to the original Battlefront Manifesto and almost an appeal for mercy. The orginal manifesto is still available from an internet archive. The quote from it below is from April 2001.1 
Our strategy is twofold. First, we outflank the Retail distribution problem with technology: the Internet. It’s cheap, totally within our control, and is without the artificial pressures of The Industry. We can do this because we don’t have to to sell hundreds of thousands of units each and every 6 months just to stay in business. Therefore, we don’t have to produce games that appeal to the lowest common denominator. is about enjoyable, intelligent gaming, not Hollywood budgets, hype, and mass-market insanity. The only limit is the interest of all you wargamers out there, and we’re one of the few companies who think your interest matters!
The complementary half of the plan is community building. We want to become a haven where wargamers come to discover and discuss games, military history, favorite strategies, feedback, you name it. It will also be a place - perhaps the only place - on the internet or anywhere else where you can buy first-rate wargames that haven’t “sold out” and become watered-down, thin gruel for the twitch crowd. 
Relationships with "Gamers"

It is not unreasonable to take the developer/publisher at their word, and examine Combat Mission in its intended guise, as a game, though Battlefront splits the difference by their own words and tells us it is "also" a "serious simulation." Conversations, going back decades now, have popularly put the two notions in opposition to each other. But most telling in the pre-release announcement above was the plea for mercy - perhaps not so much a plea, as an announcement within an announcement that conversations about the direction of future changes would take a different tone. Which seems to be at odds with that original manifesto.

It matters, because there are some gamers who believe this interaction between gamer and publisher is crucial. Again from the article in 1978:

To revitalize wargaming out of the simulation doldrums it is presently in, game designing must be made a more dynamic proposal. As anyone who's ever tried designing a game knows, it's never really finished. There are always a few more "finishing touches" that can be added. Instead of being limited to the designers and a few playtesters, this process should be opened up to all gamers. If designers explain how games were designed, players can begin treating rules as something less than gospel truth. The player is now a passive partner in game design. He can only accept what is offered to him, and he has no real foundation for correcting what he doesn't like.
These words were written with respect to hex and cardboard games, but they are obviously applicable to hard-coded computer games. No one would doubt there is more to be done with Battlefront's CMX2 game engine. No one would suggest the engine itself should be literally "opened up to all gamers" to tinker with, but certainly a deeper understanding of how and why things work - beyond the purely mechanical of the game code - would be helpful.

 One commentator on battlefront's approach to "explain(ing) how (their) games were designed" had this to say:

Wargame rules can be arbitrary, but you get them written down in English and in paper, and quite often accompanied by a rationale under the title "Designer Notes". This approach to documenting the game might not appeal (to) the casual reader, but it's quite informative. BFC appeal to our intuition with 1:1 modeling and lush 3d graphics, but both the representation on the screen and the modeling are at odds with it.
Battlefront has been adamant, and with good reason, that involving the audience in things like adding free content will never happen. The rationale for not publishing more detailed "designer's notes" is less clear, but apparently is not confined to any one company, or wargaming medium, since it has been a topic of discussion for decades now. They might prevent these kinds of posts:

The best example is the stepped degradation of optics and fire control. There seem to be 4 or 5 standard steps that no matter where it hits, it gets reduced one step. There may be some reality to that with back up sights and such, but I had a Leopard 2 hit on the rear deck that ended up dropping optics down a level. I have no idea what that means or how it happens.
Similar questions continue in the Normandy title, as evidenced by this thread, which includes this comment:
Sub-system damage never made any sense to me in CMSF or this game. There are some indications it is hit-point based, but it never makes enough sense for me to work it out.
After three days of discussion, the publisher has not provided a response, or directed respondents to an FAQ.

Gamer and Designer as Equals

Kanterman and Bonforte ended their article by suggesting that "If players and designers begin interacting as equals, the hobby will take on a totally new dimension." It's an interesting proposition, though on the face ot if one would need to clarify before declaring it still valid, with respect to computer games. As pointed out in the post referenced above, expecting fanbases to directly contribute computer code is probably not workable. In many ways, fan contribution does happen already, inasmuch as games like Combat Mission depend on volunteer scenario designers and beta testers to populate their releases. As someone with direct experience working on several beta teams on various tactical wargame projects, both board and computer based, I can personally attest that there is a certain amount of input (dependent on the personalities involved) that testers may have on the actual design of the game, via feedback to the developers during the research stage.

The article from 1978 makes some interesting points that still apply, but I would suggest that they may have wanted to divide their attention between pre-release input and post-release input. A famous military artist once told me that his favourite come-back to "know it all" critics was to use the line "where were you when I needed you", i.e., before the project was completed and released to the public.


The "Realism vs. Playability" debate is not one I intended to enter into; merely comment that it has been ongoing for decades and will go on for as long as hobbyists enjoy wargames. Rather than be disappointed that this dichotomy can never be resolved, I think it may pay publishers - and gamers - dividends to look at successful models from the past to find strategies for communication. FAQ lists, Designer's Notes, and bilateral communication on design decisions seem like good models to adopt. Whether gamers and designers should be "equals", as suggested by Kanterman and Bonforte, in the design phase is still in my opinion open to debate.

My question(s) to you

Can a game designed by committee really be superior? Kanterman and Bonforte mention in their conclusion that a game author who "relates what his interpretation was based on" gives players a "guide to creating a better (game)." Battlefront has stated publicly that allowing free content additions to their games would be "competing with themselves." Is there a valid disincentive to publishing designer's notes?

1. Though the manifesto is referred to by Steve Grammont as having been published as early as 1998 in this post which references the current, 2008 version, which rewrites the 1998 version.


  1. In my opinion there is always going to be a core group of "wish it were exactly what I wanted" folks who will complain about any game no matter what. In BFC's case they've added to that core group another (larger?) group that is frustrated by a sort of information vacuum. They'd accept, I think, a tank damage system that was hit-point based, or random, or based 100% on a real 3d interior map of every compnent of the tank - they just want to know which one it is, and BFC's not telling (as far as I understand the situation).

    So - design by comittee? Not necessary, but if you're going to interact with your players, they're going to want to know the specifics of decisions made and mechanics under the hood.

  2. I agree with your points about information vacuum. What I liked about the first game engine was the level of detailed information presented to the player - firepower numbers, cover percentages, etc. right in the user interface. The second game engine is intended to be more "realistic", I think, with "intuitive" decision making based on the real world rather than hard mathematical calculations. It just seems unusual that Steve's pre-release announcement (reproduced above) would emphasize that the product was a GAME and yet the "new" UI deemphasized the passage of information to the player, making the product much more "simulation" than its predecessor.

    I completely agree with you also in your comment about "core complainers". I would not like to think I belong to that category. I suspect it is a matter of perspective.

    I can understand the desire on the part of the developers to keep information "under the hood" away from the player, and as a player, I can see the appeals of not having information available in situations also. I'm just not convinced that happy medium has been achieved in CM, but ironically, given what I just stated, it may be that it isn't because the game is too much of a simulation; quite the opposite - it may be that the core audience has now become so happy with the real time aspects, and just watching the little animated people scurry, and the tanks blow up, that the finer points those "brought up" on the first game engine had become accustomed to don't really matter to them. The product has reached a minimum level of competency as a game, which seems to be the goal set out in the pre-release statement.