Saturday, August 31, 2013

Combat Mission: Take Thirteen

Not counting "Campaigns", the impending release of CM: Market Garden will be the thirteenth kick at the cat since the highly acclaimed CM Series made its award-winning debut at the turn of the century. (Though it's hard to keep accurate score, since you never know if you're supposed to include Touch, which I haven't, or Afghanistan, which I did despite it not being a development.)

As someone who has been accused of paying too much attention to the goings-on at Battlefront HQ, it would be tempting to say there has been a lot of talk about the upcoming release - but in all honesty, I don't think there has been. I don't intend to comment on whatever contentious issues may linger around issues of game design philosophy (the move to 1:1 representation has been firmly established and my thoughts are a matter of public record elsewhere), Digital Rights Management (personally, I've had no issues with this), or the timeline of the new game series (we do finally have a projected release date for Market Garden, per the preorder release notice on 30 August 2013, stating (admittedly in roundabout fashion) that we would see the game 4 to 6 weeks after the historic anniversary of Operation Market-Garden itself (in other words, or rather, not in so many words, since they don't come right out and say it, sometime in October). I guess I should point out I will also not be talking about's public relations style - mostly since I just did.


What is of interest is the content of the news release, i.e. the sneak peak at the content. Some background, however.

In a statement on the official forums on May 23 of this year, the developer had this to say:

Portraying the battles of Market Garden posed unique challenges to us on the development end. Specifically that Market Garden requires British and Waffen SS units, which are part of the Commonwealth module. And yet our philosophy is to never require players to purchase Module A to play Module B. Likewise, our philosophy is to not duplicate content in Modules because we don't want to double charge those who want both.

Interesting dilema we got ourselves into, eh?

Instead of canceling Market Garden (CM:MG), which we did contemplate, we decided to pack Market Garden so full of new stuff that people will find value in it and minimize the overlap with Commonwealth that people won't feel like they are buying stuff they might already have. So here's an overview of what's being included:

1. Basic Waffen SS and British units which represent those units that fought directly in the Market Garden battles. Which means the majority of units found in Commonwealth are not present in CM:MG.

2. New German Heer, Waffen SS, and Luftwaffe units have been added which aren't present in Commonwealth. These better portray the scratch formations which made up the bulk of the early German resistance to the landings. Training, security, school, admin personnel, etc. are available.

3. We've added German Navy units. These poor saps were base and ex-ship personnel thrown into battle without much consideration about their fighting capabilities (which were next to none). In fact, this is the first time we've ever had Navy ground units in a CM game. Though to be honest, it's mostly for flavor as organizationally they weren't that much different from horribly stripped down and under equipped Heer units. Still, it's better to give you explicitly tweaked units than to say "imagine those Heer guys are Navy".

4. AAA units are present for the first time on the Western Front. Not only the sorts of AAA stuff found in Gustav Line, but some new fun things like Wirbelwind and Crusader AA.

5. The Germans also now have access to Panzer Brigades. These armor heavy units are uniquely organized and contain the ever fun SPW 251/21 in large numbers.

6. Fallschirmjäger are now present, all the way from June through September.

7. Some new vehicle variants for all forces just to keep things interesting.

8. New terrain features to create the feeling you're battling in The Netherlands and not France. Yes, we have even included a windmill

9. Bridges. Lots of 'em We are including 5 custom made historically accurate bridges, a canal bridge, and 3 new generic long bridges. Some, like the Arnhem road bridge, are massive. For the larger ones we include "stubs" which map makers can use to simulate fights around the entrance to a bridge without having the other 500+ meters stuck in there.

And before the questions start flying about what new game features are to be added... a reminder that as a rule Modules do not add new game elements unless they are directly necessary for that particular Module. Besides the new bridges and some other terrain related stuff, we don't see the need for new features and therefore there won't be many directly related to Market Garden. However, anything new that was added for Gustav Line will be automatically carried over to the entire Normandy Family of games. Such as new shaders, "movie" lighting, bug fixes, gameplay tweaks, AAA support, etc. No worries there.

There's no doubt more stuff than that, but I think that's enough for now to get things started.


Note that the reference here to Gustav Line is to the parallel game series Combat Mission: Fortress Italy, in which the game engine received upgrades. New units, terrain, etc., developed for the Fortress Italy series are not available to players of the Battle for Normandy series of the games, and vice versa. Game engine changes, as noted, will in theory be made available to all game series. The updates are not "automatic" as I understand the term (for example, I have MMORPGs that will automatically upload patches when I connect to the server), but are indeed made available as new modules are completed in parallel series. There does seem to be a time lag as the small production team puts together the appropriate patches.

Pre-made Maps

The most intriguing part of the pre-order announcements is in regards to "Master Maps".

Master Maps!

The 7 "master maps" are huge maps, historically accurate, detailed and thoroughly researched, depicting the main areas around the bridges where most of the fighting happened:
•Johana Hoeve
•Arnhem Road Bridge
•Oosterhout ( north of Nijmegen)
•West Nijmegen

These master maps will help scenario designers in creating their own scenarios without the burden of having to create the maps from scratch. The maps can be cut to encompass smaller areas for individual battles.

A number of interesting questions and observations come up here.

What immediately caught my attention was the inclusion of Nijmegen, which of course would be a necessity for any treatment of the Market-Garden campaign. The subject has received a modest deal of attention in various hobby treatments, particularly both the climactic attack on the road bridge (notable for the cooperation between U.S. paratroopers and British troops of the Guards Armoured Division), and the waterborne assault by U.S. paratroopers over the Waal using flimsy assault boats, again supported by tanks of the Guards Armoured.

Elst is another interesting location; currently the subject of the first Historical ASL map for the ASL Starter Kit series. The designer of that module noted in his own blog that:

The module is based on the battle that took place along "Hell's Highway" on the "Island" between Nijmegen and Arnhem during operation Market-Garden. The battle was fought in the vicinity of the small town of Elst that is situated about halfway along the main road between the two cities of Nijmegen and Arnhem. It started on Sept 23 and lasted until Sept. 25, 1944.

The British 214th brigade from the 43rd Wessex Division fought an "ah hoc" German unit known as Kampfgruppe Knaust for control of this strategic village. The British needed to get to the Rhine River Bridge to while the Germans sought to delay them as long as they could.

The author designed this scenario for CM:BN in Feb 2013.

The locations for the "master maps" are clearly logical ones as far as placing tactical wargame scenarios there, but I'm not positive I understand the concept or the marketing. Every Combat Mission game has shipped with pre-made scenarios, which as a matter of function include a map that can be re-used for other scenarios if the purchaser wishes. This has never been a selling point before. Given that the majority of scenarios have always been "historical" scenarios (the level of historical accuracy in these kinds of games is always open to debate, another topic I won't touch here), the maps have always been "historical", and in matter of fact, given recent tools such as GoogleEarth, the trend has been to if not "accurate" maps (that is to say, accurate to the 1939-1945 period), then certainly at least "realistic" in terms of the way the terrain has been sculpted, using real world data as a guide (as opposed, say to, the "clump of this, clump of that" style of art design found in many hex-and-counter wargames.

I think I understand what the concept will be - an extremely large map which can be pared down in the editor - though maddeningly, we are not being given a preview of what to expect. Are these 100km square maps? Is there a new tool to quickly slice (and preview) them without having our CPU choke on trying to load a full size 3D representation of all of Nijmegen?

Past Announcements, Lowered Expectations

The random map generator of the original game engine was a very successful tool, if not always popular, and was able to not only give scenario designers a head start at generating random terrain, but produced "Quick Battles" instantly and for the most part entertainingly. The Quick Battle system has been carried over into the current game engine, with the requirement that maps be pre-built and, if playing against the computer, have AI plans provided to guide the computer enemy.

Theoretically, this has dropped the number of maps available to players of Quick Battles from "infinite" to very finite. In reality, the difference this makes may be more negligible than some may think. Hobby time is never infinite, for example, so a "need" for infinite map making ability is probably nil. The most prolific of the tactical board games, Advanced Squad Leader, has made do with some four dozen maps (not counting the historical and "desert" boards) for thirty years, albeit with the addition of overlays and "scenario special rules" to permit modifications to the terrain. Nonetheless, there are something like - without exaggeration - 5,800 scenarios in print (check the ASL Scenario Archive for a complete breakdown), the majority of which utilize those same 4 dozen boards. Using the Advanced Search feature on the site, and searching by just the original Squad Leader boards, one finds 81 scenarios set on Board 1, 293 scenarios including Board 2, and 316 scenarios played on a surface that includes Board 4.

The ability to mix and match the "geomorphic" (or, isomorphic) boards was something that the Combat Mission developers alluded to in some comments after the ability to randomly generate terrain was lost with the new game engine. (Map designers will note that the original game engine was restricted to a 20-metre terrain grid and just 20 different elevation levels, while the new engine has realistic contour lines of practically infinite gradation, and a tighter 8-metre grid off of which LOS and movement is based.)

In this posting , the developer hinted that a "Meta-tile" system might be introduced to the Quick Battle system:

The question many of you have been asking as of late is "where does Battelfront go from here?" now that v1.08 is out. Well, that's a valid question and I hope I can answer it to the satisfaction of most. But remember... we try to not to get too specific about low level changes because we do not wish to set up false expectations. Therefore, what follows is a more philosophical answer than a list of highly detailed descriptions of feature changes. First, an explanation of who makes Combat Mission...

Battlefront is 5 full time employees and a bunch of regular contractors. The primary force behind the games is Charles and myself (Steve, if you didn't already know). I do most of the design work and historical research while Charles does all of the coding. Charles has a significant amount of impact on the design elements since, obviously, he has to code them. Charles also has some great ideas of his own, of course, so at times he is the main brain behind a particular feature and I simply flesh it out. If Charles nixes something for coding reasons I usually manage to work around the problem areas so the feature can be included in some form.

Moon (our fearless President), KwazyDog (our lead pixel pusher), Madmatt (Battlefront's jack of all trades), and Rune (master of the monster scenarios [img]smile.gif[/img] ) handle a lot of things besides CM:SF, so although they have other responsibilities other than testing CM:SF night and day. Which is a good thing because someone has to do the other stuff!

For the day and night testing shifts we have a bunch of volunteer testers who were hand picked from this Forum. They are the ones that kick the tires and tell Charles that something needs more time in the oven You have no idea how much work they put into testing and therefore can't appreciate how much good they do for the game as a whole. Whatever faults people see in the game I can assure you that it isn't because of the testers are failing at their job.

Last, but not least, are the people posting on this Forum. Without public input none of the CM games would be what they are today. Overall the information we gather here is very valuable and worth having to sometimes dig for, even when it's burried under a pile of poo someone deposited It's not easy to handle a gaggle of highly opinionated people who aren't afraid to speak their minds (even when they've misplaced them), but that's an unavoidable part of an online discussion forum. Gotta take the good with the not-so-good. People can agree or disagree with how I handle this... I don't care. It works for us, therefore in the long run it works for everybody.

OK, with that out of the way, onto the outline...

Way back in 2003 we made a long range plan based around what is now called the CMx2 game engine. I can say, without any doubts, that things have gone according to plan and that we are overall pleased with the position we are in now. I know, I know... how can I say that after all the bugs and rancor that came about after its initial release? Well, easy... we take the long view and keep things in perspective. Of all the millions of things that could have gone wrong between 2003 and now, things have gone pretty much according to plan. Obviously things haven't gone perfectly, and we are no more happy about that than you guys are, however that's small potatoes compared to the things that could have gone wrong. Like what? Well, going out of business would have been a bit worse!

Our plan has been partially explained to you before, however in case you've missed it the next thing we will release is the Marines Module for CM:SF. More modules for CM:SF will follow in parallel with development of our next major release (aka "Title"); WW2 Western Front. The initial release will be situated in Normandy between US and German forces with subsequent addons (aka "Modules") introducing additional forces, weapons, vehicles, and some other things. The first Module for the WW2 Western Front game will be focused primarily on Commonwealth Forces, though with German and some American additions as well. We do not have release dates to announce for either the Marines Module or the initial WW2 release, however I can say that the Marines Module is very far along and the WW2 stuff has already been started on. This is the beauty of the CMx2 system... we can do parallel work and still get things done faster than we could for one topic using the CMx1 system.

What we are doing now, behind the scenes, is planning out the specific features that will find their way into the first WW2 title. Will these features make every single one of you reading this happy? Certainly not... that's not possible to do. But will these features make some of you who are currently a sitting on the fence or sitting on the sidelines happy enough to enjoy our next Title? Based on the months of feedback here, definitely. Others will continue to sit there with their arms crossed and tongues sticking out at us. Oh well, can't please everybody [img]smile.gif[/img]

For the most part our plans for the future of CMx2 have not changed since CM:SF was released. However, the emphasis on certain elements has been changed based on user feedback. Briefly, the shorterm priorities for us are:

Introduce a new Quick Battle system - It's been clear to us for quite some time that the existing system has some serious shortcomings in the eyes of many players. Therefore, a new QB system is a very high priority for the next major release. The primary improvements are some form of unit Cherry Picking system and semi-randomly generated maps. Think of this as a bridge between the good features of both CMx1 and CMx2 QB systems.

Features necessary for simulating WW2 ETO - Many of the things people have felt are missing in CM:SF aren't supposed to be there or aren't really all that relevant or necessary to the Syrian setting. Obviously moving to France means that some of these things need to be included. Besides the obvious stuff (temperate terrain/weather and WW2 units) major things to expect are water, bridges, AT guns, on map mortars, infantry riding on tanks, expanded defensive works, and other stuff like that. Obviously TacAI goes right along with this since these things all require new TacAI and/or improved existing TacAI. (note that TacAI is a long term "work in progress" and will never, ever be considered "done").

Features not necessary for simulating WW2 ETO - Some of the things that make contemporary warfare what it is are things which WW2 fans find "not fun". This has caused some to be unhappy with the Syrian setting simply because it isn't WW2, regardless of all other factors. Things like the extremely high lethality, asymmetric forces, the lack of "familiar" equipment, the whiz-bang technological stuff, etc. It should be obvious that this stuff will not come along for the WW2 titles, however it appears that this can get forgotten at times. Consider this a reminder

Some additional MultiPlayer options - I don't want to over comitt us here, but I will say that it is likely that there will be a form of TCP/IP WeGo for the Normandy game. Will it be exactly what WeGoers want? Probably not due to some technical issues and the time we'd need to make sure we could work around them. Therefore we have come up with what we feel is a viable compromise system that shoudl give WeGoers most of what they want. More on that in a couple of months when we get into the coding.

Graphics improvements - We're as unhappy as some of you are about the inconsistent performance of CM:SF's graphics on various systems. As some of you know, we've been frustrated from the start by videocards and their drivers not doing what they should. We have some ideas on how to work around the problems better and also fix some of the oddities that some of you have experienced more than others. Time is limited so some of the graphics glitches people have noted have not been high up on our fix list so far. Besides straight graphics stuff I'm alos thinking about some of the WeGo playback issues.

Some changes to the UI - Any game developer will tell you that designing a UI that makes a majority of gamers at least moderately happy is a tough task. Many have forgotten that CMx1's UI was generally frowned upon when first experienced. Complaints generally only died down when people got used to how it worked. CMx2's UI has also taken a lot of punches and, with some patched improvements, people have also gotten used to it. However, it is my sense that there is more resignation than acceptance than we would like when compared to CMx1. So it's not quite back to the drawing board, but we are are exploring ways to improve what we have.

There are lots of finer points than this, so please don't think that if you don't see something mentioned on this list that we aren't going to address it in the short term. I can't speak much to the details yet at this point anyway, so this is more or less a heads up about the general direction rather a written in stone list of specific features and what we intend on doing with them.

In conclusion... we know why we are here, we are happy with the overall position we're in, and we're looking forward to continuing on for years to come. Having faith is an option, but a total lack of faith is unhealthy. People need to figure this out for themselves because all we can do is keep blazing the trail that we are on. There is no turning back even if we wanted to. And we don't want to

Now, a special message for those of you who have so far "rejected" the new game system for one or another reason. I know for sure a lot of you will be quite happy with the WW2 game when it comes out, if for no other reason than it is WW2 and not modern Syria. Others will be less sure, but at least find it more enjoyable than CM:SF. However, it is certaint hat some of you will find nothing good in what I've said here and continue to be extremely hostile towards CMx2 just like many Steel Panthers and Close Combat guys were towards CMx1. I'm sure the latter group of people have something better to do with their time, so my hope is that they realize this so everybody can be a lot happier for it.



P.S. Support for CM:SF has not ended. It continues in parallel with Marines and WW2 development as it has for the last 2 months already.

This was followed up with:

Yes, the "mega tile" (as we call it*) map system is the route we are planning on exploring. What this basically means, in practical terms, is that people make small maps with certain predefined characteristics. This is similar to the way the game works now, but instead of selecting a single user made map CM will custom assemble one from the smaller pieces based on the QB parameters.

This is the best system we can think of since making a true random map generator is beyond our capabilities.

*(Note - a subsequent post corrected the developer on this point, reminding him that he had originally used the term "Meta Tile".

A number of items stand out here (still not mentioning the timeline, though the "Where Does Battlefront Go From Here" post can be seen to have been posted in April 2008 and the first of the World War II series will just now be completed in August 2013), notably the reference to "infantry riding on tanks" being a natural for inclusion in the Normandy game - a feature still not included. (Lest anyone think this was somehow a "Russian" practice, Michael Doubler talks specifically about how at least one U.S. Division in Normandy adopted the practice of U.S. infantry riding to contact right on the tanks as a means of ensuring close co-operation between tanks and infantry, the lack of coordination between the two having been a problem throughout the early weeks of the campaign.)

The lack of TCP/IP support seems to be an ongoing concern, for example, this thread documents (four years after the Where Does Battlefront Go From Here announcement) the ongoing requests for the inclusion to TCP/IP WEGO support. In plain English, the ability to play turn-based while connected online at the same time. This functionality existed in the original game engine. Strangely, it is possible to play in Real Time while connected online via TCP/IP. WEGO can also be done via email or a file transfer service like Dropbox (there is nothing in the game itself to facilitate the transfer of files.) Those who didn't play the original game series TCP/IP (and even some who did) see this issue as a tempest in a teapot, while others have claimed to refuse to support the new game engine unless the issue is resolved.

Also of interest is the mention of the original CMX2 game, set in a fictional U.S./NATO intervention in Syria - strangely prescient now, given President Obama's speech just today, though there is an insistence of course that boots will not hit the ground (and a British refusal to assist given the defeat of a motion in Parliament two days ago). Nonetheless, the setting seems that much more spooky somehow.

I'm personally drawn back to the issue of the maps in Combat Mission: Market Garden. I can't help but think the Master Maps, whatever they are, have been instituted as a replacement for whatever plans had originally been drawn up to provide a replacement for the random map generator and that those plans are probably now shelved. The concept of the Master Maps seems so - bizarre somehow - and like such a non-event, that it is hard to come up with any other rationale for the unveiling of this "feature", than as the realization that there is nothing better to offer in its stead. The progression seems to have gone:

* Random map generator (CMX1)
* Announcement of "MetaMap Tile" feature (2008)
* Announcement of "Master Maps" (2013)

And yet the Master Maps don't seem to be anything that hasn't already been offered in every other Combat Mission offering - i.e. historically accurate maps that can be re-used by other designers if they wish. The only hint that anything is different is they may be of a different size ("huge maps") than normally found in the new game engine.

There will be some new building and bridge types as well - a current running AAR at the official forums shows off the windmill building type:

As noted in the caption from the BFC site, the building model is not animated.


Combat Mission: Market Garden appears to be a product grudgingly put together by a publisher who wasn't quite sure how to approach the subject, and then admitted they weren't quite sure how to make it appealing. The danger with this game system, or more accurately, the current marketing approach, has always been that each of the modules would only be soldiers in different coloured uniforms not really much different than the module that went on sale six months (or, perhaps, three years) before.

With Market Garden, we see that the publisher literally struggled with this notion, having to include both Commonwealth and Waffen-SS infantry in the release that were already available via the Combat Mission: Battle for Normandy – Commonwealth Forces release. And yet, to make up for it, only substandard troops like German naval forces and Luftwaffe ground troops were apparently left to throw into the mix.

The inclusion of historic terrain is something that has been lobbied for before. I am certain I've mentioned this in the past, and am looking forward to seeing the Arnhem and Nijmegen bridges rendered in 3-D. This is a definite step forward for the game system, and has worked well in other games such as Panzer Command: Ostfront, which had historic buildings sprinkled into many scenarios (the Central Rail Station in Stalingrad comes to mind).

Whether or not the addition of a few bridges and German troops in blue pants will be enough "new" content to warrant the $40 tarrif will be hard to say. The die-hard fans will undoubtedly say yes, as they always do, leaving the only real question to be how many of them will remain to continue to subsidize the efforts. My money has already been sent in, which must make me one of them.

My Last Word

I'll yield the last word to the currently top-rated response to this promotional teaser video released by

Click "watch on YouTube" to see all the comments, but the one that has at present received the most approval states:

flamethrowers? camouflage for guns? no! new uber bridge for $ 35!