COIN in wargames, a response

So, there’s been a really good article on counterinsurgency and wargames posted on The Wargamer. Take a read, it’s a well-written and certainly thought-provoking piece. For an examination of Vietnam 65 and Afghanistan 11 on Spacebattles, regarded as the height of well-designed COIN in gaming and far more positive towards them than even the article, see here.

However, I also have some quibbles with it, that I think are worth a response. The first, and it’s purely stylistic is that I think the tone is a little too axe-grindy for my tastes-I’ve been working extremely hard to avoid such a tone even in my own mind, so I’m a little sensitive, maybe more so than someone else would be.

That being said, I think it’s a little too unforgiving. If I had to distill them into three main arguments, it’d be…

  • Gameplay still matters.
  • Asymmetric war exists on a spectrum.
  • Existing games can model asymmetric war better than the article lets on if done intelligently.

Gameplay Still Matters.

Ok, I’ll be honest. This statement tripped a circuit in the scenario-developer part of my mind.

And even then those games are really forgiving when it comes to fog of war. Sure, you can run a company into an ambush in Vietnam or get hoisted by an IED in Afghanistan. But neither game shows the accumulated stress, propaganda-fueled racism or simple evil of your soldiers resulting in atrocities. You don’t risk calling in an airstrike on a wedding or an errant hospital because CIA doesn’t really care about where the information comes from. You don’t need to deal with Generation Kill’s Captain America-level subordinates who will annihilate villages with artillery because they’re scared. In those games, you don’t need to deal with your own side working against you. The military establishment is almost Command and Conquer-like in not being affected by human failings.

My thought was that this sort of thing is a lot more interesting and easier to do in theory than it is in practice. This may be do to my bias against making things too luck-based, but it’s also because the meaning of a game is lost if it’s too difficult or unresponsive to play.

Again, I like it in theory. (Heck, I even included a target that turns out to be a falsely identified building full of innocents in one of my Command scenarios). It’s just that my “better is the enemy of good enough” mind views a somewhat unrealistically “smooth” command system as the price to pay for the experience overall.

And on the subject of atrocities, I view them as something that has to be handled with extreme care, and has the potential to be a “be careful what you wish for” moment if they’re implemented in the wrong way. Because there are people online who’ve been asking, in games like Hearts of Iron, to be able to commit war crimes deliberately. And there the path leads to something far uglier than simple Rambo II-style wish fulfillment fantasies.

 Asymmetric War Exists on a Spectrum

I never thought that the OPFOR chart I did a little while ago on a lark would be legitimately useful to make a point. But it symbolizes, given the prospective threats identified on it, a continuum between the two extremes of “occasional attack insurgency” on one end to “World War III” on the other. I think my own Black Gold Blitz is somewhere in the middle, not just because Iran is closest to the Light OPFOR/ROWEN fictional opponent, but because it’s a conventional conflict where one side still has to try using asymmetric tactics to counter their weakness in traditional arms.

So I’m in total agreement that real, serious COIN would require a game built from the bottom up-to be honest, my biggest inspiration wouldn’t be any existing wargame, but SimCity. It also would be niche even by the standard of the wargaming genre, and have the potential to, as any risky project would, be a swing and a miss that doesn’t live up to its potential. However, especially if the scope was narrowed and the enemy identified/changed to go up the threat scale slightly, there’s something more suitable for a conventional wargame to handle.

Existing Games Can Model-If Done Intelligently

The key word is “if done intelligently”. The comment from “some guy” that helped prompt the original article does not sound like a reasoned, intelligent approach to using an existing model to address a sensitive issue. The words “politically correct” give it all away.

But if narrowed down, it can at least potentially work, especially if it’s toned down to “one tactical engagement”. One option is the classic Mirbat-style “attack on Outpost X”, with an enemy force at least slightly above the bottom of the threat spectrum. At least in regards to Command, I find such an encounter works better in older (definitely up to at least Vietnam, and increasingly so even up to 1991) time periods where the AAMG they lugged up can post a threat to your friendly aircraft that has to fly low to hit anything rather than a more modern scenario where the fighter can fly above and safely attack with smart bombs.

That’s the easy-to-make Command scenario.

The considerably more ambitious, and difficult to make one was something I brought up earlier in the release stream of Black Gold Blitz. Where you do have some “Stuff”-even a lot of it, but where there’s a giant set of proper ROEs, fleeting targets, concern for collateral damage, and so on. It’s still ultimately tactical, and it’s still not for everybody, but it’s a huge variation on the standard Command theme that illustrates the challenges of a low-intensity environment. (Ironically, one of the biggest inspirations, and showing how these restrictions can be modeled, came from a totally conventional PVO-vs-SR-71 scenario)

In conclusion

So, that was my response. I probably came across as more critical towards the original article than I actually am. I have to say it’s because I’m a pretty critical person, even towards stuff I enjoy greatly, and it’s just easier for me to say what I didn’t like about something than what I did.

But I don’t disagree with the main points of the article, whatever my other critiques may have been. I hope my critique and commentary are well-received, and I hope any readers enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it.

 

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Nostalgia and Innovation

One of the games I remember as a child, and one of my first “Git Gud” games where I remember progressing from “clunking around” to “no-hit runs”[1], was Wario Land 4. The game itself is a solid, effective platformer with the typically “quirky” (to put it mildly) Wario style.

But one thing I thought was interesting about it was how it was a step forward in shaking off the anachronistic arcade holdover of “extra lives”. There’s no “game over”, and dying simply fails the individual level. (It’s one that the proper Mario games have noticeably been considerably slower at going for, simply because of a “why mess with what works” attitude). Plus the score system, another arcade holdover, actually has some value in WL4. It’s interesting to look back on in hindsight.

[1]And deliberately doing poorly so I could see all the bad endings.

Wither the RTS

I’ve enjoyed many a real time strategy game as a child, being (for the most part) a Command and Conquer player, with everything from Generals to Red Alert. I also played my share of Starcraft and Empire Earth.

Now that I’ve said that, I’ll say the controversial thing. In my opinion the RTS genre was/is fundamentally flawed from the start, and its decline was both understandable and deserved.

As for the biggest problem with their gameplay, I think this post by “Reaper_93” on Spacebattles explains it far better than I could. (The short version is that they require two different and seemingly contradictory skills, which limits their appeal).

There’s another one I’ve noticed myself, and that’s that in RTSes, the single and multiplayer might as well be two completely different games. Evidently, their userbase agrees, because I’ve heard and read that a majority of RTS players (including me) never even touched the online multiplayer. This is understandable. There’s another problem, in that the single-player experience is either an AI skirmish mode that’s a twisted parody of online multiplayer, or a campaign.

Campaign missions, are, by and large, terrible once you take off the rose-tinted glasses. At least without the context of the story and mission. There are exceptions, but most of them amount to “survive the early game. Then build a blob of of units. Smash. Repeat if necessary until victory”.

So you’re left with either an ultra-crunchy (especially with later RTSes chasing the esports white whale) multiplayer game that isn’t beginner friendly, or you get a cinematic campaign just as linear and forced as the stereotypical FPS that has no replay value.

I may be too harsh, but it’s what I feel about the traditional RTS genre. I enjoyed it when I was younger, but you like a lot of things when you’re younger that you don’t when you grow up. After all, when I was younger I enjoyed playing the infamous Shadow the Hedgehog too.

My Pokemon Experience

The original Red and Blue versions are the only Pokemon games I’ve never beaten. Maybe it’s because I was too young to really play them well, then by the time I got a handle on things, Gold/Silver appeared and I fell in love with that, never looking back.

Gold/Silver is far and away my most fond generation of Pokemon games. It could very well be my rose-tinted glasses as I was growing just old enough to appreciate it, but everything, with a two-region game and day-night shifts, seemed so big and grand. Ruby/Sapphire was very good, but it and many of the later one-region games just feel a little cramped in comparison.

I’d say my least favorite (and this is definitely a relative term, the game was still very good) would probably be Black/White. Simply because its story went into a higher “narrative bracket” by trying to cast doubt on the journey-while quickly and totally yanking back to the “it’s totally ok” message. But the gameplay was still very good.

This Is The Police Review

For the summer sale, I got This Is The Police, a police simulation game. I went in loving it, and came out feeling mixed about it.

First, what I liked about it:

  • The gameplay is basically serviceable, and more about timing management than anything else. There’s an investigation mode I struggled with, and I was reminded somewhat of Black Closet’s similar but more detailed mechanics. It’s serviceable, but not enough to carry the player through the overly-long campaign.
  • The dark humor brought a smile to my face. If the game was more open-ended, had “survive for this long”, and had officers asking to leave for the dumbest reasons and weird false alarms from callers with either too much or too little mediciation, I would love it. The problem is the main plot, which in addition to its own problems, contradicts the wacky hijinks to a huge extent-it’s trying to be both The Wire and The Simpsons at once.

Now for what I didn’t like:

  • The game is too long, and has the “flail around blind and probably lose or robotically follow a guide and win” effect. Way too long. It could have been half as long as it was and still be as good.
  • The story. Oh, the story. It’s too dark, the characters are cliches, and it doesn’t fit the dark humor goofball trend of the gameplay. Here should be this weird management simulator, and instead I get a fifth-rate wannbe-noir plot.
  • There’s too much disconnect between the good man trying to hold the police together even as he’s sucked into evil that the main character is in the story, and the guy who had mobsters kill three officers so that he could sell their corpses to a mad scientist for cash I played in the gameplay.

The game is still fun and still worth getting (especially on sale), it’s just it could be more. For this kind of investigative game, if you can tolerate the high-school setting, Black Closet does it better mechanically.

 

Infamy 2 Reached

I’ve finally reached the second level of infamy in Payday 2 (which requires you to reach the level cap and then earn $200,000,000 per level). I love the game, but its high-level play isn’t really for me.

Why? There’s less room for error, both on your part and from the unreliable internet players who go alongside you.

On Trying to Not Be Spoiled

I’m trying not to be spoiled by blockbusters until I finally read/watch/play them. It’s harder than it seems, but I’ve managed it on more than one occasion. I got most of the way through Undertale without being spoiled, and my experience was all the better for it.

Though I have to admit there’s little middle ground with games for me. It’s either a bumbling blind playthrough or a robotic walkthrough.

Another one where I wasn’t spoiled before experiencing it was the name of the traitor in Payday 2′ Hoxton Revenge. Then again, I only had a <30 minute mission to sit through, not a long, detailed game.

Spoiler Warning

My favorite Let’s Play series of all time would have to be Shamus Young’s Spoiler Warning. You can see the videos here.

Combining knowledge of gaming with lots of fun, the cast has been skewering many games for quite some time. My favorite set is the Hitman Absolution one.

 

The hardest boss fight in history

The term “hardest boss fight” is used far too commonly. However, I have found one that takes the cake.

It started when I was watching Saltybet, and noticed (repeatedly), a character called “General”. Looking up the origins of the general, I found that he was from a game called Kaiser Knuckle (known as Global Champion in a small US release), an unsuccessful and otherwise unspectacular Street Fighter knockoff.

Stylistically, the General is nothing but a cheap imitation of the legendary M. Bison, but in gameplay terms is so hard that it took twenty years for proof of a legitimate victory to be posted.

This is the proof of the victory over the General.

The boss got so hard that the developers nerfed him in a subsequent (and never actually released) update to the game.

 

The General is a relic of an era of less-strict game design-only stronger to his cheap-boss compatriots in relative terms, but overwhelmingly stronger nonetheless. Whether due to rushing the game or just horrible quality control, what should have been dialed back in testing ended up as this footnote in history.

Sometimes a limit can be reached, and the General was apparently that limit.

One final note: It’s a sign of MUGEN munchkin arms races that the General is not on the absolute highest tier in Saltybet.