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Heavily Engaged: Ignorance Is Bliss

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While those who don’t read history are, allegedly, doomed to repeat it, they can at least sleep easy knowing they’ll never find themselves on wargame forums grumbling about infantry AI, ballistics modelling, and uniform accuracy. There have been occasions during my long career as a bedroom battle orchestrator, when I’ve wondered whether I wouldn’t have been a much happier player had I steered well clear of history books, documentaries and message-boards.

The trouble is, once you’ve gulped – or even sipped – from the cool well of knowledge, there’s no going back. No un-sipping. Once you know that an M5 didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of killing a Tiger tank from the front, any game that suggests otherwise, becomes tainted. Once you learn that the Napoleonic infantry battalion’s best defence against a cavalry charge was to form a hollow square, any game in which the AI appears not to know this, loses some of its magic. An informed player tends to be a harder to please player.

True, the fact-furnished grog also tends to be more involved and more appreciative. As Professor Alvis Saracen’s 2002 seminal study ‘Are Educated Wargamers Happy Wargamers?” indicates, the potentially alienating effects of background knowledge only kick in at a certain point.

Without some historical knowledge, you’re going to miss out on all that delicious resonance. Moments when a dev’s smart design decisions and painstaking attention to detail conspire to produce uncannily credible events, will slip past unnoticed. The uninformed are denied those surges of satisfaction that come from applying authentic tactics and getting authentic results.

Things only start getting dangerous at the higher echelons of learning. When the average WW2 buff sees a Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy AP shell slice straight through three halftracks then kill a Sherman tank, he thinks “Blimey, Battlefront’s ballistics are amazing!”. When a gamer whose bookshelves bow with weighty armoured warfare studies, sees the same thing, his thoughts may be different. “Hmm. I wonder if Battlefront’s ballistics take into consideration the HE bursting charge in German AP shells“.

He starts questioning. If he doesn’t get reassuring answers he may lose confidence. Worst-case scenario, he finds his relationship with the game souring. “If I can’t trust you on this question,  where can I trust you?”

Peruse any wargame forum and you’ll spot knowledgeable grogs pricked into posting by perceived discrepancies between game and history. Sometimes the debates revolve around the absurdly trivial  (CMx1’s failure to model Bren Gun tripods is a running joke/sore over at the Battlefront message-boards). Sometimes they go right to the heart of what makes a wargame a wargame.

I never did get round to playing Matrix’s mammoth Ost Front opus War In The East. I wonder if I had, whether I’d have noticed that the game’s treatment of fortifications can lead to unrealistically static 1942 frontlines. Heliodorus04 might be a happier bunny if he knew less about Fall Blau and Operation Uranus.

Of course, asking a wargamer to be less interested in military history is a bit like asking a dog fox to be less interested in chickens, monocles, or velvet waistcoats. Maybe it’s up to the devs to tweak their ways…

Gentlemen, Gentleladies, I present to you my ‘Five-Step Guide To Grog Contentedness’ or ‘What Wargame Developers Can Do To Keep Their Most Demanding Customers Happy.’

1. Maintain radio contact
Having participated in a few “Tiger turret traverse rate too fast?”-type forum threads in my time, I know the soothing power of a simple ‘”Yes, we’re looking into this” or “Fixed in coming patch” reply. Even a brutally honest “We didn’t have time to implement this” Or “This was low down on our list of priorities because…” is better than silence or evasion.

While a lot of wargame makers are actually pretty good at communicating with their fans, most could learn something from masters like Veitikka. Every time I stop by the Armored Brigade forum to see what’s new in the world of this regularly updated, free tactics gem, I’m impressed by the patience and honesty of the game’s Finnish creator.

The Veitikka Way: Facing blunt AI criticism? Take criticism on chin, possibly even use it as the basis for an improvement. Complimented on your AI? Downplay your achievements, and make no bones about the challenges ahead.

2. Keep things malleable
Sometimes no amount of explanation is going to placate the righteous petitioner. In such circumstances, the perfect safety-valve is a suite of editors and mod tools. If Swastickler79 refuses to accept that SS troops weren’t danger-dismissing über-warriors, remind him he can always massage their morale levels and combat abilities by hand.

3. Keep things abstract
The more explicit the wargame, the more chance there is the learned wargamer will spot something that looks awry. Consider Combat Mission’s new attitude towards timber. In the old CMx1 days woodland was an abstracted terrain type. You edged troops into it knowing that it would provide cover and concealment. CMBFN gives us individually modelled trunks and with them some brand-new realism headaches. Just how many 20mm cannon shells should it take to fell a mature Normandy poplar?

4. Lighten the mood
While the reaction to the Brothers In Arms 4 announcement proves you’ve got to be careful mixing whimsy with military history, I suspect wargames wouldn’t attract so much earnest criticism if they weren’t themselves so suffocatingly earnest, so determinedly po-faced. Matrix’s fairly recent Battlefield Academy had a jaunty comic-book style that made questions of mortar ranges and armour angles seem pretty unimportant.

5. Mine minor wars
Perhaps the best defence the makers of historical strategy have against the nitpickers and rivet counters, is obscurity. While thousands of us know – or think we know – something about how Shermans should fare against Panthers, or how a Napoleonic general might use cavalry, most of us are largely clueless when it comes to, say, the WWI Gebirgskrieg, the New Zealand Land Wars, or tribal clashes in Iron Age Briton. I suspect one of the many reasons I enjoyed Shogun 2 more than Napoleon: Total War, was not that its depiction of warfare is more realistic, it’s simply because I was less aware of the discrepancies.

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I’d love to see some of my favourite wargame developers de-starch their collars/under-garments in the way that some of their tabletop and board wargame peers have done in recent years. Colonial warfare with a little dash of pulp adventure! Twenties aerial combat with a few flying Ironclads and cloud-dwarfing dirigibles! Underpinned by the same armatures of truth that underpin good grog fodder, such mash-ups could be just the crossover crowd-pleasers the genre needs. The day I spot an “AT rifles too strong vs Stegosaurs?” thread over at Battlefront.com or a “Carden Loyd tankette tactics against Martian tripods?” post at MatrixGames.com, will be a fine one indeed.

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Tim Stone

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