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The Flare Path: Unburdens

Direct, motivate, preserve

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Thirty-five years of computer wargaming have taught me nothing about the art of military leadership. Yes, I’ve learnt how to attack and defend, how to exploit terrain, triage threats, and tell the difference between a Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf. D and a Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf. G, but no dev has ever asked me to build trust… maintain discipline… inspire loyalty. Since falling in love with Arnhem on my rubber-keyed Speccy in 1985 I’ve been a tactician and puzzle solver, never, in any meaningful sense, a leader of men.

Burden of Command [official site] wants to fill this gaping experiential void. A stat-shunning military RPG that mixes interactive fiction decisions with traditional hex grid battling, if all goes to plan it could prove to be one of the most memorable and affecting war games ever.

Although well-regarded titles like Banner Saga, This War of Mine, Steel Panthers and Panzer General, are cited by Green Tree Games – a new studio that boasts veterans, military historians, IF specialists, and psychology experts amongst its staff and advisors – as ludological influences, I suspect one of the game’s literary touchstones will serve as its most effective recruiting sergeant. BoC may not put you in the jump boots of Dick Winters, but it strives to simulate exactly the kind of life-and-death HR dilemmas that fill the pages of Band of Brothers.

We will start out as callow lieutenants leading platoons of untested Cottonbalers in isometric North Africa in 1942. By the end of a sequence of 18 scenarios that includes historically-based engagements in Italy, France, and Germany, we’ll be company-shepherding captains – different people psychologically, maybe genetically too. BoC features permadeath but doesn’t force a restart every time a commander is killed. If our character expires, we’ll read the ‘letter home’ then step into the boots of a replacement CO.

Between Morocco and Munich there are going to be hundreds of judgement calls. A fair few, I imagine, will boil down to that classic commander’s bind: preserve or push on. Choosing to fail is an option in BoC – an option with consequences, naturally. It will be interesting to see just how long fainthearts and bleeding hearts last in Green Tree’s version of the WW2-era US Army.

Intriguingly, our decisions won’t just dictate how many of our starting contingent make it to VE Day. The player’s behaviour and leadership style will, to a certain extent, mould the ‘mindsets’ of subordinates. ‘Reports’ – the handful of NPC lieutenants and sergeants tasked with turning orders into actions – all have individual personalities and carefully tracked relationships with their boss. Their regard for and trust in us, will alter over time. Good habits and bad ones may be passed on.

Project Lead Luke Hughes is keen to stress that there are no ‘right’ answers on the BoC battlefield and that issuing an order is not the same thing as executing an action. When I asked him to explain how the game will go about modelling the chaos of war, he said this:

“The game is designed such that everything that happens in BoC happens on a probability curve. Which is a fancy way of saying that while normally for any given ‘event’ (firing an MG, giving an order, rallying the men, making a move or an interactive fiction decision, etc.) what you expect to happen happens, the dice are always being rolled for a disaster (e.g., the gun jams, the men panic, an order gets lost) or an unexpected success (critical hit, a squad auto rallies…). Further, as a battle progresses and the natural friction of war occurs through suppression and injury, command and control will start to break down. That is, suppressed units will tend to ignore orders, or not receive them, or implement them only minimally (crawl towards the MG rather than run).

Put one last way, while in a typical tactical game like XCOM we’re all used to the chance to hit being probabilistic, in BoC even the chance to follow an order is probabilistic. In the face of this pervasive chaos it is the leaders who play a critical role in overcoming the chaos and turning your intentions into actions. Chaos is central to the battlefield and BoC, and leadership is its central anecdote.The good news about chaos is that it tends to create good stories (‘There I was all my units suppressed, no hope, then out of the blue Lt Stern stood up in the face of fire, rallied his men and overcame the enemy position. Sadly he was wounded in the final assault.”)”

I had a fleeting taste of BoC’s messy battlespaces, tough choices, and emergent stories when I tried a short prototype late last year. Even then the involvement of professional writers and historians was obvious. Situations had a documentary feel. There were quirky details that could only have come from memoirs and regimental histories. Choices were communicated with the kind of spare, chiselled prose that focused the mind and ramped up tension. I never felt I was being nudged or tricked.

Satisfying your superiors while keeping as many of your men as possible content and unperforated sounds like it will be a major preoccupation. According to Luke, BoC can do both guilt and grief.

“We will have failed if losing a unit doesn’t feel like an emotional body blow. Particularly for your subordinate leaders. Playtesting has shown clear emotional impact from losing reports, especially through leadership decisions.”

At times the game should make us feel genuinely uncomfortable too. Asked whether there would be ethical decisions sprinkled amongst the tactical ones, Luke hinted that war’s murkier corners wouldn’t be avoided:

“Karl Marlantes was an American Rhodes Scholar who left his scholarship and volunteered to serve in Vietnam, later becoming a famous war writer. In his book “What It is Like to Go to War” he wrote that when a soldier goes to war, like it or not, he inevitably enters the Temple of Mars. Which is an elegant way of saying, unprepared or not, he enters the realm of death which is inherently spiritual and ethical. Marlantes work is a bible for Burden of Command. In other words, every decision is ethical on the battlefield because lives are stake.

The longer answer is we have many many explicitly ethical decision in the game, both on and off the battlefield. Including central ones we call Crucibles. Your journey through Burden of Command will be a spiritual one as well as a tactical one. At the end of the game you will not be the same person who entered the Temple of Mars. Mechanically, we track this through changes in Mindsets like Idealism or Zeal.”

Because of player-sculpted mindsets, chaos-simulating dice rolls, and the constant dynamic interplay between battlefield results and inter-mission IF, BoC should be a game that can withstand more than one playthrough. While Luke admits that a “central narrative arc” means the second run won’t feel quite as novel as the first, he fully expects players to return, experimenting with different leadership styles on subsequent visits.

The arrestingly human Burden of Command will be ready for us sometime in 2018. Raised on wargames obsessed with tech and tactics, will we be ready for it?

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If Strategiae’s aim with Congo 1964, the latest expansion for epoch-hopping TBS Wars Across The World [official site], was to encourage their customers to read more about a tangled proxy war involving African medicinemen, European mercenaries, child soldiers and legendary marxist revolutionaries, they’ve succeeded (I’ve just ordered copies of Mercenary by Mike Hoare and The African Dream by Che Guevara). If, on the other hand, they expected their £4 offering to absorb without aggravating – to persuade purchasers to put aside other digital diversions for a day or two – they’ve failed.

I was planning to spend at least a day with Congo 1964, but after a couple of playthroughs, both complicated by bugs, those plans have changed. Sadly, it appears Strategiae are still struggling to ship flaw-free DLC. While I’m willing to turn a blind eye to multiple Mulambas and the odd impassable province boundary, an unthawable freeze two turns from the end of a two-hour, twenty-turn scenario, is an inconvenience too far.

My potpourri of local troops, mercs, and Belgian paras had the Simba rebels on the run when the scenario ground to an untimely halt. I’d shattered Che’s dreams on the road to Leopoldville (Kinshasa) and, with help from jungle-strafing Texans and airlifting Dakotas, was busy mopping-up scattered enemy counter stacks in the east. The Simbas hadn’t expanded quite as energetically as I’d feared/expected, but I was enjoying myself. The distilled history on the cards was working its magic; the low unit count and simple battles mechanics was keeping things pacy. Congo 1964 may not mark the end of War Across the World’s teething troubles, but it does keep my flickering faith alive.

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This way to the foxer

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