The Flare Path: Unburdens

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?

*       *       *

 

 


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.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer

42 Comments

Top comments

  1. Shiloh says:

    You'll be happy to hear it plays really well - I've been play testing it after pitching a similar idea to the Flare Path's Dragons' Den back in April/May this year.

    First off the bat, the writing is excellent (incredibly important for this kind of game) - they've really got the tone right I think. The decisions you take, and their consequences, are well designed and immersive. The characters are strong and well written, and you will get to appreciate them all - whether you'll actually like them all is another thing, but again, that's testament to the writing.

    I've found it a hugely enjoyable game so far, and Luke and the team deserve every success.
  1. floogles says:

    Very excited to see how burden of command plays, we need more strategy level games that aren’t numbers / spreadsheet focused.

    • Gothnak says:

      Entirely agree. I got Decisive Battles recently, and have bounced off the interface so far, but really want to penetrate the layers of stats and get into the personality within.

      • floogles says:

        Do you mean Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa? Either way this looks amazing in the context of role playing war games, wishlisted!

        • Gothnak says:

          That’s the biscuit. The problem is, you press ‘new game’ and that’s it, you are in charge of the whole Eastern Front. The only thing to ease you in are a bunch of videos from a pleasant but surly Australian chap.

    • Shiloh says:

      You’ll be happy to hear it plays really well – I’ve been play testing it after pitching a similar idea to the Flare Path’s Dragons’ Den back in April/May this year.

      First off the bat, the writing is excellent (incredibly important for this kind of game) – they’ve really got the tone right I think. The decisions you take, and their consequences, are well designed and immersive. The characters are strong and well written, and you will get to appreciate them all – whether you’ll actually like them all is another thing, but again, that’s testament to the writing.

      I’ve found it a hugely enjoyable game so far, and Luke and the team deserve every success.

    • Shadow says:

      Yeah… about the numbers, I’m not so hot on showing the exact probability in a game like Burden of Command. It’s supposed to represent actual situations and having to make difficult decisions with incomplete information: knowing your Captain has a 90% chance to die involuntarily has the player think in mechanical terms.

      It’s unlikely a medic would be able to tell you the exact odds you’re facing (you couldn’t perceive such specific probabilities from situations in general, either), and you have a chance here to be less gamey. That “likely to die” can be anything from 70 to 95% under the hood, but don’t show it: I think giving the player too much information would detract from the experience the game’s trying to convey.

      • zabieru says:

        I’m actually a big fan of knowing what “likely to die” means at least approximately. It changes my thinking a LOT if that’s a 55% chance or a 90% chance.

        Now, I don’t at all mind a bit of fuzz: put a tooltip over “likely” that says “75-90%,” say. (And then categorize other random events into “may die” at 35-65% and “could die” at 10-25%, or whatever).

        But having games where one time it says “X is likely to die” and it’s a 50-50 coin flip, and some other time it says “X may die” and that means a 75% chance of death even though “likely” seems more probable than “may” is just… Eh. Really, really incentivizes save-scumming or looking up the probabilities (online or in the game’s files, depending).

        • Shadow says:

          “It changes my thinking a LOT if that’s a 55% chance or a 90% chance.

          And that’s the problem: a real commander wouldn’t know if it’s a 55% or a 90%, and would have to decide on vague estimations. I think the experience would be diluted if the player’s so easily led to think in specific numbers and probabilities, which is exceedingly gamey and would detract from the experience of being a commander in these situations. It too easily leads to thinking like “Oh, so I have this 90% chance: even though failing would take 15 points off my men’s morale, those are good odds. Let’s do it, I know for a fact the risk is low.” Can’t see that as positive.

          I understand it can be frustrating, but if they want to do something different, that isn’t XCOM with hit chances on decisions rather than shots, they need to take that risk. Eventually some players will look under the hood and see which descriptors correspond to which values (if the files are exposed like that), but don’t hand them over to them on a silver platter. Having full awareness of this kind is not something that happens in real life, least of all in real war.

          Food for thought, devs.

          • TrenchFoot says:

            Agree 110% on this. hahahaha Use narrative descriptions “It doesn’t look good for him captain,” or “the medic shook his head grimly and turned away.” etc. Putting a number on it would be jarring and might break the spell this kind of game seeks to create.

            Maybe you even haul him around and he seems to get better only to later succumb.

  2. DEspresso says:

    Always remember the words of decorated war Hero Zapp Brannigan:
    ‘When I’m in command, every mission is a suicide mission’

    • Canadave says:

      Hopefully this game will allow us to send wave after wave of men at the enemy until the AI hits its kill limit.

  3. mgardner says:

    Thanks for the BoC preview, sounds promising.

    I am haunted by the image of the GIs in the landing craft. The kid in the center looks no more than 12 years old. I’d be curious to know the story/context behind this picture. I want to believe it is photoshopped, or youths playing war games at summer camp.

  4. Matti says:

    “but no dev has ever asked me to build trust… maintain discipline… inspire loyalty.”

    I have to disagree with that. Maybe writer of the article hasn’t played them or he just forgot, but there are games that include (some of) those elements. Jagged Alliance 2 has characters with different personalities, likes, dislikes, and more. Dimitri forgets orders and thus wastes action points; Dynamo occasionally fires automatic fire when I had instructed him to shoot single, well aimed shot; number of characters have special (positive) relationship with other character(s) and/or despise against others; casualties and failures reduce morale and makes it harder to hire replacements (character can refuse assignment); morale can be temporarily improved with alcohol, but following hangover reduces it whole lot more; and there are more.

    Expeditions: Conquistador has number of those elements. In addition player gets to chat with characters of his party and has to make decisions much the same way as demonstrated in BoC’s trailer. Chosen actions and inaction reflect on morale and loyalty of members of the party and number of NPCs. (Some of the) Spanish nobles and characters in player’s party would like it for player to kill and enslave the natives, but doing so wouldn’t please rest of the natives nor some other characters in player’s party.

    • TrenchFoot says:

      From a different genre, but Football Manager also has a heavy leadership element. Man Management is essential.

  5. wodin says:

    AWNT along with Tim here also got and early doors exclusive…go check it out if interested link to awargamersneedfulthings.co.uk

  6. lhughes42 says:

    Project lead here for Burden of Command. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. Just what I expect at RPS. Mgardener so with you. How could they have been that young? That picture if I recall is from the Torch landings. We had it professionally colorized by Benjamin Thomas. You’ll see another professionally colorized one done by Jared Enos (see website). Matti it’s always about building on the shoulders of giants and those that have gone before. JA was a giant! Shadow, I hear you. I want to playtest a color coded rather than numeric scheme. We’ll have to see how it goes in playtesting. Wodin thanks for being a friend to BoC! Flooges… Thank You!!! Despresso hmm.. might need some instruction from Sgt Grant in the game ;-) Gothnak, Cameron Harris who did DCB is a super smart and talented guy. Friend of our project too. I pick his brains whenever I can.
    Luke Hughes
    And thanks everyone, your taking time to comment means a lot and we listen hard.

    • melancholicthug says:

      Looks really interesting! Hope it has plenty replayabiliy.

    • Matti says:

      It is good to know you know about giants that were before and people (Cameron Harris) who made them. I wish you success.

      • lhughes42 says:

        Hey Matti,
        My hope is to be half as smart as Cameron frankly. Going to blog on all the boardgame influences eventually as well (ASL, Combat Commander, Band of Brothers (board game), Conflict of Heroes, Fields of Fire). There’s been a lot of creative thinking out there.
        Luke

    • TrenchFoot says:

      For detailed descriptions of the Torch landings. see Atkinson’s first book “An Army at Dawn.” The US Army needed to blood itself in Africa before taking on Europe.

      • lhughes42 says:

        TrenchFoot, great recommendation.That is a FABULOUS book (trilogy!). He does an incredible job at giving the feel of the time. To your point, I read an excellent book once “The Path to Victory” which argued it was key that the Yanks (and arguably Brits too in the pre Torch years) got bloodied slowly in the med first (Vichy early on for example) before the big time in Europe.

        • lhughes42 says:

          The neat thing is that plays out in our campaign too. You get to fight disorganized Vichy and then Italians in no mood to fight before you face the Germans.

    • Matti says:

      Luke, I invite you over to Matrix Games forums. Matrix Games is publisher of Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa (DCB) and large number of other war games. Among their line up are games from Gary Grigsby, legendary creator of several giants (Panzer General, Steel Panthers, War in the Pacific/East/West). Please join to chat with Matrix staff and us about BoC!
      link to matrixgames.com

  7. BooleanBob says:

    Sounds interesting! I wonder if there’ll be a hard mode where the decision are on a timer.

    • lhughes42 says:

      BooleanBob (you guys have great handles, I feel so boring),
      Man we debate that back and forth back and forth. It’s turn based, piss people off by doing? Give the sense of urgency? But then why not do for the whole game. Sigh. Tough one. The chicken hearted way is just make it an option.. which maybe we’ll do. Spot on on a critical topic though!
      Luke

  8. Dogshevik says:

    This sounds like an intriguing concept for a game. But I am wondering if it is a good thing or not that the bold idea of a narrative-heavy tactical game chooses a rather well-trodden path to tell a story.

    Of course I understand that a sense of familiarity and the availability of sources and researchers have to be considered from an economic point of view. But you wouldn´t have to have to go all exotic or leave all comofort zones behind you. I am absolutely sure following the story of an english or australian unit would be just as exciting. Maybe at a later date.

    Also I would echo the feedback on the displayed success probabilities.
    For me playing such a game it is often far more important to know why my success chances are good or bad. (is suppression a factor in this situation or a commander´s trait etc.) Getting hints on how to improve my chances in a particular decision is far more useful than knowing the exact numbers.

    • lhughes42 says:

      Dogshevik (!),
      The campaign choice was based on several things:
      1) pick a campaign not too trodden — note the Cottonbalers land in Morocco, and then go to Italy and then SOUTHERN France and finally Germany. Italy and Southern France are not usual territory. No Normandy ;-)
      2) pick a unit that saw a lot of theaters — Cottonbalers (3rd Inf Division) qualified there.
      3) good source materials — when I came upon McManus’s “American Courage, American Carnage” I know we were on to something and when John was kind enough to work with us.. well that sealed the deal!!
      Now all that being said I’d personally love to do a Free Poles campaign in future and we have team member pushing for Eastern Front, Soviet Commissar (wouldn’t that be wild), German late war, and more. But what I’d be most interested to hear is what YOU guys would like in a future DLC.
      Please say!
      Luke

      • Misha says:

        Subjects for future campaigns/DLC, you say? Well, if you’re interested in doing a German one, the 3rd German Inf would fit the bill perfectly with regards to your “seen a lot of theaters” criterion. It saw them all, pretty much, and went from an Inf to a Mechanized Inf at the end of the war when it surrendered in the Ruhr, if I remember correctly. Poland, France, Barbarossa (Leningrad, Moscow AND Stalingrad), Italy, Western Front (Bulge).

        For now, I just can’t wait to play this one when it comes out. Faster, please! :-)

        • lhughes42 says:

          Thanks for the suggestion on a German infantry division. We may be able to cover an armored company as well eventually.
          As for faster ‘no wine before its time.’ :-) We want to get this right but trust me want it out more than even you! Thanks for encouragement.

      • Matti says:

        Ever heard about Winter War?
        link to en.wikipedia.org

        That ought to offer some drama to be made: should YOU command retreat of the platoon in face of charging armoured force and lose the trench and precious ATG, or sacrifice good number of men to hold them? Piece of the movie to get you on the mood:

        Double-click on the video to get it on full screen.

    • lhughes42 says:

      Hints on how to improve. I am busy scribbling here.. (seriously, it’s a good point) thank you sir! Will mull. And I hear you guys about explicit probabilities. We are toying with color bars as an alternative so you only get an impression but leave numbers as an option. I can see the case for both.
      Luke

      • Dogshevik says:

        I am in no way suggesting you should copy it, but the screenshot above reminded me of how CKII does events. You are usually given two standard options to choose from, but if your character has a specific trait or skill level it offers an additional option and tells you exactly why you even have it available. I always found that neat.

        It felt a bit like a confirmation of the game´s complexity and diligence.
        (“Yes, dear player, we thought of that. Of course you can also eat your impertinent vassal. You are a cannibal after all. It only makes sense, right?”)

        Hence my comment about letting players know what plays a role in a specific event.

        • lhughes42 says:

          Thanks Dogshevik. Hope we can be that clever! We are definitely tying some narrative events and pretty sure choices to “Mindsets” so we do a bit of that but who can compete with CK2 right? That being said Cannibalism is in .. we aim to please .. aliens you name it.. we have no shame.. wait.. the historian McManus.. damn. Well maybe we can slip alien cannibals by with easter egg codes! :-) Seriously, hear you on trait influences.

  9. stryker777 says:

    While reading the BoC part, I found myself staring at the real image of the landing craft full of soldiers, specifically the second soldier in the middle…just a kid. I wondered if he made it through the war. The MP in front of him looked like he’d seen a battle or two. But that kid. Did he make it?

    • lhughes42 says:

      Stryker777,
      We’ve collected a lot of picture on the Cottonbalers, sent an archivist in. The emotions around the real folks who served grows stronger over time as we look at their images. Very moving frankly.

    • Chiron says:

      I came here to say this, he looks about 12 years old. Its going to really haunt me.

      • 1Derby says:

        Same. He looks a lot like my son. My son who just turned 4. It’s almost uncanny.

        Also, that kid is a Corporal which suggests he has already seen action.

  10. lhughes42 says:

    Thanks everyone above for your comments. We like hearing the good and the bad. I am very big on listening and being empirical. Best chance I have to save myself from myself LOL.
    Please let me know if I missed a question or failed to respond. Not intentional. Bit more time to breath today :-)
    Cheers,
    Luke