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The Flare Path: New Wave Wargames

Conflicts confronted

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After decades of stasis, the landscape of computer wargaming is beginning to change. Here and there desert hexagons are greening… dry arroyos are becoming rivers again… the accumulated dust and debris of forty years of conservative thinking is being sluiced towards the sea. Tired of threadbare, truth-blurring conventions, imaginative devs are looking at war and warriors in fresh, arresting ways. In today’s column, I talk to one of the studios contributing to this nascent revolution, and play a game that demonstrates the vigour, vision, and boldness of New Wave wargaming perfectly. 

Operation Resolute Alpaca* is entering a critical phase. Desperate to contain the insurgent threat in the mountains in the south of my fictional province, I’m contemplating a very dangerous decision. Extending the tours of the Coalition troops currently helping to keep the restless red diamonds (rebel units) penned in the bottom-right of my screen, should buy me the time I need to stabilise the rest of the map. It should allow me to apply the military pressure necessary to bring the terrorists to the negotiating table. The trouble is the decision won’t be popular (many of my countrymen feel the foreigners have been here too long already). Damaged by out-of-control corruption, clumsy airstrikes, and a failed round of peace talks, my reputation is already in tatters. This decision could be one of the last I make as governor.

* Rebel Inc’s operation name generator is a lovely thing.

Ingenious, unflinching and startlingly topical, Rebel Inc: Escalation is the epitome of a modern wargame. If you’re a traditional grog like me, the default pacing of this turnless-but-pauseable Early Access title may prompt some early misgivings (Most games are done and dusted in under 30 minutes and pack a staggering number of governmental and military decisions into their relatively brief spans) but persevere, get comfortable with the clever overlapping mechanisms at the heart of the game, and chances are, you’ll quickly realise you’re in the presence of something rather special.

Whichever character you choose to roleplay and map you plump for, your objective is always the same – to turn a fragile post-war peace into an enduring long-term one by crushing/containing an insurgency while cultivating popular support through economic, social, and infrastructural initiatives. The faster you build schools and plumb in WCs, erect powerlines and improve roads (Projects are purchased via a tech tree, then, over time, rolled out automatically across the region), the quicker you’ll pull the rug out from under the ruthless IED planters and suicide bombers, but the less cash you’ll have to invest in defence – national guard training, new drones, MRAPs etc. Of the many double-edged scimitars constantly swishing and slicing within Rebel Inc, the swords versus ploughshares one is the sharpest.

Initiatives lead to corruption and inflation so need to be timed and balanced thoughtfully. Coalition troops and aircraft are invaluable rebel eradicators but often cause resentment as they go about their eradicating. Speedy social reforms may please urban liberals and the international community but hack off rural traditionalists. Flexibility during peace negotiations will hasten a settlement but may fatally damage your reputation. There are no free lunches – no easy decisions – in this wonderfully intricate, thought-provoking design.

Militarily, the game is deceptively simple. Moving a ground unit into an area infested by red diamonds triggers a battle represented by a two-colour progress bar. Allied units are unstackable and fight more effectively when receiving the automatic support of friendly units and garrisons in neighbouring areas. Mountains and forests favour the insurgents. Spend sagely in the aircraft and drone regions of the elaborate R&D tree and periodic airstrikes occur more regularly and are less likely to cause costly, support sapping collateral damage.

Defeated insurgents attempt to flee into neighbouring areas. Totally surrounded ones are eliminated. If the game allowed you to recruit an unlimited number of ground units, the temptation would be to flood the map with blue (coalition) and green (local forces) discs. Because there’s a hard limit and extending the tours of foreign peacekeepers drains the reputation you need to keep your job, you invariably find yourself short-handed – halting advances in one part of the map, then hurriedly redeploying troops to prevent the red canker spreading into a vulnerable area somewhere else.

Judging by some forum posts, a few users would prefer it if a hemmed-in insurgency was always a contained insurgency. Although it’s been my undoing on numerous occasions over the past week, I actually like the way red diamonds sometimes spontaneously crystallize in new areas of the map when you least expect it. Insurgencies are slippery creatures as Western powers have discovered to their cost during recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Ndemic aren’t afraid of showing this.

There’s limited content in the Early Access build right now, but what there is is beautifully balanced and free of significant bugs. Even if you can resist the unspoken “Complete all five maps on Brutal difficulty.” challenge – a challenge that could occupy you for weeks – it’s awfully tempting to revisit regions with untried characters. Slowly unlocked during, in my case, my first ten hours of play, the selectable personages force you to adapt your play style in engaging ways. The ex-warlord’s licence to churn out cheap security units seems god-sent until you realise there’s a flip-side. The accountant, banker and the smuggler bring very different economic talents to the role…  as a replayability magnifier the governor concept is bally clever.

Pickable advisors, an unpredictable unscripted AI, and a rich, dynamic random events system further enhance longevity. By the time the Early Access period is over (a campaign mode, multiplayer, a scenario editor, and more regions and governors are on the way) it should be seriously good value for money. Even now you should be able to wring twelve pounds’ worth of pleasure out of it without difficulty. Holistic, relevant, and uncommonly absorbing, if Rebel Inc: Escalation is a taste of the future of wargaming then stimulating times lie ahead.

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The self-censorship has been going on for so long now that few question it anymore. In chimneyed rendering plants across the world, hardworking wargame developers boil away the sorrow, horror and politics of war and bottle what remains: puzzles, pyrotechnics, propaganda, pornography. Is there another more responsible way? Polish studio Serious Sim believe there is. Radio Commander had its fair share of flaws, but will, I’m sure, prove to be one of the most thought-provoking wargames I play in 2019. Interested in the minds behind the project and the future of the engine, I cornered designer Jakub Bukała (left) and writer Tomasz Pstrągowski (right) and plied them with questions.

RPS: Would you describe Radio Commander as an anti-war wargame?

Tomasz: I think it was François Truffaut who said: “There’s no such thing as an anti-war film”. It’s the same with video games. War is a nightmare. Loneliness, stress, constant dread, death… And video games are fun. A spectacle! Engaging gameplay and compelling stories! Calmly clicking away in front of a friendly, meticulously crafted reality displayed on your screen! The player can suspend or conclude the experience whenever they want: to save their progress; to start again; to compare their results with a friend…

We wanted the game to be fun. But at the same time, perhaps paradoxically – we wanted it to cause feelings of discomfort in the player. We wanted to draw players’ attention to those aspects of the war that are usually ignored by pop culture. And we definitely weren’t interested in creating a “pro-war” wargame. I think we’ve accomplished this – just go and compare the first cut-scene with the last one. But I’m not sure if that’s enough to call our game an “anti-war wargame”.

RPS: Two of the grittiest Vietnam War wargames I can think of  – Radio Commander  and Vietcong – both originated in countries of the former Eastern Bloc. Is that a coincidence?

Tomasz: Perhaps our region’s history is to blame. Somehow, I can’t imagine myself telling an optimistic, heart-warming story about war heroes and glory. Not with everything that happened in our region during the Second World War firmly rooted in my mind. Not with the knowledge of the Warsaw Uprising and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and everything that happened after 1945 (Stalinism, interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia etc.). Another thing is – decades under the communist regime have made us skeptical to all kinds of propaganda. Living on the East side of the Iron Curtain, we were never fed an optimistic narrative about the Vietnam War. When American pop culture reached us in the 1980s, it was already during the time of revisionist movies like “Platoon” and “Deer Hunter”.

RPS: Most historical tactical wargames avoid subjects like war crimes. Do you think this is a dereliction of duty?

Tomasz: I wouldn’t use the words “dereliction of duty”. A “convenience” perhaps. It’s nice and easy to reach for war topics while at the same time ignoring their dark side. This allows one to enter this Hollywood-like worship narration about the military and heroism. But it ends up simplifying complicated problems and turning them into a military theme park. In my opinion, if one wants to say anything credible about any war, they cannot ignore such topics. I’m just a simple writer, not a Howard Zinn-type history professor. But it doesn’t require much research to find out that the Vietnam War was messy and complicated (like any war is, admittedly). Tactical wargames give an opportunity to present an interesting perspective on these topics, because in them the player does not usually take on a role of a regular soldier, but an accountable commander, who looks at his men and their actions from a distance.

RPS: There are points in the RC campaign where the player is presented with moral choices (I’m thinking of moments like the one in Mission 7 where you’re given the chance to gather evidence of a probable war crime). Is the player that chooses to turn a blind eye to the massacre, penalised in any way?

Tomasz: No. Why would we penalize the player for doing that? We wanted to show that being a decent human being depends on individual decisions made in difficult moments. Punishing every bad deed and rewarding every good deed – it’s something that only happens in video games. In real life (and especially in war) there is usually no award for being the good guy and no punishment for being the bad guy. Life goes on, and one has to live with their choices. During a real war such neglect would probably go unnoticed. Punishing it would be very cumbersome. Someone would have to report it, another person would have to investigate it, and so on. History proves that even if it were reported and investigated, the case most likely would have ended up being swept under the carpet. Look at what happened after the massacre of My Lai. Twenty-six soldiers were charged with criminal offenses, but only one lieutenant was convicted! He was given a life sentence for killing 22 people, but served only three and a half years under house arrest. Three and a half years! Over 400 innocent people were murdered there!

RPS: Are the cutscene characters complete fiction or are they based on real people?

Tomasz: Complete fiction. We were thinking about using real stories but came to a conclusion that it would be impossible to present the whole complexity of one’s motivations and the whole emotional context in a relatively small amount of dialogue lines.

RPS: Was the possibility of including Vietnamese characters ever discussed?

Tomasz: Yes, but we dropped it. The main problem was the language barrier. Firstly, we don’t have the skills necessary to write such characters. We don’t speak Vietnamese and we ruled out a Vietnamese character speaking in English with a very strong, grotesque accent. We don’t have the resources to hire a full-time Vietnamese translator, and we wouldn’t be able to adequately judge his work. Secondly, there are many books, movies and other sources about the American perspective on the Vietnam War available in Polish and English, but only a few about the Vietnamese perspective. That’s sad, but without such sources we simply didn’t know how to construct such a story and do it justice.

RPS: What came first, the idea of making a Vietnam War wargame or the control-by-radio concept?

Jakub: Technically, the radio-control concept was the first one, but shortly after we realized its great potential, the setting became obvious to us. It had to be the Vietnam War, especially the early stage of US intervention there. The scale was right, as well as the unit composition, the atmosphere, even the terrain and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict suited our vision perfectly. I think the ‘control-by-radio concept’ is perfect for small-scale operations, as well as air-mobility and air-support tactics used during the Vietnam War. Besides, we think Vietnam War deserves more attention than it gets in current video games and media in general. We were thrilled to tell some stories about the Vietnam War and we never regretted this decision.

RPS: I felt the Quick Battle mode could have offered more situations and customisation options. Is there any chance this element will be enhanced?

Jakub: Personally, I treat QB mode as an addition to the game, something quick and simple. Honestly, I didn’t want to complicate this feature. In my vision this mode should be as simple as possible. After just a few clicks you are able to start the mission. For someone who is eager to customize and experiment, I would rather recommend our custom mission editor (it can be found in the custom missions menu). It is still being improved and expanded upon, but even at this moment it offers a huge range of possibilities. The player can create entire scenarios with practically any unit configurations, custom events and almost all the mechanics we used to create the campaign (unit trails, randomized starting positions, distinct AI behaviors etc.). Missions created in our editor can be shared via the Steam Workshop and all the other players can try to beat/complete them.

RPS: The VC and NVA monitored US radio transmissions in Vietnam. Did you ever consider punishing the player for excessive radio use?

Jakub: Yes, we were aware of the US transmissions monitoring the VC and NVA had been doing in Vietnam, but we haven’t been able to come up with a game mechanic that could make use of this fact in a reasonable way. The thing is, we’ve had to constantly check and balance the in-game mechanics and we still weren’t able to avoid some mistakes in this aspect. E.g. we’ve found it particularly difficult to communicate some gameplay aspects to the players without the need of extensively describing them, which could, in our opinion, spoil the whole concept of interpreting the situation based on radio messages only. So, if we imagine the situation where VC is listening to the player’s orders and reacting to them – the player probably wouldn’t always be able to correctly identify such cases and could think that what ultimately ended up happening on the battlefield must have been heavily scripted, simply predetermined, etc. Suffice it to say, we do have a few more sophisticated game mechanics that were perceived as bugs by some of our players.

RPS: Mission design and dense Fog of War makes it difficult to assess the game’s AI. Are enemy movements in RC heavily scripted or are they capable of, say, figuring-out the weak points in a US position/line and planning an attack accordingly?

Jakub: After the end of each mission you can see a replay of the battle, which will show the actual unit positions, stats etc. as well as all unit movements made during the course of the mission. Generally, the AI in the game is designed to develop as the campaign progresses. At the beginning the enemy movements are more scripted, just to ensure a degree of predictability. We wanted to teach the player the basics before we confront them with more complex maneuvers. From around mission 5, however, the enemies start to behave in an increasingly sophisticated manner. E.g. they won’t attack armored units, they will hide and wait until the player’s infantry or specific vehicles will show up to attack. They will avoid confrontation until they see that they have the upper hand and they will retreat when the player brings reinforcements. But then again… Some of these behaviors were perceived as bugs by a non-insignificant percentage of our players, so we decided that further improvements are probably not necessary.

RPS: I’m not a fan of linear wargame campaigns. They limit replayability and (potentially) roadblock progress. Why is there a linear campaign at the heart of RC?

Jakub: Well, RC is quite hard to pigeonhole… I would also describe it as wargame, but absolutely not only as that. We wanted to show a new perspective, to shake the genre that had refused to change for the longest time a little bit! But we also wanted to tell a story. A proper war story, with all the weight and a suitably mature approach. We wanted to say that war isn’t about unit stats and numbers or some abstract tactics and maneuvers, but about the people basically trapped there. Considering our limited budget and some obvious expectations from our publishing company on the one hand, and our ambitions on the other, we decided that this would be the only way to make it all possible. I think that, taking all these circumstances into consideration, the final product is not bad at all, for a first game.

RPS: It’s easy to picture the Radio Commander approach used in a WW2 wargame. Do you have any plans to apply it to other conflicts?

Jakub: We still have a few things to say about war, (and the Vietnam War specifically) in the “Radio Commander” way, so we’ll probably create a few small expansions to the game in the near future. We do – however – also have some fresh ideas blooming in our heads and even bigger ambitions we’d like to realize. Personally, I love wargames, and the strategy genre in general, but as a team we would probably also like to try some new concepts. Therefore, we could probably ‘hand over the baton’ and gladly see other teams employing this approach to depict WW2 or other wars. I hope you’ll check-out our next game event if it’s not RC 2 :)

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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