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Battle smarts

Top-notch AI puts command sim ahead of the pack

Aug. 24, 2010 - 03:45AM   |  
By Michael Peck   |   Comments
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Many games pretend to simulate the art of command. Mostly they simulate the art of marketing. They promise players an awesome historical experience, then give them some glitzy graphics of tanks and explosions, plus a digital toady who shouts, "Yes, General!" with every mouse click.

"Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge," available from Matrix Games (www.matrixgames.com) doesn't pretend to simulate command. It doesn't need to pretend, because it is a battle command simulation one that's a heck of a lot more polished than the |overengineered sims that exasperate the military while making defense contractors rich.

Designed by Dave O'Connor, a former Australian Army officer, BFTB is a real-time, battalion-level simulation of Hitler's desperate Ardennes Offensive. Bulge war games are as common as Belgian snow in December, but one look at BFTB's grid-square topographic map, and it becomes obvious that this game was designed by people who know their way around a command post.

Real-time games invariably conjure images of brain-dead artificial intelligence that either orders its troops into stupendously stupid attacks or sits passively while its armies are destroyed. However, BFTB was designed by Panther Games (www.panthergames|.com), which has become a legend among wargamers for the prowess of its AI.

Every historical war game attempts to broker a truce between playability and its mortal enemy, micromanagement. The typical but futile compromise is to delegate game functions to the AI, which is usually so dumb that players are forced to intervene.

Panther's sharp AI allows BFTB to enjoy the best of both worlds. The easiest method to give commands in BFTB is to issue orders to regimental headquarters, which then control their subordinate battalions and companies. Most scenarios put the player in the role of a corps commander, which means he has to control only 10 or 15 regimental HQs at most, plus some assorted artillery battalions. The menu of commands is fairly simple: move, fire, bombard, seize bridge crossings and so on. Set the objective and the waypoints, and then sit back and watch the action. The AI will assemble and move troops according to historical (and sensible) doctrine. The armor doesn't impale itself on enemy guns.

The artillery doesn't rush to the front and lead the attack. The infantry waits for the enemy to soften and then assaults. Praising a game for this may say more about the sad state of gaming AI, but its significance should not be underestimated.

For players who scream if deprived of their full-spectrum dose of micromanagement, BFTB allows them to micro to their heart's content. They can issue orders to individual battalions. Units can be adjusted for numerous parameters, including aggressiveness, rates of fire, loss tolerance, frontage and depth, as well as eight different formations, from road column to arrowhead attack. However, in a real-time game, fiddling with these settings requires either hitting the pause button (not so historical), or doing some quick mouse-clicking while you keep an eye on the rest of your army.

Perhaps the most significant and realistic feature of BFTB is an optional rule for command delay. Frankly, it's pointless to play the game without it. Delays can easily exceed an hour between the time the order is issued and when the unit begins to comply. For gamers accustomed to instant obedience from their virtual troops, it's a challenge to think ahead and to plan for the worst. An infantry battalion that is ordered to attack a village at 0800 and gets hit by an artillery barrage on the way will take cover for a while and reorganize. So it might not attack until 0930, even while its sister battalion attacked on time.

Analysis addicts who obsess over creating the perfect plan will discover that while better may be the enemy of good enough, most of the time you're lucky to get good enough.

The most striking lesson of BFTB is how little power a commander has to control events. Once he issues orders to his HQs, all he can do is hope that his subordinates will carry them out. Once battle is joined, he can allocate artillery support to wherever it's most needed. He can also intervene to reset an attack if circumstances change. But that in turn resets the delay clock. So, more often than not, it's better to grit your teeth and execute a bad plan now than a brilliant one two hours later.

And therein lies more friction. Not the friction of war, but the friction between realism and fun. Playing BFTB feels somewhat detached, like observing the inner workings of a very fine watch. Most of the time, you get the feeling that your watch or your army will function just fine without you. Actually, you have the feeling that it will function better without you. Perhaps this is realistic. Anyone who has ever had a meddling boss can attest that the art of leadership is knowing when to butt out. Yet gaming is about empowerment, the feeling that you have control and that your decisions make a difference. BFTB is a game for the head more than the heart.

"Battles from the Bulge" has been ordered by the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College, which may also order a modern warfare version of the game. A CGSC instructor also uses it at wargaming conventions to teach how a battle staff functions. Hopefully, Panther and the Pentagon will join forces. The military can use a polished battle command sim, and war game designers can use the income.

And what about the rest of us, those whose experience of command may only be with children and pets (and perhaps not successfully with either)? BFTB will be a lesson in the possibilities and limitations of command.

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