Monday, February 19, 2007

WARGAMES FOR TWENTY BUCKS: The hobby of the overeducated, someone once said

Above is a screen shot of DD's A-10 Warthog overflying the virtual harbor of Novorossysk in the PC game, Lock On: Modern Air Combat.

Two ships are on fire after being strafed with depleted uranium slugs. Are they the right ships? It's hard to tell in the game until the mission is over.

Lock On is one in many episodes of DD's mostly futile life-long indulgence in wargames, the more complicated and impossible to play, the better.

Lock On, or LOMAC as its 100 percent guy man dude fanbase refers to it, is probably the most complicated combat flight simulator, ever. That doesn't mean it's like real life. Nope, it just means most complicated, ever -- richly complex.

Published around 2003-2004, it still hogs all the resources on computers born two years after it.

To cut costs, most of these types of games come with no printed manual. One is furnished a .pdf e-book, uncomfortable reading at any speed in front of the computer and an unacceptable print job at over 100-pages of information, little if any which really tells you how to play the game.

In its place are furnished filmic training tutorials in which one sits in front of the PC watching various test drives -- or flights -- conducted by one of the game's developers. You are encouraged to jump in at any time, whereupon it is revealed to you that it's really going to take a while to figure out the keypress combinations needed to use the modern cockpits included the game.

The learning curve is steep and it is one LOMAC players revel in. Be foolish enough to ask for help the wrong way in any of the on-line forums devoted to the game and you'll be sent packing, everything from your intelligence to your genitalia impugned.

BestBuy packs LOMAC with two other almost as difficult combat flight simulators for $20 and that is certainly some kind of deal. It may not be your deal and I am still not sure that it is mine but I'm a card-carrying professional when it comes to such things, having actually bought a first edition copy of the Avalon Hill game company's recreation of trench warfare in WWI, 1914, back in the Sixties. (But more on this later.)

In any case, it's six bucks for each game. Sounds good, maybe. That includes the reality that every such game comes with a raft of bugs to be researched on the Internet. Bugs can be squashed by downloading patches, which introduce new bugs or various additional quirks implemented by the developers. Even if you do your homework, you still have to cross your fingers and hope the game will be stable enough to run on your machine.

LOMAC runs here but after a weekend of free time spent upon it, DD has calculated it will take 4-8 months to be able to fly an A-10 Warthog adequately within the context of the game. One can toggle the 'invincible' switch and survive, sort of, but it takes a bit of self-delusion to confuse being hit by a missile with a near miss.

In this respect, the screenshot is a little misleading. When you see them thrillingly rendered on the back cover of the box, the fire and smoke looks great. You don't get the comment that it's virtually impossible to tell where your targets are until you're right on top of them, at which point your situation with regards to the opposition is very bad or you've overshot your mark. This screenshot depicts a lucky hit which took no less than an hour and a half of flying to attain.

LOMAC, like any similar computer game, provides artificial markers to help differentiate mission goals and targets. The game would be impossible without them.

In this, LOMAC is a good abstract teaching exercise. The lesson is once you play it you'll never believe the nonsense about precision weapons and minimizing collateral damage again. While it's merely a game, it is sufficiently maniacal in its zeal to mimic the behavior of weapons systems in a busy landscape that after suffering it, one cannot possibly sustain the TV mythology of the magic of US military technology. Spending a substantial part of one's time learning procedures also tends to quash any remaining gullibility.

The very point of LOMAC's existence is that it's difficult. The hardship is a substitute for realism. Since no computer simulation can do that -- my conviction, unswayed by the regular bathwater served on games as simulations in the press -- this is as fair a trade as any.

Which brings DD back to his first of many complicated wargames, 1914.

1914 was designed by Jim Dunnigan, the father of complicated wargaming. It contained hundreds of pieces constituting the armies of Germany, France and England on the western front.

It took a couple hours to place them on the mapboard, draw up some minor variant of the Schlieffen Plan on a special map scratchpad and then start the game. When you're fourteen, this goes by in a flash, although I could only convince a friend to play it once. (And then he didn't want to be my friend, which is another story.) 1914 rose and fell on the fact that it was an accurate abstraction of -- 1914.

After you'd gotten over the mercilessly momentary thrill of reducing the forts at Liege with your railway-mounted heavy artillery and marching through Belgium, the rest of the game was static-line trench warfare. Dunnigan's rules invited players to dig in, flip over the counters of their respective armies so that fog-of-war was emulated and all one could see was a trench-line, and have at it. Refight the Somme.

Despite all that, 1914 wasn't a radical loser. Avalon Hill kept it in print for years.

Dunnigan wrote in 1989 that circulation of Strategy & Tactics, a magazine he edited for hardcore wargamers, hit an "all-time high" of 37,000 in 1980. That meant 37,000 subscribers got one wargame in each issue of the mag alone.

This was a base, one in which many regularly purchased more than a single wargame a month. The 1989 issue of S&T, for example, included The Battle of Tsushima, a recreation of Togo's defeat of the Russian fleet off Korea in 1905, one of the more remarkable battles in naval warfare. In my edition, it's unpunched, meaning it was never played. A look at the rules reveals why: So earnest in the aim to make individual 1905 battleships real, you need a large notepad and an enjoyment of a good amount of arithmetic to play.

By 1989 I had two closets full of wargames, some of which became known, in the parlance, as "monster games." There were, for instance, the brightly red-colored boxes of Korsun Pocket and The Longest Day, respectively by People's War Games and Avalon Hill.

The Longest Day cost one hundred bucks, I think, and its rulebook belligerently claimed it was meant to played in setpieces.

After committing the military symbology of the Wehrmacht in France to memory, it took an afternoon to set up.

Developers came to think of this as a short period of time, "monster game-wise."

Korsun Pocket was even more daunting. Dealing with a Russian encirclement of a German army on Eastern Front of World War II, it was designed to give players a feel for the same slogging through the mud both armies suffered through. In this, the designer achieved exactly what he aimed for.

In the book, The Best of Board Wargaming, author Nicholas Palmer includes one chapter archly entitled: "The First Thousand Hours are the Hardest: Monster Games."

"Most wargames can be played in two to twenty hours," he wrote. " ' Quite long enough!' when you first enter the hobby. 'What sane person would spend longer than a whole weekend on a game?'

"Like an insidiously addictive drug, wargaming tends gradually to undermine this solidly commonsensical view."

Initially, I thought computers might alleviate problems associated with the "monster game." The computer provided resources and book-keeping for crunching set-ups, maps and complex procedures.

LOMAC, and others like it, unequivocally announce this is not the case. "Monster games" in any technology, like ideal gases, expand to fit the volume in which they are contained.

Monster board wargames expanded to fit the larger boxes and fancies of the hobby fifteen years ago. LOMAC-like monster games expand to fit whatever computing technology is available, again to fit the fancies of the hardcore hobbyist.

It is not a mainstream group but it is large enough to support wargame development.

Although 37,000 subscribers to Strategy & Tactics in 1980 does not sound like much, it takes only a short trip to eBay to find there is no shortage of monster board wargames, unpunched and unplayed, ready for resale at rather much less than what they originally cost retail.

Everytime a dinner guest sees DD's closet of old wargames, they are invariably moved to say, "I bet they're worth something on eBay." Then I have them with the ultimate rejoinder.

"Get a life," I say.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, nice to see another hard-core wargamer.

I wonder if you're familiar with Terrible Swift Sword by SPI. It was a regimental-level simulation of Gettysburg - very detailed and required three 2X3 foot maps and several thousand pieces.

A friend and I set it up and we spent part of a weekend playing the first day. Unfortunately, it was impossible to protect the large play area from my marauding cats, which sundered many fine units from both the North and South, so we never played it again.

Hopefully someone will turn these into computer games to facilitate play-by-email and end sacrificing an entire room for a month to play.

12:01 PM  
Blogger George Smith said...

Yes. Never bought it but remember seeing it. Palmer's book actually goes into some detail on it. He appeared to be a fan.

Speaking of protecting the mapboard from pets, how about neat freaks in the house? That precluded me from playing Avalon Hill's Jutland more than once. You had to set up the battle on the floor. The box should have come with the warning: Unplayable if house contains tidyness nut.

Perhaps you're already aware but HPS Simulations issued a software application for turning the old wargames into computer-playable ones. It's called Aide de Camp, and although I've not bought a copy, I was sufficiently intrigued by the idea to put it on a shopping list. It requires the wargamer to go to the trouble of scanning his old game mapboards in and inputting the values for every piece. That's a lot of overhead wargames but wargamers are used to that, I suspect. A third party community grew around Aide de Camp, making available gamesets other old gamers had put together with it. Of course, you have to have the game in your possession but the idea of resurrecting some of things from the closet you'll never play again, if only because your eyes don't work on the counters like they did when you were a kid, is appealing.


12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll have to look into that software. I don't have the time to recreate some of my favorites myself, but maybe someone else has.

Keep up the good work - I work in the IC and read your blog frequently - its a breath of cogent analysis and fresh air free from scare-mongering.

6:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

1914 was my first war game too. I still have it and I still try and figure out what some of the rules mean.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

George, I spotted this blog and post a little late.
LOMAC is a flight simulator, I would argue is a different genre. But I see your point.
Surprisingly enough, among flight simulator enthusiasts like myself, LOMAC is not considered a "study sim" (a sim where almost everything is modeled to the tiniest details). Indeed, compared to Falcon 4 (check out its latest incarnation "Allied Force", available for $20 or so) LOMAC is a piece of cake.
Again, I don't mean to be confrontational or anything. I see what's your point and its a solid one.


7:43 PM  

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