Is Real Time An Option?

This is going to be another one of those stream of consciousness posts so be warned. It all starts with a series of features that Troy Goodfellow is running over at Flash of Steel. The features are mini time machines that go back and examine the pioneers of computer games portraying “Ancients” politics, diplomacy and warfare. Whenever he can, Troy has contacted the original designers and gotten commentary about the design process that is simply fascinating…at least to a would be game designer like me. I don’t know a lot about the period to be honest. I could give you a very brief overview of the historical timeline and a summation of how they fought but I wouldn’t wager much money on its accuracy. I’ve had my eye on this game system for some time but not pulled the trigger. I had a fascination with the Peloponnesian War many years ago and read Thucydides account… but didn’t really understand it until I read Victor Davis Hanson’s excellent book (no relation to me of course) “A War Like No Other.”

As Hanson recounts there were really only two major land battles during the course of the 30+ years war. One at Delium and one at Mantinea. Because of the asymmetrical strategies being used by Sparta (decisive hoplite land battle) and Athens (long walls and maritime empire and projection of power from the sea) neither battle was decisive since Sparta won both. The odd thing about asymmetrical strategies is that stalemate often results until one side musters the ability to beat the other on its own turf…. Sparta would eventually float a Navy and beat Athens at Aegospotami. What I always found fascinating about the hoplite battles though and probably the majority of battles in the ancients time period is how much they were like wind up toys. Even as command and control was improved it still never approached anything resembling the dispersed computerized battle field we have today. From my studies of Civil War battles I can tell you that large infantry battles even then were things that slipped quickly from the general’s hands and events flowed imperfectly from some high level plan.

What I’m trying to say is that two generals often maneuvered their armies until they made contact with a general plan as to how they would proceed but once the fighting started things took on a life of their own. Sounding a general retreat or pursuit order was about the most control they could hope to have. Hoplite warfare during the Peloponnesian War was almost ritualistic. A strong left wing nearly always faced a weak right wing and vice versa. The victor was the army that could crush the opposing wing of weak allies first and turn on the elites. This was soon to change but you can understand how such an arrangement came to be. It was an attempt to eliminate some of the uncertainty of the battlefield even if it meant a dangerous predictability.

This facet of ancient warfare….of the trainer unleashing the dogs and only being able to sit and watch the outcome for the most part got me to thinking about how computer strategy games handle this. The Dominions series of games created by Illwinter and published by Shrapnel does this the best. You position your troops, plot your movement, set your battle stances and watch the results. Combat Mission does this as well but breaks the action up into 1 minute turns. Why haven’t we seen more designers take this approach? It’s real time in that you can watch the fireworks and enjoy the latest visual effects. You get a visceral thrill from observing all the action. All the big components of strategy are there and even accentuated…. risk versus reward, tough choices, engineering tradeoffs (conservation laws), psychology and game theory. I’ve often thought that the Total War series would be much better if you had to position the troops, draw out lines of approach, give some contingency orders and then let the dice roll and see who is right and who is dead.

So this is my type of real time. It’s the type of real time I’d like to see used in more games. Space fleet battles in David Weber’s Honorverse… hell yes. The Sid Meier’s Gettysburg engine adapted to this paradigm… you draw on the map and place the marching routes for your corps and then watch what happens. A tactical AI handles the rest. You can zoom in and see the Sins of a Land Empire. Road to Moscow but in bite sized chunks.

Post Addendum: I should mention Panther Games fine series of WW II simulation/war games. Several readers have emailed me about their high quality and commented on how they match up pretty well with what I am looking for. It did occur to me shortly after I made the post but at the time I was thinking more of set piece battles in the ancients/medieval vein. I would love to see them take their engine and head east 🙂

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