Editorial: Slitherine-Matrix European Press Event
Eddy Sterckx travels to Italy to catch the Slitherine-Matrix European Press Event in Varese, Italy to see what to expect this year for new strategy titles as well as releases for portable consoles.
Out of the blue I got contacted by Slitherine’s Marco Minoli with the question if I would like to cover this event for The Wargamer. Two days in sunny and beautiful Italy and getting an opportunity to talk with all the European wargame developers? Where do I sign?
Now, I’m not a journalist and although I kind of realized that the popular mythology version of a press event - lying around in the sun all day while beautiful booth-babes serve you dry martinis - was far from reality I did not really know what to expect. So for those who are curious: it’s a series of presentations followed by a Q&A, interspaced with opportunities for one on one talks with particular development teams. A fairly busy and strict schedule actually, but still allowing for socializing and getting to know each other a bit better during the downtimes. Oh, yeah, the flight was uneventful, the hotel great, the food excellent and the wine even better and blah blah blah, but that’s not why you’re reading this article so without much further ado here’s the stuff that got presented, chopped into bite sized blocks, with some personal comments added.
Slitherine – Matrix – general announcements:
Battlefield Academy: Operation Sea Lion
Battlefield Academy: Operation Sea Lion – currently in development internally at Slitherine this will introduce naval and auxiliary units and be playable as the British only. I considered this choice of playable side somewhat odd, but got assured that there would be plenty of interesting tactical situations, including counter-attacks. Unfortunately I could get no confirm or deny on the rumor that Captain Mainwaring of Dad’s Army fame would make a cameo appearance but it certainly makes for an interesting what-if counter-factual game. No word yet on when this will be out. A real surprise here was the announcement that a Mac version of the original game in the series is nearly finished and that other platforms are getting considered, this is one game they want out on as many platforms as possible.
Battlefield Academy: Operation Market-Garden
Battlefield Academy: Operation Market-Garden – this project got started as a community mod and managed to attract the attention of Slitherine who are now lending a helping hand to bring this to the market as a full-fledged game. Playable as the Allies this should see some fine paratrooper actions to answer that eternal question of whether or not 30th corps will reach Arnhem in time to break the stranglehold of the Germans on Frost at the bridge. Unit carry-over in the campaigns means that the gamer will face the dilemma of husbanding troops or go all-out.
Notwithstanding the fact that the next two games in the series will be set in WW2 the engine proves to be extremely adaptive and ultra-moddable – from WW1 to zombies to MechWarrior - mods already exist, with more to come. Meanwhile the engine is continually being improved on with as next new features: units gaining experience and the possibility to carry-over units in a campaign. All the new features of the PBEM matchmaking server (see below) will be integrated.
Slitherine - Matrix Affiliate Program – the change of digital download provider from Digital River to Plimus created the possibility to setup affiliate programs whereby you can buy Slitherine - Matrix games from other websites using the same webshop . First up will be Osprey, publisher of military history books. “Read the book, now replay the battle” will become a reality shortly. They stressed that although digital download seems to get all of the attention these days, they will continue to release boxed versions of all games, with printed manuals.
Strategy games hitting mobile platforms
Mobile gaming platforms – History Egypt: Engineering an Empire will be out for the iPad by the time you read this, followed shortly by History Great Battles Medieval on the Android 3.0 / Tegra 2 platform. As JD McNeil, chairman of Slitherine, put it: “We are fully committed to making games which are multi-platform.” It’s good to see wargame publishers take note of these new gaming platforms and even be in the vanguard as witnessed by Great Battles Medieval getting shown as the premier example of 3D gaming on a tablet when Google announced its new Android 3.0 environment to the general gaming press last month. Other platforms aren’t neglected though : at the press event itself they got word that they acquired the Xbox worldwide publisher status from Microsoft and code approval for Great Battles Medieval in the US
Boardgame conversions – last February it leaked out that Western Civilization was working on a PC port of the very popular Conflict of Heroes tactical level WW2 boardgame and this now got officially confirmed. More surprising was that a digital version of Ankh Morpork was announced. This yet to be released boardgame by acclaimed boardgame developer Martin Wallace is set in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld universe. I couldn’t get an official answer on it, but from having seen the boardgame prototype it’s pretty obvious this is going to be a game on a tablet platform or maybe even several. Together with the games announced in the previous paragraph this means that Slitherine-Matrix is going to get noticed by a wide gaming public outside the traditional historic niche.
PBEM – by all measures the PBEM matchmaking service introduced with Field of Glory is a huge success with already more than one million game-turns being played through it. The plan is to seriously extend it with the new tournament system try-out already getting a good reception and there’s more around the corner: a ladder system, Facebook integration and even the possibility to invite someone you know to a game, which, after acceptance, gets downloaded to the gamer as a demo version. Where this is different from a regular demo is that in your first game you will be guided and helped by the person that invited you to that game, making it a better gaming experience.
Another ambitious program to get more widely recognized by the gaming public is that the Matrix website is going to get translated and localized into several languages. First up will be German sometime this year, followed by Spanish and Italian. This is part of a general move to create more localized versions of their game catalogue, going forward with new releases, but surprisingly enough also with (part of) their back catalogue. War in the East is scheduled to be released in German shortly, followed by localized versions for Distant Worlds.
Panzer Corps – being developed by TheLordz, represented by Tim Van Der Moer and Lukas Nijsten.This game, heavily inspired by Panzer General, is currently in late beta with an expected release date of May 2011. It will feature 400 unit types and will take the German player through 26 scenarios in branching and dynamic campaigns including Poland, Fall Gelb and Barbarossa. Every scenario will be playable right from the start so no need to unlock them in the campaign, which means that if you want to play Sea Lion you don’t have to win massively first in a previous scenario in the campaign in order to be able to play it. The game centers around core units which you can upgrade in the course of a campaign by expending prestige points which you earn by doing well in a scenario. Differences with the original Panzer General include a medal system, which players can earn, an RPG element whereby you can attach “aces” to particular units in order to gain a certain advantage and the possibility to support and attack with other units. Another nice new feature is that you’ll be able to watch a replay of every game you played making it easier to figure out what you did wrong (or right). Full integration with the PBEM system is also a given. A release is planned for May 2011 in English to be followed by French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Commander: World War 1
Commander: World War 1 – another game by TheLordz and currently in alpha (but in surprisingly good shape from my extended look at it’s a game which might look a lot like the original Commander: Europe at War but is in fact completely rewritten from scratch and improving on every aspect of it, so it’s not just a simple mod. It features campaigns which can start at every year in the war and is centered around events which are a mix of date triggered and dynamic, so depending on gamer actions and choices. Cities earn you production points which you can use to buy or upgrade units, spend on various tech trees or on diplomacy. The completely overhauled diplomatic system will allow players to influence minor nations, so it’s not a given that Italy or Turkey will join their historical sides. I don’t like to play favorites here but of all the games I saw this one ticked all the right boxes in a sense that the answer on every question I threw at them came back with an answer I liked a lot. From units automatically entrenching when not doing anything else, to having to build-up ammo supplies for a big attack, to taking into account manpower shortages to having to also expend production points to simply keep units in the field to units automatically losing fatigue and regaining morale when taken off the frontline. Speaking of which: there’s a nice mechanism for relieving front line units with units in reserve which doesn’t follow the tired pattern of the gamer having to shuffle every unit around. Even chrome stuff like armored trains, the Paris gun and early English arty ammo shortages is in there. The AI is getting special attention with one programmer entirely dedicated to it. Difficulty levels will not be easy, medium and hard but easy, historical AI – meaning the AI will do its best to play historical - and Unrestricted AI which means the AI will make the optimal move depending on the current situation. This should please both the historical die-hard and the gamer willing to explore alternative strategies, like disbanding the High Seas Fleet for instance. A release is planned for somewhere in 2011 in English to be followed by French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Team Assault – Baptism of Fire, by Zeal, represented by Robin Flodin, is a turn-based 3D tactical squad level wargame pitting the US versus German troops in close quarter firefights. It has an innovative initiative system whereby units get activated based on their activation level. This means that instead of a gamer moving all his units followed by the opponent doing likewise, the gamer has now to make the decision as to whether or not commit a unit with the real possibility that the unit next up will not be his, but his opponent’s. The game is very much focused on infantry combat - there won’t be any vehicles in the initial release – and as such tracks line of sight from every individual soldier and has multiple levels of cover. Players start a game buy building and buying units and then take them on a particular mission. Units in combat gain fatigue and leaders influence the moral of a unit so taking along a sniper with orders to target enemy leaders might be a good option. The game will have a level editor, but will initially not feature PBEM as the turns are too short and as control passes very rapidly from one player to the other that would make PBEM a very frustrating way to play. A number of expansions are being considered including other nations, vehicles and even a campaign system. The game certainly has some selling points and together with a low price tag (to be announced) it will surely find an audience.
Field of Glory
Field of Glory, by Hexwar, represented by Eric Skea. Already out for a while this PC version of the tabletop ancient warfare system is a huge commercial success with the base game already seeing 5 add-ons.
A lot of things are planned for this series: up next will be Eternal Empire featuring the Ottomans but the main surprise was that a fantasy version is on the way. And yes, you will be able to let your Orc army fight the Romans if you so choose to. Magic capabilities will be limited to generals, with area and individual unit effects. For the more historically inclined gamer there’s also potentially good news: the often requested jump forward in time to the Renaissance might see the light of day but as this period would not really fit well in the original engine design a completely new engine is being considered. On the language front a German and Italian localized version is planned. A final surprise was that they’re planning to release a small iPad game as well as a kind of testing ground for a possible release of Field of Glory on the tablet platform.
Time of Fury
Time of Fury, by Wastelands Interactive, represented by Leszek Lisowski will be a huge turn-based hex game of the WW2 European Theater of Operation. Not just a Time of Wrath Gold but an extensively reworked game that now features a completely overhauled naval warfare system based on 200 sea zones and 80 ports and a completely rewritten supply system based on cities and railroads. Units now gain experience and can be strategically moved by rail. The AI has also gotten a lot of attention and will take all these improvements into account, as in trying to cut supply lines. Another major improvement is that now every nation will have specific strengths and weaknesses which take into account their historical performance. This will not be solely combat-related with the US, for example, enjoying a better supply system. Little is hardcoded in this game and gamers have free access to all files and editors making the game extremely moddable. Events will force the gamer to make tough choices but also serve to allow the gamer to divert from the historical track. If you want to explore what the effect would have been of a French attack during the Phony War, now you can. The new PBEM system will be included with a twist: the AI will still be a 3rd player so one player could be Russia, the other Germany with all the rest being tasked to the AI. Mix and match as you like.
Advanced Tactics Gold, by VR Designs, represented by Victor Reijkersz.This well-respected and hugely popular series got started with the freeware People’s Tactics back in 2004 – it was an instant hit with over 100,000 downloads since. The defining characteristic of all his games is that units on the screen serve as containers for the actual sub-units which can be moved between container units as the gamer pleases. Subsequently in 2007 a commercial version - Advanced Tactics - was released to popular acclaim. The already more than 150 user-created scenarios being available for it from a huge World at War one to a Roman Empire and even a Space Colonization scenario attest to the flexibility and easy moddability of the game. Advanced Tactics Gold now will feature a completely revamped GUI and artwork, resources, alliances, zoom modes and many, many incremental improvements in all areas of the game.
One of the downsides of the incredible flexibility of Advanced Tactics was that the game was (unjustly) getting a bit of a cold shoulder from the ultra-grognards so Victor decided to create another series specifically for them: Decisive Campaigns. This got a first outing last year with The Blitzkrieg from Warsaw to Paris and was instantly recognized as a serious, yet playable, grognard's game. The key feature of this series is “immersion” - created by hitting that fine balance between historical realism and easy gameplay. The next game in this series is as yet unannounced, but planned for release this year and will feature reinforcements, a dynamical historical order of battle and an improved AI.
Ok, I know what you’re thinking: what about the off-the-record stuff? Well, there was lots of it – these guys are all passionate about the games they create and they can’t help themselves when given the opportunity to talk about it, so let me just end this by saying that even if only a tenth of what they dream about ever gets realized we’re still in for one heck of a ride in the next couple of years. Watch this space for new announcements.
Written by: Eddy Sterckx, Contributor