The Burden of Command: An Interview with Luke Hughes

By Charles Ellis 17 Jul 2017 0

Burden of Command came to our attention a couple of weeks ago, and we're definitely the colour of 'intrigued' - part narrative RPG, part tactical wargame, this 'Leadership Simulator' puts you at the head of various units and commands during WW2. Instead of moving units about the map and revelling in some Armchair Generalship, however, you're thrown into a series of decisions you must make as the person in charge.

Do you storm that hill? Do you make some of your men sacrifice themselves for the rest? Do you even care about this Ryan chap to begin with? The consequences of the choices you make play out in front of you as part of the narrative, with you as the leader. Less wargame and more 'War Game', this is still looking to be a fascinating exploration of an area of warfare not often covered.

Wargamer: Burden of Command emphasizes many aspects of combat often ignored by other strategy games. What prompted you to begin this project?

Luke Hughes: Playing Crusader Kings II inspired the question: 'what would it be like to follow an officer's career through WWII?' Researching that idea I came across Karl Marlantes intensely personal book What It is Like to Go to War. Karl was a Rhodes Scholar who dropped out of Oxford to become a 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam. His book's core point is that when you go to war you embark on an intensely spiritual journey. Because, like it or not, your decisions are now life or death for your brothers. You have Entered the Temple of Mars. Burden of Command became an attempt to role play that leadership journey, learning command both on and off the battlefield.

Wargamer: There is an impressive amount of academic talent supporting the game. How were you able to gather this knowledge base together?

Luke Hughes: Great question. My father, Thomas Parke Hughes, was a professional historian and Pulitzer Prize finalist. That plus my own academic background (PhD in AI (Yale), Masters in Neurophysiology and Psychology (Oxford)) opened doors in academia. I know how to talk to historians since I did so starting as a toddler!. Plus Professor John McManus is a very generous individual who also is always looking to do whatever he can to support the Cottonbalers. John wrote American Courage, American Carnage chronicling the U.S.7th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Infantry Division, the only regiment to fight in all of America's wars. John cares about the history but he also cares about the Cottonbalers. So when we approached him he was keen to help. He has been really unstinting, playtesting with us. Fun Fact: the modern day Cottonbalers Association is very much aware of our efforts and in support of it.

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Wargamer: With its emphasis upon the psychology of combat, Burden of Command might conceivably be placed in any conflict. What made you choose the 7th Infantry Regiment and the Second World War?

Luke Hughes: My father served in WWI (USN Pacific), so I grew up fascinated by WWII. After that I wanted to pick a campaign somewhat less chronicled then Normandy. The Cottonbalers fought from Morocco, to Sicily, Italy (rarely covered), and SOUTHERN France finishing at the Eagle's Nest in Germany. But you raise a strong point about BoC conceivably being used for any conflict. We are already getting many WWII suggestions from our audience and our team including the Winter War, Soviet Commissar, Late War Germany, Chinese Civil War or versus Japanese, and Free Poles (a personal preference). I hope the Wargamer's audience will come to your forums and give us more ideas. We have also had a fair amount of votes for WWI. It is exciting to think how many green fields await. Though some may be full of poppies.

Wargamer: So far we have only seen the basic elements of an infantry company in Burden of Command. Will support elements – such as armour, air support and artillery – make an appearance?

Luke Hughes: Yes! And historically accurate ones, or I will have to answer to Steve Overton ('Mad Russian' of Combat Mission renown)! Eventually, I believe the engine could support an armored company campaign as well. Think Steel Panthers revisited. Though there is something very personal about being grunts.

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Wargamer: You have placed great emphasis upon how the real history will inform the game’s options and mechanics. How has that history influenced the design decisions you have made?

Luke Hughes: We have a design motto internally "Bend history but do not break it." That is we take limited liberties like selecting the most interesting historic encounters across all companies in the 7th for our fictional "Nickel Company." They get to encounter the "highlights" of the Cottonbalers experiences so to speak. Also the majority of our interactive fiction moments (the popups you see in the teaser) are tied to either actual Cottonbalers history or events that happened to other companies during the war and could have happened to the 7th. The nice thing about real events is that I promise you truth is stranger than fiction! We had to make sure to put little history buttons next to some of our events because the player is certain to say "O come on, that's Hollywood." Then they mouse over the history button and.. "holy cow, that really happened!?"

Wargamer: In creating the game, what is one thing you are desperate to avoid?

Luke Hughes: Failing to show respect to those who served, their history, or their experience.

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Wargamer: You mention chaos and that my subordinates’ actions are uncertain. If things go really wrong, what can happen?

Luke Hughes: The term SNAFU came out of WWII. Orders fail or get miscommunicated, guns jam, men panic, confusion reigns (FOW). In short, the description of most battlefield encounters! (well maybe not the men panicking so much). Those familiar with Advanced Squad Leader or the king of chaos the board game Combat Commander will understand. But insert even more kinds of chaos. We have a nasty minded "StoryTeller" engine watching all your actions in the background and looking to trigger chaos from a library of possible historic events when the dice don't go your way. Of course every once in a while the dice go your way giving you a positive event ;-)

Wargamer: What interaction will we see with characters above the player in the chain of command? Will we find ourselves in situations that are – to put it lightly – less than ideal and due to no fault of our own?

Luke Hughes: Excellent question. One of our discoveries from playing the game is that what Joseph Campbell called the Social Dragon raises its head. Which is a fancy way of saying you will feel social pressure to deliver: from your bosses (superiors) and also from your men. The game This War of Mine, a game of civilians being trapped in a warzone, did a marvelous job of making you feel like the other civilians with you weren't always keen about your decisions. In BoC your superiors expect the mission to be achieved, your men expect their lives to be preserved. "Men vs Mission" a classic Burden of Command. I personally have found myself feeling guilty after a battle. Case in point... I had taken a hill, but two companies of German infantry were counterattacking, the right call might be "withdraw" but I started thinking about being chewed out and the fact my career was pretty much on the line at that point. Then I started thinking about whether I was letting that influence me! Then whether I was second guessing myself too much. Burden of Command! In short, I have never felt the social dragon from above (superiors) in any game, fantasy or realistic. But I have here. The writers, Allen Gies and Paul Wang, are having a lot of fun with that!.

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Wargamer: What level of replayability are you aiming for in Burden of Command?

Luke Hughes: Akin to a classic RPG like Shadowrun, Expeditions: Vikings, Banner Saga or custom campaigns as you might see in Panzer General, Campaign Series, or Steel Panthers. The price of a strong narrative is some loss of surprise in a replay. On the other hand you can make different decisions, adopt different "Mindsets" (e.g. zealous vs cunning vs caution) and the battlefield itself is dynamic. The one good thing about chaos is that it does tend to create novel and good stories as any ASL or CC player can tell you. If things work out with BoC my personal hope is to do a version two that gives a dynamically generated campaign yet still with dynamically fired story events. Naturally the narrative will be weaker but it will perhaps more personal for being uniquely yours. Custom vs dynamic each have pros and cons.

Wargamer: And finally, what might we see following Burden of Command’s release?

Luke Hughes: Lots of your audience buying our game? Seriously, if we succeed we'll do more DLCs (custom) as discussed above and I'll start working on the dynamic procedurally generated engine. And I'll keep listening hard to what you guys want.

Many thanks to Luke for taking the time to talk to us - we'll bring you more coverage of this intriguing new project as soon as we can.

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