Brother Against Brother - Wargamer.com interview14 Apr 2015 0
Hot on the heels of last week’s AAR preview of Matrix Games’ soon to be released Civil War title, Brother Against Brother, we now bring you an exclusive interview with the developers. Eric Babe and Gil Renburg of Western Civilization Software kindly agreed to make time in their busy pre-release schedule to answer a few of our questions. So for further insight into the game and development involved read on …
Firstly thank you very much for taking the time to answer these questions; I’m sure our readers will appreciate it.
- It’s been a while since we last had a game from Western Civilization Software, has this been all taken in development of Brother Against Brother?
Eric Babe: Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel was released in November of 2013, about fifteen months ago. Since Storms of Steel I've personally spent about half the time working on Brother against Brother: The Drawing of the Sword and the other half of the time in production work for future products. However our production team has mostly been focused on Brother against Brother during this last year.
Brother against Brother has been in development for a long time, longer than we've ever spent on any other project. We had Brother against Brother on the back burner while we were developing Crown of Glory: Emperor's Edition, Awakening the Bear, Ghost Divisions, and Storms of Steel. Most of this time was spent on the research and the map-making process, but we also did a great amount of beta-testing work to make sure the rules were as finely tuned as possible. I'm indebted to all those heroic beta testers who stuck with us for the years that our maps were still in production.
- After World War 2, the Civil War must be the best served conflict in terms of the number of wargames available. So why did you decide to produce a game for this (possibly crowded) market?
Eric Babe: Personally I'm a big fan of the gunpowder era and of the 19th century in particular, so, everything else being equal, American Civil War battles would be one of my first choices for a new series of games. But most of the newer games are sorts of RTS games – there hasn’t really been a new series dedicated to covering all the battles with that old-school turn-based hex-map style that I love so much.
Gil Renberg: There’s also a more practical answer to that: we had already produced an American Civil War game that combined strategic and tactic levels, Forge of Freedom, so it made sense to use that game’s tactical engine, which only permitted players to fight on randomly created battlefields with mostly generic units, as the basis for a new game devoted to historical battles. And we were strongly encouraged to do so by many of our customers, who enjoyed our battle engine but were eager to use it for real battlefields and real orders of battle. The funny thing is, on paper this seemed like a simple – and practical! – thing to do, as a way of turning part of an existing product into a new one, but once we got into it we found ourselves shooting for an increasingly detailed game, in terms not just of maps and orders of battle (my job) and coding rather nuanced rules (Eric’s job), so in terms of workload it’s as if we created a wholly new game.
- What are the features you think will stand out and attract the players to the game?
Eric Babe: Our design strategy for “Brother against Brother” was to take classic design elements and combine them with innovations in command-and-control and fog-of-war. Whereas in most games the echelon commanders have some passive ratings that affect things like movement and rallying, we wanted to add active options for the player to give to his echelon commanders at every level of the army. This way the player can feel like Stonewall Jackson or W.T. Sherman are actually doing something. We hope this makes the commanders seem more vital and personal for the player. We also wanted to make the different echelons of the army present some of their historical function to the player.
Very broadly speaking, historically the brigade was the basic unit of coordinated fighting, the division was the basic unit of coordinated movement, and the corps was the basic unit of coordinated intelligence. So in Brother Against Brother, the brigadier general has to issue combat disposition orders to his brigade – whether to advance, march, hold, rally, assault, etc., and from time to time can attempt to urge particular units beyond the limits of their normal orders; the division commander is responsible for making the checks that allow divisions to move successfully each turn, and can attempt to focus his brigades on a common combat objective; the corps commander makes a check to see whether enemy units encountered by regiments in his corps can be identified in-detail by the player, can send out scouts each turn to penetrate the fog-of-war and report back, and periodically can coordinate movement in one of their divisions; the army commander is responsible for the level of general morale collapse in the army, and sometimes can speed the movement of an entire division by a small amount.
We also have great maps and orders-of-battles. Gil’s day-job is as an ancient historian, and he brought all of his research skills into play. He did primary research into period accounts of the battles, consulted with experts directly, and walked the length and breadth of all the battlefields in our game. He took photos of the trees, shrubs, streams and fences so that the map-makers could get the art just-right, and took notes on the details of vegetation and terrain and the effects of these on lines-of-sight. Jason and Shayne, our map-makers, did a fantastic job with the maps. Maybe I am biased, I don't know, but to my eye they are some of the most beautiful war-game maps I have ever seen.
- What do you think will be the most challenging aspect of the gameplay; the thing that will really stretch the players ability?
Eric Babe: One aspect that is unique, I believe, to Brother Against Brother is our division activation system. Each turn players issue movement orders to all of their units. At the end of the turn, each division has to make a check to move successfully according to these orders. If it fails, then it basically stands in-place. This is very historical, and there were many attempts at coordinated attacks during the Civil War that fell apart because one division or another was late for one reason or another. Players definitely will have to adapt their tactics to this reality, as real Civil War generals had to learn to do.
The other aspect that will be challenging is the overall morale rule. When the army's average morale gets below a certain level, that army routs entirely from the field. To keep from losing, players need to think in terms of managing this morale – having front-line units fall-back to rest and rally, keeping solid reserves, not pushing their depleted units too-hard, and so forth. We've found that this rule makes it so that some tactics that work well in other war-games don't work quite so well in Brother Against Brother, but we think this is a development in the right direction of a more-historical game.
Gil Renberg: I should add a bit more on the division activation system: whether a divisions activates or fails to do so depends in no small part on its commanders ratings, as is true of many of the other things the player attempts to have done by units, brigades, divisions, corps and armies. Every commander at every level has at least five ratings, whenever possible based on how they performed that day. So division commanders who were more effective at moving their troops about the battlefield have been given a higher rating in the game, and are more likely to move at the player’s will. But if you have a commander who did a poor job, then the player is going to become rather frustrated with him.
- I see from the Matrix Games website that some supporting resources (maps and orders of battle) have been made available as downloads. This is not a usual step so what is the thinking behind this?
Gil Renberg: We consider the high level of historical accuracy and detail in the maps and OOB’s, as was already mentioned, to be among our most important selling points. In particular, our maps are at an enormous scale, one too large to be appreciated by looking at an AAR or screenshot. Eric designed Brother Against Brother to handle maps up to 5 x 10 miles, with the hexes at 75 yards – to save your readers from doing the math I’ll note that’s about 23 hexes per mile – and the only way to let people see the whole map at once is simply to post it online. Similarly, the orders of battle – the fact that this regimental-level game also includes dozens of independent companies, and knows the names of the commanders of all but a few – is something not fully appreciated from screenshots. Basically, posting all this is our way of telling the grogs that this is a game for them, and also trying to interest Civil War buffs who may not necessarily be into wargames.
- What have been the biggest challenges faced in developing the game? And conversely, which were the easiest parts?
Gil Renberg: I’ll have to let Eric speak for himself on this, since as programmer he faced completely different challenges, most of which I would not be able to understand unless I retook high school math and then complemented that with some computer science degrees. (Don’t get him started on the concept of “state spaces” as they pertain to designing an A.I.!) My problems were those that can be more easily explained to the layman: it is not as easy as one might think to get good, reliable information about the units that fought in each battle, the weapons they carried, the names of their commanders, and so forth. So, unexpectedly, I found myself spending countless hours researching such details, when before embarking on this project we had assumed that it would just be a matter of finding such information in one or two places and keying it into our data files. Similarly, not all Civil War battlefields have been sufficiently and reliably mapped. Famous battles, like those fought at Manassas, of course have excellent maps that one can use, but not the more obscure battles, like Williamsburg. But even the more famous battlefields are often poorly mapped at their peripheries, since the focus of the army topographers was where most of the action had been. So I found myself having to do original research with primary sources – which was fascinating, but also absurdly time-consuming. In the case of Williamsburg I am particularly proud, because the map I produced is the single most extensive and accurate map of the battlefield and surrounding areas ever produced. (Which, getting back to your previous question, is all the more reason why we should provide our maps online!)
Eric Babe: The biggest challenge, by far, was just tweaking the design to make everything balanced and work-well together. There are so many factors that affect something like movement-rate or morale-loss, and just combining them blindly leads to units that can march at 12 miles-per-hour and other absurdities. I spent much more time in development testing-and-tweaking than writing actual code. We had some great volunteer beta-testers for this project – I really hope they'll stick with us going forward – and much of the credit for the game-balancing goes to them.
- Which were the most time consuming?
Gil Renberg: For me, as I mentioned, it was the research, especially the need to do so much work with primary sources. I’m looking forward to later battles, such as Gettysburg, for which most of my work has already been done for me! Though I’ll probably pretend to Eric that I did a lot of that research myself, so he’s not tempted to reduce my percentage of the royalties. (Please, no one tell him about Gottfried’s Brigades of Gettysburg!)
- Development inevitably involves compromise, are there any features that you wanted to include in the game, but that didn’t make it to the release version?
Gil Renberg: Hah. This is one of my favorite topics, and one of Eric’s least favorite – for the simple reason that anyone can come up with ideas, but it’s not nearly as easy to program them as to have them. When we were designing the game we would pass back and forth an ideas document, and each time I got it back I would fill it with ideas for him to program, but not all of them could be programmed easily. (That is, not if we wanted to finish the game eventually!) That file is now more than 100 pages long and much of what is in there was incorporated, but many ideas weren’t. But that’s okay, because Brother Against Brother is meant to be a series of releases, and over time we will be able to add some of Eric’s ideas, some of my ideas, and, most importantly, the players’ ideas.
Eric Babe: Brother Against Brother is perfect as it is and doesn't need any new ideas.
I guess I'm just joking. One of the beta-testers convinced me today that a rule that would make regiment formation affect certain aspects of brigade orders would be a great idea, and I'd like to add this in a patch after release if it works out as well as we're predicting. In addition to Gil's very-big-list, we've got a wish-list of ideas from the testers – all of them very good – that runs many pages.
- OK, so Brother Against Brother is only just about to be released but gamers always want to know what’s next. Have you had any thoughts about this? Anything you can divulge at this point?
Eric Babe: We'd love to be able to do Brother against Brother 2, which would cover the next major battles of the war in the eastern theater – the Seven Days Campaign and 2nd Manassas – and Brother against Brother 3, which would be “The War in the West” and would include Shiloh and other battles of 1862. I've also got a 4X-style science-fiction grand-strategy game that's been on my back-burner for a few years; this is currently in alpha-testing, and it's got some top-secret features that I think are unique, and the whole thing comes together in a way that is very new. In addition to these, we'd like to move into development for mobile platforms and platforms other than the PC, so recently I've begun working with a programmer to develop for the Unity graphics engine. When we were working on Crown of Glory: Emperor's Edition I really learned to love all things Napoleonic and naval, so we are thinking that our first game for this engine will be a game that simulates all of the great Napoleonic naval actions.
- Lastly, a chance for a name check for all those involved in producing Brother Against Brother. So who has done what?
Gil Renberg: Well, my role and Eric’s should already be pretty clear to your readers from our other responses. I’ll let Eric comment on the elements in the game contributed by others, but first, as the one who oversees testing, I really do need to emphasize the extraordinary contribution of our testers, without whom there would be no game. As you noted, this game took an unusually long time to develop, and some testers have been with us – or were with us – for a period of years. It’s amazing that so many of them contributed so much over so many months, patiently waiting as we were working on other projects. And it’s not just testing for bugs that was their contribution: along the way they suggested a large number of ideas for rules, adjustments, and other changes, so they collectively deserve credit for improving its design.
Eric Babe: Jason Barish, Shayne Logan, and Marc von Martial are the artists. Jason did the units, interface, and many of the special effects, and he set up the tools for creating the maps. Shayne finished all the maps except Wilson Creek. Marc did several of our screen backgrounds. Their art for the game looks very good. We worked with Shayne on our expansion pack for “Conflict of Heroes,“ “Ghost Divisions;” Shayne had done such a good job with those maps that we asked him to help us finish the maps for “Brother against Brother.” Shayne is currently working on a board-game called “Old School Tactical,” which also has fantastic looking maps. I recommend that readers look it up!
I have a long thank-you in the readme file for the game, and I don't want to go on for a page or two here thanking everyone again. So I'll be brief perforce. Bill Battle volunteered to write a prodigious amount of background text for the game – long accounts of all the battles, on top of more than a hundred pages of generals' biographies. Jörn Käsebier also wrote many biographies for us. The 5th Michigan Regiment Band let us license four CD's worth of their music for a very modest fee, and I think their period music sounds perfect for the game. Matt Grace did our Union voice-overs. I first saw him perform as Major-General Stanley in the “Pirates of Penzance” and knew he would be the perfect voice for a our Union commander. John Stafford is a Hollywood actor – he was in hits like “Full Metal Jacket” and “What to Expect When You're Expecting” – but since he's the brother-in-law of our assistant producer, Mike Zeddies, we were able to snag him for the voice-overs for the Confederate generals. Their voice-overs really help the game come alive.