Op-Ed: We Need Friction In Digital Wargames Too

By Charles Ellis 16 Oct 2017 7

Friction doesn’t get the love it should in videogames wargames. We the players are given complete, hivemind-like control over our forces -- whether it’s in real time or in the turn-based world, the player can be certain that their forces will be able to be activated, that they will take an exact amount of time to move a certain distance and that that unit will be able to do a particular amount of damage to the enemy.

But while developers and players obsess over the amount of armour a unit has, the make-up of a particular formation, and the penetration of particular guns, all in the name of “realism”, friction, probably the most realistic element of them all, goes largely ignored. In a way this is natural. How can you quantify something like friction, which comes under the heading, often enough, of Murphy’s Law with added psychological elements? Finding out the armour values of a King Tiger is child’s play by contrast.


Friction in games is generally defined in Clausewitzian terms. In war, he said, everything is simple, but the simplest things are difficult. In many ways, it was Murphy’s Law before Murphy’s Law was even thought of. This attitude toward warfare is much divorced from the standard system of command and control where the player has complete, godlike, control over their forces.

Miniature Wargames have led the way in many ways in their use of friction, indeed, the original wargame; the Prussian army’s legendary Kriegspiel, placed friction at its heart. Having been written in 1824, it would be anathema to have a realistic wargame that failed to simulate the timelag necessitated by messengers. Kriegspiel remains influential in the wargaming community today. Although most of the big names use the standard (and rather tired) IGOUGO system, rules designers have been persistently pushing the boundaries, notably the offerings of TooFatLardies and Sam Mustafa. The ability to innovate is perhaps one of the more interesting advantages of miniatures over video games, but that is a topic for another article. Suffice to say, the most interesting and realistic depictions of friction come from the later generations of wargames rulesets.

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The big names in digital wargaming for the most part ignore friction. Only the “Fog of War” (a concept that really should affect the player’s knowledge of both the enemy’s forces and your own) has become something of a standard feature. Otherwise, in the great majority of PC games, even ones that focus upon immersion, if not realism, as one of their core design aims, friction is absent. It’s a real shame, because much of what made the great commanders of history “great” was their willingness to come to terms with, if not harness, friction. Some of the most decisive battles in history, from Cannae to Stalingrad, would not have ended the way they did if commanders had had complete control over their forces at the crucial moment. Many games promise the ability to be the next Hannibal, but without friction added into the mix, those promises are empty.

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So where does one get friction if the big names don’t offer it? The chances are one already has somewhere along the line. Games such as Red Orchestra 2 and Blackwake focus upon large teams of players, led by only a couple people in commander, captain or squad leader roles. A team that wants to win has to utilize these roles at least slightly better than their enemy. The result is a strategy game, but not in the conventional sense of the term. Interestingly, and if it’s your first time, terrifyingly, it is the player who must lead, often through force of personality. It’s a very confronting way to play, and not for everyone, but if you can get the players to work together then it is some of the most satisfying gameplay out there.

Friction by its nature enters a battle the moment two or more people are playing, when thirty or more are all meant to be “working” together, it’s a mess. People misunderstand, mishear or might not even speak the language. One squad leader might be a spring chicken who’s just bought the game. Who knows if they’ll rise to the occasion? (Sometimes they do, and it is glorious.) Another commander might be a fearless veteran who will follow orders, or might have their own ideas. Your critical player might suddenly have a real life emergency and rush off. To some, these are all problems preventing the player from having that “perfect” game. This writer would argue that that is the metagame itself. The player expecting a perfect game is in the wrong place. The game is about working with those flaws and in surmounting them the achievement is all the more satisfying.

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Games like Red Orchestra 2 don’t need to code friction into teambased first person shooters. Three billion years of evolution does the job nicely enough already. But what about conventional top down strategy games? Sadly, they’re somewhat thin on the ground. Having an AI handle the movement of individual men is a solution, as has been done in offerings such as the Graviteam Tactics series and Oriental Empires. Unfortunately, this can often to lead to rage inducing inactivity on the part of the AI rather than the nail-biting tension that one looks for.

The AI has to be coded exceptionally well to act like a human would in such situations and it should offer a level of transparency and variable reactions (say from blind panic where the unit freezes to be shot down, to blind rage where they charge headlong at the enemy, with appropriate reactions) that would feel immersive. Other elements, such as units taking a variable amount of time to reach of their destination (because somebody had to tie their shoe laces up, or sprained their ankle; or any number of other trivial things that throws the whole plan out of whack) remain absent.

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Probably the only modern example of a strategy game that combines these features together in an interesting way is Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. A classic hardcore wargame (in the best and worst sense of the term, from the cruddy new player experience and MS Excel 2003 GUI to the exceptional level of research and fantastic array of options the player has) set in a fictional Cold War Gone Hot scenario. Red Storm innovates in a startlingly refreshing area, the way it handles command and control.

Turn lengths are handled minute by minute, but the player can only give orders after a certain length of time, a time defined by their HQ units. This period can increase and decrease as HQ units are shot at or destroyed. The opponent has their own “command loop” as the time between giving orders is called. Getting inside the opponent’s command loop is key to victory and is a signal that victory is near. Couple all this with the way movement works, with the ability for units to get hopelessly traffic jammed if the player doesn’t handle movement properly and the result is perhaps one of the more tense and dynamic experiences available in turn-based gaming.

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Friction is one of the defining elements of warfare. It is a real shame that so many games put it aside in favor of giving the player complete control over their forces. Such an ability is perhaps the strategy gaming equivalent of the power fantasies we see elsewhere in gaming. So far, we’ve yet to see genuine attempts at a well-funded real-time strategy game that set out to use friction as a core mechanic. Sadly, it seems likely that friction has been left in the dustbin of the fallacious “realism vs fun” argument. This writer eagerly awaits the appearance of a game willing to take up the mantel of friction. The miniature wargamers are already doing it, it is clear it can be a fun game. All we await now is someone to have the willingness (and the cash) to make it happen in the world of video games.

This article discusses a game developed and published by members of the Slitherine Group. For more information, please see the About Us page.



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