Two Scenarios for The Operational Art of War 4 That Push The Limits of Scenario Design16 Sep 2019 1
We computer wargamers have some odd habits. Often there is a favorite period, or even battle, that dominates our interest. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that... most of the time. One of those, shall we say, quirks is that a new game release is, so often, rapidly followed by a drive to rework a new system to do something else entirely - to make every new game take on that one, favorite battle. For just one recent example: By my math it took less than a month after Field of Glory: Empire's release for a conversion mod to move the game from post-Alexander to post-Roman Empire.
Still, it may not be as crazy as it used to be. I remember being a little baffled when, after The Operational Art of War created this great building-block set for 20th Century warfare, we started seeing scenarios for the likes of "Gettysburg 2000" and "War of the Rings." At around the same time, the introduction of an editor to Heroes of Might and Magic II was quickly harnessed to build an "Operation Overlord" scenario. I developed this bias. When I see a scenario that seems to have jury-rigged the gaming engine, I mentally push it to the back of my game-playing queue. But there can a problem with rushing to judgment, can't there?
Today, I want to tell you about two scenarios for TOAW, scenarios I initially overlooked because they fall outside outside my comfort zone for this game.
I'll start at Gettysburg. If I had to peg myself to one favorite wargaming subject, the American Civil War in general and Gettysburg specifically might be it. I'm no historical scholar, but I'd like to think I'm fairly knowledgeable about this particular battle. Tiller's Gettysburg and its Civil-War-themed competition were among my earliest computer-game loves. I've read up on Gettysburg a bit and have even made a couple of trips to the battlefield. When the battle's anniversary arrived a few years back, part of my "celebration" involved reading Coddington's The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. It was well worth my time. Despite pushing 50, the book offered me a wealth of insights, particularly in framing the battle in its greater context.
Before Coddington, my concept of the Gettysburg campaign would have best been encapsulated by the narrated opening to the Turner miniseries, Gettysburg. I imagined a leisurely and uneventful march to reposition the opposing armies from their post-Battle of Chancellorsville lines near Fredericksburg to south-central Pennsylvania, where they could unexpectedly converge on the town of Gettysburg. This is, of course, a superficial understanding of June 1863. Lee's maneuver was full of risk and drama and consisted of several significant encounters, including a brilliant victory by General Ewell at Winchester, VA. Much that took place in June could have gone differently. If Gettysburg is considered the turning point of the American Civil War, then aren't the events which conspired to create that fight at just that time and place just as pivotal?
My first instinct upon encountering some new historical information is to want to see it in a game. Problem was, nothing I own seemed to cover this campaign at the operational scale. I have Civil War tactical games and Civil War strategic games, but nothing that corresponded to Coddington's narrative. I moved on, disappointed.
Years passed and, while I was digging around in that generally-avoided "Pre-WWI" folder in TOAW, I found the temptingly-named scenario Killer Angels 1863 (it is based on the 1984 board game Killer Angels). It begins just after the fights at Brandy Station and Winchester and ends after Lee's retreat from Gettysburg (assuming the alternate history takes that route). If you caught The Best American Civil War Strategy Games feature last month, you'll have already been alerted to the fact that, as unlikely as it may seem, TOAW4 ranks up there in terms of Civil War strategy.
The designer anticipated the need to avoid "WWII with blue & gray units." Despite the limitations imposed by his pallet, the author succeeded beyond my expectations. Day-long turns and Corps-sized units result in movement that feels appropriate for marching armies. Fog-of-war is absolute - you only see units that are adjacent. Even the turn phasing works well; while it can be possible to ask a Corps to fight more than once during a day, you can't expect to get more than one good scrap from a formation.
This is not to say that TOAW makes a perfect American Civil War simulator. The designer's notes contain tips for getting around AI idiosyncrasies and likely play will be most satisfying in a 2-player match-up where you have agreed on historical parameters in advance. Successes and stumbles aside, they key here is that, in doing even a passable job, this may be the only computer game to do so. TOAW integrates elements of surprise, command, supply, and deception to allow players to pick their own ground on which to fight the deciding battle of the war.
At first blush, my second example doesn't fit in with the first. Taking place in the 1960s, it is smack-dab in the middle of where TOAW focuses. So while TOAW4 also made The Best Vietnam War Games list, we know there are caveats. Vietnam exemplifies the asymmetric wars of our age. America's experience stands as a reminder of how a small insurgency can stymie a global power, particularly when it is playing by different rules. Available TOAW4 scenarios tackle this conflict with a number of different scales and approaches, but they all have at least some of that "WWII" feel to them. Is it even possible to find a scenario, built in a game designed around front lines and supply, that faithfully models a war without front lines?
The series Vietnam Combat Operations is unique; among the Vietnam War scenarios if not all of TOAW. I've certainly played nothing like it. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War is simulated up through mid-1970 with 15 different scenarios. Turns are two-per-week (although the first starts out more slowly at one-per-week) and the map scale is 4km per hex. It's a that map covers all of South Vietnam and its border regions - plus a handful of off-map locations for U.S. bases and staging areas. Custom unit designs depict the U.S., U.S. allies, the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), the Vietcong, and the forces of North Vietnam. These are single-player-only scenarios; you must play the U.S., although you also control allies and selected portions of the ARVN forces. What makes this series special is that the scenarios strictly follow history and this context is outlined in an accompanying PDF document for each scenario.
In the document, each turn is broken down day-by-day; either referencing in-game units or describing external influences. Where a historical operation can be directly represented within the game, that description is highlighted as a "mission." Missions describe the historical goals, timeline, and assigned units which, while accurate, may or may not have been achieved (or achievable). Conducting these missions, as described, awards victory points. You are free to ignore missions and pursue alternate objectives, although the game does not allow for wild deviations from historical events.
The focused action plus scripted events produces a fair approximation of asymmetric warfare. In Vietnam Combat Operations, you often get no more than a turn or two after locating an enemy to have at him, after which the enemy force is removed by the event system. No more stretching a two day battle to a three-week attrition slugfest. The narrower focus tempers the incentive, both for the player and the AI, to use every asset on every turn so as to maximize point accumulation. Sudden appearances of massive enemy formations just isn't something to worry about. So, despite a very large number of units "on the board," you won't feel the need to visit every unit, every turn.
The series was created for TOAW3 and was not included in the TOAW4 release. The scenario's author was concerned about how the upgrades would impact his series, particularly the custom graphics, and asked that it be excluded. He also sees an opportunity to use the additional capabilities of TOAW4 to improve his design. While I eagerly await fresh efforts, thus far all we have only the TOAW3 files. Forum chatter indicates a mostly-clean upgrade process. The forum identifies a misconfiguration, correctable in the editor, for ARVN units starting in Vietnam Combat Operations, Vol 4 as well as similarly misconfigured Cambodian and NVA units in the last two completed scenarios (Volumes 13 and 14). I don't see any corrected files posted yet. As near as I can figure, the uploaded scenario Vol. 1 on the forum matches the website version. Debugged files may show up in a TOAW4 update someday soon, as this seems to be the near-term plan.
Through trial and more than a few errors, I learned some lessons. Initially, my urge was to grab as many additional victory locations as I could. When I did so, I would often find that I'd redirected forces earmarked for some historical mission, reducing their historically-accurate availability and readiness. I've decided better play is to stick within the historical parameters. This way, I imagine, I'm tasked with the "middle management" within the command hierarchy. America's objectives are determined and the force allocations have been made, leaving me to complete the operations according to plan. I do need, then, the PDF always open and in front of me. I use a separate device (laptop or tablet) while I play. Particularly in TOAW3, I've had problems when running multiple programs. TOAW4 works better, but it still seems the game is happiest having Windows to itself.
The other discovery I made (better late than never) is the "go-to" keyboard command in TOAW. "B" will pop up a dialog where you can type in either the name of a map location or the map coordinates of a location, and it will recenter the map for you. Without this option, you'd find it very tedious to figure out, turn after turn, where each of the missions are located on a map that is at least an order of magnitude bigger than your computer's screen. With the PDF at your side, an effective way of jumping between missions, and some tracking of what missions are still open and active, the play is meticulous, but not tedious. As you work to keep track of each turn, you are limiting your play to only what is relevant. As a result, you can organize all these significant actions into a coherent strategic overview for a conflict, a conflict that was more often a slow burn rather than a raging inferno.
Like Killer Angels, this isn't a perfect fit. Again, the key is that this comes closer to successfully modeling counter-insurgency warfare than pretty much any other computer game has done, be it TOAW or not. It was clearly a massive level of effort by the developer and, on this level alone, is worthy of appreciation.
These two examples of what a determined scenario designer can accomplish is far from definitive. Are there other out-side-the-box TOAW scenarios that defy expectations? What would put at the top of TOAW's hidden gems?