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Hexing my life with Wargames

How historical flow of events, player’s wisdom, AI cleverness and settings limitations affects creating a wargame.

I’m a game developer by choice. I think I’m one of those gamedev or die guys. Gaming is my whole life - just after my family. I love to play games, I love to read about games, and I love to talk about the games. Let’s not forget that I love to make games.

I started pretty late. I was already 26, when I decided that modding is not enough. Takes too much time, costs too much efforts, and the results are often very miserable, due to some limitations put on the game by somebody else.

As I always preferred strategy games I knew I’m going to get into that part of the gamedev. The decision was simple, but it completely changed my life. Absolutely.

Let’s skip the part with starting the adventure and already move to the point where I’m at the moment. Maybe one day there will be occasion to write about the beginnings, that changes my life completely, but were worth every drop of the sweat.

Wastelands Interactive is a development studio specialized in strategy games. This is the core of this business and this is what we are doing for living. What is strategy game? For me it is a game where you are managing something (usually military units and possibly economy that allows to upkeep them) to achieve some goal (which in most cases is eliminating or beating the competition or enemy). Games where the victory is dependable on the number of clicks per minute are not strategy games in my opinion, even if the abbreviation for them is RTS. If you can take a deep breath, analyze, plan, execute and adapt to the situation then it’s a strategy game. Of course you don’t have to agree with me. But for the purpose of this entry, let’s stick with my definition. There are a number of strategy games, and those can be really different. From Civilization to Panzer General. I assume that even if you didn’t played those game, you have at least heard of them.

I think that currently our best known game is Worlds of Magic – a 4x fantasy strategy, still in development. Except this one we have made and are working on a completely different series of games. Let’s call them wargames. Common thread is that all of them are about World War 2, but even if they wouldn’t be about WW2, then most probably they would be about some other well-known conflict. All of them were so far made on the same (but every time upgraded) engine, so basically every next game has got more features than the previous one.

Another common aspect of games made by Wastelands (except Worlds of Magic) is that all of them are on hexes, also known as hexagons. This means that when moving from one hex to another adjacent one, you can move in one of the six directions. This awesome invention makes sure that there is always the same distance from the center of one hex to the center of every adjacent hex. So you don’t have to worry about the Action Points used by your units when moving diagonally. This saves a lot of design time, as another thing you don’t have to be bother about is diagonal attack. All the calculations are much simpler, and you can make system very clear and easy to understand for everybody.

However there is also a very dark side of using hexes. It’s not sexy, it’s not trendy, it’s not fun. For most of the people hexes are equal with complicated, boring, nerdish. For many of the reviewers hexes are equal with hardcore. And yes, you are right. This word in a review means that average gamer won’t try this game. Never ever. Please, don’t use that word when reviewing our games. Write complex, demanding, unforgiving, (or even bad looking), but please don’t write that the game is hardcore.

Now when you know why the hexes are so cool and that I don’t like the word “hardcore”, I can tell you a little bit about hexing the world. Basically like in every other game, you need to start with an idea what you want to do. This is pretty simple in our case, because we are presenting the real conflict that already happened, so we can save some money on writing the scenario, but this is also what makes our job so hard.

So imagine that we are making a game about whole European Theatre (and indeed we have already did one), and would like to give you as much freedom in your actions as possible, and on the other side we have got historical flow of events, player’s wisdom, AI cleverness and settings limitations.

Our games allow players to easily choose the countries they will take under control. Usually they decided to play as major participant or even controlling whole alliances, as this allows to better use resources, better coordinates attacks, and don’t bother to see what your AI ally will do. For example when playing Time of Fury – WW 2 European theatre – as Germany, player knows whom and when to attack to catch historical achievements, and even beat some of them. What we need to do is to encourage player to play more- less according to the history otherwise he will screw the game. Let’s imagine that in 1939 Germany after quick conquest on Poland, are moving south, declaring war to all the Balkan countries one after another, conquering them and then attacking Sweden early 1940. Yes, this is possible, yes, this will probably be fun, but most probably will cause the player to miss most of the plot.

Fortunately most of the people are trying to recreate history till mid-1941, and only after that date they try to do better. Now we should (to make the game enjoyable) allow German player to easily walk deep into the heart of the Soviet Union, so the AI withdraws. And at this moment we are receiving first negative feedback. Some of the players are reporting that the game is too easy as the Germans are doing as good as historically. But as soon as you tune the AI a little bit, to defense better, you will start to receive the feedback that the game is too hard, because in real life Soviets were only running away for the first months of the war.

Opposite to the AI, player knows the history, knows what mistakes were done, knows which plans were good and which were bad (player’s wisdom), but also player expects that the enemy countries and units, fronts will behave in very similar way to the real life events (historical flow of events), so we need to overwrite standard AI behaviors to act stupidly sometimes (AI cleverness). Even when German player is doing very well and already has beaten Soviet Union and even Great Britain, he is still expecting US forces in North Africa in 1943 and some huge amphibious operations in France in 1944. Should we really allow US AI does so stupid things?

About  our latest game – Fall Weiss – I very often hear opinions that the Polish AI is stupid and the only thing it does is withdrawing. OK, welcome in the wargaming world. Polish Army in real world as well as in the game was much weaker than Wehrmacht. Average Polish unit is 50-80% strength of the German unit. Also German units were much more mobile. Large percentage of the army was armored or motorized, and that gave advantage of better relocation of forces. In Fall Weiss Germans are stronger, faster and have better opening positions, so it is extremely hard for Poles to work local advantage without opening huge part of the front. This was about settings limitations.

It is literally impossible to make historical wargame that will satisfy everybody. There are always sacrifices or limitations, here or there. I have decided that easy way to make the community happier is to give them as many modding opportunities as possible. People love to adapt the game to their needs. Then they feel that the title belong a little bit to them.

Hope you enjoy the brief summary of the wargame’s development. If there are some specific fields you would like to read about just post them in comments.

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