Indie Corner: Wargames
by Peter "Zhukov" Pawelek
Welcome to the inaugural column of Indie Corner, where we’ll be following exciting new developments in the world of the independent/small-scale computer wargaming industry. In this first instalment, we’re going to take a survey of what’s happened to computer wargaming in 2000 and what we can expect from 2001 and beyond. As we’ll see, the previous year has shown that the last great hope for hardcore computer wargamers is in the hands of designers and publishers who themselves are wargamers and who put the demands of their audience squarely before the bottom line.
Through the Past, Darkly
I was reading the usual year-end columns in my local newspaper in which pundits declared their usual ‘best-of’s’ and ‘worst-of’s’ for the year 2000. A prominent film critic declared that 2000 was the ‘single worst year for Hollywood films since the dawning of the talkies’. Strong words, but pretty much true. Well, the same could pretty much be said about the computer wargaming industry. At least Hollywood managed to produce a film like Gladiator; with perhaps the exception of Electronic Arts’ Shogun: Total War, the offerings of the major game publishers were so uninspired that I wouldn’t even go out on a limb to say that they’ve produced the gaming equivalent of even a Dude, Where’s My Car? in 2000.
In fact, 2000 was almost the year that computer wargaming and combatsims died altogether. I’m sure you remember all those navel-gazing columns that came out on the prominent websites demanding ‘Are flight sims dead?’ ‘Is the computer wargame dead?’ While we were all furiously debating these questions on web forums and USENET discussion groups, the hobby did indeed flatline only to be resuscitated leaner, meaner and infinitely healthier.
Let’s recount some of the events of 2000 involving the big game publishers shall we? Hasbro sold off its Hasbro Interactive division to the French company Infogrames, leaving its acquisitions of the MicroProse and Avalon Hill product lines effectively in limbo. Atomic Games shut down in December of 2000, laying off its staff and putting and end to a company that produced one of the most innovative computer wargaming franchises in history: the Close Combat series. Start to see that there’s something wrong in Denmark? Oh! And how about Talonsoft? The Great White Hope of computer wargamers when came on the scene a few years ago, flaunting such wargaming superstars as Jim Dunnigan, was bought out by Take 2 in 1998. Since then, they’ve spent most of the time repackaging their TOAW and Campaign Series games into ‘Gold’ editions, wrapping up two venerable computer wargaming institutions in the process. SSI kept chugging along in 2000, but the only hardcore wargame that they managed to release was Close Combat IV, which can hardly be described as earth shattering.
Pretty bleak, huh? Well, not quite.
What’s Goin’ On
While all this was going on, Big Time Software delivered what is considered by many wargamers to be the Holy Grail of computer wargaming: Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord. CMBO is a revolutionary computer wargame by any standard, the true successor to Advanced Squad Leader (unlike Hasbro Interactive’s tepid offering under the official Squad Leader moniker). CMBO has the look and feel of a table-top miniatures wargame, featuring a full 3D environment which can be inspected from any angle or point of view, ultra realistic physics/weaponry modelling, and a system that is open to third-party modifications and scenarios. This guarantees an incredibly strong fan base that will likely outlive the commercial lifespan of the game (like we’ve seen with Hasbro's European Air War and Falcon 4.0).
But, unlike most offerings from the big publishers that view computer games as ephemeral life forms with only a few weeks-worth of viable shelf life, the commercial lifespan of CMBO is far from over. You see, Battlefront doesn’t need to worry about viable shelf life since their games are only available for purchase directly over the Internet. And you know what? The formula has worked . . . stunningly well. CMBO has been a relatively huge success, and has already gone into a second printing. A thriving fan-base has already been established which fervently backs CMBO (some would argue so fervently that they are a bit irrational when it comes to any criticism of their product), and is the sort of market that all indie wargaming publishers must be drooling after.
But let’s not allow the success of CM overshadow a number of other significant indie wargaming developments in 2000. Also published by Battlefront, Major Holridge’s venerable TacOPS reached Version 3.0 last year. Although it hasn’t received much of a face-lift since its initial incarnation, the underlying game system has been greatly tweaked and enhanced since Version 1.0 (now given away as TacOPS Classic). TacOPS v3.0 features 283 different unit types, including American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand forces, a new system to simulate amphibious landings, and a slew of new scenarios and documentation.
TACOPS v3.0 It’s not going to win any beauty contests, but it’s about the best modern tactical wargame on the market.
Another up-and-coming star on the indie gaming scene is Shrapnel Games, which publishes innovative wargames and strategy games from various independent designers. Horse and Musket, designed by Boku Strategic Games and published by Shrapnel, clearly showcases their commitment to innovation. Horse & Musket is an ambitious system that allows the player to simulate any battle from the 18th century. It has detailed and historically correct orders of battle, intricate command and control rules, and from what I’ve seen with the demo, a formidable AI.
Shrapnel, to almost universal acclaim, also released their modern armor sim Steel Beasts, developed by eSim games. Despite its lack of 3D acceleration, it managed to hook me with its astounding immersiveness and depth of gameplay. Most of the attention devoted to Steel Beasts has been towards its simulation aspects. But the tactical mapview within the simulation is pretty much a bonus wargame! In fact, I’ve taken to playing out complete scenarios from the map view alone, playing SB as if it were a real-time platoon level/company level modern wargame.
Also designed by Boku and published by Shrapnel in 2000, Combat Command 2: Danger Forward! is a grand-tactical company level WW2 wargame emphasizing special operations like amphibious landings and paradrops. The designer, Dave Erikson, has created an innovative game interface that lends itself well to modeling command control aspects of a company level wargame. Its rules and phase-based structure really give it a nice board wargame feel. In terms of production values, it’s a bit rough around the edges when compared to something like Koger’s Operational Art of War, but based on my brief experience with the demo, I’d say it’s worth a closer look.
HPS Simulations, one of the pioneering indie computer wargaming companies that has previously published the near-perfect tactical wargames Panthers in the Shadows and Tigers on the Prowl 2, has released two critically acclaimed games in 2000. Both games have been designed by John Tiller who emigrated to HPS from Talonsoft. Campaign 1776 is an operational level wargame of the battles fought in the American War of Independence, and it has an engine that links tactical/operational battles fought into an overall campaign structure. Later in the year, HPS published the Tiller-designed Panzer Campaigns 3: Kharkov ’42, an operational-level Eastern Front wargame which has received good reviews from just about everyone. However, I think HPS is committing a terrible error by not releasing a downloadable demos of these games. The small scale publishers depend almost entirely on the Internet for sales and exposure and must realize that the only way to gain a wide audience is to release fully playable demos of all of their offerings.
Matrix Games has been slowly building a reputation for itself as another indie wargaming company to be reckoned with. In 2000 they released updated versions of Gary Grigsby’s War in Russia and Gary Grigsby’s Pacific War. With access to the original source code, and Grigsby’s blessings, Matrix has patched these two computer wargaming classics such that they are now nearly flawless (both games in their original commercial offerings, even with official patches, harbored a number of near show-stopping bugs). Although the graphics weren’t significantly improved, they’ve been tweaked to run well in current Windows operating systems as well having been given enhanced PBEM capabilities. Best of all, Matrix released them for free! As a coup de grâce, Matrix undertook the ambitious Steel Panthers: World at War project: a complete overhaul of Grigsby’s classic tactical WW2 wargaming system. . .including just about every WW2 troop type and weaponry imaginable. Featuring about a zillion scenarios, Matrix gave away SPWAW as another freebie. . .a download clocking in at about 400MB! Get those CD burners warmed up!
The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades
In spite of the recent big studio shakedown that I mentioned earlier, 2001 is looking very promising for the indie wargamer. In an exciting recent development, the powerhouse trio Gary Grigsby (who needs no introduction), Joel Billings (the original founder of SSI), and Keith Brors (whose programming credits include Steel Panthers, Battle of Britain (the wargame, not the flight sim), and 12 O’Clock High) announced the formation of 2BY3 Games, which will be committed to producing WW2 wargames of high quality and detail. Their first two titles will be developed in conjunction with Matrix Games. Uncommon Valor: Campaign in the South Pacific, will focus on the New Guinea and Solomons campaigns between 1942 and 1943. The scale will be 30km per hex with 1 day turns, resolution at a squad level, and they promise a highly detailed naval and aerial combat systems. The second game being co-developed with Matrix is War in the Pacific: The Struggle Against Japan 1941-1945. It appears that it will use elements common to the Uncommon Valor system, but given its grand scope it looks like it will be nothing less than Grigsby’s chance to bring us a completely updated grand strategic simulation of the entire Pacific War.
Uncommon Valor: Campaign in the South Pacific Shaping up to be another classic. (Screenshot taken from the Matrix Games website)
Schwerpunkt Games has, over the past few years, built up a respectable product line of operational level wargames. They are currently developing Russo-German War ‘41-‘44, a massive division/brigade-level wargame of the War in the East. Sporting 52 scenarios, including a 176 turn campaign game, RGW looks to be the most comprehensive computer wargame on this conflict since Grigsby’s War in Russia. It is slated for release in February, 2001.
Russo-German War ‘41-’44 Now, where did I put that panzer division again? Ah, there it is… (Screenshot taken from the Schwerpunkt Games website)
And what about Battlefront? Can we expect Combat Mission 2 in the upcoming year? Not likely. Scuttlebutt on the Battlefront forums suggests that CM2 is in the research phase, and it’s unknown as to whether coding has been started. It’s pretty much universally accepted that CM2 will focus on the Eastern Front. In the meantime, they’re hard at work patching CM and bringing the long-promised TCP/IP multiplayer capability, which is currently available in a beta patch at the time of this writing.
Well, I could rattle on and on about this exciting new direction computer wargaming is going in, but I’ll save that for a future column. Last year, with the release and subsequent success of Combat Mission, really saw indie computer wargaming come into its own. With a number of high quality offerings from Battlefront, Shrapnel Games, Matrix Games and HPS available, I’m optimistic that we’re on the verge of a new Golden Age of computer wargaming. These companies, owned by people who love what they’re doing, do not have to compromise the quality of their offerings because of the pressures of mass marketing or have to fight for shelf space. What’s driving this resurgence is the Internet, and that’s where all of these games can be found for purchase. For some people who don’t like buying things over the Internet, this is a downside. Another downside is that although many of the games I mentioned are extremely well designed and have rich gameplay, their production values and graphics are not as slick as what can be produced by a big studio with a team of 20 or 30 professional graphic designers. But, given that these games are often designed by one, two, or maybe three people, we must be tolerant of these shortcomings if we want the hobby to survive. I’m not worried. Most wargamers that I know put realism and gameplay ahead of flashy graphics and sound, and they can only look upon the upcoming year with smiles on their faces and breathing a collective huge sigh of relief.
- Links to Companies Mentioned in This Article
- Links to Games Mentioned in This Article
- Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord
- TACOPS 3.0
- Horse & Musket
- Steel Beasts
- Combat & Command 2: Danger Forward
- Campaign 1776: The American Revolution
- Panzer Campaigns 3: Kharkov '42
- Pacific War: The Matrix Project
- War in Russia: The Matrix Project
- Steel Panthers: World at War
- Uncommon Valor: Campaign for the South Pacific
- War in the Pacific: The Struggle Against Japan 1941-1945
- Russo German War '41-'44
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