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The Second Eastern Front: IL-2 and the VEF
By Robert Mitchell

Article Type: Interview
Article Date: September 05, 2001

Flying high over the steppes in 1941, the smell of victory hangs sweetly in the air as the Luftwaffe roams the skies over the Soviet Union seemingly at will. You and your wingmen patrol your sector providing cover for the advancing ground forces as the war gets ever closer to Smolensk. As you scan the sky for the enemy you notice off in the distance four dots growing larger. You were told before taking off that there should be no friendlies in the area so you and your wingmen close in on them, intent upon punishing those who’d dare challenge your supremacy of the skies.

No, this isn’t an excerpt from Bergtroem's and Mikhailov's Black Cross, Red Star. It’s what you’ll experience as a virtual pilot participating in Peter Robbins’s VEF or Virtual Eastern Front. In a nutshell, it’s an online, multi-squadron and very organized war. Using 1C: Maddox Games's IL-2 Sturmovik as the medium and with its base of operations at IL-2 Central, the VEF currently has nineteen virtual squadrons participating: eleven Axis and eight Allied fighting for “territory” on the, you guessed it, virtual Eastern Front.

Mr. Robbins, known online as “Murdock”, uses a map, a test version of which can be viewed here: VEF test map to chart the progress of each side and the squadrons that comprise them. The overall goal of the VEF, besides having a great time flying online with your friends and cyber-enemies, is to win all of the industrial and urban targets marked on the map. This is no small order as you can see by a quick examination of the chart and its contents!

To keep what could possibly be some very confusing gameplay issues to a minimum, Murdock, along with Siggi and the commanding officers of the participating squadrons, have come up with some exacting guidelines. First and foremost being the “DiD” or Dead is Dead rule. Which means, for example, that if a player were to crash on takeoff they may not respawn and continue to the battle.

The map itself is divided into what Murdock calls “bands of control”, which are color-coded. The squadrons on both sides within the bands are responsible for attacking or defending their zones. The war will start as it did historically, with the Axis on the offensive. The CO’s of the attacking squadrons may initiate an attack by issuing a challenge on the VEF attack message board. They would name the sector coordinates they wish to combat for, and the defending squadron within that band then has three days to respond to the challenge. If for some reason he or she does not respond, the attacker wins by default. When the defending commanding officer responds to the challenge the two CO’s have a week to determine a day and time for their squadrons to combat that sector. Once the fight is done it is the responsibility of the attacking unit to submit a report declaring whether they won or lost the match to either the OKL Headquarters or the VVS Headquarters.

VEF Demo Beta Map

For the demo release of IL-2 the VEF is operating on a smaller scale just to work the bugs out and, hopefully, to help further cement and extend the game-play rules by the time the final release hits the shelves.

What they’re doing now with the demo is fairly simple. Since there is only one map included in it, the Axis squadrons are divvied up and supporting a German offensive into Smolensk of Generals Hoth and Guderian. The Allied squadrons are similarly divided up and supporting the Soviet defense of the city by two army groups. You can view the Smolensk Order of Battle here.

Murdock envisions the VEF with a full strategy set of basic, intermediate, and advanced rulesets much like an Avalon hill desktop wargame. For now, however, they are using a scaled-down ruleset for ease of use and hopes, as the participants become more familiar and comfortable with the VEF setup, that they will be able to implement the complete rulesets. He showed me a set of the original rules, and it’s some serious stuff! There are supply multipliers, interdiction factors, operational point expenditures, and the like. This would be a very challenging and immersive campaign requiring excellent communications and movement coordination between the squadrons with, quite likely, a centralized C&C.

While it may seem a somewhat complicated affair, anyone that has ever attempted to engage in an online war between two virtual squadrons knows that a cut-and-dried approach to the ground rules is for the best. There are always the ROE to hammer out (e.g., padlock allowed or not; icons on or off; what aircraft are to be used; what mission types to be flown). For EAW there was always the question of what flight models to use: ECAO, the Panel, 1.2? It can take longer to negotiate terms than it can take to actually fight the battle!

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With a very well organized system to date, there are dedicated forums for the VEF, and for the participating squadrons at the IL-2.Net bulletin board, hosted by Siggi. With luck and planning the VEF will avoid the pitfalls that seemed to befall the EAW online wars. I, for one, look forward to participating further. I flew in a VEF engagement a few nights ago and it was a great time. The idea that you and your squadron mates' performance has an effect on a much larger overall scheme adds something to the gameplay.

I think that with more choices in aircraft and missions, as well as being able to have more than four people in the virtual skies at a time, the final release will really make the VEF shine. But, as with all things, it depends upon the participants. Thankfully there are a lot of dedicated folks involved in this and I think that it will fare well. Besides, as one poster on the VEF forum put it recently, without the VEF, IL-2 wouldn’t be much more than air-quake. That may be a bit of an over-exaggeration, but I think that the underlying bits and pieces that the VEF brings to the IL-2 online battlefield only enhance and immerse the player. It’s worth looking into.

Squadrons can contact Murdock for more information at: [email protected]

I had the oppurtunity to ask Murdock some questions about the VEF and how it would encapsulate a campaign on the Eastern Front into a format that is both fun and friendly for multiplayer gaming. I found that its concept is more than just shooting at your friends in the virtual skies, the VEF is rooted in strategy and it will take more than shooting down a lot of the other guys' airplanes for a side to emerge victorious.

Here is what we discussed:

Robert Mitchell: How long have you planned the VEF?

Peter Robbins: The Virtual Eastern Front has been designed on paper since at least November of 2000. This is generally when we thought IL-2's release would be just around the corner. The design philosophy has been around the block a few times. It keeps some elements from SDOE WAR (which I did not design but took part in) with more concepts added from the Wargaming community.

I would have to say the most significant single game that has influenced my design philosophy is the immortal Panzer General 2[developed by SSI —ed.]. This game included a mature level of supply points, replenishment, attack/defense ratings, suppression, entrenchment, etc. It had every basic wargaming element, but it "hid" what you didn't really need to see (unless you wanted to know the stats). Other wargames were a bit abrasive in their presentation. Panzer General 2 was simple, yet contained many complex elements where necessary. That is the design philosophy of the Virtual Eastern Front: an encapsulated war, with layers that can be peeled back if you don't mind the tears. If you want a simulation comparison, look at the campaigns in EECH and Rowan's Battle of Britain and MA. You can either fly a single aircraft, or influence the war. Also, as in Panzer General 2, neither simulation bombards you with information unless you look for it. Equally in the Virtual Eastern Front: you can just show up and fly, or take part in the strategy.

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R.M. How does a squadron or gaming group enroll in the VEF?

P.R. Any squadron of any type (including ground attack only) can register by mailing me directly at [email protected]. It's as easy as that. We would add your squadron to the OKL or VVS web-site. You can then participate in sector attack/defense. Currently we are in limited beta, and the rules are extremely simple. There is very little a squad needs to do other then show up and have fun. There are two weekly meetings, one on Wednesday night to accommodate the Americas and one on Sunday to accommodate Europe and Asia. Australians will likely have to make their own times, which the guidelines also discuss.

R.M. How many squadrons do you have participating and is that enough? That is, are you looking for more participants or is the VEF currently full up?

P.R. Currently there are eleven groups for the OKL and at least eight for the VVS. We would definitely like to get some more VVS fighter groups but welcome additions on both sides. Any registering squadron should have at least four active members available for fighting. We recommend a full staffel/escadrilya strength squadron: twelve members.

R.M. What is the overall goal: Full realism? A real-estate type ground gaining? Fun?

P.R. Well now that you ask, fun, with an extreme amount of detail dangling beneath it. The tangible goal will be achieving enough victory points to win the war. There will be key industrial targets, airfields, large cities, etc., that must be taken by either side to win the war or force capitulation. My personal goal is to make it as simple as possible for those who just wish to show up and fight, or as complicated as desired for anyone with a flare for strategy.

The overall vision will one day include division-level ground and naval combat in a full virtual World War II. Yes, that would include multiple simulations completing separate sector attack/defense. Possible simulations: Panzer Elite, Destroyer Command, Silent Hunter 2 and Combat Mission 2. I would venture to guess that we would be able to support a multi sim strategy element by summer of 2002. That is my personal desire. Whether or not people want to do it, that remains to be seen.

R.M. How is the score to be kept? By kills? By a percentage?

P.R. The war is represented by an online map, complete with victory points and supply points. The score is effectively how many victory points your side holds. If you achieve the desired amount of victory points, you force capitulation or surrender by your enemy forces. Individual squads are recommended to track pilots as persona, including individual kills only if pilots survive (or tankers survive in later ground versions). The campaign is slated as DEATH=DEATH. There are no re-spawns allowed. Several squads already include a similar points system to the actual OKL and VVS which include medals and rank. I truly hope that most if not all participating squadrons will accept this format, but none are forced to. Example rosters, pilot pt. and rank systems will be available at IL-2 Central for squadrons to use a template for operations if they want them.

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R.M. What role will each squadron play? By that I mean how much effect will a single squadron's performance have upon the VEF?

P.R. Each squadron's performance will affect the level of supply points for their side. If their area is being pummelled consistently, then the high command would likely have to move in a veteran unit to support the defense of that area. In effect, if your squadron performs extremely well, you can influence the ground war to the point of an early victory. Everything is generally tied to victory points and supply points. Each sector represents a level of both. When you lose a sector, you have just lost a certain amount of both for your entire country! This directly affects the amount of resupply points and available operation points for ground units. These advanced rules are defined, but not a part of the limited beta.

If people are interested in how the more advanced concepts are defined, they can email me directly and I will let them see the ruleset. It sounds very complex, but I have it refined to a very playable version. At some point, I would definitely like to automate a local database of everything, that automatically updates an online map, and automatically updates localized rosters. I am in no way ready for that now or in the near future.

R.M. Will squadrons fly cooperatively in a campaign type scenario or do squadrons fight only in a 1 vs 1? For instance, would a single axis squadron fight against one, two, or more allied squadrons, either singly or in conjunction with another axis squadron?

P.R. In the limited beta, any allied or axis unit can fight alongside each other, or they can request to RESERVE an attack to contend with on their own schedule. Otherwise, we are still determining if we will keep the loose scheduling now seen in the limited beta or not. I am getting a lot of positive feedback lately that the recent limited beta guidelines are perfect for online squad scheduling.

Squads can either show up and be dealt sector matches during VEF nights, or define their own mano a mano matches on their own time (emailing me their intent prior to completing the match). Whether or not this loose scheduling works as we move forward will be determined as we go. The possible additions of the advanced strategic elements would likely oppose such a loose schedule. We will see what happens as we move along.

R.M. From what you've seen of how it's working with the demo, are you happy with the way things are set up now? Or would you do something differently if you could start from scratch again? (I realize that it may be a little early to tell.)

P.R. Good question. I don't know if you can tell, but I have had to drastically pull back much of the ruleset. This is not because the users are not wargaming saavy enough to understand it, but many have been overwhelmed by the design philosophy of a wargame played out with simulation. Without the simulation in hand, many just wanted to get used to IL-2 before committing to anything of this nature. I think the limited beta is now stable, and we are at a complexity level that will be added back to upon retail release.

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R.M. What are your impressions of IL-2 based upon the demo?

P.R. In one word: incredible. This is everything I could have imagined and more. I have followed this simulation since it was first announced at a few years back. I had originally done the first interview with Len here at COMBATSIM.COM and in doing so I have been in contact with Oleg throughout its development. This latest version is warpspeed ahead of what I had last seen. The last version of the simulation that I had seen was the alpha code shown at last year's ECTS. That version is comparatively child's play next to what Oleg and his crew have given us. Every time I start it I see something else that amazes me.

R.M. In your opinion, will this sim be able to fulfill your wishes for gameplay as far as how you've got the VEF setup?

P.R. Absolutely. I am not on the beta team, but the full version of the mission editor appears to be able to support the numbers of online pilots we want to support (especially cooperatively with AI). We are hoping. to support at least 8 vs 8 humans in dogfight and at the very least 4 vs 4 (with AI support on both sides!) in cooperative mode. In last check, the beta can support this easilly (and many more depending upon computer hardware and connection). Of note, ground attacks will play a very important role in sector matches after we get the workable Stuka cockpit (already in third party design).

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