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Posted on Feb 17, 2007 in Electronic Games, Front Page Features

Forge of Freedom – Interview

By Larry Levandowski

Forge of Freedom (FoF), the American Civil War strategy game developed by Western Civilization Software and published by Matrix Games was released in December of 2006. The game is very ambitious, and models just about every aspect of the Civil War that the gaming community could dream of. One thing about the period however, is that it evokes passionate opinions about all aspects of this epic in American history. A sign of FoF’s impact is the constant buzz on the forums about its historic realism and balance. The development team has been actively listening, supporting, and sometimes even prompting the debate. As a result they will shortly release a major update to the game, addressing a vast number of the requests and points raised by the gaming community. On the eve of the release we were fortunate enough to be able to ask the development team, Gil Renberg and Eric Babe, some questions about the patch.

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ACG: Realism must be difficult to depict in a game of FoF’s scope. For the American Civil War, realism and balance seem to be at odds. To paraphrase Shelby Foote, the Union was fighting with one-hand behind its back. In a realistic game, spanning the entire war, winning a military victory as the South should be very difficult. So in crafting FoF, how have you juggled the need for realism, vs. the need for play balance and the ever-important fun factor?

ERIC: Frankly, we chose not to juggle this ourselves, but instead we try to give the player enough options to customize the game and choose the realism/balance factors that make the game most enjoyable for him. Some players enjoy micromanaging little details like supply levels and economic choices, whereas other players find this a tedious chore; we wanted our game to appeal to both sorts of players. We also wanted to design the game so that players could choose the degree to which the economies of the U.S.A. and C.S.A. were balanced. We learned from out beta testers that many people simply did not enjoy playing either a very economically impoverished C.S.A. nor did they enjoy playing a U.S.A. that had an overwhelming economic advantage: in the former case, they felt the game was providing them with many, many options but their economy was so poor they could do very little each turn; in the latter case, they felt that the huge economic advantage of the U.S.A. made the game too easy. So, based on beta tester feedback, we decided to make the default economy more balanced in the “Standard” scenario; in this scenario the U.S.A. still has a large economic advantage, but it’s not nearly as disproportionate an advantage as the U.S.A. had historically. Since we knew there would be players who would enjoy the more historical economic settings despite what our beta testers strongly preferred, we added “power” adjustments so that players could increase the U.S.A. economic values and decrease the C.S.A. values to achieve more historically disproportionate economies.

To try to make FoF appeal both to people who wanted a simple, fun game as well as people who enjoy more complicated games that have a more realistic game model, we designed FoF so that the complicated rules can be set by the player as game options before he starts to play. When all of the rules are turned on, FoF becomes a fairly complicated game that includes most of the important aspects of Civil War military, economic, and social factors in its game model. When few of the rules are added, FoF is, on the other hand, a fairly simple, “lighter” game that one can learn to play and enjoy very quickly. It took a lot of work to design the game in such a way that allows many of the core rules simply to be turned on or off, and a game that works this way requires much more testing than it otherwise would, but we’re hoping that we can attract a wider audience by having a more flexible sort of game.

Allowing players to customize the rules also addresses another important concern: a game like FoF can be difficult for players to learn. The PDF version of our manual is 250 pages long – that’s an awful lot of information to have to learn just to play a computer game. By breaking the rules up into Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced rule sets, and by further allowing players to customize the rules, allowing them to add one complicated bit at a time, we make the learning curve much gentler. New players now can watch the Flash game tutorial that comes with FoF, which only takes about ten minutes, and they’ll know enough to jump right in and play the game under the Basic rules.

ACG: Let’s move on to some specifics about the patch. One of the more interesting features of the game has been the inclusion of historic generals. The patch is bringing in some new features for these important figures. Please give us some details on how generals are changing with the update.

GIL: Well, our plan all along has been to improve this aspect of the game over time, and this represents our first major push in this area. Early on in game development we decided that it would be great to have all 1000 Civil War generals available for duty, instead of just limiting the player to the few dozen most famous (and infamous). But of course, not everyone would know who most of those guys were, so we hit upon the idea of providing short biographies of each general as in-game text. Having already written the bios of the 111 governors and gubernatorial candidates who are essential to the game’s political angle, I knew that this would be an impossible task for our development team, so we decided to issue a call for volunteers. So far, we’ve had a dozen different people research and write bios of generals, with the result that this patch will include at least a hundred. And many of these bios are very good indeed. We expect that even the most knowledgeable Civil War buffs will learn something from these.

Furthermore, we are using these bios to enhance the historical accuracy of the database of generals, making generals’ ratings in the game correspond more closely to their actual performances, and often giving them special abilities to teach their troops that reflect in some way their actual specialties and experiences during the war. We had already established historically-based ratings for the most important generals by polling visitors to our forum before the game was released, but now we can improve the ratings for the remaining 940 or so generals over time. This is also true for generals’ start dates: we now have much-improved information regarding when each general first achieved the rank of general officer, and can use the research unearthed by the bios team to further improve this data. If all goes well, then, within a year we’ll have bios and historically accurate statistics and capabilities for all 1000 generals – and that would be some accomplishment.

ERIC: Yes, the biggest improvement with the generals, I think, comes from great contributions we’ve gotten from our FoF players and beta testers in the form of improvements to the quality of the generals’ data file. The data file that was included in the original version of the game had to make do with some approximate data. For instance, originally our generals’ starting dates were based only on the year that they became brigadier generals, to which we added a random number of months; we’d found tabulated data for the years in which they became brigadiers, and we simply didn’t have the resources to look up the months for all 1,000 of our generals. With help from our players and testers we’ve improved the quality of the generals’ starting dates, starting locations, ranks, as well as some of their attributes and special abilities.

Other improvements to the generals’ system we’ve made based on player feedback are that generals now have a chance to resign in protest whenever they are demoted in rank. We’ve also made ranks easier to obtain, so that players should more quickly be able to assign a general of an appropriate rank to each of their military groups. Generals also now have a chance to have their ratings raised or lowered whenever they are promoted or demoted to try to recreate the historical situation in which a general who made a great brigadier became a lousy army commander after he was promoted. We also now allow players to promote as many generals as they wish in a turn since many players didn’t seem to like the limit the game had imposed previously.

ACG: The role of emancipation on how the game plays, has been a front burner question recently. How will the patch change the modeling of this important event?

ERIC: We’ve added requirements both for the North and the South to emancipate. We’re still fiddling with the exact requirements in testing right now, but, basically, both sides will need to obtain certain victory criteria, or have the other side at certain levels of victory, before it will be allowed to emancipate.

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