Histwar: Les Grognards Interview
Histwar: Les Grognards (HW:LG) is the title of a Napoleonic computer wargame being developed by a team lead by Jean-Michel Mathé (JMM), and to be published by Battlefront. The game will allow players to put on Napoleon’s boots and direct huge armies against the Russians and Austrians. HW:LG will come with ten scenarios depicting famous engagements like Austerlitz or Bordino.
Mathé, who is an active participant on the Battlefront forums, recently announced that HW:LG has moved into beta testing. In honor of this development milestone, Armchair General asked JMM some questions about this highly anticipated game.
ACG: HW:LG is not your first Napoleonic game. What attracts you to this era as a subject for computer games?
Nineteenth-century military engagements are fascinating. Armies had to be structured so that leaders could manage increasingly large forces in encounters taking place within a limited battle space. As a result, army commanders had to invent simple but effective maneuvers, ones that could be adapted to several hundreds of battalions and squadrons while taking into account the inherent inertias of commanding such large formations. Without much help or technological support, the commander had to imagine a battle plan with a time line. Then, in the chaos that was sure to ensue, he had to follow the battle as best as he could, trying to make sense of the unfolding events so that he could intervene when a crisis or opportunity arose. HW:LG offers you the opportunity to experience moments of conflict and decision as they were experienced by Napoleon, Koutouzov, Wellington, and many other tacticians of this era.
ACG: For readers unfamiliar with HW:LG, can you give us a brief overview of the game? What experience are you trying to create for the player?
HW:LG is a FPC (First-Person Commander) simulation and tactical wargame that recreates battles from the beginning of the 19th century. In solo mode, the simulation will unfold on maps as large as 27 square kilometers, and, in multiplayer and PBEM modes, players will seek and destroy each other on maps sprawling for nearly 700 square kilometers. An engagement can last several days, and weather conditions and the season will impact visibility conditions and deployment as well as the combatants’ fighting effectiveness.
An army is comprised of an army commander, up to 11 corps commanders, and up to 100 units (brigades, regiments, artillery companies). Each unit is integrated into an army corps, but each also belongs to its own division or brigade. The initial release of HW:LG will include a huge uniform database (more than 550 sparkling variations) and a unit database with more than 4,500 historical generals and colonels and more than 1,200 regiments from 15 nations (France, Russia, Austria, Italy, Wurttemberg, Poland, Saxony, and so on). The game can be played in solo, multiplayer (up to eight generals), or PBEM mode. It will ship with three easy-to-use scenario creation tools: a Map Editor, an Order of Battle editor, and a Doctrine Editor.
The primary goal of the game concept is to put the player into the saddle of an army commander. To that end, HW:LG uses five distinct AIs (I’ll describe these shortly) that take charge of different hierarchical levels. Since these AIs will control the army’s lower command levels, the player will not have to micro-manage his forces. Instead, he can concentrate on the true tasks of a real Napoleonic commander: defining an initial tactical plan (without forgetting, of course, the critical task of establishing a reserve) and then following events so that he can react intelligently (by, for example, employing that reserve with the greatest possible effect). The army commander will issue tactical orders to his various corps: march towards a concentration point, deploy or carry out a diversion in a sector, defend a certain zone, link up with another corps (which are set up as independent, self-contained units), and so on. All of these orders will be timed, and the player will specify a desired organization and formation (battle formation, echelon, column or line, etc.), as well as the level of reserves, among other things. These orders are then sent to the Tactical AI, which will play the role of a corps commander. This AI-corps commander will then send the commands on to its units and see to the details as those units attempt to execute the orders. For example, the Tactical AI will reincorporate units that have broken and rallied into its ranks.
There are three visualization modes offering a fully 3D view, a 2D view on a main battle map, and a 3D symbolic view superimposed on a battle map. In addition, a graphic tool will allow the player to draw directly on the main battle map, where he can trace out arrows and lines and make notes as he formulates his tactical plan.
If he chooses, the player will take on further responsibilities weighing on a commander: he can create an army, set its organization, and then define the doctrines that will determine his regiments’ reactions to certain events. In this way, he will create a force best suited to his style of fighting and to his methods of command. Equally as important, the player has control over his units’ behavior, but without having to sink into micromanagement.
ACG: The Napoleonic Wars are sometimes called the Tailor’s Wars. Looking at the screenshots of HW:LG, the uniforms, equipment and organization of the troops seem to be historically accurate. How did your development team achieve such accuracy?
The Histwar team is composed of true Napoleonic aficionados who are active table top gamers and historical re-enactors. For example, Laurent Abadie, the illustrator for Les Grognards, has a collection of several thousand painted figurines that he has been amassing now for about fifteen years. That kind of passion compels us to work towards precise historical accuracy, accuracy that includes the other game elements in addition to uniforms. Before I sat down to define the game’s parameters, I spent many hours trying to understand army doctrines, unit organizations, and the psychological realities of the combatants. I believe this research will translate into a game that is a true Napoleonic combat simulator.
ACG: Command, control and leadership were critical factors on the battlefield during Napoleon’s time, how will the game model these?
As in all engagements between two adversaries, victory goes to the army that achieves the psychological upper hand. This was especially true during the Napoleonic era. The troops’ morale, and the competence and charisma of their generals, played a decisive role in combat operations. Thus, in the game, troop morale greatly impacts a regiment’s performance; it will move a unit to flee or even to refuse to fight, or it will send it in pursuit of a fleeing opponent. A general’s competence impacts the unit’s level of organization, which in turn impacts the time it takes for that unit to respond to orders (disorganized units will take longer to respond, and lower quality units will become disorganized more easily). Players must therefore master the art of anticipating these inherent delays when formulating orders. Charisma plays yet another role: it augments the morale of nearby troops and facilitates rallying after a route. Thus, a player will not have complete control over his subordinates, who will have minds and "personalities" of their own — just as in real life.
ACG: According to the game’s website, an innovative approach to AI will be implemented. Please give us a brief overview of the AI system, and why it will give players a great gaming experience
The AI is broken down into five levels corresponding to five command levels within an army. The first level — the grand tactical level – only runs in solo mode. It is tasked with creating the opponent’s overall tactical plan. Initially this plan is determined by the geographical context and eventually by the layout of the opposing forces. During the engagement, this AI level modifies the tactical plan and controls the use of reserves, and it even takes action when it perceives a weakness in the opposing force’s dispositions. The next three AIs take charge of command levels for groups of regiments farther down in an army’s hierarchy (corps, divisions, brigades). These AIs will receive their tactical orders (for example, to deploy in a specified zone) and organize their units to achieve the desired objective. The lowest AI level is in charge of unit behaviors. For example, it will detach a battalion to guard against a threat positioned on the flank, and it will form battalions into square when cavalry is within striking distance. It will also request artillery support.
This AI structure, then, simulates the different command levels within an army, allowing for units that can, for the most part, act independently in tactically sound ways. More importantly, this AI structure is what allows the player to take on the role of an army commander, who simply can not ensure the survival of each and every regiment.
He will, though, control his direct subordinates — the generals in charge of his corps, divisions, and brigades — and he will monitor and oversee the execution of his plan. However, to create a balance between historical reality and fun, the game does allow the player to order smaller units to perform specific actions (reconnoiter a zone, attack an enemy unit, bombard a sector, and so on).
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