New Games Coming from the Slitherine Group – Part 1
The Slitherine Group (Slitherine-Matrix-Ageod) hosted their annual Press Days July 18-19, an opportunity for journalists and others who write about computer games to get to know designers and developers and learn a bit about products that are in the works. This year the gathering was held during Historicon 2013 historical miniatures gaming convention in Fredericksburg, Virginia, site of a major Civil War battle (and a second, lesser-known one) and home to numerous Victorian buildings, antique shops and Carl’s Ice Cream stand (cooling off Virginians since 1947).
Twenty-five writers from the U.S., Europe and Canada were present, and I was among those taking notes, on behalf of Armchair General. So many games were discussed during the meetings and after-hours that this report is going to be split into two parts for posting online.
First, an overview from our host companies, based on information from JD McNeil, chairman of the Sliterine Group: Matrix focuses on traditional, turn-based wargames for the PC. Slitherine produces games across a broad range of platforms including PC, Mac, iPad and other mobile devices. The newest member of the group—although it has been around and producing well-received games for years—is Ageod, which focuses on grand strategy games.
The group has experienced 480% growth over the last three years, and a chain of Matrix retail stores will be opening in Europe in a few months, McNeil said, noting “The niche market is not shrinking, it is expanding exponentially. We like niche. We are more like a one-to-one with our audience, and are able to engage them and keep them updated with new information”
One reason for the growth of niche games like historical and science fiction wargames is the development of quality products for new mobile media; iOS games often outsell PC versions by 10:1, he reported. (Currently, the group has 17 games in development for mobile devices, including Panzer Corps, Commander: The Great War, Gary Grigsby’s World at War, Chariots of War, and Warhammer 40k: Armageddon. Some releases are planned for as early as September 2013.)
A big piece of news is that the group is now partnering with Lordz Game Studios, which will give developers access to graphics professionals, voice-over experts, etc. that can help take their games to new levels.
So … what games can players expect in the not-too-distant future?
From the Eastern Front to Mars
Germany at War: Barbarossa 1941, developed by Phobetor. Panzer Corps, an addictive beer-and-pretzels World War II game series that is the descendant of the classic Panzer General games, is one of the group’s best-selling titles. But many players have asked for greater historical accuracy, and they’ll find it in Germany at War: Barbarossa 1941. Like Panzer Corps, it has an easy-to-learn system but adds an emphasis on historical units and attachments. (Released July 25, 2013)
Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager, developed by Polar Motion Games. This one has been getting a lot of buzz (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) for its great-looking graphics and unusual gaming approach. Instead of building forces to go out and blow something up or mining resources with which to build an empire (and then go blow something up), BASPM requires players to plan the steps they’ll need to take in order to create a space vehicle that can put astronauts on the moon and eventually beyond. What sort of booster rocket will be needed? What kind of training for the astronauts? What skill sets will be needed for a given mission and therefore which astronauts from the available pool would be best suited? Each step along the way is rated for success or failure, and badges are received for successful completion of, say, a specialized training program. Repeated success means funding for your project will likely continue and perhaps be increased. Too many failures and—well, Mom always told you to be a shoe salesman, anyway.
Episode 1 is set during the years from the 1950s to 1980. Episode 2 will cover the ’80s to the near present, and Episode 3 will explore the present and the future, ultimately leading to Mars. The game does not include the space race that historically pitted the US against the USSR. Instead, it hypothesizes a global cooperative effort—which may sound like wishful thinking, but it reflects the path that Dr. Aldrin says the world must follow in future space missions, in his latest book, Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. Taking the global co-op route for the game’s design also allows players access to the historic space programs of multiple countries, including the US, USSR, China and Japan, instead of limiting them to the programs of one nation.
Doctor Buzz Aldrin was scheduled to appear at Press Days but unexpected events forced him to cancel. He sent a video in which he said he has been personally involved in the development of the game, which he hopes will ignite an interest in science among young people. He also noted that attention to detail has been critical in creating the game—”I’m an engineer, so I like to get the details right”—and that the 360-degree representation of a recycler vehicle within the game is so good he uses it in his own presentations.
The game will not, however, be modding-friendly, Iain McNeil said in response to a question.
Strategic Command III: World War II in Europe, created by Fury Software. Hubert Cater from Fury said the Strategic Command concept began over 15 years ago and the first game took two years to develop. A grand strategy, IGOUGO game, it wasn’t very flexible, but the second in the series gave players the ability to change force strengths, raise new nations, etc. Players’ decisions within the game can change the historic course of events, e.g., if Nazi Germany is more aggressive initially (full-blown invasion of Czechoslovakia instead of the historic route of occupation and diplomatic negotiations), the US may enter the war earlier.
The new access to Lordz Studios is helping to make new 3D models, which will give the game a different look and feel, but Strategic Command will return to the hexagon overlay on maps that many players requested; it will use NATO-style counters as well as 3D views. New or upgraded features in the coming release include increased fog of war, a scorecard of how a player has done from game to game, game replays, and an option to resign early and still get a result. Oil supplies and manpower figure in. There is supply by sea and “mulberry” harbors, unit training during production to upgrade ability, and an improved amphibious warfare mechanism. The campaign developer released with the game is the same one used to create it, which makes it easy for modders to write their own scenarios.
Cater doesn’t come from a gaming background—he is a coder who enjoys building the game systems—but he says his partner is the gamer, and their skills complement each other.
Command: Modern Naval Operations. The company creating this one is called Warfare Sims and indeed this is a simulation, one that imparts a lot of information. (Mouse over a point on the map and a small window appears providing the actual, real-world elevation and other data.) Mike Mykytan from Warfare Sims says the company’s staff comes from backgrounds in IT, the military and such, rather than a gaming background, although he used to do some miniatures gaming. Their creation isn’t likely to appeal to casual gamers or those who regard eye candy as de rigueur in a computer game—but Harpoon fans and others looking for a serious simulation of modern naval warfare will rejoice.
The utilitarian graphics resemble those found in early arcade games, but players can bring Google maps into the game and can replace the arrows and simplistic icons with images of actual aircraft, ships, etc.
Upon release, the game will include 30 unique scenarios and tutorials. Scenarios aren’t linked, but an event editor can be used to trigger a scenario when certain conditions are met. Play can use either real or accelerated time. Players can design their own historical scenarios using the database and status AI.
The game assists players by providing information to help match weapons with targets. Rules of engagement allow for escalation but prevent players from releasing nukes at the start of every scenario. A real-time log can be used as a mission log. A mission editor can be used to craft orders for units with some realistic modifiers and to specify a difficulty level. Although this is primarily a naval / air game, land-based targets can be hit.
Brother Against Brother. Gil Renberg from Western Civilization Software presented the low-down on this IGOUGO Civil War game. The scale is 75 yards per hex and the game can have a 5×10-mile battlefield, providing plenty of room for maneuver. It is regimental level, but players can create company-sized units out of regiments (to guard a bridge, for example). A regiment may be armed with two different kinds of weapons, e.g., seven companies have smoothbores and three have rifled muskets. A basic regiment has 10 companies and 10 captains to command them. When captains are killed in battle, unit cohesion is affected.
Getting regimental or brigade commanders killed isn’t too good, either, but when that happens a dropdown screen shows the available replacements for that leader, e.g., the four or five regimental commanders who were serving in that brigade. Of course, when a regimental commander is promoted, he has to be replaced, so each regiment has its initial leader plus two replacements. Renberg does in-depth research (the Orders of Battle are great) and wherever possible the two replacements within a regiment have the names of two officers who actually served in the historical regiment. Every leader has different abilities at different levels of command, which means replacing a fallen or promoted leader isn’t as simple as replacing one +2 officer with another one who automatically gets the same rating. Brigade commanders logically have the most to do, and players must consider the plusses and minuses inherent in each order given to units. Each unit is rated for its strength, morale, movement and supply. An enemy unit is identified only by a flag until a friendly unit can fully identify it—which may happen a tad late for the friendly’s health and well-being.
Every release for the game will contain at least one major battle and two or three lesser-known fights. The first release planned, Brother Against Brother: The Drawing of the Sword, will focus on early war battles: First Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Mill Springs (Kentucky) and Williamsburg (Virginia). I mentioned that Renberg does deep research. He believes the Williamsburg map will be the most accurate ever published in any form because he consulted both published and unpublished maps as well as first-hand accounts. Terrain in the games will include more variety than usual, including true ravines that can conceal units’ movement in scenarios like Wilson’s Creek.
Western Civilization Games is also developing Conflict of Heroes: Storms of Steel Kursk 1943, a coming release in the computer game series inspired by the popular Conflict of Heroes boardgames from Academy Games.
Close Combat: Panthers in the Fog, developed by Black Hand Studios. This title in the venerable Close Combat series was released last November. The first game in the series was published back in 1996, and throughout its history it has been known for its realism, accuracy and detail. Each individual World War II soldier has his own line of sight and his own psychological model that determines how he will react to battlefield situations. Because of these unique elements, some versions have been done for actual military training, including one for the US Marine Corps.
Panthers in the Fog, based on the fighting around Mortain in August 1944, utilizes 32-bit graphics, unlike its 16-bit predecessors, providing brighter colors and giving players a clearer idea of what they are looking at. Statistics are now kept for all troops. Apart from a new user interface and a revised campaign system, additions include transporting troops and guns, the introduction of fog, and artillery and air interdiction.
The next Close Combat release will be Gateway to Caen (late 2013 or early 2014), which will see additional graphics improvement, new British units and new and revised German units. There will also be new voice-overs, so that the lads from London don’t sound like the boys from the Bronx.
After Gateway to Caen, the developers will be working on Close Combat: The Bloody First, which will feature a new 3D engine and will be the first Close Combat game designed for play across multiple platforms. It will have a full scenario editor, including an integrated map editor, and there will be improved AI pathfinding. In other ways, though, the game will be returning to its roots. The focus will be on tactical combat. Release is projected for sometime next year.
Click here to read part two of this report.