New Games from the Slitherine Group – Part 2
This is the second part of a two-part report by ArmchairGeneral.com editor Gerald D. Swick on games shown at The Slitherine Group’s Press Days (Slitherine-Matrix-Ageod), July 18-19, 2013, in Fredericksburg, Virginia, during the Historicon miniatures gaming convention. Click here to read Part 1.
Apart from the game designers and developers and the journalists who were there to cover the event, Press Days had a special guest, Robert Tokarz. He was the winner in a fan contest in which one person from among those who “liked” an entry on the Matrix Games Facebook page won a trip to Historicon. He also received an award.
Scourge of War series, developed by NorbSoftDev. This highly regarded American Civil War series started with Gettysburg, then covered Antietam and Chancellorsville, as well as the battle-that-never-was, Pipe Creek, where George Gordon Meade had intended to fight Robert E. Lee’s army during the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. Recently the entire series was bundled into a 150th Anniversary package that includes Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle ever fought in North America. The Brandy Station expansion is also available separately, but Scourge of War: Gettysburg is required to play it.
Norb Timpko of NorbSoftDev described the SoW series as a “real-time tactical battle simulator,” in which, when playing solitaire, the gamer plays one general and the AI plays everyone else. Timpko said the AI uses the same information available to the player—”no cheating.” But that AI is definitely smart; when the developers were testing Gettysburg, every single Confederate regiment refused to go forward in Pickett’s Charge. New scripts had to be written to allow the scenario to work. Somewhere, James Longstreet is saying, “See? See? See? I told you it was bad idea!”
The fighting is man to man, which allows the player to see (and hopefully respond to) weaknesses within a unit: “If part of a regiment gets mowed down, you can see them fall.” Indeed, the graphics in the Scourge series are reminiscent of watching a Civil War movie epic, with individual soldiers clearly distinguishable as they charge into melee. They may not make that charge, however, or may interpret orders in a way other than what their glorious commander (the player) intended.
“Men are sometimes unpredictable, so the game needs to be as well,” Timpko said. “There is a tendency in the game to follow orders, but it isn’t a given.” Call it the Dan Sickles randomizer or the variations-in-probability-are-hell principle, but it reflects the developers’ obsession with getting the history right and giving players the feel of leading large units of men in a time when battlefield communication was limited.
“What we go for is, what the hell was it like, sitting up there on that horse saying, ‘You go here. You go there,’” Jim Weaver, another of NorbSoft’s developers told me as he, Timpko, their partner Matt Clyburn, and I were sitting in the bar that night discussing the Civil War and game design.
“Better history makes better games,” Timpko had said earlier in the day. As an example, they told me that when they visited the Peach Orchard site at Gettysburg they realized they had been off by three feet in elevation in the game—so they went home and fixed it.
Presently, they are focusing on taking the Gettysburg engine to a new level.
Gary Grigsby’s War in West 1943-45, developed by 2 By 3 Games. With one of the most unusual names for a game company, 2 By 3 is comprised of computer gaming veterans Gary Grigsby, Joel Billings and Keith Brors. Billings told me that when they were trying to decide what to call their company his wife asked him what the nature of the company was. He responded that it was three guys making games about World War 2, and she said, “There’s your name—2 By 3.” The guys liked it, since it also plays on the traditional hexagonal overlay on wargaming maps; 2 x 3 = 6, the number of sides in a hexagon.
“Our customers are obviously boardgamers—the senior grognards,” Billings said in his address to the assembled journalists.
Gary Grigsby’s first computer game was Guadalcanal Campaign, published by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI) in … you mean they had computers back then? Such is his loyal following that he is among the few whose name is part of every title he now designs, and those followers like to think and play big.
“We do monster games,” Billings said, mentioning Gary Grigsby’s Uncommon Valor: Campaign for the South Pacific, Gary Grigsby’s War in the East (winner of the 2010 Charles S. Roberts Award for Best 20th Century Era/Modern Computer Wargame and Best Computer Game Graphics), and its sequel now in development, Gary Grigsby’s War in the West, 1943-45.
War in the West (WitW) begins with the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy and continues through the invasions of France and the drive into the heart of the Third Reich. Gamers can play historical or “what-if” scenarios, utilizing its full-featured scenario editor. The game uses the historical Normandy invasion site for D-Day, but if players use a different site, the scenario might start in May with the build-up of forces.
WitW is IGOUGO, on the division/brigade/regiment level, and players can use views ranging from NATO-style counters to individual tank and infantry models. Scale is 10 miles per hex, and a 36,000-hex map area. (Did I mention 2 By 3 likes monster games?) There are no roads on the map, but countries are rated for their road quality, affecting movement within them.
Air power will play a more important role in this game than it did in War in the East, and strategic bombers become part of the mix. Turns include an air mission execution phase and an amphibious / airborne phase. There are now fixed airfields on the map. An East Front option allows players to shift troops between theaters.
Other changes include more realistic logistics and weather. There are multi-role support units, and invasions have their own supply issues. Eight weather zones mean that weather fronts coming in bring changes with them to the affected zones.
Victory conditions include cities controlled, damage from Allied bombing, neutralizing political targets such as V-weapons sites and U-boat pens, and the timing of Germany’s ultimate fall.
Future games will include War in the East 2.0, War in the West 1940, and War in the West Mediterranean. World at War for iPad and some tactical World War II games are also planned.
Someone asked Grigsby what his favorite game is among the many he designed. His reply may surprise anyone who hasn’t worked in the game field. He said, “My last really fun, fun project was Steel Panthers.” That game was originally published by SSI in 1995. Although he loves the challenge of doing monster games, they require massive editing effort. As someone else said, the AI in the games is virtual Gary Grigsby.
No release date has been set.
As noted above, Gary Grigsby’s World at War is being developed for iPad. Projected for release later this year or early in 2014, this grand strategy World War II game has been described as “Axis and Allies but with more detail and complexity,” including technology, diplomacy, and supply. Information on Slitherine’s site says it will be “the most fully featured strategy game on iPad.”
Mark H. Walker’s Lock ‘n Load: Heroes of Stalingrad, developed by Lock ‘n Load Publishing. Mark H. Walker—who has been one of the game reviewers for Armchair General magazine since its earliest issues—started Lock ‘n Load Publishing around 2006 to publish boardgames. Among his most popular games are the “Heroes of” series (Forgotten Heroes: Vietnam, Heroes of the Blitzkrieg, etc). Now that series is coming to a computer monitor near you.
Walker says Lock ‘n Load: Heroes of Stalingrad is “a cardboard game converted to a computer game; it is faithful to the boardgame series.” There is however, some animation, and the story elements of a scenario are told through graphic-novel-style panels. The German campaign has 18 linked missions; the Soviet campaign has 12. After three or four scenarios, players can carry over a few squads or tanks from one scenario to another, and they improve as they go. There will also be numerous standalone missions (10–16; the exact number is uncertain at this time). Walker said he has tried to develop scenarios that can be played in about an hour. While a couple come from the boardgame version, most are unique to the computer game. No scenario editor will be included with the original release but may be added later on.
In multiplayer, Player 1 activates the units in a single hex to move and/or fire; then Player 2 activates a hex and does the same, and they continue to alternate.
Onscreen, a six-sided die appears along with a modifier chart (it can be turned off if desired). As in the boardgames, “heroes” get skill cards that allow them special abilities. Glory Points won can be spent to buy additional skill cards, or to increase firepower or range or a tank’s rate of fire or to upgrade its armor (sandbags, etc.) These GP can also be used to heal weakened units or wounded leaders.
Events can happen that change the focus of a scenario, and players may have to make some moral choices within the game. If, for example, a child suddenly wanders into the middle of a firefight, saving that child may become part of the mission. Some events are hard-wired into the scenarios while others may be randomized, e.g., a hex containing an anti-tank gun may hold a KV-1 instead the next time you play that scenario.
The game is projected for release in December 2013.
Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, developed by On Target Simulation, hypothesizes that the Cold War got very hot, and now NATO and Warsaw Pact forces are battering each other for control of Europe. The three campaigns, plus over 20 single scenarios, are set at the grand tactical level. Each hex on the map is 500 meters across and units range from a company of tanks to a single helicopter. This is a WEGO game (both sides input orders, then the game carries them out), and the effectiveness of having orders carried out depends on a number of factors such as loss of a headquarters unit or electronic jamming. It will be moddable.
Civil War 2, published by Ageod. Philippe Thibaut, co-founder of Ageod and designer of such classics as Europa Universalis and Pax Romana described this updating of the company’s 2007 game, Ageod’s American Civil War. Ageod is known for grand strategy games, and their goal is to make this one the definitive grand strategy game of the period.
They spent eight years developing a new engine. Thibaut said Civil War 2 will be more streamlined than the company’s recent releases, even though the map stretches from Halifax, Canada, to the Caribbean and westward to Colorado (the New Mexico campaign is its own scenario). It also has regional maps and a wide selection of scenarios. The effects of weather, attrition, supply and fog of war are built into the design, and players need to consider such elements as planning for railroad repair.
In each turn, the player issues orders, the opposing side does the same, and then the turn is processed.
For the most part, players will have roles closer to those of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis and their cabinets than to Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, but parts of the game also put them into the saddle as the field commander of an army. The latter includes some tactical options during a battle, such as ordering a flanking move.
Primarily, however, players will be concerned with building their forces (over 1,000 different types, from sharpshooters to ironclads) and choosing leaders from among 400 historical commanders who have personality effects built in (Braxton Bragg still hasn’t learned how to play well with others, and that can hurt his troops’ effectiveness). Bankrupting the treasury for military spending can cost players the game; micromanaging the economy is not required, however. Corps commanders are rated for various factors (strategy, offensive and defensive abilities). It is possible to promote a junior officer over higher ranking ones, but that will affect the morale of all those who were passed over. There are Regional Decision Cards such as partisan warfare or relations with the Indian tribes that can affect the flow of a campaign.
Sieges and naval warfare are covered in detail, and historical events are triggered that players must contend with, “anything from local uprisings to foreign intervention.” To win, players must balance political concerns with military ones. If National Morale drops below 50, you’ve lost; if it climbs above 150, you’ve won.
Thibaut said modding is possible but, “it is not as it is in other games.”
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Okay, enough of reality or at least simulations thereof. Science fiction (Warhammer 40k: Armageddon, Pandora: First Contact) and fantasy titles (Drums of War, Fantasy Kommander: Eukarion Wars) are also on the horizon.
Warhammer 40k: Armageddon portrays in great detail the Second War for Armageddon. Its complex plot can take an unexpected twist during missions or in the midst of battle. Veteran troops can be carried over from scenario to scenario. In addition to more than 35 built-in scenarios, extensive modding possibilities are available through “a powerful and easy-to-use game editor.” Slitherine reports that multiplayer scenarios, through their PBEM++ system, will feature a separate set of maps and will be balanced specifically for multiplayer. It will be available in PC and iOS; release is expected in the first quarter of 2014.
Pandora: First Contact, developed by Proxy Studios. Iain McNeil from Matrix Games presented a slideshow and talked about this coming release with great enthusiasm. My reaction to the presentation was, “This looks to be one butt-kicking science fiction game.” Proof is always in the playing, but I liked the graphics, and both the storyline and the option to create unique units (over 25,000 possible combinations of equipment) sound good. McNeil reported it has gotten the highest number of beta testers of any game they’ve done.
The basic concept is that the “quest for a second Earth has now come to an end,” and the race is on to colonize the rich, new planet. As players explore, they’ll come in contact with at least nine alien species, from butterfly-like thingies to leviathans of the deep. There are also ancient ruins, indicating the planet was once home to an intelligent race—but what happened to them? Also lurking on Pandora is a dangerous fungus, which in later stages of the game players can farm and use.
Players compete against other friendly players (up to five AI opponents), each with its own characteristics, and a diplomacy system allows for interacting and developing alliances. In multiplayer, everyone is inputting instructions at the same time, though this is a turn-based game. “There is very little sitting around,” McNeil said.
City growth is determined by morale and food supply. Population units can be allotted to different tasks, such as farming or mining. Any resource taken from the planet reduces the available pool, and as cities grow, pollution increases. Dealing with pollution is a major part of the later stages of the game. (Hack, cough.)
There are three tech trees. The third one is random, so players can’t completely plan a tech strategy from the beginning, and the game won’t play the same way twice. Players can create units with their own strengths and weaknesses—the aforementioned 25,000 possible combinations. The most powerful tech tool is the Black Hole Generator. It takes time to build one and 20 turns to charge it up sufficiently, but when it does its thing it can take out everything within an area. Wile E. Coyote, take notice.
When combat is initiated (so much for the “friendly factions”) an information screen shows the likely outcome. Players learn about combat through this system instead of extensive tutorials.
Players are expected to make their first contact with Pandora as early as September 2013 on PC, Mac or Linux.
On the fantasy side of things, both Drums of War, being developed by Crasleen Games, and Fantasy Commander: Eukarion Wars, developed by Age of Games, are turn-based fantasy games that combines strategy and roleplaying elements. Slitherine officially announced agreements with these developers on July 22, after Press Days had ended, so not as much information was available on them. The Slitherine forums contain some details on Fantasy Commander: Eukarion Wars, which has “an elaborate and detailed Battle System that considers the strength ratio between the Attacker and Defender, the state of health and morale of the units, the terrain, and many other tactical factors.” There are four single-player campaigns with 25 epic battles, three heroes and, of course, powerful enemy generals. The more than 70 available units each have RPG-like stats and abilities that players can manage and upgrade. Side quests appear during the game.
And that’s a wrap. The Press Days event was a great opportunity to meet face to face with a number of people I knew only through email, and the games presented make it clear Armchair General will have no lack of opportunities for game previews and reviews in the months to come.