Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Ugh. I hate summer. I'm just not a summer person. I'm just goddamned tired all the time. Wonder if there are any jobs on Baffin Island? The summers are still miserable, but they're shorter...

Dimitri pointed out that HPS has released a new "Campaign" game, Campaign: Shiloh. Campaign Peninsula just came out, and I'm still playing the blasted thing. Dimitri is happy about the whole "non-linear" thing, but Tiller's campaign engine depends heavily on what the designer does with it. Campaign Corinth, for instance, is functionally non-linear - the choices made result in significantly different gaming experiences. Campaign Peninsula, on the other hand, isn't particularly supple in this regard, and neither Campaign Franklin nor Campaign Ozark were, either.

Once the designer commits thoroughly to non-linear, true campaign-style flexability, the relation of the game to the history becomes notational. The prime example in this regard is Campaign Gettysburg. The chances of a player, starting from first principles on the long campaign, actually showing up at the Gettysburg crossroads is almost nil. I hadn't done it in nine months of playing the game. Campaign Gettysburg as a gaming experience is almost entirely counterfactual, from the moment that the Brady Station scenario is complete. You'd actually have to rein-enact in the course of the game, intentionally hobbling your gameplay, playing from a detailed campaign study, and mimicking every move by Hooker, Lee, and Meade, in order to end up fighting over shoes in the proper small Pennsylvania town. And that presumes that the opposing AI is inclined to play along with your re-enactment intentions, and that's most likely a presumption too far.

Campaign Peninsula, on the other hand, wants you to re-fight the Seven Days, in their proper order. You can (and will!) butcher the other side as the AI marches its columns brainlessly through swamps and into oblivion, but you'll still end up moving forward into the next day's battle, on the expected location, on the scheduled hour. Well, if you're the Confederates, that's the case.

Regardless of the design work and effort, the Tiller battle engine still has one huge, gaping flaw - the AI. It stinks. It can't handle movement, let alone alignment and tactics. The AI in Campaign Peninsula is constantly marching its columns through swampy bottomland, so much so that it sometimes feels as if it's hiding its units down there, because they're so far back that you can't get at them easily without artillery support. Given that the AI can't mount an assault without comprehensively disordering its entire attack column, I suppose it's superfluous to complain about its inability to recognize a turning movement and respond appropriately to a flanking element. Without a well-programmed AI, these sorts of civil war-themed wargames are essentially a long-form species of solitaire, because the action is far too slow and drawn-out to rationally play in a multiplayer context, assuming you could find a partner to play with, that is.

As for Dimitri's displeasure with the prospect of a John Adams biopic shot mostly in places Adams never graced with his irritated presence, I have one question: how did filming Gettysburg on the battlefield result in a movie which would have been distinguishable from a similar film shot on look-alike terrain in, say, Georgia, or Ohio? Boston must be an obscenely expensive town to film in.

Update: Rich Walker, the designer of Campaign Franklin, is the designer on Campaign Shiloh. That cryptic line about "full power melee" seems to be describing a new variant on melee combat where the attacked unit gets a full defensive blast in, instead of the usual half-volume defensive fire given to units in range of an active unit. Sounds like a lot of fussing about with new units and new features, and still nothing about the brain-dead AI. At least Walker seems to have learned his lesson from Campaign Franklin, and describes a much more truly non-linear campaign tree than the one presented in Campaign Franklin.

I don't know... there's that Bull Run real-time game that I've been hearing about...

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