Will Drive on Moscow be out before the snow falls?

, | Games

Game design seems easy when you just imagine it as a series of mechanics with names on them. Shenandoah Studio did so many things right (and almost nothing wrong) with their brilliant Battle of the Bulge iOS game that it might seem trivial to call the Allies the Soviets, draw up a new map, and send the panzers on their way to Moscow. In the world of wargame design, it’s not that easy. The switch from division level to corps/army level, from a two-week campaign to one that lasted two months, and from a battlefield that covered 150 kilometers to one that spanned over 600 kilometers in a single direction, all have the potential to wreak havoc with pacing, balance, and historical accuracy. So while gamers may see it as a quick and easy way to extend a game series, it is in no way a slam dunk.

After the jump, basketball metaphors on the Eastern Front.

So when I heard that Shenandoah Studio was inserting a game about the 1941 German assault on Moscow in between the Battle of the Bulge and El Alamein games they had announced as their company-founding Kickstarter projects, I was somewhat concerned that the design problems that had complicated the development of El Alamein might also appear in Drive on Moscow. In the former project, the need to account for the long periods of inactivity in the desert that made the campaign drag out for five months forced some major (although quite clever) redesign choices which nevertheless had a cascade effect on development.* So why wouldn’t the shift from the Ardennes to the Arbat have similar problems?

If you’re looking for an answer to that question, you’d have to ask designer Ted Raicer. I’m not a six-time winner of the Charles S. Roberts Award** so I can only speculate that the huge burden on the system caused by balancing a game which effectively could stop or start each week for five months on end was more onerous than the one imposed by stretching the distances and adding significant weather effects. Still, the fact that the game is as polished as it feels right now is evidence of how good the Shenandoah Studios people are at what they do. While the game is still in development, and no release date has yet been set, it feels like something very close to being ready. I’ve been playing it for probably the past two months, and can share some of those experiences.

Drive on Moscow presents the battles known as Operation Typhoon, the doomed German offensive that started on the last day of September, got stuck in the October mud, and was rejuvenated by the November frost only to fall short in the cascading December snow. Unlike the German offensive in the Battle of the Bulge, which was a last gasp that had no chance of achieving anything, this is a last gasp that has the very real possibility of changing the war. The Soviets would likely not have surrendered just because Moscow was captured, but the disruption to the strategic situation (Moscow was essentially the rail hub for all of European Russia) would mean a very different balance of power when the calendar turned to 1942. The Germans had an overwhelming tactical advantage, but the problems of time and distance were ultimately insoluble. A good Typhoon game should make the German player feel nervous even with his rows of panzers fueled and ready to drive through Bryansk and Tula on the way to the Soviet capital. The Soviets should feel nervous that all that German steel will roll over them before they can stabilize the line. Neither side should be comfortable.

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Battle of the Bulge won a Charles S. Roberts Award for best computer game graphics, so it’s not surprising that Drive on Moscow looks good as well. As Shenandoah made sure to point out when it was announced, the map changes with the weather, which didn’t happen in Bulge. (Although I’m not sure how they would have drawn a map that was “overcast.”) The clear, mud, frost, and snow conditions are beautifully represented. The passage of time is a bit less clear, since turns are a variable number of days in length (three during clear and frost/snow, five during mud) and hours pass during impulses so it’s not too clear what day it actually is. But that seems a reasonable compromise to accommodate a calendar that won’t conform to a wargame designer’s wishes. What truly is beautifully represented is the historical situation, which is hard to tell from a bunch of map screenshots.

For those interested in military history, Typhoon evokes the disparity between the armor and infantry, the vast spaces of Russia, and a race against time. A passage from Col. Albert Seaton’s The Battle for Moscow encapsulates this well.

As German troops poured through the gaps there were frequent counter-attacks by T-34 and KV tanks which were particularly nerve-racking to the German infantry since the 37mm anti-tank gun had become, in their own words, little better than a museum piece. The German infantry corps, protecting the flanks of the panzer breakthrough, were marching hard in the wake of the tanks, great columns of men and horses cloaked with the all-pervading dust, each division stretching out as far as the eye could see, great winding snakes twenty miles long.
Enemy dead and dying lay in heaps where they had been caught in the machine-gun fire of German tanks, which by then were miles ahead. Abandoned equipment was everywhere, including American quarter-ton jeeps, never before seen by German troops. In two days the panzer forces advanced eighty miles, German casualties being very light. The fine weather held.

In the actual campaign, the German mobile forces raced out in front of the infantry, which became bogged down in reducing large encirclements. The panzer forces by this time were brittle instruments, and the infantry was sorely missed. Just these facts prevent a straight translation of the Bulge mechanics to Moscow, because in that game the panzer divisions were huge blunt instruments and the infantry was just support. But Ted Raicer met this challenge by adjusting the strength point mix so that the infantry corps have the heft, and the panzers’ advantage of speed is limited by their relative paucity of strength points. Furthermore, a simple inclusion of a two-space advance after combat by victorious armor naturally drives the panzers out front chasing objectives they won’t be able to hold alone. The game system ensures this with a combination of map design and rules changes. You can no longer block bridges from two spaces away (the frontages are too long for a unit to realistically stop a river crossing this way) but rivers do limit opposed crossings to single units until the frost freezes them and they cease to be obstacles. Your hold on territory feels precarious through deft manipulation of space shapes, as precarious salients arise in spaces that meet only at their vertices. In my experience with the Drive on Moscow, the beginning of the game feels very much like that passage from Col. Seaton. Which is a success.

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But a good Typhoon game asks its designer to answer a big question: does he include the massive Soviet counterattack which effectively ended the operation and sealed the fate of the German forces in Russia? If he doesn’t, then the Soviets are going to be limited to defending pretty much the whole game. If he does, it involves a significant shift in momentum which can be hard to capture in a game. Just like Shenandoah decided to include the Allied counteroffensive in Battle of the Bulge, the Drive on Moscow campaign extends through Marshal Zhukov’s counteroffensive of 6 December. But I suspect this sudden reversal will be less problematic for balance than it was in Bulge for one reason: the game can’t really end early.

One of the design problems that I’m not sure Battle of the Bulge really ever solved was the automatic victory levels which ended the game if the Axis scored above (or below) a certain level on any given day. It was bold and ambitious and perfectly suited for an iOS game, in which players expect fast results and waiting for the end of the scenario to assess victory might drag out a result that is already inevitable. Unfortunately, this victory threshold could be exploited by devious Axis players who played in such a way that the Allied counteroffensive, which was the centerpiece of the second half of the game, never got off the ground. I wrote a bit about it a while back. At that time I wondered how you could balance a fixed victory point level for each turn in the face of a multiple approaches to the game. Shenandoah’s answer: just take it out.

Drive on Moscow assesses victory by points only at the end of each scenario. This means players are no longer under pressure to achieve (or prevent) a certain number of points each turn or lose suddenly. You just have to play to the end of the game. This shouldn’t pose much problem in the scenarios, but will ensure that the 22-turn Moscow Campaign involves a significant commitment. (Remember that each “turn” is composed of multiple impulses, so playing a 22-turn game may mean exchanging moves 200 times.) The only exception to the “no sudden death by VP” decision is that if as the Germans you capture Moscow, you win. So with good Soviet play, in the campaign game you’ll likely be going the distance.

Drive on Moscow lets you game each phase of that campaign separately, with separate scenarios for Operation Typhoon (the first five turns, from the opening of the offensive to the arrival of the mud), At the Gates (the renewed German offensive with the period of frost just after the mud ends, from turns 12-17), and Zhukov’s Counterattack (from turns 19-22). Each of those morsels features one side or the other on the attack, although the Soviets do have a chance to punish the Germans in At the Gates with local counterattacks. Still, one player or the other will mostly be defending in any given scenario. I’m curious to see how interesting the different scenarios are individually after multiple playings, or whether the back-and-forth dynamic requires the context of the campaign to give it real drama.

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But Drive on Moscow is going to be judged to a large extent on balance, and this is probably where Shenandoah will again meet their biggest test. Given the need to have a game be competitive between two people, and the gulf between a skilled human and even a reasonable AI opponent in a computer game, it seems almost inevitable that eventually, players who commit to the game will conquer the AI and only be challenged by similarly skilled Gamecenter opponents. Shenandoah has considered various approaches to presenting competitive AI, but the bigger question is whether or not the game will be balanced between two humans.

The expectation that a historical wargame game will be balanced between two human players for dozens if not hundreds of complete playthroughs by a single person is a recent phenomenon and can probably be attributed to the emergence of the iPad as a strategy platform. I cannot think of a single serious historical wargame (board or computer) that I’ve played to completion even close to a hundred times.*** I’ve played a handful of games like Breakout: Normandy or Turning Point: Stalingrad a lot, but even then, the commitment involved and the time between playings means that there are probably only a few people who have really assimilated these games to the point of true fluency. But games like Bulge get analyzed over tens of thousands of individual playings, and after a weekend of two dozen playings, I was already making certain moves by reflex: Oh, you always cut the road at Longvilly if possible. Sure, hit the 9th Armored Combat Command B in Malmedy if the Allies are foolish enough to leave it there. Always defend Ouffet. With thousands of players honing these same skills over hundreds of games each, the flaws will show every time. Quickly.

I don’t know where the balance is going to shake out with Drive on Moscow. So far, the very handy rating tracker tells me I’ve played 242 turns, which coincidentally is the equivalent of exactly eleven full campaign games. That’s just against human opponents via Gamecenter. I’m sure I’ve played at least that much if not more against the AI. Because the game only assesses victory once, it would probably be fairly easy to adjust victory levels should the game appear unbalanced.

But judging balance is incredibly hard. Early on I saw players complaining that the German AI in Battle of the Bulge was unbeatable when it was clear to me that you could exploit its weaknesses very effectively if you just paid attention. I lose consistently to the best Bulge players without feeling that this makes the game unbalanced (as long as the “Axis Turtle” strategy isn’t used). Drive on Moscow has the same susceptibility to wacky dice, which is part and parcel of the system and in my mind just encourages storytelling and gives polite players easy cover for their opponents’ mistakes in forum discussions.

The question is whether the game offers interesting choices for both sides, is competitive, and feels true to the historical campaign without being straitjacketed by it. I feel that it does all those things, but I am biased by probably being too close to the game, and in any case, it’s not finished. To me, the presentation looks great and overall the feel is just as polished as Battle of the Bulge was, if not more so. Shenandoah has clearly learned to optimize their interfaces, and the interface in Bulge for the iPhone is probably a direct result of the experimentation done with Drive on Moscow. Victory point tuning and AI revisions continue. When the game is released (iPad only for now), hopefully before any meaningful snow falls here, we’ll see how it all turned out. And then you can start reading the strategy articles, because I promise you those.****

*How do I know this? I’m heavily involved in the El Alamein playtest. I’ve been less involved in the Drive on Moscow playtest, but still active.
**An award given to outstanding wargames in various categories. Battle of the Bulge (designed by John H. Butterfield) won two for 2012: Best 20th Century Era – Modern Wargame, and Best Computer Game Graphics.
***This excludes games with many individual scenarios like Advanced Squad Leader or Combat Mission, but I certainly haven’t played any single ASL or CM scenario close to a hundred times. Even The Guards Counterattack.
****Although I did also write the German part of the in-game Help section.
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