Weekly Little Big Planet: a bugs lesson

, | Games

Well that was unexpected. Another TOY STORY. This week’s community level. Should be sickeningly cute and childish, with annoying music. Nothing too taxing. Just enough to remind me why I love those movies so much and should steer clear of movie levels when playing this game.

Wrong. Another TOY STORY is challenging and gorgeous with a nifty sound design. Did I mention it was challenging? I can think of at least three spots where I thought I’d have to throw in the towel. I didn’t. I figured it out, and was pleasantly surprised. A movie-themed level that is smart and difficult. Not to mention evocative. Didn’t expect that.

I also didn’t expect to learn a lesson in gaming strategy from National Public Radio.

After the jump, the ants go marching in formation, hurrah hurrah

Giving NPR total credit for this lesson isn’t really fair. My friends who play Real Time Strategy games have been trying to teach it to me for years, both by beating me repeatedly in the games we play and by explicitly explaining the concept to me. I’ve just been too thick to really internalize it. Turns out what I needed was a good analogy. I got it listening to an interview show on NPR called Fresh Air. It came after playing a couple rounds of Command and Conquer: Generals and getting my ass handed to me, yet again. We’ll call it a minor eureka moment.

The particular show I was listening to featured an entomologist named Mark Moffett, who was there talking about his book Adventures Among Ants: A Global Safari with a Cast of Trillions. This guy seriously loves ants, and after listening to him talk I can understand why.

At one point in the discussion, the interviewer, Dave Davies, asked him about marauder ants. It was a fascinating discussion on its own, but as he talked I found my brain casting back to the last two rounds of C&C I’d just played at our weekly LAN party, Shoot Club.

Me and my partner won the first match handily, no thanks to me. As is often the case at Shoot Club, I was paired with a guy who was better at the game. The other team was similarly structured, for balance. Why we were playing Command & Conquer at this late date is rather mystifying to me. The guys had decided to reinstall the game the previous week on a whim while I was away on vacation. I guess somebody just got a bee in his bonnet to go back to it. The why didn’t matter, though, since I was happy to be playing a game I had actually played on my own for once. Generals is one of those rare games I not only went out and bought but also went to the next logical step of actually installing. There’s plenty of games sitting over on my shelf–I’m not looking at you, games, so you can stop with the accusatory stares–that are still in sealed boxes. Why do I allow this to go on for years on end? I honestly cannot tell you. It just is. In the same way that Mount Everest is and Alma Cogan isn’t.

The way the map was laid out in that first game had me located right next to the other team’s good player. We’ll call him Tom. My base was up north. My teammate’s base was East. Tom was West, and his partner was South.

It had been some time since I’d last played this game. I noodled with it at home for quite a bit until my video card fried, but that was years ago. Build order was slow to come back to me at first, but Generals is simple enough for a guy like me to spin up to fairly quickly, and in no time I had a tidy little force of Rangers and missile dudes, Paladins and Humvees. My two dozers were throwing up Patriot batteries like nobody’s business, so I was set for my usual round of turtling.

Thing was, my partner Charles was in the shit, and doing well in the shit. I could tell by the cursing coming from the room down the hall where Tom and Co. were garrisoned. “You okay?” I asked Charles.


What the hell, I thought. I drag-selected my entire force and headed them over toward Tom, figuring I might as well chew through some of his guys and take the supply depot he was currently holding since Charles was keeping him busy in the middle of the map. A bunch of Chinese soldiers was all he had over there. I had tanks.

I lost my entire force in short order.

Tom’s dudes chased me back to my base, but my Patriot Missiles repelled them. I set about rebuilding my army, thinking how much cooler turtling was than attacking. When my force was back up to snuff I turned off that thought and headed back into the fray. I felt bad about Charles having to do all the work. Once again, Tom chewed through my guys. I did a good amount of damage this time, since I had more tanks, but my best dudes were getting wasted before the entire force was even there to support them.

Formations. Crap. I’d forgotten that again. Which is where the entomologist comes in.

What they had up front of the Romans were these farmers, untrained, carrying their sticks and getting slaughtered…that’s what happens with the marauder ants.

Oh. Farmers first? Huh.

Now the bigger guys…can do the killing without any danger to themselves.

Entomologist Moffett referenced movies at this point, talking about how Mel Gibson charging into battle full of machismo might make for rousing cinema, but in reality he would be safely in the back, biding his time.

You don’t want to put your really expensive equipment where it can get hurt. It’s a rule of military warfare throughout history.

I realize for most of you this is truly a “no duh” moment. Of course you throw your little dudes into the battle first. No duh. My friends have tried to teach me this lesson, that you have to layer your guys in formation, you can’t just drag-select them and send them into battle. Order of operations matters. I would heed them for a time, but then go back to tossing in the whole force in the heat of battle. I was letting Tom’s least expensive units beat up on my most expensive units first, and then when my lesser dudes finally got to the battle his best units were left to mop them up as well. I didn’t even really get that this was what I was doing until I heard Mark Moffett talk about marauder ants in battle later that night on my way home. They send their little guys in first, after bussing them in on the backs of their big dudes (pictured), to overwhelm the enemy. Then the big guys engage. Or rather, in the case of ants, girls. Since females do all the work in the ant world. Including fighting.

We still won the game, though mainly because of Charles. I was helpful, to be sure. I harried Tom’s forces enough that he could not amass a concentrated force to beat back Charles. We gloated for a bit, were called jerks, got new beers, then headed in for round two.

That match was no contest and illustrated the entomologist’s other point about how marauder ants fight.

There are a couple ways you can organize an attack in the ant world. One is to send out scouts and figure out what’s going on in different directions. Then have the scout come all the way back. But that takes time…

This map’s configuration had us all at the four corners of the map, basically, with a river separating the two teams. I went about my normal build order, getting out a second dozer early and working on defenses and power and economy while cranking out a few soldiers. I was humming along nicely when Charles started cursing.

Back to Mark Moffett. This time I’m paraphrasing:

Now the marauder ants get around that by moving their swarm forward blindly. They depend upon shock and awe. So if they come upon some big prey, like a frog (or in the case of army ants, a cow), they overwhelm it. It depends on the immediate presence of a huge force.

I sent my usual group of soldiers and tanks up to help Charles out. As I was responding to a certain note of panic in his voice, I did this quickly, using my patented “everybody into the fray whenever you get there” tactic. What I found when my guys started to get there was the immediate presence of a huge force. In the first game, Tom had taken his time building, working toward more complex structures so that he could utilize China’s special hacking power or something. This never proved effective because we kept pestering him. This time he took over a repair structure on the map and just started churning out dudes and cheap tanks. When he had a couple million or so of those, he just rolled over Charles. My puny force didn’t make a dent, and before I could summon another group he turned his attention to me.

It was over in short order.

I realize I’m not teaching anybody any lessons in war history as it relates to games. We all know where to go to get an excellent slice of that. I’m just laying out how I learned a simple lesson. That formations matter, and overwhelming force is something I should consider for a rainy day. It was just cool to learn these lessons anew, and to finally feel them sinking in thanks to guy who loves ants.

Click here for the previous Weekly Little Big Planet.