Never underestimate the effectiveness of direct mail marketing. A few days ago, I got an email from a site called Wargame Downloads. The name kind of gives it away. It’s a site that has a bunch of print-and-play games, mostly about historical subjects but not without the occasional elf or sportsman. I wrote about it a few months ago after buying a couple neat solitaire games. For a few bucks each, how can you lose? One of the games not mentioned in that article is called Baptism at Bardia. It comes in standard print-and-play format: color printer and glue stick required. But then I got the email: Baptism at Bardia has been released for PC! Straight to the site I went. It cost $12. If the Wargame Downloads guys can figure out a way to make each one of their emails turn into twelve bucks, they can probably afford to start printing and selling some of those wargames themselves.
After the jump, what twelve bucks buys these days
Baptism at Bardia sounds like a Christian text adventure game, but it’s actually about the attack on the Italian fortress at Bardia in Libya during Operation Compass in early 1941. It’s published by an outfit called Schutze Games, which is in Australia and advertises “good games at great prices.” But while the design is by Peter Schutze (see above), the programming is by one Thomas A. Stevenson of war-game-programming.com in Columbus, Georgia. Turns out I have seen some of Mr. Stevenson’s work before: many years ago, I ran across a version of his Malaya game. Unfortunately it didn’t have any AI, so I didn’t play it. But Bardia does, because it’s a solitaire game. Which should make all the difference.
I’ve commented before, both in that Flash of Steel piece and elsewhere, that good solitaire design can effectively stand in for good AI, because you’re playing a system that should be calibrated to beat you unless you make good decisions and get some good luck. When I played the physical version of Baptism at Bardia, I noticed that the designer had cheated a bit by choosing a situation in which one side doesn’t do much. The Italians just sit inside their fortress, and because of the poor Italian command and control, they are forced to fight a series of local battles rather than an overall, coordinated defense of the fortress. So by having AI that plays incompetently, you’re just being historically accurate.
But if you’re going to choose a dumb opponent, you shouldn’t also choose a static one. The Italians at Bardia sat behind their fortifications and bombarded the Australians (the battle was the first combat for Australian troops in the Second World War) while defending their local terrain. The obstacles the Australians overcame were partly physical (the fort, wire, and entrenchments) and partly professional (in the form of coordination and staff work). It’s hard to make this kind of one-sided problem dramatic, and the sense you get is that you’re trying to knock down a bunch of Italian-shaped bowling pins. Which is fine, if you like bowling.
It’s really a math puzzle with a non-rigorous solution and a generous margin for error. Move your guys here, make sure you use your artillery in discrete packets that fit the bombardment table, and maximize the benefits of your engineers to negate fort and wire bonuses. The physical version obfuscated this a bit by having a lot to do without having a lot to actually do, and the gameplay-by-repetitive-dexterity test at least made it seem like you got a lot for your money. If nothing else, you had to move a lot of counters.
One mechanic I really liked in the physical game was the way Bardia avoided the need to count strength losses for each unit: when the Italians scored hits, they just advanced a hit counter (tracked for each separate Australian brigade) and every time it hit ten, you removed one counter from that brigade. So elegant, and evidence that designer Peter Schutze was aware that you don’t want to cut out a bunch of strength point counters, and that you want even less to have one sitting on top of each unit.
The PC version tries to take advantage of the fact that it isn’t restricted by counters and markers to keep track of each unit’s individual strength, so it goes ahead and does just that. Each unit has a certain number of strength points (“steps”) and when you take casualties they are subtracted directly from the affected unit. Ironically, this makes it feel more generic, not less, because with so many units on the map, the steps get lost and homogenized into irrelevance. The act of removing pieces one by one in the physical game gave you a tangible sense of racing the clock, since each loss cost you victory points. Now, it just goes into that great homogenizer “under the hood.” Sure, you get a reminder at the end of each turn, but the physical game had a reminder with every glance to the side of the table, making the die rolls perceptually matter in a way they probably statistically didn’t, because there was that counter, ticking to ten, and that stack of destroyed units. Sometimes you don’t want to hide things under the hood, even if the computer lets you.
There are some other things that could be improved in Baptism at Bardia. Like the fact that you can only use the fully zoomed-out view of the map to reposition your view, and are stuck for the whole game looking at the battle through a keyhole. Or that you have to end the AI’s phases for it, even though it knows and you know that it is done moving, because it told you already. In the end, it doesn’t matter to me now: I’m not compelled to try and win an overwhelming victory, because after some general clicking I won a marginal one, and that seems good enough for me.
But the fact that I’m not going to play a bunch of games of Baptism at Bardia doesn’t bother me, because there is something about the experience of moving some squares around with numbers on them on a map of history that is almost always satisfying the first time around. Wargames are just toy soldiers for adults, and the particular situation might not matter as much as the fact that you played for a while on a little diorama made of integers. Finding a game like Bardia is like discovering your hobby’s own coelacanth: an antediluvian example of what was once a logical adaptation for survival, preserved despite all odds in the slow currents of the Internet.
And as if that wasn’t enough for me, Bardia came with a secret bonus, because at the end of the game a giant splash advertisement popped up, letting me know that I was missing a game called First Strike ’62: a boardgame where the Cuban Missile Crisis goes hot! Which led me to the rest of Schutze Games catalog. Games like Struggle for New France, Czechoslovakia Defiant, and Somalia: Interventions are all things I’m probably going to pick up, because I can’t not.
I love discovering things like this. If you dig through Schutze Games’ website, under “Work in Progress” you’ll find something called ‘Nam 65-75. Apparently the “second round of playtesting” started earlier this month. I’m dying to know how that’s going.
Lastly, a click on the credits led me to Thomas A. Stevenson’s home page. Malaya is still there in the downloads section, as well as a demo for Bardia if you want to try it yourself. Plus some other stuff. But the big news is that Mr. Stevenson is contracted to produce a computer version of Decision Games’ D-Day at Omaha Beach, a fantastic solitaire game by master designer John H. Butterfield, who also designed Battle of the Bulge for the iPad. And truly shocking news: there is work being done on a PC version of Empires of the Middle Ages, the 1980 SPI classic that could truly be called the precursor to Europa Universalis. Sometimes it pays to go on these archeological digs. You never know what you’ll find. For this kind of far-reaching expedition, $12 was a bargain.
Baptism at Bardia
Baptism at Bardia is designed as a solitaire game of the 3rd of January 1940 attack by the 6th Australian division on the Italian garrison of Bardia as part of General Wavell's Operation Compass. The attack was the Australian army's first division level operation in WW2 North Africa. The player takes on the role of Australian Major General Mackay while the game's system of priorities guides the player in controlling the individual Italian units under General Bergonzoli's command in a manner designed to appropriately reflect the locally focused nature of the Italian defense. This game has nothing to do with the movie Gallipoli.