Elite: Dangerous Noob Thoughts

Immersion and strategic challenge are probably the two things that get me into a video game. Some games provide one or the other; not many provide both. Right now Elite: Dangerous is pushing both pedals clear to the floor.

Steam says I’ve played for 72 hours but that’s not actually true; Steam’s logging the time based on how long the launcher has been open. But I’m probably pushing 30 or 40 and am enjoying it enough that I’ll almost certainly pick up the “season pass” expansion.

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Elite: Dangerous is in some sense the ultimate sandbox. It has all the hallmarks of sandbox gaming, in that it is almost entirely undirected. You set your own goals and do what you want within the confines of its universe. But the key is that its universe is so unconfining — the entirety of the Milky Way galaxy, a hundred billion stars or more, all out there waiting to be explored. No other game has anything close to this kind of scope. And it’s visually pretty stunning.

To be sure, there are holes in it. Balance is an ongoing problem as it is in any game of this kind. The multiplayer tools are rudimentary; planetary landing and other features are locked behind the Horizons paywall. Right now you don’t even have an avatar (that’s coming soon, though.) There’s a cash shop, but importantly it resides outside the game and offers only ship cosmetics, paint jobs, cockpit decorations and the like. The development cycle is slow but steady.

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Elite: Dangerous offers several modes of play, including the full-on MMO Open, solo and a closed group mode. The notion that this is an ideal arrangement is growing on me; if you’re getting griefed you can just laugh it off and hop over to solo for a while. If you want to run with people of like persuasion you can hop into one of the dedicated private groups. Regardless, everything is happening in the same universe.

In terms of the mechanics that the player interacts with immediately, it’s not as deep as EVE Online… but it adds the huge additional dimension of actually flying your ship instead of picking selections from a menu. In EVE you are the captain, giving orders; in ED you are a pilot. Too, a massive background simulation is running behind ED that the players can interact with and affect; in EVE one never really has the sense that there’s anybody but players impacting the universe.

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Elite: Dangerous is one of the most immersive things I’ve played. There’s a joy in warming up your HOTAS and actually having to take off and land your ship, or in navigating to a new destination in deep space, or in hopping to a new system and finding something you didn’t expect.

The learning curve is pretty high, with the additional complication that some of the learning is in the actual flying of your ship. In that sense it is somewhat twitch-based, but not to a degree that it bothers me. And I’m pretty far from the best pilot in the galaxy.

Wargaming in 2017

I can’t say that I accomplished everything I wanted to in 2016, as a wargamer. But there was plenty of forward progress: I got in a little bit of wargaming at Origins, went to a week-long wargaming-centered event, and managed to get some play in at the local club. And my collection grew, mostly in titles I was looking for, but a little bit of chaff arrived as well. Perhaps most importantly, I made a number of wargaming contacts, both locally and online, and while I’ve already done some gaming with a couple of them, I think I’m in even better shape moving onward into the future.

Now it’s time to look into how I want to move forward in 2017.

Personal Gaming Space

One priority that’s perhaps the most pressing is to get my personal gaming space at home set up and organized. Right now that room is just a cluttered and disorganized mess. When complete it will be a small but adequate space for one or two-map games to get and stay set up. This is such a big deal because it will let me host games at home, but it’ll also enable bigger and better videos.

Ardwulf’s Lair on YouTube

And speaking of which, I have plans for the YouTube channel. Which I hope will blossom into reality over the course of 2017. I’m going to be cagey about it for now, but in brief I want to do more and better videos. Absolutely first on the list is finishing the damned Paths of Glory series so I can move on to something else.

Games to Learn

One motivation for doing videos is teaching — for the viewer, obviously, but also for me. Making a How to Wargame series is an instructional process on both sides; at the end hopefully both of us pretty much know how to play the game. In the case of Paths of Glory, I rather outpaced the videos, which I think is one issue that’s kept me from finishing. (There were also technical problems, however.)

As a learner of wargames I want to focus fairly narrowly in 2017; I want to continue to learn the rules of GOSS and the Great Campaigns of the American Civil War series, and get started digging into Great Battles of History. I’d also like to keep going with OCS and the GMT East Front Series. All told this ought to keep me more than busy even with just the material I have in my wargame library already.

Acquisitions

Of course, I plan to grow that wargame library in 2017. I’m trying to be very, very selective… but even so there’s some whole new games that will be landing this year in addition to the existing series that I’m looking to fill out. At this point I am probably most excited about the standalone Holland ’44 and the GCotACW title Atlanta is Ours. I also have the reprint of Unconditional Surrender preordered.

To Be Played

All this is moot unless I get games to the table, of course. And thankfully I have some managable stuff that I should be able to play versus live opponents. But I also have some bigger things that I intend to tackle solitaire, including but not limited to three or four dedicated solitaire titles.

Events

Winterfest 2017 is just weeks away… but due to time and money constraints, I may or may not actually go. Even so, I will definitely attend Origins, where I will again try to get in as much wargaming as I can. And I’m very excited about the War Room at Buckeye Game Fest, now that I have one of those under my belt and can plan something meaty.

A Closer Look at Atlantic Wall

I want a big Normandy game. Normandy ’44 is a tremendously good game but I would also like to explore the campaign at a lower resolution than the Simonitch title allows. There are many options but I’ve turned up surprisingly few below division level. A few games cover the whole campaign at lower than battalion level, but those are incomplete or only cover the first few days after the landings. Examples include The Greatest Day or the SCS Day of Days. The former, when/if completed, will likely be a bit too much even for me.

The biggest are Decision’s Atlantic Wall and GMT’s The Battle for Normandy. The latter is out of print and increasingly hard to get; the going rate for both games is in the $150-200 range, so it’s a big buy that I want to firmly nail down before pulling any triggers. Thankfully there’s time, since it will take a while to save up that much bread. (Target: January)

In favor of Battle for Normandy, it’s fairly streamlined for such a big game and has a good, well-scaled selection of scenarios that range from Omaha Beach and its immediate surroundings clear up to a big, big campaign game lasting through August 11. That’s 201 game turns if you’re keeping track. It’s nearly universally regarded as a very good game.

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On the other hand you have Alantic Wall. Not especially similar to the 1978 SPI title of the same name, it is part of GOSS (the Grand Operational Simulation Series) and it lives up to that ominous acronym. It’s a bit larger than TBfN in every way, has nearly twice as many counters and has rules an order of magnitude more complex. AW’s 234-turn campaign game is a much more serious attempt to simulate the whole story of the fighting in Normandy. Both games are nominally battalion level, AW has a lot more companies available and is much more marker-heavy.

It also has a reputation for being unapproachable. On top of being quite complex, the original rulebook is a big mess even aside from having no index. The new version, released last month, still lacks an index but has a massive, detailed table of contents and is substantially reorganized. A totally reorganized playbook (“Scenario Rules” in GOSS-speak)is also now available which also offers a number of significant clarifications and corrections and a near-complete reorganization.

To my half-informed eye the new manuals seem considerably clearer than the original did. It’s still a complicated game but it looks less unapproachable now.

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Atlantic Wall lacks, however, the range in scenarios that TBfN has. The nominal “learning scenario” is huge by that standard, takes quite a long time just to set up and omits relatively few of the full game’s features and mechanics. As a scenario it covers an interesting situation and looks good, but as a teaching exercise it looks very poorly thought out.

This highlights a significant issue in an otherwise excellent Vassal module. Namely that it only includes the campaign. If you want to set up a scenario, you currently have to do it manually, which is a titanic pain in the dumper. Hopefully the upcoming version 2.54 of the module will fix this.

The battle for Normandy’s Vassal module has a similar problem of being incomplete. In this case, though, it lacks the game’s player aid card, which includes the CRT, TEC and other necessary tables. Neither do the downloads available from GMT and Consimworld. This makes it impossible to explore the game beyond a certain point using Vassal in hopes of making a decision on it — and that point is pretty much right after the airborne assault on the morning before the D-Day landings.

Atlantic Wall’s Vassal module is complete except for the scenario setups, however, and with the new rules I feel capable of exploring the game. So between the two games the edge currently goes to Atlantic Wall in this respect.

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Additionally, AW’s Airborne and Amphibious Assault modules are basically 90%+ complete games in themselves. I’d call them mingames, but there’s not much mini about the beach landings; each is played out on its own map with its own set of counters and rules. And this is all part of the campaign setup. While these won’t teach me that much about how the main game functions, they’ll let me explore the scale in detail and get a sense of the basic GOSS way of doing things.

I also give the edge to Atlantic Wall for the Airborne landings rules themselves. I think they produce more organic results, and more interesting ones to boot. There’s more to them and the whole landing sequence takes longer, but that’s not unexpected. They are also clearer in at least a couple of places than the Airborne rules from TBfN; I had a hell of a time trying to figure out how artillery units behave during the airdrop segment combat, while in AW I found it in about two minutes.

So right now, unless I am still unable to figure the game out using the new rules, Advantage: Atlantic Wall. That decision could change, but I’ll keep you posted on the whens and whys.

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Blathering About Wargaming: A Correction

Since some of my YouTube viewers expressed interest in seeing stream-of-consciousness content despite my stated plan to lean the channel toward structured, scripted video, I did a video called Wargame Blather which is just me talking off the cuff about wargaming.

If response is good this may become a recurring but irregular feature.

The topic at hand this time around was wargaming the Normandy campaign of June 1944, with an emphasis on the operational level and looking at a number of games in that neighborhood, in particular Decision’s Atlantic Wall.

In the course of the video I misrepresented the soloability of Atlantic Wall’s Airborne Landing sequence. What I said is that there’s very little for the German player to do in this sequence. Which is true but not as clear-cut as I made it sound. While the German player more limited to deciding on retreat direction during the landings themselves, and while there are a number of limitations on how he can react during the movement and combat segments of the Airborne sequence, there are still plenty of decisions to make.

So I wanted to clarify that, which I didn’t feel I could do in an annotation. The next post will expand my thoughts on Atlantic Wall and how it seems to compare with GMT’s The Battle for Normandy.

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New and Upcoming

As I continue to work on the directions I want to go for the rest of 2016 and into 2017, I have the long-awaited, much-demanded new episode of How to Wargame out today. The response so far has been very enthusiastic.

I’m still gearing up for an announcement video and hope to have part one of that posted next week. Meanwhile I’ll give you a teaser image below. The next playthrough series and the next game in the How to Wargame series have both been decided upon.

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The next How to Wargame video will be a simpler system than Paths of Glory. After that I plan to tackle something more difficult, perhaps very difficult. But that’s not set yet, and for the moment I will say that it is not ASL.

Stay tuned.

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The End of the Beginning

Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning. — Winston Churchill

I’ve been pouring a lot of work into the Ardwulf’s Lair YouTube channel over the past few weeks. Only a tiny amount of which has been seen already. I am on the cusp of making a major announcement b ut there’s video I want to get out the door first.

The timing depends on when the next episode of How to Wargame is finished. It should go live next week… but possibly late next week. Approximately one week after that I will have a video announcement followed by a string of teaser images for the things I’ve been working on — and which will keep me busy not only for the rest of 2016 but well into next year.

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So I’ll leave you with that, for now. Stay tuned.

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Unconditional Surrender: Exploration and Impressions

I am currently working my way through an Exploration series of videos on Unconditional Surrender from GMT Games and designer Salvatore Vasta. The first episode in embedded below; the second will be out tomorrow. My impressions are below.

Unconditional Surrender is a strategic-level game about World War II in Europe. While both the rulebook and playbook are fairly hefty and there are some fussy rules here and there, it’s really not very complicated for a game of its scope. I was able to get the hang of all the basics by watching a few videos (and there’s a ton of video on it,) and the finer points didn’t cost me too much time looking up on the spot.

There are a couple of things about this game that some folks have been turned off by. Most obviously it uses an unusual map projection which looks funny to hairy old wargamers who have seen a lot of strategic maps of Europe. But the equal-area projection that it uses is actually very smart; it means that hexes toward the north of the play area are much less distorted in size than they would be on a more conventional map. This allows, for example, for all of Scandinavia to fit on the table, while eliminating silliness like Soviet units roaming around in the vast expanses of northern Finland.

The other striking thing that’s obvious at a glance is the counters — they have no strength factors on them. Instead, differences in combat ability are represented by a number of die roll modifiers. One might feel that the game was missing some detail without combat factors, but in practice everything you;d want represented ta this level is worked in, and it all works really well at the table.

One of the game’s features is that all combat — ground, air, naval and strategic warfare — uses the same combat table. The modifiers and interpretations of the results are different, but everything works the same way, removing, right off the top, a substantial amount of rules overhead, while missing none of the detail or flavor that you’d want.

This elegance carries forward throughout the design. Production is handled very cleanly, for example, yet offers more strategic choices than a simple reinforcement schedule. The events of the game effect this is a realistic way. When Germany conquers Poland, for example, it gets the Polish Corridor and a potential new unit in the pool — but it doesn’t just get all of Poland’s factories for its own use. The same type of arrangement holds for the USSR and the Baltic States.

Diplomacy runs on a simple chit-pull-plus-conditions system that gives real choices but produces plausible results. The result is a game that flows along historically plausible lines but doesn’t feel scripted to always produce historical results. It’s not guaranteed that Italy will end up as an Axis country, for example, or the Yugoslavia will join the Allies — but despite wargame tradition and conventional wisdom, those outcomes were not preordained historically, either.

I’m exploring Unconditional Surrender solitaire, but it would work great with two or three players. I judge that it is not a true three-faction game, but that’s okay. And there are guidelines for playing with four, where the Axis gets split into west and east fronts controlled by separate players. A variety of scenarios are presented, including several learning games to ease oneself in.

This isn’t a review — I haven’t played enough of Unconditional Surrender to write a credible one. I don’t know if it will become a ‘classic” — I’m not an expert on the classics, and I’m reluctant to assign that label to a game this young. But Unconditional Surrender seems to me to be very well-designed and produced, and I can see it getting a great deal of play.

The good design also extends to the components; the map by Vasta and stalwart Mark Simonitch looks great, the counters are the usual GMT quality (but on the somewhat lighter white-core stock) and there’s a stack of very well-thought-out play aids. But to me the Rulebook and Playbook are the best part: they are well-organized and crystal clear except in a couple of places, and better yet, there’s an index, and one of the best indices I’ve seen out of GMT at that. They are also stuffed with detailed examples, advice, designer commentary and the like.

Unconditional Surrender is currently out of print and fetching big bucks if you buy it from speculators, but it’s up for reprint on the P500 and should make it back to store shelves early next year. If you’re in the market for a clean-playing (if not necessarily quick) strategic World War II game, check it out. I can already tell you that I would rather play this than World in Flames or any of Third Reich’s various spin-offs and descendants.