ATARI AT WAR
The wild world of conflict simulation
It's no secret that the microcomputer has revolutionized the games people play. Game designers moved quickly from the prototypical Pong to the enormous selection of computer games available today, and as a result the TV screen has replaced many game boards. Most of the computer games that are currently available are arcade-style maze or shoot- em-up games, but an increasing number of "adventure" games are being introduced. I use this term to include science fiction, fantasy and conflict-simulation games (the polite term for war games). War games have been used for generations by armies to simulate impending battles and to help formulate strategies and tactics.
WHAT IS A WAR GAME?
The war gamer has several hundred board games from which to choose, and they cover almost every conceivable conflict, both real and hypothetical, from ancient times to the far future. These games consist of four main features: a map that represents the battle area, card-board counters or miniature figures that represent the opposing forces, dice and combat-results tables that are used to determine the outcome of battles, and a hefty book of rules. These games can be classified according to several schemes: the scale of combat, the historical period involved, or the type of combat simulated (naval, armored, air, etc. )
A war-game designer faces a continual struggle between the requirements of realism and playability. For example, a detailed board game of tactical air-to-air combat can involve many minutes of planning and execution by the players, even though a single game-turn might represent only a few seconds of real time. On the other hand, an Atari owner can take joystick in hand and play a real-time simulation of World War II fighter combat. The graphics and immediate response that a computer can provide offer a much better three-dimensional "feel" than is ever possible with a board game.
Air combat games for the Atari include Spitfire Ace, Wingman, and Mig Alley Ace (all MP). The latter two feature split screens in a two-player mode. The biplanes of World War I reappear in Blue Max (S), which features 3-D diagonal scrolling, Flying Ace (MG), and Eagles (SSI). And these games will soon be joined by Fighter Command (SSI), a very advanced reenactment of the Battle of Britain.
Similar features are included in games involving submarine combat, such as Sea Dragon (AI) and Submarine Commander (T). Sea Dragon scrolls through 24 sequential map screens to provide a vivid representation of undersea warfare. Submarine Commander allows you to evade depth charges and pursue enemy merchant ships.
Computerized combat games are more realistic than board games for other reasons as well. Combat units in most war games have a number of basic-strength values that represent capabilities for attack, defense, and overall morale. But board games usually don't account for smaller variations in the performance of a given unit under different sets of circumstances. In contrast, when you play The Battle of Shiloh (SSI) on your Atari, you can assign one of four different level of risk (for both attack and defense) to each of your units. This greatly broadens the range of potential outcomes in each combat action.
A computer is also an ideal tool for introducing the "fog of war" into a war game. This term refers to the element of uncertainty and randomness that is a constant aspect of real combat and that adds spice and realism to a simulation. In North Atlantic Convoy Raider (MG) and Midway Campaign (MG), the computer controls enemy naval units which you must seek out and destroy while avoiding your own destruction. The computer limits the amount of information that you're able to obtain about its moves. This provides a high level of suspense, as well as an element of variation from game to game. In contrast, the randomizing techniques used in board games are relatively primitive: You roll dice to determine search results, invert units on the game board to mask their identities (but not their presence) from your opponent, and sometimes enlist a third person to serve as a referee while you and your antagonist sit in separate rooms.
A computer war-game designer must also take into account the concept of play balance; in other words, each player must have a chance to win the game, or it will soon lose its appeal. As Chris Crawford (the guru of game design at Atari) points out, the illusion of winnability must be present.
The designers of computer war games have solved this problem by incorporating randomizing techniques into the games and by providing for complex performance capabilities on the part of tactical units. These elements make for good balance in computer-war simulations. In the world of computer war games, the results at Waterloo or Gettysburg are not inevitable; there is still hope for the underdog. In addition, the different levels of difficulty offered by such games allow players of different abilities to introduce handicaps, and thus to maintain play balance.
THE PRO'S AND CONS OF THE COMPUTER
Most board games use a combat-results table (CRT) to resolve the vagaries of combat. The CRT shows the probabilities of various outcomes when a certain attack strength is matched against a particular defense under given conditions. A roll of the dice then selects one of these possible results. But a computer can provide a much more detailed tabulation of combat results than is possible with the tables used in board games.
In addition, the computational speed of the computer eliminates a great deal of the tedium from the unfolding of a war game. In Eastern Front 1941 (APX), the Atari determines the results of many individual battles in a matter of seconds. Doing the same calculations by hand could easily involve thirty minutes of examining unit strengths, cross-referencing numbers in tables, and rolling dice. Even with the aid of the computer, war games tend to take much longer to play than either the designers or the players expected. However, use of the computer allows players to store their game and take a temporary leave of absence from the front.
In large board games, it often becomes tedious and time-consuming to monitor the status of your combat units. But many of the computer games mentioned here can instantly provide you with the tables that indicate the current status of your forces. The computer also eliminates the shuffling of paper that often plagues board games. In addition, the computer can monitor the supply status of each unit, as in games such as Tigers in the Snow (SSI). This adds dramatically to the realism and complexity of the simulation with virtually no sacrifice in playability.
One area in which board games are still far superior to computer war games is the map. Even the most outstanding applications of Atari graphics are hardpressed to match the detailed and often beautiful maps used in many board games. Most of the maps used in board games feature a hexagonal grid that is superimposed upon the terrain to regulate movement and combat. Although, in principle, the computer can free you from such arbitrary restrictions, in fact such freedom is not yet found in many games. Even the sophisticated Eastern Front1941 reverts to a mere modification of the primitive (by board game standards) use of squares to regulate the positioning of units. Unfortunately, there is only so much detail that can be placed into 48K of memory.
With a board game, it is possible to see all portions of a map (even a large map) at once, and to easily assess the overall situation. This is not possible with the small display area and the resolution offered by a TV screen. One way that game designers alleviate this problem is to create maps that can be scrolled, so that the TV screen is simply a window into a much larger playing area. Superb examples of map scrolling are found in Eastern Front 1941 and Legionnaire (MG), which matches ten of Caesar's fearsome legions against a computer-controlled army of barbarians.
Another solution is to provide a map and counters along with the computer game, as is done in Tanktics (MG) and Dnieper River Line (MG), two armored-combat games set in World Mar II.
Computer graphics simply cannot compete with paper and artwork when it comes to stationary displays. On the other hand, computer game maps can be altered simply by switching to a new character set of map symbols. In this way, Eastern Front 1941 shows the effects of the changing seasons with vivid visual displays that cannot be duplicated by the hardcopy maps of board games.
PICK A WAR, ANY WAR Certain subjects are perennial favorites with war gamers, and the selection of games for the Atari reflects that fact. The Russian front in World War II, for example, holds a particular fascination, and games for the Atari are available on several levels: the strategic (Eastern Front 1941), the operational (Dnieper River Line), and the tactical (Tanktics). Another1941-Russian-front simulation, Panzers East (MG), is due to be released soon.
Armored combat is always popular, as is witnessed by Tanktics, the upcoming tactical tank-to-tank World War II game T.A.C. (MG), and Armor Assult (E), which covers hypothetical tank combat in the near future. Close Assalt (MG) simulates infantry combat in World War II on the tactical level. Another game on this subject, Computer Ambush (SSI), is scheduled for release soon. In this tactical-level game, you'll be able to equip soldiers with weapons and combat charcteristics of your own choosing.
A number of other significant World War II battles have captured the interest of computer gamers. These include the North African encounters of Rommel and Montgomery (Knights of the Dessert-SSI), the Battle of the Bulge (Tigers in the Snow), and the gigantic D-Day invasion (Battle for Normandy-SSI).
Dozens of board games can be found on the American Civil War, but only the Battle of Shiloh appears to have been covered so far for the Atari. Both The Battle of Shiloh and Shiloh 1862 (DY) deal with this critical battle in Tennessee. In Shiloh 1862, you direct Union soldiers and artillery against Confederate forces under General Atari.
An assortment of other wars from mankind's past and future can be refought or forshadowed on your Atari Legionnaire, for example, brings the campaigns of Caesar to your home computer. The Napoleonic wars are always among the offerings in this genre are Paris in Danger (MG), Leipzig 1813 (DY) and Waterloo 1815 (DY). The upcoming Broadsides (SSI) is a game of naval combat from the Age of Sail; it features both arcade-style action and authentic simulations that allow you to make the kind of decisions that real sea captains once made. The Vietnam War is reenacted in V.C. (MG). You command air cavalry and field artillery units in a tactical simulation of the controversial war that so intimately engaged friend and foe, soldier and civilian.
In addition to simulations of real wars, there are always hypothetical scenarios to consider, as if there hasn't been enough real conflict in human history to simulate. You're able to anticipate the outcome of a collision of the super-powers in Germany 1985 (SSI). Similarly, NATO Commander (MP) is a real-time strategic simulation of a hypothetical Warsaw pact invasion of Western Europe.
I mentioned earlier that the category of adventure games also includes science fiction and fantasy games. Several near-future hypothetical scenarios, such as the strategic-level game Nukewar (MG), bridge the gap between the recreation of past conflicts and the realm of pure conjecture.
As you can see, adapting detailed conflict-simulation games to a microcomputer is not easy. Many problems involving realism and playability must be resolved. Even so, a widening variety of these games is available for the Atari. The computer can greatly increase ease of play in such games by handling monotonous details, but even Atari graphics pale in comparison with those of a well-executed board game. Real-time simulations and 3-D games, especially those involving air and sea combat, are often much more fun on the computer, though. In fact, I think I'll go shot down some Zeroes now! Where's my flack jacket?
Karl E. Wiegers, Ph.D., is a research chemist for Eastman Kodak and an Atari hobbyist. He writes for a number of computer publications.