Just a little side project…

To conclude this week on wargames, I would like to unveil a project that has consumed my spare time for the past seven years. It does not involve mobile, but there are parallels both to the mobile app marketing side and it includes many of the same kind of design decisions that go into all kinds of different games regardless of platform. I have no financial stake in this project, it has been a “labor of love”.

The project makes use of Norm Koger’s “The Operational Art of War”, (TOAW) formerly produced by Talonsoft, now available through Matrix Games with continued development by Ralph Trickey. TOAW is a wargame platform driven in large part by end-user created content (scenarios). TOAW was released in 1998 and retains a core of dedicated users. It has received numerous improvements and continues to be developed. My project has not been published yet pending further adjustment so the TOAW platform. However, it is effectively complete.

Entitled “Into Darkness: Europe 1939-1945″ – it uses this map at a 15 kilometer per hex scale. There is more to the map, it’s been cropped to show the main operational areas. It was designed from scratch, one hex at a time. The red box highlights Sicily which is shown in greater detail on the right, below. Total operational area spans over 400 x 400 hexes – 160,000 hexes where “World in Flames” spans 300 x 300, or 90,000 hexes. Printed, the map would be over 12 square feet.

bigmap2 Sicily

The game includes approximately 3,000 Axis and nearly 5,000 Allied units from all of the countries that participated in World War II’s European Theater. Units are predominantly division level, but also includes corps level units of the Soviet Union, brigades, regiments, air groups, naval squadrons, merchant convoys, and the like. All units include a composite of their historical “tables of organization and equipment” (TO&E’s) down to the individual squad, vehicle and heavy weapon with historical production rates of each.

It is worth pointing out that ALL of this information was acquired through sources available on the Internet.

UnitDetailThis is of special interest in consideration that virtually all of the wargames up through the late 1990’s tended to represent units in a very abstract fashion. An infantry division might be represented as a simple “3-3″ applying to a movement, attack and defense strength of “3”. In those games, an infantry division was either at full strength or it was destroyed. In this game, the detail is greater by two orders of magnitude (literally) – as a unit will take casualties and receive replacements on a line item basis.

The last major component to designing this game or scenario, involved defining “events” – declarations of war, when countries surrender, exceptional weather conditions, effects of strategic warfare, etc. Originally, only 500 instructions could be defined. This was increased to 1,000 and now indications are that up to 10,000 instructions can be defined. About 3,500 lines have been used in this project. The instructions do not involve a programming language per se, but a detailed set of what equates to IF/THEN statements.

The Target Audience? This is the kind of game that only appeals to hardcore wargamers, some historians and academics. It plays out over 300 Turns — where each Turn is likely to average a full 90 minutes. The full game is expected to involve about 500 HOURS of play – likely over about 2 years for the average player through play by email.

This is not the largest wargame, but it should easily find its place in the Top 5 ever produced. Another team of developers is working on a project spanning the Eastern Front of World War II on a Regimental Scale.

The main factor though, is that I didn’t design this game with the intention of commercially distributing it, so much as I wanted to make the game “I always wanted to play” – and that other hardcore wargamers have expressed an interest in.

The Original Intention was to include the entirety of World War II, to include Burma, China and the Pacific Theaters. It became clear, however, that would involve an excessive investment of time and resources. As it stands, this project is the culmination of about 4,000 hours of research, development and testing. That can be pursued as an expansion at a later date.

Design Note: This is a consideration that many developers are likely to run into at some point. Your idea for a project may be overly ambitious – you might want to present everything all at once, but is that necessarily wise? What if, when some popular MMO’s came out they released everything at once? Well, in the case of World of Warcraft, as just one example, that would have precluded sales on several expansions — the original level cap was at 40, then went to 60, 70, 80, 85 and 90. I stopped tracking WOW after 90.

Similar considerations apply in all areas of app development, business development and even funding. Aim to do what you know you can achieve – and gradually build on it.

What makes it unique? Sheer size, detail, complexity coupled with ease of play, with a sandbox component allowing for about 40 historical variations.

There are numerous games which model World War II in Europe at larger scales — Corps or Army level and 25, 50 or 100 kilometers per hex. Many games tend to focus on one theater of operations – the Eastern Front, the Western Front, the Mediterranean. The level of complexity becomes far greater when “everything” is represented.

Making Complex Things Simple. This is the main task of a designer. Before the computer, players had rule sets and they had to calculate everything in the game according to those rules. That can take huge amounts of time. Figure an “encounter” in Diablo might take seconds to resolve – the same battle using pen and paper play could take hours.

Most players don’t want to spend time on tutorials or instructions. If you don’t believe, watch the Help Chat Channel on any MMO out there. But the same extends to other types of games. People want to pick up a game and intuitively understand what they need to do to play – learning details as they go.

Simplify, simplify and simplify some more. If you can keep the vast majority of the game play easy for the player, they won’t mind one or two components that are somewhat more complex. This is also important for playtesting. If you have lots of situations that require multivariate testing, your test time increases dramatically. Sticking to A or B, and sometimes C, is a lot easier to test.

End User Generated Content. I’ve noted on several occasions that there is a growing trend by game developers to want to actively tap into the unbound design potential of their end users — i.e. customers. I know of numerous people who design simply because they enjoy it, but there are limitations to that. Some excellent designers stopped designing because they were provided no incentive to do so.

If I had applied the 4,000 hours I’ve spent on this project on anything else, I could buy a house. I enjoy the game THAT MUCH. While that’s what I am willing to do “for free”, I can’t imagine committing another 2,000 hours expanding the project for a simple “fuzzy-feel-good feeling”.

If you go the route of accepting end-user content, provide some incentives. A little bit goes a long way.

There is more to design than just being able to monetize it. Getting published is an achievement unto itself. It is not always possible to monetize everything, but that does not preclude you from using it as a “foot in the door” for other projects; use it as the basis for networking; or as a “loss leader” for something similar that you do intend to market.

What I have to say about this project is that it has been hugely educational. It spawned lots of very interesting and bizarre questions.

  • Why was Baku the primary objective of the Axis in Case Blue? How much oil was there? Could Germany have made use of it if they got there? — What octane levels were used to fuel WWII vehicles? What was the drill depth for reaching oil? How difficult is it to refine Oil?
  • How many ships were sunk by u-boats? How much could one ship carry? How many ships were there? How long did it take them to transit from North America to Europe? What protection did they have? etc.
  • Russia move a lot of their factories from Western Russia to the Urals — so how many freight cars does it take to move a factory? How many cars did they have? If a factory was lost, what was the impact? How much did movement of a factory impact production?

That’s the short list — and I have to reiterate again that ALL of this information is available online. The amount of detail available for just about anything is enough to formulate the basis for “simple equations” that you can model fairly easily.

Perfectionism. A lot of projects are started but never get finished because of the tendency of some developers to be perfectionists. My game is not perfect, but it is finished. I would like for it to be perfect, but that would require a lifetime. The whole intention of making it was to be able to play it, in this lifetime. Be pragmatic.


Project Manager at the Opera Mobile Store providing Sales-Marketing support. Content development and research.

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Comments ( 3 )

    • Bill Papa says:

      I presume you are awaiting the next version release, which will allow for the increased map size. Or are you using a beta version from Matrix? Have you been able to beta test the scenario?

    • Mark Dabbs says:

      The project is using a beta version still under development by Ralph Trickey. A considerable amount of testing has been done, a lot more to do owing to the political options implemented, but for now the project is sort of on hold.

    • Mark Dabbs says:

      Thanks Mark, Uncertain if this will make it into TOAW IV, per their intended launch date. Have to see how it goes, but I would like to – definitely!

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