Why play a game that isn’t fun… better yet… why even bother developing it? My approach to game development follows that same approach that I’ve used to map out many professional projects. In the age of agile software development, it requires flexibility to make changes as you go and to be able to refactor or completely rewrite sections if there is a better way to do it. However, planning a big project such as TOCS-MASL, without a product development roadmap, and the ‘vision’ of what it would look like when it was done, would be like taking a trip with less than a clue as to where the final destination was. Yes it might be a neat excursion, but unlikely to accomplish anything objective.
So, the TOCS-MASL vision and its objectives had to meet certain criteria or the effort would all be for naught. The design objectives for this project fell into several areas that were solved using different skills and technologies.
The primary overall objective was to produce a double-blind WWII gaming system that did not require a judge and would allow many different types of game modules to be based on it. The system must model real life unit capabilities and not have ‘gamey’ aspects to it. Players should be able to choose whether battles on the Macro (TOCS-level) are resolved using the CRT table, or as dynamically generated ASL scenarios. Victory conditions within the scenarios should be determined by the Commanding Officer and are to be carried out by the Field Commander playing the scenario. Mapping between the Macro TOCS game to/from the scenario must be seamless. The game play must be very interactive between the players taking alternating phases until the turn randomly ends.
Our secondary objective was to organize every aspect of the game system so that the TOCS system can be extended to any time period, with WWI modules being the first non-WWII modules that we have in development.
With these objectives in mind, here is a list of things that the new game system had to accomplish:
- It had to be fun to play, otherwise why even play it. Part of this would be due to the novelty of a double-blind system, and some would be accomplished through a quick interactive nature of taking alternating Operational Impulses between players. More would be attributed to the many different types of ground, air and naval actions that players could combine to create battle solutions. The rest would come from the fast pace that battles can be orchestrated and executed and the fluid situations that result. We couldn’t have the TOCS combat system behave like being bludgeoned with a sledgehammer, it had to feel like… a vicious saber fight. In this regard, I think we accomplished this very well.
- It had to have accurate geo-spaced maps that are accurate to the time period. In this regard the maps are accurate within 150m so that things fit properly within hexes. In fact if you check the distance between any two villages, they will be off by no more that 300m regardless of the distance between them.
- It had to have an accurate TO&E and OOB
- The system needed to be double-blind without needing a human 3rd party to act as a judge, and it needed to be easy to manage the perimeter. We easily accomplished this in our paper versions of the play test kits and then extended that to a virtualized play test kit; however, the full production version can introduce many enhancements to speed up play. The computer can act as a ‘judge’ to help determine all sorts of things that otherwise would be left to players to figure out, such as highlighting the hexes that a unit can move into.
- Game play needed to limit what could be accomplished through a series of alternative player impulses, where they would not know when the turn would end. This makes for shorter player turns and high interactiveness between the players.
- The fog of war should exist at all levels, including Field Orders, victory conditions, and OOB. The less the players know, the better the experience due to uncertainty. Clearly those players that are used to an omniscient game may suffer withdrawal symptoms from needing to know everything in order to understand how to win. Instead, players need to apply sound decisions based on what limited knowledge they have and fulfill their mission objectives for the best chance of winning. This will be one of the biggest challenges for players to overcome as so many games allow players to know everything, when in real life the it is completely different. Reading any of the US Army’s Green Books will illustrate those facts over and over. The TOCS-MASL system accomplishes this so well that the US Army Green Books could have been an After Action description of the TOCS games that we have played so far.
- Although the TOCS-MASL system is still considered a game, it has far less ‘gamey’ aspects than other games. This was accomplished by designing many of those aspects out of the system, or by abstracting them in such as way they they model what the ‘Command Staff’ would have handled. As a player, you are the Commanding Officer responsible for the operation, your command staff is at your disposal to handle the details of how that is accomplished; therefore, the TOCS system abstracts the logistical efforts into a small set of rules. This allows you, the Commanding Officer to focus on the overall operation and planning the battles.
When dealing with the playing pieces, several design objectives were required:
- For the TOCS-MASL WWII modules, the playing pieces need to map perfectly to ASL counters, with the combat values algorithmically calculated so that nations would be normalized between each other. The concept is that the counter generation is ‘data driven’ based on a database that allows any nation’s army formations to be automated. The same ‘data driven’ concept will be extended for WWI, but will contain parameters that are unique to that time period. This will allow modules counters to look consistent regardless of theater or nationality, while being appropriate for capabilities at that point in time.
- Artillery ranges had to reflect the actual ranges of the guns.
- Each type of unit had to truly reflect what it was capable of. To accomplish this, each unit has specific capabilities that no other unit of that type has. Therefore, the reason why HQs was so important is properly modeled, likewise armor behaves like armor, AA like AA, Engineers like Engineers. Seems intuitive, but look at those omniscient games where recon units are used to either factor up, garrison or screen flanks and you’ll understand what I’m talking about. Reconnaissance in those games is not modeled.
- HQ command ranges needed to reflect their logistical network and radio distances.
- Units needed the ability to take losses before being destroyed, but they also needed to degrade through various states. Compare this to some omniscient games where pieces are either good, or they’re not. This binary mapping just doesn’t exist in real combat situations. The TOCS system not only has step losses that represent combat losses, the counters can also degrade in capability due to combat, retreats, exhaustion and suffering artillery bombardments or airstrikes.
When it came to module development, several design objectives were required:
- Scale is important more than anything else in deciding what campaigns to model
- The module needs to provide the players with a new set of mission objectives with which players need to develop a strategy and apply tactics learned to accomplish to the mission’s victory conditions. It is important that the enemy not understand what the mission objectives are or the specific victory conditions are; otherwise, they will ‘game’ the system in order to win.
- The modules have to be more than modeling a battle, they should be fun to play while providing the opportunity to learn new aspects of Tactical Operations. It is through the ability to develop new skills that makes the TOCS system interesting and challenging. Battlefield situational awareness is analogous to solving a constantly evolving puzzle that adapts to each new change.
- The fog of war had to continue into the game module, so that players are not privy of the enemy’s mission brief, OOB or objectives. Players should focus on developing skills of combining various actions to accomplish goals and develop sound military tactics. They basically have to unlearn all of the bad habits that omniscient game play has and start thinking and acting like a Commanding Officer.
With two modules already in play test at Brick Mill Games,LLC, it will be interesting if players agree that we have met our design objectives and have ushered in a revolutionary advancement to the gaming industry. We sincerely hope so, as this game plays like no other game that we have ever played, and we find it so much fun to play, it is now the game of choice. It has only taken 35 years to get it this far…