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You Have No Heavy Calvary

Posted on 24th Feb 2009 at 09:29 by Cliff Harris with 17 comments

Cliff Harris
I've just finished my first play of the demo of Empire: Total War, and it reminds me of my original motivation for the design of Gratuitous Space Battles.

I'm a big fan of the Total War games, although I don't devote much time to the campaign game and certainly don't get time to play them as much as their true devotees. They have, for me a single major frustration. Although I might go to great lengths to field a decent army against my enemy, although I may pick a good formation and a decent time and month to fight, the moment the two armies come into contact it becomes an almighty uncontrollable scrum where almost anything could happen.

The basic dilemma is ranged units. If your guns can fire one metre further than the enemies, just ensure you are always at maximum range and shoot at him till you win. This may sound simplistic, but it's how a lot of real world battles were fought. The US & Buddies pulverised Saddam's army because their tanks could fire from further away. In the open tank battles of Gulf War 1 and 2, hardly a single tank shell of Iraqi origin hit anything.

You Have No Heavy Calvary

Throughout history it's been the same. The medieval British kicked serious ass because we had longbows which shot a huge distance at incredible speed and force (at Agincourt 5,000 of the 6,000 English were archers).

In Napoleonic times, the French had a huge battery of cannons that could bombard almost any army to pieces. The reason the battle of Waterloo was lost was due to time pressure. The rain meant cavalry couldn't charge easily and guns were hard to manoeuvre. Napoleon couldn’t wait for the ground to dry and failed not because there was an easy counter to the 'grand batterie', because there simply wasn't one.

WW2 was no different. I was chatting to a guy at the tank museum one day (we all need hobbies) and he was saying how a Tiger tank could destroy a British Churchill or US Sherman at 2,000 metres. By contrast the Russian T-34 couldn’t penetrate the Tiger's frontal armour at point blank range.

Basically, if side A fields Tiger tanks and side B fields T-34s, side B will lose, unless you severely compensate with sheer numbers and suicidal bravery, starve the enemy of fuel or have air superiority. The phenomenon is best summed up by a quote from Braveheart; "You are outmatched. You have no heavy cavalry."

You Have No Heavy Calvary

So, all this leads me to believe that battles are not so much won on the battlefield, but on the drawing board, where boffins scratch heads and design a faster airplane, a bigger gun, better armour etc.

That's the basic design objective of my game. The battles are 50 percent what ships what you build, and 50 percent how you position them and what broad rules of engagement you set up. Once your spacefleet leaves spacedock, the battle is pretty much over. Actually commanding the fleet mid battle is a formality, and one I intend to skip.

Does this make the game less fun? Is it better to have an illusion of control during the actual battle? Or is it better to accept that it's out of your hands? I’d like to know your thoughts, so drop them in the comments below.

Some historians claim D-Day was won because Eisenhower had a great army and let them get on with it, whereas Hitler was micro-management crazy. I intend to put to the test the theory that the real satisfaction of military victory is seeing your forces triumph without you micro-managing your every move. They are still "your boys", after all.

Am I mad?

17 Comments

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Zimon 24th February 2009, 13:41 Quote
I think you are underestimating how decisive maneuver (both spatial and temporal) can be in deciding or changing an engagement. Certainly some battles have been won on the drawing board, wars not so much.... and have you never heard of the reverse slope???!
Fod 24th February 2009, 13:42 Quote
... cavalry?
CardJoe 24th February 2009, 14:19 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Fod
... cavalry?

SPACE HORSES?!
Trefarm 24th February 2009, 14:44 Quote
Tactics are everything in combat... your level of equipment simply dictates which tactics you deploy. Having said that your idea sounds good, it's mirroring the current trend in accesability/simplification (AKA the THQ Effect) and would make a welcome change from a tried and tested format.
My only concern would be selling a game in which effectively you're turning battles into a roll of the dice, doesn't that adversely affect the illusion of control which involves the player?
ChaosDefinesOrder 24th February 2009, 14:50 Quote
Sounds to me like you're designing a space war version of the original Championship Manager games (the ones back before they allowed you to control individual players during the matches), where you do the advanced battle plan stuff, then click "play match" and watch it unfold rather than start a battle then control individual units.

This, I feel, is a MUCH better premise than the football versions! I agree completely with you - battles are fought and won by the strategic minds of the command centre and the "my gun is bigger than yours" approach.

I like your idea, keep developing it!
Kougar 24th February 2009, 15:37 Quote
Quote:
Does this make the game less fun? Is it better to have an illusion of control during the actual battle? Or is it better to accept that it's out of your hands?

Unless you are simply throwing equally matched, identical units at each other on a static battlefield, then it's almost never "out of your hands".

I'll borrow a Supreme Commander situation. Yes one could simply march your (identical) army against theirs and let rolls of the dice dictate the winner. But for example if both armies are using equal numbers of T3 portable shield emitters, if I tell my forces to target those first I would always win. Otherwise after their shields collapse, the unit sits around and recharges its shield array. My point is none of the on-battlefield units don't have the insight they should destroy those sheild platforms once the shield is collapsed... it all comes down to tactics. Or I could shuffle my shield platforms around so they overlap and protect each other so every shield platform gives the others time to recharge while they are "down". If I micro-mange my forces I can play to the strengths of those forces to always win those battles, even though the other player's forces would be identical to mine.

Sure, that could be seen as a failing of the battlefield and/or unit AI's. But not every tactic can be pre-programmed (or is already learned) by commanders. Their depth of strategy and specific choice of tactics employed will often carry the day.

I could also use the terrain and other elements to my advantage, there are plenty of ways to attack forces with identically matched armies to one's advantage. Back to your example of Napoleon and Waterloo, that was why he lost. If I remember correctly specific commanders saw the opportunity afforded by attacking immediately and not allowing Napoleon a reprieve and to regroup, and that tactic paid off. Some of them wished to hold back, and had they done so Napoleon would of had time to set up his forces in advance for that last battle. Or at least that's what I remember, it has been awhile since my last history class!


In a strategy game it isn't always best to go for the tech 3 upgrades, or for more powerful or better ranging units. The other side can just use higher numbers of lower tech forces and hit you sooner as they are quicker to build. Or one fallback that usually works, why fight at all.

By that I mean throw up some base defenses, ignore their armada completely, and simply use your weaker forces to hit their means of production. Once you can produce more ships than they can, you've already won. Their space armada can either kill itself at the front door of your base or just sit around idle while you build up another wave. Often building that heavy cavalry or better ranging artillery just gives the opponent more time to attack first.

I will say your Gratuitous Space Battles concept reminds me strongly of Star Trek Armada and ST Armada II. Both of those were sweet PC games. B) Oye, I guess I rambled a bit on this one... :|
nicae 25th February 2009, 11:20 Quote
I love the Total War series, but I must share some feelings with the campaigns.

I've been for so long trying to play all my campaign's battles, but I just can't stand the horse archers. They run away. Where's the fun in putting your horses to catch their horses that never stop running?
Foot archers are a pain as well, and cavalry isn't really that abundant anyway. But in this case, archers are actually FASTER than your chasing infantry! Yay! :\

That's why I put all battles to auto.. Even though I have tons of fun in custom battles (obviously archer-free).

I had similar feelings when I played Warbirds (WW2 online flight sim). We would always put our plane's strengths to use, and that's what made the good pilots. But only to a limit! The true aces would know how to escape situations where their weaknesses were vulnerable, giving opponents great duels. Those who stuck to their strengths at all times could turn into cowards, always turning, always climbing or, like the horse archers, always running.
Where's the fun in that?

I'm getting confused... Maybe I just like watching the infantry slaughter themselves? CHARGE, YOU HUMAN FODDER!! Ermmm.. Am I a psycho? :P

Can't wait for E:TW! Cheers!
LucusLoC 26th February 2009, 08:01 Quote
you are not a psycho until you play dwarf fortress. I'd say something about how in df the combat is about equipping your troops and stationing them strategically, while having zero control over what they actually do, but alas, the combat is still being worked on. hopefully the next release will get it sorted out. until then i will be satisfied with my completely overpowered hammer dwarfs sending goblin bits and entrails all over the castle walls.

incidentally, if you have never actually played df, you should. there are a lot of really good ideas in that game just waiting to be polished up. warning tho, it's an ascii game that will bring your ubercomp to its knees.
Xir 26th February 2009, 11:55 Quote
Micromanagement in most games is necessary because the AI is so.....stupid.
You need to decide where your left wing goes, not what target gunner #257 chooses.
Quote:
Some historians claim D-Day was won because Eisenhower had a great army and let them get on with it, whereas Hitler was micro-management crazy.
...and 90% of Hitlers army beeing (routed) in russia at the time might have helped ;)
Kougar 1st March 2009, 15:21 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir
Quote:
Some historians claim D-Day was won because Eisenhower had a great army and let them get on with it, whereas Hitler was micro-management crazy.

...and 90% of Hitlers army beeing (routed) in russia at the time might have helped ;)

Well that is a fair point the author makes. From all the documentaries I've watched, they indicated if Hitler hadn't required his commanders to personally get approval from him before they could deploy their Tiger reserve amor, the Normandy landings could've been pushed back to the beaches or according to them most likely completely rebuffed. The staff wouldn't wake Hitler and when he eventually finally rose from one of his stupors a day or more later and gave the orders, it was to late to stop the invasion. I know it's a wiki, but it's exactly as the documentaries stated: Link
Timmy_the_tortoise 1st March 2009, 19:39 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Kougar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Xir
Quote:
Some historians claim D-Day was won because Eisenhower had a great army and let them get on with it, whereas Hitler was micro-management crazy.

...and 90% of Hitlers army beeing (routed) in russia at the time might have helped ;)

Well that is a fair point the author makes. From all the documentaries I've watched, they indicated if Hitler hadn't required his commanders to personally get approval from him before they could deploy their Tiger reserve amor, the Normandy landings could've been pushed back to the beaches or according to them most likely completely rebuffed. The staff wouldn't wake Hitler and when he eventually finally rose from one of his stupors a day or more later and gave the orders, it was to late to stop the invasion. I know it's a wiki, but it's exactly as the documentaries stated: Link

Let's not forget the fact that the Wermacht had absolutely no Luftwaffe support that day. Since the Luftwaffe presence in Normandy at the time consisted of about 2 planes.
karx11erx 2nd March 2009, 00:57 Quote
Two counter examples:

#1 Alexander's battle against the Persians

#2 War game before the first Gulf war I think where attacks by small speed boats on the mighty war vessels of the approachin U.S. fleet were so successful that in the war game the fleet had to retreat.

You should read *a lot more* before trying the judge the value of tactics again.
Elton 2nd March 2009, 13:23 Quote
The thing that's missing here is the psychological effects of battle. Sure you could win with more superior weapons, but if the other team knows that they got their buddies to help out, they're probably just going to overwhelm you and surround that "uber" unit.
Xir 2nd March 2009, 16:23 Quote
Quote:
they're probably just going to overwhelm you and surround that "uber" unit

expensive persian war-elephants and dirt-cheap pikeman in AoE anyone? ;)
Ending Credits 2nd March 2009, 17:09 Quote
I'm going to use the Supcom example again but in a different context. Remember those bombing runs? 50 normal bombers and about 5 tech III bombers simply to confuse the flac cannons. Individual units seem very dumb at the moment and I don't see why. In terms of processing, power AI is cheap compared to graphics and 3D objects.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I really should be able to leave my Paladins or whatever and go and do something else and not expect them to have charged right into the enemy base.
Fod 2nd March 2009, 20:15 Quote
i still don't get the calvary thing. and joe's reply just scared me :(
Kougar 3rd March 2009, 07:47 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ending Credits
I'm going to use the Supcom example again but in a different context. Remember those bombing runs? 50 normal bombers and about 5 tech III bombers simply to confuse the flac cannons. Individual units seem very dumb at the moment and I don't see why. In terms of processing, power AI is cheap compared to graphics and 3D objects.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I really should be able to leave my Paladins or whatever and go and do something else and not expect them to have charged right into the enemy base.

Yeah, most game AI's are dumb because game devs don't spend any time on them. It just has to be "good enough". I think the SupCom Sorian AI mod is a great example of what a little serious work could achieve, that AI mod found some pretty amusing or devious ways to kill me and fixed quite a few of the basic AI bugs. It's still got many of the underlying game AI flaws, but it's a completely different game. And the Sorian AI doesn't need to cheat the game mechanics to do so.
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