Friday, June 24, 2011

Griping about Carriers

With the amount of thought we've put into strategies over here at Awesome Games, you might not be surprised to learn that the occasional punctilio of the rules gets on our nerves. I'll try to keep the other surprising revelations about the wetness of water and all until you've had a chance to steady your nerves. Whatever, let's get to the carriers.

Under the traditional A&A movement rules, a carrier moves two spaces and a fighter moves four. They have to start their movement in the same space; the carrier can't haul the fighter for two spaces and then have it launch. They also end in the same space as each other. (Well, technically the fighter can land other places, but for the purposes of this thought experiment let's assume you want to keep your fighter on your carrier). The point here is that the movement effectively allows you to project your fighters one space further than the carrier is able to move; the fighter go three spaces forward, and then one back, meeting up with the carrier which only moved two spaces forward. They also have the advantage of staging your planes out in the water to begin with; Axis and Allies deducts a movement point for moving over coast lines, which a carrier neatly sidesteps.

In Axis and Allies 1940, they added a refinement; naval bases. If your ship starts in a sea zone adjacent to a territory with a naval base, you can move that ship three spaces instead of two over the course of a turn. The trouble with this is that there isn't any corresponding advantage for your fighters on your carriers. The carrier moves three spaces, but the fighter still only moves four; therefore the carrier's original mission of projecting force further than other naval forces is compromised. It gets worse; a battleship actually does better in those situations since you can move it those three sea zones and bombard a land target, where the fighters can't get there and participate in combat.

To take a concrete example, if Japan chooses to attack on the first turn (like I did in the provided narrative), they can move a fleet three spaces to the waters surrounding Hawaii, but if they invade they can't bring in any air support. By contrast, if in the original you were to invade Hawaii, the distance was only two spaces, and you could bring in planes.

The 1940 versions offer a similar refinement for planes; air bases. Air bases allow a plane taking off in that territory one additional space of movement. This also obviates part of the reason for carriers. If you're leaving your carrier in the sea zone around Japan, then it makes no difference whatsoever if you land fighters on it or not; any territory the fighter could reach in four spaces from the carrier is one the fighter could reach in five from the airbase. In the event of a fleet invasion, you can always scramble the fighter. It's a case of redundant mechanics, and games can ill afford to have more rules than are strictly necessary.

On the other hand, I have to point out that the choice isn't always arbitrary. If Italy has a carrier outside of Rome, whether the fighter is on the carrier or in Northern Italy with the airbase isn't a trivial decision; since Italy is part of a continent you can't scramble the fighter to defend the sea zone, but contrawise the airbase gives you move movement options on the northern side of Europe should you need to exercise them.

I gotta admit I feel somewhat churlish complaining about mechanical changes that only benefit the players.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Complexity for the sake of Complexity

Recently, one of the comics I read came uncomfortably close to reality. A game, about battles in space, which makes itself extraordinarily complex, and therefore not that fun to play. Huh. Seeing as I'm attempting to design a space battle game that's incredibly complex, maybe I should spend some time thinking about this.

There's a thing I call "upkeep", which generally means any sort of mechanical action you have to perform to play the game. "Mechanical" in that it's rote work, not like basketball. Every turn in RISK you have to count every country you own, divide that by three to get the number of units you'll build that turn. In pretty much any card game, it's shuffling and dealing out the cards. Let me give you a more detailed example.

In the game Lords of the Realm II you run a medieval kingdom, both the economy and the armies which you then use to assault other people's counties. It's a fun game. But every turn when you start a new one you've got to go to each and every one of your territories and make sure all the local economies are optimized. If you've got three territories, no big deal. If you've got fifteen counties you're going to have to spend a couple minutes every turn making sure nobody's starving. Setting up a successful economy is one thing. Micromanaging it entirely too much sucks the fun out of the game.

So back to the comic at hand. The game they're setting up involves complicated vector movement in space. I intend to use complicated vector movement in the Terrible Secret of Space. Why? Because I think it'll make for more interesting battles, and because I've been striving for the hard science fiction aspect of this game. I've also been flirting with the idea of a non-hex grid.

But using the tape measure to measure distances, and calculating out vectors, that all qualifies as upkeep. Whenever you're designing a game, you want to minimize upkeep, so that you have less boring parts in between the fun parts. To a certain extent I'm willing to let it slide in this game because I'm intentionally shooting for a more complicated, strategic game and that sort of thing can stand a little more upkeep. Still, I'd prefer to keep it to a minimum. Hence my joy a couple days ago when I realized the physics could support never having to keep track of spaceship fuel levels.

So how do I square that with non hex based vector movement? An excellent question. For the first, I'm splitting combat and non-combat movement apart. Non-combat movement just means getting from one point in space to another, and once you've derived the initial equations it's pretty easy to get Excel to do all the relevant math. That is, "how long will it take me to get from A to B?"

Combat movement is different. You have to be able to maneuver. If I was keeping everything to a physical board, I'd probably just rip off the triplanetary rules wholesale. On the other hand, this game is going to be played over the internet anyway. I'm thinking it shouldn't be too hard to make a program that will track positions and velocities of ships, and from there allow you turn by turn combat without the hexes and without too much upkeep. It remains to be seen if I can get that sort of a program running, so in the meantime I plot other things out.

So lets bring all this back to my original question; is my game overly complicated? Possibly. Adding complication to games makes them more interesting; Axis and Allies having varied unit types versus the undifferentiated masses of infantry from risk makes the former a better game. But too much complication lowers the interest level any of your players will have in a game. Seeing as I'm intentionally looking towards a chess by mail level of though to be put in to each individual turn, it's arguable that I've already gleefully skipped over that event horizon.

Hardcore Plundering

So, I finished Fallout: New Vegas last night.

"Finished" in that I made it all the way through the main plot line. Still a number of places I want to explore, and definitely a number of other factions I want to align with, if only in future games. For my first play through, I did it entirely in hardcore.

Hardcore means a couple of things:
Ammunition has weight
you have to watch your hunger, thirst and sleep deprivation
it's harder to heal damage to your limbs
You get a reward at the very end for playing it through strictly this way.

I have strong views on looting. When I first got my hands on Fallout III I swore that I'd loot every single bent tin can in the wasteland. While I didn't meet that objective, I did loot a lot. Quite a lot. That should come as no surprise. But seeing as I've already stated objections to the sort of game that puts too many restrictions on looting, why did I willingly play the game in such a way that I'd be restricting my looting potential? Again, as I tend to object to upkeep in games, why did I play the game with the food/water requirements. Just last post I was complaining about having to refuel spaceships, how is this any different?

The first thing, and why I started playing the game in this manner is that I've got something to prove. I've been obsessed with the Fallout franchise for years. In high school I recall having friends call me up for help on difficult parts of Fallout II. I helped them, even quoting back dialogue options from memory. My brother started playing the game again recently, and sure enough I get a ring "How do you get on to the Westin Ranch?" (you bring proof to First Citizen Lynette of Vault City that the raiders were hired by Bishop, who is in turn acting at the behest of NCR. She sends a message to Westin, which gets you on the ranch.) I'm a pretty hardcore fan of the series, and sometimes you need to show it, by being more hardcore than the game.

Also, when I first heard about the hardcore option in New Vegas, the guy writing the article said that clearly ammo requirements would mean less looting. Sometimes you just gotta prove that guy wrong.

The other thing to note is, the requirements really weren't as onerous as perhaps I would have assumed. In the original Fallout games, ammo had weight. Weightless ammo was really nice when Bethesda introduced it, but I can get along without it. Also, the ammo doesn't weigh much even so. Flamer fuel in the original games weighed two pounds per unit, where in New Vegas it doesn't weigh much at all. Rockets in the previous games were three pounds per, where in this game it's only one and a half. Now, the fact that it weighed something meant I was constantly selling it off, and stashing excess micro fusion cells somewhere I could retrieve them. This leads to some problems, where I'm ambushed by folks in power armor and don't have any energy cells to arm my pulse rifle, but as it turns out plasma bolts to the face still work.

The game still had any number of things which didn't have weight, currency notably. By the end I was carting around 60,000+ bottle caps, two fifty stimpacks and forty super stimpacks, which didn't slow me down one iota. Not that great on the realism, but plenty good for the fun aspects.

The food and drink requirements weren't so onerous precisely because they dovetailed with the looting so well. In this game they scattered various plants across the wasteland which provide fruit or some such that gives you food and water. I loot them because hey, free stuff, I eat them because they have weight and drag me down, and they provide me with a benefit, keeping the starvation at bay. I often carried around Brahmin or Bighorn steaks because of the temporary +1 STR bonus.

Even so, for my next playthrough I'm not playing it hardcore. I did it, I proved that I can, and now I can get back to looting unimpaired. Besides, that bonus wasn't all that thrilling. I got to see the wacky credits.

Heh. Push the button, Frank.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

On Hydrogen and Hohmann Transfers

On some nights, if you know where to look in the sky, if you're out in the middle of the Atlantic or somewhere the light pollution isn't too bad, you can see a bright flash of color, green then yellow then orange into red. Sometimes it even starts in green or blue before working it's way down the sequence. A negligent poet once described them as nature's fireworks, which is completely wrong, since there's nothing at all natural about them. But the best the rest of us can come up with is "bursts of colored light in the sky which serve a purpose other than simply being pretty", but that completely wrecks the scansion. University English Departments tell us they're working on it.

I've been considering the economic aspects of the Terrible Secret of Space, namely what resources we need and where you get them. It's a thorny problem, and in some ways it can't be broken down into component questions. Especially because any analysis of these questions bears on what number and what type of warships can be produced, and therefor the combat aspects of the game as well.

Let's take an example; Hydrogen. Where do you get hydrogen in the solar system?
Potential sources:
Splitting water
Collecting it from Jupiter
Collecting it from the Sun
Breaking it off of hydrocarbons

Now, we don't want to get too much of it at the bottom of a gravity well; too inefficient. So boosting earth water into orbit for hydrolosis is possible, but we don't want that as the main supply. Rather than get water from Earth's oceans, we could get ice from Europa (smaller gravity well) or the rings of Saturn. We can say there's infrastructure out that far if we need to, but let's take a look at the other options.

Jupiter's atmosphere is largely composed of hydrogen. It should be possible to skim off some of the higher atmosphere. Sort of a reverse gravitational slingshot effect; you lose energy but you fill up your fuel tanks on your way through. You don't have to worry about Jupiter's gravity well either; since you're starting at the top you aren't losing much energy going down and back out again. You could also do this with other gas giants, or even the sun, assuming your shields can stand that close to the sun. In the Mote in God's Eye, the book which I lifted the shields from, a spaceship makes a trip inside a gas giant, so it might be possible. I'm going with awesome, but not economical. If you're not diving into the sun, there might be a way to collect the charged particles of the solar wind, combine them into hydrogen and use that as a fuel source.

The last option, hydrocarbons, is pretty speculative. I mean, it's not that different than boosting water for splitting, if more efficient by mass. But hey, it's possible we'll find hydrocarbons in the sky. There's an assumption that these things are only produced by life forms, but I'm not sure how true that is cosmically. Carbon and hydrogen exist in great abundance in the universe, I should think we'd be surprised if it didn't ever come together otherwise. Then again, I really don't know enough about chemistry to really say much about it. So if all else fails I guess we could Word of God a stellar source of hydrocarbons into the system. A lot of all else would have to fail though.

Let's move on to the other half of the problem for now. There are going to be asteroid miners, there have to be asteroid miners. Presumably they're out there mining metals to send back in to the orbital factories. But how exactly do they ship the materials? Again we have to pay attention to the laws of commerce to make sure this works the way we want it to. Barring the interplanetary transit network, the most energy efficient way to get from one orbit to another is a Hohmann transfer. It has the great advantage of only requiring you to accelerate once at the start and decelerate once at the end, saving immensely on gas.

Hohmann transfers have two problems; one is that it takes a very long time to switch orbits (in college I remember calculating that it took two hundred some days to get from Earth to Mars this way), and the other is that you can only leave at certain times. (Once you got to mars, you'd have to wait the better part of a martian year to return on another Hohmann transfer.) On the first issue, a couple hundred days isn't much of a problem; getting the materials a known number of days from now just requires more planning on the part of the manufacturies in question. Not something we have to concern ourselves with. Er... with which we have to concern ourselves.

Only certain launch dates being allowed gives us a bigger problem. I'd have to figure out where certain asteroids are at each point in the game, work back to the previous hohmann transfer window, and figure from there when Earth will receive it's goods. A lot of calculation, which I'm not particularly eager to do. It gets worse if you realize that I'd have to do the same calculations for materials from any other source in the solar system; the mines of Mercury, for example.

If it was a spaceship moving along these transfers, it'd carry an engine along to do the accelerating. We could lash engines to the rocks, but that adds a lot of difficulty and expense to the mining. It'd be a lot easier if you could set up a cannon in the belt and fire the rocks down with that. But you'd need something to decelerate once you got to Earth orbit. The good news is, we already have an in game system for decelerating large rocks; the Langston field.

Supposing you had a large Langston field generator up in orbit. You've got an asteroid coming in, which needs to be stopped before it can be stripped of it's metals. So you maneuver your asteroid or your shield so that the former strikes the latter. The shield stops the asteroid's momentum, giving off the energy as heat and light. You move the asteroid away from the shield with some sort of tug boat, and you're ready to collect another. Neat as that.

Next question: why do we have only one of these catcher's mitts? Let's say we had fifty two of them, spaced evenly in Earth's orbit around the Sun. The reason why Hohmann transfers have required windows to start them is that you need to connect your orbit with the target planet's orbit, if you get there but the Earth is several months out you've got nowhere to land. But if you're just targeting the orbital path itself, you could launch one off whenever, and get it caught on whatever mitt is available at the time. The orbital factories get dragged around the sun with the Earth, and they'd pass a mitt every week. That means a consistent influx of new raw materials. Best of all, I don't have to calculate a thing.

It gets even better; your Langston field doesn't just catch huge chunks of silicate, it also stops things like radiation. In particular, I'm thinking of the solar wind. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles from the sun, mostly protons and electrons. As long as you have a Langston field in the solar system, it's going to be absorbing these particles. So we invent a scoop, which will swish through the field every so often, combining the charged particles into hydrogen. In addition to the function of asteroid catching, we can use these stations to collect hydrogen to fuel the fusion engines of the orbital factories as they swing past every year.

Even more than that, every warship in the game is going to have one of these field generators on board. If we also equip them with a scoop, we never need to worry about refueling them; they'll subsist off of the gleanings of the solar wind. As someone who's never liked the upkeep of manually refueling spaceships in games, I'm pretty happy about that.

The other consequences of this system are Here's another thought; what about using Langston fields for re-entry? Take a place in Arizona, middle of the desert in case something goes wrong. Put up a number of shields so that a patch of desert acts as a great catcher's mitt. You can drop things from orbit, land them on the shield and collect them from there. It might work for raw materials, but I can't imagine that the deceleration would be very pleasant for persons or manufactured goods.

Also? We now have established the existence of multiple rock throwers in the asteroid belt, which could easily be re purposed as weapons. I'm not at all unhappy with this development.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Of Forsight and Fourth Graders

Recently I was linked to a video where a teacher describes his efforts to teach world politics to fourth graders. He does this by means of a complex "World Peace Game". I came away from the video with two distinct impressions:

That game can't be nearly as effective at generating solutions as he claims


Nevertheless, I would so love to play it.

The problem with that game, or any game really, is that it's always an imperfect simulation of reality. While I give plenty of credence to the genius of fourth graders, there has been quite a lot of World to go around for quite a long time, if the solutions were that easy someone would have implemented them already. So I suspect that the way he models his world in the game makes it deceptively easy to come up with solutions.

When you make a game, you're making a simulation of how the world works. Or how the world works if you've got spaceships flying around, and wizards casting fireballs, and if you were the head of a major bank. Or some such. But necessarily your model of reality falls short of reality in some ways. At times this is inevitable, at times it is necessary for good gameplay. I've seen dozens and dozens of comics asking how a murloc with just a wet loincloth can be hiding Svuthos, the Bulwark of the Damned. And why you can then shove a tower shield that spiky into your belt pouch and be not at all encumbered for your next fight. I've written a bit about that sort of sacrifice of realism in pursuit of good gameplay already. But sometimes it's inevitable.

How exactly does magic work? You say some strange words, you make a mystic pass with your wand, and presto bango someone's a newt. Which strange words? What exactly is a mystic pass? Will any old bit of lumber work as a wand? Since we don't have magic in our modern world, these are things that people make up as part of their world building. More subtly, just what it takes to kill a charging bear is subject to your worldbuilding; maybe the player's machete is enough, maybe a howitzer would be more appropriate. (Scratch that, a howitzer is always more appropriate. Bears.) This only becomes an issue if you're going to construct real world solutions from your model.

A while back I was really impressed by Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Specifically, the game did very will with confusion of war, people shouting, smoke and guns firing and so forth. And playing the game, I got very proficient at picking people's silhouettes out of rubble and cover. So I wonder, will the game make it easier to transform your mouse jockey into an actual soldier? To an extent; that's a useful skill and all, but your mouse tells you nothing about the recoil of a rifle, and sprinting across a virtual field doesn't prepare you for sprinting yourself, and trying to stay alert at the edge of exhaustion. While you can get useful results from your model, you always have to keep an eye on where your inputs and outputs don't match the real world.

So back to the video; he mentions that his fourth graders solved global warming in ten minutes. How? He doesn't say, probably because his topic is on the game and the fourth graders, not specific world problems. But the solution the fourth graders came up with is necessarily dependent on what the teacher thinks is an acceptable solution. In the real world, would Cap and Trade solve the problem? Having seen the numbers, I'd say no, but the professor might disagree with me. Therefore a class of fourth graders might use that solution, and be credited with solving the problem, even if it wouldn't solve the problem in real life.

Take as the clinching example his description of the last second game victory. Full of drama, unanticipated solution and all. It makes a good story, but it illustrates the problem with the model. The game could only be won if all countries were better off than they were at the start. Why? Because that's the sort of solution we hope for, not the sort of solution that necessarily happens. Carthage had salt sown into it's fields. Rome stayed a prosperous nation for what, a millenium after that? I'll grant the sense that we all lose in war, but in the more classic sense, Rome won, Carthage lost. The world peace game was won in that situation by a donation, and in that sense I admire a clever use of resources, but it clearly doesn't demonstrate a real world solution, since the real world doesn't have a 'game over' point.

With all that said, there's much that's awesome about this game. I'm still fascinated by the idea of persistent, long lasting and complicated games. As you can no doubt tell from the Terrible Secret of Space. I'd love to play it, to set my hand against the problems of the world, and show all you miserable cretins that you don't truly know problems yet... Sorry, letting my megalomaniacal tendencies get the best of me again.