Dear game developer…

… I know you’re reading this so this is what I would like you to do for your next game.

I’ve just watched the latest demo video for Lionheart: King’s Crusade and while it looks like a fun game; one thing got me. I think I’ve mentioned it before when talking about the Total War series but it was very clear from that demo.

The idea that you play an omniscient, omnipresent entity with instant communication to your minions.

This is a standard strategy game trope. You’re not represented by any single entity on the battlefield, instead you’re an godlike being floating above the earth at a very slight isometric angle. This may be justifiable with modern or future themed games but in fantasy/historical settings it’s not exactly accurate.

Some games have a fog of war imposed which hides the enemy but you can always see what’s happening in the line of sight of your own troops. God bless those 12th century shoulder mounted wireless video cameras which allowed troops to relay instant accurate information back to the headquarters; radio headsets for the cavalry to coordinate the attacks with the artillery.

I know that I’m picking at details here and that these games are games first and simulations second, but just once it’d be nice to have a more realistic take on historical combat. Incomplete and possibly inaccurate information, a delayed and fallible communications network and a single commanding entity with a chain of command (with all the entailing problems). Of course this would have to apply to the A.I. as well to make things equally difficult for both sides.

The top level general could be your representative entity on the battlefield, possibly with some sort of chain of command which means when they are killed then the game can continue with a different commander (possibly they have stats relating to authority or perception) or the command structure fractures. Basically the battle need not be over on the loss of the commander. And if the subordinate is a better commander maybe you even do better. Queue suicidal charges by the 75 year old senile field marshal in order to honourably cede command to the young pretender.

The initial set up could involve placing units exactly on a 3d battlefield (√° la total war) or directing units movements on a scout drawn map. You could chose to have the commander survey the terrain before the battle but there’s a risk of ambush or you could be forced to rely on the reports of your scouts who draw up a rough map for you.

Units could be grouped, assigned commanders (with varying levels of abilities and personalities; some units having fixed commanders)  and assigned a task for the battle. The commander/unit combination could work as a controlled commander could restrain a wild unit while a more bloodthirsty commander could inspire (or terrify) a more cautious, defensive unit.

e.g. Group the infantry units together and instruct them to advance in a line towards the centre of the enemy and engage directly. Archers to skirmish ahead of the infantry. Half the cavalry to advance to the far left of the map and flank the enemy, the other half to stay behind the main body of troops to prevent a counter flanking move.

The commander group would be directly controllable. They can issue orders directly within a certain radius but must send messengers/flag/signals beyond that range (the available technology determining how fast and how accurate the messages are). The commander cannot see beyond the immediate line of sight but does receive reports back from the units/commanders when a significant event has occurred. The messages out and in are delayed and can come out of order and be incomplete or inaccurate.

You would probably be restricted to simpler tactics until the commander learns to trust and understand the behaviour of his leaders and troops. You’d probably start with, everyone charge forward and try and wrap around. This would evolve to more flanking or feints with more experience.

Eventually you’ll reach a point a which your commander is perched on a hillside miles from the action with a set of maps and a staff with telescopes, trumpets and flags.

I don’t know how popular such a game would be as it moves away from the immediate excitement of lining up the perfect pincer movement or zooming in to where the action is. It certainly wouldn’t be an easy sell the current audience of console gamers but it would be something different which I think could certainly succeed as a niche P.C. game. Don’t forget Shogun: Total War wasn’t even a sleeper hit. It was very much a niche product and see where that ended up.

<edit>

Just thinking about this and I’m inclined to think that a really extreme version of this would be a text only style game where you play the general in a 1950’s nuclear bunker. Maybe there’s some crude map with LED’s tracking across it, complete with pixelised explosions but all the interaction is via text commands and reports… How stopped worrying and learned to love the text.

Actually, given the¬†ridiculous level of creativity and throughput from the IF crowd, there’s probably a game just like that out there.

<edit2>

Also this sort of limited knowledge/communication would work in a modern/future style game where those restrictions applied. e.g. Gang warfare or pre-radio modern combat. Anywhere you an legitimately say there’s no instant communication. Would make for a very different gameplay style

Image from wikimedia commons

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