A plug – not a bleg

Not WoW related, not really, so those of you not interested can move along now.  For the rest, I want to recommend a game – a NON-COMPUTER game.  But… let me get there my own way.

I’ve been playing wargames – pencil and paper, board and pieces – since 1974.  (Well, earlier if we count chess. But I’m going to exclude that for a moment.  And yes, I’m that old.)  Avalon Hill, Games Research, SPI, Yanquito… wait, some of those won’t mean anything to you.  OK… Third Reich, Diplomacy, Air Wars, Ironclads (among others from them all)… I played a lot.

Now in addition to a bunch of other things, these games are models.  And one of the balances that exist in game design – games of this sort – is the balance between accurate modeling and playability.  Bluntly, it is HARD.  Sometimes, though, someone figures out a trick that makes the complex reality easily graspable – or at least easier than the original.  As one example, so many of these games now use hexes for positioning.  It’s… not as flexible as miniatures, but more “accurate” than squares.  Now it’s worth noting that tolerance of complexity differs – what’s “fun” for some is “an accounting nightmare” for others.  Case in point — Star Fleet Battles.  I THINK Advanced Squad Leader finally has more rules, but I certainly won’t swear to it.  There are people who play – competitively, with near-memorization of the rulebook – both.  There are people who look at either rulebook and back away slowly, never letting the fear show on their face lest they be charged and mauled.  Yes, I tend toward the former – I have large sections of both rulebooks.  shrug.

Enter the game I’m shilling.  It’s called Attack Vector: Tactical (AV:T), produced by a company called Ad Astra Games.  OK, let’s stick the disclaimer in here.  While this game was in development, I was part of the design team.  Very, VERY tiny part – I felt myself a child in the presence of geniuses more often than not.  So yes, there’s a bit of pride.  Still…

What AV:T does is effectively model 3D newtonian space combat, simply enough that 11 year old kids (with a bit of the space bug) can master it well enough to be serious threats to adult players.  I know, I’ve taught some of those then-11 year olds.  Now I’m going to admit that in some ways learning this game was a bad idea.  A host of SF books I loved suddenly had their seamy sides exposed once I saw how it’d “really work”.  On the other hand… for those David Weber fans out there, this game is the engine he selected for “Saganami Island Tactical Simulator” – also produced by Ad Astra.  (If you ever run across the “great ship resizing”, it was the result of David meeting the AdAstra guy, Ken Burnside.  And if you’re curious of that digression, ask – I’ll tell, and point.)  Anyway, I want to tell a bit of how this system works, just so you can get an idea of how “hard” becomes “easy” – and then I can add a couple of other things.

The first genius point comes from another game.  Tony Valle is an air combat enthusiast – and aeronautic engineer, and…  Anyway, he came out with this idea for 3D positioning while playing on a 2D surface.  Basically, he’s got a diagram that you have for each aircraft that is for the most part a big circle divided into three concentric rings about one circle.  Each of these rings is divided into sections.  You represent your pitch and attitude simply – mark the nose, mark the cockpit, and mark the right wing.  Each must be 90 degrees from the other.  When rolling or pitching over to dive or, well, any 3D movement, you move the nose, then the cockpit, and finally the wing.  If you’re an air combat enthusiast go pick up Birds of Prey just for that alone – though I’ll tell you that the real strength of THAT game comes in the effective modeling of flight performance at various altitudes.  I’d tell more, but this is already getting long for a digression.

So, Ken got permission to tweak the globe for AV:T.  And he added a rather nifty little display on the board so that you didn’t have to translate what was on your sheet to what was “really there”.  (They’re called pitch stands.  Brilliant.)  And he added other stuff.  Such as…  well, such as my small contribution.

If you’ve ever played SFB, you’ve seen the nightmare.  Fire off a bunch of missiles, and suddenly you’ve got what seem like hundreds of little counters all over the map, moving at different rates on different courses, and you have to track each and every one… Aaaaarrrgh…  no.  I read Clarke and Heinlein, I know the “real deal”.  Quit looking at it as God, look at it as the target.

If you’re the target in space, then you know whether the missiles or kinetic slugs or whatever are going to hit or miss.  It’s easy, really.  Look at the object – put a reference mark if you need to.  If the object stays centered even while it’s closing, it’s going to hit you.  If it’s going to miss, it’ll slide to the side.  The sooner it starts sliding the wider the miss, but quite simply any miss is enough.  And this brings the (pat on back) nice touch.  I hand you a reference card that tells you what’s coming (number of objects in the volley) and the necessary info (three numbers) to work out whether it’s staying centered or slipping to the side.  Oh, and in case you intend to change your vector, which side they’re slipping to.  And, of course, how long till the earth-shattering kaboom – how long do you have to do whatever you need do so the stuff starts slipping to the side.  Man, looking at that it’s complex.  It takes about minute to fill the card the first time – as little as 10 seconds once you’re practiced.  And reading it is easier.  Oh – I didn’t design the card.  I had the “aha”, and those bright people I mentioned did the hard work.

Some things that went bye-bye in my SF reading include… formations.  Oh, dear goo how I miss formations.  “The frigates arced by overhead, following the lead of the Challenge.”  snicker.  Yes, I can keep a formation.  But if my ship is off your port side as we head north, then the only way for me to maintain that relative position as we bend course to the east is to speed up then slow down.  Which… slowing down requires me to point my rear against direction of travel.  So while you’re coasting, I’m burning with my nose pointed the other direction.  Oh – and the important thing is… I burn a LOT more fuel.

Another thing… heat.  I really hadn’t paid attention to the problem of heat in space.  AV:T ships do.  Extend the radiators and keep the reactors on low and you bleed heat – but you don’t have much power for weapons, and the radiators are fragile.  Pull the fins in for combat and you get hotter as you wait.  Bump up the reactors to charge (and recharge) your lasers and…  Ever been in a room with a bunch of electronics and a dead air conditioner?  You get the smallest idea.  In the game, it’s a simple track.  And you better win or disengage before you cook your crew.

Or another thing – stealth in space.  sigh, I really miss this one.  If your ships have ENOUGH SEPARATION, they might be able to hide.  But…  Space background is very cold – single digits kelvin.  Ships that are carrying people are AT LEAST as warm as the inside of the ship.  Relatively speaking, they’re HUGELY more hot than the background.  As in… Picture being in a pitch black empty warehouse.  Every ship is a 20 watt bulb while it’s sitting still.  If it turns on the torch – thrust from the engine – it lit up the arc welder.  If your warehouse is big enough, these can’t be seen.  Relatively, though, if your warehouse is “only” everything inside the orbit of Jupiter, it’s about the size of your high school basketball gym.  Sure, you can hide.  Just radiate all your energy “thataway”, and hope he doesn’t have a detector over there.  Expensive, tricky, and clumsy.  Like hiding that 20 watt bulb behind a basketball and hoping you keep it in the right place.

One last “wow” of the game: Damage.  I can, with a quick succession of rolls, end up with (in such fashion that ALL of us playing see):

“The lasers strike and punch through the facing armor.  They take out one of the nose slug-throwers and the forward quarters, and punch on into the core where they blow up two batteries and a control system in the bridge.  There’s enough oomph they’re still passing into the far side where they pop some more quarters and a fuel storage tank, and punch a hole on the far side going out.”  heh – I’m keeping it simple.

So you look at this and say, “great, another encyclopedia game.”  No, not really.  As I said, I’ve taught 11 year old children to play.  four of them.  The hard part is the flash of insight that this really isn’t aircraft using lift/drag/thrust/gravity and airform interaction, it’s spacecraft.  Which is why if you go to a convention where the game is demoing, you’ll see what’s become the trademark demo – racing for chocolate.  We toss a bunch of chocolates on the board (Hershey’s Kisses, usually, though sometimes we go a little overboard), using altitude markers under some so you can worry about 3D.  We give you a basic ship.  We walk you through one turn that drives you through your first chocolate buoy, and then the turn through your second, then cut you loose for two turns.  Turn four you get to start using your beam weapons (lasers and particle beams).  Run over a chocolate and it’s yours – unwrap and eat, or keep for later.  Shoot one for enough damage, and again it’s yours.  If AV:T is demoing and you’re needing a chocolate fix, drop on by.

WoW isn’t realistic.  But it’s fun.  If you’re a space combat fan, I’m going to recommend a game that’s not only fun but quite realistic.  Enjoy yourselves.

(another disclaimer.  I get zero money or (as far as I know) recognition from your purchase of AV:T.  I’m just recommending something I enjoy, that I happened to have had a small part in helping create.)

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~ by Kirk on June 3, 2008.

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