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Computer Wargame

Entry updated 31 August 2018. Tagged: Game, Theme.


Term used by this encyclopedia to describe a form of Videogame descended (sometimes quite remotely) from the Wargame. The subject of the Computer Wargame is War, but (unlike First Person Shooters) success does not depend on reaction speed and manual dexterity. Instead, the gameplay is focused on intellectual contests of strategy and tactics; real time variants typically have less sophisticated rules than turn-based ones, but require the player to perform many complex tasks simultaneously. Computer Wargames, like board and counter Wargames, generally present an overhead view of the battlefield, whether as a two-dimensional map or Isometric or truly three-dimensional display. As the name suggests, they have usually been developed for personal computers rather than for game consoles. One reason for this is that the control methods available on computers (notably, the mouse) are more suited to such games than the devices supplied with consoles, but the fundamental cause is probably the historical (and now partially obsolete) view that intellectual games belong on computers and reflex-based "action" ones on consoles.

The earliest known examples of Computer Wargames are combat simulations written for the US military in the 1950s and 1960s. One such game, THEATERSPIEL (1961 Research Analysis Corporation, Mainframe), allowed two players to engage in a strategic contest using models which represented specific possible conflicts. These programs were not intended for enjoyment, however, being descendants of the German Kriegspiel (circa 1811) rather than H G Wells' Little Wars: A Game for Boys from Twelve Years of Age to One Hundred and Fifty and for That More Intelligent Sort of Girls Who Like Boys' Games: With an Appendix on Kriegspiel (graph 1913) (see Wargames). During the 1970s various text-based war games, such as the Star Trek-inspired Super Star Trek (circa 1975 Mainframe, Others) designed by David Matuszek, Paul Reynolds (see Star Trek Games) and several programs which simulated artillery duels, were created on mainframe computers and freely distributed; these seem to have been the first Computer Wargames developed purely for the sake of the players. The first such work to be commercially sold was probably Tanktics (1976 Mainframe; rev 1978 PET; rev 1981 AppleII, Atari8, PET, TRS80) designed by Chris Crawford in the US, a tank combat game in which the computer took the part of one player but (due to technical limitations) all vehicle positions in the microcomputer version had to be represented by hand moved cardboard counters on a separate paper map. In essence, the commercial variant of Tanktics is a board and counter Wargame in which the computer supplies the enemy's intelligence but nothing else. The earliest sf example was Starfleet Orion (1978), a 2 player game of combat between small space fleets which (due to the absence of complex terrain) could be fully depicted on the computer screen using contemporary technology. A well regarded early UK game with a similar theme is Star Fleet I: The War Begins (1983 Cygnus, DOS; rev 1985 C64, DOS; 1986 AppleII, Atari8, AtariST; 1987 Amiga) designed by Trevor Sorensen, the design of which was much influenced by the 1970s Star Trek games.

A common theme in the early development of Computer Wargames is the extent to which they were influenced by or based on existing Wargames; another important early example is the UK developed Heroic Fantasy Lords of Midnight (1984 Amstrad, Spectrum; 1985 C64) designed by Mike Singleton, an excellently crafted game of military strategy and role playing which shares much with the J R R Tolkien-licenced Wargame War of the Ring (1977 Simulations Publications Inc) designed by Richard Berg, Howard Barasch. One notable inheritance from Wargames is that all early Computer Wargames were turn-based, meaning that the players (one of whom might be the computer) made alternate moves, and were generally not subject to time limits. The players' moves were then executed either alternately or simultaneously, again as in board and counter Wargames. As computer hardware improved, real time equivalents began to appear, in which players moved simultaneously and combat continued without a pause for thought. Another development was the addition of (generally linear) stories of more significance than the frame narratives employed in sf Wargames (see Interactive Narrative). Evolution along these lines eventually produced forms of Computer Wargame which were quite distinct from their board- and counter-based ancestors.

One useful distinction which can be made between different types of war game is whether they are strategic (meaning that they deal with the conduct of entire military campaigns, including the movement and disposition of forces) or tactical (indicating that they simulate individual battles between small formations in specific terrain). Typically, tactical Computer Wargames resemble tactical Wargames, while strategic computer games are similar to "operational" level board and counter games. The third aspect of warfare, logistics (the management of the production and transport of military equipment and personnel), has not proved as ready a source of inspiration for computer game designers as the other two. Most turn-based strategic Videogames have dealt with contemporary or historical warfare; an early example is the well regarded World War Two game Eastern Front (1941) (1981 Atari8) designed by Chris Crawford. Exceptions include the epic fantasy series Heroes of Might And Magic, which began with Heroes of Might And Magic (1995 New World Computing, DOS; 1996 Mac, Win; 2000 GBC) designed by Jon Van Caneghem, Star General (1996), licenced from David A Drake and Bill Fawcett's Shared-World anthology series The Fleet, and Rites of War (1999 DreamForge Entertainment, Win), a Warhammer 40,000 game in which the player must lead the alien Eldar to victory over human Space Marines and the Genetically Engineered Tyranids. Both of the latter two games are derived from iterations of the well known World War Two Computer Wargame Panzer General: Star General from the original Panzer General (1994 Strategic Simulations Inc [SSI], DOS; 1995 3DO; 1996 Mac, PS1, Win) and Rites of War from the sequel, Panzer General II (1997 SSI, Win).

The turn-based tactical form has also been dominated by historical and contemporary subjects; notable games include Steel Panthers (1995 SSI, DOS) designed by Gary Grigsby and Jagged Alliance (1994 Madlab Software, DOS) designed by Ian Currie, Linda Currie. SF examples based on existing Wargames include Ogre (1986) (see Ogre), Renegade Legion: Interceptor (1990) (see Renegade Legion) and the Warhammer 40,000 licences Chaos Gate (1998 Random Games, Win), a game of combat between superhuman Space Marines with gameplay resembling that of the X-Com series, and Final Liberation (1997 Holistic Design, Win), in which the armies of the human Imperium contest control of the planet Volistad with bestial alien invaders. Many games of this form with original settings and rules are also influenced by existing Wargames, notably the UK developed Laser Squad (1988) and its unofficial sequel, UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994) (see X-Com), which is perhaps the most impressive of all sf related turn-based tactical games. Battle Isle (1991 Blue Byte Software, Amiga, AtariST, DOS) designed by Lothar Schmitt is a less well known German example, first in an eponymous series influenced by the future seen in the film The Terminator (1984).

Several early tactical Videogames involved players in real time combat, as in Legionnaire (1982 Atari8; 1984 C64) designed by Chris Crawford, which deals with battles between Caesar's legions and the barbarians of Gaul. Isolated works with similar gameplay were released over the next decade, including the remarkable fantasy chess variant Archon: The Light And The Dark (1984 Free Fall Associates, AppleII, C64, PCBoot; 1985 Amstrad, Atari8, Spectrum; 1986 Amiga; 1989 NES) designed by Jon Freeman, Paul Reiche III, in which two pieces occupying the same square must fight to determine which takes possession. At the start of the 1990s, however, the key elements of the Real Time Tactics form were developed in such games as the Battletech inspired BattleTech: The Crescent Hawks' Revenge (1989 Westwood Associates, DOS), the UK created military satire Cannon Fodder (1993 Sensible Software, Amiga; 1994 3DO, AtariST, CD32, MegaDrive, SNES; 1995 Jaguar; 2000 GBC; 2004 Phone) designed by Jon Hare, the Warhammer 40,000 licence Space Hulk (1993 Electronic Arts, Amiga, DOS), and Syndicate (1993), also developed in the UK. By the mid 1990s, when Shadow of the Horned Rat (1995 Mindscape, Win; 1996 PS1) was released as a spinoff from the darkly humorous Heroic Fantasy Wargame Warhammer Fantasy Battle (1983 Games Workshop) designed by Bryan Ansell, Richard Halliwell, Rick Priestley, the school had largely been codified as a faster, more fluid version of the turn-based tactical form. Subsequent examples include the World War Two-based Close Combat (1996 Atomic Games, Win), the UK developed historical game Rome: Total War (2004 Creative Assembly, Win) and the epic fantasy Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997 Bungie Studios, Mac, Win) designed by Jason Jones, which shares much of its tone with Glen Cook's Chronicles of the Black Company. Within sf, some of the more impressive later Real Time Tactics games are the Battletech licence Mech Commander (1998 FASA, Win), Starfleet Command (1999 Quicksilver Software, Win) designed by Erik Bethke, which is based on the board and counter Wargame Star Fleet Battles (1979), and the Swedish Ground Control (2000 Massive Entertainment, Win) designed by Martin Walfisz, an ingenious design which offers a more detailed simulation of land warfare than most of its contemporaries but is marred by an uninteresting science-fictional setting. Real Time Tactics has become a much more popular form than its turn-based equivalent, perhaps as a result of its emphasis on intense gameplay over accuracy of simulation. It is also notable that many RTT games (especially those based on sf or fantasy) present their combat missions in the context of an ongoing story, a feature less often seen in the earlier turn-based games, whether tactical or strategic.

A separate form of tactical game developed from the Console Role Playing Game (see Computer Role Playing Games) in Japan. This variant, known as the "tactical RPG", is essentially a Console Role Playing Game that emphasizes turn-based tactical combat, generally on a hexagonal or square grid. Unlike other Computer Wargames, tactical RPGs are almost always released for game consoles rather than personal computers. The gameplay is often similar to that of combat-oriented Computer Role Playing Games such as the Sword and Sorcery Pool of Radiance (1988 SSI, AtariST, DOS; 1989 AppleII, Mac; 1990 Amiga, C64, NES), except that the stories are generally linear and frequently told through a series of missions separated by non interactive sequences which advance the plot, rather than by allowing the characters to roam through the simulated world at will (see Interactive Narrative). Fantasy and Science and Sorcery are the most common themes, as in all Console Role Playing Games. The earliest example of the form appears to be Fire Emblem: The Dragon of Darkness and the Sword of Light (1990 Intelligent Systems, NES), which was only released in Japan. Other games of this type include the Heroic Fantasy Final Fantasy Tactics (1997 Square, PS1; 2007 rev vt Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions, PSP) designed by Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yasumi Matsuno, Hiroyuki Itō (see Final Fantasy), the science-fictional Front Mission (1999) and the unforgettable Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure (1998 Nippon Ichi, PS1, vt The Puppet Princess of Marl Kingdom in Japan) designed by Koichi Kitazurri, John Yamamoto, a romantic fantasy in which the plot progresses through frequent battles with magical puppets, interleaved with sequences sung by the major characters in the manner of a stage musical. A Western example is Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel (2001) (see Fallout).

The most commercially successful form of Computer Wargame, however, has been the Real Time Strategy one. Members of this school are not simply strategic war games which run in real time. Instead they are highly stylized, combining a specific set of elements drawn from 4X Games, Wargames and the Real Time Tactics form. Gameplay involves building bases, factories and other structures on the battlefield, while producing new combat and support units (such as tanks and mining Robots) and simultaneously researching technology which will allow the creation of more powerful units. All of this activity is fuelled by limited resources which must be gathered during play, typically representing energy, matter or both. Meanwhile, the player must fight a tactical battle in real time. Victory in this kind of game requires considerable skill at multitasking, as well as the ability to plan rapidly and respond to unforeseen events. It does not, however, depend on the sort of careful long term planning needed in turn-based strategy games and board and counter Wargames. Real Time Strategy games are also distinguished by their frequent use of science-fictional backgrounds and (generally linear) Interactive Narratives.

Various precursors of the Real Time Strategy form can be identified, among them the US developed Cytron Masters (1982 Ozark Softscape, AppleII, Atari8) designed by Danielle Berry, the Japanese Herzog Zwei (1989 Technosoft, MegaDrive) and Nether Earth (1987 Amstrad, C64, Spectrum), created in the UK. All of these games are real time, and contain some elements of the Real Time Strategy form, but not all of them. The game which defined the type, and created the design pattern used for almost all subsequent real time strategic Videogames, was Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty (1992). Dune II was followed by the fantasy game Warcraft: Orcs & Humans (1994 Blizzard Entertainment, DOS; 1995 Mac) and the science-fictional Command & Conquer (1995), Total Annihilation (1997) and Starcraft (1998). Other examples of the form experimented in various ways. Battlezone (1998) combined RTS gameplay with that of a First Person Shooter, while the impressive Canadian game Homeworld (1999) transferred the core design elements from their normal land and sea setting to a fully three-dimensional interplanetary environment. Age of Empires (1997 Ensemble Studios, Win; 1999 Mac) designed by Rick Goodman, Bruce Shelley, Brian Sullivan and the similar Empire Earth (2001 Stainless Steel Studios, Win) designed by Jon Alenson, Rick Goodman used historical rather than science-fictional settings. The remarkable Giants: Citizen Kabuto (2000 Planet Moon Studios, Win; 2001 Mac, PS2) designed by Nick Bruty, Bob Stevenson, Tim Williams combined Third Person Shooter and Real Time Strategy gameplay with magic, science fiction and the eponymous Godzilla-like monster. Few of these innovations have been adopted by other games, however. Instead, several recent works have concentrated on refining the original pattern while providing better fictional justifications for their design. So the UK developed Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising (2001) uses a script by the UK Comics writer Warren Ellis to explain its gameplay, while the well regarded Warhammer 40,000 game Dawn of War (2004 Relic Entertainment, Win) translates many fundamental RTS concepts into ones that seem more realistic. For example, the game's "requisition" resource corresponds to the local commander's ability to call in reinforcements. Most radically, Supreme Commander (2007) employs much larger maps than previous games, making its battles truly strategic in scope, while cleverly justifying the need to improve the available technology and build new units by beginning every engagement with the player in possession of a single self-reproducing war machine. [NT]

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