When I returned to Matrix games, I sought out the folks responsible for the Close Combat game series. Why? Because it operates on the theater of warfare that has always intimidated me ... but I wish it didn't! Close Combat models small scale, tactical warfare in an amazingly complete manner. It acknowledges fatigue, morale and experience to create a startlingly realistic model of behavior for combatants in modern and recent history conflicts. If you have heard of the Close Combat series, odds are, you're familiar with the concept and know if the game series is your cup of tea or not. If you're not familiar with Close Combat, there are plenty of places where you can learn all about the long-running series - including the CloseCombat.org. As such, it's probably less important for me to talk about the game as it exists and more fruitful and entertaining to share some of the things that I discussed with Shaun Wallace - who manages the Serious Games projects in the Matrix Games family.
Alright - where does one go when you have a NASA-driven artificial intelligence that models soldier responses on a tactical level, with "rafts" (to quote Shaun) of real-life data serving as a template? What kinds of things do you add in when you're looking to enhance the experience of individual, small-scale engagements? The answer is to derive your challenges from the problems faced in modern engagements. Essentially, you look to the evening news for inspiration. That's right, Close Combat is broadening its horizons and tackling the issues that the military encounters in modern hotbeds like Iraq.
Shaun describes it as asymmetrical warfare. Those less military savvy (like me) may be helped by picturing it as: Instead of "us" trying to blow up "them" while they do the same, "they" are hiding from "us" until they get ready to strike. You can also think of it as: "Good grief - these civilians really get in the way ..." This scenario adds a whole "raft" (I love that ... ) of new concepts to the game. There are new victory conditions, new behavioral triggers and new effects on the AI engine as it exists, because an entirely new set of circumstances has arisen.
OK, OK, that's fancy developer talk! Give examples! Alright, imagine that you can order your troops to search civilians. Civilians don't really like being hassled, so they can get hostile if you shake them down too much. Problem is, if you don't search that one critical civilian, he might get through and blow up a location you're supposed to be holding intact. What if a civilian refuses to let you search them? Does that mean they have a bomb? You can force compliance, but what if they don't have a bomb? How will that affect the watching crowd? For that matter, what if they DO have a bomb? How do you control the situation if THAT arises? It's very, very cool to be able to model these kinds of things - but one of the questions I asked Shaun is, "Is that actually FUN?" The answer was kind of interesting.
Shaun shared that the Close Combat series has hit a bit of a divergence point. The military is now encountering situations that are, indeed, NOT fun (even in the abstract) - and Close Combat needs to find a way to include these things while keeping the fact that this is a game near to their heart. As such, Close Combat will be morphing into a dual product - with the pure simulation on one hand, aimed at the military, and a "game" version on the other side, aimed at enthusiasts who enjoy war gaming. The fact that they really WERE developing for the Marines staggered me a bit, as I wasn't aware that Close Combat was a staple in a course that Marine junior officers must pass before they can move higher in the military hierarchy. Impressive! If that didn't lend enough credence to Close Combat as a realistic tactical simulator, Shaun related a bit of the history of Close Combatand the Marines.
Studies showed that simulations of actual operations resulted in junior officers reliably making the same decisions in the simulation that their counterparts had made in the field or in traditional training courses designed to mimic the field, Shaun said. This correlation suggests that simulation is a reasonable facsimile as far as critical decision-making is concerned, but the simulation costs far, far less than traditional training courses. Once simulation is established as viable, repeated runs and coursework on Close Combat sims provide a significantly less expensive and exhausting way for junior officers to "practice" for their expected roles in live-fire situations.
So, what will the gamers be getting while the Marines are working on asymmetrical warfare scenarios?
In short, gamers will be getting an expanded "campaign" for Close Combat. The team is currently working on interfaces and models that are intended to establish and support a game at the strategic level (logistics and supply, gross troop movement, etc.), and the operational layer (accomplishing goals and establishing forces locally), as well as the traditional tactical level (actual firefights and small-scale engagements between opposed forces in very defined areas). In short, they're creating a more complete WAR game, including a tremendously branched campaign, as opposed to the standard Close Combat titles - which are comprised of individual scenarios designed by people or generated randomly to fit a set of tactical battle parameters. Mmmmff, I'd play it! Shaun gave it a rough comparison to the Total War series of games, but he noted that Total War would never make a game like this, because they focus on large-scale engagements between tons of little dudes bashing one another about in various ways ... and (coincidentally) we both happen to appreciate that large-scale bashing as a fun time on its own!
The final juicy bit that looks to be making its way into Close Combat is the concept of regionalized AI. This posits that a modular AI is capable of making British troops react differently than (say) French troops. Americans will react differently than Iraqi militia, and troops from Asian nations will behave differently still. These differences are less based on such mechanics as experience and such (as the Close Combat engine would already handle that) and more based on concrete cultural differences that drive troops to do drastically different things when placed in the same circumstances and given the same orders. Very neat!
As I noted above, the tactical level has always put me off (mostly in board gaming) for one reason or another. Too many charts. Too much die rolling. Morale rules seemed cheesy. It was always something. Close Combat, however, uses computers to take care of all the tedious stuff, has a tremendously capable AI running all the "soft" stuff and does so based on rafts of data that ensure that things are as close to reality as we can make them. Combine this with the expansion of scope in upcoming versions, add in the asymmetrical concepts that I discussed with Shaun, and I think that old hands at Close Combat have plenty to look forward to - while newcomers could have a world of fun ready to play.
I'd like to conclude by noting that I put the Close Combat engine to the test with my final question. I asked Shaun if I could pretend that one of my units was a young guy that was well-liked by all of his squad mates. I would then pretend that he had a girlfriend (or newlywed wife; possibly pregnant) waiting for him at home and that he always told his squad mates about all the great stuff they were going to do when he got home. Shaun was pretty sure (as was I) that this meant the poor little guy was doomed to die first, as countless Hollywood presentations ASSURE us that he's going to be pathos-fodder. Is he actually doomed? Grab a copy of Close Combat and find out for yourself!