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Tactical Simulations - Realism or Fantasy?

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Found this nugget while rereading Fire & Movement, Number 76 (November 1991).

Was this going to be a detailed, accurate simulation, or should I concentrate on putting together an entertaining game...? ...I...opted for an action-intensive, quick playing game, not so much because the market is flooded with detailed simulations already, but because the scale of the game makes the illusion of realism virtually impossible to achieve. Unless you're focusing on role playing elements (and I mean the genuine article, as typified by Recon and Twilight:2000), tactical wargames have a lot less chance of duplicating reality than operational or strategic games. (emphasis added) Operational games focus on the big picture, and if they successfully portray general trends and outcomes, they can produce reasonably accurate simulations, albeit from the perspective of a god-like general. Tactical games, on the other hand, must by definition concentrate on the fine points of a military encounter and are forced to abstract such factors as endurance, morale and attitude. Since these personal elements are more crucial in a tactical battle than the ranges of machine guns or the number of movement points required to cross a river, the resulting game is inevitably out of focus. Skilled role playing game designers can pull this off, military simulations have seldom been able to. As fun as it is, Squad Leader, for instance, is really nothing more than glorified chess.

Special Forces: Designer's Notes, by Rick Swan

Several things struck me

a) the issues that we discuss here re: computer wargaming are, of course, nothing new to the wargaming hobby

B) we have had several discussions here in recent days about CM as simulation v. CM as game and more recently about the importance of "individual characteristics" (for lack of a better term) - specifically different sorts of nationality "traits". To read into what Swan is saying, a successful simulation (not game) would be dependent on how well these "traits" were captured and quantified.

c) and perhaps, it strikes me how far we've come in such a short time. Just 12 years ago we were looking forward to SECRET WEAPONS OF THE LUFTWAFFE (one of the games previewed in the same issue). But it was only 12 years ago. To read all the desperate posts begging for details about CMX2, one would think CM has been the standard in computer gaming for the last 20 years. Perhaps a little more patience is in order. I'd rather not see CMX2 do to CM what GIC did to the CC series.

On the whole though - where does CM fit? As it defied the trend and successfully simulated tactical combat?

Does it matter? Are we not happy enough having a fun "game"?

[ October 13, 2003, 12:16 AM: Message edited by: Michael Dorosh ]

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No, CM is not an accurate representation of tactical combat. It is an excellent strategy game that incorporates some features of tactical combat. The two design goals are in fact incompatible, and CM has made the right choice in making a good strategy game rather than the world's most annoying sim.

Real tactical combat is excruciating, not fun. Nothing works. Everything is friction. Nobody can coordinate the simplest things with each other with any reliability. Half the men engaged haven't the slightest idea what is happening, and many of them have no effect on the outcome other than as victims.

When a low level tactical commander manages to get enough information to form even a tolerably accurate mental representation of what is happening, he rarely has any ability to modify it. Most of his attempted interventions will simply fail. He won't be heard, the man who receives the order will be injured before he can carry it out or pass it on, will make his own mistake, will ignore it as based on innaccurate information, etc.

Of the few that do have an effect, half of them will have unintended effects, good or bad, that had nothing to do with his original idea. Most of them will change the behavior of only a tiny number of units. When widespread effects are actually achieved, they will make no tactical sense for half of the units affected.

This does not go on for 20 minutes. It goes on for hours at a stretch. Giant units frequently remain practically motionless for days due to little more than indescribable confusion. The level of contact the men will actually put up with against one another is nowhere near as high as depicted in CM.

Losses CM players would consider trivial in a single QB often led to abandonment of positions by entire divisions - under orders, not against them. Ammo expenditure was far less rapid than CM depicts, but occurred on a far vaster scale to achieve significant effects.

Above all, the range of variance of combat effects was vastly wider and less certain than the fairly dependable outcomes seen in CM. Riflemen who shot 70% hits on rifle ranges would excel if they hit 0.5% of the time in combat, and the average losses inflicted per bullet fired was 100 times lower again. That is, the likely (expected, not just randomly "rolled") effect of pulling a trigger varied over something like 4-6 orders of magnitude from one occasion to the next.

Everything took longer, was much more confused, much more random, and was much less controlled. Combat is a train wreck during an earthquake at a riot. Not chess.

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Heh, so where does one draw the line.

I think it is obvious that CM appeals because it is a game. (Those that have never served in the military may disagree.)

A perfect simulation of tactical combat would involve something on the order of the holodeck in Star Trek. You'd get kitted out, have to learn a million things that real soldiers learn, and be in good physical shape...

...who would do that for "fun"?

So the line gets drawn considerably short of that. As computer technology increases, we find stuff like this new Battlefield Command, with fairly realistic graphics.

However, I prefer CM because it IS "just" a game. I've got lo-res mods to make my CM world look like a gameboard.

All the talk about showing every soldier in the CM battlefield still mystifies me, for example. How close to the holodeck example do you have to get before you reach the inevitable conclusion - "hey, this just isn't fun"?

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In my opinion, CM is a "game" or "simulation" depending on what scale you view it on. Take a company-sized battle with support. Because of terrain model limitations and other limitations of the engine, what happens to an individual squad or vehicle over the course of a 30 turn game is more on the "game" side, but the whole course of the battle is fairly "simulation"-like for the company involved; there are casualties incurred, surviving units are disorganized and in need of resupply, certain terrain is held or lost, etc.

CM appeals to me because the "game" aspects of what is happening to each individual unit/team/vehicle are gamey enough to be fun, but not so gamey as to be ridiculous most of the time. (Well, with BO anyway. BB... not so much.)

Different board and miniatures games I've played over the years attempt to address these aspects in different ways - some give you a good feel for the progress of a battle throughout (say, Squad Leader for tactical, Napoleon's Battles or Spearhead for "grand tactical") and still give a fairly good simulation of a total battle, some have a stilted and "gamey" play during the game, but manage to give an overall good sense of the entire battle after it's done (like Firepower, Crossfire, or Piquet or other "limited impulse" systems).


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I would add to what's already been said that CM is definitely a game in that it is meant to be played, and is played, for its entertainment value rather than to discover or demonstrate anything about history.

That said, within games it lies much closer to the simulation end of the spectrum than the "beer & pretzels" end.

Y'know, every time one of these discussions comes up, I'm reminded of something Richard Berg wrote 25 years ago in S & T: "Those who insist on absolute realism [in wargames] should play with the firm understanding that the loser will be shot." I think he may have sacrificed accuracy in order to achieve dramatic effect, but it was a memorable turn of phrase and I think it made his point, which was that none of us really wants total realism...unless they are some kind of lunatic.


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Combat is a train wreck during an earthquake at a riot. Not chess.

Combat is chaos, pure and simple. He who can find/create order within that chaos before their opponent can, might succeed...maybe.

But when freinds come over and see the game I'm playing on my computer, they ask: "What the *heck* is that!". So, I tell them.

They then ask: "Why would you want to play something like that?"

"Ever heard of chess?"

"Oh, I get it."

Even the holodeck, I feel, is high-tech chess. I don't see how any simulation, no matter how complex, how intricate, will ever be able to represent the variables of human conflict.

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I agree, I like strategy games not sims. In strategy games the commander has an unrealistic level of coordination and control over his men, and the more levels of real command that spans the less realistic it is. But it is the flexibility such coordination chances afford that makes strategy games interesting.

That one can decide for n sergeants and m lieutenants in addition to 1 captain (or whatever it is in a given case) means one can play "conductor" in a way real life commanders can only dream about. But it also means instead of having only 3 options, 1 of them probably boneheaded, in each typical situation, one instead has more like (n+m+1)^2-3 choices available. The complexity of that is inherently more interesting than the frankly boring (intellectually - there is plenty of physical danger "excitement" of course) jobs of typical low level officers.

And it also enables the game to meet the primary requirement of good strategy - the outcome should depend on the choices of the rival commanders. Chance may play a role but cannot override that influence in overall importance. It is the "matched wits" aspect of strategy games - in an atmosphere of complex, multiple choices - that makes them fun as well as challenging. The players are in charge of what happens on the field.

In comparison, the most accurate sims are much more like watching a movie directed by the game designer - frustratingly passive for the supposed "player". (That is why FPS genre games employ fantasy supermen - mere mortals in real combat are practically powerless as individuals).

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Fortunately CM is not combat, or most of us wouldn't be here!

Its like a Shakespearan play, its shows parts (usually the most interesting) of the players lives - not the whole lives, nor all the details and complexity of the interactions the players discussions and descision cause.

Its a compromise between the horrible reality and fun we obtain from it. If I was the CMs designer the Artillery portion of the game would be much much more complex because I have some detailed knowledge about that area - that complexity would drive others wild.

Like good art CM is best simply enjoyed rather than analyzed.

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What a wonderful thread!

Being a newbie, I truly enjoy reading the thoughts of the "grogs" around here.

I would like to add my humble contribution.

1) "Fun" in military-themed games/sims is a subjective thing. Some people cannot have fun if the side armor of the Tiger is not this or that value. Some people will only have fun if the graphics are top-notch, even when soldiers can demolish a three story buidling with 2 granades. The spectrum in between is big enough to represent a challenge to developers. For me, fun is to employ real life tactics against an oponnent that is doing the same thing in a combat which outcome is plausible or believable. To my most deep delight, when I started using CM, I discovered the certain things you find in the books like recon pulls and command pulls actually work in this game/sim. This is a lot of fun for me. I feel compelled to represent the scenarios discussed in the books into the CM engine to see what I get.

2) Simulations have to make compromises. It is imposible to compute every variable that influences tactical combat. It is in the quality of the compromises and how it does them, where the CM excellence lies.

3) Granularity, or how to look at things at the level they were meant to be seen at. I remember myself months ago running CMBB demo in my computer and seeing my squad a few meters away from another squad, firing to each other without casualties during a whole turn. I thought that CM was crap because of this. Why this soldier didn't die when I saw a bullet to struk him? Later on I learned about the abstractions made of infantry teams. And then I grew up to understand that the real question is not about individual soldiers and individual bullets. It's more about if an attack with an infantry squad against that position would work before my team breaks in panic!

This comes into the realism question. I agree with the posters here that total realism is impossible and probably not fun. The way you see all the details of the battlefield, the way that you can think a lot before instructing orders to EVERY sinle unit are not realistic. But that's just not the point, the point is if, given the orders you gave to your troops, the outcome of the battle is believable or plausible. I think that CM is realistic at that level of "granularity".

Just an opinion.

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And people wonder why there are rule of thumb "requisite odds" of my units against your units before I'll assault. I think the really skilled commanders knew how to take control of the situational variables that they could, in order to diminish the effects of those that they couldn't.

Do Veteran units fare better because they are for some reason (experience?) more ordered when faced with combat situations? It doesn't mean that they will (necessarily) kill more enemy because they are better shots with a rifle, it might just mean that they are less likely to break cohesion. And if so, they might be something more substantial in the midst of the chaos that surrounds them. The commander that can marshall more order out of that chaos, all other things being equal, will probably win the day.

CM runs things a little higher and hotter than real life, because who wants to play CM at a realtime pace? You have too many persona's to impersonate to make that practical, or something other than a click-fest. We-Go, and command delays are a reasonable compromise between simulation and game. So in CM, we can see accuracy where it's easiest to implement, at the hardware level (tanks, armor, penetration, etc) and left more obscured or generalized where it's most difficult to do (people). It is a simulation, and it is a game as well. The two needn't be mutually exclusive. It gives you accuracy where it can, and variability where historically it has always been.

[edited 'cuz I read what I wrote... Gah!]

[ October 13, 2003, 03:26 PM: Message edited by: Mouse ]

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Originally posted by Mouse:

It is a simulation, and it is a game as well. The two needn't be mutually exclusive. It gives you accuracy where it can, and variability where historically it has always been.

I totally agree with you. A software can be a game and a sim at the same time.
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A little bit OT, but anyway.

My other passion are flight simulators. One of them is one of the most realistic fighter jet simulation up to date: Falcon 4.0. A guy (callsing "BeachAV8R", check it out at simhq.com) has writen a bunch of mission reports from the simulator. When you read them, is almost like they came from real life. In fact I have a book by a real F-16 pilot, and many times BeachAV8R reports are very similar (button switching, systems checking, tactics, etc) to the descriptions in the book. The conclusion is that Falcon 4.0 is very realistic.

I think that the situation with CM is quite similar. An AAR of CM describing how you attacked/defended (use of terrain, deception, flanking, etc) could be undinstinguishable from a real life AAR. That's why I am a big fan of CM.

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jasonc said

"Real tactical combat is excruciating, not fun. Nothing works. Everything is friction. Nobody can coordinate the simplest things with each other with any reliability. Half the men engaged haven't the slightest idea what is happening, and many of them have no effect on the outcome other than as victims."

Then I am doing real tactical combat :D

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CM has made the right choice in making a good strategy game rather than the world's most annoying sim.

I predict that Steve and Charles, idealists that they claim to be, will move CM in a more 'annoying' direction with each new iteration of the game.

Someone please explain how you can limit or suppress Borg Spotting, for example, without wrenching a significant amount of control away from the player. And BFC has pledged to do exactly that in CMx.

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What is a simulation?

Under military definitions (in the US and Australia anyway) a simulation is a model exercised over time.

A model is “A physical, mathematical, or otherwise logical representation of a system, entity, phenomenon, or process.”

This does not cover the “wellness” or the “fitness for purpose” of the model for any particular use. Nor does it describe the fidelity required. These things need to be considered on a case by case basis depending on the intended usage.

A simulation never fully represents reality, it is always an approximation. You modify the simulation so that you get the best fit at the area that interests you most.

Therefore CM is a simulation. How well it simulates what you want it too is up to you, the users, to determine smile.gif

Why do you use a simulation?

To answer questions about a situation that cannot be done in reality because it is too expensive or too risky. All combat falls into both of these categories, hence the extensive use of simulation in all military training (in this case all military exercises are simulations, they do not have to be computer based ie field training exercises).

How good a simulation of WW2 combat is CM?

Well it depends on your purpose smile.gif

The arty model is generally poor.

The infantry model at pl or lower is abstracted, but reasonable.

The infantry model at the company level is good to very good (compared to other simulations).

The infantry model at the Bn level is unrealistic (borg spotting in particular). Multiplayer capability with each player as a coy comd would improve this.

Machine guns are better in CMBB, but still lack the beaten zone effect.

It gives a good feeling for how to use combined arms tactics at the company level.

Terrain is both good and bad. It can be used to teach “terrain appreciation” which is an important skill at the Pl-Bn comd level. But real terrain is frequently more complex, although the simpler model is better fro teaching purposes.

Very simple logistics modelling (keeping track of ammo expenditure), but no repair, recovery or resupply.

Orders are executed too fast, and the player can change their mind far too easily.

When compared to military grade simulations at the coy-bn level it is frequently at least as good, and sometimes better. In fact looking at the short list above the only real weakness is the arty model. All the other comments would apply to military simulations that I am familiar with.

Will playing CM make you a military genius?

No. But it will help you to understand the issues that need to be taken into account when fighting at the tactical level.

I have played civilians (ie never been in the Army, knowledge gained through playing games and reading) that have a very good grasp of tactics, and they frequently win. I have also played people who frequently win, and yet show a poor grasp of tactics (tend to play the game). This is a quandary that also applies to military grade simulations smile.gif

I think the issue here is that simulations, like CM, have the potential to teach, educate and provide the opportunity for a player gain knowledge, but only when the player is really seeking these goals.

The rest of the time they are just fun smile.gif



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Interesting thread!

I agree with most of what has been said. Just a few thoughts (ramble).

1. The "lack of realism" is not all due to the game but to the scenarios. It seems that scenario designers go to great lengths to make scenarios balanced. In real life the "scenario designers" go to great lengths to make them grossly unbalanced (whenever they can). But who wants to play a grossly unbalanced scenario?

2. It seems to me that there is the "science of wargaming" and the "art of wargaming". I think that folks that make CM do an most excellent job of finding the right mix between these. The science, in that they sweat the details to get those things "right" that CAN be gotten right in that they ARE able to simulate as accurately as possible things like fire rates, ranges, organizations, uniforms, etc). The parts that they can't simulate they cover well in the art of wargaming (e.g. WEGO vs click fest, etc, TACAI, etc). I personally enjoy wargamming in one sense as a history buff and another sense from an purely aesthetics standpoint in that a good wargame tells a good yarn with lots a high drama (and bit of comic relief too) from an uniquely interactive format that you can't get from simply watching a movie or reading a book.

3. Also, it is in fact a "game" too in that it can test your problem solving skills and your cunning (or lack there of). It also sometimes tests your character as well to see if you are a good winner (don't gloat) and loser (don't whine) or can with some modicum of both diligence dignity finish a scenerio that you blew horribly from the getgo and be satisfied with making the best of a bad situation.

4. It is an excuse to interact with similarly minded (but very diverse) people whom you'd normally never encounter and pontificate on forums like this about interesting topics like this thread and see how horribly your brilliant posts get egregiously missunderstood, woefully under appreciate, and ignominiously flamed.

5. It is both exciting and fascinating to see how resourceful those cleaver game designers are in further pushing the state of the art in both this art and scinece in the next version they realease (yeah CMAK!).

6. As far as realism goes, the only thing I have done personally that even closely resembles "real combat" is abit of Civil War reenacting. Now the only real threat to life reencting is having one of the over wieght, out of shape, over age soldiers having a heat stroke wearing a wool uniform in 100 degree weather. However, I remember doing one campaign where we we were in the back woods and there was nothing modern to be seen. Along the dirt road was a endless line of fedaral troops in blue loitering around amidst the rustic backdrop waiting for orders. Messengers were scurring from one commander to another on horseback. Suddenly, just for moment it was WOW! I was there! Just for a moment. Well, I think that you can have that same experience in a well made wargame too. What I would call a reality flash. It's like something happens in the game that makes you say. Wow! that happened just like in that book I read. Or you have this "Oh! Now I understand why (fill in the blank)". Now the better the wargame masters this mix of art and science the more likly this experience will happen. (Your not going to experience it a Panzer General like in a CM)

The point I guess I struggling here to make here (if anybody has made it this far in my post) is that realism isn't this digital you either have it or you don't thingie. There are shades of grey of realism and momentary flashes. Personally, I think I would prefer peg my fun meter with a momentary flash of realism here and there (albeit vicarious and virtual) over a steady diet of real thing (reality get sold fast!). After all, most of us have already had our fill of reality bringing home the bread all day. When we log on to our computers in the evening or wee hours of the night a flash of reality here and there is quite sufficient!

(end of ramble)

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Originally posted by Midnight Warrior:

1. The "lack of realism" is not all due to the game but to the scenarios. It seems that scenario designers go to great lengths to make scenarios balanced. In real life the "scenario designers" go to great lengths to make them grossly unbalanced (whenever they can). But who wants to play a grossly unbalanced scenario?

Anyone involved in a campaign! Which is why I hope CMX2 will include this type of layer. Even if soldier's abilities don't improve at all, it is still fun to attach a name and history to cyber-crunchies. Once you start to care about losses, etc., you start praying for unbalanced scenarios!
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What I don't understand about the original claim is how operational or strategic wargames are supposed to be more realistic.

There are plenty of modeling challenges as well, and some of them even include psychological factors. Infantry movement rates depend heavily on proficiency of the troops.

Other problems:

- supply

- big units exploiting narrow gaps. For example I have yet to see an operational game which would allow you to have a first echelon break into a defense and open a path for a forward detachment. In most hex games you have to eliminate at least three hexes of defenders, there is no concept on holding them by the nose without actually breaking them

- air and air defense is a big challenge. Even TOAW is pretty bad here

- for modern wargames precision guided weapons

I don't say operational wargames are bad, but I don't see how they are less challenged than tactical wargames.

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Anyone involved in a campaign! Which is why I hope CMX2 will include this type of layer. Even if soldier's abilities don't improve at all, it is still fun to attach a name and history to cyber-crunchies. Once you start to care about losses, etc., you start praying for unbalanced scenarios!

I agree. The advantage of a campaign is not so much that one can rise through the ranks and become a general. It is more can you live to fight another day (and eventually live to go home). That is what is hard to simulate in a wargame. Just how willing am I to die so somebody else can live to go home? In a sceanrio you try to win. In a campaign you try to survive.
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