Wind Catcher Games

Games by Josh Raab

Archive for the tag “Hegemony”

Savor the Void #2 (Part 2)

The Battle of Tanagra: Organic Warfare in the Hegemony Series

In the first half of this article I defined the term organic warfare, considered other games as counter-examples, and went over some of the factors that allow the Hegemony titles to deliver this rare experience. These included their near-exclusive focus on war; their single-player, real-time nature; their skillful AI; and their elegant handling of logistics, troop movement, combat, and siege. Of course, that roster is not exhaustive, so I may end up addressing other aspects of their design in this half. Now, as promised, I will examine the gameplay in greater detail, attempting to determine exactly what feels organic and why.

Beginning at a broad level, warfare in Hegemony comes in two main flavors: invasions and raids. The player expands by launching large-scale assaults into hostile territory, and must repulse enemy armies to hold onto conquered lands. When manpower is lacking, the player can send smaller raiding parties, weakening foes too powerful to destroy outright. The AI loves to do this, constantly harassing the player’s borders and coasts, though different factions have varying aggression levels. From a tactical perspective, troops may engage in many types of military action, most importantly reconnaissance maneuvers, skirmishes, pitched battles, sieges, and blockades.

I covered raids a bit in the previous piece, stating the natural value of light infantry and cavalry in carrying them out. These swift units can dash in and out of enemy territory with impunity, capturing unguarded possessions, burning farms, and disrupting supply routes. Most cavalry will need to flee if the enemy mounts any reasonable defense, but light infantry can actually defeat enemy heavy infantry by darting around open terrain and turning to hurl a few javelins when they’ve fled to a safe enough distance. With sufficient care, 10 peltasts can defeat 40 hoplites, or at least distract and annoy them for a long time.

This may sound like an exploit, but it doesn’t feel like one. AI hoplites will charge if they have the stamina, so the player’s fragile light infantry need to be carefully managed, as they’ll rout quickly if caught in close combat. Furthermore, enemies won’t stray too far from home, and will retreat if in serious trouble. History also supports the power of hit-and-run tactics. Greek light infantry proved so effective that hoplites shed most of their armor over the course of the Archaic and Classical periods, their iconic bronze panoply eventually reduced to a metal skullcap and shield. This was an attempt to increase battlefield mobility, awareness, and endurance, as peltasts were running circles around the ponderous phalanxes.

If anything, Hegemony doesn’t go far enough, as forests and hills don’t slow heavy units or benefit light troops. According to Thucydides, Athenian and allied hoplites suffered a shocking defeat at the hands of local skirmishers in Aetolia due to exactly such rough and unfamiliar terrain. Even though the game doesn’t incorporate this advantage, the light infantry maneuvering it does allow is nevertheless realistic.

Since this is such a good way of dealing with enemy hoplites, defensive garrisons often benefit from the presence of peltasts. Cavalry can drive off enemy skirmishers and hurry from town to town in response to shifting threats. Heavy infantry are essential for holding narrow passes or fighting off large invasions, while cheap spearmen are good for keeping the peace, since occupied towns will rebel if left empty.

Each faction boasts different unit types and aggression levels, so the player needs to constantly tailor his defenses as his borders grow and his armies march for new fronts. The AI seems to have some sense for when a region is poorly manned, and negligent players can expect to face incursions until the frontier is strengthened. Likewise, the AI won’t throw itself at an impregnable fortress, though it may well send minor raids. Watch towers are an indispensable component of defensive strategy, giving the player time to prepare appropriately when the enemy crosses the border.

Offensive intelligence is no less critical. There is no espionage system, so cavalry or ships can provide necessary reconnaissance. After scoping out an area for conquest, the player will need to prepare, as haphazard invasions are guaranteed to fail. Good preparation is complex. First, a route must be chosen, by land or sea. Most areas have multiple natural approaches, each with drawbacks and advantages, so this can be a critical choice.

The Isthmus of Corinth won’t fall easily. Better approach by sea, or land elsewhere in the Peloponnese and come up from behind.

Next, an army of sufficient size, with an appropriate unit mix, must assemble at a staging point. This can be a city, a fort, or even a field; Hegemony includes a “camp and forage” command to facilitate this last option. If the best location happens to be in hostile hands, the player may want to launch a preliminary assault. For example, in my Sandbox campaign with the Phocians, I conquered the Athenian-held island of Corcyra to serve as a naval base for my invasion of Epirus. Scyros and Aegina fulfilled the same purpose in the strategic action which opened Part 1 of this article, part of my Ionian War game.

With the men gathered, the player must ensure that enough supplies are available to feed them during the trek and subsequent siege. The larger the army, the more they eat and the slower they move; these factors combine to discourage massive hordes. Witness the massive Persian invasions of Greece, devouring entire harvests and drinking rivers dry. If the area has plentiful farmland, summer and fall are the best campaigning seasons, as the troops can plunder farms at their most productive. On the other hand, new flocks appear in the winter…

Get away from my sheep, dammit!

…so the time to invade mountainous areas may be the end of autumn, as the AI will quickly send units to haul the lambs into the safety of their cities. Since ships can’t move long distances during winter, spring or summer are most auspicious for long-distance naval movements. All that said, there is flexibility here: food can be transported manually, beached ships recover health, and so on. The game guides the player in realistic ways, but clever planning can overcome its barriers.

Once the invasion is underway, the player must take care to see it through. For example, sending a screening force of empty triremes can save the men aboard a transport fleet; even if the scout ships sink, no soldiers are aboard them to drown. Likewise, the player may not want to send infantry to assault a city’s walls right away. At any time, the whole garrison can come pouring out, overwhelming the besiegers.

In many cases, the superior option is to lure the foe into a pitched battle outside. The AI isn’t stupid enough to come out for no reason, but the player can draw them out by ravaging the countryside: seizing mines and forts, capturing or burning farms, and blocking off supply routes. Catapults can cause serious damage to walls without exposing themselves to danger, forcing the enemy to sally forth to destroy them. Decoy attacks can send AI reinforcements running to other towns, leaving the player’s true target undefended. Again, enemies are smart about this, and such a diversion has to be well executed. When it works, it feels natural, as though you’ve just outsmarted an actual foe, as opposed to tricking some dumb algorithm. These all seem like natural considerations and strategies for an ancient general.

With the Megarian garrison distracted by the battle at Tanagra…

…it’s time to pounce.

Let’s take a moment to examine pitched battles more closely. Geography heavily affects their course; for instance, a battle in a narrow pass will likely be determined by the quality and quantity of heavy infantry present on each side. Open fields favor cavalry and flanking maneuvers, though a battleline of phalangites or hoplites is essential as well. Hegemony’s map, which is based on satellite imagery of the Aegean region, offers a wide variety of terrain to fight in, keeping the player on his toes. The forces required to invade the mountainous kingdom of Epirus are quite different from those needed to subdue the tribal horsemen of the Danube valley or take on the Athenian maritime empire.

As a rule, though, mixed-unit tactics will win the day. Battles follow a natural sequence of shock, melee, and pursuit, and different unit types are built for different phases. Heavy infantry can defeat other troops in close combat, but when two hoplite squads are duking it out, light infantry support can give one side the edge. Quick-moving cavalry are ideal for charging peltasts and chasing down fleeing foes, but won’t last long in hand-to-hand fighting.

All this is fairly standard, but what’s amazing is how battles seem to just happen, and how naturally each unit’s attributes feed into the system to create an organic command experience. Proper “battles” rarely happen in many games; for example, Civilization tends to have amorphous, drawn-out wars. Total War games bring them about by a clear contrivance: opposing armies passing near each other are obliged to engage in formal combat or else retreat a fixed distance. In Hegemony, the transition from strategic to tactical movement is seamless, but proper pitched battles still occur—just like in real life!

This is, to me, the epitome of “organic warfare,” and quite probably the main reason I’m writing this article. Cavalry are useful in reconnaissance for the exact same reason they’re useful in pursuit. The large size of heavy infantry units makes them hard to maneuver and feed, but indispensable in melee and siege. Their “armor” may be abstract, represented by statistics of speed and defense that bear no necessary relation to each other, but it’s easy to imagine one factor both slowing them down and making them hard to kill. Everything just makes sense.

And it’s not just an internally coherent system: the history matches up too. At the start of the Peloponnesian War, King Archidamus of Sparta ravaged the Attic countryside. Confident as the Peloponnesian troops were in their combat superiority, they nevertheless lacked the technical skill to overcome the Athenian Long Walls. Pericles, knowing that the city could be supplied by sea as long as those walls held, forbade the Athenians from marching forth, refusing to risk the security of the city in a pitched battle against the dreaded Spartan war machine.

Year after year, the Spartans and their allies returned to burn the fields, but they accomplished almost nothing of value. (They did accidentally facilitate the spread of the devastating Athenian plague by penning up a huge population in a space not fit to hold them, at least not under sanitary conditions.) Meanwhile the Athenians raided the Peloponnesian coast, harrying the Spartan allies and wearing down their reserves of patience and money.

Plague aside, Hegemony allows for very similar events to happen unscripted. Huge quantities of food can be transported by sea over any distance; the system of population and recruitment allows for wars of attrition; and sieging a well-stocked city by land is a slow and dangerous process. This last factor goes double for the Peloponnesian War campaigns in Wars of Ancient Greece, where catapults are not available.

A note on catapults. Philip’s use of these weapons represented a major advancement in offensive siegecraft, greatly reducing the time and danger involved in taking a city by force. Therefore their power makes sense in Philip of Macedon. However, they do feel out of place in the second Hegemony title’s Sandbox mode: while the player can build them as any faction, the AI never does so. From a design perspective, this imbalance may make up for the lack of “objectives,” which provide bonuses when completed in the other campaigns. While the exclusive ability to use catapults gives the player a similar boost in the Sandbox mode, perhaps maintaining the right challenge level, it feels like an unnatural advantage.

However, on a similar topic, the game perfectly demonstrates the military role of citadels and forts: they are bases from which armies can march out against invaders, and to which they can retreat when threatened. If you have ever wondered how a castle actually controls the countryside, there you have it. Borders in Hegemony, while shown on the map, are fairly abstract: soldiers do not follow different rules of movement, supply, or combat in enemy and friendly territory, as they do in many games. It is a testament to Hegemony’s organic nature that the conquest of towns and forts remains nevertheless critical for the safety of advancing armies.

A final point: these fortified bases represent such major obstacles that virtually every one requires a conscious plan to seize. Aside from keeping the player constantly engaged, this engenders a sense of gradual conquest which seems appropriate to the period. There was no Hellenic blitzkrieg. Rather, massive armies often failed to take tiny walled towns, or at least only succeeded in doing so after long months of siege. The story of the ten-year Trojan War, while exaggerated in the details, is a good illustration. As mentioned, though, catapults do upset this balance, as does the new alliance option in Wars of Ancient Greece, which essentially causes an entire faction to join the player for a fee. Diplomacy was a major factor in ancient Greek interstate politics, but Hegemony does not handle it well.

Still, to focus purely on the military, Hegemony creates an experience like none other. When I studied ancient history in college, I read about all these things: the impact of geography, the importance of logistics, the convenience of naval transport, the difficulty of siege. But I didn’t know exactly how they worked. Hegemony brings them to life in a way that makes it all click better than any other strategy game I’ve played.

To return to where we started, perhaps that understanding is what allowed me to conquer not only Oichalia and Megara, but Tanagra as well. It was a fiercely fought battle, with hundreds of casualties on both sides, but by the end my Peloponnesians stood on Athens’ doorstep. It wasn’t long until we swarmed beyond Eleusis into the great city herself. A generation of war had ended. We had won.

–Josh, 7/8/12

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Savor the Void #2 (Part 1)

The Battle of Tanagra: Organic Warfare in the Hegemony Series

Attica was a fortress. Though my Peloponnesians had conquered countless islands from the hated Athenians, including Aegina and Salamis right on their doorstep, their home peninsula remained forbidding as ever. To the north lay Euboea, a seabound shield against the Sporades. Megara on her isthmus, Tanagra in her open field, and Eleusis by her mountain held the western approaches. And any invasion via Sounion would break against the walls of Athens herself, as the Cape held no smaller towns to serve as forward bases.

But hope was not lost. I had marshalled my forces from all directions. The troops of Attica and Euboea were legion, but they could not protect every front at once. From my staging point at Aegina, I would land hoplites near Megara. I would transport men from the freshly taken Scyros down to Euboean Oichalia. Most dramatically, I would launch an all-out assault on Tanagra, the centerpiece of the Athenian defensive line. As my hoplites were only just numerous enough to surround the city, they would need to fend off enemy reinforcements while simultaneously maintaining the siege. I would provide them with plentiful cavalry and peltast support, but auxiliary units like these would collapse quickly without a battleline of heavy infantry to act as a holding force against enemy hoplites. Two more of my own hoplite units were holed up in Decelea, behind Tanagra, but their supply lines had long been blocked. They were starving, and would rout at once if engaged.

This is a scene from Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece, but with a little rewriting it could be a passage from Thucydides. That’s not in itself remarkable; most strategy games can support a realistic narrative. Hegemony may be more detailed than some, but detail is a known variable, commanding the familiar spectrum which runs from simplified/abstracted to complicated/realistic. More intriguing to me is a certain nebulous quality, a term I will have to coin and explain here. Hegemony does a better job than any other game I know at creating organic warfare.

So, what am I talking about? It’s fuzzy territory, but I’d like to propose at least a working definition. Let’s say organic gameplay comprises situations, events, and results that appear to happen naturally, in accordance with what we expect from our knowledge of the real world. In that case, a game with organic warfare should complement our conception of commanding a military force. It should suspend our disbelief, creating seamless flow by immersing us in the experience. Things should “feel” right, as though they are happening as part of a logical, consistent, and more or less realistic system. And that system must appear unstructured and elegant, even though it of course arises from design decisions and lines of code.

Not satisfied with that explanation? Me neither. It may help if I explain by negation, telling you what is not organic. First, and most important, hyper-realism is not organic. There are two flavors of hyper-realism in games of war: experiential and statistical. History buffs like to imagine a game that would play exactly like being a soldier or general. You would have to worry about signaling orders in battle, gathering and checking intelligence, purchasing and maintaining equipment, posting sentries, drilling your soldiers, and so on. That game would suck. More, it would almost certainly fail to feel organic. The more closely it approached reality, the more painfully obvious the limitations of the game system would be. With sufficient technology, it might in time become indistinguishable from commanding an actual army, but I suspect that’s not as much fun as playing a strategy game.

Statistical hyper-realism, on the other hand, has too hard a focus on mathematics. Though ideally the calculus reflects tactical principles, winning is often more a question of arithmetic than of generalship. All strategy games rely on numbers at their core, true, but an organic system will minimize the player’s involvement with them, highlighting the experiential aspect instead. A helpful analogy may be the difference between a baseball card game like Strat-O-Matic or MLB Showdown and a baseball video game: which feels more like playing baseball?

Along similar lines, turn-based video games like Civilization, Advance Wars, or Fire Emblem can hardly feel organic. All rely heavily and blatantly on numbers. They are highly abstracted and stylized, making it much more difficult to forget that you are playing a game. The Total War series occupies a sort of middle ground here, zooming back and forth between real-time tactical battles and turn-based empire management. This shift, already unnatural enough by itself, also mandates certain structural concessions. Strategic movement happens by turns and in groups, reinforcements and retreats are handled awkwardly, and so on. While the Total War formula has many advantages over Hegemony’s, for example facilitating the management of massive empires and allowing the player to devote his complete attention to each battle, it nevertheless remains the less organic of the two.

What about real-time strategy games like StarCraft or Age of Empires? In these, the player is required to split his attention between resource management and troop maneuver, distracting from either by demanding both. The breakneck pace of competitive matches compounds the problem, making physical speed and hotkey mastery at least as important as tactical prowess. Furthermore, at least for factions that rush, units pop out, move, and die so quickly that they possess little individual value. These systems are deep, strategic, and fascinating, but the experience they create is a beast all its own, little resembling that of a conventional general.

The Europa Universalis titles are grand-scale RTS games like Hegemony, and so perhaps a good candidate for comparison. However, they simply lack any tactical element, preferring to focus on exploration, economics, politics, research, religion, and so on. War is conducted at a macro level, with the player handling little more than recruitment and strategic movement, reduced to a spectator in battle.

Hegemony games, on the other hand, are all about warfare. The first installment, Philip of Macedon, had no diplomacy system whatsoever, and the one in Wars of Ancient Greece is skeletal at best. The only resources are food and money, the latter of which is divided solely into income and expenses, instead of being gathered and spent as in a typical RTS. Foreign trade does not exist, and while internal supply lines do generate a minimal income, their main function is to move supplies around to feed soldiers. But these are not mere omissions. Rather, I would argue that Hegemony achieves organic warfare in large part by making that aspect its primary focus.

But there are other factors as well. The game benefits from being real-time, as its necessary abstractions are less apparent. For example, a hoplite brigade in Hegemony consists of 40 to 50 men, representing roughly the military capacity of a small ancient Greek town. A more realistic figure might be around 200, but in a turn-based game, the unit would probably be displayed as a single piece. Likewise, measuring in game time, troops take seasons, years, or decades to cross even short distances in Total War and Civilization titles, while movement in Hegemony occurs at an impressively realistic clip.

The game’s single-player nature also helps, allowing the player to stop, think, and plan like a real strategist. The level of coordination this permits might be unrealistic, both in local combat and between far-flung forces, but it’s also true that one general would not personally command every brigade in a battle, or be expected to manage armies hundreds of miles apart (unless his name is Subutai). Ready access to the pause button allows one player to act as many captains without worrying about his APM.

A single-player game could not be organic with poor AI: few things shatter immersion faster than finding an exploit. But Hegemony delivers smart, skillful enemies. Their workings are also reasonably transparent; though their funds are invisible, their troop creation and movement can be tracked with a bit of reconnaissance, from which it is clear that the computer operates within the same system as the player. Strategy game AIs are notorious for bending the rules to increase difficulty, as in the case of the dreaded “tiny nation with a giant army.” (Looking at you, Total War and Europa.) The challenge may be fun, but the idea is ridiculous. Now, the Hegemony AI isn’t perfect, especially on the sea. But it’s humbling, fascinating, and infuriating in the best way to be repulsed by an expertly staged defense, or punished with incessant raiding for leaving a border poorly guarded. The AI’s ability to mount a decent naval invasion, a feat that eludes many of its ilk, deserves a special mention.

The conflict between player and AI which provides the core gameplay relies on several closely connected systems, foremost among them logistics, troop movement, combat, and siege. Each of these contributes to the organic feel of play. Logistics are simple, allowing the player to concentrate on maintaining blockades, ravaging the countryside, and protecting his own supply lines. Since units need food in the field and big armies tend to move slowly, major invasions require careful planning lest the men starve before they capture their target. When moving far afield, larger forces may need workers, slaves, or ships to bear additional supplies, though enemy farms or captured sheep can provide rations in a pinch.

Conversely, small raiding parties of cavalry or light infantry can scout ahead, harass enemy supply lines, and capture unguarded locations, then use their speed to flee if necessary. Triremes can whisk battalions across great distances unopposed; in Philip of Macedon, the Athenian navy is the bane of the early game, popping up out of nowhere to harass your heartland before disappearing with impunity.

For a game about war, Hegemony’s combat is surprisingly straightforward. There are only a few land unit types: the campaigns in Wars of Ancient Greece star hoplites, peltasts, and light cavalry almost exclusively. Others have prominent roles in the Sandbox mode (notably catapults) and Philip of Macedon (notably phalangites) but recruiting options are always limited, so it’s easy to know which unit to pick for a given job. Battles follow basic rules: heavy infantry thrash light infantry and cavalry, while a cavalry charge can rout light infantry. Being flanked or pelted with missiles reduces morale, as does running out of food or losing soldiers. I won’t describe the whole system, but it’s pretty easy to wrap your head around, especially if you have some grounding in the history of the period.

Sieges are even simpler. Besiegers reduce the hit points of cities or forts at a certain rate. Soldiers within slow this rate and rain missiles from the walls. If the target is starving or undermanned, it falls faster. Bigger towns have more hit points. That’s about it.

These systems and others combine to create a realistic, engaging, and organic experience. In the second half of this article I’ll explore what exactly that entails. How does a game with organic warfare play out? What does the player do? How does the AI respond? And what makes the whole thing “organic?”

[Special thanks to Ryan Belanger for setting me straight on StarCraft, or at least trying. If I still messed that part up, the fault is mine.]

–Josh, 6/23/12

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