Damian Walker

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Evolution of my Wargame System

Wednesday, 16th September 2020

In my Barren Planet: a New DOS Project blog post I mentioned how I was going to develop an old system into a new game. Starting on this project has led me on a nostalgia trip and I thought I'd share some of the memories of old projects and the design decisions I made at the time.

Old DOS Projects

Originally, I was going to work on a project with a friend. We were both interested in strategy games, and I thought it would be fun to work on a project together. That project didn't get very far before my friend lost enthusiasm. But I'd long been bitten by the programming bug, so I continued with the idea on my own.

Another thing that drove me on was that my computer was an old dinosaur by the standards of the day. In 1992, an IBM PC with a text-only display wasn't going to run much I could buy in a computer shop. The commercial internet hadn't boomed yet, so finding strategy games that I could run was very difficult. But it was an ideal system for messing around with QuickBASIC. So I realised that if I wanted to play interesting strategy games, then I would have to write them myself.

Since that original collaboration project was dead in the water, I decided to take some ideas from it and make something of my own. The setting we'd chosen was modern warfare, but that wasn't really my cup of tea. I'd seen friends playing with Wargame Construction Set on their Amigas and I thought I'd write a simplistic equivalent in BASIC for the PC. That became Simple Wargame Creator.

I supplied a number of scenarios with this game: a Roman Naval war game inspired by Legions of Death, which I adored on the ZX Spectrum; a fantasy wizard battle which was inspired by Lords of Chaos which I'd played with friends on the Amiga; an American Civil War battle inspired by my brother's interest in the period; a World War III battle to please my aforementioned friend, and a space battle to scratch my own sci-fi itch.

My AI knowledge wasn't up to writing a computer player that could handle moving arbitrary units across arbitrary terrain. So I made it two-player only which severely limited its playability. However, I addressed this in my next game, Dreadnought II which restricted the system to a single theme for which I could attempt an intelligent computer player.

I was very interested in battleships at the time, constantly renewing books on the subject from the local library, and devouring the inspiration they gave me. Inspiration, more than information, as you'll probably tell if you try to play Dreadnought. It models my impressions of these mighty ships rather than actual historical naval battle tactics. After Dreadnought II, I got sidetracked into other projects (mainly BBS stuff and Astrowar) before returning to this wargame system.

The Strife Wargame Engine

In the late 1990s I picked up a Psion Series 3a. After finding my way around the system and its BASIC-like OPL programming language, I resurrected my wargame system, added graphics and adapted it for the Psion. The result was Strife, which restricted the map size, unit types and terrain types within tighter limits than Simple Wargame Creator but added graphics and a simplistic computer player. A game consisted of a single battle scenario, as before. I updated to a Psion Series 5mx and redeveloped the system for that computer, which I stuck with for subsequent releases.

One thing I realised was that a single battle map of 20x10 wasn't big enough to showcase eight terrain types and eight unit types. I didn't want to expand the map as I thought (incorrectly, as it turned out) that the system wouldn't be able to scroll around a bigger map at an acceptable speed. So instead I decided to add a campaign system, consisting of multiple maps. This meant that the campaign designer could sprinkle a few unit types and terrain types on each map, giving a different flavour to each battle in the campaign.

I decided to restrict the theme again, mainly because I wanted to adorn the game with some more attractive panel graphics. For that I needed to know what the setting was, in order to give some kind of realistic theme to the side panels. So the game became War in Ancient Times, for which I digitised some ancient war-themed murals. I originally created a ficitious campaign that allowed me to showcase all the terrain and unit types without the burden of doing some research.

After the game was released, I did some actual research and released the only DLC I ever did for these wargames: Hannibal, a campaign based on the Second Punic War. I planned the campaigns of Alexander and the Pelopponese War, but never got past the research phase for either. Research for these things was time consuming!

What I came to realise with War in Ancient Times was that it gave no reason to preserve units. If the battle wasn't going your way, you might as well send everything across the map to die in an impressive but unrealistic blaze of glory. Some reason to withdraw weakened units was needed, and the result was the next game: Battle of the Mages.

I returned to the fantasy theme inspired by Lords of Chaos, and built a game that was even closer to it than my Simple Wargame Creator scenario. For this game added to the engine the ability to create and restore units, or in Battle of the Mages to "summon" and "heal" them. A powerful "wizard" unit type was given the ability to summon and heal other units, at a cost which was termed "mana". A certain amount of mana was generated for both players each turn. Now there was a reason to withdraw injured units during the battle.

There was still something lacking in the game, and I remembered a feature of Wargame Construction Set: victory positions. Occupying these would win the battle without having to destroy every enemy unit. This would add variety to the scenario objectives and also give a smaller force a chance to prevail over a larger one. I added victory positions and created the game Crusade to the Stars around them.

Inspired by Star General, I split the unit and terrain types between space and planetary surface theatres - mainly because there wasn't much of a variety of "terrain" types in space. In Crusade to the Stars the division between ground and space battles was arbitrary and driven by a story. Scenarios were often paired so that one had to take control of the planets in a star system before taking control of cities on the ground, in both cases using the new victory position mechanic. One touch I thought quite clever was that the fighter unit type was used both in space and in ground battles.

The World at Strife

By the time I'd written Stars the Psion was an obsolete platform: not yet old enough to attract the interest of retrocomputing enthusiasts, and never a big gaming system, it felt like I was the only person still playing with them. So I decided to come full circle and make the final release a wargame creator again, so that I and others could make new campaigns in new settings without too much effort. By now I'd found out that Strife was a first-person shooter whose existence had passed me by, so I renamed the system The World at Strife.

To get around the graphical problem of no fixed theme I decided to implement four generic themes based on materials: stone, wood, metal and plastic. These were decorated to make them suitable for ancient, medieval, modern and future settings, and hopefully any periods between. I added some minor features to the system at the same time. A one-player setting allowed the campaign designer to designate one player as the computer, allowing linear campaigns to be created. And a per-scenario setting allowed the enabling or disabling of creating and restoring units. I added four campaigns to go with the four broad themes.

As I'd already done a full game on ancient warfare, I went for ancient mythology to suit the ancient theme: Heroes of Zeus gave one side six super-strong heroes to battle against larger armies of monstrous creatures supposedly summoned by other gods in a great celestial sport inspired by films like Clash of the Titans and Jason and the Argonauts, as well as other Greek myths.

I'd been reading a lot of English history, and I thought that the Wars of the Roses would make a good medieval war theme, so I did some extra research and allowed the player to choose between the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

For the metal theme I went for World War II. Here I showcased the one-player linear campaign mode, but made the player The Nazi Menace rather than the allies, partly because in the early part of the war all the success was with the Germans. Games where the player defeats the Germans were common, so I decided to see if the player could recreate the Germans' early success and perhaps win the aerial Battle of Britain too.

Finally, the sci-fi campaign was Barren Planet, a theme I've decided to revive with its own whole game for the forthcoming jam. The struggle of the two fictitious megacorporations was a welcome break from the research-heavy historical campaigns, and that's probably a good reason for choosing the theme for the time-limited jam!