Behind the Lines
October 2007

In This Issue

 

Grazing Fire

Hello and welcome back to the latest edition of Behind the Lines, the official Matrix Games newsletter. This week we have the latest edition of our Saipan feature, the next few maneuvers in the Advanced Tactics AAR, and a few new little features that may catch your eye. But first, an interesting little gem of wargaming found in the dark recesses of a wargaming forum. I like to call this piece: Back to the Basics:

It was one of those cast-a-wide-net forum questions (never mind which one) that elicits so many strongly opinionated responses; the person who posted the original message eventually wishes he'd just kept his mouth shut. But the discussion did get us to thinking about the fundamental qualities shared by all the "really good strategy games".

Most of the follow-up posts (which quickly mutated into a brush-fire debate ranging far afield of the original discussion; you know how those things go…) consisted of lists-of-titles that one grognard after another wanted to nominate. After following the discussion inevitably wandered off-track into the usual personal rants and screeds, we checked out. But we also decided to pursue the matter further, on our own. To that end, we sent out e-mail questionnaires to a select group of colleagues (reviewers, programmers, media pundits, etc.) who had all been involved in the genre long enough to earn their keep, and who might be inclined to give the matter some serious thought.

It was a straw-poll - informal, but aimed at some very informed people - focused on this question: Ignoring, for the purposes of this survey, such side-issues as technological innovations, flash-in-the-pan media hype, and "evolutionary" dead-ends that might initially have looked like millennial changes but turned out to be merely trends on steroids, what in your opinion are the essential characteristics, the common denominators, of those "classic" strategy games you consider to be paradigms of the genre at its best?

Twenty-two out of 26 persons responded (and the four who didn't had moved to newer addresses than the ones we had on file), and those responses were very thoughtful. While this impromptu survey could hardly be called "scientific" (the "sampling" was too small and the methodology much too informal for that), the feedback was deeply interesting - so interesting that we decided ton share it with the subscribers to this newsletter. What surprised us (given the legendary contentiousness of wargamers!), was the overall unanimity of opinions, the consistency of the wording. After collating all responses, we found it easy to formulate a set of bullet-point principles that all participants eventually agreed on.

And here it is:

  1. Every great strategy game, from Go and Chess on down, presents its players with continual choices-of-action that require the balancing of RISK versus the likelihood of BENEFIT. This balancing act is the primary source of the addictive tension generated by all the best games, and while that proposition may look simple, it is, in fact, the reef on which many otherwise excellent game designs have foundered;
  2. In great strategy games, as in real life, you can't ignore the power of SHEER LUCK - otherwise the process of planning your strategy would soon become a cold, abstract exercise in probability curves. It's OK for the AI to work that way (indeed, it more or less has to), but human players need their emotions stimulated as well as their brains (otherwise, we might as well run calculus problems for our "entertainment");
  3. If possible, given the constraints of technology, there should be NO "optimal path" to victory; not for any faction. To achieve this, without allowing the AI to cheat or "see" more than a human player, remains a daunting challenge, but every effort should be made to meet it. (Corollary of Pt. 3, and the source of some robust debate, was the insistence, by a slight majority of those responding, that the proposition "Any human opponent is going to be more challenging than most AI foes" is simply a myth, one that's way overdue for retirement. After all, a well-designed AI can always calculate that Risk-vs-Benefit equation out to the nth decimal point, with emotionless, untiring, objectivity;
  4. And finally: our paradigm game should be turn-based. Many reasons were advanced as to why this is so (from a hard-wired evolutionary preference for symmetry to the myriad deceitful ways the real-time format has been used to disguise poor game designs and camouflage a multitude of programming sins, but what they all boiled down to, really, was a fierce insistence that all the greatest games in history HAVE been, that's why!
Okay, there you have it. If you've got a counter-argument or an additional point to make, we'd like to hear from you either through our feedback email address or spark a new thread of your own on our forums!


Enjoy the newsletter,
The Newsletter Team


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This Week's Feature: Mine Dogs!

The Feature Article section is designed to give an in-depth look behind one of Matrix's popular titles or to provide interesting supplements to our product line. Expect to see developer diaries, AARs, industry commentary, and the like here.

Mine Dogs: The Bow-Wow Bombs

One of the unsung heroes of the Eastern Front was Nobel-Prize winning physiologist Anton Petrovich Pavlov, the brilliant Russian scientist who coined the phrase "conditioned reflex," largely on the basis of his experiments with dogs. Even though Pavlov died in 1936, it was his work that suggested to Red Army specialists the possibility of deploying trained canines as anti-tank weapons!

These so-called "mine dogs" ("Hundeminen" in German) first appeared in the dark days of late 1941, when the Red Army was desperate for any weapon that could destroy German armored vehicles. According to fragmentary accounts, it required about forty days to reliably train a dog to respond to the brute stimulus of hunger sufficiently to overcome its natural fear of the loud noises and threatening motions of tanks. The training consisted of inculcating a straight-forward Pavlovian reflex in hungry dogs, who were repeatedly starved in confinement, then turned loose to locate parcels of food attached to the bottom of tank hulls. By the end of their training, the animals had come to associate tanks and other armored vehicles with a predictable source of food, and when set free on a battlefield, would make a bee-line for the nearest on-coming German armor.

But unlike the stress-and-reward situation that obtained during their training, these animals wore a two-sided harness stuffed with high explosives, which would be triggered when a simple wooden lever, protruding from the top of the harness, was pushed down by the action of the dog wiggling under the tank's hull, where the armor was always relatively thin. Not the most humane expedient, granted, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Mine Dogs had a psychological effect far out of proportion to their actual lethality.

This tactic took the Germans completely by surprise, at least on the first few occasions when it was used, and according to Soviet records, at least 300 German armored vehicles were destroyed or disabled by… starving dogs. The animals were fast, low to the ground, and very hard to spot when they charged forward. The hull-mounted machine guns on most German vehicles couldn't track them after they got within a certain distance, and the turret-mounted MGs were effective only if the tank commander exposed himself long enough to draw a bead on the speeding dogs - long enough, in most cases, for the gunner to risk injury from shrapnel or death from a sniper's bullet.

The Mine Dogs caused considerable apprehension in the German ranks - enough so that orders went out for advancing German troops to kill-on-sight any stray dogs they saw. Eventually, the Panzer formations began deploying additional flame-thrower tanks in their advanced formations, for even the hungriest animal was unlikely to run into a wall of fire to search for its dinner.

As might be expected, there were drawbacks to this improvised weapon. Most serious was the fact that training the dogs had perforce to be done with Soviet tanks, and sometimes a free-running animal would get confused by the noise and vibration of battle, in which case it was just as likely to run under a friendly tank as an enemy vehicle. Nor was it only individual dogs that could run amok in this manner - in mid-1942, a large pack of Mine Dogs suddenly became gripped by such a powerful herd-instinct that they all turned en masse and ran straight back into a formation of Soviet tanks, whose startled crewmen only had time to throw a few panicky bursts of MG fire at their darting shapes before the fear-crazed dogs started blowing up the wrong tanks. On this occasion, one entire Soviet division had to suspend offensive operations due to its losses. So many friendly tanks were disabled or destroyed by renegade hounds that the Mine Dogs were officially withdrawn from frontline duty in late 1942 - by which time, the earlier Red Army deficiencies in anti-tank weaponry had largely been set right and the dogs' usefulness had come to an end.

Training of these kamikaze pooches continued, however, and large numbers of them were retained in reserves, just in case they should suddenly be needed. In fact, according to some Soviet sources, Mine Dogs were retained in this capacity until the mid-1990s, although no accounts of their use in actual combat have been dated beyond the autumn of 1942.

In the contemporary world, of course, dogs are trained to detect mines, not to carry them, and for dog-lovers of every nation, that seems a much more fitting way to employ Man's Best Friend.


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Historical Perspective

The Historical Perspective section is intended to give readers the "history behind the game." This week, Will Trotter gives us the third of a series of articles about the historic Saipan operation during WWII. The following is an excerpt of a larger portion which can be found on the Matrix webpage. The first and second installments are also available to read on the Matrix website.

Night of the Banzai Charges: The Strange and Bloody Struggle for Saipan - Part Three

William R. Trotter

The "pre-assault" phase of the aerial bombardment began on June 3 and was vigorously pressed against all three targeted islands. An estimated 36 Japanese aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and another 20-30 were downed in aerial encounters or by ships' anti-aircraft gunners. Not a single Japanese bomb or torpedo struck an American ship, and only four US planes were downed by ground fire. After June 13, there simply was no more enemy air activity; hour after hour, the picket ships' radar screens showed not a single bogey. These feeble and ineffectual ripostes indicated how parlous was the true state of Japanese air power by this point in the war.

When the American heavy ships arrived on June 13 (D-minus-two) the "softening up" process shifted into high gear. It is interesting to note that fire from the sleek "new" battleships, with their puissant 16-inch main batteries and state-of-the-art radar assisted gun-laying and range-finding systems, was conspicuously less effective than the meticulous, old-fashioned, much slower pounding administered by the "old" (pre-Pearl Harbor) BB's, with their obsolescent 14-inch guns. Crews aboard the elderly battlewagons were much more accustomed to shore bombardment missions; they tended to fire very slowly at first, and were much given to making fine incremental adjustments in-between salvos, until most of their projectiles landed on or at least very close to their intended targets. Guns crews serving on the newer capital ships tended to fire more rapidly and "by the book", and due to the foibles of human depth-perception and wishful thinking, they assumed their salvoes were landing where their high-tech gear told them the shells were exploding - the result was a lopsided amount of "overs", which smashed the bejeezuz out of the sugar-cane processing plants and other non-military buildings, but largely missed hitting the forward trench lines, dugouts, and bunkers.

Still, effectual or not, the opening day's bombardment was a riveting spectacle. Admiral Morrison - who had by now witnessed seven amphibious assaults -- never tired of watching the "fireworks" and, again, wrote a compelling, if slightly blasé, description for posterity:

There are few things prettier than a naval bombardment, providing one is on the sending and not the receiving end and providing (as in this case) one has lost all feeling of compassion for the human victims. Nearby ships belch great clouds of saffron smoke with a mighty roar. Distant ones are inaudible, but their flashes of gunfire leap out like the angry flick of a snake's tongue. Planes drop white phosphorous bombs which explode in clouds white as new-fallen snow, and throw out silver streamers which ignite cane fields, whence arise clouds of yellowish sugar-cane smoke. Cape Nafutan, with green foliage atop steep cliffs, made a noble spectacle when "shorts" from the Pennsylvania's main battery threw up columns of spray hundreds of feet high, like those tossed up by breaking waves after a storm.

Read on here to continue Night of the Banzai Charges: The Strange and Bloody Struggle for Saipan...


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Game Spotlight: Advanced Tactics: World War II After Action Report - Part 2

Advanced Tactics: World War II is the successor to People's Tactics and is current available for purchase. This is the second installment of a multi-part AAR. Read the first edition here.

Advanced Tactics AAR - Part 2

Turn 4, 21st of August 1941

In the north I am avoiding battle by retreating any forces I have left. My positions along the Dnjepr have been shattered. I am in full retreat all over the front. The situation looks dreadful.

Here is a shot at end of my turn on the central Front:

And my very rushed and untrained line of defence at the Kharkov Front:

Since I have enough supply stockpiled at Stavka I can afford to switch almost all production to Moscow. Infantry and bazooka are ordered in large quantities into the vital Moscow area.

Follow this link to continue reading the second part of the Advanced Tactics After Action Report.


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Latest News

In this section we provide a rundown of the latest updates from Matrix Games, just in case you missed a press release or two.

  1. Advanced Tactics: World War II Now Available! - Achtung! Achtung! World War II turn-based excellence now deployed to the battlefield
  2. New Commander – Europe at War Update Now Available - The race to control Europe just got a whole lot better with this latest update
  3. A New UFO: Extraterrestrials Update Is Released - The fight against the alien hordes just also got a whole lot better…
  4. A New Maximum Football 2.0 Update Headed into the End Zone! - A speeding bullet pass of an update is sent to football fans everywhere
  5. Hornet Leader PC Soars off the Runway and onto PCs Everywhere! - Guts, brains, and firepower - Hornet Leader PC has kicked its tires and lit the fires and is now available for purchase!
The latest releases from the Matrix Games lineup.

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A Parting Shot

Well there you have it. Another month, another newsletter.

As you're no doubt aware, the Christmas season is fast approaching and the team here at Matrix is burning the midnight oil to get many of the long-awaited titles we promised in the fall out in time for the holiday season. Don't hold us to it, but if you see a game released before Thanksgiving weekend (American Thanksgiving, that is, I know we have many-a Canucks reading as well), chances are a physical shipment will be available for order (and consequently neatly wrapped and placed under your tree) by December 25th. Again, don't hold us to it - it's just wishful thinking. To make matters worse, crack product delivery specialist Kris Kringle and his elite midget manufacturing team won't be aiding us in our efforts so we'll have to pull this all off without any Christmas magic. Bummer.

And as always, anyone who would like to drop us a line and give us some feedback, complaints, death threats, etc., please don't hesitate to do so by sending an email to feedback@matrixgames.com.


Thanks for reading!
The Newsletter Team


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