February 28, 2010

Things that please me: computer wargame edition

I commented in the past about how the hex-based cardboard-square wargames of my youth have largely been supplanted by computer analogues recently. In that vein, I just wanted to comment on the all-around excellence of Napoleon: Total War, released this week, which is by far the most historically accurate of the Total War series.

The sea battles are still more arcadey and less realistic "physics-wise" than Age of Sail 2's, but the land battles here are really quite compelling. Another thing is the tendency to put in unusual or nifty units (going right back to battlefield ninjas in the first in the series, Shogun) to keep the kids amused has been all but completely suppressed (limited in the initial release to ironclad steamboats and windbusche jagers, but I can live with that).

The span of command limitations also mean you need to get used to the miniatures rules of one 160-man unit standing in for 1-20 battalions in real life (a factor of 1:5 to 1:100) but that's inevitable. The 2,500 man army of toy soldiers necessary to redo Borodino even at 1:100 would have been staggeringly big in miniatures, so even there N:TW is an improvement over the more tactile experience. (A realistic-looking Leipzig, I'm sorry to say, with 600,000 soldiers engaged, is probably impossible in any technology.)

Anyway, if you're a closet re-enactor or Napoleonophile, buy it, play it, it's worth your time. The AI's probably the best yet in the series, but if you've got a friend you can play on a LAN with, it's even better. But even against the AI, non-historic tactics are not as well-rewarded as, for instance, its 18th-century predecessor Empire: Total War, which tended to be unhistorically preferential about the use of dragoons units as mounted infantry rather than shock cavalry. Try that in an N:TW campaign and you'll tend to get kicked around, as you would have in real life by about 1800.

Really, the only aspect of the board wargamer experience that hasn't been ported over to computers now is the giant, club-run, plywood-on-saw-horses-in-the-basement tactical game with yards of map and thousands of counters, like Terrible Swift Sword or one of the Historical ASL scenarios. (Not the similarly massive basement grand strategic games: Europa Universalis and its successors (Victoria, Cross of Iron) have supplanted those quite effectively). And frankly, let's be honest. We never finished any of those games anyway.

Also, since I note I've never mentioned it: if you never played Battle of Britain 2, still the best combined air strategy/hardcore flight sim ever made, you've missed out.

UPDATE: One of the things that is really well done about Napoleon: Total War is the terrain. (the predecessor in the series Empire started down this road, but had too many other problems). Once field artillery showed up on the battlefield, the first real tactical battlefield weapon with significant range and no real ability to arc its fire, Western armies had to pay new attention to all the subtleties of terrain that would only grow with the advent of rifled weapons. You see this in N:TW, where even a 5-foot contour can have huge effect and attention to your artillery sighting is key. You see, better than in any wargame I can remember, how the clever use by infantry units of dead ground and reverse slopes that you can't even see from way overhead (you really have to get down behind your cannon and look at what they can actually see) can save lives and win the day.

Posted by BruceR at 12:06 PM

Hm, so I guess we DO own the podium

Winter Olympics coverage in the Canadian newspapers has been a lovely example of the effects of regression to the mean defeating journalistic overanalysis of thin data. We're finishing too many people just out of the medals? Um, okay now we have more golds than anyone. Women are taking all the medals? Um, okay, not so much anymore. (Although Andrew Coyne, channelling Clara Hughes, does note the salient point here: that this is very much an offshoot of the Canadian policy of parity of funding and access for men's and women's amateur sport at all levels that has been quasi-policy in this country for the last 30 years -- I remember covering it as a journalist as it roiled college sport in Canada in the early 1990s -- but has not been so rigorously embraced in some other countries.)

When your data is as thin and unrepresentative as "competitions by high-performance athletes in a wide variety of unique events in the first x days of a competition," the chance of extrapolating anything useful in the way of an observation about Canadian sport, or Canada in general, is essentially nil. It would be nice if journalists would note this and caveat their work in other realms accordingly. But they won't. BruceR's Rule #5: "when dealing with thin data, regression to the mean and journalists noticing a trend tend to occur more or less simultaneously."

Oh, and by the way, my saying these Winter Olympics were pretty good before does not mean I don't think the family of that Georgian luger have a darn good negligence lawsuit against a whole bunch of people for what was clearly a huge lapse in officials' judgment. Coyne's right about that, too.

Posted by BruceR at 11:41 AM