REVOLUTION IN HAND
THE POTENTIAL IMPACT OF THE SMALLEST COMPUTERS ON BOARD WARGAMING
I am writing this with two of the most important technological
developments to ever benefit the wargaming community. No, neither is the work of Crayola.
One is familiar; the personal computer. Our old friend just
turned twenty, and has been a boon to wargamers everwhere. That starts with a wealth of games of every
persuasion, then moves on to the foundations of boardgames. Today, every board wargame is designed and
produced with computers, as even the
most technophobic designer needs a word processor to write rules.
The other is a little less familiar to many people, yet is coming on strong as a ubiquitous tool of business. Call it personal digital assistant, PDA, palmtop, or handheld. Mine is a Hewlett Packard Jornada 548 Pocket PC, though most others that I see are from Palm.
Regardless of operation system or origin, these smallest members of the personal computer family carry the potential to spawn another electronic revolution amid board wargaming.
There is no telling when electronics first encountered a board wargame. The pocket calculator is a natural companion though, from the time of its introduction in the seventies. The most obvious use is to help calculate combat odds, though wargamers with any experience at all tend to do this so instinctively that they can figure the odds much faster than their fingers can do the walking on a keypad. However, there are cases when a calculator can come in handy, such as adding up the strength of large attacking forces, or dealing with complicated strength and die roll modifiers. In my own experience, the Europa series (GDW/GRD) presents the greatest need for electronic assistance, especially when trying to calculate armored support. In fact, I cannot imagine playing a Europa game without having a calculator at hand.
When desktop computers appeared, it was inevitable that gamers would try to use them for similar purposes. Game assistance programs [GAP’s] appeared early; the Advanced Squad Leader GAP from Avalon Hill, developed for the Apple II, is one excellent example.
Yet GAP’s never really caught on with the gaming public at large, and though they arrived early, commercially-produced GAP’s proved to be relative rarities among game software as a whole. Personally, I see two reasons for the extinction of this evolutionary line. From the gamer’s perspective, the people who did see a need for a GAP probably found it difficult to integrate play space with the space for the computer. At the very least, going from the map to the computer calls for turning one’s back as well as one’s attention. Notebook PC’s might have served better, but lack the market penetration of the desktop models, and remain too pricey for most wargamers.
The situation appears to have been different from the viewpoint of the publishers. They found that they could make fortunes, or at least more money than otherwise, by developing complete computer games. GAP software was, necessarily, squeezed out of the competition for resources.
I strongly believe that the advent of the PDA can bring in a new era for game assistance programs. Their appeal begins with size; a handheld is no more obtrusive than a pocket calculator. But in that package is real computing power. It is not on a par with a state of the art Pentium 4 desktop machine, though the best handhelds are more powerful than anything produced in the first fifteen years of the twenty-year revolution.
Likewise, there is a place for GAP’s,
accessible next to the game map.
Gamers remain as capable as ever of calculating odds and most
modifiers in their heads, but some “high wristage” game systems requiring
multiple die rolls to resolve a single combat or other event are candidates
for GAP help. For example, The Gamers’
Civil War, Brigade Series, Napoleonic Brigade Series, and Tactical
Combat Series use so many die rolls that players are urged to roll a
handful at once, then divine the end result, rather than roll them in
sequence. A well-developed GAP for a
PDA could do the same with a few clicks of the stylus.
Software can also provide quick answers to the viability of game missions. This can be as simple as a database of cities and air bases, by which a user can check to see if his bombers can reach a target, without counting hexes in the view of his opponent. Slightly more ambitious programs might calculate the odds of success of combat operations not resolved on the basis of strength ratios. In my own design Britain Stands Alone (GMT), a German player could check the probabilities of inflicting one, two, or no hits at all on the target of air strike on a British installation, depending on the number and types of air units allocated.
As a game designer, I have always avoided record-keeping in my designs, seeing that paperwork is too often work. Some boardgames need it however, particularly air and naval titles, that call for detailed treatments of damage, as well as simultaneous movement and combat. Instead of using record sheets, players could use electronic templates on their handheld computers. Just the freedom from having to write out log sheets for each ship or plane before the game would be a benefit. More sophisticated programs could alert players to illegal moves, use of destroyed or damaged weapons, and other causes of embarrassment.
There is another role for PDA’s in play by e-mail games. The most popular game assistance programs today facilitate this kind of gaming: Aide de Camp and Aide de Camp II (HPS Simulations), and the free program Cyberbox. Palm or Pocket PC ports of these or similar software package could free the PBEM gamer from his home PC, enabling him to plan his moves where he wishes, or at work when his boss is not looking, then send his moves over the Internet when he docks his PDA with his PC, and synchronizes the files between them.
The Aide de Camp products are rare cases
of truly successful commercial GAP’s.
In my opinion, Cyberbox represents the most probable future of
boardgame assistance software, in which creative and skilled amateurs craft
freeware and shareware for the enjoyment of their fellow gamers.
To date, the Palm OS and Windows CE (on which the Pocket PC is based) are relative backwaters for software developers. PDA programs are greatly outnumbered by those written for DOS and the various flavors of Windows, and Linux for that matter. Furthermore, there are few books written on the subject to help aspiring programmers; I dare anyone to go to the computer books section of a Borders or Barnes & Noble to find more than one book on Windows CE software development.
This situation is sure to change however, as PDA’s become increasingly pervasive. Where there is a computer platform there is a need for software, and that need increases in proportion to the quantity of computers in use. The corollary is that enterprising and creative individuals always step forward to provide that software, and further, others provide the support needed to produce that software. Built it, and they will come.
Furthermore, gaming has always been a driving force in home computing. This occurs in several ways. First, games are entertainment, and people will buy computers for entertainment purposes. Second, they push the envelop of the platform technology more than business applications ever have. It is doubtful that high-resolution color video graphics, high-quality stereo sound, and multimedia as a whole ever would have come to the computer were it not for games; business and productivity software, such as word processors and spreadsheets, have no real need for any of that. But games do, and along with consumers who want hardware that gives them the best and most technically sophisticated entertainment possible.
There is a future for games on PDA’s, and in fact there are growing numbers available for both the Palm OS and Windows CE. On the other hand, real wargames are not yet among them, and if players really want good arcade games in a small package, they are best advised to put their money into a Gameboy for now.
Software for handheld computers will increase in quantity and sophistication just as that for the larger machines has for many years longer. If history is any guide, games of many sorts will be in the vanguard. Owing to the small size of the displays, historical military simulations are unlikely to be as suitable for PDA as software of other genres, but some are sure to appear.
Though stand-alone wargames as currently defined are not ideal candidates for handheld platforms, assistance programs for board wargames are well-suited for a niche market. The possibilities of the PDA, the demands of the consumer, and the creativity of the software developer all combine to make GAP’s both inevitable and effective, more effective than ever before.