LNLP - Nations at War

Tuesday Interview – Luke Hughes of Burden of Command

The main brain behind the forthcoming Burden of Command has a chat with GrogHeads ~

Brant Guillory, 11 July 2017

When I hear “Burden of Command” I start to flash back to my days as a company commander, and being buried under a pile of 15-6 investigations, dental cat-IVs, and guys who couldn’t qualify with their personal weapons.  I’m assuming the newly-announced “Burden of Command” game isn’t a game of competitive administrative duties.  Give us the thumbnail insight of what we can expect in the new game, and why this one is more focused on the ‘burden’ of command than other similar games on the marketplace?

Damn, I can run but now I can’t hide.  A real company commander, I’d love to know when and where! (ed note: nothing exciting – it was a National Guard HHC while the rest of the battalion was mobilized)

Now you are so right, real command is a lot of administrative tedium puncture by rare moments of terror.  However, maybe not such a great game. Though the game “Papers Please” might teach us differently.   What you can expect in BoC is not only the command and control decisions you associate with classic wargames (directing fire and maneuver, and the 4 F’s: find, fix, flank, and finish) but the morale oriented decisions we might associate with a classic tactical board game (ASL, Combat Commander, Band of Brothers, Fields of Fire).

Finally, and more unusually, you must take responsibility for the “preserve” decisions around the men’s physical and psychological welfare on and off the battlefield. They will look to you for the right mindset to adopt in the face of war. Novelist Karl Marlantes, who dropped out of his Rhodes Scholarship to serve as a 1st Lieutenant in Vietnam wrote “What It is Like to Go to War.” He argued that, like it or not, when you go to war you enter a spiritual journey because you are in the presence of death. You have entered the “Temple of Mars” as he so eloquently put it. Whether or not you or your superiors have prepared you for that experience, and for making life or death decisions is a different question.  But the burden will be yours, prepared or not.

In sum, leadership in BoC is “Direct, Motivate, and Preserve.” And the burdens are many.

What’s the expected timeline for development right now?  When will the first testers get their hands on the game, and when can the general public expect to start banging on the game?

Ha, I plead the 5th on that. “When it’s done right.”  But I can tell you we are about halfway through the narrative side of the campaign and my current focus is iterating on the tactical play to “find the fun.”  Finding that fun will *critically* require a lot of playtesting. The good news there is we have had a slightly overwhelming response in terms of playtest volunteers! 8-() A nice problem to have. I can say, so I’m not a total evasive weasel ­- that we expect to release in 2018.

When I first sit down with the game, what’s the first set of decisions facing me?  As a new player, how does the game guide me through the new paradigm of decision-making, and gently (or not!) remind me which decisions are the important ones?

Very early on we put you in situations where the men are watching you very closely to see what style of leader you are going to be.

The first decisions center around educating you that you will be making more than tactical battlefield decisions. Very early on we put you in situations where the men are watching you very closely to see what style of leader you are going to be. Will you be zealous, cautious, cunning? The latter are examples of the “Mindsets” that you can adopt to define your leadership style.

Further, you’ll have to decide on the battlefield if you wish to sit back a bit to increase your sitrep and command and control or lead from the front. The latter is great for morale but not life expectancy (BoC features permadeath) but you lose the big picture.  The other things we try to achieve in the early decisions are: 1) this is not a FPS where you laugh off bullets and kill with abandon while your sprites die in your service, 2) war is chaos, few things go as planned. If you want to be in total control I wouldn’t play this game frankly. But if you want to lead in the face of chaos it might be!

 

You’ve mentioned that the game is heavily based on McManus’ book about the 7th Infantry Regiment.  What were some of the other games, books, and movies you looked to for inspiration as you were conceptualizing Burden of Command, and where does a player see the inspirations creeping in?

You are a man after my own heart. I am so happy someone has asked this. Now I get to talk about a few great books (and movies!).  Here it is visually:

Textually:

  • Any of John McManus’s books! – For example he covers the general experience of war for the soldier in Grunts: Inside the American Infantry Combat Experience, World War II Through Iraq.  Also The Dead and Those About to Die which gives the gritty details of leadership on the Omaha beach at Normandy. Truth is stranger than fiction. Finally, American Courage, American Carnage which is our bible for the Cottonbalers’s  journey.
  • Band of Brothers (HBO) –for their tone of respect, narrative quality, and desire for authenticity.
  • This War of Mine (game) – for treating war as a psychological experience not just a shooter.
  • Closing with the Enemy – for the battlefield tactics the US army learned the hard way in WWII
  • What It is Like to Go to War – war as a spiritual journey not simply bad nor simply good. But self defining.
  • Rommel’s Infantry Attacks – he was a small unit [commander] in WWI. You learn a lot about tactical command.
  • We Were Soldiers Once…and Young – movie and book. Great at conveying the chaos of war.

There are a lot more classics like Company Commander, and If You Survive which get across small company command in WW2 for the US but I think I’ve gone on long enough ☺

I’d love to hear what your audience would recommend further. A lot of my reading came from asking advice of grognards!

 

There’s obviously a big emphasis on the ‘campaign’ as you lead your guys in the regiment from North Africa all the way through the end of the war.  For someone who doesn’t have the time to invest in a long campaign, what options are there for more discreet battles during the war?

Great question. This first release is about the full journey. There are many games that focus on isolated but fascinating tactical situations.  This is an historical RPG. We’re trying hard to make sure this game is not everything to everyone else it become nothing to anyone.  This is about a leadership journey, not a one off.

 

How is the AI set up in Burden of Command?  How adaptive is it based on my decisions and improving skill as a commander?  How does the difficulty scale as the game goes on?

We’re still locking down the tactical play so the AI is an ongoing process. But I can tell you it will be dynamic and adaptive rather than scripted. I have a PhD in AI which means probably that my actual game AI will only destroy my reputation LOL.  But hey, I could get lucky ☺ The difficulty scaling is an open question. However, since the game is permadeath, just like war, we have to do some adapting to keep a player in the war rather than face an increasingly tedious restart. That issue is a whole design discussion in itself. How to reward better players, or less tactical and more immersive (RPG) players, while helping those who are struggling. Very tricky. But we have some interesting ideas…

 

Talk to us about the graphics.  What was the idea behind the graphics and how did you balance the “immersion” of the player with the need to provide the necessary game info on the screen?

…we want to have some battlefields start bucolic and then be destroyed by your drive for victory.

Ha, was just thinking about that last night. First, the battlefield graphics are intended to evoke the traditions of classical painterly military art. Our artists Ahmed Rawi, and Sergey Averkin, as well as Total War artist Mariusz Kozik (our portrait artist) have done a great job IMHO.

Also we want to have some battlefields start bucolic and then be destroyed by your drive for victory. So that even if you “win” you feel the Burden of Command in the cost you have brought to that community.

There was a US General early on in Torch who deliberately did not shell a town where the Vichy were holed up because of the potential civilian casualties.  Even though he knew it would probably cost some American lives. A decision with a lot of modern echoes but also one which The Cottonbalers will face – as will you!

In terms of camera perspective, first person would obviously increase immersion, but at the cost of many interesting tactical decisions as much of your effort as Captain would then be reduced to the more realistic issuing of orders. By taking a bird’s eye view we allow the player to be more involved in not only his avatar’s decision but those of his reports (his Lieutenants). This was a concession to interesting gameplay rather than strict immersion.

 

It may be a little early to talk about it, but what (if any) plans are in the works for expansions after the base game is out?  Other campaigns?  Other units?  Other nationalities?  What about playing the other side of the war?

What is so exciting for the team, and for the community it seems from the feedback, is the vast green fields of new DLCs  that could be covered from an on and off the battlefield leadership standpoint.  The only comparable earlier game we have spotted is Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa (its designer Cameron Harris is a friend of our project and an eventual play tester).

Suggestions have been: Winter War, East Front, Soviet Commissar, Chinese Civil War and vs Japanese, Late War Germany, Free Poles, Aussies, UK. Heck, a lot more.  Also some suggestions for a WWI campaign (green fields filled with Poppies, I fear).

If things go really well then my personal ambition is to create a dynamic campaign engine (still featuring on and off battlefield decisions) in the spirit of dynamic campaigns we associate with Steel Panthers or The Campaign Series.

But first we have to do right by the Cottonbalers.

 

Finally, what should we have asked you, if we knew what to ask you?  Thanks!

Generous question.  Two things I’d like to mention.

First that this has a remarkably interesting design experience for me personally as I have learned about narrative techniques from our game industry RPG and Interactive Fiction experts Alexis Kennedy, Chris Avellone, and Ian Thomas as well as general fiction writer and writing expert William Bernhardt (check out his Red Sneakers series), as well as our two great writers Allen Gies and Paul Wang, already independently successful in interactive fiction. For example, thanks to their influence we have evolved a nasty little cheat sheet on how to create empathy. Because from a design standpoint, if you don’t care for your men then you won’t hesitate to expend them, and we want you to be caught in the Men versus Mission Burden of Command.  I personally already feel regret for one Lieutenant I sent to his death, digital as he may have been, and right or wrong  as the decision may have been.

Finally, working directly with former and active military in the team like “Mad Russian” scenario designer Steve Overton (US Army), unit expert Chris Dworjan (Navy), and project historian Chris Ketcherside (Marines) has been a particular honor. Not to mention all the fine play testers who contribute on a volunteer basis day to day. Working with them, Dr. McManus, and the Cottonbalers as well as the very moving archival photographs and reports has reinforced for us a central theme in Burden of Command: respect for those who served, their history, and their  sacrifice.

If you detected a careful effort to call out the great members of our team one by one you’re right. Because I’m damn proud of them frankly. They help John Strong and myself, the coding team, build a personal  experience that we hope will deliver on at a least a few of the aspects of what it is to be a leader.

Thanks for taking the time, and we’re looking forward to much more on this game soon.


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