A Battle Lost Through Attrition

On December 31, 2010, in Games, by peterb

Hardcore operational-level computer war games have a serious problem: most of them are unplayable.

Not all war games, obviously. And “unplayable” means different things to different people. A game that crashes whenever you start it up, for example, is literally unplayable. I mean something softer, here: I mean that many games which should be brilliant, which should capture the hearts and minds of every war gamer on the planet are instead consigned to a dusty corner of the market by unacceptably primitive user interfaces, obtuse mechanics, and poor communication of results.

“War game”, in the context of this article, means a combat simulation, turn-based or real-time, that models a hypothetical or historical conflict but that strives to achieve “realism” in addition to entertainment.

An “operational level” computer war game is a game that models conflict typically at a level between battalion, division, or corps in size, and where lines of supply are typically an issue. A game where individual soldiers or squads are maneuvering and setting up lanes of fire, such as Close Combat, is tactical in scale. In an operational game, you’re moving entire divisions around the front.

What sparked my desire to discuss this is a trio of games that I’ve been evaluating lately. All three games are published by Matrix: Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, Norm Kroger’s The Operational Art of War III, and Advanced Tactics World War II. This article is not meant to be an in-depth review, but rather an exploration of some of the ideas that occurred to me while I played these games.

Advanced Tactics brought some of these thoughts to the surface. The game is brilliant, but here is the thing: the UI is so tragic that I needed a week off from work to discover that the game is brilliant.

This is a problem. Perhaps it is just a problem with me, but I doubt it. I have had more exposure to war games than your average computer game player. I think it’s a problem with the game. A New Yorker interview with Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo’s lead game designer, puts the issue squarely in the spotlight:

Earlier, Miyamoto, a bluegrass fanatic, had suggested that learning to play a game is like learning to play a musical instrument. “Take the guitar,” he said. “Some people, when they stumble over how to accurately place their fingers in an F chord, they actually give it up. But once you learn how to play an F chord you become more deeply absorbed in playing the guitar.” The F chord, as he sees it, is a kind of bridge between indifference and pleasure. “If the bridge is too easy to pass by, it’s called ‘entertainment.’ If it’s rather difficult, it can be called ‘hobby’.

If we continue the analogy, the war games I’m talking about are asking you to play an F chord but, for the best sound quality, would like you to put a new set of strings on the guitar every time you play it.

The knee-jerk Internet forum response is to claim that the UIs are this complex because the underlying subject matter is complex. This is false. The subject matter is complex, of course, but the failures of the operational-level games are not due to this particularly complexity. They’re not even really game design failures. They are failures of software development. Let’s get specific.

A Brief History Of Not Dating Girls

The operational games I’m describing derive their look and feel from the classic “hex and counter” war games of the 1970s, published by companies such as Avalon-Hill and SPI. Those games varied widely in complexity, but once you got past the fiddly aspect of having to manipulate lots of tiny counters, 95% of them boiled down to three simple rules:

  • Each counter has two numbers on it. One is the combat value, one is how far it can move.
  • Units (usually) have a “zone of control” next to them. If you move your counter next to an enemy counter, it will have to stop.
  • After you move all your counters, you resolve the attacks. Add up the number of points of all counters attacking and defending to come up with a ratio (2-to-1, or 5-to-1, or 1-to-2). That ratio will be a column on a “combat results table” printed on the map. Roll a die to pick which row on the table to use. Look up the row and column, and that tells you what happened in the battle.

These games were not without flaws — in particular, the “I move all my pieces, then you move all your pieces” turn order, while simple, meant that the non-moving player would have time to go out for lunch (and possibly dinner) while waiting for his turn to play. But most of these games, with some notable exceptions, tried hard to abstract out the details of combat for the purposes of playability.

At first blush, a computer implementation of this sort of game should only get better. After all, now the computer can tell me exactly where I can and can’t move, and I no longer have to look up the results on a combat results table. In fact, you can play literal translations of these games at HexWar, and they are better.

Alternatively, instead of using the computer to just automate board game mechanics, developers can increase the complexity of those mechanics. In theory, this is a reasonable choice. When done properly, it makes the game deeper without making it more confusing. But often, the results are simply depressing.

Those Who Can’t, Don’t Teach

Every war game should have an in-game tutorial. Advanced Tactics, War in the East, and The Operational Art of War don’t.

This, for me, is such a basic element of good game design that I’m constantly surprised when I see it violated. A game without a tutorial is like a movie without popcorn; like sex without foreplay; like a hamburger without French fries. A game without a tutorial is incomplete.

Sure, let me skip the tutorial if I’m sure I don’t need it. But in a sufficiently complex game the tutorial can do so much heavy lifting that to skip it is madness. It can introduce you to the user interface. It can acquaint you with the basic controls of the game. It can allow you, as a software developer, to hide more advanced controls and still be confident that the user will be told where to find them.

All three of the games I’m looking at in this article do “Tutorial by manual”. This means that they provide a “tutorial scenario” which you use by reading the manual and following along. This is inadequate on multiple levels. First, it means that you are told what to do instead of being shown what to do, which is less effective. Second, it opens the possibility that the player may go off-script. Going off-script is a vital part of learning how to play a game well, but is a big mistake during the early parts of a tutorial. Many games split the difference by tightly scripting the beginning few turns of a tutorial, and then at some point telling the player “OK, from here on out you are on your own.” Lastly, I have never seen a manual-based tutorial that adequately helped focus the player’s attention on what was important, as opposed to what is simply present.

Advanced Tactics also ships with several “training scenarios” which set up simplified battles. For example, the first battle is on a featureless plain, with identical numbers of troops, but with one side using armor and the other using infantry. The next scenario is the same, only this time in forested terrain and giving the infantry player bazookas. The third scenario introduces artillery, and so on. This set of teaching scenarios did more to teach me about the game than the manual-driven tutorial. In my fantasy world, these scenarios would have been presented as an in-game tutorial that also introduced me to the various UI elements I needed to use to (for example) perform artillery attacks. The tutorials would have explained the effect that being out of supply has on a unit’s readiness. The tutorial would have explained how to generate political points and how to use them to create new headquarters, and how to transfer staff between them. As it is, I groped through the dark, eventually figuring all these things out.

Despite what the abused customers of ultra-grognard developers might tell you, figuring these things out by yourself does not make you a better person.

Information Wants To Stay The Hell Out Of My Way

Imagine this scenario. You are the Supreme Allied Commander for Allied forces in Europe during World War II. You walk into your office and your aide-de-camp says “Good morning, General Eisenhower. Your general staff awaits you in the conference rooom to discuss Operation Overlord.”

“Excellent. I’ll be right there.”

“One moment, sir. Before that, you should be aware that Fox company of the 506th has run out of condoms in their survival kits.”

“Uh, well, get them replacement kits.”

“Very good sir. Also, a truck was destroyed in the Ardennes. Should I requisition a replacement?”


“I’ll get right on it. A number of toothbrushes have gone missing in a training camp in North Carolina. How many staff sergeants would you like to assign to investigate the crime?”

At this point, in real life, Eisenhower would court-martial his aide-de-camp for being a Nazi spy.

There is important information, and there is unimportant information. Unimportant information should be completely invisible unless specifically asked for. If it becomes important, show it to me then. Some designers of operational games seem to be completely unable to decide how to prioritize the information they show you: large tables full of numbers, all in the same font size, are the order of the day.

This extends to user interface, too. Consider this, the “command bar” in Advanced Tactics:

Advanced Tactics

Considering just the items in the middle of the bar, we’ve got Move, Transfer resources, Strategic Transfer, separate buttons for various air and sea options, buttons to change the headquarters of the selected unit, buttons to display the supply overlay, and a number of others. All of these buttons are the same size. Buttons can sometimes be disabled, but are still present even when irrelevant (why even show me the naval subformation button in a scenario without ships or water?)

Clicking on an enemy unit gives a similar-but-different view of various options that might or might not be relevant to the current situation. Since the icons are fairly small targets, the only way to find out what they do (before you have memorized them) is to hover the mouse briefly over each of them. And then go read the manual.

Here’s another example: this is the control panel that you use to control units in Norm Kroger’s Operational Art of War III:

So in the world of TOAW, “Next unit” is as important as “resolve battle” which is as important as “show/hide hex grid” which is as important as the twenty-five other miscellaneous options, some of which you will never use. It is to weep.

Again, let’s be clear: this interface is not hard to use because the problem space is hard. This interface is hard to use because it is poorly designed.

My contention is that it is poorly designed because of a feedback loop wherein the designers never test the games with new players, so new players never play the games, because they are unplayable, so the games are only tested by people whose entire attitude is “As long as it is easier than pushing 600 cardboard chits around a paper map, it’s a massive improvement!, so the designers never realize the games are unplayable.

I am complaining about this not because I don’t like these games, but because I do. I love them. And sometimes, when someone you love has a serious problem that is ruining them, you have to stage an intervention.

Finding Out What the Hell Just Happened is For the Weak

In the same way that input methods for these games are not constructed with usability in mind, resolution of critical events like combat is often more confusing than enlightening. This is actually an area where Advanced Tactics performs better than most: it provides you with a graphical display of combat that, round by round, moves soldiers and equipment from a “Attacking” or “Defending” box to a “Casualty” or “Retreating” box. At least, that’s what you get if you attack. If you are attacked on your turn, you just have to notice that your men are missing (unless you use the ‘history replay’ option, which still doesn’t give you a clear explanation.)

The worst of the three games, as far as this aspect is concerned, is Norm Kroger’s Operational Art of War III where every single enemy’s turn can be fairly described as “And then, over the course of about 30 seconds, 10 attacks are resolved and you are shown an incomprehensible screen of text.” I’m sure there is some way to get a higher level summary of what happened on a given turn, but I’ll be hornswoggled if I can figure it out. Here’s a picture of a combat results screen from TOAW III:

Combat Results - TOAW III

Combat Results - TOAW III

Consider what’s going on in this dialog box. Off the top of my head:

  • The font is stupidly small (and ugly) making it harder to read.
  • Compounding the mistake, the “newsprint background” makes it even harder to read
  • The text is center aligned, so you can’t easily use visual pattern matching to find the parts of the report you care about.
  • In the laundry list of sentences telling you which units attacked, defended, or retreated, the word “attacks” “defends” and “retreats” are in no way highlighted
  • There is a freaking laundry list of sentences telling you which units attacked, defended, or retreated. That could be eliminated and replaced with one picture of unit counters
  • The only way to tell which unit in that laundry list belongs to which team is to read a word. A picture of the unit or even the judicious use of coloured text could do this more effectively
  • And of course the laundry list interleaves attackers and defenders willy-nilly, so you can’t even use a heuristic like “Attackers listed first, defenders afterwards” to decode it.
  • Arguably the most important information in the combat results dialog — how much equipment and personnel were lost! — are tucked away at the bottom.

I could go on, but I’ve made my point.

The most recent of the three games, Gary Grigsby’s War in the East, is in some ways the most approachable, although the subject matter, Germany’s invasion of Russia along the Eastern Front, is inherently daunting. In places the UI is almost acceptable, with buttons that look like buttons, and movement and simple attacks controlled largely by pointing and right-clicking. In other places, such as the Order of Battle screen which controls strategic force creation and reassignment, it’s typically obtuse. Even the tutorial on the issue (manual based, of course, not in-game) left me more confused than when I started. But the game tries hard to let you ignore those screens completely if you just want to follow the historical path.

It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way

So what’s my point? Simply this: strategic depth does not require user interface complexity. Back in the bad old days of the 1980s, many sophisticated computer users believed that GUIs were “dumbed down” interfaces, and that command-line interfaces were a prerequisite for effective use of a computer. These people were wrong, and those who believe that an inscrutable UI is necessary for a sophisticated war game are wrong. Some developers are learning this lesson, and others are still in the dark.

The main effect of an inscrutable UI is to confine interest in the software to a small, shrinking minority of users. That minority is ridiculously loyal and desperate for content, but it’s a self-limiting market and, in my opinion, an evolutionary dead end.

Only developers who figure out how to make strategically deep games that are easy to use will avoid that end. Those developers, not the ones preaching to the choir, will define the very meaning of the words “war game” in the coming century.

Wouldn’t you rather be one of those developers, instead?

Advanced Tactics: World War II, ($26.99), Norm Kroger’s Operational Art of War III ($26.99), and Gary Grigsby’s War in the East ($79.99) are all published by Matrix Games and are available for purchase and download on their web site.

Disclosure statement: Matrix Games graciously provided Tea Leaves with review copies of these games.


33 Responses to “A Battle Lost Through Attrition”

  1. Geoffrey says:

    Great post. I couldn’t agree more. As a gamer who has not grown up playing games of this sort but who has a growing interest, the crazy interfaces are the most daunting and confusing things holding me back. Of course, being a bit of a design snob doesn’t help my case.

    Regardless, thank you for pointing out these seemingly obvious major problems with these games. I have many times wished thy would include, as you suggest, genre newcomers into the design and testing process. How else will the genre not die? I offer myself. =)

  2. Chris says:

    Peter: You raise a lot of good points here, many of which I’ve addressed in the past. I just want to briefly note a few points.

    To be interested in a game space of this kind requires a highly imaginative player, but to choose this form of game one must be a very structurally focussed person. This combination leads to a number of basic problems, of which complexity is the most overt.

    People able to code such games are invariably introvert loners, and blind testing (as something which sullies the purity of one’s private thought) is seldom on the table. The lack of tutorial relates to this, but also tutorials are the hardest game element to design bar none.

    As you suggest, games like these are a minor niche market: there is much less selective pressure in such spaces, and like deep oceans the things that dwell in such conditions tend to be freakish.

    What would truly help would be discussions of best practices – like this post. What is also necessary, alas, is for the obsessive, detail-oriented programmers of such game to recognise they are making their game for more than just themselves. And this, it turns out, is much harder than one might think.

    Best wishes!


  3. tfernando says:

    The Lawrence-Livermore National Laboratory’s Combat Simulation lab has a system used by the Army for training battalion and brigade level staffs called Janus. It’s interface makes these games appear as clear and intuitive as anything produced by PopCap. :)

  4. Surtur says:


    Great post, really enjoyed it. I am a starting wargamer myself and I know that there are real gems to be found. but the ui makes it really hard for me to get into lets TOAW or Guns of August.

  5. dougb says:

    Enjoyable and thought provoking post.

    I’d be interested in having your thoughts on Battles from the Bulge which is also published by Matrix. This takes a very un-traditional boardgame approach to wargaming and leverages the true capabilities of the pc (continuous pausable time, no hexes, flexible unit frontages, outstanding command, control and intelligence modelling). The game is designed by Dave O’Connor of Panther Games and is the third in a series, the previous too being Highway to the Reich and Conquest of the Agaean.

    Best wishes,


  6. peterb says:


    I have not tried Battles from the Bulge yet, but I’ll be sure to take a look. I have a soft spot for games that try to do things differently (in a boardgame context, I’m sort of eyeing Bonaparte at Marengo for its distinctive visual look, for example).

  7. dougb says:

    One of the biggest pluses for Battles from the Bulge is the quality of the AI of the units, which permits and encourages the player to move and fight his forces by issuing orders to higher headquarters that then pass these orders down the chain to the subordinate formations. The game engine basically eliminates the need to move every single unit and counter. The player can still micromanage to their hearts content if they so wish.

    A good example of this is a scenario where I had elements of 2 volksgrenader divisions during which I directed my orders to the battalion hqs. The AI of the hqs would then issue the orders to get the companies moving, or to form up for an attack on an objective I established – though on several occasions I did specify the frontage, aggressiveness, and ammo usage of the attacking formations. Often there were frustrating delays modelling the lower quality of the volksgrenadier formations.

    The game requires a very different mindset for playing than traditional board games – which I aslo play and enjoy. It’s a tantalizing view though of the type of games that I wish more pc designers and developers were producing – I’d love to see the engine scaled up! My other fervent desire is to see the engine taken to the Eastern Front.

    Best wishes,


  8. Geoffrey says:

    I will follow up and say I bought Conquest of the Agaean a few years back. I really enjoyed that one myself. I think that is the game that made me want to go a bit deeper into the wargame hole. But as an example of how they did things a bit different, I remember it was a series if videos showing off the system that got me to buy it.

    And that brings up another point: where are the demos of this genre? Couldn’t a developer release a tiny scenario that shows off what they’ve done without requiring the player to plunk down $80 to find out (I’m longingly looking at you, War in the East).

    Also, couldn’t developers use video AARs to bring in more people? I understand that the action would be limited but I think the target audience would know that coming in. I would love to hear and see someone talking through a turn or two of a TON of these wargames I’ve seen cryptic screenshots of.

  9. spelk says:

    The video tutorials from Battles from the Bulge are essential viewing to understand the game mechanics and the thought processes required to enjoy the game fully. I think there are a few of the videos on YouTube now, well worth a watch if you’re considering the game!

  10. Mauricio says:

    FYI: the prices for the first two games are for the holiday sale only, going back up in a few days. WITE is not part of that sale.

  11. Scott says:

    Thing is though you can just as easily substitute “game” for “wargame” and still have a valid argument. Going all the way back to the 8-bit days on forward game developers on a whole have always done a poor job on UIs. There are always the exception (Sid’s games are always good examples of someone knowing how to do it properly) but game developers really need to learn from others in the software industry when it comes to designing interfaces.

    While a poor UI can turn off a prospective newcomer, I think overall you’re never going to see a huge increase in those interested in the genre simply because of the genre. Too many folks simply don’t want to play games that require thinking.

  12. IronMan says:

    Lots of good points in the rant. I developed a game for Matrix and I’m working on another. It is incredibly easy to create a bad UI and incredibly difficult to create a really, really good one. In my day job (also software development) I spend a lot of time on UIs and I try to make mine a noticeable cut above the rest. It ain’t easy! Small wonder that they are taking the job away from the developers and giving them to graphics designers instead.

    I’ve got dozens of computer wargames and the single most important thing to me when I evaluate them is the UI. Funny because it is AI and historical research that really motivated me in the past, not fussing over exactly where each pixel should be located and exactly what shade it should be. Realistically though I spend over 50% of my game dev time on designing info displays, designing alternative info displays, scrapping bad ideas and starting over or just deleting them outright. The polishing is endless. In a suspenseful game you have to show enough info but not too much. Too much bogs down the player and too little reduces it all to pure chaos. How you dole it out makes or breaks the game IMHO.

    When my beta testers report a UI bug I always fix it first, otherwise they will never let me rest. AI bugs and combat modelling bugs not so much / so urgent…

    I have added a number of these points to my task list. I think (knock on wood) that what I have already is pretty slick but there is always room for improvment. Heck, the game is only four years late already. The idea of an integrated in-game tutorial is sweet but implementing it is a big, big job and I just need to ship the thing. I was hoping that a series of Camtasia videos introducing and describing the various play elements would do the trick instead. I could spin up a couple dozen in far less time then it would take to code a tutorial mechanism. It is worth thinking about though….

    Regards, an introvert loner

  13. Eddy Sterckx says:


    Very good article and I 100% agree with all your points

    Also, another plug for Battles from the Bulge.

    I’ve done dozens of demos of this game on conventions and it’s about the only serious wargame out there where you can literally fly solo after just a 5-10 minute explanation. Click unit – click order – click map location – done.

    Watch the video tutorials and try the demo – you won’t be disappointed.


    Eddy Sterckx

  14. David Humphreys says:

    Peter nailed it with the comment that these games are never put in front of the people who are meant to be using them to learn if they are playable. I cut my gaming teeth on wargames in the 80s with the old Avalon Hill bookcase games and I love the idea of playing them but after too many experiences with inscrutable UIs and a big lack of time I simply don’t have the heart to lay a pretty sizable investment for a game I’m almost positively going to give up on after encountering the UI.

    Avalon Hill’s The Russian Campaign was not a hard game to learn but I suspect that Gary Grigsby’s War in the East is a much harder experience to pick up. The barrier to entry to this hobby is now much higher for the primary medium (Computer wargames) than it was 20 years ago when paper and cardboard ruled. I can’t see the 15 year old me, obsessed as I was with military history and model making picking up Gary Grigsby’s War in the East like he did Panzer Leader, The Russian Campaign or even the original Squad Leader.

    The web and software industry have largely learnt this lesson and the user experience and usability industry have been shown to add incredible value. Design for the audience. Design with a basic knowledge of interaction design principles. Test with your target user base. Understand who those people are and what they want from a game. Design from a point of reference other than your own.

    I’m beginning to rant but I feel this particular intersection of two of my favourite hobbies (video gaming & wargaming) is withering on the vine except for games that only appeal to the aforementioned and aging group of guys in their parent’s basements.

  15. peterb says:


    Thanks for the comments and also for the vote of confidence in Battles from the Bulge. I’m excited to try it.

  16. peterb says:


    Good luck in your upcoming game. Do let us know when you can talk about it in public, we’d love to see it.

    UI testing is hard, in no small amount because you need beta testers who are willing to be brutally honest with you, even when it hurts.

    Especially when it hurts.


  17. peterb says:


    I think part of what has changed is that The Russian Campaign used “best practices” for the category, board games, that existed at the time. The reason I find the UIs of some of these wargames so frustrating is that the best practices of today’s computer games are light years beyond what we see in some of these cases, and the thing that are flubbed are so, well, so basic. Like “use a readable font”!

    If you look at the board wargames that are being produced today, what you’ll notice is that production values have advanced since 1980. The newer GMT games, for example, have lots of polish. We need more of the computer strategy game developers to strive to do the same.


  18. cwie says:


    Without sounding too defensive I can agree that interfaces in many wargames could be improved, but I’d dispute that the main cause is a ‘feedback loop’ based on preaching to the choir and avoiding new testers.

    When developing WiE-win for Decision Games, throughout the 5 year development cycle I introduced new testers are regular intervals, and ALWAYS asked them as the very first task that they just play the game for a a short time, then write down the immediate first impressions of the game, the systems, and the interface. Several key UI changes came from that process – which is exactly why we did it.

    I also had a small part in the final development of War In the East, and the private development forum had numerous lengthy discussions about the interface. New testers were being added to the group up until about 6 weeks before release. At no stage did I detect a reluctance to discuss UI options, or find a test group that passively accepted whatever was presented to them.

    I can’t speak too much for WitE because my involvement came after most of the key decisions had been made and the work laid out. For WiE-win though I know that the biggest single factor in any UI decision was the tradeoff between ‘cost’ and ‘return’. There are plenty of places in WiE-win where I can see room to improve, or at least change, the UI – but often the 80/20 rule would rear it’s head, and I’d be faced with putting 80% of my effort into a change that would only nett a 20% improvement. At some point, ‘good enough’ is, well, good enough.

  19. Revreese says:

    Thank you for the interesting read!.
    I have first hand experience of TOAW and can attest to the problems you mention (and I had the actual tutorial too!).
    I am a massive fan of the more ‘complex’ games (combat mission, dwarf fortress, supreme ruler 2020, X3, Hearts of Iron, Space empires etc) and with one or two exceptions, they all suffer from the problem of an inadequate/nonexistant tutorial or guide (I am not talking unofficial fanmades here).
    It is a shame as it puts off so many people who could learn to love them (play a game AND exercise your brain?) instead, a lot of gamers are drawn to bland, casual nonsense like three quarters of the games out there now.
    I actually enjoy the process, spending days tearing out my hair, screaming WHY? and scouring the inevitably inadequate manual for clues. Because in the end, when you DO get it, you have a game that you can really enjoy. (and the fact that after all that hard work and manual grinding you’re damned if you are going to turn your back on it now!)

  20. Kineas says:

    I’m not happy for this new criticism of wargames but I have to admit most of your points are valid.

    The poor UI quality of wargames is caused by: 1.) lack of money 2.) lack of software development know-how.

    You should know that the wargaming market is basically nonexistent. The product we see today are mostly hobby products. Of course you, as a paying customer have the right to criticize, but it doesn’t change the fact that most of the developers have regular jobs and do game programming on the side.

    This means they have to spare on a lot of things. And I’d rather have them sparing on the GUI than on the AI or the other ‘important’ stuff, like the…erm…the end turn report dialogs.

    I’m just happy that some guys take the time and energy and still produce wargames, so I tend to forgive software development glitches.

    Also, the people who are good at the actual coding are not really excel at the UI design or software ergonomy in general. And the small dev teams can not really afford a dedicated person for the issues you brought up.

  21. Tom Grant says:

    I’d bet my copy of The Russian Campaign that one of the major causes of bad wargame UIs is the same as bad business software UIs. In the world of complex business to business (B2B) systems that run a company’s finances or manage relations with customers, it’s very easy to build functionality and then “slap a UI on top of it.” In fact, under deadline pressures, you’re often rewarded for tackling problems this way. Churn out those features, move quickly on to the next release.

    There has been a lot of backlash recently against this approach. Lately, development teams have been putting a lot more emphasis on user experience (UX) than in days past. It’s more than a fad. User rejection contributes to project failures, which translate into big wastes of money.

    The same financial argument exists for computer wargame designers: the harder it is to get into a game, the smaller the audience will be. If you’re a history buff — in other words, a potential new customer of computer wargames — you’re faced with some unpalatable choices. Mass market games like Company Of Heroes may be easier to learn, but as simulations, they stink. If you care at all about the history, you’ll want something more on the order of Combat Mission, which isn’t the easiest game to learn. (Though a lot better than some other tactical WWII games I’ve seen, including the recent Achtung Panzer.)

  22. Quirk says:

    I don’t think the problem is necessarily fixable.

    I was writing a loser-length post, but let’s cut it and skip to the chase. UI development is an endless hole in the ground to pour money into. Core logic of end user apps is a fraction of the development cost. Core logic of wargames tends to be a lot more complicated than big mainstream RTS games, but the amount of money you can score by getting people who’re interested in absolute accuracy on board is much lower. Finally, developing good interfaces for very complex software is hard. Here we are in 2011, and command lines are still a vastly more powerful tool for network management than GUIs are, and Windows’ market share in webservers was overtaken by Linux some time ago, not sure if it remains the case. What suits an experienced user may cause pain to the novice, and what suits the novice can slow down and aggravate the experienced user. If, for example, you select your button sizes based on how novice users approach the software, you may find yourself diminishing and hiding things experienced users think important; if you set your button sizes by how experienced users use the software, they may seem all wrong and frustrating to the novice.

    Could wargames be designed better than they are? Yes, if people were willing to throw enough money at it. Would it make for better returns? It’s a gamble. Is it feasible to expect an interface to a complex system to be designed in a way that will not irritate any portion of the people who deal with it beyond endurance? No.

  23. Tom H. says:

    cwie writes, but writes from too close to the problem: if you think you’re caught in the 80/20 trap, but you still produce WiE-win, you may be too much a grognard to judge the UI breakpoints of the wider audience.

  24. Female Gamer says:

    I’m one of the people who would like usable UIs. Yes, I go back to the days of Napoleonics, WRG Ancients, Squad Leader, and admiring the people who played monstergames. I played wargames on the Timex/Sinclair 2068, if that doesn’t date me enough. But I don’t have the kind of time it takes to endure the solitary frustration of trying to figure out what the heck is actually going on, and what I can do about it. With a table full of maps and counters, or terrain and figures, and a stack of rulebooks, it’s clear and apparent (to me, anyway) what I want to do, what I can do, and how I can do it, and there’s always the guy across the table to ask if not. With computer wargames, none of the above is true, and that makes it too frustrating for a person whose life is already drowning in other priorities to spend weeks working out a nightmare interface.

    Certainly, the market can be left to the “elite” … and slowly die. But wouldn’t it be better if the not-quite-so-elite were invited to come play, too, and could find out about the good games buried behind bad UIs?

    I should point out that nobody is suggesting changing the games — just changing how the information they generate is presented. When the accessibility of the game involves, not understanding the game mechanics and unit interactions, but winning a struggle with an unnecessarily arcane UI, the game isn’t fulfilling its potential. And that’s a big loss.

  25. Wyrmrider says:

    Very nice analysis. I only found it through Lum the Mad, but you’re on my feedreader now!

    Yes, these studios could waste a ton of money on designer the perfect UI, testing the hell out of it, and iterating over and over and over again… But we’re not really talking about that. Some of these examples are so tragically far short of having any effort at all.

    For example, looking at that awful text report:
    1) Left-align the text so it’s easily scannable.
    2) Darken the background so the text is easily legible.
    3) Bold the bottom two lines so the percentages pop out.
    4) Highlight or offset the “check” button (assuming that’s what the player will generally push next).

    That’s 10 seconds of suggestions, and I’m no expert — I just recognize that I can read, but I can’t read that. Not putting at least that small level of consideration into your UI is just arrogant.

    Related posts: Tobold says hardcore gamers shouldn’t develop games at all (http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/ToboldsBlog/~3/DDVPukUqMf4/dont-let-hardcore-gamers-develop-games.html), and I disagree with perhaps naive imagery of the “game design Jedi” who knows how to strike the balance. :) (http://gamingbyear.com/2011/01/13/easy-to-learn-hard-to-master/)

  26. James says:

    You guys (read: fanbois) are missing the point.

    Its not software glitches, coding errors, or the overall GUI that is the problem. In other words, its nothing that would require much expense at all to fix.

    Its the little things, like choosing a retarded font or making a moronic decision to centre text…etc.

    Its the stupid little things that a 14 year old in freshman programming class could fix that are the most annoying, I would assume.

    You can fanboi-rant all you want, but it doesn’t take more than 30 seconds to fix most of these problems, so money isn’t an issue. The developer must be deficient in some way *not* to realize how illogical these decisions are.

  27. As the programmer for Operational Art of War III, I want to take a minute to talk about a couple of things,

    I don’t like the interface on many of today’s wargames, but I don’t like the interface of a lot of web sites or business apps either. There are a some excellent design guidelines out there, and once you start reading them, you start noticing problems. Edward Tufte’s books are excellent, but not very specific. Mark Miller of Developer Express has some good things to say in his blogs and videos. http://www.dotnetrocks.com/default.aspx?showNum=338

    Wargames are inherently complex since they are modeling a complex subject. While you could reduce them to simply pushing a ‘GO’ button, the inherent complexity would still remain. You can hide a lot of this inherent complexity in various ways, and deciding how much to hide is part of the design process. I like the balance that TOAW strikes with a lot in inherent complexity, but the gameplay mechanics are pretty simple. One key metric I like is how many keypresses or mouse clicks it takes to do something. Another is how far your eye needs to travel to look at the information you need. Another is how much much the important information stands out.

    The button design of TOAW wins by that standard of number of button presses(1), but loses because the important information (End turn for example) is the same size as the show hexagons button. One possible solution would be to change them to be more like the Office ribbon where you can resize the buttons and make the important ones larger.

    One big issue I see with wargames is that there are few enough wargames that we don’t have common interfaces. I can pick up any RTS or FPS and I will know how to do the basics like move or shoot. I can’t do that with a wargame. Every time I pick up a new wargame, I’ll have to learn a new interface before I can start learning the new rules. Part of that is ‘just because.’ Part of it is that there are real differences in the gameplay of the games. Another part is that the different series picked different interfaces ‘back in the day’ and it is difficult to modify the interface for a new game and still keep your audience. If I modified TOAW to use the COTA interface, I’d lose most of my current audience. Because we don’t have common interfaces, the learning curve is higher than it needs to be. In most games, you can start small with a few units and gameplay mechanics to learn. Then it builds in complexity slowly as you add more gameplay. That isn’t as easy to do with a typical wargame. You’re kind of stuck with boring tutorial scenarios, or harder more interesting ones.

    TOAW is a bit of a special case, it was first written 10 years ago. Because of that, I can’t radically change things. People are used to it, the top question on the forum is how do I go back to the old way of doing things.

    The fonts look bad zoomed in because Windows 98 (still supported), or even XP/Vista don’t have a good small font. Windows 7 does have one, but I can’t limit my audience to that, especially for a patch. I still support 800×600, and I think it probably supported 640×480 at one time. Because of that, the font had to be an 8×8 grid, so that’s about as good as you can make it look, although the 3.4 patch with the latest font by Damezzi does look better. You can use windows fonts, but because the interface wasn’t written to expect them, it doesn’t always look great, you also lose the SS lightning bolts in the bitmapped fonts.

    I already modified the combat results screen. The last several lines (the really important ones) are now shown in silver instead of gold so they stand out. I’ll think about hightlighting the words and left aligning, but with the other hightlighting, I’m afraid that it would obscure the really important information, which is the bottom lines. I may be able to put a small symbol on the left, I’ll look into that. There is an option for an Excel output for the true grognards.

    I’ll continue on the Matrix forum, since the rest is specific to the 3.4 patch. I explain how I made the UI changes to bring a program into 2010, so it might be interesting to some people.


    Ralph Trickey

  28. IronMan says:

    Well, further to my previous comment about beta testers mostly reporting UI bugs I just had a brand new tester give his first report on his first impressions of my game. 9 of the 12 points were squarely about UI. Hey, he had some good suggestons I will use. Only one point was really involved the model of the game (movement rates of units through adverser terrain) and another was half model and half UI on first glance.
    Ah well, doubtless he will shift his focus as he gets more used to the game. I expect he will be very useful because he has only beta tested one other game. His eyes will be both fresh and experienced, just what I like.

    Introverted loner.

  29. Excellent article. This is not confined to operational level wargames by any means; we had a nice discussion of this today in the Combat Mission of the gamesquad forums. I’ve not seen the “problem” presented in such clear terms before, though. Very well written. I had not put my finger on why I felt so turned off by operational level games before; I now realize that I don’t like using mouse-over tool-tips to learn unintuitive menu icons. Steel Panthers had a similar system to that described here, but perhaps I was more familiar with what “typical” menu commands might be – or I was just younger and had more time to waste learning new tricks. No excuse now to not have fully fleshed out UIs. I particularly liked Combat Mission’s right-click menu bar, with color-coded menu choices and actual WORDS married to the icons. It was clean and worked well – no appreciable learning curve to the UI, just the game itself.

    Thanks for an entertaining piece.

  30. Jax says:

    Now, I have played a few wargames (dating back to Ancient Art of War on a Macintosh SE) when I read the article I found myself thinking of two things: Linux installations around 1995 and working in SAP r3: it takes some effort to get where you want to be and you need some prior knowledge.

    Many wargame UIs are like a new symbolic language, a sort of high-level math, which you have to decode. No general fighting in a real war has to do that.

    Apart from Civilization and Gettysburg, I think my own “best” UI experience has been the Close Combat series. Any of the games discussed in the thread and the post are about complex choices and issues. A player needs all the help he or she can get to make a choice. Which means less micro-managment if the game is on a strategic level. Options to do so is fine but in the end it’s you and the big scheme of things that matters.

    Have someone set up a “dissect a wargame UI” university course, maybe? I bet there is something interesting to learn from it.

  31. OmneusCharles says:

    I agree totally! While looking for something more genuinely strategic than Civ and the likes of “Medieval Total Clickfest”, I have tried a few wargames (including Advance Tactics and TOAW) and have much the same conclusion. The complexity is magnified by the awful presentation of these games. And some poor design decisions.

    I could add one more to your 3. I’m currently trying the AGEOD series for the umpteenth time. Gave up on Civil War, it is too huge. Birth of America is smaller and appears to have a good, elegent ruleset. But man, it is such a struggle to work with the interface. I could go on forever on the niggles eg differerent region types have the same graphic. Unbelievably, “clear terrain” can look exactly the same as “wooded” or “forest”. So you have to waggle the mouse over ALL 3,547 regions to find what type they really are! The AGEOD must have the most obscure “combat results” screen ever! (And it totally covers the battlefield, of coourse :-) ) It is often commented on by the newbies in the forums, yet has never been altered in 5 or 6 games now. Eventually, those newbies mostly drift away for some reason….

    AGEOD forum traffic shows a generally lessening interest with each game. Which is sad as I really do believe the underlying game mechanism is very good. But it is obscured by dodgy interface decsions. the on-screen clutter. The number of mouse clicks and hovers. The “too much detail” as units go down one level too many (they should dump the battalions). But mostly, it is the absolute refusal to display clearly the vital stats in a user-friendly form, instead opting to obfuscate. All of which turns a potentially good high level strategy wargame into a frustrating micro management RSI click fest.

    In fact, most wargame interfaces suffer from “We got Tooltips and we’re gonna use them”. Instead of putting info up on the screen all the time, you are forces to mouse over “everything”, which brings up a list of numbers in a box that invariably obscures other key elements of the screen. I hate them.

    True the real cause stems of way too much detail. Way, way too much detail! As you say, it only takes a handful of stats to make an elegant, interesting strategic challenge. Look at chess. And many Euro board games. Increasing PC power has led to wargames getting into more and more detail. Hence the tooltips as there isn’t a hope of displaying all this stuff. TOAW is a classic example of modelling all the way down to number of bootlaces in the stores. Is it really necessary?

    Yet wargamers rarely complain of these insufferable interfaces. There will be more complaints that the uniform of the French Infantry has an incorrect number of buttons.

    Ironically, the obssession with detail leads to the other main complaint of grognards: that despite the vast detailed low level modelling, the results are NOT REALISTIC!!!! Seems to be a fact of game design that the more there is, the more there is to go wrong. Reducing stats to a handful, reducing regions to the key ones, etc, removing the unnecessary chaff, would make the design more manageable. A good AI would be easier to program, the game wouldn’t take 5 minutes between turns (Advance Tactics is guilty of this and was a main reason I gave up on it), and the outcomes just might be more in liine with something approaching reality. Design from the top down, adding only the necessary detail. Rather than the TOAW et all approach of designing up from the tiniest detail and ending in a nightmare of unbeliabale results and unmanageable design.

    So is there a market for the non-OCD gamers who want a high level strategy challenge with a war theme? I’ve just about given up on there being a high strategy PC challenge for non-grognards. PC versions of euro board games are as good as it gets right now. Isn’t Panzer General the best selling wargame of all time? Sometimes I wonder if the grognards like it the way it is and actually enjoy being part of some small elitest group.

  32. artfox says:


    “People able to code such games are invariably introvert loners, and blind testing (as something which sullies the purity of one’s private thought) is seldom on the table. The lack of tutorial relates to this, but also tutorials are the hardest game element to design bar none.”

    Quite the opposite actually. You would be surprised by the overrepresentation of alternative lifestyles and extrovert, colorfull personalities among developers. Developers are often (not always) escapists. Dreamers open to … experiments.

    … But some of them are extremely intelligent and talks to everybody as if they were on the same level.

  33. Falkon says:

    I find myself not playing as much as I’d like to due to the difficulty of getting the big picture. Sure I can see an individual unit’s details easily enough, and issue orders to an individual unit easily enough. But when there are hundreds or thousands of units, I need some big picture of the OOB/TO&E, some way to plan and note what I’m intending for my formations to do, and some way to find out what the overall situation is. Otherwise it’s easy to end up stuck reacting locally at the unit level instead of planning and executing at the operational level.

    Being able to group units and clearly see the groupings, note their capabilities, roles, and objectives and correlate that to their situation on map would be a big plus. Many games have some sort of formation highlight or list of units, but that’s not enough for a big game. Some sort of annotated treeview or graph that could be used while looking at the map (click a unit in the tree and all of its subordinates would be selected/highlighted on the map, and a status summary of those units would show somewhere, with a box for notes) would be great for getting the overall force picture.

    Another thing I’ve wanted for years is an overlay layer above the map with some basic vector graphics tools – line, box, circle, arrow, text. That would allow you to draw out an annotated plan on the overlay. Again, especially useful if you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of units since it’s not easy to keep in your head what all of them should be doing.

    The other part of the big picture is overall statistics and status reports with aggregate/summary/trend data. Almost all wargames have some kind of report or statistics, but usually not what would be really useful to the player as a commander. All too often they focus on individual unit details, leave out important events, and give walls of text and piles of numbers but no context, graph, or interpretation.

    If you feel the need to have several other windows open with your notes, a drawing program, and a spreadsheet (as well as the game manual) when you play, and spend hours manually feeding data from the game into the other programs in order to understand the situation, then it seems pretty unplayable to me. How do you convince someone new to wargaming to try that?

    Maybe I’m unusual and most players can do all of that in their head, or just play by gut feeling instead of trying to plan and understand.