Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Test Driving" WarGameRoom

I signed up for a We the People tournament at the WarGameRoom, a Java-based site that hosts several wargames for online play. It is not Cyberboard, nor is it VASSAL, but games that Bruce Wigdor has coded up for online play. Most of these games can be played on other sites, but WGR actually enforces the rules. Sometimes a little too much so. 

Once I'd gotten signed up, I realized I had to get a game finished by this coming Sunday, which is a bit of a trick given that I have a lot going on in the next few days, from a Downtown session with Chris, to band rehearsal, to a choir board meeting. As such, I didn't really have time to learn the interface, nor to brush up on the rules by soloing a game. That cost me quite a bit, as you'll see. Because with this system, you are on the clock. A chess clock, to be specific. You have so much time to make all of your moves, and the first player to go over defaults. Not a problem on casual games, of course (and we did play on, although I added very little time to my side of the clock), but I was clearly in over my head in this one. The initial interface issues managed to get me to misunderstand the text on a card, and so I wasn't able to remove the American PC I thought I could and lost three British PCs at the end of the first turn, the equivalent of two card plays - quite a nice coup for the American, although in the end it didn't help him in terms of actually winning the game.

The interface is a simple server/client, with one player starting the Java engine on their machine and then giving their IP address to the client player. It is also possible for a third party to play server to two player's clients in the case where it's hard to get through a firewall (I'm not sure exactly how to do port forwarding on my Airport Express .11n system - there are several possibilities, but I'd need to work with another person to test it fully). That means no solitaire games on the system, so you'd better know how things work.

And I did not. In our first two card plays, I went to place British PCs on the board, only to discover that the "OK" button in the dialog box that helpfully popped up mean "I'm done with my turn". Twice. So I started with my opponent placing his PCs in the very spaces I'd intended to during my turn. There was one other major problem late in the game, although one that didn't really have an effect on the outcome (although it certainly could have) - I went to put 5 CUs onto a controlled port, only to have some buggy dialog box come up. The only way out? Quit the dialog, starting your cardplay over from scratch. I spent a good five minutes trying to accomplish this simple mechanism, only to get screwed over on time for my trouble.

That may be my least favorite part of this system, at least the tournament structure that I'm playing in. We kept playing, and I won at what was the 1:08 mark when my opponent foolishly sent Washington up north to take Montreal and Quebec. When he was cornered in Quebec and I knew I'd have militia *and* a port to work with, I knew I had him. And did. The game was due to end that turn anyway, but it was a bit galling to have to chalk up a loss because of a buggy and initially confusing interface. 

However, I did have to look up several rules that surprised me (the game does enforce the rules, a big advantage over VASSAL or Cyberboard), such as that the Brits couldn't just place a PC under an army with an Ops card unless you were flipping over an enemy PC, or that they couldn't place PCs in open ports. I guess I hadn't played the Brits much and was very surprised by rules I really would never have remembered unless I was actually playing the game. And that I clearly should have done, off the clock, to get the rules and the interface down. 

I'm committed to the rest of the season, which means several more games over the next several months. That's fine, I like the game and I'm happy to see a system for real-time play that will work very well for beginners as I won't have to check their moves every time. I would be lying if I didn't say that about 5 minutes before my timer ran down (right after I had given up on the reinforcements), I was very close to simply chucking the entire process. 

One other strange element of the system is that the map is extremely Spartan - no background at all, not even to delineate the colonies. I think that's a huge mistake - functional boundaries can easily be included with a few dotted lines. The map does show color, but with the Winter Quarter spaces in outline, some of the colors are hard to differentiate on the screen. Some of the newer games have better graphics closer to the original maps (Twilight Struggle, Empire of the Sun), but I suspect that copyright permission plays a large role in that decision.

Bruce has done a pretty good job with the site in general, and I don't mean to sound ungrateful for all of his hard work. I came into my game unprepared and paid the price with a tick in the Loss column. To be honest, it would have been nice of my opponent to graciously say that since I was new at all of this I should get the win because I would clearly have gotten in under the wire without trying to figure out the interface issues. It's what I would have done, but that means that I graciously give him the win since that's what the rules say, and I had read the rules. 

Next time, I will be ready.

The Twilight Struggle tournament starts up this coming Monday, April 28th. The expectation is that you'll be able to finish a game about every two weeks, and considering that you will be on the clock from start to finish means you have to schedule no interruptions. I can *barely* do this with two tournaments (I'm signed up for both), especially TS as it's a much longer game. However, I expect that I'll be quite a good player of both titles by the time I'm done. Play against a wide range of opponents will improve your play faster than by any other method, and I so want Twilight Struggle to be the kind of game that you win through superior play rather than through luck. WtP is the same kind of beast, but at a couple of hours it's much easier to shrug and say "Oh, well" when the game goes pearshaped because of strange card draws. 

Also, I guess I really shouldn't complain because I managed to get dealt something like 15 3 Operations cards over eight turns - none the first two, but at least one and on one critical turn four (plus a minor campaign). I think my opponent's head blew up when I played the fourth one. He certainly was surprised when Howe ran up and killed Washington in Canada. 

So, to you, the unwashed masses, my advice is this - if you're playing a tournament at WarGameRoom, play a practice game or three first. 

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