This post reflects my current thinking on objectives fairly accurately, but don’t be surprised if things change a little from this concept.
The changes here are intended to make objectives work well within a campaign game, which seems to be the more popular mode (as opposed to individual scenarios). Campaign is a big topic, and I can’t hope to cover everything in a single post, so please excuse the occasional hand-wavy reference to “changes in campaign game”. It will all make sense in the end!
Unity of Command has simple location objectives with time limits. They do a good job of putting you on a schedule – a realistic priority for an operational commander. The scenario you are playing is not self-contained; it almost always plays a role in some bigger undertaking (e.g. “reach Moscow before winter sets in”). Typically, the plans for an operation on our scale would contain some sort of an explicit time schedule, like the OVERLORD map below.
The obvious problem with timed objectives is that they completely ignore losses. Theoretically, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve just executed a surgically precise tactical masterpiece or, alternately, bludgeoned your way through in a pointless bloodbath. All that counts is that you’re hitting the objectives on time and you’re good.
I still thought this was a good design idea. My reasoning was that, if you want to play masterfully, you really can’t afford to play in any other way than by using the actual tenets of mechanized warfare: concentrate to attack, use air support, take the battle deep into enemy territory. Tight turn limits put pressure on you to do the right thing, tactically speaking, and the issue of losses hardly comes up when you’re one turn short of a BV.
What was missing, from my perspective, is that people spend a long time playing at beginner or intermediate levels. A typical beginner approach is to attack frontally, making for a slow advance and high attrition losses. However, if you’re not trying to score brilliant victories, you can still win in this way, because there are more turns to play with. You progress in the campaign and then hey, your guys are back from the dead since scenarios always revert to historical situation.
Needless to say this is very wrong.
What to Do?
To get the obvious out of the way first: I’m not going to be adding any sort of score-keeping based on counting up the losses. Reducing your units to numbers on a score sheet feels even worse than ignoring losses altogether.
Instead, losses will be persistent between scenarios in the campaign. I’m not going to explain this in much detail right now (this is it, the hand-wavy moment from first paragraph), but since I assume you care about your ongoing campaign game, then it makes sense to make your units persistent in it – since you also likely care about them.
Basically, losses carry over between scenarios and you pay in prestige for replacements. You still want to get to objectives as fast as possible, but there is now a clear incentive for not murdering your own force along the way. This gives beginners and intermediates all the right incentives to improve their game.
To help with balancing, campaign designers will have two separate tools at their disposal. One is scheduled reinforcements: at the end of each scenario there are a set number of reinforcements that arrive “for free”. This is always less than the expected losses, but broadly enough to keep the force levels close to historical baseline.
The other tool is the increasing cost of reinforcements. Put simply, the more you buy, the more expensive they get. This is not exclusively a balancing tool, but also a way of introducing historical realities. The increase should vary from steep (late war British) to almost flat (early war Soviets).
I haven’t mentioned advanced players up to this point. There, we have a different issue, that of people who are earning a lot of prestige with no meaningful opportunity to spend it. In Unity of Command, I kind of patched over that by making any prestige that you have left at the end of the campaign translate into your score (of sorts).
This is unsatisfactory for two reasons. First off, when you spend prestige to buy reinforcements you feel bad (for lowering your “score”) when you should feel good instead (because of new possibilities this opens up for you). This is undeniably lame.
On a more philosophical note, the old setup actively invites completionist, perfectionist, thinking. This is when you ask yourself: “should I try to get all BVs with no prestige spend?” While it’s an everyday thing in video games that people go for extreme feats of skill and perseverence (and entirely doable), I don’t think it should be front and center like that.
Regardless of why, skilled players earn progressively more and more prestige. This positive feedback snowballs into making the game trivial to win simply by buying more and more reinforcements. When we try to counter that by putting realistic limits on reinforcements (either by increasing costs or force pool limits), we end up effectively making prestige irrelevant.
The New Objectives
This is where the new objectives come in. Although at first they don’t look all that different from the old ones, hopefully they’ll help us address the issues above.
Basic objective descriptions will be extended like this (example): “100, -10/turn after turn 6, 50”. Here, we are introducing a minimum value (50). Even a beginner player, assuming they win, gets a moderate amount of prestige. Note that this is not pointless inflation, as reinforcements have to be paid for, in prestige, in the campaign game.
The most prestige any player can get is double the minimum (plus whatever can be gained from lower combat losses). The overall campaign game is then tuned to be comfortably winnable for a player close to this higher level. For beginners, this still means they lose at some point, but we can now make their progression smoother and less frustrating.
To add challenge for advanced players, we introduce bonus objectives. As the name implies, you can complete the scenario without capturing any of these objectives. They earn very little prestige, and instead count towards altering campaign progression. An example of this would be switching you to a track of what-if scenarios.
Bonus objectives increase the challenge, while not handing out more prestige. In fact, since taking bonus objectives likely involves at least some losses, the negative feedback kicks in almost immediately.
Example: 2nd Kharkov
To see how this could work, take a look at the “2nd Kharkov” scenario from the original campaign. This scenario takes the historical Kharkov battle and adds to it “Wilhelm” and “Fridericus”. The two objectives in the northeast actually represent these separate German offensives.
This notoriously hard scenario could be softened by representing the main Kharkov battle with basic objectives, while “Wilhelm” and “Fridericus” objectives in the northeast are treated as bonus objectives.
A player may only succeed in winning the main Kharkov battle. In campaign terms, this means he’ll get to start Voronezh from a starting point that’s slightly worse than historical, but his campaign isn’t over, by far.
On the other hand, a player that takes both the bonus objectives gets to start Voronezh from the historical start lines. While this is generally a good idea, remember that the extra fighting (for bonus objectives) inevitably means more losses and therefore the attrition has already begun. It boils down to this: if you want to take Stalingrad or otherwise change history, you’ll have to work for it even harder than before.