Conventional wisdom (i.e., Jim Dunnigan) says that computer games ate the monster wargames in the mid 1980s – the kind of record keeping that turned Campaign for North Africa into a horrifying joke (where you have a form to keep track of your forms, for keeping track of the maintenance conditions of your trucks carrying spare parts for other trucks…) are easy to hide beneath the surface of a computer game, even with mid 1980’s level graphics. I played The Warp Factor on a friend’s Apple ][ long before I ever played Star Fleet Battles.
Computer games don’t replace the tactile fun of shoving miniatures around for me. While computers are good at hiding a lot of complexity and “crunchiness,” sometimes full computerization turns interesting decision-making into click-fests. “Click target! Keep hitting hot keys until it goes down! Click new target! Keep hitting hot keys!”
That said, computerization has a place even in manual wargames and miniatures games. Computerization that replicates much of the experience of play allows people to play games over the Internet when there isn’t another fan of a title in the same hemisphere, let alone reasonable driving distance.
Ad Astra is about to undertake a Kickstarter to fund our first foray into partial game automation, with a smartphone/tablet app called the AVID Assistant. The purpose of the AVID Assistant is to make it easier to play the game in person, by letting you use your tablet for some of the recordkeeping.
My 3D space combat games use a polar projection of a sphere embedded into a hexagon as a play aid called the AVID – short for Attitude/Vector Information Display. The AVID is used to record a ship’s orientation and attitude in 3D by using a set of simple symbols marked on a 2D surface. You still need to show orientation on the map, where God and Redmond Simonson always meant it to be. For that I’ve got tilt blocks and box miniatures.
I’ve found, from selling about 6000 boxed games, and more demos than I can count, that people fall into three categories:
15% of the people see the demo and go “Holy…dammit, why the hell didn’t you publish this in 1982 when I had the time to be obsessive about it?!” They take to it like a fish takes to swimming. They’re also right – nothing would’ve kept the AVID and related play aids from being published in 1980. (Indeed, Winchell Chung of Atomic Rockets has said that if he ever gets access to a time machine, I’m the first person he calls…he’d like to live in the alternate universe where AV:T got published in the 1980s.)
65% of people see the demo and they need to go through the procedure a few (or few dozen) times until it all clicks.
20% of the people see the demo and simply lack the mental wiring to look at symbols written in a set of concentric circles and “see” it as a projection of a sphere.
Interestingly, intelligence only slightly corroborates with this categorization. A good chunk of people in that last 20% are self-described Mensa members, and become convinced that if they can’t figure it out, the game is unplayable by mere mortals. Meanwhile, I’ve had players who can’t be trusted to do single-digit arithmetic use the AVID natively before I finish the explanation.
It’s a different sort of brain wiring than conventional logic and language centers, it’s spatial visualization. I don’t have enough demos to women to really get a set of percentages for them, but I suspect that the bottom tranche eats a bit of the middle tranche and the top tranche remains at 15%.
What the AVID Assistant does is automate tracking the orientation symbols on the AVID, so you point the ship’s Nose where you want it to be, and the other symbols update automatically. This doesn’t replace the thinking part of the game, but it does give a tool for people who get flummoxed by the visualization.
The AVID Assistant also handles shooting bearings (seeing where in the spherical reference frame of the game you see the target) and mapping those bearings to firing arc diagrams. The goal is to use the AVID Assistant app to reduce the barrier to entry to the miniatures game.