Kaelin Consulting

Mark W. Kaelin

I have over 25 years of experience in the electronic publishing industry. I was an editor for CBS Interactive for eleven years, where I was responsible for acquiring, editing, and writing technical content for daily publication on CBS Interactive properties TechRepublic.com and ZDNet.com. My duties included the recruitment and development of contributing talent. Prior to CBS Interactive, I was an editor with ProQuest for 12 years, where I developed, designed, edited, and maintained an array of university and business school supplemental curricula products. Before ProQuest, I was a public accountant for five years, specializing in tax preparation and in compilation and review engagements. In addition, I have performed independent consulting services over the last 30 years for various business clients.

Love is a battlefield

Originally published in November 2000.

Historical note: this is still a fantastic game that I pull out from time to time. By the way, the title is a reference to one of my favorite singer/songwriters Nick Lowe.

Name: Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord
Genre: Tactical War Strategy
Format: CD-ROM, PC or Mac
Developer: Big Time Software
Publisher: Big Time Software
Multiplayer: Play-by-mail with TCP/IP Coming Soon
Requires: Windows 98/95 - Pentium 166 MHz, 32MB RAM, 100MB hard disk space, DirectX 6.0 compatible video and sound card.
MacOS 7.5 - 603e 133MHz, 32MB RAM, 100MB hard disk space.
Retail Price: $45, plus shipping. Only available from the Web site.

In the tag line at the end of this monthly column, I stake claim to being a gaming geek. Well, this month I am going to prove it to you.

Before fellow geeks Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started the personal computer revolution they probably played board games. My pre-computer game years were spent playing board games based on warfare made by companies such as Avalon Hill, Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley. These games were played with dice, statistical tables, hexagonal maps, and cardboard cut-out tokens. Computer games dealing with warfare took this classic model and imported it, hexagon for hexagon.

For the most part, these classic-model computer games were relegated to the realm of gaming geeks because they were too involved for casual gamers. Playing a hexagonal war game on the computer takes commitment in time which can only be found in hard-core gaming circles. However, with the development of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord by Big Time Software, a computer game based on warfare has finally overcome the hexagonal map and the delights of pure strategy gaming is now within reach of the casual gamer.

So that’s what a Panzerfaust looks like

In place of the hexagon and unit icons, Big Time Software has employed 3D graphics to model the battlefield. A tiger tank looks like a tiger tank, an American GI looks like an American GI. The battlefield is a 3D representation of a rolling pasture, a small French village or a German town. With 3D modeling, the battlefield becomes a real place with trees, rain, snow, and mud. Environmental conditions will often be the determining factor in deciding tactical strategy and ultimately the final battle outcome.

Combat Mission depicts the period in World War II just after the Allied European invasion, therefore available units are limited to that historic time. The game ships with approximately 100 different scenarios based on historic WWII battles. But the game also comes with a built-in scenario editor that allows users to develop their own battles. And if you are not industrious enough to make your own battles, the game will generate new, quick battles based on parameters you set.

The most innovative and significant new feature of Combat Mission is the “we-go” system. Although the game is turn-based, the turns occur simultaneously. In a turn, the player can give movement or targeting orders to units while they are frozen in a moment of time, but after all the orders are given the game elapses one minute of battle. During that sometimes excruciating minute your units are essentially on their own. The player cannot change orders, and the AI for both sides must cope with whatever the battle brings. If you have planned and anticipated well, your units should do well, if you have not prepared well, your units could panic, surrender or be killed.

After that fateful minute has passed, the player can review that minute as many times as they like. This recorded minute of battle can be played again and again from any perspective on the battlefield. Players can view the events as they unfold from every unit’s frame of reference in they wish, even the seen enemy’s. The minute’s battle results can also be viewed from any omnipresent perspective you wish. This is a wonderfully dynamic way to view a battle, one that the hexagon model could never deliver. The concepts of lines of sight and distance, so abstract in the previous classic model, are given new breadth by the 3D perspective.

Combat Mission is one of those games that are easy to play but difficult to master. The interface is simple, relying on right and left mouse clicks or shortcut keystrokes to issue orders to units. Players can set movement paths and firing postures for units one at a time or by platoon or company. The sounds of battle are simply fantastic, with sounds of bullets and bombs mixed in with sergeants barking orders and soldiers screaming for help. The 3D graphics are not state of the art, but that is essentially a technological limitation. The graphics are designed to represent units and terrain, not to simulate them in their entirety.

The graphics presented on the screen merely hint at the tremendous amount of calculation actually taking place. The AI incorporated into Combat Mission is remarkably complex and highly detailed. Big Time Software has employed years of research and beta testing into the underlying battle calculations to present the most realistic and true representation of battlefield results. This means that units interact in a predictable and consistent manner, allowing players to plan strategies based on tactical principles and not “gamey” anomalies.

Can warfare equal community?

The mainstream computer game industry has for all intents and purposes abandoned the war game genre because the games do not generally appeal to a wide enough audience, which means they do not generate much revenue, at least not for a large corporation. However, Big Time Software is essentially a 2-man operation. Combat Mission was developed as a labor of love, not necessarily to pad the bottom line. The huge documentation manual and the attention to the fine details are all in excess of what the big game development houses are willing to spend in time and money on a such project. The game is not available in retail stores, it can only be purchased at the game’s website.

As the game was being developed something very interesting happened. A community of Combat Mission game players gathered on Big Time Software’s discussion boards to talk about how the beta version of the game played, how units were modeled, and how much they loved playing the game. The discussion board now generates thousands of messages each and every day. This word-of-mouth advertising is really the only marketing taking place for the game. Yet, when it was released a few months ago, it sold out in a matter of days. Big Time Software has been struggling to keep up with demand ever since.

And that is the real beauty of Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord - the community that has spontaneously formed around and because of this game’s release. Players from around the world are designing and posting new scenarios. Ingenious and industrious players are taking advantage of the game’s open architecture to develop new 3D units, map terrain, and sounds. The game has morphed into an ever-evolving experience that will always bring something new to your computer screen. Now, if that is not gloriously geek-like, I don’t know what is.

If you normally play strategy games of any kind, you owe it to yourself to play this game. If you normally shy away from strategy games, especially war games based on the turn-based hexagonal model, you owe it to yourself to play this game. This is the only must have game I have played all year. Enough said.