Since last week I’ve been playing the demo of Making History: The Calm and the Storm. My first impressions are that it’s a good game, but it is very much a game and not a simulation. It’s hard to believe that this is what Niall Ferguson was getting so excited about, or that he could be in awe of anyone who has won as Germany. If you approach the game on its own terms (as I suggested in my first post about games and simulations), the initial strength of Germany and the inherent weaknesses of Artificial Intelligence make it quite easy to win.
The demo scenario starts in 1939 and is limited to 20 turns, so it’s hard to tell how games would develop in the long term. Although the economic element of the game looks reasonably sophisticated, it doesn’t have much effect in the short term. This is particularly true for Germany, because you start with large and technologically advanced armed forces, and a strong economy. Even the shortages of food and oil are not likely to prove fatal before the end of a 20 turn game, especially as you are in a good position to grab resources from other nations. The military side of the game doesn’t look that much more sophisticated than the board game Axis and Allies. The main difference is that you can research upgrades, as in most computer strategy games. Again, these upgrades don’t make much difference in the short term, and Germany already has a higher tech level and bigger ground forces than other European powers. However, the full game promises to be a lot more interesting as economy and technology are likely to play a much greater role in the long term. There will also be more scenarios with different start dates and initial conditions.
Unlike Niall Ferguson, I tried not to bring any historical knowledge into the game. Instead I used my gaming experience to test the AI, combat system, and economy, and find out what I should be doing to win. At first I tried to make allies with anyone I could. This is a hangover from playing Diplomacy, and turned out not to be appropriate here. In fact, the last thing Germany should ever do is make an alliance (with one exception — more on that below). The game system agrees with history that Germany needs to avoid a war on two fronts. You need to choose your wars carefully and apply maximum force to one enemy at a time. Alliances will screw this up for you, because they drag you into wars you don’t want. The first time I played, I agreed to an alliance with Italy, but the stupid Italians went and invaded Greece, which brought Britain and France into the war, giving me the war on two fronts that I was trying to avoid.
This situation wasn’t too bad in the short term, as I quickly finished off Poland with Soviet help and turned on France. Conquering western Europe was easy enough (France is surprisingly weak) but I was left with the problem of Britain, with its huge navy (although I see from the Making History forum that some players have managed to outmanoeuvre the British AI and land on the mainland). All historical expectations would have been confounded by the Russians sending armies to help me invade France. Apart from being a bit unrealistic, this also gave me an idea for a lame exploit. Since armies can move through the territory of any allied nation, all you have to do to beat the USSR is make an alliance with them, move all your armies to their main economic centres, then declare war!
Nevertheless, I tried to find a more sensible strategy. The USSR clearly has to be taken out early in the game, before they can build too many units, and it’s vital to avoid war with Britain, France, or the USA until you’ve achieved this. Avoiding war with the Allies isn’t too difficult because their AI is very predictable and not very aggressive. They will declare war if you invade Poland, Greece, or the low countries, but they don’t care about Scandinavia, the Baltic republics, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Rumania, Bulgaria, Turkey, or Persia. Therefore it’s possible for Germany to build a huge empire to the north and south of the Soviet Union, provided that they leave Poland alone. It’s hard to tell how well this strategy would work as 20 turns isn’t enough time to conquer all those countries and the Soviet Union. I tried a half size version of it by taking Hungary, Rumania, and the Baltic republics before starting on the Russians, but it didn’t work too well. Although the Rumanian oil was useful, capturing it caused delays and attrition, while the Russians were building more units.
To get a lock-on victory against the Soviet Union you have to go to the other extreme: the Baltic rush. In the first turn, start Berlin making tanks, adjust your economy to make sure you have enough arms, send the East Prussian army to conquer Lithuania, concentrate your navies in the Gulf of Finland, and start shipping all your ground forces (yes, ALL of them — you can leave Germany undefended because Britain and France won’t attack you) to East Prussia. Once you’ve conquered the Baltic republics, merge your forces into three armies, one in Wierland, and two in Livonia, and concentrate your air forces in Livonia. Keep ordering the new tanks from Berlin to Livonia (you should get a new division every turn). Send the Wierland army to capture Leningrad, one of the Livonia armies towards Moscow, and the other one south. There will then be some big battles, but you will win them. Leningrad usually falls in one or two turns (so much for the 900 days!). Set it to produce arms and send some forces south while leaving a strong garrison there. The central army and/or the reinforcements from Leningrad should take Moscow fairly easily, while the southern army should take Kiev and Podelia. With all those regions under your control you have as good as won. Without their main production centres at Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, the Russians can’t make reinforcements fast enough, and the food from Moscow and Podelia will solve Germany’s food shortage. After that you can send some tanks south to grab the Caucasian oilfields, then it’s just mopping up isolated resistance.
The other nations don’t have such easy options. When I tried a similarly aggressive strategy as Russia it turned into a throwback to the early-modern period as I got invaded by Turkey and Sweden while my biggest armies exhausted themselves trying to conquer Rumania!
Being able to win by exploiting AI weaknesses is no surprise, and certainly shouldn’t be held against this game in particular. All computer strategy games suffer from predictable AI, because AI technology just isn’t advanced enough for what it’s being asked to do (at least within the resource constraints of the average home PC). In order to get anything like a challenging single player experience game designers usually have to cheat by giving the computer players extra resources and more powerful units, but this just makes it even less like playing against a real person. The Making History demo doesn’t give any idea what multiplayer games will be like, but there is a lot of potential for interesting games there.
So, it’s a fun game but doesn’t always bear that much resemblance to history. Muzzy Lane are aiming for the education market, but this seems to be as much about image and marketing as substance. Making History is educational to a certain extent, but then so are Civilisation and Total War. It will teach school children something about the Second World War, although it could be counterproductive in some ways. From a postcolonial point of view, the ideological map is a bad joke. Britain and France are shown as democracies. Fair enough, but British and French overseas colonies are also shown as democracies. What do the colonised have to say about that? For academics the game isn’t a serious tool for testing counter-factual hypotheses. That might change to a certain extent if they release mod tools so that we can change things rather than being bound by Muzzy Lane’s design decisions, but it’s never going to be a satisfactorily complex representation of war and economics.
Of course Muzzy Lane didn’t intend this game for academics to test counter factual scenarios, whatever Niall Ferguson says, so it’s not really fair to criticise their design decisions on those grounds. It’s primarily a tool for teachers, and now also an entertainment product. I don’t know enough about teaching to know how useful it will be in the classroom. As a gamer I know it’s impossible to tell from a single player demo how good a strategy game will be, since a lot depends on how the multiplayer mode works and how many people take up playing it online. It remains to be seen whether both markets can be catered for at the same time. When it comes to the big question of gameplay versus realism, Muzzy Lane don’t know which side they’re on, and perhaps want to be on both sides at the same time. Isn’t that the dreaded war on two fronts?