Words matter. The right words can inspire. The wrong ones… do otherwise.
The way a person talks does more than tell you who they are, it also reflects how they think. In Burden of Command, the members of your company will talk differently if they are aggressive, wary, friendly, or under mental strain.
Units with high morale will react calmly and rationally under fire.
Units with low morale… won’t.
We try not to put words in the Company Commander’s mouth. Outside of simple “yes sir”s and “no sir”s, it is important that the vast majority of words that the Company Commander says are chosen by the player verbatim.
Now imagine doing the whole damn speech like this.
This works great for back-and-forth dialogue where participants volley sentences or sentence fragments. Conversations involving exposition or longer passages are a bit harder. A sequence where the player character speaks for minutes on end, like General Patton did in the above scene from the 1970 film? That sort of thing is almost impossible.
So naturally, we decided there had to be a scene where the Company Commander does precisely that.
Here’s Ike addressing some of his men just before they go into battle. Burden of Command will let you follow his example.
It would have been easy to simply write a selection of canned speeches for the player to choose from, but that would have also been antithetical to the idea of letting the player choose what to say. Instead, I looked at an example from Bioware’s Mass Effect series for inspiration. Early in the first game, your player character, Commander Shepard, has the opportunity to give a speech to their crew. The player takes Shepard through this process sentence by sentence. The choices the player makes during this segment influences Shepard’s “Paragon” and “Renegade” personality meters, to represent Shepard “revealing” their inner biases and worldview.
Burden of Command takes those principles and goes further. When the Company Commander addresses his men, your choices influence his character. For example, you might choose to open with a sardonic quip and that pushes the Company Commander towards higher sarcasm. However, the Company Commander’s personality, as established through previous choices (Sarcasm, Verbosity, and Directness), also pushes back against the player’s choices. If you choose speech options that don’t match the Company Commander’s personality, your words might not go over as well: public speaking is particularly difficult when you don’t believe the ideals you’re selling.
When you finish talking, you don’t want your audience looking like this.
Based on the player’s choices, the Captain’s speech might prove genuinely inspiring.Or it might fall falt, demoralising his company just moments before they have to risk their lives in combat.
Choosing the right words for the occasion, and making sure that you and your men believe what you’re saying, that too is part of the burden of command.
On the eve of battle, the men look to you for reassurance. How will you respond… Captain?
My name is Ilja Varha and I am an officer in the Finnish Defence Forces, a freelance game journalist and a game developer of Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865). I recently had a conversation with Luke about Burden of Command, an ambitious game project with unique focus on the challenges of commanding a company. I was very impressed with the game mechanics as described in the other dev blogs for BoC. Having commanded a company, Luke asked me to share some of my experiences in a form of a short essay, as they underline quite well how Burden of Command has grasped the reality of a company commander.
A machinegun being maintained during a lull in fighting, Svir front, 1943. Image from SA-Kuva -archive.
My experiences fully agree with Mr. Pipping. In my experience, being a company commander, with around 100-200 subordinates, give or take, is the most demanding job for any young officer, and a true ordeal by fire for his leadership.
First of all, you (should!) know all the guys personally. And you are in the same shit with them 24 hours a day.
The company will form its own society, unlike the more abstract, from the point of view of the grunts, battalion. As the commander, there’s no escaping the needs of your men.
Second of all, you are already high enough in the hierarchy that you also start to feel the, sometimes unrealistic, expectations of your higher ups.
I like to describe the company commander being located in the narrowest point in an hourglass: below you got the troops and their needs, and overhead there is the pressure from battalion to accomplish the mission. Remembering that the sand flows only one way at a time! A bit like when you bow toward something, you are presenting your ass to something else, even if you don’t think it that way yourself. I could easily describe the situation as “burden of command”, and for this reason I really liked the game’s name and scope!
In Finland we have a conscript army, which means every officer, regardless of rank, will experience the life of a simple soldier during his conscription period. This is quite different to many professional armies, including most western ones. During my year in service I trained as a Jaeger Platoon (Finnish light infantry) leader. Later, after 4 years in Defence University and some training, I became a company commander in a mechanized brigade.
As a young platoon leader you have the company commander around to support you, or to kick you and your men forward, if needed. That’s because of the size of the company: you will still see the whole company with only small movement, and you are close enough to move to the platoon commander and support him face-to-face. Except in the new swarming doctrine, but that does not affect us in armor/mechanized branch.
When you go to battalion, things are very different again. Because of the size and number of men, you cannot be everywhere, and the responsibility to get stuff actually done, is with – surprise, surprise – the company commanders!
So at higher level, it’s more important to train the company commanders and give them good orders. You simply cannot supervise and support them all. And even if you have a better picture of the overall situation, you cannot push the same knowledge into the head of a company commander, as he will understand your orders and instructions according to what he sees at the grass level.
This became apparent when I was deployed with a company of Jaegers abroad, as a part of a multinational battalion. We were the boots on the ground, like always, and the higher ups were mostly tied to the camps, headquarters and other facilities. This meant that while I was thinking more about hills, roads, single people in towns in my Area of Responsibility and of course the threats to my soldiers, the guys giving me the orders were looking at tidy maps. And those two worlds seldom shook hands neatly.
The common experience, which is written in many books and films (Generation Kill), is that you are happy only with your own actions and maybe of those of your men, and the rest, especially above you, seem like a bunch of incompetent idiots running around aimlessly. This is because the different worlds are not shaking hands, and you feel as though you can reside only in one of them.
After a few months, I realized my job as the CO was very much in the narrow part of the hourglass. One of the most important things I had to do was to soften and filter the information and orders, and the occasional brainfarts, flowing through the organization from top down. Mostly so it would not hit the troops too hard – and therefore keep up their motivation. To be able to command the company I needed to live and breathe the single soldier’s life, so I could understand their needs and challenges in the mission better.
My responsibility was to be on the side of my men at the big tables, and to be out in the field at least as often as my Jaegers were. This was to teach the guys, to observe their actions and to make sure every soldier was doing things like I needed them to be done. I didn’t lead the patrols and small ops, but rather participated as a single soldier to see how my platoon commanders were doing things, and how the squad leaders managed. Then I talked to these guys in private about how they were doing, trying to boost their trust in themselves and in the mission. Of course, if something more serious happened, I would switch to CO mode and establish an ad-hoc command post to coordinate the overall situation.
A convoy preparing to move out with the Jaeger Company providing escort (2013).
That was a big learning experience to me: how to gain and build trust with the platoon commanders all the way down to single troops. This is something the player will be doing in Burden of Command. It’s very often I see, especially abroad, that the highest-ranking officer is present for even the most trivial details. I did not see it that way, but instead let my individual jaegers take charge of things and then supported them in the background. This noticeably helped their self-esteem and professional growth. And it also helped me learn to trust them – it’s a two-way street.
Another interesting detail, for me, was how to keep up the interest of guys, trained mainly in high intensity warfare, in a mission that was dull as hell, though with risks. How to keep them from getting passive in the “unbearable routine”? From their point of view, it was boring and nothing much happened on a daily basis. But when something did happen, you had to be able to anticipate the signs of the threat, and to react without delay.
The stunning tactical stunts, like the ones you are supposed to pull off in most computer games, are only a small part of being a leader. You are also a leader outside the “battlefield”. Another Finnish research from WW2 tells, that during the counter-attack phase of 1941, when basically the whole Finnish Army was taking back lost territories from Winter War, it was calculated that even the front-line soldier from the foremost fighting unit spent over 90% of the time without enemy contact. The troops are not just assets to accomplish your mission, like in games, but these are people you know. And if you do your job well, they trust your judgement when the time comes to carry out the orders with an uncertain outcome.
It’s the young soldiers doing the killing and dying. Troops preparing to fight in 1941. Image from SA-Kuva -archive.
One interesting thing about the training I did with my mechanized company had to do with “leading from front, leading from further back” -problematics, or -mechanics, as implemented in Burden of Command -game. Let me give another metaphor I’ve grown fond of: “you cannot push with a rope“. This was something an older soldier taught me, after his experience of being hit by a VBIED and then getting his rattled troops to secure the area.
You can, and therefore must, pull! In Finland our contemporary military tradition is based greatly on the WW1 era German tradition. That’s where the rebellious Finns were trained before our country’s independence in 1917. And those same soldiers formed the corps of the higher command in WW2, and hence the spirit for the training we give today, as Finland remained independent after the war.
The tradition is to lead from the front. You don’t say “Go, move out!” Instead you are taught from the very beginning to say “Let’s go, follow me!” Some officers I’ve worked with have had hard time figuring out their physical location when commanding their troops. Usually commanders of today play the “better overall situational awareness” -card by staying back, eyes glued to the screens of their battlefield management systems and ears tuned to the radios. But when the attack stops, pushing will not work.
This company commander did not glue himself to modern command and control equipment. Lauri Törni was a Finnish shock force company commander, among other roles, during WW2. American readers will know him as Larry Thorne. The character Sven Kornie (John Wayne) in movie Green Berets is based on him.
What I learned was if you do this for long enough, you will completely alienate yourself from the men and their reality, and gain a certain, not so flattering, reputation. You’re on your way to becoming Captain America in Generation Kill, or Captain Sobel in Band of Brothers.
Here’s a clip from a 1955 Finnish war movie called “The Unknown Soldier”, (there are now three movie based on the book with the same title, second most sold in Finland, after The Bible). It shows something beautiful about leadership. The troops are in their first contact with a live enemy in 1941. They are all green except for the company commander (you will know him instantly) and one platoon commander (in charge of the MGs, and later the satchel charge).
Though it does not end well for everyone, the job gets done. That’s how I see the “burden of command”.
I learned from experience not to push with the rope. I noticed that commanders that coordinated movement from farther back, giving orders only by radio and coordinates on the map or BMS, were less likely to get their troops to maneuvers as intended. And why would they? The recipient of the order views the world between straws of hay while the sender has a digitized map-based perception of lines, symbols and arrows.
For me personally, the answer was to direct the men into combat with me, and when comfortably in contact at right place and time, I would step back a bit to observe the overall situation and to think of the next move. That meant showing the young lieutenants exactly where and how to go, face-to-face, and giving an example. By doing so, I would see every single soldier in my unit. And they would see me. The commander’s presence among the troops is more valuable than gold in many cases in regards to boosting morale. But the flip-side is the possibility of getting pinned down and be unable to lead – just like Burden of Command in question.
But the key is in training. The training never ends. No-one is ever completely ready. After a while I could ease up a bit, as I was certain they would execute any order I gave. This in my opinion is the key to “Auftragstaktik” or ‘Mission-type tactics’ as described by the Germans. Even if the commander is taken out, or out of reach, the unit would complete the mission according to commander’s will on its own.
As you can see, I am really hyped about Burden of Command, as it does so many things right, in a way not yet done in any computer wargames. I hope the best for the project, and also that many like-minded will find it and enjoy it once ready!
Burden of Command is currently in development by GreenTreeGames and slated for release in late 2019. You can follow its development through the following online resources (especially the dev blog):
Ilja Varha is an officer in Finnish Defence Forces, a freelance game journalist and a game developer of Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865).
Grand Tactician: The Civil War (1861-1865) is a real time strategy game combining a strategic campaign with tactical battle game play. Run your nation, muster, manage and support great armies, and maneuver them to defeat the enemy. Once the opposing armies meet, command your troops to victory in battles fought on historical battlefields.
Today we have the pleasure of a double feature with celebrated Hollywood writer Erik Bork, one of the writers for HBO’s Band of Brothers!
First our context setting blog…followed by related questions to Erik.
By Luke Hughes (project lead)
For me, history is personal
My father served in WWII. My mother as well.
My father was also an eminent historian, the founder of a historical field and a Pulitzer Prize Finalist.
For me history has never been an abstraction but the personal experience of my parents, just as it’s the personal experience of many of your parents and grandparents. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, as I thought of turning those experiences and often deaths into a game, I also wondered whether my late parents, my personal heroes, would be ashamed. It was under that early sense of burden that I came up with a simple design principle: Respect.
Respect: the easy part
When I brought Allen and Paul on as writers, and Mariusz Kozik on as portrait artist, I emphasized that our core tone must be one of respect, respect for the lives and experiences of those involved, for the dark side of their experiences, but also the light side of their sacrifices and commitment. Concretely, we adopted both HBO’s TV series Band of Brothers as a guide to that tone…
…as well as Vietnam Vet Karl Marlantes spiritually minded book:
Further, in the spirit of that respect, we determined that we would follow a real unit, the fabled Cottonbalers, using as our guide eminent military historian John McManus’ wonderfully detailed book:
To our great delight, John agreed to advise us. We went so far as to hire an archivist to pull out first person reports of junior officers from the US National Archives:
Unfortunately, this pleasant, seemingly simple, decision to be respectful and therefore to follow a real unit, were where the problems began.
Our Respect for You…is a Problem!
Our first thought was to also follow specific real individuals, in the vein of Band of Brothers. However, by 2017 most of the actual participants were deceased or incapacitated. Second, we knew we wanted to do an interactive game where your decisions mattered. This meant that you could make your own choices and follow your own leadership journey. Yet, we wanted those decisions to be based on actual historic decisions. We abruptly realized we couldn’t do both: if we gave the player the ability to make decisions that diverged from history, we could hardly present an exact retelling of what actually happened. Burden of Command was not a movie.
Our solution was to create a fictional company: Nickel Company. Your player character and the NPCs would be fictional, but would exist within the very real 3rd Battalion of the 7th Infantry Regiment. This allowed the interactive fiction writers and scenario designers the freedom to craft a compelling interactive narrative and allow the player the freedom to chart their own path while still embedding the player in the experiences of a historical unit and its real leaders.
(and, FYI, here’s what the real leader decided to do):
The end result would be a historically immersive but personal leadership journey. See this dev blog for more on your RPG crafted journey:
The decision to use a fictional company not only gives us to cherry pick the most interesting events and decisions across three years of war but also the most engaging battles. In this sense, Nickel Company’s war is a lot like a ‘highlight reel’ of the Cottonbalers’ involvement in WW2.
Bend, but do not Break
Of course, giving ourselves the liberty to explore different decisions both narratively and tactically shouldn’t let us take too much license. To maintain our respect for what really happened, we developed a design principle: “bend, but do not break, history.” For example, we would not allow you to pull in “cool” units or leaders as reinforcements if they were not in range of the actual battle (Allen couldn’t use the Rangers early on in Sicily) but we would allow support that was close enough to plausibly intervene. Similarly, we would allow historic individuals to appear (typically superior officers) but in respect for their own journeys they would not change their own decisions or actions. While many RPG and historical games let you “save the world” or deeply change history (kill the ultimate baddie, reverse the outcome of a famous battle, etc.), we believe that the real experience of being normal civilians drawn into events much larger than themselves would be far more compelling. Here the success of Band of Brothers (a story of brave and admirable men, but one told on a very small scale) reassured us.
Process: The Wisdom of Crowds
Principles are nice but I have always felt empirical feedback is even better. That is why we involve a remarkable set of advisors on both the narrative and game design side as part of our respect for your game experience. This illustrious crew includes Chris Avellone, Alexis Kennedy, Ian Thomas, William Bernhardt as well as many historical and military experts, including John McManus and a variety of military veterans (see Our Team). This is part of our respect for the historical individuals and their experiences. In addition, we’ve had the privilege of inviting gamers of very different stripes to give their own vital feedback. Lastly we established an ongoing process of surveys for each and every scene to give both qualitative and quantitative feedback. (This was incredibly useful- note by Allen)
This process has allowed us to assess how engaging the gameplay is while ensuring respect for history and the experience of military leadership.
Problem: the Bloody Decisions of Real Leaders
Our problems weren’t done. One of our early internal team arguments was what to do with historic decisions that in hindsight seemed to have cost unnecessary lives. On the one hand a respect for the truth of history suggested that, like a real historian, we show questionable decisions in an unvarnished way. On the other hand, a core respect for those who put their lives on the line made us hesitate to second guess the men who ordered and the men who died. We are not acting as historians, but as storytellers. Was it fair to call out in isolation the one bloody decision of an individual? Would that narrative tightness exclude other good decisions? Did we really know the full context of why they gave those orders that day? In brief, who were we to pass judgement? Our solution was to respect the individual in this case, and show humility as game designers. We would not directly call out bad decision of these actual individuals who put their lives on their line. Instead of rendering judgement, we would instead create fictionalized analogs of their decisions and put the player in those same boots. The hope is to teach us all a little humility for their historic burden of command. Below a quote from the fine commander of the Cottonbalers’s 3rd Division:
Problem: The Burden of Command
It is sometimes said that warfare is “months of boredom punctuated by moments of extreme terror.” A respectful pacing of the “boots of command” would have subjected you to a hundred administrative or logistical decisions for every taste of combat! On the other hand, dropping them would convey a false “hollywood movie” sense of leadership. Our solution was to actually give you an actual paperwork scene and make it interesting. After all if Papers Please could, why not us? As it turns out, this included several logistical dilemmas. Moreover, we had to make these moments into interesting choices as well. The good news is that I can tell you personally that one of the more stressful decisions in the game for me (darn you Paul) revolved around obtaining cans of scarce gasoline. And furthermore, that after sometime in the boots of an infantry Captain I actually found myself quite interested in where our supplies were coming from. Indeed, I felt a disturbing level of interest in seeing in the interactive fiction imagery of the historical reports that real officers worried over:
The Spiritual Reward of Success
Speaking personally again, and thinking of my departed parents as well the historical Cottonbalers, I can tell you now that when I stare at historical pictures of their experience I feel a deep connect across the decades. I believe this is because of the respect the team has striven so hard to distill into an emotionally authentic game experience. There is respect for those who served so that we may walk, at least a little, in their boots.
That feeling of connection across time, is powerful, moving, and a solace when I think of my parents.
Before plunging in, Erik wants to be clear that his comments do not represent HBO, production, Hanks/Spielberg etc in any capacity. Nor is this an endorsement from Band of Brothers. It’s just one person who worked on it recalling some thoughts on the experience.
1. Did you feel a tension between being true to the historical record in Band of Brothers versus telling a good story? Any examples our readers could relate to from the show?
Yes, I think this happens with any true story adaptation. One of the challenges with BOB is that the book was filled with anecdotes about events that happened to a very wide variety of individual characters, far too many for an audience to keep straight in the miniseries. We had to pick and choose who to focus on, in some cases giving smaller historical anecdotes to different characters or groups of characters, and omitting others (and omitting some characters). Some feel there are still “too many characters to keep straight and be invested in” in the miniseries, even after that, and I can’t say I totally disagree. It was something we struggled with.
Beyond that one example, there are many other things that we as writers/producers/directors chose to focus on, streamline, consolidate, adjust and fictionalize so that it would hopefully be coherent and compelling to an audience throughout. Real life just doesn’t give us what we expect from stories. There’s a lot of editing and re-imagining that tends to need to happen. But at the same time you want to stay true to the spirit of what really happened, and not change anything really important.
2. Did you have any debates around that with the real soldiers? That is they wanted a more literal telling while you wanted a more “emotionally true to the narrative” one?
I think there were times when they read or saw things and said they remembered them differently and we would sometimes adjust accordingly. Sometimes their memories disagreed with each other, since it had all happened 50 years prior. For the most part, though, they didn’t get too involved in overseeing what we were doing or giving feedback after the fact — though they gave us a lot of information (directly and through the original book) prior to and during the writing.
3. Did you have any narrative design principles that guided you in coping with any such tensions? For example, we adopted the design principle “bend but do not break history.” That is bend for a good game, but don’t violate the spirit of what really happened (or could have happened).
Similar to yours: be true in spirit and in as much detail as possible. Make changes only when absolutely necessary to make the story work better for an audience, and only in such a way that it won’t distort or fundamentally change what really happened.
4. Any hesitation in relating “bad decisions” made by real leaders in the war?
I don’t think we really had any of those other than the ones you see on screen, which seemed important for story purposes, and so no, no hesitation on those, as long as we knew from multiple sources that they really did happen that way.
5. Sometimes we have found that history is stranger than fiction. That history almost seemed too “Hollywood!” in fact we had to put in little history notes like “no this really happened in 1943 at….” Did you have a similar feeling? Examples?
I have definitely seen that happen. I can’t think of specific examples in BOB but if you asked me about something that seemed too “Hollywood” to a viewer, I might remember…
6. Did you feel an emotional connect across the years from telling such a real story or talking to the real men about their lives? (we are envious of that)?
Absolutely, that becomes a part of working on something so important/meaningful so deeply and for so long, including meeting the actual veterans and wanting to do right by them. Not only the writers and producers felt this, but also many of the actors who got to know the men they were playing.
This is VAR 1st_officer, one of the components of your company in Burden of Command. Any squad that-
I’m sorry. Let me start again.
This is Edgar Gaines Thompson, the son of two schoolteachers from the small town of Piedmont, South Dakota. He was set to follow his parents’ footsteps when Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War Two. Imbued by his parents with a strong sense of morality, he saw it as his patriotic duty to volunteer. A quick learner and a hard worker, he was quickly picked out as officer material. Still eager and bright-eyed, he takes command of 1st Platoon. His optimism and courage quickly makes him popular among his men, though some of your veterans shake their heads. They know that idealism rarely survives a trial by fire.
Perhaps he will return home to Piedmont with his idealism intact. Perhaps he will end the war as an embittered man, old before his time. Or perhaps he will end his young life on some nameless hill in Sicily, or Alsace, or Bavaria, his chest ripped open by shrapnel or his temple marred by a bullet wound, his hopes and dreams spilling out onto a soon-to-be forgotten stretch of soil far from home.
My name is Paul Wang, junior writer on Burden of Command, and I’m here to talk about building empathy. When you play chess, do you care about your pawns? Do you agonize over sacrificing them? Or do you see them just as means to an end?
In 11Bit Studios’ This War of Mine, you also have pieces – a group of refugees – and a board – the fictional war-torn city of Pogoren. However, because of the way that the game builds empathy between the player and the characters they control, the player can’t sacrifice their “pieces” to win like they would in a game of chess. The question of how to achieve the win state (surviving until the end of the siege) becomes more complex because the player begins to identify with the characters, thinking not only of their own victory, but the well-being of these beleaguered, relatable, but ultimately fictional souls.
The player might find themselves weighing the emotional cost of forcing a character to visit suffering on others for the sake of obtaining much needed medicine or putting their characters at risk to “be a hero”. The nature of the win state itself changes. Is winning a matter of pure survival? Or is it better that they make it out with clean consciences that will let them live with themselves afterward?
The player begins thinking less like someone playing a game, and more like those who are trapped in a ruined building in a city filled with chaos.
Burden of Command is This War of Mine seen from the other side. Building bonds of empathy towards the characters under the player’s command serves to turn them into more than little olive drab men on a map. In return, as the player starts to empathise with their company, they begin to feel responsible for their well-being. They begin thinking of the win state not only as a matter of taking the objective, but as a matter of bringing as many of their boys home as possible.
They begin thinking like a Company Commander.
The question for a writer then becomes which characters to focus on building empathy with. Generally speaking, the average player can maintain empathic bonds with anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen characters. Anything more and things get dicey — after all, these characters have to compete for attention with a player’s real family members, friends, loved ones, and co-workers. Anything beyond those dozen characters, and players will start forgetting names, faces, and uttering the eight words no writer wants to hear: “I don’t care what happens to these people”.
A US army rifle company in 1944 had a total paper strength of 193. Realistically, we couldn’t make every single one of them into an empathetic character – players would lose track. We had to decide who we would build our core relationships around.
The four platoon leaders in the player’s company are the conduit to the nearly two hundred men under their command. These men also carry their own burdens of command, but as their superior, the Company Commander (and by extension, the player) also holds the power of life and death over them in turn. They represent the burden which the player must carry in keeping their men alive and well.
In his Red Sneaker series, William Bernhardt explains that the most obvious way to encourage a reader to empathise with a character is to give them a trait or two which the reader is likely to admire.
This is the first step of turning a platoon leader from a list of variables into an empathetic character. We can then use those traits as a reference point. We can build a character’s backstory by asking how he gained those traits, his likes and dislikes based on how they relate to his virtues, and then use all of those things to create a coherent way in which that character speaks, acts, and sees the world.
To make sure those personalities build the connections they are supposed to, our current writing process is heavily geared towards ensuring our characters hit the right notes. On the advice of Chris Avellone, one of our senior advisors, we’ve been asking our playtesters to record their emotional responses to major characters, and tweaking how they are written accordingly.
These personalities and virtues are reflected through their mindsets. For example, Lieutenant Thompson is defined by his idealism, This is borne out by his unwavering patriotism, his sense of duty, and his strong moral compass. Other leaders are represented in a similar way. Since mindsets (there are eight) also determine special leader abilities in tactical combat, their personalities also correlate directly to how they perform on the battlefield; yet another reason to get to know your men.
However, this isn’t the only empathy-building tool at our disposal. Good characters change and adapt (or fail to adapt) through the changing circumstances of the story. In books and films, this arc is immutable, but in Burden of Command the player takes the role of the Company Commander. Through this avatar, they interact with their platoon leaders in ways which can end up determining how they all develop as characters.
It will therefore be the player’s job to offer guidance to their subordinates. They are responsible for their subordinates’ physical well-being on the battlefield and their emotional well-being off of it. Choosing brutal but efficient solutions carries as great a cost as doing the ‘right’ thing and then having to pay for it.Through specific interactions, the player can guide their platoon leaders in a way which allows them to pick up aspects of other mindsets in addition to the one they started with. The resultant changes to the officer’s personalities and command abilities become a partial reflection of the player’s decisions in response to the stress of the war.
Emphasising the humanity of the men under the player’s command has one other, important aspect. Although the company the player controls is fictional, the battles and campaigns it goes through were very real. The flesh-and-blood men of the 3rd Battalion of the 7th Infantry Regiment suffered and bled and died in the places which Burden of Command seeks to recreate. They were not tokens on a map to their families, their friends, and those who served with them, and it would be a disservice to pretend otherwise.
In our next devblog, we’ll be discussing how we mean to convey the story of those flesh-and-blood Cottonbalers in the most respectful and historically authentic way possible.
Many engaging games have war’s trappings but do they have its heart? For example, In Call of Duty, the battlefield is visceral and your squad mates human. But with its near instant restarts, your death is only an inconvenience. Given the high rate at which you personally off endless enemies, their deaths soon become a simple power trip. In other games, your generalship but not your humanity is tested as you dispatch historically accurate “units” at an abstract distance.
In Burden of Command, as in Band of Brothers or This War of Mine, death is not an inconvenience, not a power trip, but a burden. Men fear death. This dev blog is about the mechanics of how you’ll overcome that fear to provide leadership on an emotionally authentic battlefield.
Step into the open unprepared in Burden of Command and you and your men will swiftly become casualties. Burden of Command features Permadeath. When men die they stay dead. Their lives are your burden. There is no “plot armor“ for your young lieutenants.
Learn the Art of Suppression
To keep your men alive you must first learn to suppress the enemy. Unlike many games, tactical success is not about marksmanship, it is about fear. Because men fear death they take cover when bullets fly. As a consequence, casualties from small arms fire are low. In WWII approximately 8000 bullets were fired per casualty inflicted. In addition, when men take cover their own marksmanship drops dramatically (it’s hard to aim when you’re fearing for your life).
In Burden of Command the fear of death is represented by Morale. High Morale units do as commanded. Like firing at the enemy. Low Morale units do not. A squad with ten Morale has a 100% chance of doing what you order. A squad with five Morale has a 50% chance, a squad with one Morale, a 10% chance, and so forth. Firing at the enemy lowers their Morale. This effect is called Suppression.
Your goal as a battlefield commander is to maintain your unit’s Morale while suppressing the enemy. On real battlefields firing goes up when the ‘boss’ is near. Similarly, in Burden of Command, you and your subordinate leaders’ Command Presence (stacking a leader with a unit) increases Morale. Further you can Rally men (which removes suppression) as well as Direct Fire to increase Suppression on the enemy.
However, unlike many other games, even those with Morale, Suppression does not cause units to surrender or rout. Imagine seeing a stream of machine gun fire going over your head. Would you stand up in the face of it to surrender or run? Chances are, you wouldn’t, and most soldiers wouldn’t either.
To get the enemy to surrender you are going to have to close with them and assault.
“Fear of the Bayonet”
Only psychopaths want to fight hand to hand. In his fine book Brains and Bullets Leo Murray estimates that left to their own devices fewer than 20% of soldiers are willing to commit to a hand to hand assault. It will be your burden as a leader to motivate that other 80% into finishing the job.
Win Hearts: Trust
In Burden of Command the effect of your morale improving actions like Rallying, and Command Presence will be based on your men’s Trust in you. How do your build your Trust stat? By taking risks with the men. Every time you put your own life on the line alongside them, they take note, and your Trust increases. Of course, doing so means risking Suppression, wounds, or even death. It’s a tradeoff.
If you have gained Trust and lead the assault your Command Presence will make it more likely to happen. According to Brains and Bullets a “low authority” (Trust) leader can double the chance that those under his command will follow him in an assault. A “high authority” leader can more than triple that chance. Will you take the risks needed to earn that level of Trust?
Lead by Example
Trust is not always enough to get men to take terrifying actions like engaging in hand to hand combat. Sometimes you must lead by example. I recall once being at the scene of a bloody bike accident. Everyone froze, implicitly looking to someone else to take action, to lead the way. This common phenomenon is known as ‘diffusion of responsibility‘. However, once someone finally did take action, everyone swiftly joined in. This is “leading by example.”
In his book on Omaha Beach on D-Day, our advising and playtesting historian John McManus describes how Colonel Taylor stood up under truly withering fire and shouted to the prostate soldiers around him “There are two kinds of men out here! The Dead! And those about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach.”
You may remember that quote from the film The Longest Day, or how Captain Winters in Band of Brothers stood upright under machine gun fire, kicking soldiers in the rear and urging them up to assault. Their real life examples raised morale and led to victory.
In Burden of Command this is represented by a special leader action called Grandstanding. It can get Suppressed units back on their feet for the assault. But in doing so, you may risk losing Trust, becoming suppressed, or even killed…
We’ve discussed how you can take on the Burden of Command by leading through Rallying, Command Presence, and Trust. How you can overcome the dark heart of battle: the fear of death. But unless we create empathy, we will fail to make you personally feel the fear of death for your men, the emotionally personal Burden of Command.
We want to make you hesitate to order that assault, not because you fear losing a powerful “game unit,” but because you don’t want to lose Lieutenant Dearborn.
Next time we’ll focus on the artistic, narrative, and historical devices we use to create that empathy. The second part of the emotionally authentic experience that is Burden of Command.
It’s a miserable day in the fall of 1943. Your company has just taken a muddy hill in Southern Italy. Suddenly, you hear the clank of Panzers rolling up the slope towards your men.
Your company doesn’t have enough bazookas. If you stand and fight, your men might be slaughtered. If you give up the hill, you might expose other friendly units to a flank attack.
What do you do?
One commander might try and hold the hill because they were ordered to do so. Another might refuse to sacrifice their men and withdraw. A third might even be relishing the idea of a fight against the vaunted Panzerwaffe. These are the different leadership styles we are trying to translate into gameplay mechanics.
Hello, we’re Allen Gies and Paul Wang, the writers behind Burden of Command. If you have seen our two minute teaser, you know that this game is about leadership. How do you create RPG mechanics which can faithfully depict the thought processes of someone who leads soldiers into battle?
Our answer is something called Mindsets.
In Burden of Command, Mindsets are a character’s attributes. Instead of measuring strength or agility, Mindsets reflect how a character thinks and sees the world around them. In addition, each Mindset also affects tactical combat. A Zealous officer is more effective when leading assaults, while a Compassionate officer will suffer fewer casualties.
All officers start with a Primary Mindset, which represents the way that character thought in peacetime. But war changes a person. As an officer is exposed to the realities of combat, their personality develops as a result. They gain certain new Mindsets, or reinforce existing ones through events we call Crucibles.
Take the following example:
What would you choose?
This example is based on an actual event involving Lieutenant Ronald Speirs, of Band of Brothersfame. According to witnesses, Speirs shot his Sergeant in self-defense. Afterward, Speirs reported the incident to his commander, Captain Gross, who ruled the shooting justified after a short investigation (details here).
Like Speirs, combat will confront your officers with hard choices in Burden of Command. Some of these points will be scripted, while others will occur randomly or as a result of the player’s choices on the tactical map. We call these choices Crucibles, because they add or reinforce the Mindsets of the officer who goes through them, based on the choices you guide them into making. Over the course of multiple Crucibles, each officer will acquire a unique collection of Mindsets. These will shape both their leadership abilities in tactical battles, and their personal Journey as a character. In other words, your narrative decisions will explicitly craft your “character arc.”
The player’s choices can also affect subordinate officers.
Leading soldiers into battle isn’t just about deciding which unit goes where. It also means making hard decisions and living with the consequences. How will you decide when the bullets are flying and lives are on the line? How will your choices define you?
Crucibles, Mindsets, Journey. How will you bear the Burden of Command?
What Mindsets do you think you’d focus on if your were roleplaying? Please give us your thoughts on Facebook or Twitter, or leave a comment below.
“Winning the men’s confidence requires much of a commander. He must exercise care and caution, look after his men, live under the same hardships, and—above all— apply self discipline. But once he has their confidence, his men will follow him through hell and high water.”
Hi, I’m Luke Hughes project lead On Burden of Command. Our two minute teaservideo focused heavily on RPG aspects. But what about tactical combat?! While tactical details are still being worked out, today I can give you a high level impression by pointing to inspirations from cardboard. Hunh? Cardboard? Well IMHO a lot of creativity over the last few decades has come from the physical board game space (a future blog will cover digital influences). I feel privileged to“stand on the shoulders of giants” (well at least crouch). In this blog I will describe those influences and how they shape Burden of Command’s tactical design. The games below are by no means an exhaustive list, there are many other fine designs out there, these are just the ones that have had the most influence on me.
Most images below come from the marvelous BoardGameGeeksite (check it out!).
Squad Leader(1977) is the “ur” WWII tactical game. It spawned the still passionately followed Advanced Squad Leader and deeply influenced most subsequent turn based designs. Mechanically, your fire your squads — their fire ideally enhanced by leaders — at enemies to cause “Morale Checks” which upon failing lead them to be “broken” (ineffective) or even “routed” till rallied by leaders. Random events like machine guns jamming or troops going “berserk” add unexpected drama.
Influence #1 On Burden of Command: Leadership is Compelling: Managing human battlefield psychology (morale) through leaders makes for interesting gameplay.We broaden that model by adding Trust and Respect mechanics and probably attentional ones (fixation, narrowed field of view under suppression, and surprise). John Hill further recognized the key RPG aspect:
“Squad Leader was a success for one reason: it personalized the board game in a World War II environment. Take the “leaders,” or persons, away from it and it becomes a bore. Though this may sound surprising, the game has much in common with Dungeons & Dragons. In both games, things tend to go wrong, and being caught moving in the street by a heavy machinegun is like being caught by a people-eating dragon. Squad Leader was successful because, underneath all its World War II technology, it is an adventure game, indeed Dungeons & Dragons in the streets of Stalingrad.”
Influence #2: Emergent Stories Through Chaos:Making the battlefield psychological, making leaders explicitly present, and including random events meansthe battlefield becomes it’s own unscripted story generator(e.g., “remember that time when my last squad went berserk and charged through three hexes of withering enemy fire unscathed too finish off the bunkered MG and win the game?”). Game designers call this “emergent storytelling.”
Ambush(1983) was perhaps the first true WWII tactical RPG. You control a squad of individual soldiers with RPG like stats (e.g., ‘initiative’ and ‘perception’). Entering specific hexes can triggered narrative and gameplay events (see illustration above).
Influence #3: Integrate Narrative: Integrate narrative events directly into tactical gameplay for better immersion. Burden of Command extends this via a more general “StoryTeller Engine” that watches your battle and triggers event not only on entering a hex but also on a variety of other game play occurrences like unit actions (shooting, assaulting etc) and changes (morale checks etc).
Influence #4: RPG Creates an Immersive Battlefield: Deepen the experience of battleship leadership by making the player care about your men through classic RPG mechanisms(they persist and gain experience across battles). Making you think twice about sending those sprites (“That’s Dearborn!”) up that hill.
In Combat Commander(2006; GMT Games) chaos is pervasive. The actions available to you (move, shoot, rally, etc) are strictly limited to the random cards you have drawn! Even what specific turn the scenario will end on is carefully randomized. A large set of randomly drawn events (e.g., “Sniper!”) spice up gameplay.
Influence #5: Pervasive Chaos Creates Depth:Pervasive chaos makes interesting decisions about uncertainty equally pervasive (e.g., “does my opponent have a Fire card left? Will the scenario end this turn?”). Burden of Command will emphasize leadership as a means to manage that chaos (the dreaded “RNG” in digital parlance).
Influence #6: And Deeper Emergent Stories:A larger set of random events deepens “emergent storytelling”and adds unexpected “plot” twists and turns in gameplay.
Fields of Fire (2008, GMT Games) designer Ben Hull served in the USMC as an infantry officer and brings that experience to bear in a novel design emphasizing the authentic details of tactical leadership. Leaders receive randomized amounts of Commands to both activate and give squads specific actions (more, fire, rally, take cover etc).
Influence #7: Leadership is Always Limited Choice:Leadership should be a constant question of tough choices.For example, do I spend my limited command to rally or move forward to seize the objective before the enemy recovers from suppression? I can’t do both. A classic Sid Meier-ian “meaningful choice.”
In Band of Brothers (2011, Worthington Publishing) firepower does not so much break or cause casualties to enemy units as suppress. Meaning that a suppressed unit is uncertain to act when requested (you roll a dice versus its current level of suppression to see if it acts). To finish an enemy typically requires more than firepower, you close with a suppressed unit to catalyze surrender. Which leads to realistic infantry tactics know as the “4Fs,” namely: “Fire, fix, flank, and finish.”
Influence #8: Suppression is King:Suppression is a key concept for the psychological battlefield, leading to yet more command and control chaos (will this suppressed unit actually act?). Burden of Command explicitly uses leaders to mitigate the strong effects of suppression. In other words, experienced men who trust and respect your leadership will often overcome their suppression.
Conflict of Heroes Solo Expansion (2015, Academy Games) besides its remarkable and dynamic AI, this expansion brings the “Push Your Luck” board game mechanic to tactical play by making when a given unit’s turn ends highly uncertain. Each single unit action ( a single hex move or fire) a card is drawn to see if the unit’s turn ends. Leading to powerful “push your luck” decisions like “do I try to make it that cover first, or play it safe and take my shot now, leaving myself exposed if the shot fails and my turn unexpectedly ends?”
Influence #9: Gamble on the Battlefield:“Push Your Luck” is a deeply appealing gambling like mechanism and adds yet more chaos(noticing a theme here? Burden of Command intends to adopt chaos with a vengeance but use leaders to manage and mitigate its effects. Don’t play Burden of Command if you want to be in control, play it if you want to lead in the face of chaos! Chaos makes for interesting decisions and good battlefield emergent stories!).
Fire team: Red Eclipse(TBA, Lock n Load Publishing) is a re-design of the original Fire Team game by our scenario lead Steve Overton (“Mad Russian”), who not only served in US Army but is a famed digital game scenario designer (e.g., Combat Mission). Leaders play a pivotal role in the game with their state determining how many commands they can give each impulse during the turn.
Influence #10: TBD:Steve’s design has only recently gone public and he has promised me a game when he returns from his current vacation. Given his role in Burden of Command and my deep respect for his talents I am certain Red Eclipse will have a strong influence over the design evolution of Burden of Command.
Putting it All Together
The following illustration summarizes how Burden of Command defines battlefield leadership. In a nutshell, the battlefield is a psychological landscape where Chaos creates interesting decisions (as well as emergent stories) that leadership mitigates through Directing (via an always too scare pool of command), Motivating (leaders influence morale checks, push your luck, suppression and more), and Preserving (RPG like preserving of your valued men across battles as they gain experience and you gain empathy).
We would love to hear from you now! What are your favorite board/wargames? Which one of their mechanics you value most, and why? Do you think a particular aspect of modern conflicts has been underrepresented in wargames? And, most importantly, do you really need a formal question to talk about your favorite games? Comments are available, social buttons are below, you know the drill!
Hi, I’m Chris Dworjan, Content Designer for Burden of Command. I’ve been asked to kick off our series of development blogs with an explanation on how we create our character portraits. My role is very much like a casting director and costumer combined. The starting point is nothing more than a spreadsheet created by our writers early in the process with their character notes.
For Ashley Dearborn, we had the outline of an aristocrat who had studied the history and theory of war at VMI.
Then it was time to sit down and think about who he reminded me of. I thought about people from my military career, figures from history, and characters from movies. Who did I know that could be Ashley Dearborn? I went to the authors with the photos below and asked them the question: “do you see Dearborn here?”
After getting their input, I still had the problem of how to distill a character down to just one portrait.
Early in the portrait design process I hit on the idea that the portrait should be the photo you take out of the scrapbook to show when you are telling your story. The portrait should tell not just what they looked like, but who they were. For Dearborn, it was “smug satisfaction.” It was a man looking beyond the camera at something he was proud of. Arms folded, quietly pleased with himself.
At Burden of Command, to increase immersion and to show respect, we also strive hard for authenticity.
My responsibility in particular is getting the details “right.” Dearborn needed a uniform. I thought he should look like a US Army infantry officer in Italy. At that point, he’s been in the war long enough that his experience has caught up with his theoretical knowledge. I checked multiple photos to see what 3rd Infantry Division and the 7th Infantry Regiment specifically were wearing on operations in Italy.
Then the slide deck went to our amazing portrait artist, Mariusz Kozik.
He worked his magic and turned our vision into a beautiful portrait. I looked at it with the writers and we realized that it was a great portrait, but it just wasn’t Ashley Dearborn. This guy was too badass, not smug. So I did the responsible thing; I cast him in a different role. This portrait got some new insignia and became our quiet professional warrior, Captain Cord Boston of the Army Rangers.
I tweaked things a bit and asked Mariusz to make our man a little less “Hollywood”.
It was easy enough to put him in the field shirt and roll up his sleeves. But details… what would make Dearborn truly Dearborn? Hmm. He went to VMI (Virginia Military Istitute). He’s the kind of guy who lets everyone know how special he is. I bet he’s the kind of guy who would wear his class ring in combat. I eventually managed to find a photo that showed at least one officer wore his class ring, and that was enough to show it was possible and we would be keeping with history.
And Mariusz delivered. He produced a portrait that I instantly recognized as Ashley Dearborn.
Portrait design has been a fun challenge.
Capturing the spirit of the character, making them visually distinct, ensuring historical accuracy, and keeping them flexible enough to work in all the different sizes and purposes in the game. But it all becomes worth it when we start to notice that the characters with portraits have become much more “real” than the ones still awaiting the process.
And finally we propose you, in pure Burden of Command style, a choice: choose wisely soldier!