being inside the machine

There was a time when what interested me about games was the detail of the simulation. This was mostly a time before inexpensive computers, and so we played games where we, the players, basically pushed the bits and found solutions. Now of course there were layers of abstraction to make this practical, but in some cases this abstraction was pretty thin. Take, for example, Avalon Hill’s (thanks, Ian) SPI’s Air War.air war

Hurray, a jet fight wargame, right? Okay, in this game you track your total energy. You track your wing loading, I think I recall. You basically have a dashboard of sliders and dials covered in chit that you manipulate to determine the new vector of your aircraft based on your control inputs and the environment. Including air pressure.

Heaven forbid you launch a missile, because now you need to track that in almost the same detail! I recall trying to fly straight with this game. Then after a few weeks I felt comfortable making a turn. I think we may have played a dogfight once but not finished it because everyone was too afraid to fire a missile and deal with that whole set of rules and there was no way in the world we were going to navigate these planes into gun range.

But we had a gas!

So clearly the top level game, the part that’s about dogfighting and winning or losing, that was a complete bust. We never ever actually played that game to completion. But the game of being inside the simulation machine and being exposed to all the cogs and springs and seeing exactly how our inputs changed the machine state, well that was enormous fun. And it was a great lesson in game design, in how interacting components work. And in how to abstract complexity: I mean, we didn’t have to solve any differential equations but the abstraction, the dials and sliders, were actually doing that albeit in a simplified form. I learned a lot from this and similar games.

Then there was a computer revolution and I could get a flight simulator where I could concentrate on the top level game and not worry so much about what happened inside the machine. This was astounding. I don’t want to paint the inside-the-machine days as being utopic. It was its own kind of fun but it wasn’t this. And so I took up computer programming.

One thing I learned from computer programming and actually building simulations (though not games) was that in many ways the computer version is less authentic than the games were. When you make the mechanism invisible to the user you can get away with outrageous shortcuts. Shortcuts that are fine within the limitations of the scope of the simulation: your user can never tell the difference. In fact a scientist would be hard put to tell the difference in many cases. Because you can take some mind-blowing shortcuts that leave your simulation perfectly intact as long as the bits you cut off are not part of the scope of your output. Anyway, I was disillusioned. I saw through my flight simulators. They were a shame!

So I got back into the machine.

Ad Astra Games makes boardgames for space combat that are hyper-realistic. And you are unabashedly placed within the machine. You have a reticle that represents everything around you in 3D-space so you can figure out what direction missiles are coming from. You have ships that orient on all three axes. You have accurate representation of nuclear weapons in a vacuum. Railguns. Energy weapons. Heat loading. And man are you inside that machine with thousands of things to poke.

And there are elegant abstractions to guide you, clever dials and templates and rules of thumb to simplify what is genuine math. The number of shortcuts are very limited indeed.

Ao I bought Attack Vector: Tactical and gave it a spin. It was everything I remembered

attack vector
That’s not me playing — you can tell because someone has launched a missile I think — but check out how ship orientation is indicated! That ship is on angles!!

about Air War. It took me ages to figure out how to move. I fired a railgun and spent three hours learning how much I missed by. I launched a missile but we had to break for dinner before it could leave the ship.

We never played the game. But we did get inside the machine for a while. I’ve had my fill now. This is not something that engages me fore more than a couple of sessions. I’ll gleefully read the rules. I’ll buy more of this kind of game and read those rules too! But I don’t think it will ever hit the table again. I just don’t have it in me to sit inside that machine any more.