Command–Inside the Features: Game & Sim Mechanics Part I

September 20, 2013 · Posted in Command 

Far more so than in the User Interface, Command raises the bar significantly in the aspect of simulation mechanics in order to deliver maximum power, detail and accuracy to the wargaming experience.

Detailed terrain: Command uses as its base terrain reference the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM) dataset. This digital terrain model features a base resolution of 3 arc-seconds (~900m/cell at the equator), thus allowing for unprecedented terrain detail benefiting air, naval and land operations alike (LOS now actually matters).

However, this is just the beginning, as the base SRTM set has quite a lot of errors on some of its areas, particularly near coastal regions; WarfareSims’ data experts have therefore gone over the dataset with a fine toothcomb, consulting local and far more detailed sources to refine the information. The overall result is a global-scale terrain model that, like Command itself, is unrivalled on its combination of scope, detail and accuracy.

1The eastern part of the beautiful island of Crete (incl. the important Souda Bay), with the relief layer enabled. Plan your air/missile strike, your SEAL insertion, your paratroop drops or your holiday vacation.

Does it matter? Consider the difference between not being able to e.g. hide behind a mountain ridge (because the game considers the world perfectly flat or has a terrain model so coarse that the ridge doesn’t stand out) and being able to do just that – literally a difference of life and death. Apart from providing cover, the terrain factor is also crucial for any land operation: A unit that has to cross a smooth valley will take much less time than the same unit having to cross a mountain ridge. Terrain clutter also plays a big part in look-down sensor detections; an attack helicopter over rough terrain may be so hard to pick on radar that you first see it visually (and equally important, it sees you back) before you can get a solid lock on it.

Improved tactical AI: This is the bane of all tac/op wargames (and not a few strategic ones), and Command tackles the challenge head-on. Units behave sensibly and as expected according to their status and their assigned mission, if any. For example, fighters on A2A duty will actively seek out to identify and if necessary engage unidentified air contacts. If they carry BVR weapons and are cleared to engage, they maximize their speed and altitude just prior to the engagement in order to maximize the weapons’ downrange (yes, it matters). Strike aircraft follow sensible paths to their targets and, just before releasing their ordnance, adjust their speed and altitude to ensure they are within the weapon release envelope (yes, it matters). “Wild Weasel” aircraft on SEAD tasking roam their assigned area and correctly engage only surface-to-air threats, reasonably prioritizing the highest-threat contacts. Submarines intelligently alter their depth depending on their task (anti-surface or ASW) and do their best to optimize their sonar coverage while minimizing their exposure. If they are non-nuclear they even come up to periscope depth on their own to recharge their batteries – and vary the amount they expose themselves depending on the perceived level of threat.

All units can be instructed to try to maintain standoff from their primary target (ie. engage it while staying out of counterfire range if possible), and all of them automatically take evasive action to avoid enemy weapons fire (again, a configurable setting). Additionally, units understand that each of their weapons is optimized for a different target type and give priority to the suitable weapon of the moment, going as far as unloading e.g. a gun of a given shell type and loading another one, better suited to the target(s) being engaged at the moment.

Lots of small details here and there that, taken all together, result in much reduced need for manual interference and babysitting (not that this will keep control freaks from finetuning every single attack profile, we’re certain).

Doctrine/RoE settings: One of the things we have consistently observed over the years during our involvement in past games is that tactical AI behavior is affected by doctrinal rules which can very easily vary depending on circumstances. Does a unit have permission to use nuclear weapons or not? Does it have authority to shoot at contacts not yet confirmed hostile or not? Should it be allowed to use tankers or UNREP ships? (This is not as obvious as it may sound; if the replenishment assets are scarce then careful access control may be necessary). Should it try to maintain standoff or close in with the enemy and engage at point blank? These and other aspects of doctrine are a matter of frequent and heated discussion among players, as there is no "one size fits all" solution.

Game developers most frequently try to hardcode the most "sensible" behaviors, or the ones that work adequately for most cases; this however leaves a lot of important edge cases uncovered. Another attempted solution has been to make doctrine user-customizable through text files. While workable, this again means every single unit in a scenario follows the same behavior, regardless of their type, assigned task and circumstances. Something better is needed.

WarfareSims’ approach to this problem is to make unit doctrine and Rules of Engagement (RoE), as well as EMCON (emission control) settings, customizable on a per-unit basis. The player can decide and define how each unit will act in several important respects and tailor these behaviors to the unique circumstances of that unit and its mission.

2If only children were as easy to instruct and as dependable to follow

Sounds like a lot of work? It’s not, because these settings are cascade-inheritable (think CSS) and overridable at any step in the inheritance ladder. The cascading order is Side -> Mission (if any) -> Group (if any) -> individual unit. So, want the entire side to not use nukes except a single "rogue" trigger-happy unit? Set the "use nukes" doctrine option to "No" at the side level, then select the unit in question and override this setting.

Even more powerful is the fact that units automatically adjust their non-overriden settings as they switch between missions and/or groups. So for example, let’s say you are putting together an airstrike with strict EMCON silence. Then you do a late addition to it of a unit that is freely radiating. Once added to the "silent" mission, the unit will obey this mission’s strict EMCON settings and "go cold".

Doctrine, RoE & EMCON settings are a huge chapter of individual unit behavior in Command and describing them in a few paragraphs doesn’t truly do them justice. Apart from being an immense time-saver for the player’s side, they also play a critical role in "programming" behaviors for AI-controlled forces (more on the Scenario Editing section).

Detailed air ops: Where to begin? It is not an exaggeration to claim that, where base operations are concerned, Command offers a more detailed and realistic simulation of air operations than many dedicated air-combat simulation programs. (You! You in the back with the "Falcon 4 Rulez" t-shirt and the HOTAS Cougar in hand! Sit down. I didn’t say "all".). Airbases are so intrinsic to Command’s modeling of air operations that we have dedicated an entire section of the manual to them ("8.3 Air Bases: How to Build Them, How to Destroy Them").

Airbases in Command, as in real life, are vast and complex groups of installations which serve all aspects of on-the-ground air operations: Receiving aircraft, storing them (preferably under protection), preparing & arming them, and launching them again. Aircraft traffic through airbase is not an abstract instantaneous move; it is a multi-step process that takes time and is fraught with potential problems and vulnerabilities. When given a launch order, aircraft will start in their holding facilities such as tarmacs, hangars or revetments, move to a connecting/transit facility such as a runway access point or taxiway (or elevator in a ship) and then move to a runway where they are launched. When they land, they step through the flow back to their holding facility, receive replacement fuel and ammunition and then start the process again.


Al Dhafra airbase, Day 3 of Desert Storm. An all-out surge of the base’s aircraft has been ordered (possible Scud or raid alert?) and everything that can fly is being pushed out. Notice that apart from the two main runways, the runway-grade taxiway is also being used for take-off because of the urgency.

As you might expect, an airbase with even a few aircraft doing their cycles is a very busy place. This helps generate realistic sortie rates which we feel are critical in modeling the strengths and limitations of modern air warfare (if you can effortlessly launch a 60-aircraft package in a snap, you just don’t get how the folks at the control tower earn their pay). Even more importantly, it makes airbases critically dependent on a few key nodes being operational – or, put from another perspective, if you (or your enemy) damage or destroy certain facilities you can shut down an airbase with much less effort. Remember the massive airfield raids of Desert Storm? Command lets you use every trick in the book – and come up with more of your own.

Air bases also support the aircraft logistics model in the game. All bases & aviation-capable ships include ammunition magazines which players can populate with the weapons, pods, tanks and equipment that aircraft need to successfully host their various loads.

In addition to detailed airbase operations, Command features enhanced tactical AI for aircraft-specific operations and a highly capable air-to-air-refueling (A2AR) implementation. The relevant AI is smart enough to allow things like completely hands-off air refuellings and even multiple chained refuellings. (In one of our tests, we reproduced the famous B-2A raids on Serbia in 1999. The stealth bomber took off from Whiteman AFB, performed multiple refuellings from pre-positioned tankers on the way in, bombed a target near Belgrade, refueled on the way back and landed at Whiteman. All this was done without a single manual action. A similar sequence can be observed on the scenario "Wooden Leg", included with the v1 release.)

Air ops in Command are as challenging as their RL counterparts – and as rewarding when executed properly.

Docking ops: Aircraft return to their bases to roost, but where do ships, subs and land units come home to? Maybe nowhere (in a short scenario), but maybe to their own host base: A bigger ship, a port, or any other unit capable of hosting and servicing them. Command models a diverse array of dock facilities (ship piers, dock wells, davits, dry-dock shelters, ROV/UUV shelters etc.) and each facility is unique in its combination and size capacity. This allows scenario authors to use the docking capabilities of modern platforms to their full extent. LCACs and LCMs inside big amphibs? Yup. Ships docked pierside? Check. SOF delivery UUVs delivered by converted submarines? Can do. We demonstrated docking ops in video a while ago and since then we have fine-tuned the relevant AI even more in order to provide a full hands-off operation.

Ships can also be refueled and repaired while docked in order to compensate for combat attrition – so no more one-salvo ships! Docking ops is one of Command’s brand new features in the genre and, like many other of its abilities, enables players and scenario authors alike to model situations impossible until now.

Polar ice: The polar ice caps, and particular the northern one, have been a crucial strategic factor both in the distant past (because they blocked surface movement) and from the recent past to the future (because they are rapidly receding, thus opening new passages for the first time).

4The new Northern Passage.

Command faithfully models the idiosyncrasies of surface polar ice, from the increased sound ambience levels in marginal areas (horrible for sonar performance) to the plain inability of air & surface assets to participate in any operations in ice-covered regions (except icebreakers – yes, these can traverse the ice). Nuclear submarines are truly on a private arena of their own here, uninterrupted from air/surface distractions and virtually locked into an underwater cage from which only one side can emerge victorious (for an example of such a confrontation, check the scenario "Trapped Under Ice").

One of the coming improvements on the ice model is the use of authentic successive ice profiles from the early 90s until today, which will enable modeling both the highly-restrictive environment of the Cold War era as well as the opening opportunities of the present and future. Despite all the ice, the Arctic is about to get _hot_ …

Coming next: Mechanics – Part II.


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