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Posted on May 4, 2005 in Armchair Reading, History News

WebOps (April 2005) – Tower Games

Jim H. Moreno

 Chris Wilkins and Dan Stevens are the gentlemen who run Tower Games, and to officially introduce them and the site to our readers, I recently interviewed Wilkins via e-mail about their site in relation to military history and PC gaming. Enjoy!

WW: To begin, thank you for the interview, Chris. Would you please tell us a bit about yourself?

CW: My name is Chris Wilkins, 37. Born in Australia. Lived there most of my life. Now live in Switzerland as I married a Swiss some 7 years ago and we decided to move here. My computer training is self-taught. However, I am not the "technical brains" behind Tower Games. I do the writing. Dan Stevens in Queensland is the one who knows programming, Java, databases and all the other things make it all work. However we work together as a very good team.

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I’ve been involved in wargames for over twenty years. I first got started with Squad Leader (hate ASL). I have played many battles of ACW with miniatures (which is where the interest for Line of Muskets came from). Dan and I used to play with a group of friends when we were both in Sydney. It was a lot of fun.

I also play Rugby and love motor racing. And I’m very glad that Schumacher is finding the going a bit tougher this year. It makes the races more interesting.

WW: How did the creation of Tower Games come about?

CW: It really started one day at Dan’s place. We were on his back porch enjoying a glass of wine. I casually mentioned I thought it would be great if it was possible to open a window on a computer and play a wargame with someone. It would stop all the hassle of going to someone’s place, setting up, arguing over the rules, rolling dice, putting the pieces back on the right spots after the cat has run across the board, etc. Dan, with a knowing gling in his eye, said he had thought of a computer design that might just make such a thing happen. As I was involved in marketing, and can write, it seemed a perfect match. From there away we went.

It took at least one year before we had something that worked. From initial inception to having troops moving around in a meaningful way took a long time. As for the problems we had, there wasn’t really one BIG problem or bug but rather thousands of small bugs, each one capable of not letting the site or game work. We had to hunt each and every one down in the development phase.

We got no assistance from outside except making use of the standard developements of Java along the way. Since we started Sun has released a couple of versions of Java and each one has made things a bit easier for us.

And why Java? Because we write the game and the website, and then everyone, no matter what computer they have, can play it. We don’t have to write a version for each operating system. We are just making use of something that millions of other people across the world do.

WW: Why was the first Tower Games release Line of Muskets, an American Civil War game?

CW: It was really a question of game design. In the American Civil War the tactics were simple. Everyone stood in a line and fired. They didn’t go in for the eloquent manoeuvres of the Napoleonic times. And everyone had a musket, unlike WWII, where the assortment of weapons is staggering. So we thought it would be the easiest one to start with.

Looking back it was a smart thing to do. We have learned a lot along the way, and everyone involved agrees that if we had started with our WWII game we would only have a great mess on our hands at the moment. Trying to program all the different MGs, rifles, grenades, anti-tank guns, mortars, radios, smoke, etc, etc into our first game, just as we were starting on the learning curve, would have been a nightmare.

Once we earned our stripes doing Line of Muskets, doing other games with much more complex weapons and methods of manoeuver will be much easier.

WW: What have been the successes and failures of Line of Muskets since its release? What do you see as its current pros and cons?

CW: The greatest success is that people who have played it love it. They get a feel for how the troops fought and the command structure. And most games are tense. We think the greatest reason for this is that real line of sight exists in Line of Muskets. Unlike a board game where you can see everything, if your troops can’t see the enemy they won’t appear on your screen. Makes for very exciting games.

We also feel that the battles are very balanced. We know that some of our members think they aren’t. Hey, it’s a free world. But each battle is extensively tested before going live to make sure that both sides can win. Yes, even the Union can give the Confeds a right old thrashing in Gettysburg, Day 1. But they have to play within their limits.

On the down side, the most difficult thing we have encountered is giving our members enough opportunity to "meet and greet" and have a game. At the moment, to start a game all opponents have to be online at the same time. So what happens is someone comes along, sees no one online, says "oh well, no one here," and goes away. Two minutes later someone else repeats the process. Five minutes later, another person. This has caused us to pull our hair out at times because it is frustrating for everyone. However, we have been working on a solution for this for some time now. It is in development at present but should be released very soon. Then this problem should disappear and our members will find getting a game much, much easier.

WW: To what degree has factual military and Civil War history been input into Line of Muskets? Has any ‘liberty’ been taken for gaming purposes?

CW: In terms of the military doctrine, the command structure, the effect of weapons, how troops behaved under fire, etc, no. We have created the game to make the game as close to history as is possible. And we wanted the game to get the "feel" of the period. We think, albeit from a biased view, we have managed to do this. The best example is our battle of Shiloh. It feels like a long tiring punching brawl, which is exactly what the real battle was like.

In terms of liberties, no. We try as best we can to have the real Orders of Battles present, even if one side is horribly outnumbered. The thing we might move and change to give the game balance, and to make sure the players are fighting over the historically important geographical features, are the Objectives and how many victory points they are worth. But most of the time they are the standard ones. In Gettysburg, they are Seminary Ridge, Cemetary Hill and Culp’s Hill. In Shiloh they are the Sunken Road and Pittsburg Landing.

WW: What do you see in the future of Tower Games?

CW: Always more wargames. In time we hope others, gifted designers and programmers, will want to work as third parties for us, design and write their own games and have them deployed on our system. We already have some inquiries along these lines. There will be more articles in the future, covering the different games and periods we have. But these things always take time.

As for the fees, we have no desire to increase them in the forseeable future. This is one of the reasons why we designed Tower Games the way we did. Dan and I have both had piles of board games that we used once every two or more years, if we were lucky. And each of them cost $50 or more (I still get annoyed when I think about the amount of money I put into Squad Leader only to be asked to put in several more $100s to buy ASL). So we thought $1 a game that gives you at least 2 hours of fighting and dying sounded fair. We still think that. When compared to a $100 board game that you use twice in your life, it seems like great value for money and we don’t have any desire to change this.

Perhaps the greatest thrill out of doing this whole project is where it is at now and what it gives me personally. We all know (come on, let’s admit it) that it’s a lot harder to find friends these days who want a good wargame. Everyone who got into the hobby twenty years ago has proper jobs now and are far too busy, and the kids would rather play Playstation. So there are less people who are ready and willing to have a game.

But, with this system, Dan and I can have a game anytime we like. It takes only a few minutes each day to put in our turns, which works well with our busy lives. We don’t need to block out a whole Saturday. Plus we don’t need a room to leave the game set up if we don’t finish it. We can come back to it whenever we like.

I also find the games more exciting than the old board games where you could see all the enemy troops, even those on the other side of the hill.

And, more exciting than all of that, is we are now on opposite sides of the planet. We have had many large battles, mainly Antietam, with players in Switzerland, Queensland Aust, Sydney Aust, Maryland, Mississippi, Iowa, California and Holland. In such battles there is a team on each side with its own command structure. Just the thought of having a game with people all over the world is quite exciting. Of course, this is impossible to do with board games.

WW: Can you share any details about your upcoming tactical World War II game?

CW: Sadly, no. You would have to ask the game designer who is a third party (yes, we use third parties. Actually that is how the entire system has been designed) and I don’t think he would like to say too much at the moment. Stay tuned.

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Stay Alert, Stay Alive!

Jim H. Moreno

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