Friday, 13 April 2012

Computer Moderated Gaming - Source Code now available

Computer Hacks of the Day

For those that are interested in following the development of this ambitious project, I have the source code up on the web now in a Git repository.

The Git repository is available here :
https://github.com/steveoc64/empireV

Or you can just grab the ZIP file (automatically generated by git to contain the latest code release) from here :
https://github.com/steveoc64/empireV/zipball/master

There is a fair bit of code there already, and quite a bit of rather cool functionality already.

This is a developer release, so its only useful at this point to those who just want to get into the code, and play around with the prototype. Requires some basic understanding of how to setup a web server, configure PHP / mySQL, etc.

Code-wise, its all vanilla CodeIgniter .. great little PHP framework with excellent reliability, speed and support. I haven't used CodeIgniter prior to this, but its good to know that it only took around a week to really get into. Top marks for codeigniter ;)

For non-developers who just want to USE the damn thing - well, as soon as the whole package is complete, I will setup a hosted version so gamers can use it online without having to touch any code.

I have made a big effort with the user interface so far to provide a bit of a period feel for the system, and also to make sure that the computer doesn't unnecessarily take over the gaming experience.

Its still a miniatures game played with real people on real tables. The computer is only there for making the gaming experience even better.

I have also kept well away from using flash, or any other proprietary evils in the development of the system. I need to make sure that the finished result will work on all web browsers, all operating systems, and common devices such as ipads and possibly smartphones.

So far so good.



I have divided the development up into Phases that exactly match the game turn phases in the Empire V rules. So what I will do as far as blogging goes is to just post a quick update each time that a phase is fully completed, along with some screen shots and explanation.

That gives us the following status report :
(Green = all done and running)





Phase 1 - Issue operational orders to Corps and MEs

Phase 2 - Test determination for all Infantry MEs

Phase 3 - Test ME Morale

Phase 4 - Attach / Detach Commanders

Phase 5 - Declare Operational Orders

Phase 6 - Activate Orders

Phase 7 - ME under BreakOff order does grand tactical movement

Phase 8 - All other MEs do grand tactical movement

Phase 9 - Determine number of Bombardment rounds

Phase 10 - Engaged MEs do tactical movment, and eligible artillery does bombardment

(this is the big one actually)

Phase 11 - Leader Casualties

Phase 12 - Rally eligible units

Phase 13 - Eligible units rest and recover fatigue

Phase 14 - End of hourly round

And now for the Player View screenshots :

(click any to see a full-sized image which is a bit more readable)

This is the view each player gets to see on his forces.

The units are arranged as a tree, so you can see how the various battalions, squadrons and batteries are assigned to each brigade or division.

It gets a little complicated in Empire, since units are not only grouped into their respective brigades and divisions, but they are also grouped into manoeuvre elements in addition to this. 

The system handles that little complexity nicely - each unit in the system has an immediate parent formation, and a manoeurve element as well.

Clicking on a unit displays the details that are visible for that unit.

This is presented to the user as a 'Visit to the unit, for a review on parade' ... hence a little bit of UI fluff, and some jquery goodness to animate the visit.

The player cannot see the exact details of losses, etc ... just a summary of the current state of the unit, as the officer in command of the unit would be likely to report it.

Each player communicates with his units through the orders screen.

In this example, there are several Divisions, each with a number of brigades. The player can drag the brigade boxes around to layout the formation of the whole Division.

This is important in Empire, as the manoeuvre elements require orders that specify the relative position of each manoeuvre element.

Orders can then be drag-and-dropped from the orders boxes onto the elements, depending on their type. (ie - support orders can only be dropped on cavalry brigades, garrison on infantry brigades, etc).  In each case, the description in the objective field (at the top of the screen) is applied to the order.

Placing an order on a unit creates an order dispatch for the unit, and the back end system delivers the order to the unit some time in the future, dependent on the distance to the recipient, and the professional skill rating of the staff for each unit.

The details of how the delay is calculated are faithful to the way that Empire V calculates it.

This also allows for the computer to model some personalities for non-player sub-commanders with a really simple AI system. A rash and impetuous computer controlled sub-commander may randomly misinterpret an order to defend as meaning 'Push forward and attack the enemy', for example.

Remote Wargaming :

Really looking forward to getting this part working. So far, there is no technical reason why the system wouldnt work out of the box with some players accessing the game remotely from the other side of the world.

You still need a real-life table setup with real people and all that, but it would be nice to have a mate from another country take command of a brigade in the game, and run it from over the internet.

Just need a decent webcam streaming thing (with audio support) to make that a reality.

Lets have a look at the Umpire view then ...

Note that the whole system is multi-user, so each user can be logged in at the same time, viewing their own data only, whilst the umpire is also logged in on another computer, controlling the flow of the game.

This is the administrator view of the user accounts.

In this case the Admin user has assigned the user account 'Augereau' to command the French VII Corps, and has assigned the user 'Duke of Brunswick' to command the opposing Prussians.

In addition to that, the user 'Wartensleben' has been assigned command of the Prussian 2nd Division.  When this user logs in, they will only be able to see the details of those units that are directly under their command (ie - 2nd Division forces)

This is interesting, since the user 'Duke of Brunswick' can see all of 2nd Divisions troops as well - as they are ultimately part of his wing, but he cannot issue orders to any units under 2nd Division. Only the delegate player 'Wartensleben' can do that.

The user 'Augereau' on the other hand gets to see and command all Divisions in his VII Corps, since he is the only user assigned to the French.

So the system allows multiple players per team to login to the system at the same time, and command a complex mix of delegation responsibilities.

Here is the Umpire / Admin view of the units involved in a game.

The Umpire gets to see a bit more detail on what is happening with each unit - note in this case that they can see accumulated actual casualties, as well as a detailed summary of actions in the previous turn which will have an effect on things like morale tests, and ME determination tests.

This is the main game control screen that the Umpire uses to run the game.

For each phase of a turn, this command console displays the details of what is happening in that phase, and provides the umpire with several buttons to control the flow of action.

In this case, it is simply the orders phase (Phase 1 in Empire), where users are given a couple of minutes to complete submitting their orders.

During orders phase, the umpire screen shows a clock counting up the seconds ... which changes from green, to blue, to finally red when 2 minutes has expired.

As players submit orders on their computers, the details of the orders automatically appear on this umpire screen (it polls the backend every 10 seconds to collect the latest orders).

This gives the umpire the opportunity to question any orders, or if they so choose, they can actually edit the order, add a delay to the order, or make the order dissapear. Its up to the umpire how they want to play that.

Once the umpire decides to close off the orders, they click the 'Close Orders' button. This advances the game to ME Determination phase.

After orders are closed, if any player submits a new order to the system, they get an immediate reply from their ADC telling them its too late :(

ME Determination Phase in the system.

The backend part of the system crunches through all the details for all units in the game, working out which units need to be checked .. digging up all the details, working out the % chances of failure, and then rolling the dice.

As you can see here, the report from the computer lays out all the steps that it takes to arrive at these results, including relevant die roll mods, etc.

This is still under Umpire control at this stage. If the Umpire decides that the result is not in the best interest of the game, for whatever reason, he can choose to 're-roll ME determination test' and get a completely fresh result.

Otherwise, click 'Accept ME Result' to apply the ME determination test and move on to the next phase. (ME Morale tests)

One thing I want to maybe add is an option to tell the computer that for a given game, player die rolls must be used instead of computer generated die rolls. In that case, the computer will add input boxes along the way to require the user to enter the value of the die rolls to be used in the calculations.

I think that option of allowing real-life die rolls to be used might be useful in any game, as it keeps the players 'involved' of you like, and kills any perception that the computer has taken the game over.

ME Determination results ... according to the rules, all ME determination results are to be made public to all players immediately. What I will do then is to create a dispatch message to all players if ANY unit from ANY side fails a determination test.

Other than that, any ME's that are becoming fragile through deteriorating morale or mounting losses, I am generating a dispatch message from the unit to the player, telling them in plain language that the unit is coming under some distress. (without the exact casualty details or % losses)..

The system, when its done, will be full of these little messages from the units arriving at the player's HQ.  The beauty of having the computer handle all of this communication is that it can correctly manage the delay.  For example, in the 3PM turn, the player may receive a message from a commander on a distant flank, who dispatched an urgent request for more ammunition at 1PM.

With the computer controlled sub-commander AI, dispatch reports from rash and impetuous sub commanders may be a little overly optimistic, whereas excessively cautious sub-commanders may exaggerate losses and the strength of enemy units. Lots of fun to be had with that, and great for Solo play as well.


Thats all for now ... back to coding. Hopefully will be able to report back with more updates soon.

12 comments:

  1. David McCracken14 April 2012 at 00:18

    Impressive start. I presume you will develop a front end engine for multiplayer games where people are in different locations. I would like to follow this project!
    David

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    Replies
    1. Thanks.

      Good observation. The various players connect into the system across a network .. so they could be in the same room with everyone else, or they could be on the other side of the world, running a sub-command for one of the sides. Technically, its not an issue.

      The front end that is already there supports that concept as is.

      What we do need for that to be feasible though is to have a really solid webcam interface so they can see whats happening on the table, and preferrably and excellent 2-way audio stream, so they can join in the chit chat, insults, threats and laughter which all combine to make a great gaming experience. Thats more a hardware issue than anything else. Something to be researched for sure !

      Delete
  2. Hi
    A great discovery your blog. I play solo and I used EMPIRE some years ago. It was too difficult for a single player so I give up and choose Napoleon's Battles instead.
    I am very curios about your project and I will follow it waiting (with some trepidation) the moment of releasing
    Keep your good work!
    Best regards
    Rafa

    ReplyDelete
  3. A freind of mine made a complete computerized game aide for Empire V way back in about 1988. It handled all of the calculations and could roll dice if you wanted. He approached the folks at Empire Games but Bowden and Tarbox weren't interested in putting their rules in electronic format. Now that Ipads are here I forsee a lot of wargaming applications. I still like playing Empire V.

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  4. Inspiring work Steve.

    Any idea where I can get a copy of Empire V these days ? I have an old copy of Empire III around somewhere, be interested what the changes are.

    I play Republic to Empire these days, any thoughts about modifying this for that system?

    I have tried installing it on my local webserver but struggling to get it set up - are there any installation instructions. I get an error in the loader.php file.

    Will be watching with interest.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Thanks Karim Was reading your thread on LoA forums, and wanted to join in .. but I cant spell Barrack Obama's name for the life of me :) Will try again soon

    A few answers to the above questions :

    1) Getting Empire is a little difficult. Sales of the PDF stopped at the beginning of the year for some reason .. strange, since demand is there, and its trivial to sell PDF's with a click and a paypal account. Strange ! I dont know if much changed between III and V - I think they just tightened up the wording of some rules, and simplified the skirmisher part. Not sure, but the yahoo forum is a fount of knowledge for questions like that.

    2) Install issues ... Lol, its a pig at the moment. Apologies to all who have tried in vain to get the install working in under a day. I have tried installing it on my own server here (in a different path), and it took hours to work it out. I have tracked down most of the hardcoded paths in the code that are causing the issues, but dont forget to edit the .htaccess file !! That last line with the re-write rule is the killer. Make sure that the re-write rule matches the name of the directory where you install it .... or no go. Writing a decent installer is on the TODO list, but that wont be looked at for a bit longer, as the development itself remains fast and fluid. Getting there !

    2.1) Install issues 2 ... I am following CodeIgniter 'best practice' by using Apache re-write rules with the .htaccess file as above. There may be some issues with using Windows in localhost mode and expecting re-write rules to work. Not sure, but I dont have any Windows machines here to test it on. If you are on OSX or Linux though, all is well.

    ReplyDelete
  6. .. cont ..

    2.2) iPad development - What I would like to have a go with is porting this across to an iPad as a webkit application. Or just write it from scratch as a native iPad app in obj-C. Project for a rainy day for sure. Its something that I would like to get into, but do not have the kit on hand at the moment to start. Also - TooFatLardies are really keen to get involved with computerized wargaming tools on iPads. Might be worth dropping them a line as well if you are advanced on that front already.

    2.3) Install issues again. I would recommend pulling from Git at this stage rather than grabbing the ZIP file ... since the codebase is changing every few hours. Lots of updates at the moment. Git makes it easier to keep in line with the constant changes. But you probably already know that :)

    3) R2E ports. Republic to Empire looks like a really cool system, and again, I dont have a copy on hand. Everytime I put $60+ aside to buy a copy, I get distracted and end up spending that money on new figures instead. Damn Eureka !! You go to their site to buy something specific, and find something NEW that you have to have instead. Teddy Bears even :)

    Having said that, I am really interested in working closely with the guys from LoA if they are OK with the idea. Not all wargame rules are suitable for automation, but R2E looks like a perfect candidate. I believe that a freely available multi-user tool that works with their rules would only help their sales in the longer term. Its a tricky situation, because the 'IP' of the rules ends up in the code ... so in theory you dont strictly _need_ the rule book if all the rules exist in readable code. (Assuming the average prospective customer can absorb all that code !!)

    Then again - the 'average' person who could grok the whole ruleset from just the code alone, would probably find some alternate method of getting their hands on a copy of the rules.

    Technically - porting the finished product to another ruleset is not an problem, its still a bit of work, but mostly just grunt work. The critical part is the data structure design to capture the model of how the ruleset works. These days in programming, I tend to shift the complexity into the data structures, and keep the code itself as simple as possible. There is some complex code for the slicker parts of the UI, but for executing the rules, its all quite simple once the data structures are correct. Hope that makes sense, and resonates with your own experience as well.

    Keep in touch on this one please, lots of good stuff happening fast.

    ReplyDelete
  7. This sounds great like the music of La Grande Batterie. I master graphic, if you need help in image files, I'm helpful glady.
    Gian Marco

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  8. Any plans to incorporate the campaign system?

    Excellent project, definitely one to follow!

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  9. Is this still in the works? It would be a wonderful thing to have.

    ReplyDelete
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