Date: 1996-06-19
From: John
Subject: Alexander Fever

My Dear Mr. Duk:

I seem to be in an Alexander mood tonight. A couple of random ideas...

  1. MARKERS. I don't believe we ever solved the problem of how to display air pieces flying over land/sea pieces (or how to distinguish between airborne air pieces and grounded air pieces). I can't remember if I tried this before, but maybe we could consider enlarging the size of each grid so that it can hold two oblong rectangular markers. All land, sea, and grounded air pieces would be placed in the bottom half of a grid, active air pieces in the top half. We would probably have to give up the bevelled edges to save a few extra pixels, but it might be worth a shot.
  2. ENFORCED AUTOMATION. One of the central problems even with the current game is that it takes too long to play. As the pieces pile up and spread across the globe it can take ten or fifteen minutes just to make a single move. One radical approach is enforced automation: limit the number of pieces a player can "interfere with" in a given move. (I think you may have proposed something like this at one point.) The theory is that even the most sophisticated central command can't make all the decisions and must sometimes rely on soldiers in the field to think for themselves. Each day of the war, a player makes a limited set of decisions and moves on so that the games moves at a brisker pace and ends sooner.

    In order to make this work we would have to provide easy to use yet sophisticated automatic capabilities for all pieces. Some of the features would include:

    1. CITIES. Players could direct cities to make the same kind of piece over and over, cycle through a small set of different pieces, or choose at random from a weighted subset. In the last case, we could perhaps allow the user to define a global wishlist of the preferred proportions of all pieces; cities could automatically consult this wishlist and produce whatever piece was currently in short supply.
    2. RULES OF ENGAGEMENT. Pieces could be given a default behavior in case of enemy contact. Possible behaviors might include AllStop, ExploreThenRetreat, ImmediateRetreat, OneShotThenHold, OneShotThenRetreat, FightToTheDeath, etc. Behaviors might also vary depending on the type of enemy target, current number of supporting troops within a certain radius, etc. The trick would be to reduce these possibilites to an easy point and click interface. Each piece would have three possible settings: global default defined for all pieces of that type, (optional) local default for that particular piece, or manual (within limits discussed below). Pieces could also have a survival instinct so that, if not engaged in combat and low on fuel, they would automatically return to their assigned or nearest port for refueling, etc.
    3. PATHWAYS. Players might be required to define movement pathways which would extend from the factory gate to a (possibly somewhat indeterminate) destination. These pathways could be made to appear on the map and could be easily altered; if enemy occupation forces a break in any path, the player would be required to specify a new path (or settle for some kind of default rerouting). These paths would be more sophisticated than the mechanisms in the current game. An army could be instructed to proceed to a specified port city, board the next available transport, disembark on orders from the transport, then follow a clockwise inward spiralling search pattern in search of unoccupied cities. In this case, a path line would be drawn from the factory city to the port city. The transport would have a program (a kind of internal path) that would tell it to wait until, say, six armies had boarded then sail due west; this might appear on the screen as a westward pointing arrow extending from the transport. On contact with an apparently unoccupied land mass it would order two armies to disembark and provide search paths for each; these paths could be made to appear on the map as soon as the armies disembark.
    4. PHASES OF PLAY. In order to enforce as much automation as possible, players would be limited as to how many pieces they could operate on "manual". There are many possible ways of handling this; the trick would be to limit overrides while avoiding situations in which the player watches helplessly while all his pieces march over the edge of a cliff in single file. At the beginning of a turn the player should be given an opportunity to react to the latest enemy incursions or new discoveries by adjusting pathways and settings. At this point he could choose up to, say 10 pieces for manual override. During the second phase, all his pieces would move according to their programs. Some pieces might be programmed to stop and ask for intervention IF AND ONLY IF some of the ten "slots" were still available. Thus, in an uncertain situation, a player might specify only six of his ten possible pieces as manual during the first phase and hold four back just in case automated pieces ask for intervention. We might want to provide a third phase for some final adjustments to rules of engagement before the player's turn is complete.

    This is obviously a can of worms, and may not be entirely feasible. The goal is to provide a set of behaviors rich and varied enough so that players could feel comfortable in leaving most of their troops on automatic pilot most of the time. Ideally we would provide a range of complexity ranging from a pick list of "canned" behaviors to full-fledged programming.

  3. SPIES. I still go back and forth on the nature of spies. But if we do implement all these "paths" and allow transports to issue orders to armies, etc. it would be possible to allow spies to overhear this information. Thus a player with a well-placed spy could see partial pathways appear on the map for some of his enemy's pieces.
  4. VARIATIONS WITHIN PIECES. There's no end to the tinkering we can do with pieces; each time I return to Alexander I seem to crave either more pieces or fewer pieces or new pieces or modifications to old pieces. Tonight I am thinking about one of your ideas: build-it-yourself pieces by mixing and matching a set of characteristics. Start with the basic set of pieces and somehow let the players make modifications, turn a fighter into a stealth fighter or maybe a submarine into an intercontinental ballistic missile submarine. I don't have any specific proposals at the moment, but I'm wondering about providing two or more "levels" for each piece we do define. Just as, in the current game, bombers eventually become more lethal, so perhaps fighters could become stelthier, or destroyers faster, or helicopters longer-ranging. This might tie in with my next idea...
  5. CONTINENTS. Perhaps there should be some reward for players who capture and maintain every city on a continent. One possibility: once a continent has been completely held for, say 20 succesive days, every city on that continent starts producing a superior level of pieces (nastier bombs, faster destroyers, etc.). If any city on a continent falls to the enemy, then every city on that continent goes back to square one; if that one city is subsequently recaptured, it would take another 20 days to return to the superior level. There could be two levels or ten. Players might be able to select the nature of a superior piece from a menu of predefined enhancements.
If we create worlds with huge, Asia-like stretches of contiguous land, we could perhaps automatically provide divisions into several smaller bordering countries that would function like continents. Each continent/country would have, say 3 to 10 cities. Small islands with 1 or 2 cities might not qualify (or perhaps they should!).

That's enough for now. I'm not sure how much time I will find to devote to this stuff. If we both seem to be getting back into the groove, I might look into setting up a secure Alexander web site so we can share graphics and archive various hypertext documents.

Incidentally, you should have received the tape by now. If you haven't already filled it, perhaps you can take some tape time to react to some of these ideas. E-mail is also encouraged!

Yours in haste,