29 November 2010

Gratuitous Space Battles

This is actually part 3 of my series on Lanchester's Laws, sort of. Since writing parts 1 and 2 have been reconsidering the whole topic, and I seem to have a number of ideas that branch off of this topic but one doesn't necessarily follow another. Therefore I've decided to worry a little less about how this all fits together, and just write something and get it posted. The figuring out can come later.
That said, it time for something I've been putting off for far too long ...

... which is a game called Gratuitous Space Battles. GSB is my first computer game purchase in several years, and I consider it money well spent. Let's start with a video of the action!

This operates a little differently from most space battle games; this is a Tower Defense game. If a game is a series of interesting decisions, then all the decisions in this game come at the beginning. First you design ships, choose your fleet, give then orders, and click on START. Then you sit back and WATCH the battle unfold. If you lose the battle, you go back and try a different set-up. if you WIN the battle, you can go back and try to win with few resources. The replay value of this game is very high.

Gratuitous Space Battles has been called "massively single player", because you can submit and download scenario challenges from other players in the online GSB community. I haven't done much of this yet, but my experience so far has been very positive, with other players happily responding to my challenges, politely pounding me to newbie-snot, and offering tips on how I might do better. This offers the sort of difficulty level you can only get from human players, even though you aren't playing online, or even simultaneously.
GSB has a downloadable Demo that I would like you to try. This isn't just because I think it is a cool game; which it is, but I have something specific in mind. GSB is a perfect way to demonstrate Lanchester's Square Law in action. If you want to give this a try, download the demo and play a few rounds to get the idea how it works. Once you have that under you belt, try the following setup:

Create a fleet with as many fighters as you can manage, and tune it until it wins consistently. Next, start removing fighters a few at time until your fleet no longer wins easily. Lanchester's Square Law predicts that the casualties you will inflict are proportional to the square of the ratio of friendly/enemy units. With a bit of experimentation you should be able to find the balance point - the point where your fleet doesn't always win, but the addition or subtraction of just a few fighters changes the balance drastically. Try to find the point where adding 2-3 fighter practically guarantees a win, but subtracting 2-3 fighters is a sure loss. In GSB, fighters are as close to single soldiers as you can get, and it is interesting to find that balance point where "just a few men" can completely turn the tide of the battle.

Some hints if you want them, in white text in case you prefer to figure things out for yourself. Select the text below to view:
[hidden text]
Choose a few cruisers with 2-3 Plasma Launchers, and a few shorter range weapons.
One cruiser should have a Fighter Support Bay, and order your fighters to be "Cautious" so they will will return to the bay for repairs.
Faster, lightly-armed fighters attacking at minimum range (inside cruiser shields) are much more effective than slow, heavily armed fighters.
Give your fighters orders for "Cooperative", "Vulture", and "Stick Together". You should also order them to "Escort" one of your cruisers (at range 600) so they do not wander too far from the rest of your fleet.

[/hidden text]

OK, now for just a tiny bit of mathematical consideration. Suppose we take the source code for GSB and simplify it - stripping out everything that makes it look like a game, removing all options except for how many ship there are and the firepower of each ship, removing movement (assuming every ship can fire at any other), leaving just the input of forces at the beginning and a report of the battle outcome. What we have left is a basic attrition model; a simple program that conducts a simulated "battle", even though we don't get to watch the progress of that battle any more. With all the simplifications it is barely resemble a game, but it become a very effective tool for studying the effect small changes in force selection (or force orders) can have on the outcome of a battle. Consider putting this tool inside of a computer program and run through hundred, thousands, or even millions of scenarios, each with slightly different starting conditions, then look at which starting conditions lead to success or failure.

Just like my suggested example above, tinkering with the number of fighters to find a balance point, you might tinker with the behavior of forces. You can examine things like the effect of the priority in which enemy units are attacked, maybe add ammunition considerations, command and control, whatever you like. The point is, there can be value in studying very basic considerations in a model that has been stripped of all but the most basic structure. It's true that the effect of something complex (like command and control) probably depends on any number of other factors, but if you don't understand how something works in a simple model, then it is unlikely you can understand how it works in a more complex model.

I'm a big fan of simplifying thing down to base elements, and trying to understand them from the bottom up. Gratuitous Space Battles, even in demo form, is a good tools for studying Lanchester's Laws. It's not an ideal tool for such - that would require your own program - but it is very accessible to anyone with an interest in the topics, and it's a heap of fun too.  I give GSB a four-robot rating :-)
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Over at the developer's blog, you can read about The Fighter Spam Issue he is having with the GSB campaign game. Essentially, by taking advantage of Lanchester's Squared Law, it becomes fairly simple to construct a fighter-heavy fleet that is nearly unbeatable. Balancing the game requires in this situation require putting some limits on the usefulness or availability of fighters.

Credits: Some of the images here are taken from the GSB developer's site, or the GSB Facebook page, and the rest are screenshot I created.

A question in the comments below inspired this response and example, and this related post.
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