Notes on the Ogre
by Steve Jackson
The command post was well guarded. It should have been. The hastily constructed, unlovely building was the nerve center for Paneuropean operations along a 700-kilometer section of front – a front pressing steadily toward the largest Combine manufacturing center on the continent.
Therefore, General DePaul had taken no chances. His command was located in the most defensible terrain available – a battered chunk of gravel bounded on three sides by marsh and on the fourth by a river. The river was deep and wide; the swamp, gluey and impassable. Nothing bigger than a rat could avoid detection by the icons scattered for sixty kilometers in every direction over land, swamp and river surface. Even the air was finally secure; the enemy had expended at least fifty heavy missiles yesterday, leaving glowing holes over half the island, but none near the CP. The Paneuropean laser batteries had seen to that. Now that the jamscreen was up, nothing would get even that close. And scattered through the twilight were the bulky shapes of tanks and ground effect vehicles – the elite 2033rd Armored, almost relaxed as they guarded a spot nothing could attack.
Inside the post, too, the mood was relaxed – except at one monitor station, where a young lieutenant watched a computer map of the island. A light was blinking on the river. Orange: something was moving, out there where nothing should move. No heat. A stab at the keyboard called up a representation of the guardian units... not that any should be out there, thirty kilometers away. None were. Whatever was out there was a stranger – and it was actually in the river. A swimming animal? A man? Ridiculous.
The lieutenant spun a cursor, moving a dot of white light across the map and halting it on the orange spot with practiced ease. He hit another key, and an image appeared on the big screen... pitted ground, riverbank... and something else, something rising from the river like the conning tower of an old submarine, but he knew what it really was, he just couldn't place it...
And then it moved. Not straight toward the camera icon, but almost. The lieutenant saw the "conning tower" cut a wake through the rushing water, bounce once, and begin to rise. A second before the whole shape was visible, he recognized it – but for that second he was frozen. And so thirty men with their minds on other things were suddenly brought to heart-pounding alert, as the lieutenant's strangled gasp and the huge image on his screen gave the same warning...
Every so often you throw logic and reason out the window and do something because you feel like it, regardless of whether it makes any sense. And occasionally, when you're through, it works. That's what happened with Ogre.
Like many people, I'm fascinated by tanks. Nice image: all that compact power and invulnerability. SF stories like Colin Kapp's Gottlos and the Laumer Bolo tales fed that fascination – imagine something tank-strong and human-smart. So one of the things I really wanted to put into a wargame was the intelligent tank.
But there is one small problem. Tanks seem to be on their way out. Present anti-tank technology (air attacks, laser- and wire-guided missiles, etc...) have made it too cheap and easy to kill those million-dollar tanks. Tanks will still have their uses: probably not as ultra-heavy, multi-gun monsters, but rather as fast, lightly-armored, cheap vehicles, used to exploit breakthroughs rather than create them. Which pretty well lets out the small tank concept. A cyborg like Gottlos would be incredibly expensive, and could be knocked out by a single tactical nuke; a 200-meter Bolo Mark XXIII would cost even more – and, while it wouldn't fall to one nuke, it would be such a big target that it would go out long before it paid for itself. But I still wanted to do a smart-tank game. And I did. But it had to make some kind of sense... so half of Ogre is built around the need to explain why such units would ever be built.
Problem number one, of course, is those little laser-guided missiles. If a super-tank is ever going to be practical, it has to be able to stand up to a lot of missile (and that means nuclear) fire. So the first postulate has to be an improvement in armor technology. I rejected a force screen, not because it wouldn't do the job if it existed, but because modern technology doesn't give us even a hint of when or if we'll get one. Too much like fantasy. On the other hand, we can, if we wish, assume that materials technology will continue to improve. We already have some incredibly tough two-phase materials. If an armor substance were to be developed such that a couple of feet could stop a tacnuke – and if that substance were light enough so that a vehicle could carry that couple of feet – tanks look better.
Even if the little nukes fired by opposing armor (and infantry) can be weathered, though, there is the possibility of a slightly bigger missile, fired from a couple of hundred kilometers off. We get around this by assuming (not too illogically) that jamming technology has improved. We can jam most long-wave signals now. I don't know how you'd jam a laser (except with smoke or window – unfeasible over large areas), but in a hundred years they may think of something. And satellites, which are such great spotters for missiles, are easy to knock down today. An unarmored satellite is a sitting duck for something as crude as a cloud of gravel fired into its path. A shielded one would be expensive to send up – and a little bitty nuke would ruin its electronic insides with even a not-so-near miss. So spy satellites may still be used – but they will have very short lifetimes and will be correspondingly restricted to times of maximum need.
Another problem, not so much with the tanks as with the whole game, is the big nukes – either missile-delivered or airplane-dropped. If these are still effective, they would make a mockery of conventional warfare, by eliminating all large concentrations of units, and by smashing the objectives that a conventional force might otherwise be needed to take. Again, though, we have a way out. While it's not absolutely certain that laser weapons will become practical it seems like a good bet. But a laser that can spot and destroy a missile or airplane will be big, delicate, and costly. So they will be used to protect rear areas – but forward units will have to rely on dispersion and jamming.
The net result would be a battlefield where tremendously sophisticated weapon systems would nearly cancel each other out. Target-seeking missile weapons would be countered by various jamming devices, and mass weapons would be too expensive to be used except on the most attractive and vulnerable concentrations.
So, given these assumptions, tank warfare might again become a cost-effective way to run a campaign. Having justified tanks, though, we still have the problem: robot tanks? A number of commentators don't believe we will ever see robot fighting units of any type. A recent article in S & T ("Invasion: America" in No. 57) mentioned the idea in a listing of possible "futuristic" weapons systems, and then dismissed it: ". . . no robot brain could fight as efficiently as a tank crew: again, people are cheaper . . ." With all due respect to the author of that generally-good article: Hogwash.
Less than three minutes had passed. After the initial seconds of panic, the command post had settled down to business. Instead of masterminding an attack, it was fighting for its own life. Men spat orders into throat mikes, eyes on the big screen. The orange dot that was the Ogre was six kilometers closer, but green sparks were moving out to meet it – the men and machines of the 2033rd.
The general entered at a run. "Get me a picture!" he ordered. The screen flickered; moving dots gave way to an image. The huge machine ground over the landscape, incredibly fast for something so huge. Guns bristled. The tower on top rose fifteen meters high.
"A Mark V," said the general. "They really want us, all right. Who had the watch?"
"I . . . did, sir."
"Where'd it come from?"
"Sir, the river. I got a movement indication from the center of the river – I saw it come up. Nothing before that. I swear it, sir."
The general started to reply, then checked himself. He stepped to the keyboard. The map reappeared (the orange dot was closer) and shrank. They saw their island from fifty – a hundred – kilometers in the air.
The general traced the river-course. "Here . . . and here. Yes, they could have done it."
"Underwater. It went into the ocean here. Through the delta – up the river and out. Very clever. I wonder . . . No, they just outfoxed us. As you were, son."
Granted, present computer technology can't replace a man at anything requiring judgment. But that doesn't always have to be true. It is pure mysticism to suggest that the "miraculous" human brain will never be surpassed by electronic circuitry. I won't get into the argument of whether machines can be self-aware, although I think of my Ogres as personalities. I will assert that we will someday be able to build a computer that is faster, "smarter," and more competent, at least in non-creative occupations, than a human brain.
Sure, they'll be expensive. But expense isn't as important as cost-effectiveness. If a million-dollar robot brain can last ten times as long, given the same weapon system, as a man on whom $100,000 was expended for training, the robot side is ahead by the cost of nine sets of weapons blown to scrap with the "cheaper" human operators.
The Ogre was twenty kilometers away. On the big map, a ring of green around it showed missile tanks ready to move in; more green dots, visibly moving, were GEVs harassing the enemy machine. As they watched, one GEV light went out. Another stopped moving and began to blink plaintively. The Ogre moved toward it.
The other nice thing about computers is that they can do a lot of things at once. I suspect that part of the reason tanks, unlike battleships, never evolved multiple-gun versions is that a group of men in the cramped, uncomfortable interior of a tank have a great deal of difficulty using one gun well. A robot unit, on the other hand, could handle as many weapons as it was given, with perfect coordination.
Which leads to an interesting conclusion. Everything else being equal, a robot tank might be expected to carry as much armor and weaponry as it could. That computer is an expensive investment, and needs to be protected; furthermore, the computer can handle more weaponry, so every gun you give it augment its strength effectively.
Twelve minutes since the shooting had started. The Ogre was fifteen kilometers away. Faced by eight missile tanks, it had slipped to the side; three of the tanks were gone, and two others had never gotten in range. But the Ogre had paid; it was moving slower now. On the big map, three more green dots moved toward it. The heavies were going in.
"Mercier to CP. We've spotted it."
The general punched for an image. There it was. Four of the six missile tubes were empty; two of the "small" guns along one side were scrap. Loose tread flapped; damaged motors sparked. Its guns moved and flashed. Then the screen dimmed as a nuclear warhead hit the Ogre. The image returned. There was a new crater along one of the armored sides – nothing more.
"Get those guns, Commander." The general's voice was calm; Mercier's reply was equally mild. "Trying, sir. It ducks." Then jubilation. "Good shot, Fair. You got it. Hit the misbegotten pile of junk." The big screen went completely dark. It came on again, from a different angle. The Ogre was hurt. One of those big front guns was gone – completely. The other was clearly wrecked.
"Good man, Mercier! Who did that? Commander Fair?... Mercier?... Fair?..."
"This is Kowalski in 319. It got Fair about three times. I can't find Mercier."
On the screen, one heavy tank faced the Ogre. Two GEVs swept in and out. Missile tanks and infantry moved closer – too slowly.
"Here it comes." Kowalski – commander of the last heavy. "You'll have to shoot better than that, you gadget. Gotcha! Took out its..."
Static. Then a new voice. It sounded quite human. And amused.
Enough. I managed to convince myself that yes, under certain circumstances, the robotic tank would be a workable weapons system. The next question was: What kind of robot tank?
I rejected the cyborg approach of Gottlos and Cemetery World, not because I doubt it'll work (I think it would), but because (a) it still leaves a human brain at the controls, and I want something better, and (b) I don't like the idea.
Keith Laumer's Bolo stories hit closer to the mark for me, in that he was making the same basic assumption: big, invulnerable, intelligent supertanks. But his Bolos are just too darn big.
Admittedly, we won't know until we try. But fooling around with models and sketches and thinking about the cube-square law, I get the idea that the dinosaurian Bolos would have the same trouble that the dinosaurs did. Unnecessary bulk. Consider: an ordinary main battle tank today is maybe 12 meters long. Double that and you increase the bulk eight times. Not only is that already pretty expensive, but it's already big enough to do the job. Sketch a tank – top view. Now draw a tank body twice as long, twice as wide. See how many tank guns you can give it without crowding . . .
The practical limit to the size of one of these land cruisers would be that at which it became worthwhile for an enemy to use a strategic nuke on it. Or, alternatively, the size at which you couldn't afford enough of the things to cover all the places you needed to cover. A navy with nothing but battleships would be a poor excuse for a navy, although I wouldn't want to be the first one it got mad at. So I figured a size of 50 meters or less. That should be amply sufficient to create a monster.
The Ogre rolled on. It was within howitzer range now, and the big missile cannon were scoring on it. Its missiles were gone, but it still had guns. The infantry had met it – finally – but powered armor notwithstanding, they were dying as fast as they came in.
"It's committed," said a big major, his eyes on the screen. "It can't afford to stop now." The general nodded. "Get behind it," he said into his mike. "It's after the howitzers. They're killing it."
In the flame-lit darkness, men heard the scrambled transmission. Men, and one other. The Ogre took in the surrounding terrain, considered the location of the command post and the howitzers, watched the movement of its enemies, weighed the order it had decoded. Behind, it thought. They have made a mistake.
All in all, a supertank with a cybernetic brain would be a formidable weapon. Since it would need no crew, its interior could be almost solid. What wasn't power plant or weaponry would be armor. It would be fast, hard to kill, and frightening. In the battle line, it would be a menace: if it could pursue hit-and-run tactics, it could tie up many times its own strength.
It was very close now. Had the command post had windows, the men inside could have seen the explosions. The Ogre was moving very slowly now, but two guns still spoke. It no longer dodged; it was a juggernaut, coming straight for its target.
Inside, the general's face was gray. He spoke to no one in particular. "Smart. That thing is smart." A scream still echoed in the big room – the scream from the last missile tank commander. Out of the Ogre's path, safe behind a three-meter ravine, lashing out at the metal giant – and the thing had changed course, ignoring the howitzers, walking over the gully like it wasn't there, crushing the smaller tank. Two GEVs had died a second later; their speed was their best defense, and the Ogre had outguessed them. The side trip had given the howitzers a few more minutes; then they, too, had died.
The screen showed the Ogre grinding on – a shambling monster, barely able to move. "The treads... hit the treads," whispered the general. "Stop that thing." The image changed, and he saw what was left of his force: three GEVs and a handful of infantry.
The Ogre rolled on...
Why name it Ogre? It seemed appropriate. Ogres – the "real" ones – were big, violent, and gruesome – and some of them were pretty smart. When someone whispers, "Here comes the Ogre," you can feel the hair rising on the back of your neck...
The Ogre, as we worked it out for this game, exists in two varieties – the monstrous Mark V and the slightly less fearsome Mark III. The Mark V carries two big guns, six smaller ones, lots of antipersonnel, and a half-dozen missiles. It is around 40 meters long, and moves (in this game) at 45 kph; it's probably faster on good ground. A Mark III is just as fast, but has less punch. We're working on specs for the Marks I, II, IV, and VI(!). These may show up in TSG, or in a future game.
And, with luck, there will be other Ogre games. This one seems to play well; I'd like to do another game, working in all the different types of Ogres, and maybe yet another, compatible, but separate, exploring the powered-armor concept.
Of course, Ogre was designed, from the ground up, to fit the small-game format. The original idea was to "think small." Something that could be played on a legal-sized map, with a total supply of 50-100 counters, that could be learned in an hour or so and would take about the same time to play. Now, as I said in the beginning, I've been wanting to do a game with "smart tanks." But I hadn't come up with a way to make it anything but a dressed-up Battle of the Bulge. Tanks are tanks. I needed a new wrinkle.
The limitations of the small format provided that wrinkle. Thinking about writing a scenario using maybe 30 counters and just a few hexes, it hit me: give one side one counter. One big counter. After that, it started to fall into place.
And it plays – that's the nice thing about it. It actually works. Some people prefer running the defense: "I like to kill Ogres," as one playtester who shall remain nameless remarks. Personally, I like being the Ogre. Either way, though, a player has to make some tough decisions. As the Ogre, you're running in against a superior force that can swamp you with sheer numbers if you're not careful. As the defense, you have to stop a unit that (at least in the beginning) eats your tanks like popcorn and doesn't have to worry about getting back alive.
That pretty well ends these notes. It doesn't end the Ogre story; I hope that's just starting. It doesn't end the story of the Ogre and the general, either. You'll have to settle that one for yourself. The results aren't in yet...