Friday, 24 March 2017

Ingress for wargamers: an introduction

I've not been doing much gaming recently. Or to be exact, I've not been doing much wargaming.  But I haven't been bereft of my share of strategy and tactics, because I've been doing a lot of "gaming" by way of Ingress. Ingress is an "augmented-reality location-based game".  In other words, it's a video game that is played through a smart phone, and to play it you have to travel around various locations. Not virtual locations, but real-life ones. As such, it is the only thing I have encountered that will entice me to get some physical exercise, something normally so mind-numbing I forgo it entirely. As such, I've lost 10 kg in the year I've been playing...

So, what's it all about, and why would a (war)gamer be interested?

First off, it has two sides, like every standard war, that are battling for territory. Or to be more exact, they are battling for "mind units" (MUs) that map to the real-world population densities of the areas concerned. The basic objective is to capture as many MUs for your team as possible, and hold onto them as long as possible. It is fair to say that many players, probably even the vast majority, don't actually care much about the MU-capturing objectives that form the official basis of scoring in the game, but I'm assuming any other wargamer coming to Ingress is likely to care somewhat, because that's just the sort of objective they can relate to easily (for why they might not want to care, see below...).

In-game view from my current apartment.
You capture MUs by connecting three "portals" together to make a triangle; your score in MUs is, roughly speaking, 2/3 of whatever the number of people there are living under the triangle. To make a connection, you have to physically stand within 40 m of a portal (a virtual reality construct mapped on to, typically, a real-world cultural landmark such as a religious edifice, a sculpture, or a park entrance) and expend a token (called a "key" in-game) to connect to another portal; the key to which you can only get by having previously visited that other portal. You have to repeat this to make all three sides of the triangle. On the right you can see a heavy concentration of triangles connecting portals made by the green team in the vicinity of my apartment (the opposition team is coloured blue). The orange circle is the 40 m portal interaction radius centered on my position. I currently live by Osaka University's Suita campus - a very portal-rich environment.

You can't just link to just any old portal however, even if you do have its key in your possession; it has to be one your team properly controls. Which means sometimes you have to fight to seize (and/or maintain) control of the portal. So there are such things in-game as items to help establish control of a portal, items to attack portals, and items to aid in their defence (you don't actually attack players of the other team in game - only the portals that they are attempting to control themselves).

Like most other video games, Ingress takes a leaf from RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, and awards experience points to players for carrying out in-game activities. More "experienced" players are consequently granted access to higher "level" equipment: they can attack portals with weapons that are significantly more powerful than low-level players, for example. Some tactical decisions involve what you do with a portal once its yours.  Do you put shields on it, to make it more resistant to enemy attacks? Do you install weapons on it that will instead actively counter-attack an enemy attacker rather than rely on the more passive, but more consistent, defence of shields? Or do you instead install non-combat modifications on it that will enable you, and your teammates, to resupply your always diminishing in-game resources more quickly?  Or do you not put any modifications on it at all, because you've run out of gear, and hope (or plan for!) your team-mates to reinforce it before the next enemy player comes along?

What about strategy? At the simplest level, this concerns making - and planning - portal connections (called "links" in-game). Because a link isn't allowed to cross another link, it is often the case you have to destroy one or more other links to make your own.  The bigger your planned triangle ("control field", in-game), the more links you will likely need to destroy, and the harder it gets. Further, the more links you destroy, the more likely it is the other side will cotton on to what you are up to, and try to actively stop you by either making their own links to block yours, or simply destroying one or more of the portals you are trying to link...

A control field I made earlier this week, about 6 km long.
I think it's the link-planning part that I like best about the game. To make a decent-sized control field, especially a multiply-nested control field for optimal MU-scoring, like the one shown on the left, takes a lot of planning. You have to plan around not only what the current situation "on the ground" is, but also anticipate what the enemy might do between now and whenever you carry out your plan. And because friendly links are much harder to destroy than enemy ones, you may have to worry even more about what your team "mates" might be up to! One operation I planned, involving a dozen people working together to cut blocking links and establish our own, failed spectacularly when another bunch of players from our side, unbeknownst to us, happened to decide to use the same area we were to make some fields of their own at the very same time. Neither group scored any MUs that night...

Earlier I mentioned that many players aren't interested in the MU-scoring aspect of the game.  One reason is geography. There is a global score, but a single player typically has almost no effect on that: there are so many people playing all over the world that any one player's actions are almost inconsequential. There are also regional sub-scores, however, and these are what most people who play the MU game seek to influence. However, since each region ("cell") is approximately 150 km across, to make a serious impact on the cell's score, you will probably have to make a fairly large control field to do so. Probably, because a lot will depend on the geography of your cell.  If you live in a rural cell, with a single modestly-sized town in it, you might be able to capture the great majority of the MUs available in the cell with just a single appropriately-sized field over the town; something that could be erected by a single person on a bike in an hour or two.  But if you live in the centre of a major metropolis, erecting a field with sides just 1 km in size is a mammoth task because of the huge number of links that are likely in the way.

My cell, which is is centered on Osaka, has well over 20 million people in it, encompassing as it does the major cities of Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, etc., and is thus one of the densest in the world. And at any one point, there are typically 10 to 12 million MU under the control of one side or the other.  To seriously influence the score, I am going to have to make fields that capture not thousands of MUs, but hundreds of thousands. Fortunately, I live out in the suburbs, and this is possible, with good planing, that is. To be sure, doing it with a bike is very hard work, and a car certainly makes it easier, but that also deprives me of the exercise that is one of the prime benefits of playing!

If I lived in the centre of Osaka, I could never make fields big enough (and often enough) to score enough points. And if I lived out in the styx, I just couldn't capture areas with enough population density to score many MU, even if I made quite large fields. Being at the edge of town, I can get a decent enough population density while not having to worry about having to cut too many blocking links, and yet still having enough portals around to implement the advanced strategy of making multiply-nested control field for optimal MU-scoring. My biggest (car-assisted) fields can score over 80,000 MUs per layer, and nesting them properly can take the total MUs earned up to a million.  On a bike, my biggest layers tend to max out at 40,000 each, but these are only possible because two of the corners are out in the countryside, cutting down on the number of blocking links to worry about. Of course, a lot of pre-planning is required too!