Steve Grammont, co-founder of Battlefront.com can’t actually see the future. But he and his business partner Charles Moylan have come unnervingly close not just once, but twice in the last decade. Battlefront has accurately predicted the last two major international armed conflicts — the wars in Syria and Ukraine.
In 2007 Battlefront.com published Combat Mission: Shock Force, a hardcore military simulation in which a NATO force went up against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Their game had been on sale for years before Syria was swept up by a civil war, but they essentially called it well in advance. So prescient was their scenario that Foreign Policy Magazine used it to draw conclusions about the risks of sending in U.S. troops.
"People ask us what's next... My answer is, 'You don't want to know.'"
Now, just 7 years later, the pair have done it again. Battlefront’s next game, Combat Mission: Black Sea, takes place in Ukraine. Grammont and Moylan chose this particular battlefield back in 2009, years before the protests on the Maidan led to the overthrow of Ukraine’s government and sparked a war with Russia.
"People ask us," Grammont says, "only half jokingly, ‘So, what’s next? Do I want to know?’ And my answer is … ‘No. You don’t want to know.’"
The crisis in Ukraine has actually represented a developmental hurdle for Battlefront. The rapidly changing situation in the region has caused them to reboot the plot for their game once already. They're racing through the fall and winter months, while tensions are low in the region, and trying to launch the game before Christmas.
"We started hashing out the basic plot line in 2009 and basically — unfortunately — it was exactly what happened," Grammont said. "Our timeline was basically that in 2016 there was a coup in Kiev and Russia didn’t like that. So Russia went in and grabbed Crimea and then started an agitation in the Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine, and then went in with so-called ‘peace keepers.’ And that is, pretty much, almost exactly what happened."
In-development Russian units from Combat Mission: Black Sea
Grammont plays down his own team’s prescience, however. He’s a historian by training, and an independent game developer by trade, but the reason he picked Ukraine was really all Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fault.
"It’s not because we’ve got crystal balls," Grammont said. "It’s just because this is what that bastard has done before. The guy’s not all that creative. It’s the same thing that he’s done about four times before, and he is copying more or less what his predecessors have done.
"So, people that give Putin a lot of credit for being smart? I think they really need to reevaluate that. He’s very predictable. … I learned very early on that history doesn’t exactly repeat itself, but it does tend to produce a lot fewer surprises than some people say. Really, timing is more of the unknown."
"This is what that bastard [Putin] has done before. The guy’s not all that creative."
Combat Mission: Black Sea will be out before the end of the year, but that won’t stop Grammont’s study of the region.
"I’ve been following this thing every day," he said. "Sometimes three or four hours a day just because I’m a history guy. This is huge history unfolding. You don’t get many opportunities to watch it in real time."
At launch, Black Sea will contain an accurately modeled representation of the current Russian Army in addition to a selection of Ukrainian and U.S. Army forces. Additional modules will be released later on as either expansion packs or stand-alone games featuring additional Ukrainian and U.S. Army forces, but also regular forces from other NATO countries as well as Ukrainian partisan fighters.
The move from previous games, like Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy, has been challenging. After years spent modeling the historical conflicts of World War II, Battlefront is now faced with an evolving set of weapons being rushed to the battlefield. Everything from precision-guided artillery rounds to squad-portable aerial drones have the potential to be fielded in Ukraine. Keeping tabs on things has proven challenging for his team, but Battlefront is keeping tabs on the situation and making changes to their product.
"So there’s all kinds of new stuff on the modern battlefield," Grammont says. "And we’ve seen this in Ukraine. At first, before Russia started giving prolific amounts of anti-aircraft weaponry to their proxy fighters in Ukraine, Ukraine’s air force was going in and just blowing the snot out of them. They’d set up a roadblock and next thing you know a Mig [jet] would come in and just boom, gone. And it would take it out. And so not surprisingly the next couple of truckloads of stuff that came into Ukraine was truckloads of [new shoulder-fired missiles] and … anti-aircraft guns and things like that, and since then the Ukrainian air force has largely been inactive."
By using the unfolding conflict in Ukraine as a model, Grammont thinks that the Combat Mission series can continue to do the important work of informing public opinion about war.
Grammont thinks that the Combat Mission series can help in informing public opinion about war.
"People think that they’re more informed about things than they really are," Grammont said. "We’ve got people running around with the first-person shooter games thinking oh, isn’t this fun! What the real serious simulations can do is show people, hopefully, how nasty all this stuff really is.
"At our level of simulation … playing this game, you’ve got 500 guys, and you’re like, ‘Yeah! I can kick ass.’ And you do something really stupid; crest a hill, or you go into an area without recon, and the next thing you know you’ve lost a third of your force. … I think it’s important for people to get a sense of being critical, or not being so enthusiastic about going to war. Because it might be worth it."