The Flare Path: Trench Warfare

By Tim Stone on November 11th, 2011 at 2:01 pm.

Name one of the pictured flowers, win an FP point fashioned from shellcase brass.

In a moment I am going to blow a whistle. On hearing the whistle you must scramble over the parapet that separates this paragraph from the next, and begin advancing toward the lines occupied by Commander: The Great War, Strategic Command: World War I and Bau-Simulator 2012. Do not stop. Do not look back. Do not torment yourself with tricky ethical questions like “Is it appropriate to spend a portion of Armistice Day reading about games that transmute the unimaginable suffering of the 1914-18 conflict into turn-based strategy?”. PHWEEEEEE!

 

400 Yards To Go

It’s been two months since I sent 1C my proposal for a Men of War-engined WW1 trench-raiding game, and I still haven’t heard a dickie-bird from them. Maybe it was my choice of name: ”The Muddy Marauders”. Maybe they were put off by my insistence on a louse removal mini-game. Maybe it was my choice of lengthy-but-authentic load screen quotes:

LOADING RATSTHESIZEOFCATS 85%

“Dysentery was a truly awful disease that could rob a man of the last vestiges of human dignity before it killed him. A couple of weeks before getting it my old pal was as smart and upright as a guardsman. Yet after about ten days it was dreadful to see him crawling about, his trousers round his feet, his backside hanging out, his shirt all soiled – everything was soiled. He couldn’t even walk.

So I took him by one arm and another pal got hold of him by the other, and we dragged him to the latrine. It was degrading, when you remember how he was just a little while ago. Neither my other pal nor I were very good – but we weren’t like that. Anyway, we lowered him down next to the latrine. We tried to keep the flies off him and to turn him round – put his backside towards the trench. But he simply rolled into this foot-wide trench, half-sideways, head first in the slime. We couldn’t pull him out, we didn’t have enough strength, and he couldn’t help himself at all. We did eventually get him out but he was dead, he’d drowned in his own excrement”.

Ordinary Seaman Joe Murray, Hood Battalion, Royal Naval Division.

Then again, perhaps it was the subject-matter. While the games industry seems comfortable with representations of the aerial portion of the Great War, the muddier/bloodier ground dimension gets avoided like the Spanish Flu. The few studios that do take on the sedentary savagery of the Western Front tend to do it at arms length. The cameras in games like Commander: The Great War, Strategic Command: World War I, and World War One are lodged so high in the sky, you can’t make out the ragged mannequins hanging in the wire, the columns of gassed wretches snaking towards aid stations, the disembowelled 16-year-olds whimpering for their mothers.

LOADNG PHOSGENESHELLS 23%

“I came across a Cornishman, ripped from shoulder to waist with shrapnel, his stomach on the ground beside him in a pool of blood. As I got to him he said, ‘Shoot me,’ he was beyond all human aid. Before we could even draw a revolver he had died. He just said ‘Mother.’ I will never forget it.”

Private Harry Patch, Cornwall’s Light Infantry

Yes, yes. I know. Because these are games about STRATEGY and TACTICS they don’t need to present the unpalatable details or even acknowledge them. STRATEGY and TACTICS are industrial-strength Magic Words. Because of them we can look forward to orchestrating our own personal Sommes and Passchendaeles in the upcoming Commander: The Great War with almost clear consciences.

The work of Lordz Game Studios and wargaming behemoth Slitherine/Matrix, Commander:TGW will utilize a hexy TBS engine that has already chugged its way merrily through WW2 and the Napoleonic Wars. I never got round to trying the Grande Armée outing, but my memories of Panzer-era conquest are largely positive. Once you’d learnt to accept an AI that tended to ignore North Africa and Scandinavia, and resigned yourself to the fact that Market Garden-style airborne ops were out of the question, Commander: Europe At War could be an engrossing little so-and-so. It was certainly Brylcreem slick – one of those titles I’d find myself recommending to curious non-grog chums interested in a swift spot of big-picture blitzkrieg or Overlording.

Commander: TGW looks to offer a similar mix of easy-to-grasp guerre leavened with elementary economics. The dev diaries hint that shell shortages may occasionally scupper offensives. I should be getting my hands on beta code over the weekend, and look forward to finding out whether fortifications and u-boats are similarly influential. Will the game model the degradation of terrain caused by relentless arty bombardments? Will it dare to let us unleash clouds of mustard gas? Can we dig saps and hothouse landship development? I hope to bring you answers to these and other intriguing questions very soon.

LOADING TRENCHBROOMS 41%

“Our ammunition wagon had only been there a second or two when a shell killed the horse under the driver. We went over to him and tried to unharness the horse and cut the traces away. He just kneeled and watched the horse. A brigadier then came along, a brass hat, and tapped this boy on the shoulder and said, ‘Never mind, sonny!’ The driver looked up at him for a second and all of a sudden he said, ‘Bloody Germans!’ Then he pointed his finger and he stood there like stone, as though he was transfixed. The Brass Hat said to his captain, ‘All right, take the boy down the line and see that he has two or three days rest.’

Gunner H. Doggett, Royal Artillery.

The developmental entanglements Commander: TGW is currently struggling through, were crossed early this year by Hubert Cater’s Strategic Command: World War I. My only experience with this quirky hex-shunner came courtesy of the generous demo (play 3 months of the Grand Campaign or a full 1918 Kaiserschlact mini-campaign).

What I witnessed, though a tad fusty, certainly felt authentic. Patient build-ups, wily feints, bloody breakthroughs running out of steam a tile or two into enemy territory. The game doesn’t have quite the elegance or fluidity of something like Unity of Command, but it can be enjoyed without regular pdf perusal, and does seem to boast all the things that help make WWI wargaming distinctive. Zeppelin raids on London? Check. Poison gas? Check. Dodgy historical donkeys top brass? Check. Distracting footballs? Ch… actually, I’m not sure about that one.

LOADING STRETCHERS 02%

“Captain Nevill was commanding B Company, and a few days before the battle he came to me with a suggestion. He said that as he and his men were all equally ignorant of what their conduct would be when they got into action, he thought it might be helpful – as he had 400 yards to go and he knew it would be covered by machine-gun fire – if he could furnish each platoon with a football and allow them to kick it forward and follow it.

I sanctioned the idea on condition that he and his officers really kept command of their units and didn’t allow it to develop into a rush after the ball. If a man came across the football, he could kick it forward but he musn’t chase after it. I think myself, it did help them enormously, it took their minds off it.”

Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Irwin, 8th East Surrey Regiment.

 

Building relationships

Good news for those who would rather dig trenches than encourage scared men to leave them. Yesterday Astragon released Bau -Simulator 2012! Combining the best elements of All Your Favourite Euro Sims (my quest for a PR job at GIANTS Software continues) Digger Sim, Crane Sim, Forklift Sim, Mafia Liquid-Concrete Entombment Sim… Bau-Simulator is set in a spookily deserted German burg and – assuming my reading of the Deutsch demo text is correct – has a story that makes LA Noire look lily-livered.

Leave the menu-masquerading-as-an-office and your avatar, Fritz, appears in a builder’s yard opposite a man called both Hans and Peter. My German is rustier than a beautifully modelled Lizard 7210 combine-harvester (GIANTS, don’t make me beg) but I believe the dialogue starts with Hans insulting your pristine tool-belt and petite “milkmaid’s hand”. You automatically retaliate by saying hurtful things about his bulging bull-neck and gauche blue helmet. The conversation then stops and you are free to escalate the confrontation any way you see fit.

I contemplated filling Hans-Peter’s hat with fresh cement, then jamming it back onto his big stupid blond bonce Laurel and Hardy-style. Sadly, this proved impossible (the cement mixer turned-out to be purely decorative and HP’s headgear impossible to remove) In the end I had to make to do with stealing my foe’s wheels.

HP might have escaped millinery humiliation, but I’d make him regret the day he’d crossed me by trashing his beloved truck ‘Bertha’! I rammed trees and signage at breakneck speed. I drove recklessly over humpy roundabouts. Bertha shrugged her dent-free shoulders at me until I gave up in disgust.

It was around this point that I spotted the mini-digger and the half-finished haus, and hatched another plan. Hadn’t HP said something about a building project he was overseeing? I’d wreak my revenge with aid of a miniature JCB and dig a discrete HP-sized shallow grave while I was at it. Perfect.

The little excavator battered brick and pushed and pulled at scaffolding poles all to no avail. There was plainly a rich, surprise-strewn storyline waiting to be unlocked, but I couldn’t find the key. The breakthrough came completely by accident. While waving my bucket dangerously close to the head of a gossiping site worker, the man broke down and disclosed (again, my translation may not be word-perfect) that his boss was currently ensconced in a nearby portaloo, the victim of some dodgy breakfast bangers. Quick as a shot I had the WC in my hydraulic grip.

The 168Mb demo obviously lacks some of the full game’s sound files, as no matter how far I rolled that plastic lav or how violently I jostled it, no Germanic expletives or sloshing of helmet-blue effluent could be heard.

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25 Comments »

  1. 7rigger says:

    Great Flare Path as usual :)

    I have to admit, I’m getting to quite enjoy these delightfully bizzarre GIANTS games. Bus simulator entertained me far more than it should have…

  2. Inigo says:

    Reticulating Splines?

  3. battles_atlas says:

    Curious that the most affecting thing I’ve experienced on Remembrance Day was on a PC gaming blog

    • Kittim says:

      Well said sir.
      And thank you to Mr. Stone for those snippets. WWI is a subject that makes me sad beyond words, but it would be sadder still if the experiences of the solders involved were forgotten.

    • Anvilfolk says:

      Indeed…

      Very touching…

  4. timmyvos says:

    Is one of those flowers a poppy?

    • stahlwerk says:

      They all are, aren’t they? The one on the right looks a lot like papaver lapponicum, or Lapland Poppy.

      Poppy poppy poppy.

    • Man Raised by Puffins says:

      They’re all poppies of some sort or other. Unless my Mitchell Beazeley spotter’s guide deceives me, on the left we have common, long-headed and prickly varieties and on the far right, a welsh poppy.

    • stahlwerk says:

      Man Raised by Puffins? Man Raised by Poppies!
      Indeed, it looks more to be the welshern kind than the paler and not as neatly organised lappian growth. Curse you, badly color-calibrated monitor-at-work!

    • Dozer says:

      Actually, it’s Poppies Raised By Mans. :-/

  5. TC-27 says:

    The First World War deserves no more or less attention as a wargaming subject than any other conflict. In the UK it remains a significant event in our collective memory because it was the first time in our history that we fought a major conflict in which we fielded an army mobilized from a large proportion of the general population.

    The entire experience of the war was not just the first day of the Somme repeated ad nasuem – it ended with considerbale tactical and operational innovations from all sides not least the British army which played a major role in ending the war through offensives that broke the will fo the Germans to carry on.

    There is no getting away from the terrible physical and mental damage war causes mainly to young men expected to fight but WW1 cant be singled out for this…more Romans were slaughtered at Cannae in hand to hand combat by Hannibal’s army than British soldiers killed on the first day of the Somme battles but I imgaine most people dont have a problem with the morality of Rome: Total War.

    • phanatic62 says:

      Well said. My only argument would be that Cannae was a singular event, more or less. While Hannibal was victorious over the Romans over the course of numerous battles while he romped around the Italian peninsula, losses on the scale of Cannae were unknown in the rest of the war. Plus, I’ve never been able to amass anything close to that number of soldiers in Rome: TW, although it would be spectacular if that game engine allowed something like Hannibal’s crescent to be a viable tactical strategy.

      I find World War I to be a fascinating topic. I’ve read a few histories on the subject, but I’ve never really found a game that seems as interesting as reading about the actual subject. Related to what Tom Stone wrote about, I always feel like a “Chateaux General” when I’m playing from a detached, top down perspective.

    • westyfield says:

      “I always feel like a “Chateaux General” when I’m playing from a detached, top down perspective.”

      That’s the best way to play, though! Leaning back into your velvet armchair, a snifter of brandy in one hand and a pipe in the other, controlling the mouse and keyboard with your feet. That’s living.

    • Dinger says:

      World War I was pretty damn traumatic. Both in terms of total numbers and in percentages of population lost, WWI and WWII are unrivaled in human history in their scale. There were bloody battles elsewhere, and, sure the Punic wars left their mark, but with WWI, killing occurred on an industrial scale.

      The bau-sim piece was classic.

    • The Tupper says:

      I would respectfully suggest that a large part of WW1′s modern significance (to the UK) lies with the fact that it was the first British war accompanied by mass-literacy and a subsequent mass media, rather than it being the first British war to demand large-scale conscription (which is arguable).

  6. stahlwerk says:

    Herr Stone, I commend you on your german skills! Show those janus-named Vorarbeiters who’s arbeiting for whom on this Baustelle!

  7. MFToast says:

    http://thetrench1916.com/

    No louse removal mini game, but what the heck. I think it was actually on RPS before… not sure… confused…. Go there?

  8. Kevin says:

    I take it you haven’t gotten into the Naval War: Arctic Circle beta?

    If you haven’t, I’d just like to take a few moments to say this: Neener neener neener!

  9. ancienttoaster says:

    They had had their legs blown off. All I could see when I got up to them was their thigh bones. I will always remember their white thigh bones, the rest of their legs were gone. Private Jackie Oliver was one of them, and he was unconscious. I shouted back to the fellows behind me, ‘Tell Reedy Oliver his brother’s been wounded.’ So Reedy came along and stood looking at his brother, lying there with no legs, and a few minutes later he watched him die. But the other fellow, Private Bob Young, was conscious to the last. I lay alongside of him and said, ‘Can I do anything for you, Bob?’ He said, ‘Straighten my legs, Jack,’ but he had no legs. I touched the bones and that satisfied him. Then he said, ‘Get my wife’s photograph out of my breast pocket.’ I took the photograph out and put it in his hands. He couldn’t move, he couldn’t left a hand, he couldn’t lift a finger, but he somehow held his wife’s photograph on his chest. And that’s how Bob Young died.

    —Sergeant Jack Dorgan, 7th Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers

    • Kevin says:

      Reminds me of that scene in Charley’s War when Charley was dragging a bag in a trench, his CO demanding to know what was inside of it, thinking he was stealing supplies, to which Charley replies: “Me mate, sir. Me mate, Ginger.” Since he saw his friend getting blown to bits by an arillery shell.

  10. oatish says:

    Thank you, TIm. Great read as always but especially poignant today.

  11. Ranger33 says:

    The Commonwealth module for CMBN was just announced (adds UK, Canadian, and Polish troops as well as SS and Luftwaffe) . I almost certainly expect some WW1 mods and scenarios to be made at some point from it.