Wot I Think: Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm

By Tim Stone on November 8th, 2013 at 5:00 pm.

Like Autumn, the forest alchemist, I’ve spent this week splashing hillsides with gold and crimson. In woods, fields and towns the length of West Germany I’ve been tirelessly turning earthy greens into vibrant reds and yellows. Hundreds of hurrying APCs, hastily dug-in MBTs, and hovering helo gunships have flared like frost-startled beech trees as I’ve fought to resist Red Storm’s irresistible red storm. It’s years since I witnessed such wholesale destruction in a tactical wargame, and years since I was so impressed by the rules and mechanisms underpinning hexagonal aggro.

 

After thirty years on the digital frontline, it’s tempting to believe hex wargaming’s best days are behind it. How many times can a developer switch settings or rearrange Action Points before the audience smell a Desert Rat? Far too many modern hexponents rely on stats, art, and scenario set-ups for freshness, rather than innovative, historically-derived core features. Far too many modern hexponents aren’t On Target Simulations.

On Target’s Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm hides its genius beneath a camo-net of conventionality. Its energetic, easy-to-grasp Eighties scraps are sausage-sliced into turns but, cleverly, the sausage slices aren’t of uniform size.

The gaps between order sessions are specific to each side and alter dynamically as battles progress. A largely unscathed army well-equipped to deal with enemy electronic warfare assaults can expect far shorter ‘command cycles’ than one composed of rattled units and mauled HQs. Early on you might be sprinkling waypoints on the map every 15 minutes (in-game time); later, an hour or more of nailbiting action might pass between interventions. Visionary OTS have replaced the drab metronome beat of the traditional TBS with something far more insistent – far more in-step with war’s strange syncopation.

Play with the optional Limited Staff Rule in effect (recommended) and the realism echoes get even louder. Opportunities to dispense directions aren’t opportunities to dispense unlimited directions; rationed orders – a scandalously under-utilised wargaming concept – force the player to ponder and plan like a bona fide brass hat.

Resourceful AI, credible order delays, and a slim order selection further disincentivize micro-management. With just three movement orders available (move hasty, move deliberate, and assault) each with their own attendant automatic combat behaviours and mandatory muster phases, menu contemplation is kept to a minimum.

If things go badly wrong during an execution phase – if your convoy of speeding BMPs blunders into an arrowhead of unexpected Abrams – then sudden losses should prompt sensible self-preservation tactics. If you’re lucky and haven’t manually assigned targets to all your arty units, a helpful mortar battery or SPG might even decide to assist the withdrawing ambushees with some well-aimed smoke rounds or suppressive HE.

There’s a hint of Combat Mission in the way units respond to unanticipated threats, and a dash of Command Ops (which happens to be on sale until the 10th) in the way computer-controlled foes constantly adapt to changing battlefield conditions. Hungry for victory locations but constantly assessing resistance levels along potential routes, SP adversaries are supple (if not always especially subtle) customers. They’ll even build bridges and attempt counter-battery barrages on occasions. Play one of the 20-odd single scenarios a second or third time and the clusters of funereal crosses that sprout so readily during Red Storm engagements are sure to wind up decorating new hills and vales.

Given the scale of most of the engagements and the board game simplicity of the visuals, it’s surprising just how visceral and intimate the fighting often feels. Choose to play with all combat animations visible and audio cues audible, and every AFV immolation or helo downing is represented by its own fiery flower and unmistakeable wav. As an enemy column rounds a corner or crests a ridge you sit spellbound counting the kills and steeling yourself for the inevitable volley of return fire.

Where other wargames wave their manslaughter mathematics in your face, Red Storm wisely keeps most of its fuzzy and mysterious. When a friendly HQ parked in the heart of a forest is showered with HE, or a pair of your precious Chieftains are missiled into oblivion by a phalanx of previously unseen BMDs, there are no numerical explanations; instinctively you know the enemy stonk was aimed at the strongest source of radio signals in the area (You really should have moved your command units around more assiduously) and the chem-weakened state of the Chieftain crews (Red Storm simulates chemical and nuclear warfare) and the distracting presence of nearby T-80s, probably played a part in the tankicide. In the circumstances, numbers would probably undermine the illusion rather than bolster it.

Tellingly, on the occasions the game does shamelessly parade its clockwork, it’s at its weakest. On Target’s uncharacteristically crude handling of victory and defeat conditions slightly blemishes an otherwise superb design. Currently, battles end horribly abruptly when either a hard time limit is reached or one force drops below 30% of its starting strength. Because, counter-intuitively, vanquished forces get to keep victory locations held when the defeat trigger is tugged, it’s not uncommon to find yourself having ‘lost’ or drawn a battle on points because the enemy folded at an inopportune moment.

Other minor flaws include clumsy group selection implementation (there’s no shortcut for selecting an HQ and its subordinates), an inability to create composite orders, and a rather unadventurous approach to campaigning. Red Storm’s pair of linear five-battle campaigns boast some solid scenario design, and moderately interesting intermission replenishment decisions; what they don’t offer is contextual colour or any Wargame: AirLand Battle-style opportunities to dictate the shape of the wider war.

I’ve yet to try the PBEM or hotseat multiplayer, but suspect they’d both prove at least as entertaining as solo play. A lot of work has plainly gone into balancing the single-player scens which bodes well for MP.

Of course, persuading potential PBEM partners to invest in the top-notch Red Storm will be significantly harder than it should be thanks to the lack of a demo and Matrix Games/Slitherine’s ever-controversial pricing policy. While this hexemplary hexample of hexiana is significantly cheaper than the last eyecatching offering from Matrix, at £41 (UK download edition) it’s still at least a tenner more than it probably needs to be to properly capitalise on its many unique and likeable traits.

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29 Comments »

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  1. DuneTiger says:

    It’s good to know Matrix is still charging ridiculous prices for their games. I love them, but for so many single-scenario games, $60 is a bit much, if you ask me. I would love to see them come to Steam or something, but chances are they never will.

    • Cartras says:

      I was hoping and hoping to read that this game was going to be on Steam. Unfortunately it is in the niggardly grasp of Matrix games, so I doubt it will ever be at a price level I will buy it at.

      • DuneTiger says:

        I agree. I think the reasoning behind it is the (perceived) limited audience they have and the need to make a profit, but a lower price point and sitting on a platform like Steam would, I believe, make their sell-through numbers go through the roof. I can’t remember the name of the game, but recently an operational-level wargame hit Steam and sold quite well (oddly, I can’t find it… did it get pulled?), but with my history with older Matrix titles, I know they’ve got much better in their catalog. If anything, at least test the waters by taking an older title and listing it to see how well it does.

        • Premium User Badge

          wengart says:

          You are probably thinking of the delightful Unity of Command.

    • wodin says:

      Comes with two campaigns aswell. Plus it sounds like the developers will throw in the odd scenario when they patch it aswell.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      Same here. If those games were on Steam and got the usual sale treatment, I would buy them all. As it is, the entry price is just too high for something I might not like.

  2. wodin says:

    Great review..pleased you like it. The developers are listening to everyone and they know certain areas still need to be enhanced..and if and when they implement what they want to in game it’s going to be a classic I feel.

    I haven’t enjoyed a new wargame as much in a long time. Really looking forward to future expansions and then other games like Vietnam using this engine.

    Slitherines pricing policy again I feel comes along to hinder sales..but for me I think you’ll get your monies worth out of it. They do themselves no favours when they decide to release a game physical only with three hardback books for over £100 when the game already comes with pdf version of the manual on the CD. That game being World in Flames.

    Anyway back to FC:RS If anyone has an interest in wargaming the Cold war gone hot then this is a must buy. The forum is pretty unanimous in praise for the game.

  3. Premium User Badge

    bills6693 says:

    I’m so unhappy about the pricing. If only it would come to steam.

    I for one just simply cannot afford to drop £41 on a game, especially like this. I doubt I’ll get nearly the same value as something I buy on steam. I’m sure its great, but at such a high price point, I just can’t do it.

    This probably sounds very entitled, like I will only accept high quality, low price games. But at the end of the day, for me at least, that is what steam has done. It is rare that I buy a game not on steam sale, and if I do, I virtually never go over £20. The fact that high quality games are so cheap on steam, it makes it hard to justify a high-price product when I can get the same amount of enjoyment out of another game much cheaper.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      It doesn’t sound entitled, it sounds like sensible leverage of the basic principle of competitive pricing. Letting them know what you WILL pay and WHERE you want to buy it is surely the kind of data companies spend millions in market research trying to find out, and you have offered it freely. This makes you a smashing individual who deserves tea and scones :)

  4. FurryLippedSquid says:

    Hey Tim, has the Foxer gone for good now? I can understand if you feel that it got in the way of commenting on excellent articles. I will miss them, though. Can we have word one way or the other?

    Thanks!

  5. Brayduck says:

    Dammit, first thing reading the title I thought that there are new campaign coming out for original Operation Flashpoint. And then 5 seconds later I was like “Oh, wait.”

  6. Boosh says:

    as much as they’d like it to be otherwise the issue of the price always seems to come up with every release from matrix/slitherine. I simply cannot understand the reasons for why they charge as they do, and for so long too. Yes I’ve read all the arguments about these being niche interest games, with extended development and extensive research etc. But what we’re talking about here is perhaps just $10 less. I’m no retail expert but surely this would yield the same if not more revenue.
    Anyway looks great, but for me I consider it very over priced.

    Moreover, there’s the issue of repeat sales. I own Distant Worlds, at the time that was north of $100. It took me many months of consideration to buy and I knew then, as I do now, it’ll be the only purchase I’m ever likely to make from matrixgames. It was a very expensive luxury.
    However, had it been half the price, and many of the other games at similar price points, I would have probably by now spent much much more than $100 with Matrixgames on a range of their excellent products.

  7. Premium User Badge

    JiminyJickers says:

    I have this and it is quite a good game. Finally getting some modern military games on Matrix.

    Very addictive game with plenty of scenarios and a couple of campaigns. Not many small scenarios at the moment but on the forums most people have asked for more so it looks like they will be releasing some, probably as an expansion in the future.

  8. Capn Darwin says:

    Hi! Cap’n Darwin here from OTS to fill in a few blanks on the game. For greater discussion and detail I would direct interested parties to the Red Storm forum on the Matrix site.

    1. Sudden Death – As much as it may appear to be a last second kludge, we put a lot of time, effort and team/tester discussions on this topic. The idea was simple, bring and end to the operational battle at a point one side had fallen to a combat ineffective state. From there award uncontested VP locations within 2km of the winning force. We debated time and distance and level of forces and went the way we did. What we try to convey by stopping the fight is the fact one force at a minimum if no longer viable in the operational area. Remaining units will withdrawal and the attacker would also take the time to consolidate forces acquire reinforcements. Now this is where many gamers hit a mental snag. They want to hammer every remaining unit on the map. This would be fine in the war was just in this one box, but other forces friend or foe are just a few kilometers away. With unknown forces just over the rise a commander should be looking to reinforce his gains and getting orders from headquarters. Not sending a few weary units straight down a road a few clicks to grab another object. We are aware that some folks want the ability to run the table and we will be adding options to turn SD off for both single and multiplayer games in a future update. We will also be revamping the SD mechanic to take into account surrender or units, withdrawals and work a better end game VP grab based more on force ratio and remaining game time. In the end everyone gets what they want.

    2. Using the HQ to group select. Need to see if we have a button click combo that will work without breaking something else, but it’s great idea. Consider it on our requested features list.

    3. Composite orders. Requested by many folks including those of us on the team. It will be a while before we see it due to the complexity impact to the AI. All things in good time.

    4. Campaigns. They need more attention and will get it as we evolve the system. There are plans on the books to working branching and other dynamic elements. What we have may not be flashy, but it works and the battles and planning are tougher knowing you have to survive to fight the next day or even in a few hours.

    5. Pricing. Not much to really say here. These are not 10 and 20 dollar games. I get the feeling the vast majority who say the price is too high don’t own many board wargames or family table top game made these days. A nice board wargame will run 50 to 90 dollars (US). Other then some card games in the 20 to 40 dollar range most table top game are 40-140 dollars. Look at Zombicide $89 or Leviathan ($90) . I don’t even want to get started on console games at $70 bucks a pop on systems we were told back in the would give us cheaper than PC titles because the big developers only had to deal with one hardware setup. That never happened. Most developers doing wargames are not going to strike it rich or retire on the sales of these game. We love doing the games and getting some compensation for the hundreds of hours is nice. Steam. I like Steam and own quite a few titles. They don’t really do wargames like ours today. Maybe down the road but that is far out of my hands.

    6. Demos. Some folks think you just slap in a scenario and away if goes, but in reality it isn’t that easy with most games and it is very hard with most wargames because of the way they are structured. Most wargames have lots of data and images and scenarios and you name it. To build a specific demo you need to spend time gutting the exe of editing and other functions (risking breaking the code) and you need to do the same with the data and other elements too. If the game isn’t built pretty much from the start with a demo type packaging in mind there is a lot of work to it. If you have a large studio you may be able to peel people off to work it but when its a few folks that takes time away from development and support. It’s a tough call. Tougher when sales numbers don’t really show an impact from a demo being available.

    The bottom line. If you are interested in the Cold War, played the Original Flashpoint Germany, or want a new wargaming experience, please check out the Matrix forums, ask questions, read the AARs, see what others are saying. Then decide if its worth buying.

    Thanks to the RPS crew from checking out our game and giving it a fair shake. Hopefully in a couple months you can circle back our way and see what’s changed and give it another go.

    Jim “Cap’n Darwin” Snyder
    On Target Simulations

    • Tim Stone says:

      Thanks for the explanations, Jim.

      The planned ‘Sudden Death’ tweaks sound promising. Awarding VPs not currently held by the player in relation to remaining force size would definitely alleviate the ‘I’ve been robbed!’ feeling that slightly marred a couple of my end-games. In the outcome window screenshot for example, I’ve decimated the enemy force and ‘ended’ the battle with 87% of the force I started with, but due to the way the scoring currently works wound up with a ‘contested battle’ result. Logically, with time left on the clock, VLs remaining to be taken, and a force largely intact, any attacking commander would have pushed on.

      On pricing, whenever I write about a new Matrix/Slitherine release I get messages and comments from curious potential punters (Like DuneTiger, Cartras, bills6693 and Boosh above) scared off by the price. Having spoken to wargame developers that have experimented with other pricing models, I’m convinced there are other approaches that would generate just as much revenue *and* bring new blood into the wargaming community at the same time. Surely, the board game comparison isn’t entirely valid. A significant portion of the price of a board game represents the cost of producing the physical components.

      On demos. For me a demo is the best consumer tool available. AARs, reviews, forum comments… they’re useful but no substitute for first-hand play experience. I accept that they are time-consuming/costly to make, don’t necessarily increase sales or showcase everything the game can do, but that doesn’t stop some small studios producing them on a regular basis. Plainly, some devs believe in them.

      Thanks again for the insights. Great game. Can’t wait for the updates and – fingers-crossed – new theatres!

      • CookPassBabtridge says:

        I think Tim makes some good points. Not to sound rude, but if you do not have a demo, and if the games are highly priced, then this in turn will dampen their appeal, making them less likely to hit steam and … vicious cycle? Conversely, the time put into a demo might generate more interest and sales. If you are releasing Another First Person Shooter, you may not need a demo as by and large people are well acquainted enough with the experience to have an idea what they are getting (if properly combined with reviews).

        However, I only just recently decided to dip my toe into wargames and picked up the Air Land Battle and European Escalation titles on steam in a sale. I have no idea how to play the damn things yet, and do not really know what to expect or even what or if any their appeal will be to me. But ALB and EE hit that ‘sweet spot’ in terms of price for something i was unsure of but others had found to be enjoyable. A demo would have been even better. If something like FlashPoint campaigns was on steam greenlight I would surely vote for it.

        • Capn Darwin says:

          Let me hit a couple of these points:
          1. Not to beat on terminology too much but ALB/EE are war-looking games and not really a war game by classic definition. Getting closer, but still a RTS clickfest. I’m a bit biased too.

          2. Demos. I have seen both sides of this issue. As gamers we all dive into a demo and never glance the rules because we are “Gamers”. If the game is playable and controls are familiar and we like it we buy it. The converse s true as well. If you start a game with new or unexpected control schemes we get frustrated with it and quit the game and say , “well that game sucks” and we move on. We also tell other people the game sucks or post about how bad the game sucks and so on. But we never looked at the rule book. We just tossed the best game ever out with the trash for not reading the manual and seeing the one or two things we needed to do to bring the game to life. I’ll bet everyone here has done this and probably more than once. And here is were Matrix and other begin to see the no demo policy as more of a rule. For the one sale they get when a manual is read, they will lose two or more from bad PR in the case where people see a “bad” game by not reading the manual. I’ll agree that some games are bad or not what you want, but in the smaller wargame community it doesn’t take a few “bad” reviews to cost sales and as said by most posters here, a good review (or many) does not sway them to buy the game at any price.

          As a game designer or publisher where do you win?

      • DuneTiger says:

        Thanks for the mention, Tim. I’m a bit late to reply, buty I agree that the boardgame comparison is unfair because the cost is driven up by physical materials.

        The way I see it, you could sell to 10 desktop generals for $60, or 60 at $10 (not suggesting you need to go that low; just illustrating a point). In my eyes, there’s not much of a loss there because you’re getting your games into peoples’ hands (isn’t that what the goal is?) and given that we’re looking at a digital distribution, there’s no cost of materials. And if you ask me, your chances of getting even higher sell-through numbers are better if you have a decent portion of the 60 guys who picked it up on the cheap telling other people to give it a try. Hell, I wanted a buddy of mine to play Korsun Pocket so much that I bought him a copy and he fell in love with it, but I certainly didn’t buy it at $60.

        Like I said in my first post, I really enjoy the games that Matrix put out and I would really love to play this one, but I have only ever once bought from the Matrix online store (Battles in Normandy). Back in the day when you could find these games on the shelves, I would employ the same strategy I do now with online stores – wait for the price to come down.

        That’s originally how I got into wargaming in the first place because when you’re not steeped in its boardgame/plastic bag history, the numbers, icons, arrows, and all that stuff can be daunting and nobody knows what they’re getting into. Then I think it was one of the Airborne Assault games that dropped to about $15 retail and I got hooked.

        Don’t get me wrong, Cpt. Darwin; I’m in no way trying to attack you or OTS (and as an aside, your game looks wonderful), but as a prime example of what I’m talking about, Korsun Pocket (2003) – which I got ages ago for $10 at retail – still sells for $34 digital off of Matrix’s website. We’re talking about a 10-year-old game here. You don’t find that even slightly out of hand?

        At the very least, Matrix could be marking down its old catalog and I would totally be gobbling it up.

    • GT5Canuck says:

      Jim, physical wargames have physical materials to pay for. Every unit produced and shipped has that base cost written into it. I’ve spoken to many a developer who will quickly point out that the profit margin is very, very thin as a result. There’s always the fear of a loss, and this is why P500 systems are popular.

      You and Matrix, OTOH, have fixed costs for development, and then every digital download is money in the bank (bandwidth is pretty much negligible, as is promotion the way Matrix/Slitherine do it). And without being rude, it’s well-known how “shoestring” the development budgets are there. Actual developers like yourself are doing it for the love of the hobby and little else, and bless you for it.

      But we’re being asked to shell out the same or more than we would pay for a AAA product, and quite frankly we’re not getting the same quality and support that a triple-A would deliver. I have dithered, and contemplated, and thought long and hard. I’ve been fortunate to get hands-on to FCRS, despite there being no demo, because a friend owns it. And I’m sorry. Truly, I am. For as good as your product is (and roughness/sparseness aside it is very sweet), I can’t compel myself to purchase. Because if I do, I am reinforcing pricing policies at Matrix, and even encouraging them to contemplate higher prices. And for what is delivered, it just isn’t equitable.

  9. Zwack says:

    I too disagree with Matrix’s pricing policy for the same reasons as some here. I hardly buy anything from them but if they were cheaper I’d have spent much more on games I probably won’t play. Having said that, FCRS really is a good wargame. It does a brilliant job of being simple to use while still being crammed with detail. Well worth the money in my opinion, and I never pay £40 for a game usually. If you’re in two minds about it, I’d say wait for some more reviews to come out, I bet they’ll all be positive.

  10. tormos says:

    I would like to add my voice to the throng of people saying that the odd sale or just lower prices overall would put Slytherine/Matrix games in my financial reach, which they currently are not.

    • Ranger33 says:

      Matrix is putting a couple of games on sale each week now, including big budget games. War in the Pacific AE was $50 last week and Command Ops is $30 this week, pretty good deals if you ask me.

  11. sith1144 says:

    thanks for pointing out that command ops sale, been meaning to buy that for quite a while, and now I finally have

  12. mariandavid says:

    Agree with all on pricing – almost all my Matrix games were bought during their annual sales. But fear that now they have been bought/merged with Slitherine and AGEOD I fear this one opportunity will vanish. Though maybe signs of sanity are starting to appear with their specials – like sith above I actually bought Combined Arms, my first Matrix for a very long time.

  13. Ranger33 says:

    Glad to see that this gamed turned out very nicely, if still needing a few tweaks. The dynamic order phases is an awesome way to add a lot of detail to decision making, without things getting overly complicated. I would pick it up but I just got Command Ops thanks to it being on sale this week. Flashpoint Campaigns is almost certainly next on my list of wargaming purchases.