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The Flare Path: Trench Warfare

Simulation and wargame news

Featured post 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:

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“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.

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“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.

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“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.

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“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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