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The Flare Path: Longing For The Short Form

Simulation and wargame blather

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This week’s hunk of ‘huh?’ was going to be devoted to four ZX Spectrum wargames inextricably linked with the late Margaret Thatcher. Unfortunately, having checked my files, I now realise Operation SolsticeBattleground Orgreave, and Where There Is Discord were just taproom fantasies dreamt up by me and my mate Lee some time in the early Nineties. We never actually got round to making them. The Crash cover, the sedition charges, the infamous Wogan interview where I ended-up head-butting Barbara Cartland… none of that actually happened.

The Falklands War happened. I’m 99.3% sure of that. It happened and, four years later, a man called John Bethell made a ZX Spectrum wargame about it, never dreaming that twenty seven years later a man not called John Bethell, bounced into retrospection by wall-to-wall Iron Lady expiration coverage, would sit down to play that wargame, then stand up, go and make a cup of tea, return, sit down again, and commence a Wot I Think almost as redundant as Monty Mole.

 

Wot I Think: Falklands 82

The defeat screen doesn’t consist of a badly mocked-up Sun front-page dominated by the headline “FALKLANDS FIASCO: Maggie Must Go”. The soundtrack isn’t an execrably digitized version of Rod Stewart’s ‘Sailing’. The load screen doesn’t feature a penguin brandishing an SLR. This really is a very different game from the one I remember.

It turns out that the only thing I recollect faithfully is the concept. Falklands 82 is the kind of sleek single screen, single scenario military TBS that the wargame industry doesn’t seem to make nowadays. The basics can be picked up in minutes despite the fact there’s no tutorial or tooltips, and the only manual currently available is in Spanish.

Playing as the British CO, you spend most of your time inching soggy sword-wielding Paras, Royal Marines, Gurkhas and Guards across a gridded representation of the inhabited NE corner of the titular isles. Play as the Argentinian CO and you spend all of your time thumping your keyboard, incensed that the rushed?/lazy?/intensely patriotic? Mr. Bethell didn’t bother to include a ‘Play as the Argentinians’ option.

Infantry can attack adjacent enemies instead of moving. Artillery and tank units (of which the player gets four and one respectively) may bombard from distance. Every friendly sprite, assuming the weather is favourable and the capability hasn’t been exhausted, has the chance to call in air strikes and naval bombardments anywhere on the map. It’s basically attritional chess, but deft touches here and there regularly puff the scent of peat and sheep dung up your nostrils, and (assuming you’re as superannuated/British as I am) coax memories of dramatic “We interrupt this programme…” news flashes and unusually distracted/edgy adults.

With the possible exception of the AGEOD Birth of America games and a few choice WW2 Eastern Front titles, it’s hard to think of a wargame in which meteorology has greater significance. Tasked with taking all ten settlement squares on the map within 25 turns, the player can’t afford to dither, get bogged down, or pick unnecessary fights. At the highest difficulty levels, because assaulting unsoftened enemy positions can be suicidal, stormy or foggy turns – turns when you can’t ask Invincible’s Harriers to do a bit of harrying or Avenger’s 4.5 inch Mark 8s to do a bit of avenging – can be maddeningly frustrating. The only good thing about horrendous conditions is it keeps the Mirages, Skyhawks and Pucarás off your back.

At the start of a game you’re asked to assign fifteen named RN frigates and destroyers to either a ‘gun support’ or ‘task force’ group. Without access to the manual I’m not entirely sure what the consequences of these choices are, but playtests and common-sense suggest that a larger gun support group means more opportunities per turn to pound ground targets and less protection for invaluable task force assets like the carriers and the Atlantic Conveyor. However you arrange things, ship losses seem to be  inevitable. At the close of every turn, you find yourself waiting nervously for the red screen border and scratchy burble that indicates incoming warplanes.

It’s a few  lines of slowly unfurled text, but somehow it captures the fearful lottery that was ship survival during the Falklands War rather well. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the low-flying FAA jets thundering into San Carlos Water (or Berkeley Sound, Bluff Cove, or Cow Bay. There’s a choice of four possible landing sites.) the Blowpipe operators swivelling to track them. If the bomb lobbers are hunting over land then you get to see them in sprite form as they whip across the map. If the Gods are smiling on you and you haven’t committed all of your own air assets to CAS, then there’s a chance raiders will be scared off before they can do any damage.

Meaningful terrain, that essential for any self-respecting wargame, is present and largely correct. Hills and mountains slow and shield. Often it’s better to bypass blocking forces than attempt to dislodge them. Entering an enemy Zone of Control (any adjacent square) instantly ends a move and leaves the unit concerned vulnerable to attack during the Argentinian phase. The only way to avoid unexpected and unwanted engagements is to use the small SAS and SBS teams wisely. Always the first British units to land, this pair disperse nearby FoW far more effectively than their comrades.

With a slightly livelier AI (Argentinian units will occasionally move to retake lost VLs or reinforce threatened ones, but are generally pretty static), less predictable deployments, and a new interface Falklands 82 could work as modern budget game. Playing it doesn’t just bring back yellowing Polaroid memories of 80s Britain at war, it leaves you wondering why the simple, unambitious, coded-in-a-month miltary TBS seems to have vanished from the PC scene. Board wargamers have their cheap/free postcard wargames and DTP creations. We have a sector dominated by hulking heavyweights – games of spectacular girth and undeniable quality,  games with pricetags and development schedules that eloquently testify to all the scholarship and labour.  Falklands 82 is a glimpse of another way.

 

 

The Flare Path Foxer

…is currently hunting Rockhopper penguins on the rockhoppy shores of Carcass Island. Sorry. Back next week.

As I’m sure FurryLippedSquid, Smion, Matchstick, Arona Daal, LionsPhil, mrpier, Jomini, JB, corinoco, mrmalodor, Hydrogene, zachforrest, Zephro, killbilly, Minicow, Mr-Link and Jed would agree, last week’s iconic icon identifiers are far too numerous to mention. The folk in question will just have to make do with FP flair points woven from Rockhopper eyebrow strands.

The full list including the four unsolved shortcuts.

  • Nice Ico = Falcon 4.0
  • Rat Science = Commandos 2
  • Marvin’s Marauders = TacOps 4
  • Cutty Sark Simulator = Crimson Skies
  • MiG Ally = Flanker 2.0
  • Despotica = Open General
  • Ailerons of Alliteration = Pe-2 Dive Bomber
  • Peggle Nights = Euro Truck Simulator 2
  • You Are Old = MS Flight Simulator 95
  • *Dread Barnacle = Destroyer Command
  • Za Rodinu! = Close Combat 3
  • Infinite Popeye = Jane’s Fleet Command
  • Fairly Easy = Microsoft Train Simulator
  • The Unlawless = Desperados
  • *Bloody Difficult = Xtreme Air Racing
  • *Bloody Difficult 2 = Rally Trophy
  • Tatar For Now = Steel Fury
  • Hard To Fathom = Aces of the Deep
  • *(stag) = Deer Hunter 2005
  • (cross) = Panzer Elite

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Tim Stone

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