The Flare Path: Reductions Reveille

Wakey-wakey, rise and spend! Jackie is blowing her utility trumpet because she wants the world to know that three old wargames have just had their prices slashed. As conveying detailed sale information with valveless brass instruments is notoriously tricky, it will be left up to Jackie’s assistant Jean (Out of picture. Armed with a Glockenspiel 17.) to explain that the games in question are John Tiller’s Battleground Civil War, Forge of Freedom: The American Civil War and The Great Battles Collector’s Edition.

At $20/£16.80 a piece, the two American Civil War antiques are still going to seem dear to many. You need to have pressed your snotty proboscis up against the plate-glass window of Matrix’s pricey uptown boutique on a few occasions to realise that this new weekly deal initiative actually qualifies as a fairly bold price experiment by the world’s biggest PC wargames publisher.

Hex wargaming at its most traditional and generously provisioned, John Tiller’s BCW is in fact a compilation of five old Talonsoft ‘Battleground’ titles – Gettysburg, Shiloh, Antietam, Bull Run and Chickamauga. These grizzled-and-sometimes-gaudy tactical TBSs might lack some of the realism and campaign enhancements of their spiritual successors, the HPS ACW series, but in terms of scope, accessibility, and value, it’s hard to know where you’d go to find a better Blue vs Grey deal.

Younger, fresher, and far more ambitious, Forge of Freedom is exactly the sort of game that deserves to be given a second chance. I’m not quite sure how I managed to miss this dual-layered oddity the first time round (2006). Maybe I was put off by harsh forum talk of overwhelming complexity and an unwieldy interface. While it’s true that FoF would – like so many wargames – benefit from an interactive tutorial and more extensive tooltips, it’s far from the grogs-only ballbreaker it’s sometimes painted as. Put in a couple of hours with the well-written 250-page manual, digest tips threads like this one, and dial-down complexity and difficulty options before commencing your first campaign, and Western Civilization Software’s opus may actually end-up feeling more logical, more transparent, during those crucial early play sessions than equivalent AGEOD or Paradox offerings.

When wargame devs attempt to combine the tactical and the strategic, all too often one of the two elements ends up feeling scrawny or ill-conceived. Not here. When army flags meet on FoF’s unzoomable-but-attractive strat map they sometimes (as in AGEOD games, you can, by setting stances, encourage evasion) trigger a scrap. Those scraps can be played out using one of three mechanisms: a Total-War style auto-resolve system (crude but super-swift), a grid-based ‘Quick Combat’ mode (stylised yet compelling) or, the game’s impressive secret weapon, a full-blown John Tiller-esque clash on a hex battlefield that is both randomly generated and region inspired.

With serviceable AI and influential terrain, weather, and generals on the tac level, and well thought-out political, diplomatic, attrition and city development shorthand on the strat level, you really do feel like you’re getting two high-quality wargames in one. For the sake of brassic battle gamers everywhere (especially in the UK where Matrix’s VAT policy and sometimes strange exchange rate calculations frequently lead to unfairness) I wish the price was nearer £10 than £20, but still, this is an encouraging move from Slitherine/Matrix.

Proving old wargames don’t have to wear double-figure price tags, good old Good Old Games released the old-as-the-Seven-Hills Great Battles Collector’s Edition for an irresistible $5.99/£3.85 this week.

Coded in 1997 and 1998 by the short-lived Erudite Software, Great Battles: Hannibal, Alexander, and Caesar, wear their board game roots proudly. Cramped battlefields and a rather flimsy campaign system, don’t make the 33 included engagements significantly less engaging, or features like the ingenious leader activation approach any less brilliant.

As you’d hope from a series that put likenesses of three of antiquity’s sharpest military minds on its boxlids, leaders really do turn battles. Their stats determine when in a turn they act, how many orders they can issue, and, crucially, how likely they are to get ‘momentum’ – a bonus extra phase, or even, pair of phases, at the end of a standard activation. It sounds gamey but it actually works extremely well, breaking up combat rhythms already rendered unpredictable by the leader initiative system.

Overlook a reluctance to withdraw badly mauled formations (that may, in certain circumstances, be entirely historical) and the AI plays a pretty good game. Automatic reaction fire and cavalry evasion, together with mutual strength/cohesion corrosion during close-combat, mean an inactive force isn’t a helpless force.

The terrain art hasn’t aged well but the soldier sprites and sounds still have undeniable charm. I could watch my trumpeting war-jumbos trample wolf-helmed velites all day. A pity then, all of my pachyderms are usually dead by turn 3 in most battles.


The Flare Path Foxer

Thanks to the logical litheness of phlebas, Dozer, mrpier, Grible and pertusaria, the Upper Bumhope church fete now has a workable Warrior Cavalcade plan. In fact, it has five. Last year John headed the procession followed by Roger, Beth, Gary P, Peter, Ivan, Timo, Gary J, Paula and Sajid. This year, in order to maximise the distance between the fractious Garys, the troops will probably troop past like this:

  • Gary P
  • John
  • Beth
  • Paula
  • Roger
  • Peter
  • Timo
  • Sajid
  • Ivan
  • Gary J

All those that provided practical plans get a pot of Miss Sankey’s famous greengage, ginger, & gin jam, and, assuming they can make it to Upper Bumhope on May 18th, a free go on Mr Hibbert’s always-popular Bowl-For-A-Pig stall.

Miss Sankey’s ‘Triple G’ jam has claimed many victims over the years. Among the first to underestimate its potency were a trio of Ordnance Survey cartographers that visited the village in 1938. After a swift cream tea in the Dick Turpin, the group attempted to map the parish. A few hours later one was found wandering on Windmill Hill dressed in nothing but a daisy-chain necklace; another was fished out of the Bum, more dead than alive; the third was never seen again.

OS Rambler map no.43 (the 1939 edition) contains evidence of that extraordinary day. In grid square 5237 there are twelve major mistakes that can surely only be explained by preserve-induced inebriation. Identify the carto-cockups and, if you care to, speculate on the fate of the third OS man, to claim a Flare Path flair point made from highly polished theodolite.


  1. zachforrest says:

    sir! sir! the windmill is in the wrong place sir!

  2. SominiTheCommenter says:

    Those train tracks are a major carto-cockup.

  3. SuicideKing says:

    The church’s steeple is oriented wrong.

    • Bhazor says:

      The symbol for a church with spire is a cross on a circle not a square.

      • Meusli says:

        That denotes whether it has a steeple or not I think.

        • RaveTurned says:

          A cross with a square indicates a church with a tower, a cross with a circle indicates a spire (or minaret or dome), while just a cross indicates a church with no such features.

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          phuzz says:

          It’s tricky because that church has a square tower, leading to a steeple.

  4. stahlwerk says:

    There’s no quarry near the bridge, and it’s fields instead of a palm tree forest.

  5. SuicideKing says:

    palm trees where there’s dirt, haystack shed’s missing (would you ever draw the conical stacks on a map?), what’s that crater doing there, no trees on the lower left where the cows are, fountain/statue in front of town isn’t there, house next to bridge is missing, not sure what the green patch is supposed to indicate, doesn’t seem to match the forest…

    this is of course in addition to the first three posts here.

  6. serioussgtstu says:

    1. No secondary building marked in the far part of the orchard.
    2. Windmill not located at the bottom of the hill.
    3. No tropical trees.
    4. No trail running 90 degrees from the riverside path.
    5. No trees in the lower right field.
    6. Cottage missing beside the bridge.
    7. No quarry where marked.
    8. Treeline does not extend behind the farm.
    9. No raised train track running parallel to the river.
    10. Wooded area behind the village not marked.
    11. House located at the far end of the village not marked.
    12. And the church is facing the wrong way.

    • Meusli says:

      The trouble with these quizzes is I always arrive to late. :(

      As for the third OS man he is either rolling in the haystacks with some fair Milk Maid or in the local Pub.

      • Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

        I admire any man with the stones to roll with a fair milk maid in the local pub.

        I’d just rather he not do it at the Frenchman’s Head, as that is my local and it might spill my ale.

    • corinoco says:

      13. Secondary building missing from foreground farm, shed behind the haystacks.
      14. Same farm as 13, main hay shed also missing.

    • orranis says:

      15. The T-junction on the near side of town is marked as being dimpled, when it is not.
      16. The hill’s elevation is grossly overestimated. Projecting the houses’ height onto the hillside and using a 10 foot story (which is a liberal estimate), the hill increases a maximum of 70′ to 80′ in elevation, not the over 100′ that the map tells us.

      Crimminy, I hate getting here late. Only crumbs to pick up.

  7. nimzy says:

    I heard Sid Meier is giving war sims another go. Is iOS PC gaming enough for RPS?

  8. killias2 says:

    Honestly, I’m -interested- in Forge of Freedom, but it’s just a bit too rich for my taste. I mean, yeah, I’ve heard good things. But 20 bucks for a 7 year old game that will take hours of investment to even open up.. that’s tough. Compare with, say, GoG’s sale this weekend, where you can get the likes of Alpha Centauri, the Wing Commander games, the Populous games, Syndicate, the Dungeon Keeper games, and Theme Hospital for less than -3- bucks -each-. None of the them are wargames, but a lot of these are -excellent- strategy games. As a strategy gamer, I’m -open- to wargames, but not willing to pay a price premium, especially when I’ll already being paying a time investment premium to reach the same level of enjoyment.

  9. guygodbois00 says:

    When you, Mr Stone, say that Jean is armed with Glockenspiel 17, that would be this link to , wouldn’t it?

  10. GreatUncleBaal says:

    It’s an encouraging move from Matrix, and means I’ll be much more likely to visit the site on a regular basis to keep up with things.
    I do understand the argument about “boutique” game pricing, and I’m perfectly happy to drop cash for a quality title – War in the East, for example, cost me around £60 and I don’t regret it at all. It’ll take me years to fully understand that game, but it is a great thing to own and tinker with. But it wasn’t Matrix marketing or a demo that convinced me to buy it, but the Three Moves Ahead podcast’s enthusiasm.
    Another note is that sometimes Matrix aren’t great at showing the little discounts they actually do provide; I just upgraded Distant Worlds by buying the expansions Shakturi and Legends, and at the checkout got given a 20% discount on one of them – not immediately apparent anywhere that I would get that, and so a bonus rather than a decision which factored into my buying them.
    For me I think the problem is not the price, or the lack of demo, but the combination of both; a good demo will be the final push for me to buy the game. Also, I am a creature of whim, and if I happen upon a good Civil War era wargame on sale just after reading or watching something that’s piqued my interest in that, then there’s a good chance they’ll get a sale.

  11. pertusaria says:

    Very chuffed at having got home in time to compete last week and lucked out on a Foxer that was more logic-based than knowledge-based. I’ll see you all on the 18th, but I’d better keep the jam closed till then if I’m to have any hope at the bowling.

    I think the third cartographer caught the train to Mornington Crescent while he was still in a suitable mental state to perceive the railway line as existing, which is why he was never seen again in the vicinity of Upper Bumhope.

  12. Shiloh says:

    I love the John Tiller ACW games. I’ve had them for, like, forever.

    Forge of Freedom looks interesting. I was playing AGEOD’s American Civil War the other night but I never seem to be able to get past the tutorial without giving up in puzzlement. Why can’t that stack be an army? Who is activated this turn? etc.