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The Flare Path: Attends Battle Academy 2

Simualtion & wargame blather

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At Battle Academy 2 students study Student, Rag Week is known as StuG Week, and mortarboards are made from actual mortars. I’ve spent a few days sampling the syllabus in Slitherine’s upcoming tactical TBS and, thus far, have found very few reasons to reach for my red biro. If you happen to be searching for a pacy WW2 wargame that won’t weary your mouse hand, offend your eye, or insult your intelligence, then this hex-spurning sequel, due in September, definitely warrants a bookmark.

The original Battle Academy felt like a Bailey Bridge connecting wargaming’s hex-strewn heartland with the sunny uplands of mainstream strategy gaming. Once you’d grasped a few simple historically-based home-truths – urban environments and unsupported tanks go together like slugs and salt pans… infantry in open terrain are soap bubbles in cactus patches… – you were pretty much set. Morale, armour facing, and other groggy subtleties were so lightly sketched you could ignore them most of the time and still snatch victories.

The sequel is just as elegant, affable, and light on its tracks as its predecessor but a clutch of welcome tweaks and extra features ensures battles are more varied and resonant. Though the preview code includes a third of BA2’s thirty campaign missions, I’ve spent the majority of my time orchestrating scraps spawned by the new skirmish generator. A rather impressive piece of mechanism, the generator doesn’t only allow unpredictability relishers to specify things like engagement types (‘attack’, ‘defence’, ‘meeting engagement’, and ‘symmetrical’), map/force sizes, and unit eras, it also permits pleasingly pedantic environmental manipulation.

Once you’ve decided whether you wish to wage war in a ‘wilderness’, ‘urban’, or ‘farmland’ battlespace, and whether that battlespace should be summery or swaddled in snow, you can further customise by nudging ‘fortification’, ‘openness’ and ‘damage’ sliders. I’d like to have seen ‘rivers’ ‘hills’ and ‘muddiness’ adjusters too, but hats off to Slitherine, random terrain engines of this calibre (of any calibre) are ludicrously rare in contemporary PC wargaming.

Just because a map is hot from the map oven doesn’t mean the AI will struggle with it. My first three skirmishes all ended in crushing defeats. Caught out by the long-range killing capability of the big enemy panzers and surprised by my opponent’s willingness to defend in depth and assault en-masse, I was comprehensively humbled/Hummeled. While unscripted silicon generals don’t appear to go in for elaborate pincer movements or circuitous flanking hooks, they are rather adept at recon-by-fire, AT gun deployment, and arty and aircraft usage.

Games that turn complex war machines and multi-weapon infantry units into simple handfuls of stats often render apparently large and diverse unit selections fairly pointless. In BA2 the devs have, with a modicum of success, attempted to emphasise unit differences with a range of secondary attribute icons linked to specific but undisclosed movement, combat, and spotting modifiers. A hulking KV2 isn’t just a trundling fusion of HE, AP, and armour thickness stats, it’s a ‘Large Target’ that’s ‘Prone To Breaking Down’ and ‘Prone To Bogging’. With no leader or individual soldier representations, BA2 needs charismatic hardware, and these icons together with a 130-strong unit roster crammed with exotica, help fill the personality void.

It’s hard not to warm to a game that lets you hurl fragile Thirties snowmobiles at Fascist frontlines, throw flame at frost-rimed pillboxes with Flammpanzers, or clear corridors in minefields with huge tank-mounted turf tenderisers. Slitherine have left few stones unturned in their search for interesting Ost Front AFVs. Katyushas along with aircraft are represented as off-map assets. Tankodesantniki and horses aren’t included but usually there’s enough halftracks and trucks about for this not to be a problem.

Whoever wrote the bit of the official website blurb that describes the combat model as ‘second-to-none’ needs a cool flannel on the forehead or a swift slap round the chops. Enriched with new infantry order types including ‘dash’ and ‘throw smoke grenades’, and new vehicle damage subtleties that simulate wounded crewmen and wrecked systems, combat is certainly more interesting and more nuanced than before, but obviously if you want real detail and realism in your T-34 vs Tiger tussles (and don’t mind the consequent increase in workload/confusion potential) you’re far better off with a Graviteam or a Battlefront product.

Smeared with gun oil and rasputitsa mud for this outing, the comicbook briefings remain a delight. Together with the annotated maps that follow them, they’re the kind of high-quality mood-setters and pithy info providers that this genre, sadly, doesn’t seem to do particularly well.

As I mentioned earlier, I haven’t seen a lot of what the campaign missions have to offer, but the couple I have completed – a night-time partisan attack on an Axis supply column, and a large Soviet assault on a heavily fortified city – were both absorbing constructions with lots of potential for tactical experimentation and costly blunders. BA2’s fairly conventional campaign approach – sequenced scenarios seasoned with a splash of pre-battle unit purchasing – may draw some criticism from reviewers come September – but it does guarantee variety and – going by my limited experience – some beautifully balanced engagements.

 

The Flare Path Foxer

The analytical AT rifles of Palindrome, Beowulf, and FhnuZoag potted five of Erwin’s doodles. Only a Fiat L6/40, a Vickers Light Tank, and a Horch Type 830 staff slipped past unscathed.

A. Fiat L6/40
B. Sherman BARV
C. Type 4 Ho-Ro
D. Jagdpanzer IV
E. Horch Type 830 staff car
F. Vickers Light Tank
G. LVT 4
H. Staghound

********************

This week Chief Foxer Setter Roman…

  • Waved at a UAV.
  • Threw a radish at a Peacock.
  • Punched a hay bale until his knuckles bled.
  • Couldn’t bring himself to play SAM Simulator.
  • Came up with a Foxer theme while shopping for toothpaste*

*and red herrings

(All foxer guesses in one comment thread, please)

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Tim Stone

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