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The Flare Path: Edges Towards Edgehill

Wargame & simulation blather

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Growing up in the Seventies my favourite comic was probably Meteor, my favourite story within Meteor, Paddy the Pikeman. Paddy the Pikeman was set just after the English Civil War and told the story of an unemployed soldier who travelled round England righting wrongs and solving problems with the aid of an 18 foot-long polearm. One issue he might use his unwieldy weapon to push a burning barque clear of a gunpowder-stacked jetty, or vault over a swollen stream and save a stranded Leveller. In another he might use it to support a sagging washing line in a brothel, or skewer a mewing moggy stuck up a tree. It was inspirational stuff. I found myself thinking of Paddy yesterday while playing the beta of Slitherine’s new 16th/17th Century TBS Pike & Shot.

The beta has been in my possession for less than 24 hours, but I reckon I’ve already seen enough to state the following…

Pike & Shot isn’t out to intimidate. A combination of a skeletal order selection (move, charge, fire, turn and withdraw), good tooltips, an engaging tutorial sequence, and a fairly unfussy turn structure, meant I was Cromwelling with competence confidence within half an hour of seeing the title screen for the first time.

Richard Bodley Scott’s wargame design experience and historical knowledge means the simplicity doesn’t come at the cost of period flavour. P&S doesn’t feel like any other wargame I’ve played. The unfamiliar units together with unexpected rules and behaviours, give battles a shape and momentum all of their own. Control is constantly threatening to turn to chaos as units, intoxicated by local victories, rush off in pursuit of breaking or routing enemies. In the middle of a scrap it’s not uncommon to find that half your units are oblivious to orders due to ongoing melee or automatic pursuits. Those pursuits can snowball and splinter in delightfully unpredictable ways as fired-up chasers clash with other units while away gallivanting. They can also lead to uncomfortable absences and unnerving reappearances, pursued and pursuers scuttling off map edges then reappearing a little later in different places eager to rejoin the fight.

Scott’s system communicates the unwieldiness of Seventeenth Century armies very nicely. Facing is of paramount importance. Flank attacks and fusillades frequently send eye-watering casualty totals floating heavenward. Big changes of direction often empty Action Points reservoirs.

Post-battle death toll details don’t elevate eyebrows. This is a game about breaking the will of an opposing army not reducing it to a heap of corpses. Going by what I’ve seen so far, 60% seems to be the magic number. Rout six tenths of your enemy’s troops and victory is yours. Morale degrades in clear stages, and is infectious (units can be shaken by the rout of nearby comrades). A ‘Disrupted’ or ‘Fragmented’ label appearing above a particularly resilient enemy formation is one of the game’s most heartwarming sights.

In my brief brush with the skirmish mode the AI seemed to cope well with a randomly generated battlefield and hand-picked opposition. Fieldworks were exploited, flank-attack spoiling sallies organised. It appeared to understand what I was attempting to do and responded sensibly and – very nearly – successfully. Much more testing will be required for a proper assessment, though.

The “unique graphic style based on 17th century styles and battle paintings” probably won’t garner too much praise from players. While scenery and unit art evokes the game’s tabletop wargaming roots reasonably well, the feeble zoom, lack of animations and corpse sprites (Visually, units in melee never actually mingle or lower pikes) mean sessions lack the colour and spectacle of a good miniatures barney. Sound effects are similarly underwhelming.

The GUI – which, to be fair, is a placeholder at present – needs major work. Right now, without selecting individual units, it’s hard to assess basics like Action Point totals, terrain effects, and unit types. The game badly needs a set of helpful toggleable icons for quick battlefield assessment, and some handsome unit portraits to help players visualise units.

The beta includes content from two planned expansion packs (English Civil War and 16th Century Italian Wars). The base game draws on The Thirty Years’ War for inspiration, using ten large historical scrap recreations as the basis for its campaign. I plan to dip into these, and perhaps the PBEM MP next. Stay tuned for more analysis of a wargame that understands that PC grognards have been deprived of cockney crustaceans for far too long.

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Pike & Shot’s publisher, Slitherine, acquired a fine iPad developer this week, but waved goodbye to a brilliant PC one. Panther Games, the Australian studio behind marvellous military Petri dishes
like Command Ops: Battles From The Bulge and Airborne Assault : Conquest of the Aegean, have signed with an undisclosed US publisher after ten years in the Matrix/Slitherine fold. According to AI alchemist and company president, Dave O’Connor, the parting was amicable. Pundits within the wargaming community are speculating that the new publisher is a large board wargame publisher rather than a PC specialist. Future Panther ouput may well include reprints of the studio’s cardboard creations as well as new Command Ops titles.

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The older I get, the larger and slower I like my sim targets. Back when I was a spotty stripling I was happy to pursue PzKpfw IIs and Me 163s all day. Now I’m middle-aged and decrepit, I much prefer PzKpfw VIIIs and Zeppelins. It usually takes patience to reach the altitudes where WWI airships dwell, but, once you’re up there, it takes rare skill to miss them with chattering MGs or volleys of Le Prieur rockets. As owners of great Great War air combat sim Wings Over Flanders Fields are soon to discover.

The rather special WOFF is in line for more expansion packs. Having infested the early war Western Front with swarms of Fokker Eindeckers, Old Brown Dog are now turning their attention to the original Blitz. At a date TBC gargantuan gasbags and giant Gotha bombers will start appearing over Big Ben and Buck House. Transfer to one of Blighty’s scrupulously researched and skinned Home Defence squadrons, and you’ll get a chance to ensure the Luftstreitkräfte lummoxes never get home.

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The Flare Path Foxer

“What connects dismembered AK-47s, a Czech biplane, and a traffic jam?” asked guest foxer setter All is Well last week. “American Football?” suggested a quite right Syt after early element decrypts by the likes of Matchstick, AbyssUK, FuryLippedSquid and mrpier.

A. O.J. Simpson pursuit
B. Tailback
C. Naval Air Station Fallon (NFL) badge
D. Hawker Sea Hawk
E. Hope And Glory movie poster
F. AK-47 receivers
G. Pom-pom gun
H. Cardinals
I. Aero A-11

This week’s foxer is a Rorschach Test. Serial defoxer Rorschach617, with some artistic assistance from Roman, has created a puzzle tough enough to stump stumps, bamboozle bamboo, and perplex perspex. The original version was done entirely with ink blots but failed to get past the RPS pornography filters.

All answers in one comments thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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