The Flare Path: Wargaming – Where To Start?

Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm, Command: Modern Air Naval Operations, Combat Mission: Red Thunder… most of my favourite wargames of recent years are hulking beasts studded with obscure units, potentially overwhelming scenarios, and abstruse tactical subtleties. I’m not sure I could wholeheartedly recommend any of them to a genre newcomer. A fellow or fellowess just arrived in the land of hexes, morale checks, and myriad Sherman variants would be far better off starting with… um… errr… sorry, I’m going to have to consult my notes at this point… hmm… be with you in two shakes of a lamb’s tail… maybe three shakes.

Identifying the perfect introductory wargame isn’t easy. When asked for a recommendation, I rack my brain for a game that…

…doesn’t bury you in numbers or counters, or assume you know the difference between a PzKpfw IV Ausf. D and a PzKpfw IV Ausf. F

Helpful combat predictors, simplified armour thickness diagrams, unit info panels that feature tactical advice as well as clearly explained stats… these are the sort of thoughtful amenities that distinguish warm welcoming war fare from red-faced RTFM sergeant majors.

…is blessed with good fully integrated tutorials and a generous supply of tooltips

Extinct in most other regions of gaming, inexplicably – inexcusably – patience-testing pdf-reliant instructional scenarios still cling on in PC wargaming.

…doesn’t expect you to remain at your post for hours at a time

A substantial selection of short, punchy scenarios is a must. The weekend-whittling colosso-battles can come later.

…offers competitive artificial opposition at several skill levels

…is cheap or maybe even free

While there are those in the industry that believe that a player’s commitment level is directly linked to the scale of their financial investment, personally I couldn’t bring myself to recommend a £15+ title to a person contemplating a tentative fact-finding foray into an unfamiliar genre.

…is readily available

The thirty-year history of PC wargaming is littered with good gateway game candidates, but there seems little point in singing the praises of something that is now difficult to obtain or temperamental on modern machines. Sorry, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! Hard cheese Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far.

…doesn’t punish campaign failure too harshly

Tongue lashings and toy deprivation are fine. Excluding the unlucky and inept from 70% of your missions, less so.

…doesn’t punish slow reflexes or mouse mistakes too severely

If the game comes with turns, I expect to see an ‘undo’ key; if it comes without them then an issue-orders-while-paused capability is essential.

…doesn’t simplify to the point of insipidity

Very subjective this one. The line between admirable accessibility and flavour-sapping blandness is a thin and wavy one. I look for novel mechanisms and clever historical insights in my wargames. If all a design manages to convey about its chosen theme is that ‘combined arms tactics are generally a good idea’ and ‘units with high strength stats are better than units with low strength stats’ then I’m not sure that’s a design I want to recommend to impressionable proto-grognards.

While there are titles around that tick most of these tickboxes, I can’t think of one that ticks all of them.

Unity of Command is uncommonly flavoursome, handsome and competitively priced but its campaign structure combined with its tough victory conditions mean many owners have probably never experienced its later phases.

Loyalty to the Panzer General formula means the popular Panzer Corps and the free Open General (less friendly, far more diverse) though approachable, moreish and well equipped, teeter on the edge of tactical blandness.

The same accusation could be levelled at Battle Academy and its improved, more expensive sequel. Both instalments entertain doggedly but lack the inspired conceptual flourishes that help make games like Graviteam Tactics, Scourge of War and Command Ops so engaging and singular.

Few battle games jam more spectacle onto your screen than the super sleek Ultimate General: Gettysburg. In the pursuit of that sleekness have Game Labs whittled a fraction too much flesh off Sid Meier’s Gettysburg‘s venerable bones? This writer thinks so.

Talking of Mr Meier, Ace Patrol does a very convincing impersonation of my Perfect Introductory Wargame. Some disliked its cheery, indestructible, mixed-sex pilots, and, lately, a few players seem to be struggling with technical issues, but I can’t think of a recent offering that blends simplicity, originality, and tactical substance better.

Perhaps I’m looking for elegant enthusiasm-seeding war fare in the wrong place. As Graham observed last week the goblin-infested Battle for Wesnoth is still free and still marvellous. Recently updated, it has the sort of style, soul, and quirk, that many of its historically-based counterparts sorely lack.

Or maybe the game I seek is currently gestating in some cosy code womb. Close Combat: The Bloody First, the upcoming 3D-but-still-top-down CC sequel? Vietnam’65, the novel COIN simulation signed by Slitherine shortly after its appearance in The Flare Path. The Unity of Command sequel recently paraded for the first time on the 2×2 Games blog. The hex-strewn, bamboo-shafted Warring States: Tactics already available in slim Early Access from here?

One day perhaps, I’ll be able to respond to a ‘Can you recommend a wargame for a total novice?’ missive with a clear, unequivocal ‘You must play… ‘. Until that day comes, I’m afraid replies will continue to be lengthy and heavy on the ifs and buts.

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The Flare Path Foxer

Running short of space, Roman chose not to include a picture of a Lee-Enfield rifle bolt or a Karloff CG-57 Assault Hovercraft in last week’s puzzle. The omissions didn’t stop misunderstood genius AFKAMC stitching together a solution (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) from the clammy clue hunks bodysnatched by the likes of All is Well, Matchstick, Shiloh and P.Funk.

a. Bristol Beaufort (AFKAMC)
b. Geneva Convention (All is Well)
c. Victor comic (Matchstick)
d. Gothic icon
e. Isaak Walton (Shiloh)
f. Seashells (All is Well)
g. SH3 chart, Orkney (P.Funk, SpiceTheCat)
h. Prometheus (Matchstick)
i. Frank N Stein (phlebas)

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(from Wikipedia)

“The Arctic Foxer, also known as the White Foxer and the Snowidea Foxer, is a small collage-based puzzle native to the Arctic regions of the Northern Hemisphere. It preys mainly on wordsearches, crosswords, and young spot-the-differences, but in-extremis will also eat typographical errors, onomatopoeia and red herrings. Thanks to a low surface area to volume ratio, a dense pelage [4][5], and a generous supply of body fatuousness, the Arctic Foxer seldom needs a hat or mittens.”

All answers in one thread, please.

70 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Matchstick says:

    Flag bottom right: Cornish Flag of St. Piran

    • Rorschach617 says:

      Top right. Is that the maritime signal flag for Sierra?

      Mid right. The car looks like the Ariel Atom.

    • Premium User Badge

      Matchstick says:

      The metal thing in Middle looks like a wire skeleton stock for a sten
      link to slickguns.com

    • Shiloh says:

      Moustachioed chap looks like Monty but where’s his second cap badge? Bottom left/top right camo looks like some kind of Flecktarn.

      Interesting article Tim, I’m in exactly the same situation as you (see Flare Paths passim). Most of the wargames I play are *years* old.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Behind Monty (and behind the spirit level), I see Panzers amid the explosions. Is it Monty and the tanks as a whole (pointing towards a computer game, it looks like cover art)?

        Decision in the Desert
        link to mobygames.com

    • deejayem says:

      Top right-ish is a belaying pin. And the thing next to Monty is a spirit level (I am ministry of bleedin obvious today). Also it seems to be in a monitor surround this week.

    • foop says:

      I feel this is probably redundant, but that’s a spirit level.

    • Premium User Badge

      Matchstick says:

      Could the helicopter bottom left be a Piasecki H-21Shawnee/Workhorse (aka the flying banana) ?

      • Premium User Badge

        Matchstick says:

        Real long shot here but the link’s not “Split” is it ?

        Banana Split,
        Split Decision,
        Splitting the Atom,
        Split Level,
        Split Pin
        Split S (Sierra is phonetic alphabet for S)
        Stock Split

        (I may have been watching too much Only Connect)

        AFKAMC points out that the surrounding monitor could be Split Screen, he also mentions the Cornish Split (which is part of our traditional cream teas)

        • Shiloh says:

          Split stock?

        • WildebeestGames says:

          Split loop maybe ? (As in coding).
          Oh, and damn you folks are QUICK !

          • Premium User Badge

            Matchstick says:

            Absolutely nothing saying I’m not barking up completely the wrong tree here :)

            Especially as I have no idea how the camouflage could fit in at all.

          • Rorschach617 says:

            I believe you are correct, Sir! And will continue to do so until Mr Stone cuts in and says it is incorrect! :)

        • Shiloh says:

          Well, if the camouflage was Multicam, you could potentially have “split cam” but that’s a bit of a stretch.

          • Premium User Badge

            Matchstick says:

            I was wondering if it was one of the WW2 german Flecktarns that got names like Eichenlaubmuster which was knows as Oak Leaf pattern.

            Currently working through http://www.kamouflage.net looking for a match

          • Shiloh says:

            If it’s the Waffen SS “pea” pattern (4 colour), then you’d get “split pea”.

            EDIT: all of which would have been very neat and tidy, except: a) Erbsenmuster was a *five* colour camo pattern; and b) it doesn’t look anything like it. :-(

          • Kaben says:

            The camo is SS pea dot (Erbsenmuster) , which is also referred to as Dot-44 due to being issues in early 1944.

            There are actually 5 colours in that pattern shown Shiloh. If you zoom in on any image of dot44 camo, you can get this look, which when taken on its own and not as the whole garment, makes the camo pattern image look very different because it doesnt have the waves of colour going through all sections. See link to lssah.com for example.

  2. Shiloh says:

    Moustachioed chap looks like Monty but where’s his second cap badge? Bottom left/top right camo looks like some kind of Flecktarn.

    Interesting article Tim, I’m in exactly the same situation as you (see Flare Paths passim). Most of the wargames I play are *years* old.

  3. Tim James says:

    Single-player: Unity of Command
    Multiplayer: Battle of the Bulge (iOS)

    Play Black Turn for a more balanced campaign.

    • TC-27 says:

      I cant help but think when I am playing UOC that I am playing some military themed puzzle game rather than a operational wargame – I feel like getting one move wrong or one bad die roll means failure due to the harsh time limits.

    • SpiceTheCat says:

      BotB probably is quite good as an introductory single player game. In fact, I think it passes all of Tim’s criteria, more or less. The tutorial and information is good, it plays quickly, has a variety of AIs (which are mostly a bit rubbish – put this on the ‘less’ side), has variations in unit type and quality without being obscure or over-simplfiying, and is reasonably cheap.

      Sadly, Shenandoah appear to have gone silent after being absorbed into Slitherine. Hopefully their Gettysburg game is still going to be forthcoming.

  4. Soulstrider says:

    My introductory wargames were Darkest Hour and Alea Jacta Est, I found them pretty accessible to newcomers, specially AJE with their small campaigns with small number of units and unit types where in the end you only need to know the movement and attack position types and have some common sense to play.

    Darkest Hour is more difficult to get into but not nearly as HoI3, and also has Kaiserreich, which is my 2nd favorite mod of all time with only Fall From Heaven 2 ahead.

    I wonder if there are any bronze age and Iron age wargames, lately I have been enamored with Near East civilziations.

    • sith1144 says:

      Personally I find the AGEOD games to have rather obscure combat mechanics, I wouldnt recommend them to a newcomer, but I might just be too stupid for them.
      I would however recommend Commander:The Great War

      • TC-27 says:

        I can forgive AGEOD the foggy battle mechanics as I just love the had drawn map and just the right amount of economic/political options…I mean what other game can more or less accurately give you an accessible version of Marius vs Sulla vs Mithrates

    • farrier says:

      I’d say AJE/BoR are perfect introductory AGEOD games and decent introductory wargames. As you said, in the small scenarios there’s actually very little you need to do and keep track of. For BoR, you often have just two main armies (playing as the Romans), maybe a third, though you could have more pieces if you break off individual units.

      I think AGEOD games as a whole are deceptive in that they appear far more difficult and obtuse than they are. Part of this is due to only half-functional manuals when it comes to the more confusing topics like command and replacements. But really, when you boil down what you have to actually do in a given AJE/BoR scenario, it’s not much and very manageable. TEAW on the other hand, same idea, but just so much larger, which is its own complication.

      I love Darkest Hour now that, after two years, I discovered there are additional small operation-specific scenarios further down the list. I never noticed there was a scroll until a couple weeks ago. But, still far more complex (many simultaneously moving pieces) than AJE/BoR.

  5. Synesthesia says:

    I’m never going to see the 4th mission of unity of command.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I’ve honestly barely touched the campaign, and mainly worked my way through the scenarios.

  6. TC-27 says:

    I think Scourge of War Gettysburg deserved a mention – Scales all the way from managing a single brigade to putting you in the shoes of Lee or Jackson. Being able to fight off Picketts charge just commanding a single artillery battery with everything else done by the AI is a great experience.

  7. TC-27 says:

    PS Tim any chance of reviewing Histwar Napoleon?

    • Tim Stone says:

      HistWar Austerlitz is meant to be just around the corner. I plan to give that a whirl when it arrives.

  8. Premium User Badge

    FhnuZoag says:

    Isn’t it obvious? The best introductory wargame is Advance Wars.

  9. Shiloh says:

    SSG Games’ Ardennes Offensive was a decent gateway game back in the ’90s – easy to play, combat rolls all made explicit, supply rules… I also used to spend days on the Jon Tiller/Talonsoft Campaign series games East Front and West Front, really enjoyable games.

    But as far as recent wargames go, the cupboard’s a bit bare.

  10. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    Ace Patrol cannot be recommended enough. Yes, the pilots are indestructible, but that’s what allows you to take risks and fail without having to reload the entire scenario. Being shot down has its cost, but it’s not so burdensome that you have to abandon a playthrough.

    Also, its beautiful altitude and maneuver system makes intuitive sense and allows for meaningful choices to plan for future turns. Do I gain altitude to get space for an advanced maneuver later, or do I dump altitude as fast as I can for speed? Perhaps fly straight and level and regain equilibrium to give me more direction options in the next turn.

    • SlimShanks says:

      Huh. I tried Ace Patrol and didn’t have much fun. But if you say it’s good, then I guess I’ll go play it some more.
      Hail Smingleigh.

  11. Wilson says:

    I’m likely biased after several years of playing the various games and expansions, but for me it was Strategic Command II which really got me into larger scale war games. I think it offers a good mix of gameplay elements (research, diplomacy, unit production, terrain, along with combat of course) while keeping it all very manageable.

    If you start in 1939 the numbers of units are fairly manageable at first before building up to much greater numbers as the war progresses (this is less true in the versions which cover the entire world rather than just the war in Europe). The simplification required to keep the individual elements from being overwhelming means it might come down on the wrong side of Tim’s simplification line in smaller scenarios, but I think in terms of simulating the flow of the entire war and allowing players to try out different strategies without ending up with ridiculous outcomes it’s quite impressive.

    I can’t speak too much for the AI since I play email games, but the few times I have played against it I felt it was competent at least. Have had hours and hours of fun with the game, and it’s in the ‘reasonable’ price range for war games ($35-50 per product), and at least they provide demos too. Maybe it doesn’t stand out with any really clever ideas or features, but I think as a complete product it’s extremely solid.

    • TC-27 says:

      Love the SC games and the good news is the developer is now working on number 3 (the publisher is matrix so start saving up!).

    • kshriner says:

      Heh, I buried my recommendation in my text but +1 to your recommendation. I have thoroughly enjoyed each iteration of Strategic Command series.

      The latest in the series starts to get too big/complex for my life/play hours but I enjoy the series and recommend it highly.

      Start earlier in the series (agree Strategic Command II might be best start point for newer players, although Strat Com I is nice for it’s simplicity of colors, rules, units, etc..)

      +1 to you and your recommendation sir!

  12. XhomeB says:

    No love for Fantasy General? One could argue it’s the best of the bunch.

    • Joshua Northey says:

      Fantasy General is tremendous and badly needs a remake, as does Star General.

  13. kshriner says:

    My introduction to wargaming came from Avalon Hill’s “Tactics II”. Would be great to have someone convert to PC or mobile and modernize a bit. I thought it fit about right. I could grasp the size of the map, the number of units were about right (some games I can’t get into due to shear number of units, heresy for some I’m sure). I’m not a hardcore by any means but I do love turn based wargames.

    I think you may be looking for a singular answer that may not ever have a final answer because I think in making any recommendation within a class of games that you have to analyze the individual you are recommending too. Some people love chess, some people love Gary Grisby/axis and allies, Total War: Shogun 2, and some like Zone of Influence (never played it but massive looking) *Edit: holy cr*p, World in Flames with full map, “Total size of the map is height 9ft (2.7 meters) and length 21ft (6.4 meters). That’s nearly 200 square feet of map!” please somebody do this and set up with all units. I would totally follow/troll a playthrough between ‘nards with pictures.

    In any case, point I am making is that even if someone says, “You know, I’ve always wanted to try some wargames but I’ve been intimidated and wouldn’t know where to start, any recommendations?” the answer I would give would still vary widely. Are they married with two kids? Are they single and just out of (or still in) high school or college? Do they have a long attention span, a short span, competitive and want to win, just enjoy a fun game, etc…

    In any case, I always enjoyed Strategic Command series by Hubert Cater. Strategic Command 1 is pretty basic/straight forward, and the game gains complexity in further versions. I’ve had a lot of fun with his series as it gained complexity, but interestingly enough his latest versions start to push the boundary of too many units/too many logistical/computational factors.

    Heck the perfect wargame even varies among us. Some can’t ever get enough complexity, the rest of us fall somewhere in between.

    Anyhoo, really enjoy your articles even if I don’t post that often. Thanks and keep up the great work!

    • PhilBowles says:

      The second screenshot on this page closely resembles Tactics II, but unfortunately isn’t identified in the caption. I agree that that’s a great game to start with, and I’m sure computer imports or close variants must exist.

      Another board game that’s designed as an entry-level wargame is the over-sequelled Axis & Allies series; it has been the subject of direct computer game ports, and recent versions can be played online on GameTable.

  14. elec2ron says:

    Have any of you tried Hell? Its a great little fantasy wargame but unfortunately very little exposure.

    http://cdn.akamai.steamstatic.com/steam/apps/312420/ss_d5bae9c9c8c58407e2b780d8126a0b9a2abd1677.600×338.jpg?t=1415981736

  15. elec2ron says:

    another screenshot of Hell for ya :) Could really do with a RPS review ;)

    link to i.imgur.com

  16. Thurgret says:

    I’m used to paying lots and lots of money for Matrix Games games. I shelled out over €50 for Distant Worlds: Universe and Command: Modern Air/Naval, and I’ve paid close to that for others. But why on earth is Gary Grigsby’s War in the West €68.99 plus tax? What could possibly justify that for a turn-based, hex-based wargame?

    Why, in fact, does Matrix Games continue to insist on essentially barring many people from a lot of wargaming by dint of price alone? I know, I know, I’m preaching to the choir, but I feel a need to continue.

    • P.Funk says:

      I made this point to someone who’s a die hard believer in that pricing. I am not willing to drop such amounts of money to try out a game I might not even like. Sadly those who do pay religiously for all those titles are such believers in the faith that they don’t really hear what you’re saying.

      Perhaps that core consumer base is so loyal that they make more at that price. Or maybe they’re just arrogant and think its worth it. I often find arrogance permeates the developers of extremely niche genres.

      A game like Command: Modern Air Naval Operations fascinates me to no end but I just can’t bear to part with the cash, not that much. Its the better part of a C note last time I checked. Thats actually more than the cost of the incredibly expensive PMDG 777 for FSX.

      • Boosh says:

        Currently on sale at Matrix, still weighs in at £40 though incl VAT.
        Incredibly good though, I think if I had to do away with all my wargames and keep one, this would be it.

      • Thurgret says:

        I spent perhaps six hours watching videos of another person playing the game before I decided to buy it myself, then at a mere €56 or so. I suppose at that point, with six hours already invested into just watching it– something I never usually do– it seemed a sensible enough purchase. If you really are genuinely interested, there’s a sale on, like Boosh says. That’s as cheap as it’s likely to get for the next few years.

      • malkav11 says:

        The logic is always, always that the idea behind selling your game at a lower price is that you will sell enough more copies at that lower price to more than recoup the diminished per unit cost, and that demand is simply not elastic enough for that to be true for this particular genre. I think this is empirically wrong. If you put your games out there with sufficient visibility, and you sell them cheap enough – i.e., pretty much on Steam, in Steam sales, at this point – they will sell way, way more than they do right now at $60-90 with visibility mostly to die hard grognards. This has been true for other niche genres in the past. Jeff Vogel of Spiderweb Software, for example, used to swear by the “my market is too small to charge less” maxim, and now his games are routine presences on Steam sales. Why? Because it works. Similarly, games like Euro Truck Simulator 2 and Farming Simulator (insert year here) have shot far past developer expectations because of Steam and Steam sales.

        Now, that’s not necessarily to say that you will win nearly as many new genre converts, or even that those sales will lead to that game ever actually being played (I still haven’t touched Unity of Command and I keep meaning to), but that’s an entirely different matter. And frankly, when you’re charging $60-90, those people still aren’t going to play your game. They just won’t buy it either.

        • Hedgeclipper says:

          I suspect sooner or later someone’s going to eat their lunch. Turn and hex based strategy is the sort of niche that doesn’t require much in the way of programming or art resources, there’s plenty of systems (on and off-line) to draw ‘inspiration’ from, and with the right sort of early-access program your core fans would be falling over themselves to help play test and balance. The existing competition seems locked into a high margin low volume mindset – seems like the perfect opportunity for a few small indies to revitalise the genre and extend the audience.

  17. Gothnak says:

    Curse you Tim Stone… You put a single hex of Steel Panthers at the top and then didn’t mention it at all… Sad times… Probably not the simplest of games, but definitely the best of the mid-core games.

  18. scharmers says:

    My recommendations:

    Battle Academy. Sure, it’s a little bland. But they have decent tutorials. More importantly, the BA games softly introduce critical wargaming concepts that will never grow dim or distant whilst grognarding: reaction fire. Fog of war. Line of sight. Delayed indirect/artillery fire. AOE. Area of Control. Suppression. BA is pretty much a Steel Panthers “Lite” and that’s a good thing.

    The two Ace Patrol games: yes. They could a FAR better job at explaining WHY you might want to gain altitude, or perform that high-G maneuver, and the like, but they are decent, colorful, and best of all PLAYABLE beer & pretzels wargames.

    Any decent 4X game. Yeah, yeah. But there’s going to be that group of folks who want something meatier after playing Civ or Age of Magic or whatever. And we grogs will be lurking there on the street corner in trenchcoats, all “Hey kid you want a taste of Command: MANO? First one is free… get you soooooo high”

  19. Uhbas says:

    Hiya Tim, and all you other folks. Could one fo you perhaps tell me what wargame is pictured in the top-centre hex with the Napoleonic Curasier?

  20. Tarfman says:

    Hi, I’m a big fan UGG and also a big fan SMG. I would love to give SMG a go again but it is fairly hard to get a copy that will run smoothly on modern systems. I keep getting CTD’s which is very frustrating when in the middle of a scenario. I think everyone who reads this should head oover to gog.com and plague them to release an updated version. Cheers.

    And civil war generals 2

  21. Haborym says:

    Kinda liked that one WH40K game Rites of War. That wasn’t bad.

  22. SgtStens says:

    warm welcoming war fare from red-faced RTFM sergeant majors.

    I hate to pick the nits, but it’s Sergeants Major.
    -SgtStens

    • Tim Stone says:

      That nit was actually a speck of dandruff. On this side of the pond it’s definitely ‘sergeant majors’.

  23. KakePro says:

    Awesome as always, dude. I literally made an account on this site so I could follow Flare Path. It’s the only RPS thing I read.

    By the way. does anyone mind filling me in on which wargame is pictured in the second screenshot? As well as the one pictured in the hex left of the Hungarian cavalry unit? Thanks.

    Edit: Found the one in the second screenshot, it’s Gary Grigsby’s War in the West. Google image search gives me nothing on the screenie in the hex left of the cavalry guy though.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Thanks! That hex features a unit marker from the rather wonderful Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge. The developer, Panther Games, has recently migrated to a new publisher. A new version of CO – CO2 – should be available very soon:

      link to forums.lnlpublishing.com
      link to forums.lnlpublishing.com

      • KakePro says:

        Thank ye kindly

        Shame all the games can’t be bought right now, I’ve really been itching to get my hands on these.

      • KakePro says:

        Actually, do you know where to buy Command Ops? I must be missing something obvious but all the sites I’ve visited don’t have ways to buy the game.