The Flare Path: Dreadnoughts And Droid Thoughts

Though my Battle-of-Jutland-through-the-eyes-of-a-ship’s-cat war movie remains unfunded, untitled and largely unwritten, I have mentally sketched out the final scene.

EXT. FIRTH OF FORTH. DAWN.

Passing under the awesome edifice of the Forth Bridge, the bruised and battered HMS Warspite is pelted with coal by disappointed railway workers. Tickles, asleep in her customary spot atop ‘A’ turret, wakes and dashes for cover. Scampering across the bloodstained, shrapnel scored deck, she is struck by a flying lump of anthracite and drops down dead. As the camera rises incorporeally into Warspite’s swirling smoke plume, we see Able Seaman Peters run to where Tickles lies, and fall to his knees beside her.

THE END

Wet wargame specialists Naval Warfare Simulations routinely fail to acknowledge the morale benefits of ship mascots, but that hasn’t stopped them winning firm friends amongst dreadnought-devoted grogs. Under the painfully primitive exteriors of games like Steam and Iron lurk unusually realistic and elastic naval battle recreations.

That elasticity is being pushed to exciting new levels in the studio’s next project. Rule the Waves combines the turnless SAI engagement engine with an intriguingly Paradoxian turn-based navy management layer. Instead of simulating a specific early 20th Century conflict or campaign, RTW will let unscripted global geopolitics trigger its wars, and uninhibited players design its warships.

Well, I say “uninhibited”. As a player you’ll be working within the constraints of see-sawing naval budgets, constantly evolving tech and research strictures, and potentially restrictive arms limitations treaties. You may find your plans scotched by strikes or meddling politicians. With national characteristics and budget sizes rooted in history, games should have a strong historical tang, but there’s no telling who you’ll end up trading 15 inch shells or tech secrets with.

Campaigns start in 1900 with dockyards and anchorages crowded with pre-dreadnoughts and end circa 1920 with fleets full of player and AI-engineered Warspite-style giants. (By limiting the scope NWS cannily avoid the need to simulate flat tops and multi-role naval aviation) Parsimonious admiralties will be able to extend the careers of elderly vessels by refitting them with new weaponry, armour, and equipment as it becomes available, though characteristics like speed and stability may suffer as a result.

In the recently released draft manual (available to registered members of the NWS forum only) there are glimpses of several features that should, together with the ship design facility and organic campaign structures, ensure colourful, resonant wargaming.

Picking an Edwardian superpower like Great Britain will mean a big budget, a strong R&D capacity, and a selection of well-developed docks (minor powers may need to get ships built abroad – a process not without risks). However, with great power comes great responsibility. Empire overseers must keep a certain proportion of their tonnage ‘on foreign stations’ or risk haemorrhaging Prestige – the game’s victory currency.

Deciding which ships to assign to your active fleet and which to put in reserve, looks like it’s going to be a constant dilemma. Mothballed vessels and reserve crews are far cheaper to maintain but can’t be brought to full readiness immediately. Misread the international climate and play the Prestige-hungry hawk too often when faced with tension-impacting semi-random event dialogues, and you may find yourself propelled into a war you’re not ready to fight.

When war does arrive, real-time SAI-style combat will take many forms. The colonial skirmishes, raider encounters, full-on fleet clashes, and coastal scraps perhaps involving batteries and merchant ships, are sure to test tactical prowess, but the seeds of defeat and victory are likely to have been planted years before in your drawing offices and admiralty. Like the sound of a naval wargame with a strat stratum as interesting as its tactical one? Watch this space. Rule the Waves should be with us by midsummer.

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If the little Ukrainian bird that warbled in my ear earlier this week is to be believed, then Graviteam – another studio that understands the value of a good dynamic campaign – are finally nearing the Mius Front finish line. My feathered confidant told me that the game that is in effect Graviteam Tactics/Achtung Panzer 2 is presently in ‘Steam testing’. Splendid!


The root and branch reforms – the improved interface, the new strat layer possibilities, improved visuals, boosted AI, new Spintires-esque terrain subtleties – they’re all imminent. My hopes are higher than a Rüppell’s vulture with a Moon obsession. Expect a highly-charged Wot I Think a week or two after the famous day.

And in the meantime let me recommend a more modest Graviteam release. When history-obsessed wargame studios try their hand at sci-fi or fantasy fare the results can be disappointing. Droid Vanguard, a cheap and chunky tactical TBS from Europe’s premier WW2 warfare distillers, looks from a distance like an opportunistic cash generator, a bid to keep stoves warm and larders full until the GT: Mius Front receipts start rolling in. Dismiss it as I almost did, and you’ll miss out on a surprisingly colourful and engaging experiment in lightweight wargame design.

Visually, aurally, narratively, there’s very little to the demo-blessed Droid Vanguard. Why are two robot armies knocking seven shades of silicon out of each other? Search me – it’s never explained. The design effort has gone into an ingenious multi-pronged campaign mechanism, a verdant tech tree, and a combat system rich with traditional battle gaming concepts.

With the exception of FoW, logistics, and veterancy, DV has everything a groggy box ticker/taker could wish for. The gridded battlefields are small yet flavoursome. Failing to exploit useful terrain squares (radar stations, woods, bunkers…) and avoid dangerous ones (radiation zones) invites defeat.

The customisable unit types all have their talents and weaknesses. Which way is that slow yet solid Walker going to waddle next? Will my SPG get off another shot before that pesky line-penetrating quadcopter fries it with its EMP cannon? Should I try to get my vulnerable Goliath-like suicide tank closer to those enemy pillboxes before detonating it? The tricky tactical conundrums come thick and fast.

Ignore unit facing (all units have tanky vari-thickness armour), ambush opportunities, and range and reload considerations, and the dangerous default AI (I’ve yet to try the top difficulty setting) will run riot. Critical hits that immobilise, KO weapon systems, or kindle fires add spice to the hitpoint whittling, and a sage dose of luck in the combat calculations keep the scraps from feeling too puzzle-like.

Unlike another ingenious sci-fi wargame released recently – one I completely failed to penetrate over Christmas – DV doesn’t punish mistakes too harshly either. The novel campaign grid means there’s usually an alternative scenario to try, and the unit-purchasing phase that precedes most missions means you can always return with a different unit mix. Though Droid Vanguard definitely needs an undo key and slightly better documentation, at $5 its charms and challenges come very cheap.

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The Flare Path Foxer

‘There was an old lady from Shimla
Who bore a startling resemblance to Heinrich Himmler.
One day in despair,
She permed her lip hair,
And now she doesn’t look quite so similar.’

The latest piece of doggerel to appear on the wall of the office WC has all the hallmarks of a Roman creation. I suspect my Chief Foxer Setter was inspired by last week’s foxer theme – a theme expertly exposed by capital collageer AFKAMC after useful breakthoughs from the likes of Matchstick, mrpier, and Stellar Duck.

(theme: Shimla)

a. RMS Viceroy of India
b. Guy Gibson’s medal ribbons (Gibson was born in Shimla)
c. UNESCO World Heritage Site logo (the Kalka-Shimla railway is a World Heritage site)
d. Cherokee leader, Major Ridge
e. Himalayan Monal (the state bird of Himachal Pradesh)
f. Kali statue from Champion of the Raj (Shimla was named after Hindu goddess, Shyamala Devi, an incarnation of Kali)
g. Christchurch coat of arms
h. Avro Tudor 8

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It’s Friday and it’s thirteen of the clock. Put down that pen/spade/spanner/scalpel/crack pipe/AK-47, pour yourself a tall glass of Dr. Hafner’s Patent Brain Tonic, and come stare at a collage constructed by a man whose hobbies include sniffing old books, sniffing new books, and listening to Arthur Bliss on public transport.

All answers in one thread, please.

37 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Matchstick says:

    Bottom right s George the Grumpy Steamroller from Thomas the Tank Engine books

    • Vurogj says:

      The Ferrari horse on the bottom left. Apparently has no specific breed, just the motto “Prancing Stallion”

      • Premium User Badge

        Matchstick says:

        Bottom right Morris Oxford MO Saloon I believe

      • AFKAMC says:

        The prancing horse apparently came from the personal emblem of the WW1 Italian flying ace Count Francesco Baracca… don’t know if that’s of any relevance, though.

    • guidom says:

      I think it’s a Hawker Gnat on the top left

    • AFKAMC says:

      The jet is possibly a Dassault/Dornier Alpha Jet.

    • Vurogj says:

      It’s occurs to me that the overall colour design is rather Italian, featuring as it does green and red columns.

      • guidom says:

        or Portugal which also features the red and green. Alpha jets were operated by Portugal according to the mighty wikis.

    • Premium User Badge

      Matchstick says:

      Is the engine Middle Right a Rolls Royce Vulture ?

    • Stugle says:

      The concrete slab with turret is Fort Drum, in Manila Bay. Apparently known as the concrete battleship.

      • JB says:

        The item of clothing top right appears to bear the insignia of the British Lord High Admiral ( link to crwflags.com )

        I’m still looking at the significance of the smock/tunic itself.

        e: Oops, I replied in the wrong place.

    • Stugle says:

      The battleship in the center appears to be an Iron Duke-class ship.

    • phlebas says:

      The round thing at the top is the Air Jamaica logo. A red-billed streamertail, apparently.

    • AFKAMC says:

      They’re not all islands, are they?

      Drum Islands, Canada – also, Fort Drum itself is an island
      King George Island (there are a few), also George Island in the Falklands
      Admiralty Islands (again, a few)
      Morris and Oxford Islands, somewhere or other
      Alpha Island, Antarctic
      Duke Island, Alaska
      Horse Island (lots of them) – also Yas Island, Abu Dhabi is home to Ferrari World
      Jamaica is an island

      No Vulture island, though?

      And is that the flag of Ireland in the background, if you’re slightly colour blind and that’s your idea of orange?

  2. AFKAMC says:

    Is that George the steam roller from Thomas the Tank Engine?

  3. jinglin_geordie says:

    Anyone who really wants to immerse themselves in the pre / Dreadnought era and the many personalities who contributed to the pre WW1 naval arms race should read Dreadnought by Robert K Massie, finest book I have read for years.

    • Stugle says:

      EDIT: Response to the wrong post. Anyway, this sounds like a fascinating book.

    • sekullbe says:

      The followup, Castles of Steel, covers the war itself and is similarly excellent.

  4. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    “The 12in. gun of the dreadnought is 50 feet long and if set up on one end would be higher than many church towers” sounds like an Alan Partridge fact.

    • Llewyn says:

      “…and if carefully aimed would be higher than any church tower.”

    • GT5Canuck says:

      The turret/guns at the front of the Imperial War Museum are quite imposing.

  5. TC-27 says:

    Steam and Iron is a fantastic game – the top down graphics may not be fancy but the engine/campaign gubbinz behind it are very solid and the AI delegation very helpful (you have an absurd amount of destroyers and small ships to command).

    • cederic says:

      I want a proper action game with the full groggy level of damage modelling. I’m too lazy to learn a game’s mechanics well enough to do well in proper full-on wargames but I want a naval warfare action oriented sim where the warships have rather more than just hp.

      I guess I should sit down and write one.

      • TC-27 says:

        I don’t know exactly how S&Is damage model works but its definitely not about hit-points – I have nursed home ships with all the turrets and upper works destroyed by shellfire whilst I have lost HMS Warspite to a single Torpedo hit that caused progressive flooding.

  6. jeeger says:

    Eh, the many spelling mistakes in Droid Vanguard turn me off. I’ll play it some more to check out the actual game, but “shoting”? Really? Something to do with young boys? This just looks like not enough care given to production.

    • GT5Canuck says:

      Well, ESL and not having a native English speaker proofread.

      • jeeger says:

        Ah yes, Graviteam is a Russian outfit, isn’t it? But what do you mean by ESL? Sign language?

        However the Dom itself is quite nice, I have to say. Interface is a bit strange, and it’s hard to get unit information in the game, but I really like the theme and animations. Is there something else like it (Sci-fi panzer general-like with unit upgrades)?

        • Stugle says:

          ESL is short for English as a Second Language. I think it’s more of a North American phrase.

  7. GT5Canuck says:

    Warspite by Iain Ballantyne is available on iTunes. In Canada it is $7.

  8. Stugle says:

    ESL is a common American abbreviation for ‘English as a Second Language’.

  9. CookPassBabtridge says:

    Hi Tim, just wanted to say I had my first real flying lesson today, and I owe a massive thanks to you for it. The Flare Path was what got me into DCS, and from DCS I got into GA stuff like P3D and X-Plane. Today was a VFR flight in a C172 round the beautiful aberdeen countryside :)

    • Tim Stone says:

      That’s marvellous. To mark the occasion you are hereby awarded the very first FP DFC*. Expect a bar or two and a commemorative foxer on securing that PPL.

      *FP DFCs are made from metal salvaged from a Link Trainer that pranged near the office in 1961.