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The Flare Path: On Bloody Point

My first (and last?) nine hours with Brother Against Brother

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You are, are you not, Brother Against Brother: The Drawing of the Sword, the new turn-based American Civil War wargame from Western Civilization Software and Matrix Games? You’re priced at, let me see… £36 and, unlike many recent Slitherine Group releases you are not available on Steam? Good, now that’s established, I’ll explain my terms. As I’m sure you are aware, I’m a Very Busy Chap. My time, like platinum, good flapjack recipes, and airworthy de Havilland Mosquitos, is extremely precious. I am prepared to give you an audience, but that audience must end tonight at beddy-byes time. In other words, you have approximately ten hours to knock my socks off, and that ten hours starts… now.

HOUR 1
Let’s see how far I can get without reading the manual. Amongst the 25 scenarios (many of which appear to be variants of the five featured battles – 1st Bull Run, Wilson’s Creek, Mill Springs, Mill Springs Beech Grove, Williamsburg) there’s one called ‘Williamsburg – Hancock vs. Early (Starter Scenario)’. After perusing a text briefing, and selecting the lowest of – gosh – fifteen difficulty levels, I’m thrust onto a hexy battlefield dotted with yellow question marks. Right-clicking the question marks germinates pithy play tips. I trip about reading the texts and experimenting with the various GUI buttons. Play principles seem logical and relatively simple. Less positively, the map scrolls like it’s got chronic gout, there are some disconcerting processing pauses now and again, and the spidery low-res unit art lacks both style and legibility.

A string of IgoUgo turns gallop past, each representing twenty minutes of tussle-time. Soon I realise I can do without the number-heavy detailed combat reports (the rising casualty numbers and flashing targeting arrows tell me all I need to know about losses) and deactivate them. Now if only I could work out how to a) undo accidental moves b) manually assign unit targets and c) deselect units. By the time the victory screen unfurls, I’m ready for a spot of manual study.

HOUR 2
The manual turns out to be a lot less intimidating than it first appears. Roughly two-thirds of its 214 pages are devoted to historical background and OOBs. One of my questions is answered a mere two paragraphs in (The reason I couldn’t work out how to manually target an individual unit is that manual targeting is impossible! In a bold move WCS have left targeting decisions in the hands of AI routines). Sections on leader representations, brigade orders and unit special abilities, increase my respect for BAB and its creators. The devs are clearly ACW scholars and have striven to create a game system capable of simulating the period’s warfare in all its richness, subtlety and detail. For example, in my brief initial foray I hadn’t noticed the fully modelled army hierarchy (the performance of both line and leader units suffer when units are ‘out-of-command’, far from superiors) or realised that the order selection and movement options available to my regiments were determined by the player-controlled stance of the brigade to which they belonged. With my head swirling with new information, I head back to the scenario selection screen.

HOUR 3
My second attempt at the starter scenario (This time playing as the CSA) doesn’t start well. For reasons I struggle to grasp, I lose 86 men in early exchanges, slaying a mere 5 in return. By the time the battle draws to a close I’ve clawed my way back into contention – caused a few routs and one very satisfying surrender – but failure to secure key VLs means defeat. “Do you want to continue the battle?”. Yes, I think I do. A few turns later, the tables have been turned and I’m quietly congratulating myself when retaliatory fire from a harassed Union formation produces a moment of delicious piqancy. A pop-up  informs me that one of my brassiest top brass, Jubal A. Early, is no more.

HOUR 4
While my men limp away to lick wounds, brew coffee, and make disparaging remarks about their chump of a leader, I return to the manual to read about stuff like the importance of commanders (their stats effect everything from movement rates and damage levels, to panic recovery chances and formation switching efficiency), echelon movement (pleasingly, there does seem to be a way of moving clusters of units around with single clicks) and temporary brigade attachments (a way to maintain those all-important command links if units end-up far from their original leaders). Eager to test out my new-found knowledge and prove I can win as the CSA without tampering with the clock, I fire up the starter scenario for the third time. The homework sessions seem to be paying off. This time I prevail fairly easily. I think I’m ready to take the training wheels off. It’s time for a proper scenario.

HOUR 5
The ‘small scenario’ label next to ‘1st Manassas (Blackburn’s Ford)’ catches my eye, and a few minutes later I’m pushing knots of blue-clad ants south towards two star-spangled river crossing hexes. En-route I decide I’ve had enough of the brassy martial soundtrack, then have second thoughts when, plunged into eerie silence, I realise that WCS have provided precious little in the way of battlefield sounds. Graphically and aurally, there’s no disguising the fact that BAB is decidedly disappointing. The battle proceeds messily. I am diverted, but, for the first time, sense the twin incubi of Boredom and Dissatisfaction watching me from a nearby knoll. A gratifying draw is snatched, but I can’t shake the feeling that I’d have had considerably more fun playing ‘Blackburn’s Ford’ if it had been a Scourge of War or a Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! scenario.

HOUR 6
Battling for Blackburn’s Ford for a second time, victory comes surprisingly easily despite an increase in the difficulty level. The pattern of the scrap is quite different this time – which bodes well for BAB’s replayability – but the foe seems a tad listless and confused. WCS’s approach to command coverage, is, I now realise, a trifle odd. Sometimes the simple act of crossing a river seems to render a regiment ‘out-of-command’. I wonder if WCS ever considered simulating a SoW-style courier system.

HOURS 7, 8, & 9
Six hours in and I’m still waiting to be blown away by Brother Against Brother’s smoke-wreathed 12-pounders. In an effort to turn things around I move up to medium difficulty (‘Captain’) and reach for one of the larger, longer centrepiece scenarios. Wilson’s Creek starts with a commander selection dialogue (largely pointless as one candidate is far better qualified than the rest). Once that’s dealt with, I’m free to survey a roomy battlespace with two main VLs at its heart (Bloody Hill and Bloody Point) and work out what I’m going to do with my split force of bluecoats (three brigades in the North, one in the South). I could claim that I devise and implement a wonderfully intricate plan involving feints and stealthy flanking, but that would be a lie. No, I bee-line for the crucial VLs – grabbing them remarkably easily – then look on bemusedly while a lethargic, dithering enemy spectacularly fails to win them back. During the last hour I barely move a unit. There’s no need.

Brother Against Brother boasts a slew of fine, likeable features. I love the way scraps are accented with event pop-ups (So-and-so has just been wounded… a lucky shot just blew up a supply wagon...). I love the way units occasionally misinterpret orders and go to the wrong hexes, the way leaders are individualised, and armies are organised. It’s a game that bleeds scholarship like a cannonball-grazed pine tree bleeds resin. I’m sure there are ardent ACW wargamers out there who will value it. However, as a wargamer of less specific tastes, based on what I’ve seen and heard during the past nine hours, I think I’d rather get my blue & gray thrills elsewhere.

 

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The Flare Path Foxer

To atone for last Friday’s foxer gaff (Sorry, there was a broken rung on the word ladder) Roman has spent much of this week helping local old ladies cross roads, carry shopping, and strip and clean their assault rifles. Amazingly, that broken rung didn’t stop xceptional XP-55s like Cei, Llewyn, phlebas and AFKAMC from reaching the top.

20. sonar Detects underwater objects
19. polar Curve useful to glider pilots
18. poles 145 served in the RAF during the Battle of Britain
17. potez French aircraft manufacturer
16. hotel In the NATO phonetic alphabet
15. ratel Sweet-toothed SADF stalwart
14. rotol British prop producer
13. rotte [A] LW fighter formation
12. otter WW2 armoured car
11. enter [A] European airline
10. trent Rolls Royce aero engine
9. ghent 19th Century peace treaty
8. grant M3 variant
7. prang Slang for a plane crash
6. praga Czech vehicle manufacturer
5. drama Site of dramatic WW2 uprising
4. tramp Itinerant freighter
3. champ British Army vehicle inspired by the Jeep
2. chain [A] A form of drive that’s been around since 250BC
1. china

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Back to pickchers this week. To crack today’s collage theme super-quick simply print out the image below, force-feed it to the cleverest owl in your owlarium, and await pellets.

All answers in one thread, please.

Tagged with , , .

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Tim Stone

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