The Flare Path: A Frank Hexchange

The work of helmet restorers Alexander & Sons

Yesterday morning, quite by chance, I found myself sharing a tuk-tuk with one of my personal heroes. The six sides and rotational/reflection symmetries, the 120 degree internal angles, the faint whiff of blood and cordite… I recognised Theo Hexagon, aka ‘The Hex’, the moment he hopped aboard. By the time we hit our first traffic-jam, I’d introduced myself, whipped out a voice recorder and commenced an impromptu interview. A transcript of that all-too-brief exchange follows. If you’ve ever waged war on a battlefield draped with outsized chicken wire, the 1200-or-so words beyond the break should prove interesting.

RPS: You’re sure you don’t mind?

Hex: Not at all. Be my guest.

RPS: Well, I guess it would be logical to start at the beginning. How did you get into gaming?

Hex: In the mid 1860s I was looking to diversify (at that time the honey industry was being hit hard by the rise of bottled preserves) and an opportunity came along to work with games pioneers Jaques of London. They wanted to give chess a new twist and thought I’d make an interesting square replacement. The result was the rather elegant Hexagonia.

Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century I was asked to replace squares in another popular strategy board game, Halma. An Otto Robert Maier project Stern-Halma sold fairly well in Germany but really took off when it crossed the Atlantic and was rebranded as Chinese Checkers.

RPS: When did you get involved in wargaming?

Hex: In the late 50s. I was recruited by the US government. They used me in various top secret research wargames. It was while participating in one of these hush-hush projects that I was spotted by board wargaming trailblazer Charles S. Roberts. ‘Square’ for ten years, the man behind Avalon Hill released his first batch of six-sided titles in ’61. Gettysburg was a hexy conversion of the 1958 game of the same name. Chancellorsville and D-Day were entirely new designs.

RPS: What did Roberts see in you?

Hex: No offence to my brother-in-arms, the square, but while he tessellates beautifully and is dead easy to draw, his diagonal functionality has always been flawed. A diagonal move on a square grid is mathematically, visually, and implicitly quite different from an orthogonal one. The mover travels further, they trespass on flanking squares as they travel; in short, diagonal moves are messy, confusing moves. Employ me and you don’t get issues like that. I’m also far better at representing sinuous rural topography like rivers, ridges, and forest edges.

RPS: But less good at representing regimented urban terrain?

Hex. Oh, sure. Yes. I’ve always been up front about that. If you’re looking to build a modern UO/FIBUA game I might not be the best option. Napoleonic and similarly linear forms of warfare – ditto.

Can coins a, b and c see the threepenny bit (e) or is it obscured by the farthing (d)?

RPS: Over the years, some of your employers have struggled with grain and LOS calculation issues. There’s been criticism of your vulnerability to gamey Zone of Control exploits. Do these digs hurt?

Hex: Not particularly. All perfectly regular grid systems encourage ZOC abuse and make determining LOS without recourse to complicated templates or independent tabletop style aids, tricky. I’m no silver bullet. However, used intelligently – backed by thoughtful rules – I’d argue I’m frequently the best tool for the job.

RPS: Let’s head back to memory lane. What was your first computer game?

Hex: That depends a bit on your definition of ‘computer game’. In 1953 Claude Shannon and E.F. Moore of the Bell Telephone Laboratories built a machine capable of playing Hex, a brain-blistering strategy game devised by Danish mathematician Piet Hein in 1942. The device represented the hexgrid board with an electrical resistor network, and aimed to increase the resistivity of that network through its moves (the moves of the human player caused short circuits).

It would be another 23 years before I participated in a computer strategy game with a military theme. In 1976, inspired by an encounter with a student who was attempting to digitize AH’s Blitzkrieg, Chris Crawford coded ‘Wargy’ on a colossal 16k IBM 1130. The game relied on cardboard maps and counters from Panzer Leader. You plotted your moves using the physical components, entered the data, and then waited nervously while the machine did its thing. Despite its rudimentary AI, Wargy managed to trounce the tank forces of several experienced human players when introduced to the public at a wargaming convention in Nebraska in December ’76. Two years later, reworked and retitled Tanktics, it was on sale to owners of the Commodore PET.

RPS: When did visual likenesses of your good self start appearing in computer wargames?

Hex: I guess that would have been around 1980. As I recall, it was Roger Keating, the Australian pioneer, who painted a wargaming hexgrid with pixels for the first time. His ‘Conflict’ for the Apple II (later published by SSI under the name Rebel Force) was a modern-day company-level battle sim depicting warfare between an armour-equipped Goliath and a militia-reliant David. There were five unit types, five forms of terrain, minefields, ZOCs, automatically triggered retreats… it all seemed awfully advanced at the time.

RPS: The Eighties were a good time for you?

Hex: Amazing. I started working with some very talented, very loyal people. John Tiller, Gary Grigsby, Joel Billings, Keith Brors, Norm Koger, Roger Keating, Ian Trout, Chuck Kroegel… more than thirty years on I’m still collaborating with a good few of the old crowd. Many are close friends. John is godfather to my oldest. Gary’s swimming pool is six-sided in my honour. Joel has a portrait of me tattooed on his…

(At this point the tuk-tuk swerved to avoid a wandering water buffalo and the conversation was drowned out by the stream of expletives from our driver)

RPS: Career highlights?

Hex: I’ve been associated with so many great series over the years, it’s almost impossible to single out particular games. If you held a Whitworth Rifle to my head, I guess I’d have to mention the Steel Panthers… John’s Campaign and Squad Battles games… SSG’s Decisive Battles… 2 By 3’s monsters. The Panzer Generals paid for my beach house so I should probably name-check them too.

RPS: And outside traditional wargaming?

Hex: Getting the call from Firaxis in 2008 was pretty special.

RPS: Hexcells?

Hex: Don’t tell Matthew Brown this but I’d happily work for him for free.

RPS: Knickers – this looks like the station. Before you go, of the PC projects you’re working on at present are there any you’re particularly excited about?

Hex: You’ve heard that The Operational Art of War 4 is in the pipeline? Obviously, it’s lovely to be part of that. In August I’m off to Croatia to work on 2×2’s Unity of Command sequel. That’s sure to be fun. And of course I’m signed up for Johan Nagel’s next game, the Afghanistan one…

(The tuk-tuk pulls up. Hex alights. We shake hands)

RPS: Pleasure to meet you!

Hex: Likewise! Oh, I think I forgot to mention AMAC2? I can count my aerial wargame credits on the fingers of one finger-four formation, so it’s splendid to be involved in Alex’s spiritual sequel to Flight Commander 2.

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

 

The Flare Path Foxer

Ringed by tangled belts of birch trees and guarded (so the locals claim) by an army of featherless wereowls, it’s hardly surprising the Maria Reactor was able to survive last week’s defox. The other eight locations proved less resilient.

a Maria Reactor, Świerk-Otwock
b Trajan’s Column, Rome (All is Well)
c Lyon–Saint-Exupéry Airport (Lord Bilisknir, phlebas)
d John Frost Bridge, Arnhem (Syt, billy_bunter)
e Tasman light rail station, San Jose (Matchstick, Rorschach617, AbyssUK)
f Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport (Lord Bilisknir)
g Chavasse Park, Liverpool (All is Well, AbyssUK)
h Hippodrome Wellington, Ostend (phlebas)
i Gagarin’s Start, Baikonur Cosmodrome (phuzz)

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

The IDFA don’t go in for canonisation. If they did, Willi Fromm would certainly be Saint Willi of Frankfurt by now. From 1938 until his capture and execution in 1943, Willi ran a one man resistance campaign using foxers as his primary weapon. The people of Frankfurt often woke to find their noticeboards, walls, and trams plastered with subversive collages. One of his most famous images featured a portly magpie, a picture frame, a Fokker D.VII, an auroch, a syringe, and a German identity card belonging to one ‘H. Meier’.

All answers in one thread, please.

81 Comments

  1. AFKAMC says:

    FOXER: Cutaway is of the tail of a Bell UH-1B Iroquois (“Huey”).

    • All is Well says:

      Lower left aircraft is a civilian Lockheed Hudson, I think

      • Stugle says:

        I thought Lockheed Electra, but must admit I don’t see a lot of difference between the two.

      • AFKAMC says:

        This looks very similar: link to flickr.com

        If so, a Lockheed Model 14 Super Electra

        I was also thinking maybe a Lode Star?

        • All is Well says:

          I think it’s this precise photo (but a bit brighter) since it seems to have the same number:
          link to flickr.com
          Which would indeed make it a Super Electra!

          • AFKAMC says:

            Yeah, but the little pod thingy is on the roof in the Foxer photo, underneath the nose in the Flickr one… unless the photo’s been retouched.

          • phlebas says:

            The pod thingy’s on top in both – there are a couple of prongy things under the nose which are clearer in the Flickr version.

          • AFKAMC says:

            I was looking at a different Flickr photo.

            Looking at All Is Well’s link, the registration of the plane is G-AFGN. According to Wikipedia, this was one of the aircraft which flew Neville Chamberlain around Germany while the Munich Agreement was being put together. Possible clue?

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      Matchstick says:

      Assualt Rifle in the middle looks to be a very early model Heckler and Koch G3
      link to world.guns.ru (top image)

      • AFKAMC says:

        MUNICH MASSACRE!

        Wikipedia: “In addition, the snipers did not have the proper equipment for this hostage rescue operation. The Heckler & Koch G3 battle rifles used were considered by several experts…”

    • foop says:

      As per my misplaced reply below, the loco front looks like a BR Class 31/Brush type 2.

      Lets hope this reply gets to the right place in the thread.

      • Electricfox says:

        Indeed, I’d say it was a 31/0 or quite possibly a 30, since they were known as 30s before they were reclassified as 31s. It’s a /0 because of the lack of box above the cab, so a ‘skinhead’ variant.

        • Stugle says:

          Wikipedia says Neo-Nazis supported the Palestinian terrorists at Munich. Skinheads – Neo-Nazis?

    • phlebas says:

      Bottom right: Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy Walker in The Village.
      (Apologies for misthreading – I should have reloaded before commenting…)

      • AFKAMC says:

        Without wishing to labour the MUNICH link too much – Olympic Village?

        • Llewyn says:

          Given Stugle’s find of the MTR station I think it’s as much an Olympic link as a Munich one, though perhaps the Munich Games is the theme? Though that would surprise me without some sort of link to… hang on…

          The Palestinian terrorist group that massacred Israeli athletes during the Games was Black September, wasn’t it? A link to the Septembrists logo?

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      Matchstick says:

      Black thing top right looks like radar/ATC symbology ?

      • Llewyn says:

        I think it’s actually the athletics (or speed skating?) logo from the old Olympic Games set.

        • Llewyn says:

          Or neither, and in fact* the fencing logo.

          *Current opinion, subject to terms and conditions.

          • Llewyn says:

            FWIW (ie probably nothing for the Foxer), designed for Munich ’72 by Otl Aicher, apparently.

          • Syt says:

            Based on the angle of body/arm it indeed looks like the 1972 Olympics fencing pictogram.

          • AFKAMC says:

            Is there a Munich link? See my post re. the Lockheed 14.

          • Stugle says:

            The Palestinians gained access to the Olympic Village by scaling the fencing around it?

          • Stugle says:

            And one of the Israeli hostages, Andre Spitzer, was a fencing master.

    • Beowulf says:

      The biplane looks like a Polikarpow I-153

      • Beowulf says:

        COrrection – I-15 more likely.

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        Matchstick says:

        Well spotted, according to wikipedia that’s known as the Чайка or Seagull

      • Rorschach617 says:

        You sure?

        All the images of the I-15/i-153 I find have the upper wing “gullwinging” into the fuselage.

        • Beowulf says:

          You were not googling hard enough :) But now, that I have more time too look at it, it’s not the I-15, even the wing struts are wrong. It could be I-5 if not for the tail section. And since it looks like the hybrid of the two, it’s neither, and I was looking in the wrong direction. Anyway, I hope I will find out when I get home from the weekend.

      • AFKAMC says:

        I don’t think it is an I-15, sorry. The upper wing on the Polikarpov looks to have been lower down, and closer to the windscreen.

        • Beowulf says:

          Yeah, you are right. Now that I have more time to look it’s nothing like I-15. I was confused by the realtive shortness of the fuselage and that high tail. It could be I-5, but than again – the tail would be wrong. Oh well…

          • Beowulf says:

            You can find the same wing strut layout in Grumman FxF series, maybe it’s one of their variants?

      • AFKAMC says:

        The cowling round the engine looks like a Townend Ring, but quite a lot of aircraft of that period had them.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        Caproni Ca/114?

        link to en.wikipedia.org

        Looks a bit too long in the tail.

      • Stugle says:

        Could it be some type of Boeing, since the hostage takers were promised a 727?

        • phlebas says:

          Could be! The Boeing-Stearman Model 75 looks pretty similar.

        • Rorschach617 says:

          Closest I can come to the foxer, in general design, is the Boeing P12E on this page.

          link to en.wikipedia.org

          and the spine is too long, no spats on the wheels and the “townend ring” (is that what its called?) is too prominent. But there were a lot of variants, and the wing struts look good.

    • Syt says:

      Cyrillic symbol on the right belongs to Bulgarian Dimitrovist Pioneer Organization “Septemberists”: link to en.wikipedia.org

    • Janichsan says:

      The woman in the bottom right is Bryce Dallas Howard in M. Night Shyamalamadingdong’s cult classic “The Village”.

    • Stugle says:

      I figure the medal/award/badge is something Russian, what with the Cyrillic and the shades that look like the Russian flag, but lord does the Russian Federation have a boatload of awards to give away…

    • Shiloh says:

      винаги is Bulgarian for “always”, fact fans.

      • JB says:

        I’d just got as far as translating that when Syt came up with the answer above. Bah.

        Good work, Syt!

        • Syt says:

          Thanks – I can read Cyrillic, so I thought I’d put it into Russian Wikipedia and see what turns up. Fortunately, it was only 4 articles. :D

    • Stugle says:

      The background picture is in Hong Kong somewhere (the public transit logo).

      • Stugle says:

        The logo is for MTR, Mass Transit Railway (such an evocative name).

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          Matchstick says:

          So presumably that’s a picture of an MTR rail station somewhere on the island ?

          • Stugle says:

            Yes, but the unhelpful buggers have liberally sprinkled their territory with stations (and highrises), which is currently hampering my search (not to mention work productivity ).

          • Stugle says:

            MTR Olympic Stadium – Electra, Olympic… A classical theme? Really grasping here.

    • Syt says:

      Starting to get a Munich 1972 vibe here:

      Sebtemberists: Black September
      Fencing Logo from Munich 1972
      G3 – used by Germans during the botched hostage liberation
      The Village – Olympic Village from where the Israeli athletes were abducted ….

      Would be an interesting choice of topic considering that today is: link to en.wikipedia.org

      • AFKAMC says:

        I think you’re right!

        The Lockheed 14 pictured was used to ferry Chamberlain around during the Munich Agreement negotiations.

      • Electricfox says:

        Class 31/0 – Mirlees JVS12T engine, Mirlees were taken over by MAN eventually (although they were eaten by GEC Alstom before that) which is a Bavarian group, with MAN SEs headquarters in Munich.

        • Llewyn says:

          Equally tenuous link: at one point all the 31/0s were stationed out of the Stratford depot, on the site of what became the 2012 Olympic Park. OK, possibly slightly more tenuous, I admit.

        • Volcanu says:

          Alternatively as other have said it had the nickname of ‘skinhead’.

          The black september terrorists received assistance from german neo-nazis (skinheads) I believe…

      • AFKAMC says:

        Two Bell UH-1 military helicopters were to transport the terrorists and hostages to nearby Fürstenfeldbruck, a NATO airbase.

      • JB says:

        Not sure this is the exact link, but the Hong Kong MTR has a Jordan station, the Munich massacre wiki page states “The attackers were subsequently reported to be part of the Palestinian fedayeen from refugee camps in Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan.”

        • JB says:

          Though now I write that, obviously I realise Stugle had already mentioned the OLYMPIC station above. D’oh!

      • AFKAMC says:

        Maybe the Hong Kong link is this: All of the members of the Uruguay and Hong Kong Olympic teams, which also shared the building with the Israelis, were released unharmed during the crisis.

        • JB says:

          Could be. Having gone down the Google Earth streetview route, that sure does look like the Olympic station.

      • Rorschach617 says:

        I think you have it, Syt. Nice thinking.

        The bi-plane is still bugging me tho.

      • mrpier says:

        I thought the thing in the top was a satellite of some sort, but I haven’t found anything to confirm it. Munich does house the German Space Operations Center, so I might not be completely off.

    • GT5Canuck says:

      The Munich hostages were bundled into Hueys, Then the Special Forces attacked, which led to the terrorists blowing up the helicopters.

  2. foop says:

    Loco from the front looks like a BR Class 31 (also known as Brush type 2). Not sure yet which variant.

  3. phlebas says:

    Bottom right: Bryce Dallas Howard as Ivy Walker in The Village.

  4. Stugle says:

    As always, I greatly enjoy the Foxer (when I get in early enough to have a stab at it), but I would be remiss if I didn’t remark on the high quality of the actual article, both for its contents and its delivery. :)

    • JB says:

      Absolutely. As magnificent as the Foxer is, it should never be thought that we readers don’t appreciate the craftmanship of the article too. Long may the Flare Path continue.

      • Syt says:

        Indeedelido. Also, thanks for pointing out AMAC at the end of the article. I was oblivious to its existence and feel my life will be enriched by its presence. :)

    • phlebas says:

      Quite! Getting a bash at the Foxer before others have entirely defoxed it is more urgent (four elements were identified in the first ten minutes this week) but next comes a more leisurely read of the main FP piece, which is always an enjoyable read but I thought this week’s especially good. Bravo, sir Stone.

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    chiroho says:

    I should point out that the Sydney airport is actually Kingsford Smith Airport, not Kingston Smith as indicated. It’s named after Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, a famous Australian aviator who made the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia.

  6. BooleanBob says:

    Thirded. Reading the article, I was of the belief that the advertised 60-something comments, surely congratulating Tim on his inspired and sense-stuffed nonsense, had been especially well-earned this week. Consternation unbounded abounded on realising one would have to scroll thus far for even the whiff of complimentia. Such are the rewards of genius!

  7. Shiloh says:

    Fourthed. I’ve loved hexes since I was boy, designing war games with my dad. Drawing hexes on big pieces of board was a real chore, but worthwhile in the end – I reckon “Secret Army” (based on the 70s TV series of the same name) was our best effort, in case you’re wondering :-)

  8. RealityJones says:

    Love the experience behind this regular column but the heavy use of bizarre jargon makes it nearly unintelligible.

    • mrvega says:

      Agreed. I’ve been trying to get properly involved in these Flare Path articles for months but everytime I read one I feel likeb there’s some inside-joke going on that I’m not aware of.

      …I still read them, though

  9. Hydrogene says:

    I’m not a wargame specialist, but which Firaxis games from 2008 uses hexagons? Civilization V was only published in 2010…
    Otherwise, it seems like a nice and interesting tuktuk ride, Mr Stone! Well done!

  10. Retro says:

    Wonderful article. Sometimes I wish the Foxer could be split off so that comments relevant to the actual article don’t go missing amongst the guesses..