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The Flare Path: A Roundhead Reflects

Wargame and simulation blather

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Apologies. This brief but heartfelt Pike & Shot: Campaigns recommendation is going to be heavy on the assumptions and inferences. Expect lots of statements like… The game’s unscripted version of the Great Turkish War is probably highly entertaining… Swedes will almost certainly adore the Gustavus Adolphus campaign… Multiplayer should be a hoot… I suspect there’s some cracking engagements amongst the historical battle selection… You see I’ve been so absorbed in a marathon recreation of the English Civil War that, despite playing Byzantine’s latest for the best part of a week, I’ve seen nothing of the game’s other charms.

My personal ECW ended last night in a glorious Parliamentarian victory. To mark the Royalist surrender I approved a three-day public holiday, and suggested that all good Republicans get totally rat-arsed and dance themselves silly ordered nationwide services of thanksgiving and temporarily lifted the smiling ban I’d introduced in 1642. Truly, I am a man of the people.

I also reflected on the fine time I’d had cowing the cavaliers. Pacy, plausible, friendly and fresh in its original form, Pike & Shot is now verging on the unmissable thanks to the addition of a simple yet effective strategic layer. In P&SC you can still fight through the old sequential campaigns – strings of authored historical scraps – but there’s also opportunities to participate in free-form map conquering jaunts in which victories and defeats cast pike-long shadows.

Available in ECW, Great Turkish War, Thirty Years War (Swedish phase) and non-specific European free-for-all forms, the new campaigns look a little crude at first. Moving armies around a cellular theatre map sparking battles and seizing territory is all very well, but where’s my tech tree, my espionage and diplomatic options, you ask yourself. Happily, there are hidden subtleties that imbue long games with extra flavour and shape. Subtleties like the supply system, season-linked turns and siege rules.

Merging armies into colossal bully-boy blobs is discouraged by provincial supply limits (overload an area and your force will eventually wither) and an opportunistic happy-to-cleave enemy StratAI. Forcing an enemy army out of a province doesn’t mean that province instantly switches allegiance. Before you can tax a new area, and draw on its population for recruitment, you must first overcome stubborn urban enclaves.

An automatic process (the bigger and better armed the occupying force and the longer you leave it in situ, the more chance there is of settlement surrender) the slow subjugation of provinces is further complicated by attrition amongst besiegers and the onset of winter. No-one messes with Jack Frost and Samuel Snow in P&SC. When winter comes (every sixth turn) your men pack up and head for the nearest friendly province.

You know that moment in a lengthy strategy game campaign when you start losing interest – when the ‘auto-resolve battle’ button starts looking especially attractive? That moment never arrived during my Cromwellian campaign. Thanks to unusually capable TacAI, an excellent random map generator, and inspired combat mechanics (See original P&S Wot I Think) I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed every battle I’ve orchestrated during the past six days. The images dotting this section might suggest samey engagements; in fact Byzantine’s semi-sequel has a knack of producing deliciously distinct scraps.

Glancing through my screenshots folder, images jab my hippocampus like cavalry spurs. Ah yes, that was the fight when I picketed the river bank, and Rupert’s gallopers turned my left flank! That was the nailbiter in the L-shaped valley where I was pushed off the knoll! That was the time my centre collapsed and we regrouped on the edge of that wood… On the battlefield P&SC has a wonderful knack for springing surprises and provoking perspiration. Though it still lacks leader representations, its smart AI cavalry and mischievous auto-pursuit rules ensure battles feel alive… chaotic… human.

Are there still areas where Richard Bodley Scott’s design can improve? Of course. Audio remains painfully weak, the camera unnecessarily restrictive; in campaign mode it doesn’t appear to be possible to attack a province from two sides simultaneously; Richard, any chance of replays in the near future and readily available unit advice for novices? (there are hundreds of unit types in the game and initially, it’s far from obvious how to employ each to best effect)

And oh yes, as a dyed-in-the-wool Parliamentarian I’d like to request an urgent unit buff. Currently, London Lobsters are about as dangerous as the Common variety.

The rather brilliant Pike & Shot: Campaigns is available now through Matrix/Slitherine (£25) and Steam (£30). There’s a 75% discount if you already own P&S.

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I don’t do studio visits or preview events anymore. Partly that’s because I don’t like to leave Mephistopheles IV in the hands of inexperienced valvejacks and stokers for any length of time, but mainly I no longer housecall because I always seem to come away disappointed by the half-hearted, half measures devs I meet on such occasions. Take attire for instance. During my last Creative Assembly visit (circa 2011) every single staff member I encountered was wearing modern garb; incredibly, there wasn’t a kabuto or kimono in sight! It was a similar story during my last Bohemia Interactive visit; not a whiff of a ghillie suit or a tactical vest. Call me old-fashioned but I like my gamewrights to breathe, eat, sleep and wear their themes. I like my gamewrights like Maxim and Oleg Ferapontov.

The two brothers – shown above in their usual 9-to-5 attire – have been crafting Nineteenth Century naval wargames for a good seven years now. While Flare Path hasn’t always showered their efforts with praise, the appearance of an elegant strategic element in Ironclads 2 was most encouraging. If anyone still questions whether Totem Games are headed in The Right Direction then the screenshots which dropped into FP’s inbox last week should remove all doubt.

In addition to working on an Ironclads 2 update which will introduce amphibious assaults and harbour sieges, Totem are busy engineering a new generation title packed with the kind of tactical subtleties their more discerning/demanding fans and critics have been requesting for yonks. Intricate ship systems, crew interaction, damage control, and high fidelity ballistics promise to make High Seas: Blue & Gray (No ETA yet) far bulkier and more engaging than its shallow-draft predecessors.

Coal-fired floating fortresses are clearly Totem’s first love (Maxim, a published naval historian presently writing a monograph on the Battle of Lissa, has been interested in the subject since coming across a book on the Russo-Japanese War as a child) but the work-in-progress tech is being built with other eras in mind too. Amongst the sheaf of screenshots sent to FP were several images of the Prinz Eugen, the WW2 heavy cruiser that accompanied Bismarck into the Atlantic in May 1941.

The pic below is particularly intriguing and definitely warrants a closer look (click to embiggen)

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The Flare Path Foxer

Last week’s foxer extravaganza brought Roman to his knees. He just about managed to sift the sacks of submissions for correct answers (see the updated column for all eight solutions), draw winners, and send out Steam codes, but responding to the warm words that accompanied many of the guesses proved beyond him. Sorry about that.

I’ve given my knackered collage king the day off today. The prizeless puzzle below is the work of Roman’s understudy, Roger, a man so keen on London double-deckers he…

  • Comes to work dressed in a suit made from ‘Routemaster’ LT moquette
  • Refuses to watch Live and Let Die
  • Removed the back door from his house and fitted a vertical pole in the space*

*He’s now the most burgled man in Berkshire.

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Tim Stone

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