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The Flare Path: Roasts Nuts

Wargame & simulation blather

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I hope memories of last year’s Flare Path Christmas Fair won’t put you off attending this year’s (December 19, 1200-1700hrs, Upper Bumhope recreation ground). Roman has promised to go easy on the mulled wine tomorrow so the aerosani rides should be significantly safer. Uncle George will be roasting chestnuts as usual, but as his Flammenwerfer 35 was confiscated after the 2014 event, a repeat of the brandy bowser explosion and reindeer stampede is highly unlikely. Kisses under the mistletoe return by popular demand, Mr. Thornton of the Health & Safety Executive having accepted that no-one could have foreseen last year’s tragic undercarriage collapse. Just about the only regular attraction that won’t be present tomorrow is Santa’s Garotte-o. Unfortunately, Shropshire Steve, our long-serving Saint Nicholas impersonator/CQB specialist, left us in October for a new home in Princetown, Devon. Barring miracles, he won’t be dispensing gifts or weaponry advice to ruddy-cheeked infants until 2020 at the earliest.

Nuts!: The Battle of the Bulge isn’t the first computer wargame to use a famous “Will you surrender?” response as a title (Cindersoft’s Go F**k Yourself: Tobruk, 1941 has that distinction). However, HexWar’s latest does break new ground with its card fixation and daring build-the-battlefield-as-you-go map mechanism. Without doubt the most unusual Unternehmen Wacht am Rhein recreation ever to appear on the PC (and there have been a few), it would be lovely to be able to report that the novelty came with concordant challenge, polish and plausibility. Sadly, that isn’t the case.

While this $20 curio proves it’s possible to deliver a flavoursome Bulge strategic experience using nothing but 300 virtual cards and a handful of digital dice, incongruous play patterns and dull-witted silicon opponents suggest that balancing such a creation and coding an AI capable of playing it well, is no easy task.

David McElhannon’s 1998 analogue design is at the heart of this release. We move unit cards around the same 6×6 Ardennes-representing grid, slowly filling the 36 cells with terrain cards as they’re drawn. We follow identical IGOUGO turn timetables (supply phase, cohesion checks, replenish hand, place reinforcements, movement, combat) and, as in the card game, the German player achieves success by trundling mechanized units off the western ‘Antwerp’ edge of the ‘board’. For the most part, rules are simple and logical. Once you’ve forgotten to play phase-linked events cards once or twice (most events cards are only playable during specific turn phases) and accidentally ordered an artillery bombardment when you meant to initiate a full assault, you’ll have made all the classic beginner’s mistakes.

In all areas but one, Nuts feels like a design devised by a consummate history condenser. I can understand why McElhannon thought it would be a good idea to populate grid squares with river, bridge, forest, and town cards as games progress – a constantly evolving map forces you to think on your feet – but, in practise, having topography materialise in squares previously traversed or contested, generates as much disbelief as drama. Riiiiight. That cell my armour unit scurried through last turn without issues, now has a chunk of the Meuse in it. Until the appropriate bridge card is drawn or I acquire the means to build a pontoon bridge, other mechanized forces will have to use an alternative route.

Battlefield generation isn’t truly random (some terrain cards are in place at the start and all have prescribed reality-based grid positions) but even so, cartographic conservatives really should have been offered an ‘all terrain cards in place at start’ option. With weather, reinforcement schedules, air support availability, bridge blowing opportunities and countless other factors decided by the deck, it’s not as if the game is short of uncertainties.

Nuts is constantly thrusting colourful history-steeped cards into your hand. Every turn there are new tactical choices to consider. The tragedy is, right now, none of these tactical choices matter much. Artificial opponents are so easily out-thought and out-fought there’s no real need to heed terrain or play to the strengths of your hand. Defending? Just arrange your units in a vertical line on the right-hand side of the grid and watch as Model’s men blitzkrieg themselves into bloody heaps. Yes, you’ll need to fill holes now and again, strengthen weakspots, and perhaps surrender a square from time to time, but it’s highly unlikely the Germans will ever get as far as Bastogne, let alone Marche or Dinant. In attack. chiselling gaps in the Allied line requires far more persistence than perspicacity.

With its countless card combinations, it would probably take years to craft a genuinely crafty solitaire opponent for McElhannon’s design. What I find disappointing is that the artificial adversary HexWar provide, though reasonably competent at Schwerpunkting and building an unbroken defensive line, doesn’t recognise a totally futile attack when he sees one. The chump regularly throws away single units in assaults that make the Charge of the Light Brigade look sensible. With solo victories so easy to come by and multiplayer games currently impossible, the devs need to address the absence of selectable difficulty levels ASAP. If the only way to add tension and challenge to Nuts in the short term is to reduce the hand size of the human player, then so be it.

Hopefully, any future patches will also include GUI improvements and bug fixes. I can live with the lack of an undo key, the unnecessarily laborious click-the-tick-to-confirm movement system, and the tedious really-should-be-optional ‘assign hits’ phase. The occasional seize-ups are harder to overlook.

I’m starting to think the devs of Bulge wargames include freezes in their creations for perverse thematic reasons. Three months on from its release, Shenandoah’s Battle of the Bulge, the natural alternative to Nuts, is still not freeze-free and, consequently, continues to gather dust on my ‘play when properly patched’ pile. If Battlefront’s upcoming Bulge offering locks solid from time to time, I think my conspiracy theory will be as good as proved.

Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg doesn’t have an official product page yet but this feature list post and the AARs currently unfolding here and here reveal no sign of cut corners, TO&E meanness, or technical issues.

Standalone and liberally snow-sprinkled, CMFB will ship with 130 different vehicles including newcomers like the Chaffee and the Jagdtiger, three major campaigns (Aachen, the relief of Bastogne, and Kampfgruppe Peiper’s drive on the Meuse) approximately 24 self-contained scraps, and an impressive 330 Quick Battle maps. The Brits and Canadians must wait for a future expansion pack to join the late-war push to the German border. Engine changes look pretty thin on the ground. For those waiting patiently for CM to take the strat map plunge and reinstate randomly generated maps, the thumb-twiddling continues.

* * * * *

 

The Flare Path Foxer

The hard-as-nails Roman refused to include Robin Hood and Captain Blood references in last week’s collage. When I accused him of being unsporting, he muttered something about ‘swallows not needing sat navs.’

Errol Flynn (defoxed by AFKAMC)

a Grumman F3F (MadKerbal)
b DiRT Showdown (skink74)
c HMS Seahawk, Cornwall (Matchstick)
d Modified Dodge WC52 (Rorschach617, Beowulf)
e The cover of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (phlebas)
f de Havilland Dragonfly (AFKAMC)
g Hobart Building, SF (Flynn was born in Hobart, Tasmania) (skink74)
h Art from Prince of Persia (unsolved)
i Vickers machine gun (AFKAMC)
j HMS Nelson (Stugle)
k Class 47, 47580 ‘County of Essex‘ (Matchstick)

* * * * *

Roman’s word ladders don’t work like standard word ladders. You clamber from bottom to top, placing appropriate five-letter words on each rung. Usually a word inherits three letters from the word below it (the positions of those three letters are inherited too) .The exceptions are the words derived from [A] clues which are anagrams of the words below them. Clues should make the climb easier, but be aware that my unspeakably fiendish foxer setter has shuffled the ten clues on the upper half of the ladder (clues 11 to 20). For example ‘[A] French victory in Vietnam’ probably doesn’t belong next to rung 20.

20. —– [A] French victory in Vietnam
19. —– Hemingway Museum exhibit
18. —– Pioneered by Handley Page
17. —– Air race accoutrement
16. —– Crater between the Lake of Dreams and the Lake of Death.
15. —– Fifties carrier aircraft
14. —– The key difference between the Fi 103 and the Fi 103R
13. —– Its airspace was undisturbed by aircraft until the 1930s
12. —– The target of an early torpedo bomber attack
11. —– The father of the Goose has one named after him
10. —– American VTOL visionary
9. —– Behind Britain’s narrow gauge railway boom.
8. —– A bowman’s best friend?
7. —– Its shipmates would have included the Fi 167
6. —–Used to build Wooden Wonders
5. —– Nippy WW2 tank
4. —– Ruthless Soviet security chief
3. —– Invaded by the Allies in 1941
2. —– Small airfield
1. stoop

 

All answers in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone

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