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The Flare Path: Black Berets, Red Bearskins

Two wargames Wot I Thinked

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Horsa gliders slithering to a halt outside Hougoumont’s gates. StuGs burning merrily in the sandpit at La Haye Sainte. Arnhem Bridge littered with the corpses of cuirassiers and their mounts… Anyone with any sense will skim-read today’s Flare Path. The berm separating the Assault on Arnhem words from the Victory and Glory: Napoleon ones is very low. With luck you’ll fail to notice it and depart convinced that someone has finally produced that era-splicing Universal Military Simulator sequel you hallucinated in a hospital recovery room in 2006.

Richard Berger’s Assault on Arnhem is the Sten gun of Operation Market Garden wargames. Cheap, effective, crudely engineered in places, it harks back to a time (1985) when battle sim devs, usually for reasons of practicality, put pace and pith first. Novice wargamers are sure to appreciate the friendly fundamentals, manageable scale, and groggy feel. More experienced counter shufflers will enjoy themselves too, but may wind-up wondering why they’re dashing about clutching a fairly basic SMG when there are scavenged StG 44s available.

Purchasers of the £7 AOA get a small, for-the-most-part orthodox hex wargame that recreates the key challenges of Operation Market Garden rather well. It’s impossible to reach the end of either the 45-turn Arnhem challenge or 63-turn Market Garden centrepiece (there’s also Nijmegen (27t) and Grave (5t) scenarios. Eindhoven is off-map.) without realising that dropping lightly armed airborne troops eight miles from an objective was almost as silly an idea as dropping lightly armed airborne troops into an area lousy with SS AFVs. Playing as the Allies you’re guaranteed a few gripping “Ammunition exhausted. God save the King” defeats before you begin spotting and ruthlessly exploiting small weaknesses in the narrow-minded AI routines, and questioning some of the odd unit stat decisions.

Engineers are ace against artillery but no better than standard infantry against armour. Artillery is more likely to survive an armoured attack than AT guns… In an attempt to draw clear lines between unit types, Berger has inadvertently introduced a few inconsistencies.

AOA’s infectious momentum is largely a consequence of an ingenious unit activation system. The number of orders you can issue each turn is determined by your HQ count and the time of day (effective command is harder at night). Rarely does the player or his adversary have sufficient Command Points to move or stance-change more than half his total force in a single turn. The limitation prevents turn duties becoming onerous, and focuses the mind splendidly. I’d argue that certain actions like digging-in and resting should have been free and automatic – a natural consequence of inactivity – and that moving units long distances shouldn’t have required, in effect, numerous CP-consuming mini orders, but all-in-all I like the approach. Chaotic communications were a characteristic of the battle for the Arnhem road bridge, and it’s not hard to imagine that a turn’s neglected/inactive units are a consequence of that chaos.

Another welcome complication, the logistical layer, needs some tweaking to really shine. Presently the supply rules force you to keep formations relatively close and think before opting to ‘assault’ rather than ‘attack’ which is great, but having HQ-centred supply zones stop abruptly at forest edges seems awfully harsh.

Richard assures me that the AI operates under the same supply constraints as the player which makes me feel bad for picking on its painfully exposed HQs in my last session. While the game’s synthetic Student, mechanical Model and bit-brained Bittrich are adept at crowding VLs with doughty defenders, and pummelling damaged player units with shielded arty, they appear to have no interest in threatening LZs or protecting their precious HQs. German immobility means the Allied players can roam many areas of the map, including, rather absurdly, the north and north-eastern edges of Arnhem with impunity.

I suspect singleplayer AOA will absorb most part-time Market Gardeners for around a week. In week two you’re either going to find yourself seeking out sentient opposition (currently very thin on the ground judging by the oft-deserted HexWar lobby) or gravitating towards a more substantial/sophisticated Arnhem diversion. The 14 hours I’ve spent snatching bridges thus far feels like time well spent. Assault on Arnhem may have short legs but it’s the reason the wonderful A Bridge Too Far is on my bedside table again. It’s why I’m currently contemplating a weekend in the company of two very dear old friends. PC wargaming needs more toothsome, appetite-whetting hors-d’œuvres like this.

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I’m confident that Victory and Glory: Napoleon (also available through Steam) will linger on my hard drive long after AOA has quit the field. Appropriately for an offering that costs three times as much, Electric Games’ dual layer Boney sim is a much weightier beast.

Though the feature list implies cramped facilities and narrow horizons (Only France is playable. Multiplayer is impossible. There’s no economics or city development.) six different campaign set-ups, a sizeable event card deck, and an AI as limber as it is lethal, means there’s no danger whatsoever of wearing out this stealth-sequel to Hannibal: Rome and Carthage in the Second Punic War in a week.

Playing on the lowest of the three difficulty settings and forced to abandon my usual cowardly cautious grand strategy play style by starting situations that demand aggression (if Nappy is to have any chance of conquering Europe it’s vital he strikes before rivals have a chance to band together) I’m being made to look like a hopeless duffer at the moment. In evenly matched battles I can just about hold my own. My problem is that inept army management/manoeuvre and inexpert card plays on the garish European strat map, means it’s rarely long before I’m participating in scraps that are anything but evenly matched.

Happily, even defeats divert thanks to V&G’s beautifully stylized pitched battle system. Push a general-helmed unit stack into an enemy-picketed province and assuming the enemy doesn’t auto-retreat (not always possible) the Continental map will be rolled up and replaced by a zoned battlefield representation. During major battles your goal is to wipe out or drive off all units on either your foe’s left, centre or right. Limited units activations, an unpredictable initiative system, and a TacAI that generally knows where and when to push, combine to produce surprisingly varied and tidal tussles.

Lines surge and shatter, holes form and are filled or exploited, cavalry charge and counter-charge, squares form, cannons roar, generals perish … the intricacy and drama of a Napoleonic engagement is communicated in the most elegant and economical manner imaginable. All the battle layer needs for perfection is some topographical texture and weather. As it stands, unless you play the rare ‘good terrain’ card, venues are totally flat, and river, crop and mud free. They favour no-one.

If Glenn Drover‘s tentative plans for adding a playable Britain via DLC come to fruition ( a cardboard version of V&G is definitely on the way) the relatively insipid naval battles may become more of an issue. Right now, the, admittedly fully automatable, briny clashes are as dull as bilge-water.

Unlike the gorgeously illustrated 100-strong event card deck. Cards, along with the versatile AI, ensure V&G’s campaigns never slide into predictable ruts. Replenished each turn (turns represent two months) your fan of history-injecting performance buffers can be used to chivvy armies, improve chances in particular scraps, generate generals, garner recruits outside of the usual March/April reinforcements round, and influence, through actions like marriages and bribes, the game’s simple but crucial diplomatic dimension.

I’d like to have been given clearer indication of where and when certain cards can be played – the utilization smallprint can be fussy – but in time I’m confident I can become at least as cardsharp as France’s most important and implacable foe, Britain. Les Rosbifs modernise, mobilise and machinate via their own set of cards with alarming efficiency.

After the bug-blighted and somewhat dim-witted Wars of Napoleon, Slitherine Group needed a strong, smart Napoleonic release. Victory and Glory: Napoleon is that release. It joins Atlantic Fleet and Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front, on my ‘Wargames of 2016 that you’d be daft to dismiss’ list.

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This way to the foxer

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