The Flare Path: Black Berets, Red Bearskins

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.

* * * * *

This way to the foxer

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  1. Premium User Badge

    phuzz says:

    Hands up who else was sat at work yesterday hitting refresh and wondering where the Flare Path was.

    • Premium User Badge

      heretic says:

      *hand up*

    • froz says:

      Here I am always pleasently surprised that the Flare Path is here. I read it every time, but for some reason I can’t even remember what day it comes out.

    • Professor Otto Wolfgang Ort-Meyer says:

      No, why? Did you think it was Friday yesterday? And by the way, what is your job exactly where you sit there hitting refresh not knowing what day it is? Do you by any chance work at the borough council, a government office or the NHS?

      • Professor Otto Wolfgang Ort-Meyer says:

        Oh wait of course, with a name like “phuzz” the department of government you work in is no doubt “law enforcement”, so not knowing what day it is and having nothing better to do than sit hitting refresh all day sums up the police today perfectly, sadly.

        • Premium User Badge

          Philopoemen says:

          As a serving police officer, I find this hilarious.

          As if we’d have computers…

          • Press X to Gary Busey says:

            An unarmed patrol enjoying some cozy teatime in the squad car, browsing RPS on the CrimePuter while heavily armed gangster bandits roam the street outside.

        • Premium User Badge

          phuzz says:

          No I’m not a copper, and at my job we have this thing called lunch breaks…

      • Llewyn says:

        You seem to be confusing RPS with the Daily Mail. Better run along back there, they’ll be missing you.

    • Beowulf says:

      Guilty as charged.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Philopoemen says:

    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

    You mean Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of Warfare?

    I’ve yet to see a turn-based Arnhem game match Panther Games’ Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem – the real time has it sticking more with the command confusion aspect of the race. I’m not sure “limited” command points can match that.

  3. JB says:

    Assuming it works for everyone and not just people on their mailing list, Matrix are giving 30% off in their store with the code HappyEaster , so you could potentially save some currency units picking up Victory and Glory

    • froz says:

      I think it works for everyone, but not for all games. I can use the code and it accepts it, but it doesn’t lower the price of this game. Also I noticed that for example Wars of Napoleon page has a banner informing about this coupon, while V&G doesn’t. So I guess it only works for old and/or crappy games. Unfortunatelly the current price of V&G is too much for me, as I don’t know if I would like it. I only played demo of the Hannibal game and while it was nice, I had a feeling it wouldn’t keep me playing for longer then several hours.

      • JB says:

        Handy to know, if disappointing. Thanks, froz.

        • bwort says:

          It just don’t work for Napoleon and Polaris in case not to blame the early buyer for this game.

          A review for Graviteam Mius would be nice. For me the ui lacks in every way. The manual is crap and there are many ai bugs right now. I try to love it , but it’s hard. It gives u a great feeling of a battle, but for now Combat Mission is the better choice in my opinion.

  4. Tarfman says:

    I was wondering why Tim hadn’t reviewed Wars of Napoleon. Pity to hear it was a disappointment. I was going to invest that 30% off voucher in it.

  5. racccoon says:

    OWwwww! another pet hate!! HEX!! :)

  6. Phil Culliton says:

    Come on, Tim, Universal Military Simulator 2 was quite good, don’t knock that dream. There were a few titles in the 90s that aspired to the goal and ended up being ridiculous and entertaining, usually in similar proportions.

    That said: having just finished books on World War I and the Crimean War, I want games about those and won’t be satisfied until I’m happy with them. A game based on Rommel’s adventures in WWI would be fine. Thanks.