The Flare Path: Submarine Dreams

Subsim.com proprietor Neal Stevens and myself stand on opposite sides of the great dreamer-doer divide. When I see a promising in-development sim struggling for funding or heading in a direction I don’t much like, I sigh and pen a few plaintive words for this column. Neal, on the other hand, contacts the devs, and offers to fund development of the game for a year in return for design influence. When the studio accepts his offer, he then up sticks, and moves five thousand miles to be closer to his new business partners.

To understand why one of the most familiar names in the sim community has moved to Sweden to work with Skvader Studios on a U-boat focussed version of the sim formerly known as HMS Marulken (new title TBA) you need to go back to Neal’s childhood (A Battleships-obsessed youngster whose passion for all things submarine was intensified by an early encounter with Herbert Werner’s Iron Coffins and a visit to Seawolf Park in Galveston, Neal was designing multiplayer submarine games long before the advent of the home computer). Quizzing the man himself about his dramatic heading change is probably a good idea too.

RPS: What was it about the HMS Marulken demo/prototype that you found so exciting?

Neal: Without a doubt the co-op multiplay element. I first heard from the Swedish devs Oscar and Einar a year ago in August 2015. They sent a link to a video of their project and I asked them to keep me informed of progress. As you know, on any given day there are countless small teams working on game projects and most never get completed. In this case, I heard from them again last May; they sent me a link to the demo and I gave it a try.

I was impressed by several things: the completeness of the build (you could pretty much do all the things a finished game would allow) the quality of the work (the graphics were quite good and you could tell they knew how to create models and environmental effects) plus the fire control features and radio/sonar stations were very well designed and functional. It was obvious that a lot of thought had gone into how the game would be played. Unlike most previous subsims, where you click “P” and your sub is taken to periscope depth and remains there without any deviation, in HMS Marulken depth changes involve lots of lever manipulation – ballast tanks must be flooded or emptied. The Torpedo Data Computer was another example. All the important parts had been modelled (range finding, heading, speed, and AOB inputs) and worked very well.

Once I got a few Subsim members in a co-op game I was sold. Yes, single player games are still fun but the teamwork and group expertise needed to play the demo left me wanting more. The Swedish devs had a Kickstarter goal and although they had gotten over half-way, they were running out of time. So, I made a proposal that Subsim would financially support game development for a year and assist them. Oscar and Einar are the brains and the talent of the operation, Subsim is just providing the Ramon noodles.

RPS: What Silent Hunter-series weaknesses and omissions do you intend to address in ‘Project X’?

Neal: I can’t say there are many omissions in the Silent Hunter series. SH3 and SH4 are extraordinarily well-made games that do much and do it well. Seriously, the Romanian devs are virtuoso artists and programmers. What we are looking to focus on is a subsim that gives the player an opportunity to play in a different way. First and foremost, the new game will feature co-op multiplay just like the Marulken demo. Unlike the SH series, our game will highlight the teamwork necessary to operate a submarine.

There will be four roles available, the Captain, the Exec/Navigator, the Chief and the Sonar/Radio officer. To successfully dive the boat, set up a fire control solution, decode orders from BdU etc. cooperation between the four members of the crew will be essential. When the boat is submerged, the Captain will rely on the Sonar player to update him on the sound contacts and their bearings. Where other (single player) sub sims use bearing lines that are automatically updated on the chart, we will task the Sonar guy with tracking contacts and relaying that information by voice to the Captain, who will then make course, speed and depth decisions and relay them to the Chief – the player who actually operates the dive planes and helm. The Exec will be responsible for updating the chart, which the Captain can refer to.

Here’s another example. Let’s say the Captain and Exec are on the bridge, searching for smoke or masts on the horizon. Suddenly a Liberator drops out of the clouds in an attack dive! The Captain or Exec will need to hit the alarm button on the bridge, which will sound a crash dive alarm audible to all four players. The Chief knows it is up to him to flood the main ballast tanks and the negative tank immediately, and set the dive planes to full dive and ring the telegraph to ‘Ahead Flank’ (all these actions will be executed via manual valve wheels and controls). Meanwhile, the Captain and Exec players must drop down the hatch and close it behind them, or the boat will be lost due to flooding. If the Exec does not close the hatch, or if the Chief fails to blow negative in time “catching the dive”, game over!

Attacking an enemy ship at periscope depth will require similar levels of cooperation. The Captain will be observing the target and relaying the AOB, speed, range and bearing to the Exec, who will be entering this into the TDC, while the Sonar guy keeps an ear out for approaching escorts. And the Chief, he will be watching the shallow depth indicator like a hawk and making subtle adjustments on the dive plane controls, because unlike other sub games, it is going to take some effort and skill to keep periscope depth without dipping the scope beneath the waves or broaching the boat and giving away your position. This is the level of interaction and teamwork we think will make our game stand-out from all previous submarine sims.

RPS: Do you plan to cater for solo players?

Neal: Our goal is to make the game playable and enjoyable for single players, when they are unable to meet up with their mates for a co-op session. We are still discussing the interface and protocols to do this, and at this point we are on a path that should work for a single player and still retain the tone of the co-op game. Ultimately, the single player set up should allow captains to practice and sink ships solo.

RPS: Why did you feel it was necessary to move to Sweden?

Neal: I told my friends in Texas that I moved to Sweden because of the Presidential election (they have three months to ensure our next President is not Trump or Clinton, otherwise I may stay here).

Okay, seriously. They say “Don’t quit your day job” but sometimes you have to focus all your energy on the task at hand. I felt it was important to be on site and work with the dev team and demonstrate a level of commitment beyond simply writing a check. These are two great guys and this gives me a chance to forge a stronger team than one could achieve via Skype and e-mail. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to enjoy many great games… and now I have a chance to contribute directly to the enjoyment of submarine gamers. I’ve waited 20 years for a project like this and I’m all in.

RPS: Best of luck and thank you for your time.

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Your P.A. tells me you’ve get an hour spare this evening between Yoga Class and Falling Asleep In Front Of The TV After One Too Many Ciders. A spot of Red Army-repelling via the Order of Battle: Winter War demo would, I reckon, fill that hour beautifully.

A recent change of business model means that anyone who downloads the free OoB: WW2 base game now gets the first battle in all DLC campaigns free too. Wheeled out yesterday, Winter War, the series’ first ETO add-on, recreates episodes from the Continuation War and the Lapland War as well as the titular conflict. Although the accompanying press blurb – “Never before have the Winter War and the Continuation War been recreated in such detail” – appears to have been written by someone unaware of Squad Battles, it can’t be denied that Aristocrats are venturing into rarely hexplored territory with this release.

The demo mission is dominated by basic Finnish infantry units, but save and spend requisition points carefully and you could finish the 20-turn defensive scrap in possession of ski troops, a handy AT gun, or even your very own Blenheim bomber. Assuming Panzer Corps and its plague of adjuncts haven’t killed your interest in simple Panzer General-style wargaming stone-dead, Winter War’s taster tussle can’t fail to entertain.

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If you can read the word ‘Grayling’ without picturing a square, bullet-nibbled building on the eastern edge of a North African olive grove, you obviously haven’t been following the Flare Path’s latest experiment in co-op Combat Mission.

Every day for the past four weeks volunteer ‘Comment Commanders’ have been issuing orders to a small force of Combat Mission: Afrika Korps New Zealanders while a cold calculating AI did the same for a larger, tankier force of Italians. The battle ended victoriously for the humans on Monday night after 40 turns of tension, tough choices and hard fighting.

Considering that a couple of the most active order issuers had never Combat Missioned before, and the format leant itself to chaos, the Allied effort was remarkably professional and well coordinated.

Things looked bleak for the Kiwis at several points during the clash. Every Victory Location on the map was snatched or seriously threatened by the Italians at some time; early on the commenters lost both a Bren Gun carrier and a Crusader tank to an unidentified armour harmer, and later their remaining tank, a Stuart called Stuart, had a very near-death experience. However, sound combined arms tactics, exemplary infantry usage, and a willingness to temporarily surrender the untenable, eventually paid dividends.

For me, the Battle of the Perfectly Rectangular Olive Grove (Available here under the name Bitter Olives if you fancy a solo playthrough) was filled with reminders. The scenario had been thrown together quickly but that didn’t prevent first generation Combat Mission’s unscripted, VL-motivated AI from serving up a lively and challenging scrap. As the bullets whipped through the olive grove I can’t say I noticed that the trees were shorthand rather than discrete LoS/LoF-impacting entities, or found my sense of immersion eroded by the abstracted infantry squad representations. CMx1’s treatment of artillery/mortar fire might be crude, but I’d forgotten how pleasing one of its side effects – accidental arson – could be (The NZ mortar team inadvertently started a couple of brush fires).

Above all I was reminded of CMx1’s natural charm. Beyond Overlord, Barbarossa to Berlin, and Afrika Korps – the original trio – feel friendlier, less fiddly, less onerous, than the titles that replaced them. I enjoy Battle For Normandy, Red Thunder, and Final Blitzkrieg, and admire their realism advances, but a month in close proximity to CMAK has convinced me that, given a choice, I’d rather play their more primitive/playable predecessors.

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If Warfare Sims’ new line of topical DLC for Command Modern Air/Naval Operations is to flourish, their scenario smiths will need to pick up the pace.

Epidode 1 of the £2.41/$2.99 ‘Command Live’ series is inspired by an event – the shooting down of a Russian Su-24 over Turkey – that occurred eight months ago. While the potential for a military bust-up between Turkey and Russian remains real, recent diplomatic steps means relations between Moscow and Ankara are nowhere near as strained as they were in November. Think of a Turkey-centred wargame scenario today, and chances are coupists will spring to mind before Russians.

Hopefully future episodes will feel more in tune with current affairs. Hopefully too, they’ll come without the scripting bugs that appear to have blighted ‘Old Grudges Never Die’ for some users.

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This way to the foxer

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15 Comments

  1. Ethaor says:

    “When I see a promising in-development sim […] heading in a direction I don’t much like, I sigh and pen a few plaintive words for this column.”

    “Neal, on the other hand, contacts the devs, and offers to fund development of the game for a year in return for design influence.”

    As intriguing as it was reading about Neal’s motivations for sub-simming and how he enjoyed playing HMS Marulken, It would have been interesting to know what’s wrong with the direction the devs took for the game that warranted Neal to invest in it to change it and how his vision differs from that of the original game plan.

    • Tim Stone says:

      The most obvious consequence of Neal’s involvement is a focus on U-boats and real WW2 history. Originally, the sim was going to be set in an alternate WW2 and have Swedish subs at its centre.

    • elanaibaKHG says:

      The main issue with the original HMS Marulken was not a creative one, but rather whether the Kickstarter reached its target or not.

      Neal championed the game as it was originally designed, and chipped a large sum via KS. But as the KS was looking about to fail, he discussed with the devs about investing in the game and any potential changes that could make the game more successful. As far as I know, the changes were just a switch from alternate history (Swedish Type VII lookalike) to real history (starting with German type VIIs but I’m sure there’s space for more to come, if successful).

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      Hydrogene says:

      HMS may seem a bit too hardcore to my liking, but I’m glad to know it’s being developed (and supported in a fantastic way by someone such as Neal Stevens!). Great story!

  2. Shiloh says:

    Bit of a coincidence there Tim – I’m currently playing Red Winter, a hex and counter wargame about the Battle of Tolvajärvi on Vassal (which I hope means it can sneak into the on-topic “computer wargaming” category despite the fact it’s a boardgame…).

    I like the Soviet-Finnish skirmishes, and Red Winter nails it beautifully (mechanically and visually).

    • Tim Stone says:

      I’d be interested to hear what you think of the Order of Battle version if you ever play it. Tolvajärvi is the second episode of the campaign.

  3. Wisq says:

    Verrrry interesting news. I had heard about the original directly from Neal thanks to being a financial supporter of the Subsim site, and I pledged accordingly, but then they pulled the (sadly common) “we’re not going to hit our goals so we’re cancelling our campaign” thing, combined with the (less common) “but hey, we’ve secured outside funding!” thing.

    I heard about the theme change, but I had no idea that outside funding was directly from Neal himself. I realise now that this wouldn’t be such a surprise if I had read that email announcement more carefully. Really interesting to see Neal put money on the line for this. Definitely something to watch.

  4. Zenicetus says:

    I love sub sims as much as I love cockpit-level space sims, and it’s been too long since we’ve had a good one. SH4 is still on my hard drive. I tried SH5 too, but for me, it sank under the weight of all the mods required to make it even remotely playable.

    However, I’m not getting a good feeling from “we’re making a multiplayer game and we’ll figure out how to make it work in singleplayer.” Singleplayer is all I’m interested in, and I’ve seen how this two-tiered approach worked out in Elite:D.

    Different type of game, but the marketing has the same flavor of “We’re really hyped on MP, but don’t worry SP fans, we’ll figure out how to toss you some scraps, but you really want to be playing the MP game.”

  5. Anton says:

    What about the strongest feature of Silent Hunter series – modding by community?

  6. froz says:

    I tried Order of Battle demo version. Unfortunately it seems that what some players wrote in reviews and steam forums is true. AI is just terrible. Completely passive in defense and can’t plan any coherent offensive at all. It’s like each unit’s AI is separate and it only does what seems best at the very specific moment. For example – in the Winter War first mission I was able to lure 2 of the enemy most valued units – heavy infantry and tank, one by one, to go off the south road behind my lines hunting my one half-dead infantry and ignoring my 3 other units in there, which in the next turn cut his supplies. What did AI do later? Pretty much nothing, it continued to advance with the trapped unit until it was dead. And as I said, it happened 2 times in that mission, first with infantry, later with tank (and by the way, the tank was their last unit in the whole south half of the map and it decided it’s a good idea to keep attacking without any support. That was on the highest difficulty.

    In the boot camp campaign the enemy was completely passive. It felt a little similar to xcom, in that enemy units seem to sit at one spot on the map, waiting for you to discover them and only after that they get activated, so you can easily kill much bigger army one unit at a time.

    It’s really a pitty, as the game overal looks interesting, a little bit more complex than something like panzer general, but not too much. And the selection of campaigns is indeed interesting.

    • Tim Stone says:

      My experience with the demo was quite different. I managed to secure a victory on the highest difficulty setting, but it was a close run thing. The Soviets were a turn or two away from taking both VLs by the end, and I was down to my last three or four units. All my attempts at supply line cutting were unsuccessful.

      • froz says:

        That’s interesting. In my case I simply divided my troops incorrectly (too many on the south, too few on north). Result was that on south I won easily and in the north they were close to taking the victory point (but I think I could hold them off for 1-2 more turns, as I managed to slow down their artillery with some help from my southern flank).

        In any case, just to make it clear, I only mentioned difficulty because AI could behave differently depending on the difficulty level. I didn’t mean that the game is easy, just that AI is quite stupid. Unfortunately so very often in strategy games difficulty is ramped up simply by giving AI more troops and other advantages – and it seems to be a case here as well.

  7. Cederic says:

    I hear Grayling and I think of a mortar team snoozing in the sub-tropical late morning sun on the back of a flatbed truck while their comrades wilt under enemy armour attack ahead of them then find the comfortable shade of some Olive trees from which they sip tea and ignore the frantic waves of HQ asking them to get within shouting range.

    The Italians had the right idea. Big-arse mortar that shoots from the back of a truck. No messing about.