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The Flare Path: Cattle, Crops, and Crusaders

Wargaming and simulation observations

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Steam tells me Train Sim World: CSX Heavy Haul requires a mere 2.8 of my Great Britains and will be in my possession in a trifling 48 minutes. That should leave me just enough time to a) draw your attention to the fairly imminent Cattle and Crops, an agri sim with a feature list [guaranteed] likely to gladden the heart of serious sodbusters, and b) run my Phantom Leader review, and this intro, through RPS’s new Objectivo 6000, [probably] unquestionably the finest subjectivity removal device money can buy.

It’s all go in my corner of rural Wessex at the moment. Everywhere ploughs are turning fawn hillsides chestnut, wooly lambs are taking their first wobbly steps, and foolish footloose toads are braving the dread Dead Rivers*. I’ve a hankering for an agricultural game with plodding Clydesdales, hedgelaying, and a sophisticated scarecrow design tool, but will happily tinker with an Early Access build of Cattle and Crops until Farming Simulator 1840 becomes available.

*Or “roads” as we humans call them.

Due in the next few weeks, the CnC foretaste will come with a dinky German map, a single crop and livestock type, and a slim selection of equipment. In terms of variety – initially, at least – it’s going to look pretty feeble compared to GIANTS’ giant, but in the field of realism it should break hectares of new ground.

German dev Masterbrain Bytes are looking to woo FS fans after truer tractors, muddier fields, smarter AI employees, and more realistic agronomy. Using a heavily modified version of this little-known graphics engine in combination with PhysX 3 and their own handbuilt weather generator, they’re striving to build a world in which vehicles can bog in rain-saturated ground and plants can wither after prolonged droughts. I wonder if the code is clever enough to model subtleties like soil compaction and wind and hail-related crop damage.

Various big European agriplant manufacturers have agreed to have their machinery digitized by MasterBrain and the Early Access build’s integral vehicle editor (there’ll be a map editor too) means it probably won’t be long before the default Deutz and Claas plough pullers are rubbing loam-encrusted mudguards with Green Machines, Little Grey Fergies, and Lambos.

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Wot I Think: Phantom Leader

A day after Infinite Horace II shed a blazing wing over Greece, I boarded a Starlifter bound for Vietnam. Released in 2012 and priced $20, Phantom Leader, a faithful recreation of a well-regarded solitaire board wargame, looked like the perfect follow-up to the fun fatalism of B-17 Queen of the Skies. Another game about braving flak and fighters, trashing targets, and getting home in one piece, PL’s denser decision-making and idiosyncratic interest in pilot stress and political background, suggested my brain would be working as hard as my dice hand in the days to come.

And so it proved. PL manages to be both smarter and more demanding than its Avalon Hill relation, and friendlier. Most of the numerous but logically arranged play phases involve a dash of deliberation. What target should I pick? Who should I assign to the mission? What weapons should I take, and how should I dodge/dismantle the defences? There’s plenty to think about during an average campaign episode and the dilemmas are very different from the ones routinely generated by genre staples like Combat Mission, Command Ops and Pike and Shot.

PL campaigns span up to twelve sorties and involve squadron pools of up to twelve player-managed pilots. The era (1965 ‘War in the South’, 1967 ‘Rolling Thunder’, 1972 ‘ Linebacker’) and service (USAF, USN) chosen has a surprisingly profound effect on the flavour of the action, influencing everything from the aircraft and weapon types available, to the mission types and political cards in play. Even more impressive is the way your target selections, weapon decisions, and sortie results dynamically influence the course of a campaign.

While taking on a series of big, high-profile targets may – and it’s a big ‘may’ – generate Victory Points quickly, it also erodes political support forcing you to take on less provocative/rewarding targets in the days that follow. The feeling that you’re fighting a war with one arm tied behind your back is beautifully conveyed even before event cards and special weapon rules* start sticking their oars in.

*The first time a napalm canister tumbles from one of your delta-winged death-dealers, the politics counter lurches unhelpfully to starboard.

The ideal target is close to home, has a low political cost, a high VP yield, a low success threshold (most targets are KOed by a certain number of hits) a decent intel and recon pay-off (by edging along these tracks you can boost target choice and thin defences) and a plane count lower than or equal to your current tally of fit-to-fly fliers. It’s no good taking on something substantial if half your squadron are frazzled after an intense spell.

Dan Verssen translates his interest in the mental and physical demands of modern military aviation into the game’s most unusual feature. The aircraft that you manoeuvre around the stylised 13-zone target maps are flown by men with tracked stress levels. Stress, in combination with experience-related skill ratings and dice, determines whether a pilot scores hits with his weaponry.

Because stress takes time to dissipate and the pressure to utilize your human assets is immense, often the pilots dodging SAMs and tracer streams over jungle clearings, bridges, and factories, are still suffering the ill-effects of earlier missions.

Never dull, one of the hardest decisions in a PL attack is “Should my aircraft evade?”. When targeted by a foe – all enemy units choose targets and attack individually – you can press on regardless (risky), attempt to suppress (sacrificing a precious ATG munition in the process), or significantly improve your chances of survival by evading. Counterintuitively, evasion ramps-up stress, ploughing on keeps stress in check. Jinking several times can actually push your pilot into ‘unfit’ territory meaning he’ll jettison all external weapons.

There are many clever, insightful mechanisms embedded within PL but this, I feel, isn’t one of them. Personally I’d be far happier if defensive flying caused short-term accuracy penalties and had no effect on stress. If I was playing the cardboard version I’d simply house-rule my way around my misgivings. Sadly, with digital PL that’s not an option.

If I owned the £60 analogue version I’d also do something to temper the game’s eyewateringly cruel victory conditions. At present PL doesn’t just break your balls, it detaches them, grills them, and then tosses them to a pack of ravenous wild dogs. However carefully I choose and use weapons, however cunningly I divide my forces and distract and neutralise defences, my campaigns always seem to end with a crushing ‘dismal’ or ‘poor’ assessment.

Part of the problem is the VP thresholds that determine the end-game assessment, but really it’s the way the game determines individual mission success that’s at fault. Right now you get as many VPs for destroying 10% of a railyard, ammo dump, or whatever, as you do for destroying 90%. You get zero VPs. This meanness saps morale, feels historically inappropriate, and would be incredibly easy to address.

Phantom Leader’s is unusual, exciting, and ingenious enough for me to overlook the at-times clumsy GUI, the austerity graphics, and the odd rules flaw, but I’m not sure my ego is robust enough to survive the game’s constant stream of implied criticism in the long-term. While I don’t need to be told I’m a brilliant tactician every five minutes, my head does tend to drop, my enthusiasm wane, after a day of “dismal” campaign failures.

Phantom Leader is out now, priced $20

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This way to the foxer

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