The Flare Path: Dragons’ Den

That idea for a PC wargame you’ve been mulling over for the past five… ten… twenty years – is it ready for primetime yet? Are you prepared to run it past five of the most talented and experienced people in the industry? Today’s Flare Path is a light-hearted Dragons’ Den-style competition (Each of the five dragons will be choosing their favourite submitted concept). A chance to get feedback from the pros. It’s also an opportunity to put cherished ideas to fellow Flareopaths who could be coders in search of themes. If you know deep down you’re never going to get round to programming Kia Mate Toa: The NZ Wars, or Red Ball Express: Fuelling The Fight, then why not place your blueprints where they can inspire.

There’s no rush

To enter the Flare Path Dragons’ Den (or The Flare Path Shark Tank if you’re not from these parts) you’ll need to send me, via the email address at the top of the article (timfstone at gmail dot com) your historical strategy/tactics game idea by midday GMT next Wednesday. I’ll then weed out any horribly hackneyed or vague submissions (judging by the usual calibre of FP comments, there won’t be many of these) before forwarding the rest to the five dragons. Designs the judges admire will be highlighted and discussed in a follow-up piece a fortnight from today.

Pithy pitches, please

Ideally, your pitches won’t be more than 500 words in length (I don’t want to swamp the dragons) and will leave the reader with a clear idea of how the game works and why it will be engaging. I’ll provide one of my own ideas as an example at the end of this article.

Meet the dragons

The five people I’m about to introduce know what it takes to turn great ideas into great games. All of them have hunted the AI snark, grappled with the GUI octopus, and jammed splintered paddles into the gaping maw of the feature-creep crocodile. From left to right…

Johan Nagel is a rising star in the wargame design firmament. His first two creations – Vietnam ’65 and Afghanistan ’11 – simulate counter-insurgency warfare in a refreshingly unconventional manner, and his next project, the Age of Sail captain sim HMS, looks, from a distance, every bit as innovative.

Seated beside Johan is Tomislav Uzelac the Croatian clever-clogs behind the world’s first successful MP3 player and the brilliantly conceived and executed Unity of Command. Tomislav is taking time out from sequel crafting to peruse your pipedreams.

Next to Tomislav is Steve Grammont, one of the two men behind the incomparable Combat Mission franchise. When Steve isn’t toiling away on the next CM module, he’s wistfully recalling the days when he had the time to trundle about his property in an M29 Weasel and indulge his passion for military uniform collecting.

Dragon number four is Iain McNeil, the director of development at Slitherine. In the business for over twenty years, Iain has midwifed more military strategy games than you’ve changed hot MG 42 barrels. If you’re a coder or artist fascinated by martial matters, he’s a man you want in your contacts list.

Some say dragon number five is wearing that macabre IJAAS leather mask because his face is hideously disfigured by duelling scars. Others claim he doesn’t want to be recognised because he’s a serving member of both the SAS and the Peace Pledge Union. Personally, I reckon he’s incognito because he hasn’t opened his invite yet. ****** *******, please check your inbox!

The Stone Prize

For what it’s worth, I’ll also be choosing my favourite game pitch and explaining the reasons for my choice in the follow-up piece (ETA  May 5)

The judging process

I’m leaving it up to the individual panelists to decide on their own judging criteria. If one dragon wants to put practicality and commercial realism before originality and historical realism while another dragon prefers to do precisely the opposite, that’s absolutely fine with me. Personally, I reckon I’ll be looking for a bit of everything. Send me a design that does or explores something unusual, has the common touch, and wouldn’t require a team of twenty devs twenty years to execute, and you’re guaranteed to get my attention.

An idea of mine by way of an example

(There’s no need to provide pics or links with your submission)

‘WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame’

The result of a recent ludo-literary collision – I happened to be reading Taylor Downing’s Spies in the Sky at the same time as the lovely Hidden Folks sidled into my life – ‘WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame’ (awful working title!) is a combat-light operational wargame inspired by the work of Allied photo-reconnaissance pilots like Adrian Warburton and image interpreters such as Constance Babington Smith.

The player’s role is somewhat stylised. They act as both the leader of a small RAF photo-recon squadron and as an unsung photo scrutineer at the Central Interpretation Unit in Medmenham. Sorties (one per plane per campaign day/turn) are plotted and followed using a theatre map. As aircraft move over the map their flight paths are compared with the positions of unseen enemy units and top-down photos are generated. When the planes return to base, the images must be manually analysed, observations contributing to an overall intelligence picture which ultimately determines how friendly AI generals choose to mount attacks or organise defences.

Failure to identify or quantify threats accurately may prove costly in the long run. Missed AFVs, fortifications, minefields etc can lead to overwhelmed DZ s and untenable bridgeheads. Commanders may not choose the best beaches for their amphibious assaults or the most convenient landing zones for their gliders. Basically, the friendly AI is as blind as a bat without your intel. When the combat phases arrive and the operational arrows begin stirring on the map, the player becomes a helpless spectator.

Complicating the recon gathering effort are dynamic weather conditions (fairly reliable forecasts allow for some forward planning), limited assets (routing your PR Spitfires close to enemy airbases and major flak concentrations is always risky) and randomly generated optional secondary tasks. Using the game’s unarmed bluebirds to search for elusive enemy radar sites or research stations is a gamble. Success equals kudos and kudos equals more aircraft, new aircraft marks, and the pick of replacement pilots (pilots are rated in several areas including navigation, determination, and evasion) but combining needle-in-haystack hunts with bread-and-butter recon gathering jaunts won’t always be possible.

In the PI (Photo Interpreter) element of the game, the primary headaches are going to be tree cover, camouflage, smoke, and the sheer acreage of terrain that needs to be examined. I’m tempted to use difficulty level-linked time limits to pressurise stereograph sessions. Successful completion of certain secondary missions will boost the time limits, but you’ll still need to analyse with alacrity to get the most out of your snooping expeditions.

As, obviously, it would be prohibitively expensive to handcraft a Close Combat-quality 2D map of a region as vast as, say, Normandy, it’s quite possible the game will feature smaller maps, fictional areas or, if funds are very short, even use rotatable ASCII-style characters to depict landscapes and units. In a sense the PIs at Medmenham were pattern studiers. While it would be lovely to include hundreds of different handpainted vegetation sprites and Panzer silhouettes, I believe you could sell the illusion almost as effectively with clever, naturalistic collisions of far simpler shapes.

A cheap, abstract approach to terrain rendering/generation would, in theory, permit a larger and more varied campaign selection. In a perfect world, on completing the Dieppe Raid introductory-campaign-cum-tutorial, the buyer of ‘WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame’ would be able to move onto Husky, Overlord, and Market Garden-themed challenges.

*       *       *

This way to the foxer

 

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25 Comments

  1. wodin says:

    Will submit a game idea..one of many of mine:)

    The Air Recon game sounds interesting.

  2. dashausdiefrau says:

    One of the games I am planning to write is a open world trading game set in the Bronze Age collapse period. The game would take up approximately 150 years. The player is from a trader family on the brink of bankruptcy, his father dies and he must take up the family business with a small amount of wares that was left behind and make the family business shine again. The game starts approximately 50 years before the arrival of Sea People. The player can start trading by travelling the middle east, open offices in cities, build caravans, and even navigate the sea by the stars. The player can have a family and his son can inherit the business. Over time, the economy of the mid east collapses because of natural disasters, famine, plague and the Sea People. Can you survive?

    • GernauMorat says:

      Having just re-listened to the In Our Time about the bronze age collapse, I am fully behind this idea. (Also, everyone should listen to In Our Time)

      Where would you (as the player) be based? Crete? Somewhere else in the eastern Mediterranean?

      • dashausdiefrau says:

        2 videos were part of my inspiration:
        link to youtube.com
        link to youtube.com

        I think I would make the game in a way that you can start in any of the important civilizations. So you can start with exporting pottery from Crete, or export copper from Cyprus, timber from Assyria, or tin from Afghanistan, etc…

        Also one mechanic could be that the trade empire could be managed indirectly only, and locations should be visited time to time to increase loyalty or to deal with disputes etc… and mails could be sent to communicate with other locations, and one could read about good and bad news from distant countries.

      • xyzzy frobozz says:

        Whist I quite like In Our Time, Melvyn can be really, really annoying.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Reminds me a fair bit of The Guild 2, which I enjoy a lot but would probably enjoy a competent remake of even more.

  3. v21v21v21 says:

    OK.Here goes nothing. So. It is a game, right, a great game, one of the best. Truly. Is about these guys, see, and they are fighting. OK? I mean /really/ fighting. OK? I mean, guns an’ everything! Right? Right! Oh, an’ it has a title! Right? It’s called… it’s called, are you ready for this, it’s called “‘Til the Last Little Droplet of My Blood”! Eh? eh? See? It starts with a bloody apostrophe! Eh? What kind of game starts with a friggin’ bloody apostrophe?! A bloody friggin’ good ‘un, that’s what! Oh, that’s my floor, gotta dash luv, kisses. So, when do we sign?

  4. Chiron says:

    Wargame: 40k

    No real focus on elite hero units and special abilities, something more along the lines of Epic. With air support, limited points and a the occasional huge warmachine.

    • xyzzy frobozz says:

      I have very much been hoping for this.

      How good would it be? A 40K game that isn’t totally crap, and that does justice to the scale of the setting.

    • Palindrome says:

      There is always Final Liberaton link to gog.com

      It’s a bit limited by modern standards but it’s enjoyable enough and its got some reasonably decent FMV as well (from what I remember).

      Sanctus Reach may be of interest to you as well but I haven’t played it link to store.steampowered.com

      Of course a modern big budget game would be welcome as well :)

  5. WladTapas says:

    Tim, how did you like the Downing book? It is in my all too big and sprawling to-read pile. Or piles these days.

    • Tim Stone says:

      Although it was a second choice (I wanted to read Babington Smith’s Evidence In Camera but couldn’t find a reasonably priced copy) I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. It’s at its best when it’s talking about Medmenham (other sections like the chapters on Sidney Cotton and ‘Warby’ don’t contain much new information if you’ve read about those subjects elsewhere). Fortunately, Medmenham and its personalities, departments, development, techniques etc is very much at the heart of the book.

  6. Hydrogene says:

    I would love playing (yes, playing, not making, I’m not that crazy) a sim about the golden age of jet aviation in the early 1950s. A sort of Mig Alley meets Kerbal, where one would have to design new and fast planes with sleek lines, and then get to fly them as a test pilot. But without computer aided designs, most planes would be crap, or worse, kill their pilots when flown incorrectly. Their would be a campaign, where the hero, a plane designer would try to respond to contracts given by the Airforce of his country, and try to outperform the competition with better planes. You can invest some in your revenue in better technology through R&D or hire a spy (or saboteur) to know about what the opposition is doing.
    In true Kerbal fashion, if a plane happens to be underpowered, one could add boosters, or JATO rockets. The game would be called “Dreaming of Mach 2”.

  7. Father Ted says:

    Thanks for this! Have had an idea knocking about for a while, but no clue what to do with it, so this is a great idea.

  8. Shiloh says:

    I’ll have a think – currently overseas but will be back in Blighty on Sunday. Excellent idea Tim.

  9. nitwit says:

    The game opens at your funeral. Your family is talking with your casket in the background. They’re talking about how you died in the war, but no one really knows how it happened. The only thing they can agree on is where you were stationed when the fighting started — and then the game fades to black and when it comes back you’re playing as yourself at the very beginning of your first military encounter.

    The goal is to survive the war and get back home safe to your family. I picture the main story line to take about two hours to complete — but there are no checkpoints. If you die, the game goes back to the cutscene at your funeral, and you can see how your performance in the war has affected your family.

    For example, if you die early on in the first battle, then your wife is still very young at your funeral, still pregnant perhaps with your now fatherless child. If you save the life of your fellow soldier during the war, maybe he’ll come to your funeral and talk with your family. You could fail to send a letter to your wife, and maybe then she leaves you. She’d stand at the back at your funeral with her new family. Everything you do in-game, should have an effect on your life that the player can see at the funeral. If you survive to the end of the war then your funeral would show you as an old man in the casket who lived a long life and is survived by a large and happy family reminiscing fondly about you. Maybe if you became a war hero, then famous generals or presidents would speak at your funeral.

    It doesn’t even matter which war this game would be set in, or even what the gameplay is like. I picture it as a FPS, but it could just as easily be tactical strategy. The important bit is how your actions affect your family at your funeral. I want the player to feel compelled to play the game hundreds of times, memorizing the different events, exploring different outcomes, searching for new and interesting endings.

  10. xyzzy frobozz says:

    Crusader Kings character system mashed together with Europa Universalis economic systems, set at the beginning of the Roman Republic, with Total War type battles.

    How do I collect my prize?

  11. YoYoTheAssyrian says:

    So my pitch is for a WW1 realtime, albeit pausable, wargame. The central feature would be command and control. So the player would be a general, represented by a chateau probably, and whenever the player gives a command ala an rts. A little runner would emerge from the chateau, run to the commanded troops, relay the order, and only then would it take effect. Supplementing the runner system would be wired communications, and the much rarer radio communications. so for example you could relay an order to a lower command, a company for example, over the land lines, and the runner would originate from there instead, leading to a quicker result. So on the spot rts style reacting would have to be channeled through a cumbersome system full of friction and fail points. I would forsee artillery constantly cutting the land lines for example. furthermore, this would inherently mean that commanding troops beyond your trench lines is a dicey business.

    On top of this we add a planning stage a la gratuitous space battles. This gives the player the ability to order large groups and get around the more cumbersome rts system. Here the player could lavishly and meticulously construct their very own first day of the somme. timed walking barrages, human wave after human wave, the player would be able to create the “perfect attack” and watch it simmed out.

    Then the rubber meets the road. So the player creates and plans the attack, sets it motion, and then tries to control it via the cumbersome command and control system. Inevitably, it would all go to chaos. Gains would be limited, and the casualty toll staggering.

    As such, and to get into the historical spirit of the thing. Casualties would cost the player only one thing, time. I could see a gradual trickle of soldiers streaming in to replace the fallen, or maybe just some rts style barracks constantly churning out new units. Either way, the goal is to make the player ignore casualties as an annoyance, just like a true chateau general.

    To keep the player busy during the lulls between attacks, besides planning the next one. Maintaining and constructing your trench network would be a fun little rts touch. build up your trenches by adding more duckboards or bunkers or more wire and stuff. connect fresh captured lines into the network. or isolate chunks that have been taken by the enemy.

    So that’s the basic outline. Several problems come to mind. What to do about artillery? if the player can see where the attack is failing or conversely where an enemy assault is breaking through and then shift his artillery accordingly in real time, it would basically nullify the planning stage and make it vestigial. maybe only allow rts style artillery targeting inside “controlled” territory or push it off map and remove it from direct player control.

    Also the ai would be a bear. Since the player’s ability to micro would be limited, the players forces would be on their own for most of the game. They’d have to be smart enough to make the system work, but not so smart the remove the necessity for the player intervening at all.

    Finally fog of war. you could just do it traditional, like whatever a unit sees the player can see, and just compensate for the omniscience through the command system. Sure you can see what’s happening, but good luck getting an order there to affect it. Or maybe you could do some weird thing, like once the units get beyond the trench lines in an attack. the player only sees the simmed out attack, unless a runner makes it back, and then it would update with the real situation.

    Like hey we’re doing great! runner gets back, ohh actually the attack failed 10 minutes ago, probably shouldn’t have sent that second wave in… oh well they’re replaceable.

    And finally, all the failure. So by putting so much friction into the system, the idea is to kind of reverse simulate the problems faced in ww1. But if the game is simply all failure, then that would just be miserable and unplayable. So that’s my pitch!

  12. JagdFlanker says:

    when i was a kid i played hundreds and hundreds of hours of the old classic ‘Simulations Canada’ turn based modern naval computer games – ‘Fifth Eskadra’ in the Med, ‘Seventh Fleet’ in the West Pacific, and ‘Northern Fleet’ in the North Atlantic and Barents Sea

    Current Harpoon-esque games only cover tactical battles, none simulate the entire strategic focus of a NATO vs Soviet Union naval confrontation

    i propose starting with a 1988 Northern Fleet scenario as the base game – the map would be hex based, stretching from the coast of the southern US all the way to the Kara Sea. hexes are 60nm wide, 3 8-hour turns per day, ships can move 1 hex per 8kts of speed per turn. the war would likely last 2 to 4 weeks so 40-80 turns

    this is a strategic level turn-based game – you give destinations to task forces of ships and individual subs but you have no control over how your forces move to their destination or how they engage the enemy. a sub could remain out of contact for several turns if it is engaging the enemy or chasing a contact, or maybe it sunk

    each side would manage all major naval ships plus their escorts in Task Forces and individual subs. aircraft and minor ships/merchant ships which would participate in the naval side of the war would be included but would not be directly controlled by the player – for example anti-submarine aircraft would perform their duties automatically without direction from the player. the player may be given the option to perform airstrikes if a target is within range, but the airstrike will be automatically resolved

    the game starts about a day before the war starts and there are 4 (de)escalation levels – peace, conventional war, tactical nuclear war, and operational nuclear war. once operational nuclear war is reached the game is over and players lose points for not having their SSBNs in position to fire their ballistic missiles at their designated targets

    the Soviet Union’s objective:
    – protect their SSBNs (nuclear missile subs) to preserve the Soviet nuclear strike capability. the Soviets need to make sure their SSBNs are within range to fire their nukes at their assigned targets if the war degrades to an operational nuclear war

    – keep their surface ships under protection of land based air cover and defend the Kola Peninsula and SSBN bastions from attack, and use amphibious/airborne operations to capture air bases in Norway to extend air cover further south

    – send subs into the North Atlantic and destroy NATO merchant ships trying to resupply Europe as well as (attempting to) hunt enemy SSBNs

    NATO’s objective:
    – protect the scattered merchant shipping in the North Atlantic until they get to land-based air cover and/or port. once enough merchant ships start collecting in US ports proper convoys will auto-cross the Atlantic to Europe and NATO will have to protect them as they cross

    – try and grapple control of the North Atlantic from Soviet subs while trying to assemble a few carrier groups to break into the Barents sea to launch attacks on the Kola Peninsula and the Soviet SSBN bastions

    – send subs to infiltrate Soviet SSBN bastions, launch missile attacks on Soviet ports and air bases, and harass the Soviet Navy

    – position SSBNs within striking range of their assigned targets in case the war degrades to an operational nuclear war

    i’v been looking to try and have this game made regardless – i’m not a programmer but i ‘get it’ and have a solid vision so any interested parties can contact me to work something out

  13. Wetcoaster says:

    I’ve had ideas like ‘WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame’, but I think “Cold War Spy Plane” is a much more compelling pitch.

    The player also starts off as a squadron commander, but has to fulfill missions to perform various ELINT, photo recon, and signals intelligence operations while avoiding aircraft shootdowns by unpredictable hostile interceptors or creating political incidents. The player plans each sortie and supporting assets along with choosing the crew and aircraft (within the bounds of mission requirements).

    Pre-positioned SAR assets like submarines or a fighter escort for less covert operations cost prestige, but protect your aircraft, but may also reduce chances of success if they compromise plausible deniability or warn the OPFOR beforehand or cause the mission to not go off in a timely manner.

    Each crew will have short bios and stat blocks that will affect how they go about their mission. Aggressive crews are more liable to get into trouble, but also more likely to find their way out. A favoured, proven crew might not be qualified on the Connie for a mission that absolutely must be performed by an EC-121, and so on.

    As the player gains prestige, they acquire the political influence that is used in the second layer of the game where they play politics to acquire assets and undermine competing intelligence services like the CIA and NRO for funding and bargain with other military branches for favours. (The Navy doesn’t pre-position nuclear subs for you without a few favours).

    In the outer metagame, the players actions can influence some of the major events of the Cold War (such as the Gary Powers shootdown)

  14. Gothnak says:

    I’d love to do this, but as i design games for a living I better not give out any of my ideas :).

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