The Flare Path: Maghrebian Musings

Graviteam’s reputation for martial eccentricity is under threat. Their next standalone dual-layer wargame isn’t set in a cobwebby corner of the Eastern Front. It doesn’t simulate an operation in the Bangladesh Liberation War or the Western Sahara Conflict. Manned exclusively by German and US personnel, the monikered-with-a-mallet Tank Warfare: Tunisia 1943 (out on Monday, price TBA) has at its hub an operation that is almost a household name compared with the likes of Operations Zvesda and Hooper.

Operation Frühlingswind, Rommel’s pre-emptive strike against the inexperienced US forces threatening central Tunisia from the west, culminated in the sobering – for the Allies – Battle of Kasserine Pass – a scrap you’re sure to have encountered in some form during your gaming career.

Naturally, the quirky Kharkivites can’t quite bring themselves to sim Kasserine. It’s the earlier fight for one-camel-town Sidi Bou Zid that provides the intriguing starting point for TWT43’s substantial and decidedly dynamic long game and the topography for its surprisingly interesting map.

Photos like the one above suggest Graviteam couldn’t have picked a duller or harsher venue for a Mius Front follow-up than Sidi Bou Zid. In fact the game’s spacious/seamless 400 square km operational area is pleated by numerous ridges, ravines and wadis, and generously sprinkled with tactically significant undergrowth and rocks. Though LoS is usually easy to read, there are often ways to move men around inconspicuously, and places close at hand where shy AFVs can go to hide their nether regions.

With plausible vehicle physics a GT speciality and AI pathfinding still almost as entertainingly accident-prone as it was back in Achtung Panzer days, obviously it pays to inspect hull-down positions closely before sending your trundlers into them…

Weirdly, one of the map’s most striking features – a ruined aqueduct north and north-east of Sidi Bou Zid – is conspicuous by its absence on contemporary satellite images. I think one section should parallel the P13 highway round about here. Either GT’s cartographers have concocted it (unlikely, surely) or, at some point during the past 75 years, the colossal edifice has been bulldozed or stolen. Most odd.

I’m prepared to give the map team the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the various ponds that dot the mesh – these too are hard to find on modern maps. One of the reasons the Allies’ post-Torch ‘Rush to Tunis’ ended short of its goal was the surprisingly wet winter of 42/43. I assume GT’s reference material indicates an unusually soggy Sidi Bou Zid.

Predictably, there are few surprises in the German unit selection. Series aficionados roleplaying Hans-Jürgen von Arnim must wage war with a very familiar mix of halftracks, Panzers, and infantry platoons. Lend-Lease strips some of the novelty from the US unit roster, but even so I’ve managed to spend most of my first two days with the preview code, happily experimenting with unfamiliar machines via the hard-to-resist Battle Editor (in effect a friendly skirmish generator that allows you to set up bespoke engagements on any part of the operation map with a few mouse clicks).

The Americans boast a particularly colourful SPG department. There are swift but vulnerable portees and various halftrack-based heavy-hitters including the slightly mad T28E1, a scantily armoured combi AA-AT HT guaranteed to perturb even the bravest Panzergrenadier during its (usually) short, hectic life.

If the Sherman above looks sad it’s because its good mate, the M3 Lee/Grant, doesn’t appear to have made it into TWT43. I assume there are technical reasons for the omission. The Lee with its idiosyncratic combination of hefty offset hull gun and smaller turret-mounted secondary weapon has been giving wargame designers headaches for generations.

Dynamic campaigns (or, strictly speaking, operations) come in two sizes: economy and jumbo. There’s a three-turn, 48km² introductory challenge based on a late-January confrontation at Faid Pass which arguably needs French and Italian troops to be truly historical. Bearing in mind that multiple battles can be triggered each turn by forces colliding on the gridded op map, even this minnow has considerable mileage in it.

I suspect it will take me a good couple of weeks to get a feel for the full-map, 18-turn Frühlingswind operation. Playable from both sides this will – if previous Graviteam titles are any guide – generate dozens of spellbinding, credible unscripted battles, before reaching its climax.

As TWT43 is basically Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front with more cacti, scorpions and sand, and Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front was essentially just an upgunned Achtung Panzer: Operation Star, most of what I’ve written on RPS about those earlier titles, applies to this North African excursion. There are moments when the wonderfully self-reliant AI flounders, times when the bigger battles overwhelm. Newcomers are still going to struggle with aspects of the powerful but peculiar interface (artillery use and campaign map symbology remain particularly enigmatic). But anyone prepared to overlook the odd behavioural slip, seek out tutorial vids, and make use of the pause button, will fairly quickly realise that they’re in the presence of an amazing tactical wargame.

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I was hoping to answer the question “Is Order of Battle: Kriegsmarine worth £7?” today. Unfortunately, adorable halftracks and a massive massif of clever wargame pitches have put paid to that (Tune in next week to read the pick of the submissions and find out which ideas particularly tickled the Flare Path dragons).

On the face of it, focussing an expansion pack for the land warfare-oriented OoB on the activities of the (if you ignore U-boat operations and a few brief battleship sallies) fairly cautious and inconsequential WW2 German Navy, seems like a rather silly thing for a dev to do. Frankly, I was anticipating disappointment, but judging by Joe Beard’s observations over at A Wargamer’s Needful Things, the Artistocrats know what they’re doing. Revised naval rules that add sparkle to one of the duller aspects of the original game; a campaign that speculates on what might have happened had, say, a lucky torpedo not crippled the Bismarck… it sounds like OoB might have achieved the near-impossible and actually made wet warfare in a Panzer General-like fun.

Talking of PGLs, if the sight of a Graviteam Tactics/Tank Warfare campaign map brings you out in a cold sweat but you’re in the mood for some Tunisian action, the comfortingly conventional Panzer Corps together with fifteen of its expansion packs, one of which, US Corps 42, is devoted to the American experience in North Africa, will be on sale at Bundle Stars from May 5-7 for a very reasonable £15. You won’t be able to watch smouldering crewmen spill from shell-scarred Shermans, or Havoc cannon rounds pinging off detracked Tiger tanks, but you will get M3 Lees and idiot-proof artillery plotting.

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This way to the foxer

13 Comments

  1. chuckieegg says:

    Ahhhh. Vulcan. I remember it well. A pinnacle of Spectrum gaming never surpassed.

  2. Stugle says:

    It looks lovely, but I have several Graviteam titles in my collection and I’ve never gotten over that initial bump of having to learn the interface. I realize I’m missing out on good stuff, but I just always move on to something else.

    I believe I recall there’s some counter-intuitive use of the ‘Esc’ key – I messed up in a planning stage, wanted to go back, and instead pressing Escape moved me forward to the next stage? I quit pretty quickly after that, to be honest.

    • Shiloh says:

      Hi Stugle, I know you’ll have heard this a thousand times before but it’s worth persevering with – took me a while to appreciate the beauty of the Graviteam games, I think it was Sim Deck on You Tube who finally showed me the light.

      • Stugle says:

        I am old (in mind, at least) and I recoil from videos. However, since both you and Tim mention watching videos to get a better handle, I might have to learn to change my set ways. Any suggestions for a good tutorial video that’ll teach me how the heck to use the UI?

      • soulis6 says:

        Have there been any improvements from launch on the AI, or UI and user feedback?

        I’ve never wanted to like a wargame as much as this one, but I just couldn’t handle the seemingly missing information, incomplete feeling UI, and strange combat behavior as when I tried it for a 4-5 hours on first release.

        Things like needing to reference an out of game manual to figure out what the color of an icon is signifying, or a button tooltip having a one line description that confuses more than clarifies, these are just not OK in a modern game.

        What made it worse, was I had no idea if certain bizarre AI actions were the result of bugs, or not knowing how a mechanic worked and wasn’t displayed, or something else entirely.

        Sometimes i’d have squads stop in their tracks and refuse to use AT weapons on light armor right next to them, with no indication why.
        Another time I saw two opposing halftracks circle each other, less than 5 feet apart, one of them firing point blank into the other, it stoic and holding fire, for about 6 minutes without a change.

        I won’t even get started on the Command Level system, which was totally obtuse and arbitrary feeling, as well as almost completely undocumented (neither in game or in the manual), or the insane UI and iconography of the campaign mode.

        I really wanted to get into this game, it’s right up my alley on the surface level, and if they’ve made any improvements in this regard I will gladly give it another shot.

        • Silent_Thunder says:

          These were my thoughts exactly, and why I still put up with the rigamarole that is getting Combat Mission Normandy working well. Everything just makes SENSE, even the more obtuse options.

          The only problem is lack of any overworld camapign. I really miss that frontline mode from the old CM games.

  3. Premium User Badge

    goodpoints says:

    Andrei & co. are sure fond of surprise releases with minimal fanfare. I’ve been playing GT titles since SABOW and wouldn’t have heard about this or Mius Front if it weren’t for The Flare Path.

    And wow, never thought they’d actually cave and do something outside the EastFront. Even if I heard they were doing Africa, I figured they’d do something in 1940 with only Brits and Italians just to spite the annoying WestWhiners on the Steam forums. Title is a tad misleading though, “Tank Warfare” got my hopes up for a new tank sim.

  4. BooleanBob says:

    No M3s.. are there at least some residual Matilda IIs?

  5. wodin says:

    Thanks for the review/website mention Tim:) Joe has been a great asset since joining the team.

    As for Graviteam..we will be reviewing their Tunisia game once released. Also expect a CMFI with Gustav Line DLC upgraded to Version 4 review shortly:) Also expect to see a Steel Division review and Rising Storm Vietnam review when released:)

  6. abbot.x says:

    The aqueduct question is pretty interesting. In Roman times all the coastal cities of Tunisia relied on aqueducts from inland, and this never really changed. The Roman aqueduct running from Sbeitla to Sfax indeed parallels Route 13. The road bridge over the Sbeitla river is actually supported by the aqueduct. The relevant portion of the “Green Book” U.S. Army Official History (chapter 22 of Northwest Africa: Seizing the Initiative in the West) mentions presence of the aqueduct and that U.S. engineers destroyed pumping station on the aqueduct on February 17, 1942. The aqueduct is labeled on one of the accompanying maps (no. 11).

    Link to Green Book chapter

    That the cut-down aqueduct structure was being used as a road bridge and the water supply to Sfax was pumped (rather than gravity fed) had led me to believe that the aqueduct’s structure was mostly ruined by WWII. In addition, there just aren’t many pictures or other descriptions of this site even though Roman Tunisia is well-studied and Sbeitla is a major site. Thus the prominent structure suggested in the screenshots seems odd. On the other hand, it’s not unlikely that the ruins were in somewhat better shape in 1942 than they are today.

    • Premium User Badge

      Solrax says:

      Thank you! I was hoping someone would have more information about this. I’ve read about this campaign** and was curious.

      ** – in the wonderful “An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943” by Rick Atkinson

  7. yer taffin me says:

    Good to see North Africa finally back for these types of games. I always thought it a bit odd that the general’s most famous for tank warfare (Rommel, Patton, Monty) never saw too much love with the genre. Wasn’t the last one Battlefront/1C’s Theatre of War 2: Centauro back in 2009? Anyone know why they never revisited North Africa with their most recent Combat Mission? Bizarre. I still think Battlefront’s best was (and still is) CM Afrika Korps from back in 2003, so bravo to Graviteam for picking up the ball and running with it! Now, let’s see a North African theatre for their superb tanksim Steel Fury, thanks. Also strange that one of the best tanksims in recent memory (aside from Steel Beasts Pro) is also set in North Africa yet typically received little coverage or love. Or at least outside of the Flare Path that is, since I seem to recall Mr Stone doing a feature on it here, bravo sir! The game in question is, of course, Panzer Front Ausf. B for the PlayStation 2 (runs smoother on PCSX2) link to mobygames.com

  8. abbot.x says:

    Oh, one more thing: there were no US Army M3 Lee/Grant tanks at Sidi Bou Zid. All of the US medium tank units involved in the battle used the M4 Sherman. There was a single battalion equipped with the M3 Lee, the 2/13 Armor of Combat Command B, 1st Armored Division, but it was held back until the Battle of Kasserine proper, during which it lost nearly all its tanks.