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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

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