Tim Stone’s favourite games of 2017

We asked a handful of our contributors to put together a list of their three favourite games from 2017. Their picks are running across the week while the rest of RPS slumbers.

Having just re-read all 51 of this year’s Flare Paths carefully noting when and where words like ‘lovely’, ‘compelling’ and ‘clever’ were used, I now know for sure what my Favourite Games of 2017 are. It turns out that although Tank Warfare: Tunisia is 55% ‘lovelier’ than Steel Division: Normandy, Diesel Railcar Simulator is 113% ‘nicer’ than Train Sim World, and Venti Mesi is 33% ‘more memorable’ than Way of Defector, none of them have quite enough ‘magic’, ‘charm’ and ‘personality’ to displace the three evening-eaters described below.

2017favesAfghan02

Afghanistan ’11

Yes, it took Every Single Soldier far too long to track down all the crash sources. Yes, the campaign system might have been more imaginative, the AI an IQ point or two sharper. But when a wargame engages with its unusual theme as energetically and intelligently as A11 does, when it generates unique thought-provoking tactical situations with such gratifying regularity, it’s easy to overlook a few imperfections.

A project that could so easily have turned into a half-hearted Vietnam ’65 re-skin, is – thanks to new twists like ‘handover’ and periodic elections – significantly richer and more subtle than its predecessor. I love the fact that I don’t spend sessions simply pushing units from map edge to map edge, or doggedly attempting to prevent the enemy from doing so. The FOB-focussed A11 appeals to that part of my brain that enjoys traditional expansionist RTSs and transport management games. Its heavy emphasis on logistics and profound respect for harsh terrain mean there are times when the landscape feels almost as hostile as the AK-47-toting wraiths who delight in booby-trapping arteries of communication and sabotaging village improvements. For the last forty years the computer wargame industry has routinely cast us as dogs fighting other dogs. Johan Nagel casts us as a dog with a nasty flea infestation, and the change of emphasis cures genre jaundice remarkably effectively.

2017favesFoG2

Field of Glory II

There’s a very fine line in wargame design between enough-chaos-to-evoke-a-real-battlefield-and-to-cushion-defeats and so-much-chaos-that-the-player-ends-up-feeling-bewildered-and-sidelined. For me, of the two ancient battle sims released by Slitherine this year, only one, this one, got its Chaos Line positioning close to right.

FoG II scraps have a lovely habit of going to the wire. Thanks to capable AI and zesty play mechanisms such as auto-pursuits (sometimes you lose control of over-enthusiastic units) and cowardice cascades (routing warriors can infect their neighbours) you can’t take anything for granted. When battlefield log jams break, they often break quickly and unpredictably. However sizeable your numerical advantage or sound your tactics, there will be times when you find yourself hastily redrafting plans and reorienting troops.

Thematic prejudices together with Byzantine’s decision to abandon Total War-style campaigns in favour of scenario sequences (admittedly, scenario sequences enlivened with strategic decisions and random maps) mean I prefer FoGII’s forerunners, Sengoku Jidai and Pike & Shot Campaigns. Should an add-on ever arrive reintroducing cellular strat-maps and giving hillforts like the one I drive past every day, the ludological attention they deserve, that situation might alter.

2017favesColdWaters

Cold Waters

A reminder of a time long long ago when simulations came with lively campaigns studded with unscripted encounters, and controls that could be summarised on a cassette tape inlay, the brilliant Cold Waters somehow manages to be realistic, replayable and ravishing.

By ignoring interiors and instrumentation yet modelling a wealth of tactical and environmental subtleties, development minnows Killerfish provide a Cold War sub sim that’s both approachable and authoritative. It’s a game I can return to after weeks away without needing to re-read a manual or pore over a multi-page key list, yet it’s also a game in which canny use of thermal layers, noisemakers, knuckles and decoy torps makes me feel like Marko Alexandrovich Ramius from time to time.

The campaign engine is proof sim devs don’t need to invest millions or strain CPUs in order to provide their customers with interesting, freelance-friendly mission environments. A less committed/scrupulous dev would have capitalised on CW’s early success by rushing out some extra campaigns or subs as DLC. Commendable Killerfish have instead concentrated on enriching and improving via free updates.

38 Comments

  1. Faldrath says:

    Glory to Tim Stone!

    I had more or less forgotten about Cold Waters (it never did get a full review, did it?), but now it’s straight back into my wishlist.

    Thanks for all your wordly wordy words, Tim.

    • Alien says:

      That`s what I really don`t like about RPS: Even some of their most highly praised new releases don`t get a review…

      • KieraDennis says:

        I resigned my office-job and now I am getting paid £64 hourly. How? I work over internet! My old work was making me miserable, so I was forced to try something different, two years after…I can say my life is changed-completely for the better!

        Check it out what i do… Click Here And Start Work

  2. Tengil says:

    Honestly those American counterinsurgency games almost seem more distasteful to me than Nazihyping WW2 games, at least you aren’t tasked with implementing Generalplan Ost under the pretense that it’s a net good.

    • Alberto says:

      I guess the themes are still too recent and painful. Most military games deal with bloody invasions by colonialist hegemonies, which brought a lot of pain and misery for millions of people across many decades, too.

      But the fact there’s a century or three between us and them help to view the game more as a game.

    • Rindan says:

      If you only want to play war games where you get to play the unequivocal “good guys”, uh, you are not going to play war games.

      I want to see MORE war games that deal with the realities of civilians on the battle field. You play most war strategy games, and the only people dying that the game gives a shit about are soldiers to be thrown into the meat grinder. If “civilians” play any roll, it is as their factory output that can be bombed. It seems a bit silly to get squeamish at modern conflicts just because they bothered to make not civilians a focus of the game.

      I think these games can dive even deeper into the muck. I want war games that explore bloody local civil wars, rival factions within a nation, militias, terrorism, riots, coups, protests, police violence, and all the other ugly gray areas. Games, especially ones that approach simulation, are are medium just like any other for expression and exploration.

      Saying we shouldn’t make games about these things is like saying we shouldn’t write books about them.

    • Janichsan says:

      Well, unless you mean some WWII games I’m not aware of, all “nazihyping” games I know are at the same time “nazibashing” games, as they usually let you choose the side.

      And even if A11 and V65 are pretty one-sided, they are still a far cry from the warmongering jingoism of the Call of Dutys of this day and age.

      • Evan_ says:

        Well, there is Silent Hunter III. Though I guess when a game is only ingestable for hardcore sim-enthusiasts, no one will complain about what’s painted on your u-boats.

    • trjp says:

      You don’t have to be on the wrong side to wonder about a game’s suitability…

      Bomber Crew (on Steam) is a WW2 British Bomber Crew simulator which requires you to choose the best recruits, build-up your Lancaster and fty missions against all the odds

      It’s highly cartoony with “big head – big eyes” people and exaggerated/cutified Lancasters and I find it somewhere between disturbing and outright unpleasant.

      It appears to be a good game – I’m not quite sure how it deals with the delicate issue of firebombing civilians – it’s just a big mindboggling to me that it exists as-is…

      • Evan_ says:

        I name my crew after Catch 22 characters, so I don’t feel they have a choice about bombing civilians or not. :)

  3. Someoldguy says:

    FoG II is definitely getting my money if it gets a campaign mode. Fingers crossed.

    • Vinraith says:

      The Steam description and forum chatter seem to indicate that it already has quite a few campaigns – am I missing something?

  4. Red_Fox says:

    Cold waters got repetitive and boring after 2 or 3 days. But it was a fun 2-3 days.

    • Shadow says:

      Did you try a different sub and/or campaign?

      Everything is a walk in the park in a Los Angeles class, but things get more interesting in 1968 or simply using less advanced boats.

      • aepervius says:

        Has the game been patched in the mean time ? Last time I looked last month there were complaint of huge bugs and impossible mission.

        • Zenicetus says:

          I’d like to know this too. I’m very interested in this game (and a big thanks to Tim for bringing it up on the radar), but some of the current Steam reviews and comments about severe bugs in the mission generator are worrying.

          If it was a $20 USD game I’d consider it early access and give it a shot. But at the current price of $40 and no discount in the Steam Xmas sale, I’m not sure it’s a good investment of my time and money.

          • Imaginary Llamas says:

            AFAIK the main mission bugs were related to land strike and SEAL insertion missions. They should be fixed now (at least, I have not encountered any issues).

            Otherwise they have been pretty good on the update front, regularly fixing bugs, adding ships, improving textures etc. The most recent update added neutral shipping and improved the enemy AI, which makes for a welcome increase in difficulty. Before it was relatively easy to snapshot torpedoes in the enemies general direction and not worry about return fire. Now you have to double-check whether a contact is neutral or not, and enemies are more likely to launch torpedoes when they detect your launch transients.

          • Zenicetus says:

            @Imaginary Llamas
            Okay, thanks for that. I’ll probably pick it up this weekend.

  5. DetCord says:

    As an OIF/OEF veteran, I tried to get into Afghan ’11 but just couldn’t. It isn’t so much a war-game, tactical, strategic or operational as it is a game about managing logistics. You’ll spend more time conducting resupply missions than actually engaging in COIN ops. It just becomes tedious and boring after the first few turns.

    • Premium User Badge

      alison says:

      Serious question: isn’t that exactly what the Global War on Terror is? I mean, I know there is some asymmetric engagement (drone strikes, IEDs etc) and an ongoing propaganda/cyber war, but I was under the impression most of what the boots on the ground military does is not smashing enemy units or taking part in raids but instead supplying outposts, meeting with locals and protecting trade routes that prop up “friendly” regimes.

      I deleted this game from my wish list yesterday because I couldn’t remember why I had added it, but now I want to add it again. Running a neo-colonialist logistics infrastructure (or trying to support soft power plays in the developing world, depending on your perspective) is much more interesting to me than just killing people.

      • DetCord says:

        That’s not even a remotely serious question. In fact, it a question at all but commentary thinly veiled in the guise of a query. This is especially evident when emphasized within your own obvious spectrum of political/personal beliefs (id est. neo-colonialist logistics infrastructure).

        My statement was clear and concise with regards to what the games primary focus entails. And that focus isn’t on COIN as a whole and it isn’t in the same vein at other titles (TOAoW, OoB, Command etc) in the genre. Now, if you have a relevant question concerning the game and its depiction of full spectrum operations where counter-insurgency is a primary function, proceed. Otherwise I’d suggest some sub on Reddit or 4chan where you can congregate and make as many blanket statements as you like.

        I should congratulate you on your pomposity and arrogance though. Well done?

        • dethtoll says:

          So why don’t YOU explain what the war on terror is.

        • Universal Quitter says:

          What a toolbag.

          As a US Army veteran, myself, I’m embarrassed by DetCord’s pompous ignorance and misplaced hostility.

        • Premium User Badge

          alison says:

          I am not sure why you have assumed a bunch of things that I never said or why you bothered to reply if it was just to be condescending. I am an army brat and compared to the average person very well-informed on international politics, but my knowledge of the detailed military workings of the Global War on Terror is limited, which is why I asked the question.

          The way this “war” has been presented is that several countries – most notably America – have sent military to some of the poorest regions of the world where they are developing and protecting infrastructure in an effort to stamp out terror breeding grounds through favorable regime change and economic empowerment. To someone who is not American it can look like neo-colonialism, but as I already mentioned that is a matter of perspective.

          What makes this a pertinent issue today is that both Russia and China are engaging in similar operations in their autonomous regions and as they try to extend their respective spheres of influence through troubled regions I fear this kind of thing will continue. I am not going to pretend I don’t find this problematic, but I’m still academically interested in how it will play out, which I think it’s interesting there is a game that tries to simulate the situation.

          I’m curious to hear what someone who has spent time on the ground thinks is missing in this portrayal, without dropping a bunch of industry jargon or insulting those who may hold a different political opinion. I imagine other RPS readers are too.

          • Snake726 says:

            The game literally rewards you for killing Taliban/hostile militia, both positively and negatively.

            Positively, doing so near a village helps make that village friendlier towards you.

            Negatively, leaving a region un-patrolled means a higher likelihood of Taliban/hostile militia ownership.

            Hence the constant struggle of having to maintain a sort of safe/green zone as a base of power, and having to extend into the mountains and desert via patrols and airborne insertions in order to show the locals that you exist, and to drive armed insurgents from the area.

            The presence of logistics is there and is the most obvious graphical element of the player’s extension in the world, but there is a very definite need to “kill the enemy”, regardless of your logistical net’s defense.

      • Rindan says:

        If the only thing it took to win a counter insurgency campaign was logistics, the Americans would have won all of their counter insurgency campaigns long ago. Logistics is what the US military does. But no, getting stuff to a place, while a vital element in any conflict, is not in fact how anyone wins a counter insurgency.

        Counter insurgencies are inherently political. You can’t kill your way out of an insurgency; well, not as the Americans at least. Any worthwhile counter insurgency is going to be about the politics of military conflict, and the consequences of using violence.

        • Premium User Badge

          alison says:

          Thanks for the reply. From what I understand of this game it doesn’t simulate high-level strategy where propaganda and political pressure can be applied, but it does simulate local elections and the relationships with local civilians, which is why I was surprised to hear something was missing. My impression of the current situation in Afghanistan as well as other hotspots is that the majority of work is exactly influencing this sort of thing through nonviolent means (training, constructing infrastructure, protecting supply lines etc). I’m curious what the balance of this work looks like in real life; unfortunately this has been poorly reported with all the other political turmoil going on recently.

          • HeinzHarald says:

            A11 focuses heavily on the hearts and minds of the local population, as well as support back home. But if you boil it down the way you influence these are largely through good logistics.

            You need to stretch out from where you start fairly rapidly in many missions, to establish FOBs, visit villages, build infrastructure, disarm IEDs, travel to opium fields and burn them, find and kill insurgents etc, but not stretch out so quickly/poorly that you end up losing units through lack of support (or more often bad decisions made when trying to rectify a lack of support situation). It’s intriguing and challenging.

        • ThornEel says:

          Well, you actually can kill you way out of a counter-insurgency. Several regimes proved it, some even became quite good at it. Unfortunately, for that you actually have to kill and brutalize enough of the targeted civilian population and infrastructure that pursuing counter-insurgency becomes physically impossible.
          Examples of this method tend to be referred as war crimes, ethnic cleansing or genocide.

          For some reason, Western democracies tend to not have this option available. Probably a balance thing, though I wouldn’t be surprised if a later patch changes that at some point.

        • TrenchFoot says:

          Just to note that the US has often been absolutely terrible at logistics. It’s only been in the current era of airborne supremacy that they have been good at it. The Torch operations in Northwest Africa, for example, were an absolute shambles. The much-lauded Patton also never gave it the focus it needed.

          • Snake726 says:

            Yet American shambles were much more efficient than any other nations’ attempts.

            For instance, Germany was short of fuel about three days into Barbarossa.

            Or look at the Red Ball Express – a wholly idiotic idea which only occurred because of a lack of real logistical capability, destroyed trucks, and cost almost as much fuel as it transported just to run.

            Only the Americans could have run such an inefficient supply network – that is, you’re right, they are bad at it: it’s just that they have more supplies to waste than most nations possess in total.

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      Isn’t there a quote somewhere along the lines of “Lieutenants study tactics, Majors study strategy, but generals study logistics.”?

  6. Chockster says:

    Happy New Year Mr Stone, and thank you for a magnificent year of Flare Paths.
    I shall be purchasing Cold Waters forthwith.

  7. trjp says:

    Diesel Railcar Simulator is lovely small glow in the otherwise glum world of railway sims – sadly, as a one-man developed title, it’s hard to imagine it will become more than a small glow.

    Train Sim World is DTG doing what DTG do – making half-a-game and then releasing it riddled with bugs (some of which should never have left the developer’s workstation) and hoping people will lump-it

    As someone who spent a lot of last year driving trains – lurking in the darker corners of the scenario/repaint/enhancement world etc. – I loved my short time in Diesel Railcar BUT I’m forced back to Train Sim simply because it’s all we’ve really got…

  8. mariandavid says:

    Cold Waters baffles me: Why do I get such pleasure from a game in which I lose (sunk, abandon ship, run in fear) far more than I win? I suppose that is the ultimate accolade.

  9. TrenchFoot says:

    If the game had an alternate story line in which George W. is rotting away at The Hague, instead of being feted by “liberals,” I would be OK with that.

    • BooleanBob says:

      Are you talking about that kid gloves Guardian interview? It felt like a betrayal to me too, man.

      An excellent year of Flare Path-ery from you, Tim. Here’s to another!

  10. daztec says:

    I would rate ‘Ultimate General: Civil War’ far above FOG2

    There is more linear warfare in 2 minutes of UGCW than a thousand years of FOG2.