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The Flare Path: Ukrainian Edition

Teeming with Creoteam and Graviteam teamtalk

Featured post

Compiled on Ukraine’s Constitution Day, this FP only covers games made in the world’s 46th largest country. Beyond the break, I conclude my Football, Tactics & Glory coverage with some excerpts from a conversation I’ve been having with Creoteam supremo, Andrey Kostyushko, talk about the latest and strangest Graviteam Tactics: Mius-Front add-on, and point out that 4th Best Game Ever to Emerge From Ukraine is a mere One English Pound on Steam for the next week or so.

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The 4th Best Game Ever to Emerge From Ukraine is a mere One English Pound on Steam for the next week or so! It only seems like yesterday that I penned an effusive review of Soldiers: Heroes of World War II for jaunty RPS fanzine, PC Gamer. With the benefit of hindsight, the accompanying 87% was a mite miserly, but, via passages like…

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“There’s a lot of Commandos here. The personal inventories, the low headcounts and stealth flavour of many of the 30-odd missions all have a whiff of Pyro about them… Swimming between sweeping searchlight beams en route to sabotage a pair of coastal guns; slithering through shrubberies and vegetable patches on the way to a railyard rendezvous, the closeness is uncanny. But the differences are significant too… The complete absence of distraction techniques, vision cones, or corpse dragging makes avoiding detection far more hit-and-miss than in the Commandos series.”

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“The relatively simplistic skulking would be more of a problem if Soldiers didn’t also have a size 12 jackboot in the Blitzkrieg/Sudden Strike RTS camp. Sweep away the sentries and the shadows, replace them with sunshine, squads of Sturmtruppen, and hamlets of angry houses, and you see a whole other side to this glorious game. Best Way’s pitched battles might be on a smaller scale to their Fireglow and Nival equivalents, and have much less aircraft and artillery involvement, but they have a level of detail and cinematic intensity that’s unmatched in the genre.”

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and…

“An hour ago in an urban scrap, I was hanging onto a tenuous defensive position by the skin of my teeth when around the corner appeared a Panther pushing before it, by some splendid fluke of physics and pathfinding, its own extra layer of forward AT protection – a mangled car wreck. Brilliant.”

…I think I conveyed what needed to be conveyed.

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Yesterday I played Soldiers for the first time in ages and was struck by just how well the game has aged. It’s still very easy on the eye and hand. Direct control – the mechanic that allows you to manoeuvre units with cursor keys and aim and fire weapons with the mouse – remains one of the most entertaining twists ever offered by a strategy game. And, blimey, the mission freedom. An hour or so in, I found myself watching a damp tank crewman repairing a crippled T-34 using a toolbox that a, few tense minutes and carefully lobbed AT grenades earlier, had been stowed inside a Panzer IV parked close to a stream in the centre of a village crawling with Germans.

Quite how the Gem engine avoided serving in a series of official or unofficial Close Combat sequels is a mystery up there with “How did Panzer Corps end up in the RPS 50 Best Strategy Games list?”.

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The latest adjunct for fab Eastern Front wargame Graviteam Tactics: Mius-Front is as cheap as it is bizarre. Graviteam clearly exhausted their tree reserves decorating the atmospheric, trench-riven, minefield-dotted wilderness at the heart of Black Snow, because the much smaller venue in Tielieketi Incident (£3.40 at present) is about as woodpecker-unfriendly as battlefields get.

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A chunkette of hilly, deserted Kazakhstan, Tielieketi was the scene of a little-known and very one-sided border scuffle between Soviet and Chinese forces in 1969.

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Achieving victory as the Maoists in one of the DLC’s three dynamic six-turn campaigns should be a tall order as only the USSR gets AFVs and air support. Chinese commanders must rely on RPGs, AT grenades and recoilless rifles to see off mechanized enemy battle groups pushing eastward across the sixteen-cell operation map.

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Fortunately, the wrinkled battlefield lends itself to reverse slope defences and Graviteam’s dyspeptic dachas have never been as reticent as they should be, so Brezhnev’s boys don’t have it all their own way.

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Whether you’re buying Tielieketi for its low-intensity stock ops, its slim selection of Cold War units, or simply to gain access to a new skirmish battlefield for GTMF’s newish ‘Close Engagement’ mode (see below), it should just about repay the modest investment. However, given a choice between an evening in Karbusel or Kazakhstan, I’d plump for conifers and Churchills every time.

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With its elaborate, heavily wired trench networks, battered blockhouses, and muddy minefields, the fierce fighting in Black Snow has a distinctly WW1 feel at times. In a recent email exchange with Graviteam CEO Vladimir Zayarniy, I asked him if he’d ever considered using his engine to recreate the Great War. His answer – basically ‘no’ – suggests we’re as likely to see a Graviteam Tactics: Cambrai in coming years as a Steel Fury II.

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Not that the Kharkivites are totally focussed on 1939-45 at the moment. Graviteam Tactics: Nomonhan, an intriguing standalone project first mentioned in FP over six years ago, is still alive and kicking, apparently, and may, when it finally appears (no ETA yet) pave the way for treatments of other 1920s and 30s subjects.

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Grumbling about the long gestation of GT: Nomonhan would be easier if Graviteam were less diligent updaters. Over the past year Mius-Front has been tweaked and updated in myriad ways. Asked to identify the most significant of these improvements, the tweaker-in-chief singled-out the button that, since January, has nestled inconspicuously in the lower right corner of the main menu screen. Close Engagement mode – essentially a vastly improved skirmish generator – now means the series can furnish a startling variety of customisable, minimal-preamble single battles at the drop of a forage cap. Newcomers and the time poor finally have a tempting alternative to the wonderfully unscripted but potentially overwhelming dual-layer operations.

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As Graviteam’s creations and those of Battlefront.com regularly find themselves rubbing Schürzen in forum posts and reviews, I asked Vladimir if he felt BFC was missing a trick by not making the Combat Missions available through platforms like Steam. Given Graviteam’s own distribution approach, his answer came as a bit of a surprise:

“They have their own audience and their own tried-and-tested platform. Going to Steam would probably make it not as profitable, and the effect of the transition may not be significant given the percentage that Steam takes. After all, wargames have their own audience, this genre is not very optimal for mass distribution platforms aimed mainly at games of simpler and more popular genres.”

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My Football, Tactics, and Glory Wot I Think sparked some interesting discussion. As not all of my VAR colleagues found Creoteam’s pithy pitch battles and multi-season club sagas as irresistible and evocative as I did, I decided to put some of the issues raised in the comments section to game designer Andrey Kostyushko during a recent correspondence.

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RPS: What’s next for Creoteam and Football, Tactics & Glory?

Andrey: First of all, thanks for the article! As our game is quite unique and niche, it’s hard to get noticed. Also, you described very well the precise feelings we wanted to make players feel.

We know that some players pass through the initial very easy Amateur League (which is kind of a prolonged tutorial) and then get frustrated when things get tough in the Third League. Many reviewers stop playing in this phase of the game and don’t see the depth we put in. It’s good to know that you felt what we wanted players to feel – the struggle of football managers who have to make short, medium and long-term plans… the game as an unfolding story.

I see from the comments below your article that a few players haven’t learnt how to use skills and crosses yet and as a result think that the game is shallow. While the demo only allows people to play one season in the Amateur League, you really need to play much more to fully appreciate what is behind the basic 3-actions-per-turn system.

But back to your question…

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Currently, we are thinking about what to do next. There are many ways we can proceed, however, some of our plans are more worked out than others. In addition to porting the game to consoles (We hope to bring it to the Switch/PS4/X1) we are going to continue adding new features either as free updates or paid add-ons. There are so many things we want to add. I don’t want to go into too much detail and accidentally make a promise I can’t keep, but one thing definitely on the way is national teams. Eventually there will be a possibility to be a national coach, and choose players from your country’s pool. With our turn-based mechanics it should be a lot of fun. Also, we want to make the overall world a bit more complex and dynamic. We have some ideas about how to do it, but again, I don’t want to say too much in case we change our plans.

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RPS: Why do FT&G players earn more experience points from an effortless win than a hard-fought defeat?

Andrey: As we wanted the game to be very understandable for strategy and RPG fans, all mechanics were designed with approachability in mind. Every RPG fan knows that winning in a battle gives a lot of XP but losing gives nothing or a small amount.

Also, we tried to make the game as resistant to exploits as possible. If players find a way to imitate a “hard-fought defeat” they might use it to level-up young players faster and stop thinking seriously about every match. We want players to try to win matches, not encourage them to lose.

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RPS: Is there any chance you will make key game mechanics moddable in future?

Andrey: Short answer: no, although we will be adding deeper ways to modify the leagues. Long answer: I read the discussion generated by your article. I had similar discussions in our community. Usually, they were started by players who didn’t understand the game well enough. Such discussions would make sense if the game consisted only of basic actions, but skills are a game changer. Combining the skills and basic action changes the overall game’s dynamics. You start to see that even if sometimes random rolls don’t turn out in your favour, in the long run, your tactics and preparing for every opponent are more important than anything else (assuming your team is good enough).

When I was able to persuade the frustrated and unconvinced to master skills and reach the First League, they often became our biggest fans.

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RPS: Why does the game show the chances of an action succeeding with relative dice sizes rather than more conventional percentages?

Andrey: There is an interesting design story behind this. In the early prototypes (see image below) we showed the probability rate as a percentage. However, after some time I noticed an issue which disturbed me. I saw that our testers were not taking risks. When they saw a probability-of-success figure of 30%, they wouldn’t attempt a shot or a pass. Matches were often boring because everyone was trying to hold the ball.

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At the time we didn’t quite understand what was happening, but when I took out the information about probabilities, things became much more dynamic and believable. What changed is only the players’ perception of the probabilities. Like in real football, you have the vague understanding of what will work and what won’t. And the current system with the dice rolls represents real football quite well. This story shows how hiding some information significantly changes the players’ behaviour and, therefore, the fun they derive from the game.

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RPS: But surely if some players want the clarity of percentages and then play more conservatively as a result, isn’t that their prerogative as customers? Eventually their results will tell them that they need to take more risks.

Andrey: It’s always a hard artistic question. Should I give the players everything they ask for or should I stick with what I think is right? Every time I have a different answer.

For example, we decided to add a Mogul mode where players can have an unlimited amount of Money and Glory. We did that because I know that some players who like to feel overpowered will have a lot of fun playing our game in this mode. The same principle we used for other options as well. Longer matches, different RNG settings etc. Players asked us for that, we thought very carefully about whether it will be fun, and as a result, we added such possibilities.

However, some changes do not seem likely to lead to more fun. For example, showing the probabilities of the encounters, increasing the pitch’s size etc. We’ve seen the results. It’s like a switch in the head. When you see the probabilities, you stop risking. Moreover, it’s damaging for the game. As FT&G is quite hard to get into (there are so many nuances that some players say that even after 500-800 hours of play they found new tactics and approaches to the club’s development), new players who decide to switch to percentages will be even more discouraged to continue, feeling that the game is unfair, shallow and too hard. Which it actually isn’t. Experienced players can easily develop clubs in Normal mode.

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RPS: Any plans to add female players to the game?

Andrey: We seriously thought about it but would need to create a new face editor to really do them justice. It’s such a huge amount of work that we’d rather concentrate on other things.

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RPS: Why doesn’t FT&G model off-target shots?

Andrey: Initially, modelling off-target shots was ruled out because we wanted to reduce the number of different dice rolls. For example, applying a classic RPG approach there would be a dice roll to determine whether a player successfully kicked the ball, then another to work out whether the shot was on target, then rolls for interactions with defenders and goalkeeper and so on. Too many numbers, too many calculations. It would make the game unwieldy and hard to read. So we decided to make it simple – one action, one dice roll.

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Later, after observing player reactions we eventually added more complex mechanics. The most complex one at present is for crosses and headers. When you start thinking about the number of possible dice rolls here, the mind can boggle. Even though we simplified it significantly, we still find that many players have problems in understanding how it works.

Before the launch, we considered adding off-target shots, but as the game was already fun and experimenting with a new feature was risky, ultimately decided against it. They may eventually appear but there are some conundrums to solve and much testing to do before they do.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

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This way to the foxer

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