"In a couple of thousand years' time bent-backed archaeologists are going to find the phrase 'The Greased Pigs Rule!' scratched into hypercaust tiles, carved on marble horse troughs, and written in tessera on villa floors. Being clever sorts they may guess who we were, but they'll never fully understand how famous we were and how much that fame cost us in blood, sweat, and tears."
Like Adam I've gone anti-clockwise lots this past week and loved every minute of it. During the course of my latest Qvadriga campaign, my team, the Greased Pigs, have travelled the length and breadth of Europe and North Africa. Older, wiser, and sporting more scar tissue than Maximus, the Colosseum's angriest bull hippo, we're now on the verge of our 100th race, a race I thought I'd share with you today in The Flare Path.
I can't promise success or spectacle. My stats reveal that my aurigas (charioteers) win almost a third of the events they enter. Less encouragingly, the figures also show that 44% of our races finish without a Pig on the podium. Part of the joy of this wonderfully fast-paced, surprisingly subtle tactical TBS is the unpredictability. Sound tactics, strong charioteers, and solid equipment are vital, but some days no amount of skill and hardware can overcome the perfect hoof-storm of cunning rivals and cruel luck.
I've come to Rome for the big 1-0-0 bash. I was planning to compete at the famous Circus Maximus but, despite the fact that the Pigs are now 'legendary' on the global stage and 'worshipped' locally, the snobs that run the place won't let us in. Bah. It will have to be the Rome Maxentius nextdoor. A large 'Category V' hippodrome, the difference in scale and splendour isn't actually all that great.
Choosing an auriga for the big day is going to be considerably harder than choosing a venue. My latest signing, Babpo the Spaniard, is, on paper, my finest charioteer. That extra heart by his name means he's tougher than his teammates. The thing is, he hasn't won for me yet and I don't trust him the way I trust the likes of Anir, Hapu, and Preherwen. Those guys have been with the Pigs since the early days. The days when we were nobodies plying our perilous trade on tiny dung-dotted desert circuits on the edge of the Sahara.
I think it's going to be Preherwen. Though he hasn't enjoyed quite the success of Anir, he has talent by the galley-load and has pulled off a couple of truly miraculous wins in his time. I team him with a quartet of my best horses and, tingling even more than usual, press 'RACE'.
Every Qvadriga derby begins with the turn of an event card. Incredibly varied, these can add everything from arena bumps, sandstorms, and extra laps, to sabotaged gates, snipped reins and pissed, projectile-
vomitting hurling spectators. On this occasion, the card really couldn't have been more propitious. Plainly, the Gods are smiling on me today so it seems sensible to smile back. I place a 1000-and-something denarii wager (for some reason the bet slider refuses to settle on 1000) on the 5:1 Preherwen.
This is it. The Maxentius buzzes like a giant marble beehive as the twelve aurigas ready themselves behind its shaded carceres. There are only three orders available in the first few turns of a race - 'accelerate', 'decelerate', and 'use whip'. If my 99 previous races have taught me anything it's that two of those should be avoided like the plague. To maximise our chances of success I must hit the first straight near the front of the pack. With Preherwen's whip poised above a quartet of twitching horse rumps, the race begins.
Not bad. Not bad at all. The combination of busy lash, event card luck, a decent lane draw, high auriga skill, and quality chariot and nags, means we reach the spina (the raised platform in the centre of the track) in 3rd position and in roughly the middle of the eight lanes. Better still, none of the vehicles near to the crimson-clad Preherwen have fetlock-shredding blades attached to their wheel-hubs. Losing a horse to a vicious neighbour on the first straight doesn't happen often, but when it does it's usually race over for the unlucky/unwary victim.
Okay, my first tricky choice. I've got a blue-clad Veneta faction cove called Mageshgetil sneaking up on the outside. With his small light chariot and powerful pullers, an overtake seems inevitable. I could try a spoiling lane switch but he might squeak past before the manoeuvre is complete, or cut inside negating the block.
Brilliant. The switch worked perfectly. Mageshgetil attempted to whip his way past and wound up running into the back of my veering machine. Better still, one of his horses was wounded in the collision. I've lost a place to one of the grey quadrigas currently dominating the inside lanes, but, in the circumstances, it feels like a worthwhile sacrifice.
In the next turn a bloody wheel-versus-whip fracas between rivals on my left, and a frenzy of lane changes amongst the leaders (the inside lane folk understandably, don't want to execute the approaching turn too close to the spina wall) give me the opportunity to gain ground. Gunshot-loud whip cracks speed Preherwen past squabblers and steerers.
Entering the first corner my chariot is inches away from the second-place vehicle, a Veneta quadriga piloted by one Rufus. A bottle-green path predictor suggests stability isn't going to be a problem in the remaining sector of the bend, so maybe I can risk a little combat. I wonder how Rufus and his nags will react to a flurry of whip blows?
Hopes can be dashed in seconds in Qvadriga. Rufus obviously had exactly the same idea as me. In the two-way, high-speed, melee the muscular Preherwen prevailed; Rufus was stunned, his horses injured and slowed, but - and it's a Colossus of Rhodes-sized 'but' - my charioteer dropped his whip. I may have just blown my chances.
As we slingshot out of the corner, behind us the dazed Rufus is causing a heart-warming traffic jam. Poor sod. It's definitely not his day. Before he has a chance to recover, he's whipped to death by a bad-tempered bastard bypassing the snarl-up on the inside. The purple predator goes by the name of Damianus.
I don't think I've ever lost a whip before. Frankly, I'm not sure what to do for the best now. The leading chariot is now so far ahead he's off the screen, and my usual tactics - whip hard, whip often (unless your horses are on their last legs, natch) - are impossible. I can still accelerate using the reins, but I've lost the ability to initiate quick bursts of speed.
The blood spattered Damianus chases me all the way down the top straight. As we cross the line to complete the first of our three laps, he's two or three lengths behind. The gap narrows slightly in the turn, but my ruthless rival doesn't seem to have the legs for an overtake. Barrelling along the lower straight, our simultaneous lane changes (him searching for a way through, me looking to close the door) leave plaited wheel tracks in the hot Maxentius dust.
Splendid, Damianus definitely seems to be running out of steam. As I sweep towards the scene of my de-whipping, drifting alarmingly en-route (I really should have cornered a tad wider), he's a dot in my imaginary bronze wing mirror. In fact he's in imminent danger of losing a couple of places to a pair of spina-hugging whip crackers.
Three turns have passed since my last paragraph. During those turns one of those spina-huggers misjudged a turn and flipped his chariot (still attached to the now-unencumbered horses, he's presently ploughing the circuit with his nose). Almost too late, I noticed two equine cadavers in my lane and took appropriate evasive action. The big news, however, relates to the current race leader. Sophus, my fact-hungry mouse cursor tells me, may not be in quite the commanding position he appears to be in. Though he's still around five lengths ahead, he's evidently got potential propulsion problems. One of his meaty motors shows an orange health bar, another a yellow.
Final lap, lower straight. Sophus has just swung left to avoid a wreck. The detour seems to have cost him a surprising amount of speed. As we enter the last turn of the race, we're neck and neck, but my chariot, three lanes from the spina, has the superior line. You know what? I think I might just snatch this.
By Jupiter! Sophus just did something uncharacteristically - wonderfully - reckless. Seeing a lead he'd hung onto for almost the entire race, slipping away, he attempted to whip his way through the last corner. The combination of pace and lane (2) produced a fairly predictable cloud of dust and debris out of which emerged four grey horses dragging a human travois. Hard luck, old bean. Been there, bought the toga. Nothing can stop me now!
Nothing except... the chariotless race leader has exited the bend fractionally ahead of Preherwen.
If the dizzy dust chewer can hang on to the reins until the finish line, it's possible, just possible, he could still grab a victory. I consider switching lanes and attempting to trample him, then
remember my humanity realise Preherwen is pulling clear and let physics take its course.
38,500 denarii! The wine will flow like auriga blood in the Greased Pigs stables tonight.
The Flare Path Foxer
Roman, my Chief Foxer Setter, is getting soft in his old age. Last week he wanted to include an AN/PVS-2 scope and a sun-silhouetted Huey in the 'musicals' foxer. “Go ahead” I said “...if you're happy to insult collage kings like FurryLippedSquid, Stugle, Matchstick, skink74, All is Well, mrpier, sith1144, Gusdownnup, and Thurgret”.
A) Various Cats
B) A McDonnell FH Phantom (Phantom of the Opera)
C) The cargo ship Cosette (Les Miserables)
D) Southern Railway Merchant Navy Class locomotive (Either South Pacific or Spamalot)
E) The Lion's Mound, Waterloo, and a King Tiger (The Lion King)
F) A Tu-28 'Fiddler' on a Rufe (Fiddler on the Roof)
G) Douglas World Cruiser 'Chicago'
To be fair, Roman has been working his socks off of late. I've given him the week off this week and he's using the break to do a whistle-stop tour of some of his favourite battle sites. The eight pictured below are all on his itinerary. Can you identify them?