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The Flare Path: A Fraud In Fredericksburg

simulation & wargame blather

Wargame publishing leviathan Slitherine held their 2013 press conference last Friday. Fredericksburg, Virginia was the venue and I was there! In spirit. Physically I was in a small room in Staines, Surrey eating fig rolls and reading Nevil Shute's 'Pastoral' but I'm determined not to let a minor detail like that get in the way of pithy reportage. With the help of half a bottle of Auntie June's extra-strong sloe gin, enough press releases to wallpaper a Pickett-Hamilton fort, and considerable experience of events of this type, I'm sure I can provide a fairly accurate account of what went on.

  • Friday, 19 July, 2013

Say what you like about Slitherine's steep prices and wearying fondness for WW2's East and West front, the militarism mongers from Epsom sure know how to organise a press trip. We were met outside Arrivals at Fredericksburg International by an M3 halftrack, a Universal Carrier, and a stretch Sd.Kfz 251. This convoy of splendidly squeaky/smoky conveyances whisked us the 4 miles to our Battle of Fredericksburg-themed hotel in a little under 3 hours.

After checking in, shedding rain-soaked togs, and relaxing for an hour atop king-size beds shaped like Rappahannock pontoon boats, we rendezvoused in the Longstreet Lounge for drinks and an introductory presentation. Rather than go down the predictable video/PowerPoint route, our hosts opted to get things started with a dash of theatre. To the rousing strains of Holst's Mars march, a series of spotlit military messengers appeared and disappeared on the darkened stage at the end of the room. Pheidippides running on the spot while a skateboard-mounted 'Athens: 26 miles' finger-post was dragged past. A medieval bowman fastening a message to the shaft of an arrow then letting fly. A Boer War British signaller heliographing from a corpse-strewn peak...

In the final scene, an exhausted soldier in the goggled helmet and mud-spattered greatcoat of a motorcycle despatch rider, deposited a document wallet on the desk of a German general. That general - actually Slith boss Iain McNeil - read the delivered message, then, smiling broadly, turned to the audience and spoke. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Good news from the front. Over the next twelve months Slitherine and Matrix Games will be reinvigorating computer wargaming with a slew of high-quality releases ranging from dense, super-detailed grog gratifiers like Gary Grigsby's War in the West to light, affable gateway games like Battle Academy 2. Sit back and while awhile while we show you a little of what we've got in store.”

The showcase started with a surprise. Hubert Cater, the chap behind the long-running Strategic Command franchise, is turning his back on both Battlefront and squares. Europe-focussed and WW2-themed, SC3 is to be published by Slitherine not the Combat Missionaries. According to comments made to Wargamer.com's Nik Gaukroger, Slith's art department and tried-and-tested PBEM server system were important factors in the defection. The barren pre-alpha screenshots aren't especially promising, but those hexes together with talk of oil and manpower simulation, reworked naval rules, and improved FoW suggests Fury Software aren't sequelling for the sake of it.

Undergoing beta-testing at the moment, Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations was probably the freshest and most ambitious wargame paraded at Fredericksburg. Though conceptually rooted in the hoary Harpoon series, WarfareSims' obsessive approach to sensor and weapons modelling, and determination to accurately depict marine subtleties like thermal layers and salinity levels, mean even the most capable Queequegs will need to learn some completely new tactics. Everything from grand WW2-style battleship duels (The pair of unit databases cover most things that floated or flew between 1949 and the present day) to low-key contemporary anti-piracy ops should be possible, and thanks to self-reliant friendly AI, reasonably easy to orchestrate.

Those who'd gone to Virginia hoping for a glimpse of Slitherine's scratchbuilt 3D Close Combat sequel, left disappointed. The only CC game aired was Close Combat: Gateway to Caen, yet another Normandy-dominated outing for Atomic's now achingly familiar sprite-based engine. It will take more than the standard “Improved AI!” claims to kindle my interest in this one.

The closest Slitherine customers are likely to get to an original and intimate WW2 tactics title before Christmas, looks to be Lock 'n' Load: Heroes of Stalingrad. Monstrously overdue, this faithful board-game facsimile has obvious similarities with Conflict of Heroes, but a rich story-based campaign, a potentially superior AI, and cleverer abstractions could well leave LnL:CoS king of the grain elevator.

Brother Against Brother: The Drawing of the Sword, another incorrigible slow poke, also showed its face in Fredericksburg. Using a modified version of Forge of Freedom's battle code should mean scraps have a nostalgic Civil War Generals charm about them, though the combination of 75m hexes and 10 x 7.5 mile maps risks making the larger scenarios gruelling affairs. 1st Bull Run, Williamsburg, Wilson's Creek and Mill Springs will be recreated in the first instalment of what is hoped to be a new ACW-spanning series.

Understandably proud of their new relationship with AGEOD, Slitherine wheeled out American Civil War 2 at various points during the day. Scrutinising early screenshots, I found myself wondering if everyone involved in the game was quite as interested in historical realism as they professed to be...

More utterly reliable recon reports from Staines Fredericksburg next week.


The Flare Path Foxer

Between them, Rufus Rudd, Greta Grün, and Gethsemane Goldworthy spent 36 years searching for the fabled Kebili Tiger tank. In a dazzling display of double-quick defoxing, Dinger located it inside 16 minutes. There's only one way to reward proficiency like that and that's with an orrery made from unravelled barbed wire and Panzerkampfwagen turret-ring ball bearings. Plucky runners-up NotInventedHere (25 mins) and SpiceTheCat (49 mins) must make do with FP flair points made from silver camel spur rowels.

For a spell in the mid-Nineties, my extensive reference library was stored in a doveless Seventeenth Century dove cott. Conditions were far from ideal and when the time came to move the collection to a more suitable space, I discovered that many volumes had been damaged by a rare form of booklouse. Rather than gorge on paper, young Biblioscelis expungus devour dried ink. Occasionally, entire sentences or paragraphs are erased, but, more usually, the larvae cherry-pick particular words. Affected books are ruined, unless, like me, you've got a photographic memory and a passion for puzzle creation.

Above is the first 'Missing Words' foxer. The passage is taken from a 1930s book on aviation and is part of a description of 'air control' - “the use of aircraft as the primary arm to support the political administration of an undeveloped country for the purpose of creating or restoring law and order within or outside its border”. Fill in the 13 missing words to win flair points carved from the antlers of crashed Hawker Harts.

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Tim Stone