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The Flare Path: Africa 2016

Simulation & wargame blather

The dimmed lighting, the rearranged seating, the bowls of hydrogenated corn snacks... by the time you've put two and two together it's already much too late. Your persuasive host - Tedious Tim from next-door - is directing you towards a chair and fussing with his laptop. After the interminable 'SE Asia 2014' and 'South America 2015' you vowed never to attend one of his holiday photo slideshows again yet here you are, jammed between Bella the Bull Terrier and Old Mr Richardson from across the road, contemplating 2? 3? 4hrs? of 'Africa 2016'.

Dominated by Senegalese snaps, the first hour is actually surprisingly interesting. Tim, an evangelical rail enthusiast, seems to have spent most of his time in this West African country riding the Boubel-Linguére railway.

Free and uncommonly picturesque, the TS2016 line is a great way to see local fauna like giraffes, elephants and hippos in their natural habitats.

Linking jungle-embedded villages and mines in the east to bustling desert towns and a river port in the west, the French-made railway also provides great opportunities for people watching.

Eye-catching human tableau, often involving elderly Gallic automobiles, dot the lineside.

Locals chinwag or toil. Trucks and buses unload or pause at ramshackle crossings. Dogs loiter. Goats graze. That bloke in the blue puffa jacket that appears on almost every TS2016 platform strides up and down, glancing at his watch, looking a bit lost.

After making friends with some of the drivers, Tim cabbed several locos and multiple-unit types. Apparently, though none were totally appropriate for Senegal, by the time you'd collected your first load of passengers at a one-horse halt and honked your horn at your first zebra, that fact was usually forgotten.

Completely enchanted, just about the only things your host could find to criticise was the ride quality (“Improbably smooth”), the zoological inactivity (“the giraffes in FSX move”), and the music (“I had to provide my own Youssou N'Dour and Super Etoile de Dakar soundtrack”).

Relaxed by cheap Chilean Merlot and Bella's snores, you doze through much of the second hour. From what you can remember of the slides, Tim moves onto Angola after Senegal.

Eager to visit a location he'd learnt about through “a fantastic dual-layer wargame called Graviteam Tactics: Operation Star”, he'd stayed in a place called Cuito Canavale, the site, in the late Eighties of an important battle in the Angolan Civil War.

Fortunately you are awake when Tim mentions that GTOS, together with all eight of its add-ons, is available for a very short time for the extremely silly price of £5. A fiver for a realism-rammed wargame offering incomparably atmospheric WW2 Eastern Front battles plus exotic excursions to Cold War hotspots like Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Angola? A fiver for a wargame with a campaign engine that guarantees unpredictability and entanglement? Even if the interface is a tad idiosyncratic and the sequel a bit more sophisticated in certain areas, the offer has 'bargain' stamped all over it.

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Tim heads north for hour 3. Images of parched Libyan plains, burning Bren Gun Carriers, and poised portees shuffle past while you chain-munch Wotsits and silently curse Mr Richardson for asking questions.

Tim seems keen to recruit additional Comment Commanders for his latest communal Combat Mission experiment. Raging Smouldering for a week, the Battle of the Perfectly Rectangular Olive Grove has been a fairly low-key affair thus far. Apart from a player-controlled Bren Gun Carrier ignited by distant tanks during turn 9, and an AI light tank perforated non-fatally by a sly portee in turn 7, neither side has sustained casualties.

Observation, opportunism, and stealthy manoeuvre has been substituting for slaughter up to this point. During the first nine minutes/turns both sides have pushed towards the important Victory Locations in the centre of map. For volunteers orchestrating the Kiwi force that may not have encountered Combat Mission: Afrika Korps before, there's been opportunities to learn about the game's singular but reality-rooted mortar modelling (mortar teams either need Line-of-Sight to their targets or must be within command range of an HQ with LoS to their target) and dense fog of war. There's been time too to get acquainted via Wikipedia with some of the relatively obscure war machines which may, ultimately, determine which side snatches victory in this 35 turn scrap.

Enemy AFVs sighted so far include two L6/40 light tanks milling threateningly in the SE corner of the map, and one – possibly two – Semovente tank destroyers and an Autoblinda armoured car lurking on a ridge in the NE. The player's portee – a lorry with a two-pounder gun bolted to its bed – has proven it can punch holes in the L6s, but Comment Commanders have spent much of the past week hopefully scanning the western horizon for signs of better protected and better armed assets.

Four turns late, those assets finally arrived last night.

Even with a Stuart and a Crusader in their ranks, the New Zealanders are still the underdogs. The rash of Italian 'contact' flags visible in some of the most recent screenshots indicate that the enemy is pushing infantry towards the four player-held VLs in significant numbers. Unless the three Kiwi infantry squads, and their attendant mortar, ATR, and HQ team, presently sweating and fretting amongst the olive trees in the centre of the map, fight hard and are thoughtfully utilized there'll be tricolori flying over Kokopu, Carp, Grayling and Perch in no time.

Tim ends by encouraging you to visit Libya “New order providers are always welcome. Read the last turn summary, consult the gridded map, and have a go at order issuing. Inexperience and fear of failure are no reasons to hang back. Tactics that worked well on real WW2 battlefields tend to work well in-game, and at some point soon Allied heads will need to be poked above parapets, frontal armour exposed to irate Italian AP. Contribute, even in a small way, and when, years from now, elderly Flareopaths reminisce about The Battle of the Perfectly Rectangular Olive Grove, you'll be able to say, I was there.”

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This way to the foxer

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