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The Flare Path: Bulges

Seasonal wargame blather

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la,

But forget ye not war's cruel folly,

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la,

Ringed by corpses and burning tanks,

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la,

70 years ago, Bastogne gave thanks,

Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Seventy years ago today, the vanguard of Patton's Third Army reached the outskirts of beleaguered Bastogne. The Allied-held town that had, for seven days, stood isolated but implacable in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge, was no longer an island. Any lingering hopes the Germans might have had of turning their hard-won fifty-mile salient into a port-seizing wedge between British and US forces, vanished like snowflakes on a hot Jeep bonnet.

The last significant German offensive of WW2 has been fascinating computer wargame designers for over thirty years. Read about von Rundstedt's daring lunge for the Channel coast and it's not hard to understand why. In tactical terms Operation 'Wacht am Rhein' is as colourful as a B-24 assembly ship.

Fog-shrouded, snow-clogged, and road-reliant, this was a battle in which terrain, weather, and logistics played a massive role. The stout villages, rolling hills and dense forestry of the Ardennes made close infantry-armour coordination vital, doughty David vs. Goliath delaying actions possible. Thinly spread defenders and a timetable-eyeing attacker ensured restless, holey frontlines. Thanks to the stealthiness of the German build-up, the fighting involved an unusually exotic mix of hardened veterans, untested recruits, and under-strength and ad-hoc units. There was even a dash of subterfuge and airborne antics tossed in for good measure. From a wargaming perspective, the Battle of the Bulge has almost everything a grog could wish for.

Chuck Kroegel, David Landrey, and David Walker were the first devs to footprint Belgian drifts. Their Tigers in the Snow padded on to PC, Apple II, Atari 8-bit, Commodore 64 and TRS-80 in 1981. Beneath the chunky chickenwire and the big-nosed infantry, lurked a pretty sophisticated boardgame-indebted TBS keen to acknowledge the importance of supply, terrain, and weather. Attacking one target from multiple hexes was possible, and combat outcomes were kept interesting by a clever maths-modifying 'Choose attack/defence strategy' system. Occasionally, in a nod to Fog of War, your carefully picked offensive and defensive instructions would be randomly altered by a mischievous Mars.

Hot on the furry heels of Tigers came a ZX Spectrum/Atari title described by Crash magazine as “very badly dated” when it reappeared as a budget offering in 1984. Even abandoned by abandonware sites, CPS Games' Battle of the Bulge seems to have vanished almost without trace. Considering other sections of that review, that may not be such a bad thing: “The eight-part load takes about ten minutes with breaks to let you copy the various town co-ordinates and maps, without which which you can do nothing... And then each move, yours and the enemy's, takes an age as the screen builds up the image in BASIC”. Did CPS include cartography chores for inspired historical reasons (Desperately short of maps, US forces in the Bulge did resort to hand copying)? I suspect not.

1985 proved to be an interesting year for ardent Ardennesophiles with rubber-keyed, rainbow-emblazoned computers. First, Mark L Stueber's Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge rumbled into view. Recalcitrant without documentation (a TZX file is available but there's no sign of a manual), it provoked a predictable diet-referencing intro and a bruising 2/5 score from Sinclair User reviewer Gary Rook. “Because of the combat system, one allied unit can easily hold down three or four if not more German formations. And the map is just too full of rough terrain for any real blitzkrieg to develop. Historically accurate, perhaps, but dull nonetheless.”. The criticism of the visuals is harder to dismiss. As Gary points out, choosing to distinguish unit types with numbers rather than letters or icons is a recipe for confusion. What was Stueber thinking?

Ponderousness wasn't an accusation that could be levelled at the year's other Wacht am Rhein release. With one eye on command simulation, Lothlorien's optimistically titled The Bulge: Battle for Antwerp dispensed with turns. Players were expected to cursor-dart around a Stonkers-style battlefield many times larger than the screen, speedily assessing the strength and adjusting the orders of 30+ units. There was a pause facility but as it disabled scrolling and kiboshed command issuing, it was bugger-all use. The hectic pace combined with other questionable features like absent highways and asymmetric artillery modelling (only the Germans got separate arty units) exasperated publications like Your Computer “You simply haven't got time to issue all the orders you need to. As the game progresses and units get spread far and wide, you spend most of your time chasing round the map” Other mags were far more positive, finding the breathless battles invigorating, the design refreshingly pithy. The Bulge earned a coveted 'Crash Smash' and Sinclair User praised it as “fast and accurate... a good hard fight... a welcome addition to the new breed of computer wargames”.

Decidedly 'old breed', the board-game based Blitzkrieg: Battle at the Ardennes (Command Simulations, 1987-89) wins the Naivest Bulge Game Box-Art award hands down. Its title screens were also rather eye-catching. Amiga wargamers were greeted with an uncannily naturalistic animated Hitler (skip to 0.40 for Führer fury), PC ones with an unforgivably anachronistic M47 Patton (probably an image purloined from the famous Bulge movie of 1965). According to CGW wargaming oracle M. Evan Brooks, things didn't get much better if you chose to press on. A confusing interface and a silicon foe that sometimes spent 15 minutes mulling over his options, ensured Blitzkrieg dawdled like a mine-wary King Tiger.

By 1990, Robert T. Smith, the creator of classic Spectrum wargames like Arnhem, Desert Rats, and Vulcan, had quit the field. Fortunately, fellow Brit Steve P. Thomas arrived fairly promptly to fill the void. The WeGo engine that debuted in the well-received The Battle of the Bulge would go on to serve in Crete and Italy. Elegant and relatively sophisticated, Thomas' designs tracked morale, cohesion, supply levels, and combat power, and always came with an interesting selection of scenario-twisting 'what if' options.

Splendid. We've arrived at Patton Strikes Back at last. Cruelly dismissed as “unarguably the worst game of [Chris] Crawford's career” on many abandonware sites, this turnless-but-pauseable 1990 Bulge title from one of the daddies of digital wargaming, glittered with great ideas and good intentions. Fluid and intuitive, there's echoes of Ultimate General and Command Ops in its quirky iconoclasm.

Unit moves were drag-daubed directly onto the gridded map. Interdictable supply lines snaked along roadways. Unplanned skirmishes flared and faded while you looked on, wondering if it was time to wade in and issue more orders.

On-map text messages accompanied by natty lo-res movies (an idea appropriated by the next game in this convoy) announced significant incidents. Hunks of fascinating combat memoirs also interjected from time to time.

And if you were ever stuck for tactical inspiration you could consult the developer himself. At the press of a button an animated Crawford - dressed in a period uniform, natch - would pop up with an apposite 'take-this-village' or a “look-to-this-unit” tip.

Less endearing were the uncommunicative icons, and the rook-reminiscent movement and facing limitations. At times PSB felt distinctly Chess-like, and that feel, combined with the disorientating absence of turns, doubtless played a part in the game's lukewarm reception.

PC wargaming in the Nineties was dominated by a clutch of Sturmtiger-solid franchises that straddled the line between 'generic simplicity' and 'gnomic complexity' inch perfectly. Two of those franchises started out amongst the snow-mantled spruces and snow-suited soldiery of December '44 Belgium.

The incongruous spearhead of a nine-episode American Civil War and Napoleonic series, TalonSoft's Battleground: Ardennes was coded by John Tiller, a man destined to become one of the most prolific and respected designers in all Grognardia. Playable yet plausible, it introduced many classic Tillerisms - the choice of 2D and isometric 3D display modes, the bevy of well-researched scenarios, the flavoursome yet easily understood combat mechanics... If you used your PC for battle choreography in the second-half of the Nineties you almost certainly owned and valued a Battleground game.

And an instalment of the Decisive Battles of WW2 series. By the time SSG unveiled Decisive Battles of WW2: The Ardennes Offensive in 1997, they were already development veterans with dozens of strategy releases behind them. TAO's distinctive visuals, and loyalty to board wargaming conventions like dice rolls and strength 'steps', help set it apart, but it was the fiendish enemy AI that left the deepest impressions. Though SSG moved on to new corpse-strewn pastures (The Korsun Pocket, Normandy, Italy...) the Bulge was never far from their thoughts, TAO being reworked as a popular bonus scenario in all of the subsequent Decisive Battles releases.

Watching a minuscule Close Combat AT team stalking a minuscule Close Combat tank never gets old. That said, by 1999 Atomic's drama-stuffed real-time skirmish series was beginning to smell a bit musty. Something bolder than a simple venue shift was required, and the wise devs decided that 'something' should be a new approach to campaigning.

Where previous CCs had relied upon sequenced scenarios for their long game, the Bulge-focussed CC4 used a 40-region strat map to trigger skirmishes. Pushing reinforceable battlegroups around this map, players strove to cut enemy supply lines and capture fuel and ammo dumps. Weather influenced Fog-of-War and the availability of air cover, air supply and artillery support. Though tactical irritants remained, CC felt fleshier and more rounded than ever before.

As keen on French, Dutch and German battlefields as Belgian ones, Combat Mission: Beyond Overlord isn't strictly a Bulge wargame. It charmed its way into this survey by studding my hippocampus with indelible memories of snowy tank duels and bitter crossroads clashes circa 2000.

The groundbreaking 3D vantage point, impressive ballistics, and wonderfully tense WeGo approach, made Battle of the Bulge barneys feel fresh and vivid. Big Time Software's (aka Battlefront.com) rudimentary operation approach and desiccated scenario presentation, meant there was little sense of the big picture, but that didn't seem to matter much when you were sneaking Hellcats through treelines, or watching Panzers bulldoze dead halftracks off icy roads. CMBO's sole Bulge operation recreated the action-packed experiences of Team Desobry around Vaux and Noville...

“In an extended skirmish line along the ridge short of Vaux were 14 tanks. Desobry's men looked at this scene and knew that they were standing square in the road of an entire panzer division. At that moment they might well have uttered the words of Oliver, "Great are the hosts of these strange people, and we have here a very little company," but instead they picked up their arms. The leading enemy formations were 1,000 yards away. The distance made no difference even to the men working with caliber .50 machine guns; they fired with what they bad. When they had closed to 800 yards out, the 14 tanks on the ridge halted and shelled the town. Other tanks were swinging around the right flank but on the left the enemy armor was already within 200 yards of the American position when the curtain went up.

The events of the next hour were shaped by the flashes of the heavy guns and the vagaries of the ever-shifting fog. The guns rolled in measure according to a visibility that came and went in the passage of only a few seconds. But it never became an infantryman's battle. Little knots of men on foot were coming up behind the German tanks and the batteries of the 420th Armored Field Artillery Battalion hammered at those afoot. It is doubtful if the American artillery stopped a single tank. About the time that the enemy army became fully revealed, a platoon from the 609th Tank Destroyer Battalion rolled into Noville, and added the gun power of its four tank destroyers to the guns already shooting. The sudden, sharp focus given to the line of Mark IVs and Mark Vs as the fog cleared along the ridge line made them stand out like ducks in a shooting gallery. Nine were hit straight away, three exploding in flames. One came charging down the highway and was turned into a flaming wreck 500 yards out. At a range of 600 yards an American cavalryman engaged a Panther tank with his armored car and knocked it out with one shot from his 37mm. gun-the most miraculous hit of the morning.”

Six years after his first trip with TalonSoft, John Tiller returned to the Ardennes in the company of HPS Simulations. Graphically there was little evidence of progress, but the mechanical improvements were myriad and the scale shift transformative. Panzer Campaigns: Bulge '44 (2001) also benefited from a 24-strong scenario selection painstakingly shaped by deft history hunters Greg Smith, Glenn Saunders and Dave Blackburn.

At this point in the Bulge wargame story an eerie stillness descends. Purveyors of high-fidelity war fare turned their backs on the Bulge until Matrix Games and Strategy 3 Tactics unleashed a revamped CC4 in 2008. Highlights of Close Combat: Wacht am Rhein included bigger chunks of battlefield, more regions on the all-important strat map, and a range of AI tweaks that some series veterans poo-pooed as 'too little, too late'.

Oddly, my memories of unconventional turn-spurner WW2: General Commander - Watch on the Rhine (2009) are few and faint. According to paragraphs I penned on the occasion of its demo release“Units are battalion sized, each counter or 3D miniature representing approximately 40 tanks or 400 men. Though the swarmy AI and simplistic logistics won’t impress Airborne Assault aficionados, the trim UI and understated 3D visuals possibly will.” Whatever its shortcomings, it's sad Spanish studio Games GI didn't press on with their interesting experiment in wargaming modernism. With smarter opposition, and a little extra historicism here and there, WW2GC might have matured into a decent pop alternative to the last game in this Boxing Day Bulgefest, Commands Ops: Battles from the Bulge (2010).

Before I wax lyrical (yet again) about Panther Games' incomparably fluid, uncannily credible take on the 'Von Rundstedt Offensive', some bad news. The most recent and - for my money - most appealing offering on this list is also, currently, the most difficult to obtain.

The men behind this 'pauseable continuous time' masterpiece have recently switched publishers and CO:BftB and its older siblings, the Airborne Assaults, have temporarily been pulled from shelves. There's encouraging talk of the engine resurfacing in a new improved free form alongside five payware modules - Highway to the Reich (Market Garden), Ride of the Valkyries (Northern Bulge), Bastogne (Southern Bulge), Foothills of the Gods (Greece) and The Cauldron (Mediterranean) - but that happy day looks to be a few months off.

Right now, if you're curious to try a Bulge treatment that encourages delegation (units can be manoeuvred en masse via orders issued to capable subordinate COs), embraces the authentic chaos of war (order delays + thick FoW + smart, reactive AI = glorious unpredictability) and, ultimately, delivers operations that feel just as fluid, untidy, and closely contested as their inspiration, then your only option is the somewhat outdated BftB demo.

I'd love to be able to end this chilly ramble with a true Bulge bombshell. For the last three years Graviteam have been secretly toiling away on Graviteam Tactics: Ardennes! Battlefront, the Combat Missionaries, have been spotted wandering around Bastogne wreathed in camera equipment! Shenandoah have finally seen sense and agreed to bring their lovely iOS creation to PC!

Alas, my bandoleer of surprises is flatter than Sherman roadkill, so it looks like I'll have to sign off by stating the blindingly obvious. Although wargame fabricators have been mercilessly rifling The Battle of the Bulge for nigh-on 35 years, this extraordinary slice of WW2 still has much more to give. See you on December 26, 2044 for a whistle-stop tour of Bulge wargames #16 to #30.



The Flare Path Foxer

AFKAMC made Operation Mincemeat of last Friday's collage.

A. Stubby pencil (one of the objects planted on the body)
B. Major Martin (the corpse's concocted identity)
C. Ewen Montagu (one of the men behind the deception)
D. Pam (Martin's fictitious girlfriend)
E. Glyndwr Michael (the corpse's real identity)
F. Operation Husky (The aim of Operation Mincemeat was to convince the Germans that the Allied invasion target was Greece rather than Sicily)
G. Battle of Kursk (Mincemeat persuaded the Germans to move two panzer divisions from the Eastern Front to Greece - an action that left them significantly weaker than they might have been during the crucial Battle of Kursk)
H. Leslie Howard (The issue of The Times that announced Major Martin's demise also announced the death of actor Leslie Howard)


Sorry, nothing but leftovers available today. Because Roman hates scraping perfectly good picture puzzles into the pedal bin, he's giving you one last chance to de-fox four of 2014's most confounding collages.

(October 3)
Cracked clues: Actress Anita Page, Grumman F-11 Tiger, the Home Office.

(October 17)
Cracked clues: George C. Scott playing General ‘Buck’ Turgidson in Dr Strangelove, Buff Orpington hen, Coventry armoured car, Toronto Blue Jays insignia, cover of Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, Tu-95 'Bear', de Havilland Firestreak.

(October 31)
Cracked clues: Conker the squirrel, An-225 Mriya 'Cossack', pectin, Nakajima Ki-84 Hayate 'Frank', Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.

(December 12)
Cracked clues: Armin Faber's Fw 190, tank from 'Z', Gibraltar 5p, CH-46 Sea Knight/CH-113 Labrador, James 'Shogun' Clavell, Percival 'Pinky' Pinkerton of Sgt. Fury's Howling Commandos, Alexandra Feodorovna.

All foxer solutions in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone