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The Flare Path: Cheapskate Or Die

Black Friday bargain hunt

'Tis the season to be jolly vigilant. With the six-week Matrix/Slitherine Christmas sale underway and Steam in the midst of a five-day autumnal tariff squeeze, several excruciatingly expensive wargames are currently just expensive, quite a few expensive wargames are now affordable, and a handful of cheap wargames are doing passable impersonations of gift horses. Prowling the various bargain basements like an extra-grumpy Philip Serrell, these are the deals that have caught my eye...

I don't have the patience for the gargantuan Gary Grigsby's War in the East myself, but those that do speak very highly of it. Certainly no Ost Front recreation has ever harnessed so much historical detail and glued together so many hexagons. The 2010 release features in several Best Strategy Games lists including our Adam's and is now a faintly approachable £30.49 rather than the downright intimidating £60.99 it usually is.

Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa, a strong alternative that combines conservative counter shuffling with wonderfully fresh Wehrmacht office politics, is probably a better option for time-poor cash-strapped strategists with an interest in steppe conquest. Under £20 at the moment, it's a role-playing wargame in which friends can be almost as troublesome as foes, and at every turn end you find yourself battling to rebuild damaged relationships and Machiavelli the resources necessary to keep offensives moving or defences firm.

Usually over £60, Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations is £21.34 for the time-being. Seasoned grogs interested in choreographing post-WW2 air and naval engagements through an Action Information Centre-style interface should get their money's worth out of this Pentagon pleaser, assuming they're willing to overlook some control inelegance and scenario building limitations.

Friendlier and slightly cheaper than CMANO, the not-nearly-as-conventional-as-it-first-appears Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm has benefited from several major patches since my delicately qualified enthusiasm three years ago. Amongst the latest batch of tweaks were some sage AI changes and welcome optimization boosts. See the effects of these improvements by trying the demo that the devs/publishers – shamed into action by years of understandable nagging from The Flare Path – are now, surely, only days away from releasing.

Sengoku Jidai, another Slitherine a-lister that could really use a trial, is at the heart of one of Steam's most attractive autumn sale bundles. £17.97 buys this recent Oriental Pike & Shot spin-off together with four additional campaign packs. Though the dynamic campaign engine is fairly primitive, the combination of random battlefield generation, ingenious combat rules, decent AI and numerous army lists should mean you're playing contentedly for months to come. At £14.99 the original Euro-focussed, general-less Pike & Shot: Campaigns beckons seductively too.

Spoiled by decades of Panzer General and Open General, I struggle to drum up enthusiasm for the hidebound Panzer Corps. Slitherine's gold-leafed HQ and regular foreign junkets suggest other wargamers are less jaded. If you count yourself a series fan but have never ventured further than the stock campaign then this £32.16 Gold Edition looks like a rather canny buy. I understand that the quality and difficulty in some of the DLC campaigns can be a tad uneven, but with eighteen available the odd flawed or frustrating sequence shouldn't cause too much distress.

In terms of sheer bulk, one of the few Steam deals that can hold a candle to Panzer Corps Gold in the military entertainment field, is this one. While I remain disappointed by World of Guns tangled menus, restrictive firing ranges (only a handful of weapons are range compatible) and atmosphere-deficient workshops, £10.49 for access to over a hundred strippable virtual firearms (plus all future DLC. Noble Empire release around two weapons a month.) including many WW1 and WW2 bullet spitters, feels like a rather good deal to me.

The passage in my upcoming thriller where the imprisoned hero Hammond MacLean assembles a Liberator pistol passed to him inside bread rolls over several weeks, will ooze realism, I guarantee it.

I'm going to assume every Flare Path reader now owns Unity of Command (£2.24), Door Kickers (£2.24), Vietnam '65 (£4.19) and Qvadriga (£5.99) – all fabulous, attractively priced games aggressively tariff-slashed in the past - and anyone in the market for flawed but novel combat sims already owns the oft misunderstood/neglected Iron Warriors (74p) and PT Boats Gold (£3.73). That way I can skip straight on to Atlantic Fleet, an innovative dual-layer wargame with an inspired dash of hand-eye challenge, that justified its original price (£7) with ease, and is simply unmissable at £3.50.

Back in Feb I said this about the small developer responsible. “Killerfish are lovely. They understand the importance of context. In addition to providing friendly core combat mechanics that imbue every shell salvo, torpedo spread, and depth charge volley with just the right amount of uncertainty and drama, intricate damage modelling that ensures ships perish memorably, and AI routines that – more often than not – convince and surprise, they supply historically literate campaigns large and loose enough to lose yourself in.” Eight months of briny battle later, my affection for AF's authors has, if anything, grown. If you only buy one of the titles highlighted in today's FP, it probably should be this one.

What's that you say? You can't afford Atlantic Fleet! After turning out your pockets and disembowelling your sofa, you realise you've only got £1.09 to spend! Hmm, that's a grim state of affairs and no mistake. In the circumstances the only thing I can suggest is consolatory tango topping via a dirt-cheap turn-based alternative to Door Kickers.

Though Breach & Clear (£1.09) lacks some of the order sophistication and environmental charm of its top-down rival, the game isn't short of tactical subtlety, tension, or campaign momentum. Levels encourage experimentation and enemy AI ensures the odd surprise. The RPG-style emphasis on stat boosting and kit acquisition won't be to everyone's taste but if you've a soft spot for the the likes of Door Kickers, X-COM, and the Rainbow Six titles I'd be surprised if B&C didn't win you over within an hour or two.

Wandering a short distance outside The Flare Path's usual bailiwick, I see Commandos 2 is a piffling 44p at present, and the equally brilliant Desperados is a laughable £1.12. You'll need to have played both of those F8-taxing team tactics classics fairly recently to fully appreciate just what Mimimi have achieved with Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun (Out Dec 6). I'll be Wot I Thinking their shinobi-sprinkled genre reviver next Friday, so won't say too much now, but a word to the wise - don't blow your entire pre-Christmas games budget on cut-price wargames this weekend.

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This way to the foxer