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The Flare Path: Danubian Speedboats

Wargame and simulation blather

Like a dead swan floating down a river, The Flare Path usually delegates directional decision-making. Back at the start of the week, it looked like today's column would end up devoted to Wars of Napoleon, the latest AGE-engined epic from AGEOD. I was taking in illuminating tutorial vids when an unexpected eddy nudged me towards a much older Boney title.

Campaigns on the Danube 1805-1809 is an operational wargame I've been meaning to try for over a decade. Spotting it in the Matrix Games Christmas sale list ($10/£8) and reading about an improbable recent patch finally persuaded me to arrange a meeting. That meeting morphed into a dalliance that drove all thoughts of Wars of Napoleon from my head.

The official product page describes CotD as IGOUGO; the screenshots make it look as stuffy as the Black Hole of Calcutta. In fact this dusty Adanac Command Studies relic is a WEGO (the orders of both sides are simultaneously executed) design with an adventurous streak a mile wide. In concept and feel it's far closer to Command Ops or Flashpoint Campaigns than John Tiller's Battleground Napoleonic Wars or Gary Grigsby's War in the East. By modelling corps commanders as self-reliant semi-independent entities, and orders as slow-to-disseminate interceptable missives, creator Frank Hunter delivers a diversion that's as evocative and forward-looking as it is easy to learn and play.

Some brass tacks. Hex centres are nine kilometres apart. Turns are day-long. Most unit counters represent divisions or brigades and can be controlled indirectly through powerful corps commander orders. When I grumbled about the lack of formation movement and delegation options in Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa, what I was picturing was an approach very like CotD's. Here there's no need to laboriously manoeuvre every counter every turn. Because you're a military commander not a chess player, a few clicks in a bigwig's order menu suffice. Davout, attack Augsburg; fall back to Ulm if things go awry. Ney, cross the Danube at Gunzburg and move towards Munich, engaging any enemies you spot en-route. Murat, scout the road to Regensburg; if you hear guns, head for the hubbub. With half-a-dozen carefully modulated high-level orders, an entire army can be roused and directed.

Of course, the rousing and directing will probably take a while. Orders to corps bosses are galloped across the Central European map by invisible couriers. If they arrive – a big 'if' when foes are running riot behind your lines - then the recipient's organisational stats determine how quickly they are read and transformed into a scatter of smaller division/brigade-mobilising orders. Often, by the time an instruction reaches a distant corps and that corps has got its arse in gear, the circumstances that prompted the instruction have changed dramatically. To enjoy CotD – to fully appreciate it – you must think several turns ahead and be willing to accept a generous dash of chaos with your combat choreography. Personally, I love the messy, confused operations this elderly offering serves up.

When opposing counter stacks wind up sharing a hexagon at the end of a turn, a multi-round battle is triggered. Assuming you're playing on the default fog-of-war setting, you'll have the opportunity of choosing a battle strategy before virtual dice are cast. The more ambitious strategies require the most capable generals and usually entail higher risks/potential losses. The relationship between the two picked strategies – the enemy also chooses one – together with dice rolls and a host of tactical factors (troop numbers and quality, terrain, weather, fatigue, cavalry superiority etc) ultimately determines which, if any, force emerges victorious. It sounds complicated, but, like most other elements of the game, it's actually decidedly hunch friendly. Forget the maths and follow your instincts and you shouldn't go far wrong.

Logistics is one area where the game threatens to overwhelm the novice and overtax the loafer. Happily, decisions about depot establishment, wagon trains and supply routes can be handed lock, stock and powder-barrel to an adept silicon helper, so there's no reason for trepidation.

The AI is as competent in an adversarial role as a supportive one. Though blinkered by the same intelligence limitations, and hobbled by the same courier considerations as the player, foes invariably put up a good fight and re-think and experiment when situations demand it. The unpredictability is important bearing in mind CotD's disappointingly slim scenario selection.

Of the game's seven scenarios three are variants and none run for longer than three months (90 turns). Expect weeks of novel, untidy, plausible wargaming from Campaigns on the Danube rather than months. Expect the odd interface and fog-of-war flaw too. Inexplicably, the FOW settings seem to have become less flexible and logical over the years. In v3.04 go with the default intel setting – the most practical way of playing – and enemy counters show corps information but give no inkling of force size or 'effectiveness'.

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Armour-plate your punt! Bow-wave goodbye to your flag irises! Erect bollards around your riverside wedding reception! The Flare Path is in possession of Todd Wasson's new high-fidelity motorboat sim Design It, Drive It: Speedboats.

Although Todd candidly admits that, right now “there's not a whole lot to do but design and drive boats around, so your average gamer is probably going to get bored really quickly... At this stage I'm just aiming it at high performance boating enthusiasts, many of whom build or modify their own hulls in real life.” after sculpting hulls and bothering (invisible) ducks for a couple of days, it's not hard to picture a version of the $25 sim with much broader appeal.

Step 1. Add a few tooltips to the powerful WYSIWYG boat editor. Explain the significance of stuff like chine width, pad dimensions, propeller pitch, and step positions to landlubbers.

Step 2. Provide some modification motivation. A selection of serpentine time-trial courses – ideally incorporating some jump challenges - would be enough.

Step 3. Let users add maps. Currently, there's just the two. A tree-hemmed lake and a river-style playground surrounded by scrub and sun-scorched hills.

Step 4. Introduce wind effects, chop, and wake interaction.

Step 5. Let users spawn ramps and floating obstacles on maps.

Step 18. Implement machineguns, torpedo tubes, droppable mines, and smoke generators.

Step 34. Add multiplayer deathmatches then sit back and marvel as novelty-hungry simmers the world over discover the joys of a boaty battle game with top-notch hydrodynamics.


Or to put it another way 'Extremely time-consuming and difficult!'

Todd's childhood sowed the seeds for DIDIS...

“I grew up on a lake with a boat like the ones you can make in the simulator. There's a feeling to driving one that just isn't reproduced in any games I've tried, the way they half fly, half skim across the water, gently blowing around in the wind at high speeds with all kinds of interesting dynamics. Just driving straight at 80 or 90 mph can keep you busy while trying to wring out that last mph.”

...but it was his experience with a certain VR device that kickstarted coding.

“I might not have done boats at all if it wasn't for the Rift. I had looked at the demos and other products available for virtual reality and didn't find any with small, high speed boats. I wanted to experience that, and also had some ideas about how to do it that had been cooking over the years, so gave it a try and it worked beautifully."

"The Rift makes the experience feel more real, like you're really there. You find yourself looking around at the scenery in a way that you don't on regular monitors. The sense of scale for everything is right all the time no matter what you do. The sense of speed because of that along with the depth perception is greater too. The Rift is the main reason I didn't make the scenery quite as detailed as it could be. I wanted the frame rates to be high enough for the Rift experience to be smooth and fluid all the time. It almost makes you forget that you're sitting in a chair at a desk.”

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The Flare Path Foxer

As any late-war B-17 gunner will tell you, spotting comets isn't easy. Eagle-eyed AFKAMC had eagle-eyed last week's collage for almost 12 hours before he realised it was teeming with dirty celestial snowballs.

Comets (defoxed by AFKAMC)

a Comet tank (Shar_ds, AFKAMC)
b Yokosuka D4Y Suisei (AFKAMC)
c Vega program (AFKAMC)
d Comet railcar (Matchstick, Aphrion)
e Comet airliner (AFKAMC)
f Komet designer, Alexander Lippisch (unsolved)
g Roman coin featuring depiction of the Temple of the Comet Star (Matchstick, AFKAMC)
h GWR (users of Comet class locomotives) (unsolved)
i 433 Eros* (Orontes)
j Bayeux Tapestry bird (Shiloh, Aphrion)
k Comet Line HQ, Villa Voisin (Hydrogene, Stugle)
l Rapunzel's tower (AbyssUK, Orontes)

*Clearly, Roman's telescope isn't powerful enough to distinguish near-Earth asteroids from comets.

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Foxer Fact #1018

Greek philosopher Anaphylaxis of Thessaly believed the cosmos was one giant foxer, and devoted much of his life to decoding it. Though he never arrived at a solution he was completely satisfied with, in De Caelo Teumessia, his most famous work, he suggests several possible themes including 'beasts of burden', 'confectionery', and 'Tarzan'.

All answers in one thread, please.

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About the Author

Tim Stone