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The Flare Path Dissects Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa

Hands on with Cameron Harris' Halder Sim

Assault the town. Bypass the town. Commit your reserve. Don't commit your reserve. Wait for that Sherman Firefly to get into position. Don't wait for that Sherman Firefly to get into position... The choices in computer wargames conform and comfort far more often than they challenge and discombobulate. Homo Grognardus is not used to having mess-tins of snow-melt thrown in his face, and Anglepoise lamps turned on his soul. Lifelong hex fiends like myself aren't used to having our martial fun interrupted by awkward questions like "Do you want to join the Nazi Party?"

A preview build of Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa had the chutzpah to ask me the above question yesterday evening. The choice wasn't included in VR Designs' latest simply to shock. Developer Cameron Harris is genuinely fascinated in the political and moral choices that faced Hitler's generals. Such choices tangle the dark heart of DCB.

Out next Tuesday (Price: TBC) the unusually colourful Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa is a deep but approachable Ostfront wargame offering a single seven-month-long scenario playable from both the Soviet and the German perspectives. Invasions are executed on a large honeycombed map stretching from Leipzig in the west to Baku in the east. Hexes are 30km across, counters represent divisions, and pressing the 'end turn' button advances the clock/calendar by four days. AI routines appear to be excellent with CPU-controlled opponents quick to spot and exploit weakness, and willing to back-pedal when necessary.

Last seen on the Ukrainian steppe the Decisive Campaigns engine has been sensibly streamlined and ingeniously humanised for this outing. Victor Reijkersz's Sturmtiger-solid code core no longer treats air and artillery assets as atomised hex-occupying entities. Now you influence the air war and control arty usage solely through card play. A typical turn involves a fair amount of counter shifting (If DCB is a monster wargame then the monster in question is more Gruffalo than Godzilla) some Political Points-funded card employment, and, Barbarossa's most invigorating innovation, a nervous stroll through the minefield that was a WW2 general's in tray.

Return to your desk after a stint at the map table and there's sure to be a sheaf of new decision-prompting messages awaiting attention. Playing as the Germans - by far the most interesting option thanks to a more involved supply model and a more complex relationships web - these missives can come from above or below. Harris casts Axis players as Franz Halder, the chief of the OKH general staff that oversaw the invasion of the Soviet Union. Halder's ear was regularly bent by his three most important subordinates, the field marshals in control of Army Groups North, Centre, and South, and by his immediate boss, Brauchitsch, the Commander-in-Chief of the German Army. The Bavarian traditionalist also had to deal with direct pressure from the Führer, and the likes of Göring, Himmler, and the Wehrmacht's transportation and logistics supremi. DCB simulates all of these relationships and more.

It's impossible to process the dilemmas that are dumped semi-randomly in your lap each turn without treading on jackbooted toes. Inevitably, in time you realise you're pissing off someone in the command chain and that someone is showing their resentment by frustrating your plans... damaging your invasion effort. Offend Runstedt and the PP cost of playing strategy and posture-altering cards in the South will increase. Antagonise the head of the Luftwaffe, and arranging aerial resupply or close air support may become more difficult.

As a German player, obviously the man you can't afford to ignore or defy for long is the Führer. The latest directive from the mercurial Mr Hitler might be totally impractical, but if you're not exactly flavour of the month in Berlin, it's probably wise to respond with enthusiasm rather than exasperation.

Here's a relatively trivial choice confronting me at the moment. Guderian wants some of the Reich's new high octane petrol to power his Panzers. Giving it to him will mean brassing off the Luftwaffe...

...but as my relationship with Göring is currently pretty good, I think I'm going to go ahead and give the tankers a share of the performance-boosting fuel.

Due to a preview code quirk, thus far I've seen few of the ethical decisions that can lead to the player finishing the game with a War Crimes Tribunal summons (play with the Geneva Convention option unticked and there are no consequences for brutal actions during the drive on Moscow, Leningrad, and the Southern oilfields). However, multiple starts have revealed an impressive range of less emotive choices and no obvious pattern to how and when choices appear. The option to delegate decisions is there - in fact it's possible to play with the whole political dimension switched off - but to do so would be madness. Without the horse-trading, the brown nosing and the back biting, DCB is 'merely' another reasonably well-engineered, but essentially backward-looking operational wargame.

Cameron Harris' bid to turn Decisive Campaigns into gaming's first WW2 field marshal simulator has only been partially successful. Tramping through the political swamp he's so skilfully evoked with his plethora of history-rich, humour-flecked decision dialogues, provides a wonderful sense of what it must have been like to sit in the turret of the German war machine in 1941. Sadly, the illusion starts to crumble when you shift your attention to unit choreography.

Perhaps I've been spoilt by titles like the Command Ops and the Scourge of Wars, but I find myself disappointed by DCB's lack of battlefield delegation options. I'm Franz Halder, Operation Barbarossa's biggest bigwig, yet I'm expected to personally move every single one of my units every turn. When things are hotting up in the South, why on earth can't I leave Leeb, commander of Army Group North, to his own devices for a few turns? Having played as the Soviets I know he's perfectly capable of lunging for Leningrad without an overworked human holding his hand. The game strictly delineates the map into three 'fronts'/'theatres', temporarily handing one of these over to a subordinate now and again really should be an option.

At the very least VR Designs should have implemented formation movement - move an HQ and its handful of subordinate counters attempt to stick close. The stack movement system that is available is a poor substitute. Unless you're careful and methodical, keeping armies together - vital considering the game's harsh control, supply, and theatre-violation penalties - can be hard work.

And talking of hard work, anyone unfamiliar with previous iterations of Decisive Campaigns is likely to find DCB's movement and combat system surprisingly laborious. Shifting a counter is a three step process (select, dab shortcut key or button, click destination) and - I think I'm right in saying - the only way to assess the combined combat power of a friendly or enemy counter stack is to select it.

None of these irritations will drive me away from the genre-stretching, character-stuffed Decisive Campaigns: Barbarossa or erode my respect for its visionary creator, but they do leave me wishing we wargamers had a title with DCB's human intricacy and Command Ops' control flexibility.

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The Flare Path Foxer

"Of all the defoxing joints, in all the towns, in all the world, AFKAMC and Phuzz walk into mine!" Roman's words last Friday on realising that his carefully crafted Casablanca Conference collage had been cracked wide open inside twenty minutes. If he'd heeded my advice (Lose the Conference Pear and replace the Boeing 314 Clipper with a Skymaster or the Commando Comics logo) I suspect the summit would have remained a secret far longer.

a Liberator pistol (unsolved)
b The French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle (AFKAMC)
c Conference pear (phuzz)
d Hap Arnold stamp (unacom)
e Flight data recorder (FDR) (unsolved)
f Paul Henreid (Shiloh)
g Churchill tank (Rorschach617)
h Counters from board wargame Unconditional Surrender (Zogg)
i Anfa cigarettes (AbyssUK, AFKAMC)
j Portal icon (AbyssUK, Rorschach617)
k Boeing 314 Clipper (AFKAMC)

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Top foxer setters are quite prepared to concept filch when the need arises. Deprived of his virtual scissors and glue for most of the past week, the resourceful Roman has borrowed an idea from one of his favourite TV quiz shows for today's puzzle.

Below is a list of '25 Things You Might Find On An Aircraft Carrier' ('Things' and 'might' are used here in their broadest possible senses). For purposes of obfuscation, the 'things' have been stripped of vowels (and, in some cases, numbers) and had spaces repositioned. For example, if 'arrestor cable' was present, it might appear as...


The last five entries in the list - those marked with asterisks - are especially fiendish. Not only are they vowel-less, they have also been anagrammed.


18. FNTL
*23. PRG

All answers in one thread please

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