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The Flare Path: Dragons' Den

In search of the next Nagel

That idea for a PC wargame you've been mulling over for the past five... ten... twenty years – is it ready for primetime yet? Are you prepared to run it past five of the most talented and experienced people in the industry? Today's Flare Path is a light-hearted Dragons' Den-style competition (Each of the five dragons will be choosing their favourite submitted concept). A chance to get feedback from the pros. It's also an opportunity to put cherished ideas to fellow Flareopaths who could be coders in search of themes. If you know deep down you're never going to get round to programming Kia Mate Toa: The NZ Wars, or Red Ball Express: Fuelling The Fight, then why not place your blueprints where they can inspire.

There's no rush

To enter the Flare Path Dragons' Den (or The Flare Path Shark Tank if you're not from these parts) you'll need to send me, via the email address at the top of the article (timfstone at gmail dot com) your historical strategy/tactics game idea by midday GMT next Wednesday. I'll then weed out any horribly hackneyed or vague submissions (judging by the usual calibre of FP comments, there won't be many of these) before forwarding the rest to the five dragons. Designs the judges admire will be highlighted and discussed in a follow-up piece a fortnight from today.

Pithy pitches, please

Ideally, your pitches won't be more than 500 words in length (I don't want to swamp the dragons) and will leave the reader with a clear idea of how the game works and why it will be engaging. I'll provide one of my own ideas as an example at the end of this article.

Meet the dragons

The five people I'm about to introduce know what it takes to turn great ideas into great games. All of them have hunted the AI snark, grappled with the GUI octopus, and jammed splintered paddles into the gaping maw of the feature-creep crocodile. From left to right...

Johan Nagel is a rising star in the wargame design firmament. His first two creations - Vietnam '65 and Afghanistan '11 - simulate counter-insurgency warfare in a refreshingly unconventional manner, and his next project, the Age of Sail captain sim HMS, looks, from a distance, every bit as innovative.

Seated beside Johan is Tomislav Uzelac the Croatian clever-clogs behind the world's first successful MP3 player and the brilliantly conceived and executed Unity of Command. Tomislav is taking time out from sequel crafting to peruse your pipedreams.

Next to Tomislav is Steve Grammont, one of the two men behind the incomparable Combat Mission franchise. When Steve isn't toiling away on the next CM module, he's wistfully recalling the days when he had the time to trundle about his property in an M29 Weasel and indulge his passion for military uniform collecting.

Dragon number four is Iain McNeil, the director of development at Slitherine. In the business for over twenty years, Iain has midwifed more military strategy games than you've changed hot MG 42 barrels. If you're a coder or artist fascinated by martial matters, he's a man you want in your contacts list.

Some say dragon number five is wearing that macabre IJAAS leather mask because his face is hideously disfigured by duelling scars. Others claim he doesn't want to be recognised because he's a serving member of both the SAS and the Peace Pledge Union. Personally, I reckon he's incognito because he hasn't opened his invite yet. ****** *******, please check your inbox!

The Stone Prize

For what it's worth, I'll also be choosing my favourite game pitch and explaining the reasons for my choice in the follow-up piece (ETA  May 5)

The judging process

I'm leaving it up to the individual panelists to decide on their own judging criteria. If one dragon wants to put practicality and commercial realism before originality and historical realism while another dragon prefers to do precisely the opposite, that's absolutely fine with me. Personally, I reckon I'll be looking for a bit of everything. Send me a design that does or explores something unusual, has the common touch, and wouldn't require a team of twenty devs twenty years to execute, and you're guaranteed to get my attention.

An idea of mine by way of an example

(There's no need to provide pics or links with your submission)

'WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame'

The result of a recent ludo-literary collision – I happened to be reading Taylor Downing's Spies in the Sky at the same time as the lovely Hidden Folks sidled into my life – 'WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame' (awful working title!) is a combat-light operational wargame inspired by the work of Allied photo-reconnaissance pilots like Adrian Warburton and image interpreters such as Constance Babington Smith.

The player's role is somewhat stylised. They act as both the leader of a small RAF photo-recon squadron and as an unsung photo scrutineer at the Central Interpretation Unit in Medmenham. Sorties (one per plane per campaign day/turn) are plotted and followed using a theatre map. As aircraft move over the map their flight paths are compared with the positions of unseen enemy units and top-down photos are generated. When the planes return to base, the images must be manually analysed, observations contributing to an overall intelligence picture which ultimately determines how friendly AI generals choose to mount attacks or organise defences.

Failure to identify or quantify threats accurately may prove costly in the long run. Missed AFVs, fortifications, minefields etc can lead to overwhelmed DZ s and untenable bridgeheads. Commanders may not choose the best beaches for their amphibious assaults or the most convenient landing zones for their gliders. Basically, the friendly AI is as blind as a bat without your intel. When the combat phases arrive and the operational arrows begin stirring on the map, the player becomes a helpless spectator.

Complicating the recon gathering effort are dynamic weather conditions (fairly reliable forecasts allow for some forward planning), limited assets (routing your PR Spitfires close to enemy airbases and major flak concentrations is always risky) and randomly generated optional secondary tasks. Using the game's unarmed bluebirds to search for elusive enemy radar sites or research stations is a gamble. Success equals kudos and kudos equals more aircraft, new aircraft marks, and the pick of replacement pilots (pilots are rated in several areas including navigation, determination, and evasion) but combining needle-in-haystack hunts with bread-and-butter recon gathering jaunts won't always be possible.

In the PI (Photo Interpreter) element of the game, the primary headaches are going to be tree cover, camouflage, smoke, and the sheer acreage of terrain that needs to be examined. I'm tempted to use difficulty level-linked time limits to pressurise stereograph sessions. Successful completion of certain secondary missions will boost the time limits, but you'll still need to analyse with alacrity to get the most out of your snooping expeditions.

As, obviously, it would be prohibitively expensive to handcraft a Close Combat-quality 2D map of a region as vast as, say, Normandy, it's quite possible the game will feature smaller maps, fictional areas or, if funds are very short, even use rotatable ASCII-style characters to depict landscapes and units. In a sense the PIs at Medmenham were pattern studiers. While it would be lovely to include hundreds of different handpainted vegetation sprites and Panzer silhouettes, I believe you could sell the illusion almost as effectively with clever, naturalistic collisions of far simpler shapes.

A cheap, abstract approach to terrain rendering/generation would, in theory, permit a larger and more varied campaign selection. In a perfect world, on completing the Dieppe Raid introductory-campaign-cum-tutorial, the buyer of 'WW2 Aerial Recon Wargame' would be able to move onto Husky, Overlord, and Market Garden-themed challenges.

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This way to the foxer


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