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The Flare Path: Dreadnoughts And Droid Thoughts

Simulation and wargame blather

Though my Battle-of-Jutland-through-the-eyes-of-a-ship's-cat war movie remains unfunded, untitled and largely unwritten, I have mentally sketched out the final scene.


Passing under the awesome edifice of the Forth Bridge, the bruised and battered HMS Warspite is pelted with coal by disappointed railway workers. Tickles, asleep in her customary spot atop 'A' turret, wakes and dashes for cover. Scampering across the bloodstained, shrapnel scored deck, she is struck by a flying lump of anthracite and drops down dead. As the camera rises incorporeally into Warspite's swirling smoke plume, we see Able Seaman Peters run to where Tickles lies, and fall to his knees beside her.


Wet wargame specialists Naval Warfare Simulations routinely fail to acknowledge the morale benefits of ship mascots, but that hasn't stopped them winning firm friends amongst dreadnought-devoted grogs. Under the painfully primitive exteriors of games like Steam and Iron lurk unusually realistic and elastic naval battle recreations.

That elasticity is being pushed to exciting new levels in the studio's next project. Rule the Waves combines the turnless SAI engagement engine with an intriguingly Paradoxian turn-based navy management layer. Instead of simulating a specific early 20th Century conflict or campaign, RTW will let unscripted global geopolitics trigger its wars, and uninhibited players design its warships.

Well, I say “uninhibited”. As a player you'll be working within the constraints of see-sawing naval budgets, constantly evolving tech and research strictures, and potentially restrictive arms limitations treaties. You may find your plans scotched by strikes or meddling politicians. With national characteristics and budget sizes rooted in history, games should have a strong historical tang, but there's no telling who you'll end up trading 15 inch shells or tech secrets with.

Campaigns start in 1900 with dockyards and anchorages crowded with pre-dreadnoughts and end circa 1920 with fleets full of player and AI-engineered Warspite-style giants. (By limiting the scope NWS cannily avoid the need to simulate flat tops and multi-role naval aviation) Parsimonious admiralties will be able to extend the careers of elderly vessels by refitting them with new weaponry, armour, and equipment as it becomes available, though characteristics like speed and stability may suffer as a result.

In the recently released draft manual (available to registered members of the NWS forum only) there are glimpses of several features that should, together with the ship design facility and organic campaign structures, ensure colourful, resonant wargaming.

Picking an Edwardian superpower like Great Britain will mean a big budget, a strong R&D capacity, and a selection of well-developed docks (minor powers may need to get ships built abroad – a process not without risks). However, with great power comes great responsibility. Empire overseers must keep a certain proportion of their tonnage 'on foreign stations' or risk haemorrhaging Prestige – the game's victory currency.

Deciding which ships to assign to your active fleet and which to put in reserve, looks like it's going to be a constant dilemma. Mothballed vessels and reserve crews are far cheaper to maintain but can't be brought to full readiness immediately. Misread the international climate and play the Prestige-hungry hawk too often when faced with tension-impacting semi-random event dialogues, and you may find yourself propelled into a war you're not ready to fight.

When war does arrive, real-time SAI-style combat will take many forms. The colonial skirmishes, raider encounters, full-on fleet clashes, and coastal scraps perhaps involving batteries and merchant ships, are sure to test tactical prowess, but the seeds of defeat and victory are likely to have been planted years before in your drawing offices and admiralty. Like the sound of a naval wargame with a strat stratum as interesting as its tactical one? Watch this space. Rule the Waves should be with us by midsummer.



If the little Ukrainian bird that warbled in my ear earlier this week is to be believed, then Graviteam - another studio that understands the value of a good dynamic campaign - are finally nearing the Mius Front finish line. My feathered confidant told me that the game that is in effect Graviteam Tactics/Achtung Panzer 2 is presently in 'Steam testing'. Splendid!

The root and branch reforms - the improved interface, the new strat layer possibilities, improved visuals, boosted AI, new Spintires-esque terrain subtleties – they're all imminent. My hopes are higher than a Rüppell's vulture with a Moon obsession. Expect a highly-charged Wot I Think a week or two after the famous day.

And in the meantime let me recommend a more modest Graviteam release. When history-obsessed wargame studios try their hand at sci-fi or fantasy fare the results can be disappointing. Droid Vanguard, a cheap and chunky tactical TBS from Europe's premier WW2 warfare distillers, looks from a distance like an opportunistic cash generator, a bid to keep stoves warm and larders full until the GT: Mius Front receipts start rolling in. Dismiss it as I almost did, and you'll miss out on a surprisingly colourful and engaging experiment in lightweight wargame design.

Visually, aurally, narratively, there's very little to the demo-blessed Droid Vanguard. Why are two robot armies knocking seven shades of silicon out of each other? Search me – it's never explained. The design effort has gone into an ingenious multi-pronged campaign mechanism, a verdant tech tree, and a combat system rich with traditional battle gaming concepts.

With the exception of FoW, logistics, and veterancy, DV has everything a groggy box ticker/taker could wish for. The gridded battlefields are small yet flavoursome. Failing to exploit useful terrain squares (radar stations, woods, bunkers...) and avoid dangerous ones (radiation zones) invites defeat.

The customisable unit types all have their talents and weaknesses. Which way is that slow yet solid Walker going to waddle next? Will my SPG get off another shot before that pesky line-penetrating quadcopter fries it with its EMP cannon? Should I try to get my vulnerable Goliath-like suicide tank closer to those enemy pillboxes before detonating it? The tricky tactical conundrums come thick and fast.

Ignore unit facing (all units have tanky vari-thickness armour), ambush opportunities, and range and reload considerations, and the dangerous default AI (I've yet to try the top difficulty setting) will run riot. Critical hits that immobilise, KO weapon systems, or kindle fires add spice to the hitpoint whittling, and a sage dose of luck in the combat calculations keep the scraps from feeling too puzzle-like.

Unlike another ingenious sci-fi wargame released recently – one I completely failed to penetrate over Christmas - DV doesn't punish mistakes too harshly either. The novel campaign grid means there's usually an alternative scenario to try, and the unit-purchasing phase that precedes most missions means you can always return with a different unit mix. Though Droid Vanguard definitely needs an undo key and slightly better documentation, at $5 its charms and challenges come very cheap.




The Flare Path Foxer

'There was an old lady from Shimla
Who bore a startling resemblance to Heinrich Himmler.
One day in despair,
She permed her lip hair,
And now she doesn't look quite so similar.'

The latest piece of doggerel to appear on the wall of the office WC has all the hallmarks of a Roman creation. I suspect my Chief Foxer Setter was inspired by last week's foxer theme - a theme expertly exposed by capital collageer AFKAMC after useful breakthoughs from the likes of Matchstick, mrpier, and Stellar Duck.

(theme: Shimla)

a. RMS Viceroy of India
b. Guy Gibson's medal ribbons (Gibson was born in Shimla)
c. UNESCO World Heritage Site logo (the Kalka-Shimla railway is a World Heritage site)
d. Cherokee leader, Major Ridge
e. Himalayan Monal (the state bird of Himachal Pradesh)
f. Kali statue from Champion of the Raj (Shimla was named after Hindu goddess, Shyamala Devi, an incarnation of Kali)
g. Christchurch coat of arms
h. Avro Tudor 8



It's Friday and it's thirteen of the clock. Put down that pen/spade/spanner/scalpel/crack pipe/AK-47, pour yourself a tall glass of Dr. Hafner's Patent Brain Tonic, and come stare at a collage constructed by a man whose hobbies include sniffing old books, sniffing new books, and listening to Arthur Bliss on public transport.

All answers in one thread, please.

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