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The Flare Path: Flotsam

Wargame and sim news

UBOOT, the Das Boot-inspired WW2 sub game with cutaway Type VIIs and fallible submariners, is going to be a few months late. Nudged onto a new course by Kickstarter backers accustomed to Silent Hunter-calibre realism, the Polish devs have spent the last nine months adding features, reworking visuals and poring over copies of Iron Coffins. New thinking means crewmen can now be cajoled in a stem-to-stern first person mode, torpedo slinging will involve target identification, stopwatches and stadimeters, subs can circumnavigate the globe, and UBOOT is to have a cardboard sister game.

Cover image for YouTube video

Keen to know more about the mechanisms at the heart of the PC game, and slightly concerned Deep Water Studio may have bitten off more than they can chew, I dusted off my Enigma machine and made contact.

While Michał Nowakowski and Marek Bartniczak were non-committal when it came to release dates (“a few months away” was the closest thing I got to an ETA) and a little vague on the subject of campaign structure (as I understand it, the campaign will combine freelance hunting with scripted tasks and encounters) they did set my mind at rest regarding the board game (it's the responsibility of another team) and reveal some interesting details about crew management.

It seems the behaviours and abilities of our dial watchers, torpedo loaders and cabbage choppers won't be driven by a range of RPG-style stats. We'll choose their career paths (leader, engineer, medic, 'soldier'...) when they're promoted to officers, then, later, unlock a few path-specific skills. These characteristics alone will determine how they behave under pressure.

Michał: “Skills provide a player with an edge in different crises. For example, when morale breaks, you need a leader to handle the outcome, while mechanical damage is a job for the engineer. A soldier is good for land operations (U-boats did them quite a lot) and for handling morale issues in a more brutal way.”

Morale issues? Apparently, if you allow morale on your boat to reach rock-bottom, crewmen can go off the rails. The manner in which they meltdown will vary. You may find yourself on the receiving end of vitreolic criticism or struggling to deal with a panicking wretch whose screams risk revealing your location to nearby enemies. How you deal with these incidents will have important repercussions.

Somewhat implausibly, it looks like we'll be able to keep our men in line with a sage mix of mercy, menial chores, manacles and murder. Hmm.

Michał's description of less dramatic disciplinary situations (crewmen sleeping on watch, cooks serving up inedible chow...) sounded more promising as did his disclosure that morale together with skills will influence everything from the speed you crash-dive to the accuracy of your eels.

I also like the sound of Deep Water's alternative to time compression.

“We have decided to go with a novel approach that builds upon a distance compression concept found in the classic sub sims but tries to eliminate its drawbacks. It's adaptive and doesn't affect combat in any way. We are hoping to convince players of this approach after they give it a try. It works very well in practice.”

Although subs with 30+ freighter silhouettes painted on their conning towers are likely to be as rare in UBOOT as they were in real life - “You will lose boats, along with most of the crew quite often” - there will be an option to continue cut-short campaigns in new vessels so late-war patrols should be available to all. Obviously it's vital that such outings feel very different to their early-war equivalents. At the risk of adding to the feature creep that has already delayed UBOOT, I'm rather hoping the game's Allied planes and convoy escorts get wilier and more perceptive as time passes, not just more numerous.

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What great timing. I'm galloping through James Holland's wonderfully human Fortress Malta at the moment and was looking for something sympathetic to play alongside it. What do I see in Steam's 'new releases' section? Only Command Ops 2 and 'The Cauldron', a DLC pack containing, amongst other things, a contemplated but never executed Axis invasion of the George Cross island.

For those unfamiliar with this turn and hexless series, CO2 and its forerunners are some of the smartest, most plausible operational wargames around. You can issue orders to any link in the command chain and capable subordinate AI entities will ensure those orders get passed down and executed intelligently. Graphics and sound are underwhelming, the GUI a tad elaborate, but you won't find a title that simulates the flow and confusion of WW2 battle better. Play the demo (which doubles as the base game install) if you don't believe me.

Cover image for YouTube video

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I call the above 'Frustration'. It's what you see –  all you see – if you're daft enough to try the Derail Valley demo without a Vive or Rift. Until I gird my wallet and take the VR plunge, or developer Altfuture broadens its outlook, Derail Valley's intriguing combination of decaying trackwork, atmospheric cabs, and against-the-clock shunting, will remain out of bounds. I'll have no way of knowing whether the DV engine would be right for either the WWI trench railway sim or the North West Frontier game I've been pipedreaming for years.

Cover image for YouTube video

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It would take more than a typo-strewn web page and a handful of mildly disappointing alpha screenshots to kill my interest in English Civil War, the AGE-powered work-in-progress aiming to fill a void in pc wargaming that's been gaping for almost forty years, but I can't pretend they haven't corroded it.

Hopefully that map is a long way from finished, and HQ/Slitherine's cartographer is planning to rethink the road network, revise terrain, and add towns before release (the treeless wastes of SE England leave me especially baffled). Hopefully too, the staff member that dashed-off feature-list bullet points like...

• Game map is divided into small regions as usual in Ageod games, with a variety of terrain, climates and development level to represent correctly the countries represented (England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland). Several historical cities represented as Bristol, Hull, York, Arundel, Portsmouth, Chester,…”
• Historical leaders: Mall the great leader of this war are well represented with historical portraits, strategic abilities and traits. Great detailed units representing the regiments of both sides, their strength, historical names, origin and a nice representation of this era uniforms. You could manage the Ironsides, the Cavaliers horse regiments, The Newcastle’s Whitecoats, The irish regiments, The covenanters, Trained Bands, etc… The navy, not so relevant in this conflict, is as well represented with historical  warships.
• Historical Events are triggered throughout the game giving the player crucial decision points. These cover anything from the seize of a citiy, The arrival of the Queen to Covenanters intervention.

...won't be allowed anywhere near the manual or in-game text.

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B-17: Queen of the Skies is a solitaire board wargame that talked its way past the RPS platform police with help from this VASSAL module and this emulator. The star of my current game is a Liberator called Infinite Horace II. Crewed by Tim 'Stonewall' Stone and nine FP readers, this is the story of his seventh mission.

We were relieved to get airborne on the morning of May 28, 1944 - happy to see the back of Cerignola, our southern Italian base. For over an hour the Mostar-bound Horace had sat simmering on the taxiway while fire crews battled the inferno that had once been Merrie Mona and her ten-man crew.

Sapphire-clear and sapphire-blue the Adriatic did its best to drive thoughts of that ghastly funeral pyre from our minds as we climbed to cruising altitude. It failed but a pack of Me 109s patrolling the Dalmation coast had better luck. Nose turret gunner JFS was the first to spot the quartet and the first to greet them. Soon six chattering fifties were working hard to break up a three-level head-on assault. I thought we'd got away with it until a terse “Snowskeeper's down” interrupted the stream of intercom targeting calls. Our new waist gunner had been hit in the chest by an MG bullet.

While the slug had sufficient energy to knock the Canadian off his feet, thankfully it didn't have enough zip to penetrate his flak vest. Bruised but otherwise unhurt, Snowskeeper was soon back at his post protecting Horace's flanks from beam attacks.

The airbase at Mostar got it in the neck, our own 100-pounders, according to Eightball, accounting for at least three He 111s. On the way home, the local Luftwaffe vented their spleen in their customary fashion. I watched two ships in our group literally torn apart by Fw 190 fire. Then it was our turn.

The Liberator that slumped onto Cerignola's pierced steel planking at the end of mission seven sported almost as many holes as the runway. It was missing a starboard wingtip and a flap. The ball turret was empty and smeared with blood. JB was at the controls. The Fws had chewed up Horace good and proper. We joked as we climbed aboard the waiting truck because, apart from a few nicks including one to Lord Byte's right foot and one to my scalp, somehow all ten of us had made it back unscathed. We joked because we'd dished it out as well as taken it (Shiloh had ripped a wing off one of our assailants, and JFS, bsplines and Lord Byte had all scored hits) and because we were one op and one day closer to something so luminously beautiful it couldn't be looked at directly.

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This way to the foxer

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Command Ops 2

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Derail Valley

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About the Author

Tim Stone