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The Flare Path: Hinge Of Fate

Simulation & wargame news

Because some swine has swiped the three kings from The Flare Path nativity diorama, the gold, frankincense, and myrrh are now being conveyed to the baby Jesus' manger-side by three 1/32 Airfix Paras. Joseph and the shepherds don't seem that bothered, but Mary's looking a little peeved. "Stens and brens... here?" her crudely-painted-yet-intensely-holy visage seems to say. "This place is beginning to look like an Oosterbeek basement circa September, 1944!". She's got a point. War and Christmas go together like Tiger tanks and multi-storey car-parks. If I had any decency, I'd devote this week's column to sleigh sims, rather than use it to discuss a work-in-progress WWI TBS and a tantalising Eastern Front wargame in search of a name.

Hellfire Cornered

There's a branch on the Commander: The Great War tech tree on which birds never alight and lichen never grows. Black and withered, the branch gives every impression of being dead, but is, in fact, perfectly healthy. Tend and feed this branch and it will eventually bend under the weight of bitter fruit: 'Phosgene', 'Chlorine' and 'Mustard Gas'.

The latest Lordz project tackles a difficult subject, and - going by my brief brush with the beta - tackles it with sense and skill. I've tried a few WWI grand-strategy efforts over the years, and all have left me weary and disillusioned. CTGW feels different. For starters you can tooltiptoe your way into the game in minutes. Within half an hour of waving goodbye to Piccadilly and bidding farewell to Leicester Square, I was contendedly and confidently overseeing an Entente offensive in Palestine, and doing my utmost to prevent Central Powers breakthroughs in Serbia and Belgium.

Like another amiable hex exponent I've been spending rather a lot of time with recently, CTGW has a rule-set small enough to slip into a cigarette case, and elegant enough to give to your sweetheart as a keepsake. Bally practical when it comes to unit counts, turn lengths, and hex sizes, dishing out a turn's worth of orders is the work of a few minutes, not a few hours.

The campaign starts small and historically with some Balkan unpleasantness between the Austro-Hungarians and Serbs. Over the next dozen two-week turns, scripted events see other nations plunging in to the deepening bloodbath. On Turn #2 I found myself entrusted with a handful of French and Belgian units. On Turn #5 the madness spread to Russia.

In another grand-strategy title - something Paradoxical for instance - overseeing a multi-nation alliance could be back-breaking, mind-boggling toil. In this one the gradual growth of duties is eminently manageable. Watching-over various theatres actually alleviates that perennial WWI game problem - the stodgy immobility of the Western Front.

In my current game, after a scary German push through Belgium and some breathless see-sawing around Verdun in the first year of the war, things have become pretty quiet on the Western Front. The good news is there's still lots of room for boldness, brilliance and blunders in places like the Middle-East and Poland. Thanks to interesting unit production choices and that flavoursome tech tree mentioned earlier, there's also plenty to do away from the front.

Lordz seem to understand that I have books to read, sunsets to contemplate, and other games to play. They don't expect me to appoint half-a-dozen Cabinet ministers, approve the construction of countless mines and factories, and ensure I've traded sufficient copper to build Advanced U-boat Batteries IV. All they ask is that I occasionally choose a new research project for each of my nations, and pick some new cannon-fodder from a catalogue of tempting mail-order units.

Thanks to the prodigious 'production point' output and manpower reserves of major nations like the UK and Germany, within a few turns of the kick-off you're in a position to buy cutting-edge battlefield gizmos like airships, armoured trains and armoured cars. Predictably some of the most tempting toys - battleships and the like - cost a PP packet and take dozens of turns to complete. Early on, the toughest decisions are whether to plug holes with cheap and quickly raised garrison units or sweat while pricier and more capable infantry are trained.

There's little point in offering AI assessments at this stage, but I haven't seen anything that suggests incompetence. At the local level, foes bully weak units mercilessly and bustle through breaches. Higher up, the silicon donkeys seem to have read their history, racing for the sea in the opening phases. Given Commander: Europe At War's fondness for following in the footsteps of WW2 leaders, I'm actually hoping for a little less historicism, a little more improvisation, this time. Hopefully there'll be a campaign option in which you can't set your watch by America's entry into the war, or rely on the fact that Germany won't have a nibble at Holland or Denmark.

Hopefully, there's also time for an airpower brainstorm. There's no unit stacking in GW which is great for clarity but a bit bizarre when you realise a squadron of fighters can't elbow their way into the airspace above a friendly infantry unit. Panzer General and its offshoots handle aviation more naturalistically.

If your interest in wargames has been kindled, or rekindled, by recent pop gems like Panzer Corps and Unity of Command, or you simply fancy playing a WWI game that doesn't suck at your boots like Flanders mud, then note the name Commander: The Great War. Archduke Ferdinand will be taking a bullet to the jugular on March 15.


Blood Snow Offensive

Every year the world's wargame developers spend approximately 3,824,000, man-hours working on nation-specific unit models and stats, and roughly 2 shakes of a lamb's tail working on nation-specific combat doctrines. Fritz Schmitt, Tommy Smith, and Ivan Somethingclichedov might be wearing stitch-perfect uniforms and carrying SMGs with rigorously reproduced rates-of-fire, but they all act like they've attended exactly the same boot camp and read exactly the same training manuals.

Only deadline-dodging craftsmen like Panther Games attempt nation-specific AI. Hot on the heels of a hefty Battles From The Bulge patch, the makers of delectable delegate-'em-ups like Conquest of the Aegean and Highway to the Reich, have revealed they're off to the ice-bound Chir river (last seen in Achtung Panzer Operation Star) next. For a series that has never been further east than Crete, it's an exciting move, especially as studio head Dave "Arjuna" O'Connor included these words is in his announcement:

"There will be some new features. At this stage all I can say is that we will be focussing on doctrinal features. For instance we do plan to model the Soviet Ledge formation and use it in the Soviet attacks to simulate their practice of stacking one sector of the assault line."

Panther might be confident that they can produce an AI that knows its Guderian from its Tukhachevsky, but they're obviously struggling to come up with a decent name for their East Front debut. Solicited suggestions on the BftB forum currently include the goodish...

Command Ops: Red Storm From Stalingrad

Command Ops: Red Vortex

Command Ops: Blood on the Chir

the not-so-good...

Command Ops: Hinge of Fate

Command Ops: Iced Blood

and the very-not-so-good...

Command Ops: Blood Snow Offensive

Command Ops: Panzers in the Redshift

Command Ops: Brrrrrrr on the Chirrrrrr*

*T. Stone Esq

As the above abominations prove, naming a wargame is a lot harder than it looks. Conventional wisdom says you attempt to capture the essence of your approach/engine in a pithy, punchy series name, then get a little more specific and flouncy with the subtitle...

Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far

Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich

Squad Battles: The Proud & The Few

I reckon the most effective series names inform and imply drama. The worst - Unity of Command, Combat Mission, and Theatre of War (which, admittedly, does imply drama) - tell the curious punter little, or reek of filing cabinets and tedium. Combine a weak series name with a weak subtitle and you're really making life hard for yourself...

Combat Mission: Battle For Normandy

Command Ops: Battles From The Bulge

World War II: General Commander

The natural habitat of 'from' is the interior of a greetings card not the exterior of a thrill-packed command simulation. Other words probably best avoided? 'Steel', 'Combat', 'Command', and 'Panzer' have all been picked clean by generations of desperate devs. Will the wargames of 2012 offer memorable, evocative action. If studios like Battlefront, Graviteam, 2x2, and Panther are involved then it's highly likely. Will they boast memorable, evocative monikers? I'm not holding my Command Ops: Breath of the Snow Tiger, Blood of the Ice Bear - Battles What Happened near Stalingrad in 1943 & 1942: Fury.

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