The Flare Path: In Brine
Simulation & wargaming blather
It's only a matter of time. At some point during the coming week someone is going to ask me to recommend a Battle of Jutland wargame. Wafted towards WWI's most costly and consequential naval engagement by the squall of centennial documentaries and articles, the enquirer will request the name of a realistic, atmospheric and affordable simulation of the scrap known to Germans as the Battle of Skagerrak, and it will be my unpleasant duty to report that no such game exists. While there are half-a-dozen titles aimed at sham Scheers and cod Jellicoes, and the majority of those titles entertain and inform, the wargame that does full justice to both the tactics and the spectacle of Jutland is, I believe, still waiting to be made.
Jutland in 100 words. The German High Seas Fleet under Vice-Admiral Scheer attempts to lure a portion of its much bigger British counterpart into battle, but ends-up clashing with the full might of the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet after Admiral Jellicoe, aided by decrypted messages from Room 40, springs a surprise of his own. 240 warships tangle in the ensuing running battle. Although outnumbered, outgunned, and, for a spell, outmanoeuvred, Scheer's force inflicts disproportionate damage on Jellicoe's before fleeing the North Sea battlefield under cover of darkness. British confidence in her supposedly omnipotent Navy is shaken, but in a sense the Senior Service has done its job. After Jutland the battered German fleet never dares to venture forth again.
Of the six or so Jutland wargames available, the youngest and most highly regarded are Fredrik Wallin's Steam and Iron (2012) and Storm Eagle Studio's Jutland (2009). Airy dynamic campaigns and intricate ballistics and damage modelling allow both of these titles to simulate subtleties and what-ifs fudged or ignored by earlier Skagerrak titles such as John Tiller's Jutland and Great Naval Battles V.The catastrophic magazine explosions that prompted Vice Admiral Beatty's famous remark "There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today" are never far from the mind of Steam and Iron and SES Jutland players – especially RN ones - and it's not uncommon for amateur admirals to find themselves shepherding smoking sepulchres – pockmarked diehards with useless turrets, jammed rudders, and decks awash.
Both of the newer games boast sophisticated Line-of-Sight algorithms, but the effect of sun position and smoke on spotting and gunnery is more convincingly conveyed in Steam and Iron, and only Wallin's creation permits the use of destroyers as mobile smokescreen generators – a role they fulfilled at Jutland.
With its 3D visuals and atmospheric dusk/dawn lighting Storm Eagle Studio's Jutland has the visual edge, though an awkward camera and somewhat clumsy approach to order issuing do their damnedest to devalue the advantage. Similarly corrosive is Storm Eagle's DRM and reputation for patchy customer service. After criticism of an earlier distinctly onerous DRM system, SES unveiled 'Stormpowered' their homespun version of Steam. If you want the not unattractively priced Jutland ($30 - Steam and Iron together with its campaign add-on will set you back $55) you must grapple with this seemingly semi-abandoned experiment in digital distribution and be ready to deal with a dev/publisher that may not respond to technical help enquiries.
If the wargame industry is planning to mark May 31/June 1 in any way then they're keeping their plans to themselves at present. The centenary would have been a perfect time to engage in some overdue price-cutting and bold Steam embracing. Steam & Iron, Storm Eagle Studio's Jutland, and John Tiller's Jutland have their shortcomings but deserve a wider audience. Stubbornly priced and tucked away in dusty corners of the Web, it's hard to picture them ever reaching that wider audience.
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Smiles are Atlantic broad and spirits cirrostratus high over at U-boat simmer haunt Subsim.com right now. The reasons for the Happy Time can be found in the site's 'General Games' and 'Indie Subsims' forums. A wolfpack of promising persicoped projects is making for Simulatia's craggy coast at the moment and austerity-acclimatised Silent Hunters can't believe their luck.
I've talked about Wolves of the Atlantic before, but I've not mentioned UBOOT, a pleasingly peculiar Polish project with three weeks of an already successful Kickstarter campaign left to run. Inspired by Das Boot, Silent Hunter, and This War of Mine, Deep Water's WW2 U-boat sim is aiming to remind military-minded gamers that man-management skills were almost as important to convoy stalkers as tactical ones.
Using 3D cutaway views that stir memories of the two MicroProse-published Flying Fortress sims, the game will let skippers instruct and inspect a crew of skill and personality endowed sun-dodgers aboard a beautifully modelled Type VII. Push these men too hard, ignore their needs and personal foibles, and you could find yourself dealing with brawls... binge-drinking... mutiny. Give them too much leeway, too little discipline, and the consequences could be just as calamitous.
Trimmed crew sizes (a real Type VII was home to around 45 men) and condensed engagement ranges means pressure hulls won't be quite as crowded as they should be or torpedo trails as lengthy, but Deep Water are not fans of time compression so hopefully players will get a sense of the strange, stultifying rhythm of a patrol. With first person views on offer I look forward to WASDing my way from stem to stern tapping dials, sharing jokes, sampling soup and analysing graffiti as I go. The American accents in the trailer are pretty jarring. Fingers-crossed UBOOT, due next January, hits its first stretch goal (German voice-overs) before lowering the old cash snorkel.
A short Bf 109 stooge from Deep Water's Warsaw HQ, another rather promising sub sim is taking shape. The recently demoed HMS Marulken is Silent Hunter meets Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator, a co-op multiplayer submarine sim set in an alternative WW2 in which Sweden choose to scrap rather than spectate.
Since Flare Path last checked in, Skvader Studios have put aside the beer bottles
and the excellent hats and focussed on their history books and 3D modelling tools. The tutorial sequences show some surprisingly atmospheric interiors and a range of instruments usually associated with serious sub sims - manually operated stopwatches, torpedo data computers, encryption machines... Everything points to deeply memorable multiplayer.
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