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The Flare Path: Inspired By True Emergencies

Simulation & wargame blather

Today in The Flare Path...

  • I gloss over the fact that I've spent most of the past week sprawled on a dusty kilim waiting for the likes of DaPerforator, \\\Your_Wurst_Nightmare///, and BeatrixPotshotter to poke their heads above pockmarked parapets.
  • I win the Battle of Gettysburg in under eight minutes.
  • I attempt to recreate Operation Chariot using a state-of-the-art Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger maritime rescue cruiser.

Thanks to a late June patch the preposterously playable Ultimate General now has helpful contour lines, steadier Union troops, less resilient artillery and more effective flanking manoeuvres.

Thanks to a game that unlocks in approximately seven hours, it also has some unexpected competition.

Battleplan: American Civil War is a collaboration between military publishing powerhouse Osprey and English word wranglers/developers The Mustard Corporation. Creative director Maurice Suckling, a man apparently unaware of an entire genre, describes it as "a new kind of strategic simulation game, where there's no resource management or micromanagement and the emphasis is squarely on brigade level decisions. It's a hybrid of sorts, part RTS, part turn-based strategy and part old-school tabletop wargame. We call it fastplay wargaming.".

He isn't kidding about the pace. In the few hours I spent with the preview build yesterday, I bull-ran all the way from Bull Run to Chickamauga. and saw enough action to realise that Battleplan, while a very interesting experiment in lightweight wargame design, may - in its current form - lack the polish, campaign imagination, and speed controls necessary to wow wizened PC wargamers.

Yes, there's some beautiful shorthand on show. Order arrows are drag-daubed on terrain in effortless Ultimate General fashion. Couriers convey commands from HQs to brigades and those orders can be ignored, or implemented slowly or speedily depending on the character of the recipient CO. Want to bridge a river or construct fieldworks? A simple click-and-drag and the spade and saw wielders leap into action. More wargames should be this friendly, this fluid.

But Mustard risk flustard punters by failing to implement a speed slider (You can issue orders while paused, but keeping on top of things is still tricky). They risk annoyed ones by making it so bally easy to inadvertently order bridge construction (once issued, orders can't be countermanded) and failing to squash the bug that occasionally causes crashes late in battles. There are sure to be buyers underwhelmed by the ramrod-straight 11-scenario campaign too, and those surprised that a game bearing the name of military illustration maestros Osprey isn't a bit easier on the eye.

The hectic pace and pleasingly pea-soupy Fog of War makes off-the-cuff AI assessments difficult. Were yesterday's fairly regular defeats - some of which occurred on the lowest difficulty setting - caused by challenging scenario setups (all scens can be played with or without random reinforcement schedules), sly opponents, or overwork? I'm not entirely sure. Enemies don't seem particularly good at forming unbroken battlelines, but I still struggled to snatch VLs from them and resist their unpredictable lunges on occasion.

By the time of Battleplan: American Civil War's next appearance in this column, the price-point will be public knowledge, I should have the measure of that AI, and will, hopefully, have some idea of Mustard's keenness to rectify and titivate. Stay tuned for an approbatory “Advance!” or a failure-flagging “Fall back!”.


Not Waving But Drowning

Steam-launched on Tuesday, Ship Simulator: Maritime Search and Rescue is the latest in a distressingly long bowline of sims that somehow manage to make messing about in boats seem dull as bilgewater.

To be fair to German studio Reality Twist, they have at least treated their subject matter, the lifesaving activities of the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Rettung Schiffbrüchiger, with a bit of respect. The twenty mission concepts feel like they were cribbed from a DGzRS log book rather than plucked from the mind of a landlubbing dev. Situations and procedures have a quirky, authentic feel that shouts 'rigorous research' rather than 'educated guess'. Similar effort has gone into ensuring the two crewable crafts, the Hermann Marwedde and Harro Koebke, look the part.

The problem, a depressingly common one amongst EuroSims, is that the realism commitment doesn't extend to physics, systems modelling, and damage simulation. WASDing your winsome wave cleavers from quay to calamity and back again - something you'll spend 90% of your time doing - just isn't enjoyable or interesting enough in itself. Unfortunately, neither is the water-cannon directing, line hurling, and drowning mariner plucking that makes up the rest of the game. While water-treading rescuees will sink if you spend too long in transit, most of the stuff that makes real sea rescues so stressful/exhilarating - the risk of falling in, capsizing, or splintering your hull against some foam-dashed knuckle of rock - is not simulated at all.

Both the Marwedde and Koebke seem completely indestructible. It doesn't matter whether you've accidentally brushed a harbour wall while tying up, or flank-sped into a breakwater HMS Campbeltown style, hull plates refuse to rend or buckle. There's not even a health-bar, or a foul-mouthed boatswain to call attention to your clumsiness.

Ship Simulator: Maritime Search and Rescue (no relation to VSTEP's Ship Sim series, incidentally) almost redeems itself with passably pretty coasts, glittering seas, and evocative gull cries. The two maps, one centred on Sassnitz in the Baltic, the other on Heligoland in the North Sea, would make pleasant cruising venues if they were a little larger and Reality Twist had thought to include a dinghy and some simple sailing physics.

Hear the call of the sea? The Flare Path recommends you seek solace in old stalwarts like Virtual Sailor, Sail Simulator and Silent Hunter 3 rather than board this shallow-drafted disappointment


The Flare Path Foxer

Rorschach617 never throws in the towel but he has been known to throw caution to the wind, throw his hands in the air and wave them like he just don't care, and throw the Sopwith Baby out with the bathwater. After discerning last week's 'things that can be thrown'* theme (with help from Gusdownnup, Shiloh, All is Well and Matchstick) he almost managed to convince himself he was mistaken. “A little uncomplicated” he fretted, not realising that that particular puzzle had been devised by Roman's deputy, a little uncomplicated Belgian called Ivo.

*Shiloh's balls solution works too**

**Not a double entendre

a. Ball turret
b. Matches
c. Horseshoe Curve
d. Punches
e. Javelin
f. M1 'pot'
g. Handley Page Dart Herald
h. Gran Trak 10
i. Molotov bread basket


Roman is now back at his post.* Yesterday morning I saw him flicking through a book on the Siege of the International Legations.** When I asked him whether he was researching a foxer, he narrowed his eyes, passed me the ball of multicoloured plasticine that he keeps on his desk , and told me to “Make of that what you will”***

*Make of that what you will.

**Make of that what you will.

***Make of that what you will.

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