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The Flare Path: Moscow Or Bust

Simulation & wargame news

The Flare Path has a bust of Napoleon on his mantelpiece, and a bust of Wellington on his piano. Sometimes, when he comes into the room unexpectedly, he finds these busts side-by-side on the sofa puffing on clay pipes, or stretched-out on the carpet poring over old maps. Last night he came downstairs in the small hours and discovered the pair riding around the room on the back of the cat. The cat looked pleadingly at FP. FP looked disapprovingly at the busts. The busts dismounted. FP went back upstairs to finish his reports on The Paradoxification of AGEOD, 2x2's 2011-12, and L' Aurore, an amazing Vehicle Simulator add-on.

Athena Acolytes Alarmed

The announcement of a new AGEOD game usually causes forage caps, kepis, and berets to be hurled heavenward. The French team and their associates have a habit of digitizing wars that are seldom digitized (see Rise of Prussia, Revolution Under Siege, Wars In America etc.) and creating TBSs that are as pretty and playable as they are plausible and something-else-positive-beginning-with-P.

Their last production, a sprawling Victorian behemoth called Pride of Nations, might have been a bit too hefty for its own good, but that didn't mean fans of the two Phils weren't loitering excitedly on Wednesday afternoon in readiness for Le Big News.

Excited loitering turned to mutinous milling when the unveiling revealed a project bearing few familiar AGEOD hallmarks. Napoleon's Campaigns II will utilize Paradox's Clausewitz engine rather than AGEOD's Athena one. It will spurn turns and it won't incorporate one of the studio's characteristically artistic 2D maps.

Unsurprisingly, some series devotees were less than impressed, interpreting the approach shift as a sad consequence of the studio's surrendered independence (AGEOD were bought out by Paradox in 2009). Others were more philosophical, pointing out that a popular theme paired with a popular engine might generate the revenue necessary to fund more quirky Athena wargames; in a placatory aside, Philippe Malacher did stress that the studio would be releasing another Athena project later this year.

However optimistic your outlook, it's hard not to look at the WIP screenshots released thus far and feel a flicker of trepidation. Battles in AGEOD games have never been spectacular, but, thanks to a rich and revealing selection of post-aggro event icons...

they've always had scrutable structure. That structure appears to be absent in NC2. Maps in AGEOD games have always been distinctive and atmosphere-enhancing.  Clausewitz cartography has a nasty habit of making ancient Rome feel much the same as medieval Japan or England.

It's a bit early to be spotting bugs, but as a resident of Southern England, I do feel duty-bound to point out to NC2's map person that it might be more appropriate to call the province that extends west from the Thames Estuary, 'London', or 'The Thames Valley' rather than 'Winchester '.


Strength Through Unity

Though Unity of Command didn't scoop the Usenet Wargame of 2011 Gold award, it richly deserved, it did grab the Bronze. Recently I encircled Tomislav Uzelac, one half of Croatian newcomers 2x2, waited a couple of turns until supply shortages had depleted his defensive capability, then battered him repeatedly with low velocity questions like...

RPS: The reaction to UoC seems to have been overwhelmingly positive. Has that positivity translated into better-than-expected sales?

Tomislav: I don't know if I can really get across how excited (and relieved) we are about the reception we're getting, both from the players and in the press. We knew going into the release that we have a solid game, but offering a couple of years of your life to judgement like that is anything but easy.

We are also enjoying a pretty good start to the sales - for the wargaming niche that is. The more mainstream success you're hinting at hasn't really materialized. It may yet happen though, as there's an ongoing buzz about the game and it's still very much growing. We'll see...

RPS: Have any aspects of the player feedback surprised you?

Tomislav: I was really surprised by how quickly problems were found and picked apart in beta testing. The game already had relatively few bugs, so testers mostly reported issues with UI usability and game balance. We had a very articulate group of people there and so a lot of what you see as "polish" in the game comes from that beta test feedback.

Once the game went live, there were several minor controversies in the forums, but to be honest, there I was mostly surprised at how civil the whole thing was. I guess I went in expecting a complete zoo or something.

Also surprising, and slightly annoying, is a complaint that we sometimes get that goes something like this: I couldn't complete the game in the first few attempts, therefore the game is obviously broken and developers should fix it.

See, maybe I'm old or something but with PG and such, if you couldn't get the required victories it was your problem alone. It's really all about being challenged, then coming up with something clever and feeling good about yourself if you pull it off.

RPS: Besides Panzer General, what games and books most influenced the design?

Tomislav: For games, it was basically SSG's Korsun Pocket and the Totaler Krieg boardgame. I read through the Designer Notes booklet that comes with Totaler Krieg so many times I could probably list that as a literary influence too. It's there that I came away with the idea that you can "design for effect", meaning you really only need to convey the overall operational challenge for a given scenario. If you can get that to work, you don't need to account for every gun and mortar on the Eastern Front.

I love most books by David Glantz on the subject. I know a lot of people consider them dry stuff, but I think if you can stomach the staggering (no, really) amount of detail in there, they're actually very well written.

RPS. Is the UoC that was released at the end of last year, the same UoC you sat down and started coding in 2008?

Tomislav: I had an initial prototype already in late '07 actually, using mockup graphics. It was more of a hardcore wargame at the time, for example it featured HQs and the frontline was a much more complicated affair with no man's land and elaborate movement penalties.

It evolved from there but it was all very gradual, very iterative. The goal was to make the game historical, yet fun and accessible. That we actually made supply into an exciting game mechanic shows you the kind of hoops we had to jump through to get there.

RPS: Why don't more wargames have AIs as crafty as UoC's?

Tomislav: I'm not entirely sure. One thing I do find surprising is when there are options for attacking AI and even AI vs. AI; and at the same time there are serious deficiencies with your basic, defensive AI. It's the most obvious and useful thing the AI can do and it's also the simplest problem to tackle. Why not go for the low hanging fruit first?

It's worth noting that full credit for the AI in Unity of Command goes to Ante Turudić, our AI developer. He created an AI opponent that is completely unsophisticated except for the very low-level, very localized stuff. On that level he then implemented a fantastic toolkit of 30 or so "tactics" that in fact make the AI such a big win. There's no silver bullet in there, just a ton of little things, each done exactly right.

RPS: I have to ask. Did you consider other names? The title is just about the only thing I don't like about UoC.

Tomislav: I think you're just being cruel to be honest. See, if us wargame developers were endowed with a literary talent to match yours we wouldn't be stuck with "Brrr on the Chir" type titles in the first place. So while I give your recent rant about wargame titles high marks for entertainment value... I think morally it's the equivalent of poking fun at retarded children. You should just leave us be, you know.

RPS: What does 2012 have in store for 2x2?

Tomislav: We are working on a comprehensive update to the core game along with new content in form of a rather large DLC/expansion. The update comes first and we'll probably throw in a few scenarios at that time already, as a kind of a temporary fix until the new campaign is complete.

This new project is still in concept stage, but I think I can give you some details already. For one, we will be picking up the story after the Stalingrad Campaign ends. There will be many more scenarios as we now have a scenario editor (original scenarios were in large part done by manually editing usc files). We'll also be making some changes to game mechanics and the AI that will enable us to handle the positively huge scenarios you'll find in this campaign.

RPS: Thanks for your time.


L' Aurore Awe

The list of people I'd attempt to recruit if I was ever in a position to finance gaming's first hardcore Age of Sail sim, now has a second name on it. As mentioned in The Bolitho Deficit, the creator of HMS Surprise would be the obvious candidate for Sail Science Consultant. In Axeonalias I think I've found the perfect Lead Shipwright.

One of Vehicle Simulator's most talented boat builders, he's presently toiling away on a truly breathtaking recreation of an 18th Century Royal Navy frigate. L'Aurore has already consumed somewhere between 350 and 400 of his waking hours, and doubtless dozens of his sleeping ones too.

Named after the star of Julian Stockwin's latest Kydd novel, the frigate will come in two configurations (guns stowed and action stations) and feature usable launches plus a fully-modelled interior littered with the kind of maritime clutter that Aubrey's and Bolitho's crews would regularly have sat upon, slept in, sipped from, or tripped over.

Due to inherent Vehicle Simulator limitations we may never get to see L' Aurore's decks and rigging thronged with tars, or see her stout sides and flapping sheets punctured by French broadsides. That's a pity, but for recreating the quieter phases of life aboard a Nelson-era warship, L'Aurore looks untouchable. Keep a telescope trained on this thread and this site for release info.

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Tim Stone