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The Flare Path: Secretes Secret History

Simulation & wargame blather

Manfred von Richthofen's final flight - the facts you won't find in any book or documentary:

Fact 1. If letters written by his batman, Andreas Krantz, circa 1929 are to be believed, in the weeks leading up to his death, the increasingly withdrawn Richthofen spent many hours poring over medieval bestiaries in the library at Chateau d'Arandeau. Fact 2. On April 19, 1918, two days before his death, Richthofen instructed Jasta 11's chief mechanic to commence work on a fully enclosed cockpit canopy - the first of its kind in military aviation. Fact 3. Reports that Dr.1 425/17 was undamaged when it crash-landed at Vaux-sur-Somme were disputed by at least one eyewitness. Gunner Edward Kendall recollected seeing large rents in the aircraft's tail and top plane canvas. Fact 4. According to Bryce Buckland, an Australian chaplain also present at Vaux-sur-Somme, though Richthofen's last word was the infamous “Kaput”, the word he was muttering while being lifted from the cockpit was “Greif” not “Angriff”.

Sid Meier's Ace Patrol doesn't have any pretensions to realism so I'm not going to waste time ridiculing it for its lack of eaglions, ammo limits, and pilot deaths; I'm not going to sneer at it for implying women served as fighter pilots in the skies over WWI's Western Front. If Sid & Co. want to distort history in the cause of inclusivity and pace, that's fine with me. This superb £6 tactical wargame proves they know exactly what they're doing.

Friendly, fleet, and fresher than a dawn patrol in December, Ace Patrol is a game built around brief, low-headcount sky skirmishes fought on compact hex maps. Participating planes are activated sequentially (I'm still not entirely sure what determines the order) potential manoeuvre options indicated by arrowed markers in surrounding hexes. The more experienced the pilot and the more height and speed they have at their disposal, the more varied the movement/attack options.

Controlling your kites might be simple, but solid AI and a swarm of battle factors mean tactical decision-making can be surprisingly tricky at times. With different plane types boasting different stats, every pilot in possession of a unique manoeuvre portfolio, and arenas dotted with flak zones and enveloping cumulus, there are numerous ways to win and lose scenarios. In fact Ace Patrol generates almost as many combat yarns as a good WWI flight sim.

Outnumbered planes dash into cloud banks or flee for home with bandits hot on their horizontal stabs. Damaged ones pancake in enemy territory, or are steadily consumed by raging engine fires. Old hands fight like demons to protect less skilled, less experienced comrades. If pilots attempting ambitious manoeuvres, occasionally collided, spun into the ground or ripped their own wings off, the action would be positively Red Baron/Rise of Flight-esque in its variety.

Like Dynamix's Damon Slye, Mr Meier is a man that understands the importance of intermission interest. Ace Patrol's post and pre-sortie activities are as colourful as they are diverse. From a menu screen disguised as an ahistorical yet adorable animated airfield, you can toddle off to customise aircraft paint jobs, consult pilot journals, admire medals, and consider mission options (there's generally a choice of three sorties). In its own highly stylized way, the game even manages to convey the classic WWI squadron leader's dilemma; over-rely on capable veterans, and your hamfisted greenhorns will never gain the skills they need to stay alive and make their mark.

Playable from a British, French, German, or US perspective, the 24-sortie campaigns generate missions semi-randomly meaning you're never quite sure of the mix of fighter sweeps, bomber intercepts, balloon busting jaunts etc you'll face on jabbing the 'next mission' button. There's weeks of play here, and there'd be even more had Firaxis provided customisable solo skirmishes, network multiplayer (hotseat games are possible) and an editor.

The missing modes and facilities seem significant until you remember that incredibly reasonable £6 price tag. With most of the new wargames lit up by Flare Path's fulginous FIDO flames costing five times as much as Ace Patrol and boasting nowhere near as much charm, approachability, or freshness, I've no problem whatsoever in branding this my current wargame of the year. If you are not already playing it, and aren't a) broke, b) besotted by pusher biplanes (777 have just released an extremely handsome £7 F.E.2b for Rise of Flight) or c) saving for the late-but-hopefully-great Wings Over Flanders Fields then purchase post-haste.


The Flare Path Foxer

I hope that bounce in your step and smirk on your face doesn't mean you skipped straight to the Foxer. Those Sid Meier's Ace Patrol words won't read themselves you know. Oh well, as you're here you might as well get stuck in. A traditional collage this week. You identify the seven elements and tell me how they're linked, and I'll send you a Flare Path flair point made from the seven-inch talon my great-grandfather dug out of the wing spar of a Handley Page O/400 that crashed near Polygon Wood in December, 1917.

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Rise of Flight


Sid Meier's Ace Patrol


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About the Author

Tim Stone