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The Flare Path: Simple Pleasures

Simulation & wargame blather

There is an underclass of aerodynes that even the encyclopaedic Microsoft Flight Simulator and the modded-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life IL-2 shuns. For the last four decades, aviation embarrassments like the Seddon Mayfly and Wight Quadruplane have been studiously ignored by flight sim fabricators. Until now - until SimplePlanes - curious simmers have had to imagine the terror of the De Bruyère C1 test pilot, the mingled shame and disappointment of the Percival P.74 designer.

The £10 SimplePlanes has been keeping my inner R. J. Mitchell H. F. Phillips royally entertained for most of the past week. Using lego-style blocks, malleable fuselage sausages and flight surfaces, and placeable power plants, pylons and wheels, I've built death-traps, dodos, and drunken sky porpoises. I've sprinkled debris over runways, carrier flight decks and mountain peaks. Only occasionally have I rued the slightly clumsy airframe editing tools, the detail-deficient fantasy maps, and the rather slim and unstructured scenario selection.

Incorporating weather-free but essentially plausible flight physics, Jundroo's creation triggers the same design-test-modify-test-giggle-modify-test-scrap-design cycles as Kerbal Space Program. You fire it up with the intention of cobbling together a quick dive-bomber or a serviceable STOL aircraft, and, several hours later, shut it down, the proud father of a passable Boulton Paul Defiant replica or a bizarre boomerang-shaped flying boat.

Fourteen combat and performance challenges together with customisable dogfight and air race modes endeavour to nudge creativity in specific directions. An airframe perfect for dainty carrier landings probably won't be ideal for speedy sky-hoop threading; one suited to economical long-range aviation is unlikely to be any good for SAM evasion.

While I'd like to have seen the missions glued together with a witty, character-stuffed narrative, if future updates introduce multiplayer racing and skirmishing, together with more plane components and editor options, I'll happily overlook story shortcomings.

Right now it's not easy to manoeuvre parts with precision in the 3D construction space. There seems to be no way to temporarily limit component movement to a single plane. Finding anchor points and dismantling existing assemblages can be fiddly too. Resourceful modders have got round some editor limitations by hacking xml files (The impressive efforts of community craftsmen can be perused/downloaded here); less dedicated souls are likely to find themselves reworking designs to accommodate tool restrictions and missing aircraft components.

In an ideal world SimplePlanes' construction tool would have SketchUp's power and polish, the game would come with an Outerra-calibre environment engine and challenges inspired by real aviation history. A small snobbish part of me wishes this utterly brilliant concept was in the hands of a PC-focussed dev with avgas in their veins and Putnam tomes on their bookshelves. A larger pragmatic part accepts that while SimplePlanes may never grow into the MSFS-scale genre-revitaliser I've been dreaming about for years it is destined to divert and delight thousands with its novelty, friendliness, and eat-your-geodetic-heart-out-Barnes-Wallis! moments of triumph.

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Last week while branding 2015 a wargaming annus mirablis I somehow failed to mention one of the year's best releases. Free low-tech WW2 tank title Armoured Commander serves up some of the most intense and evocative campaign experiences in its class. My last Normandy tour was a classic example of the game at its permadeath-dealing best.

M4 Sherman 'Andrasta' trundled into the bocage on the morning of July 27th 1944 crewed by commander Tim Stone (selected skills: fire direction, battle leadership, and keen senses) gunner Andre Speltzer (quick trigger, knows weak spots) loader Fred Fillman (shell juggler) driver Joe Levard (cautious) and assistant driver Jesse Leach (eagle eyed). The day started well. After traversing a couple of map cells we surprised a Pz IV on the edge of a wood. Andre's first shot, an HE shell (I like to travel with HE up the spout), immobilized the dappled foe. A follow-up brace of AP rounds delivered the coup de grace.

We were still basking in the glow of that early kill, still congratulating ourselves, when, a couple of hours later, we blundered into a minefield on the outskirts of a village and came under fire from Normandy's best-emplaced Pak 38. Disabled by a mine blast and pecked at by that pesky hard-to-hit AT gun, there was little we could do but sit tight and wait for our abstracted comrades (in AC your tank is assumed to be supported by infantry and other AFVs) to smoke-shell and overrun the gun. While we waited Andrasta's armour and our nerves were tested by several 50mm AP rounds. One impact stunned Jesse. Another lightly wounded Yours Truly. Worry was already well on its way to becoming panic when a grey 'unidentified tank' icon at medium range on our 2 o'clock morphed into a Panther G.

If that big cat had paused rather than pushed on into the kill-zone of another allied tank, the campaign could well have ended there and then. As it was, me and my men (though not Andrasta herself who was replaced by 'Andrasta II' – an up-gunned and up-armoured 'Easy Eight' Sherman - after a run-in with a Jagdpanzer IV during a counter-attack near Avranches on July 31st) survived a week of advances and dozens of nailbiting combats. By the time we found ourselves locked in a hopeless close-range duel with a Panther SW of Rennes on Aug 3, we'd liberated 39 map areas, destroying 51 enemy units in the process. I felt like we'd done our bit, and – though disappointed to be taking no further part in the push to Berlin – was pleased to see that 'Tim Stone' was the only KIA amongst the crew. Somehow the grievously wounded Andre, Fred, Joe and Jesse had managed to bale out before the inevitable fire took hold.

* * * * *


The Foxer

“…My mind rebels at stagnation. Give me problems, give me work, give me the most intricate analysis, the most abstruse foxer, and I am in my own proper atmosphere.”

Sherlock Holmes ‘The Sign of Four’

1. MYCR FTHLMS Mycroft Holmes (Firenz)
2. BRGP RL Borgia Pearl (Firenz)
3. DRTMR Dartmoor (Llewyn)
4. DN CNGMN dancing men (Firenz)
5. SC RFM LK saucer of milk (AriochRN)
6. NGNRSTH MB engineer's thumb (Llewyn)
7. BN TPKR bent poker (Firenz)
8. STRG HTNDPKR straightened poker (Firenz)
9. NDRG RNDTRN underground train (skink74)
10. CTRC TKNF cataract knife (Llewyn)
11. MJRSH LT Major Sholto (Firenz)
12. BNS NBRNR Bunsen burner (Firenz)
13. MNGS mongoose (skink74)
14. SDN YPGTL LSTRTN Sidney Paget illustration (Firenz)
15. P MDN opium den (Firenz)
16. SCPDCN VCT escaped convict (skink74)
17. TRCH NPLYCGR Trichinopoly cigar (Llewyn)
18. CYNCPL LT Cyanea capillata (unsolved)
19. VN HR DRRR FL Von Herder air rifle (skink74)
20. BKRS TRT RRGLR Baker Street Irregulars (Firenz)
21.* SNCH BM hansom cab (skink74)
22.* SSPPP RRLN Persian slipper (AriochRN)
23.* ND RRL Irene Adler (skink74)
24.* THNG CDNG gigantic hound (AriochRN)
25.* RP PNG orange pip (AriochRN)

* * * * *

Last summer my Chief Foxer Setter Google-Street-Viewed from Lands End to John o' Groats in aid of The Distressed Defoxers Association. This year Roman is planning something even more ambitious - a charity cyber hike from Sainte-Mère-Église to Berchtesgaden. The ten snaps below are by-products of his bi-weekly-but-soon-to be-daily training sessions. Name the pictured locations to win Flare Path Flair Points made from self-belief and bunion plasters.

All answers in one thread, please.

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Tim Stone