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The Flare Path: Sitting Bull, Hovering Hind

Wargame and simulation news

Last year's most thought-provoking and conscience-chafing wargaming decision involved Nazi party membership. This year's involves opening fire on a Native American village presumably full of women and children as well as warriors. Desperate Glory: Last Stand at the Little Bighorn is the latest piece of historical hexiana from Jeff Lapkoff aka Digital Gameworks. Fond of modelling asymmetrical aggro and seldom-gamed scraps, Jeff's new design encourages wargamers to examine the electrifying events of June 25-26, 1876 through various interpretative lenses and - happily for anyone unwilling to role-play the flaxen-haired architect of the Battle of Washita River - from both Seventh Cavalry and Sioux/Cheyenne perspectives.

A turn-limited demo reveals a fast-moving, relatively friendly and fuss-free IGO-UGO battle sim steeped in research and dotted with colourful rules. Sitting Bull's braves start the battle 'encamped' and spawn slowly and semi-randomly as news of the approaching blue coats percolates through the village. Canny Cavalry players are encouraged to close carefully, scattering the 'horse herd' hexes that roused warbands automatically exploit when close-by. If When things get desperate, a cornered Custer can order his men to slay their own mounts and use them as fleshy breastworks in a desperate immobile last stand.

Cowardice and 'crazed' units add flavour to fights that sprawl and fragment in a reassuringly historical fashion. It may be a consequence of the enforced setup options in the seven turn trial (CPU Custer always divides his force à la his inspiration, and approaches from south and north. The potentially game-changing Gatling guns and sabres are always left behind) but none of my Sioux/Cheyenne playthroughs thus far have contradicted the archaeology.

Realising they've stirred up a hornets' nest Reno's battalion invariably attempts to retreat down the valley using the wooded bank on its right as protection. Overtaken by repeater and bow-armed pursuers, the retreat quickly turns into a rout, fortunate elements making it to the high ground across the Little Bighorn (where they're eventually joined by Benteen's slow-coaches approaching from the south-east) while less fortunate ones are pocketed and eliminated in the tangle of trees beside the river. Meanwhile, the oblivious Custer is busy digging his own grave, along with those of two of his brothers, a brother-in-law, a nephew, and roughly 200 men, by attacking the vast Lakota encampment from the north via Medicine Tail Coulee.

There's no question Desperate Glory: Last Stand at the Little Bighorn (which is also available through HPS) can echo and entertain. What the demo doesn't prove and what, frankly, I'm a tad concerned about, is whether the myriad scenario customisation options (Choose AI style. Define Sioux force size, readiness, ammo level and weaponry types. Pick 7th Cavalry disposition and arsenal) are sufficiently powerful to extend solo entertainment (PBEM play is possible) into, say, the second or third week of ownership. I love the way Lapkoff shuns hackneyed themes and treats battles as individual design exercises rather than excuses for lazy engine repurposing, but I do wish Desperate Glory came with a few more arrows in its quiver. The Battle of the Little Bighorn may have been the stand-out scrap in the Great Sioux War, but there were other engagements that would, I'm sure, have made fascinating supporting scenarios.

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It was over twenty years ago but give me a map and I believe I could still tell you the exact street corner I was standing on when I first saw a Hind in the wild. Rambling about suburban Brno one sunny late Spring afternoon in the mid-Nineties my attention was drawn skyward by an unfamiliar clatter. A creature all muscles and teeth was hurtling over the high-rises in front of me. Gazing up at the monstrous apparition I was as dumbstruck as any dragon-ogling peasant.

That sighting, combined with lengthy exposure to Digital Integration's Hind, means I now can't pass an Mi-24 game, however flimsy, without taking a look.

Air Missions: HIND alighted in a quiet Steam clearing last week. A £13 Early Access effort from a studio with a mediocrity-stuffed back catalogue, my expectations were lower than an Operation Chastise Lancaster prior to play. After an afternoon of tree tousling, tank trashing, and RPG eating, I'm happy to be able to report that 3Division's WIP whirlybird game is not only not awful, it possesses that most beguiling of qualities, potential.

To turn Air Missions: HIND from a weekend wonder into something switch-shy military gamers will still be playing a year from now, all 3Division need to do is push their current campaign designer under a bus* and read/heed the following paragraphs.

*ideally a steamroller

At present the game boasts the crude reality-rooted physics, satisfying slaughter tools, and serviceable vistas and virtual cockpits it needs to thrive in the sim-light sector. What it lacks and, depressingly, seems to have no interest in acquiring, is compelling reasons for long-term aviation. Once you've hovered, rocketed and chain-gunned your way through the claustrophobic randomness-bereft sortie sequence (currently seven missions are flyable) unlocking all available munitions in the process, and messed around with the destroy-all-targets-as-rapidly-as-possible instant action modes, there's nowt to do but bimble about the East European and Central Asian maps bewailing the lack of random mission generation.

As I've pointed out previously, dynamic campaigns don't need to be elaborate or expensive to enchant. Allow us to move a few ground units around a chessboard strat map. Give us responsibility for protecting and supplying a few Combat Lynx-style FOBs. Provide us with anything except sorties that never change or influence – sorties that compound failure by wheeling out that unspeakable abomination, the 'retry mission' button.

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Very few outfits demo as diligently or generously as Battlefront. The free three-scenario slab of the Bulge-focussed Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg that reported for duty a few hours ago will, I suspect, keep me happily Sherman shepherding and Fallschirmjäger foraying for days to come.

A quick burst of the 45-minute training mission (a dinky platoon-sized assault on Lutrebois, a hamlet a couple of miles south-east of Bastogne) has already taught me to be very wary of wayside snowdrifts (the Greyhound on the left is hopelessly bogged) and ignore briefing instructions about suppression at my peril.

Rapid reconnaissance of the larger 80-minute 'A December morning' (A US infantry company with Shermans and halftracks in support endeavour to secure a road net north of Trois Ponts) and 'Battle for Chaumont' (A sizeable German attack involving StuGs, Jagdpanzer IVs and Green Devils) suggests I've got a weekend of tough tactical choices and eye-watering butcher's bills ahead of me.

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This way to the foxer

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