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The Flare Path: Slitherincoming

Simulation & wargame blather

On May 14th this year, Castello di Pavone, one of Northern Italy's swankiest strongholds, was invaded by an army of conflict-obsessed game developers. Were the devs in question...

a) Laser-scanning the fortress for a level in the soon-to-be-announced Hidden & Dangerous 3?
b) Laser-scanning the fortress for a level in the soon-to-be-announced Commandos 5?
c) Laser-scanning the fortress for a level in the soon-to-be-announced Bella Cantarella*?
d) Attending Home of Wargamers 2014, a Slitherine Group press conference?

*Flare Path Soft's debut project - a poison-sprinkled serving-wench sim set during the War of the Holy League.

If you crossed your fingers and answered a, b, or c, this week's column may prove disappointing.

Of the dozen-or-so upcoming PC wargames showcased by Slitherine/Matrix Games at this year's 'Home of Wargamers' event, the one toting the heaviest haversack of expectation had to be Close Combat: The Bloody First. A 3D (though still top-down) reincarnation of Atomic's sleek yet resonant WW2 skirmish series, visually CCTBF was an unknown quantity until a pair of screenshots was unveiled in Italy.

Art lead Jim Martin seems to have captured CC's distinctive bird's-eye aesthetic just about perfectly. Can lead designer/coder Steve McClaire keep his end of the deal by delivering the AI improvements estranged franchise fans like myself crave? We should know for sure by Christmas, but the answers tossed in my direction during a recent Q&A suggest there's reason for optimism.

RPS: Is there any chance we will see improved vehicular pathfinding... infantry leapfrogging and flanking during attacks... enemy static weapons deploying more sensibly?

Steve: The AI is a big task. Given Close Combat’s dedication to soldier behavior and the gameplay that emerges from that, it’s probably one of the most important details to get right. Pathfinding is always something of a balancing act between having the unit move as efficiently as possible and having it take the route the player expects. The code for this is all new in The Bloody First, and I think it’s pretty good. The way vehicles move is much smoother as well, without the ‘stop, twist, go’ turns that often occurred in the old engine. Infantry behavior and AI initial placement are also things I think we can improve on.

RPS: Will outgunned AFVs ever reverse into cover or use smoke?

Steve: In the original Close Combats a threatened vehicle would pop smoke if they had it, but it was up to the player to order them to reverse into cover. How much automatic behavior to put into the game is always a tough call. While this is great for saving your units in some situations, it could be frustrating as well. If you’re trying to set up a two pronged attack by a pair of Shermans vs. a Tiger, you won’t be happy if your Shermans refuse to execute because they decide they're outgunned, pop smoke, and back into cover.

RPS: Is the AI going to be guided solely by Victory Flags or will there be other factors at work?

Steve: The AI has never been solely guided by Victory Flags, but traditionally the Victory Locations have had a very large weight in its decision-making. They will continue to do so, though with the new campaign system in The Bloody First, casualties are more of a factor in the victory conditions, and the AI will take that into account as well.

RPS: Any plans to simulate battlefield first aid?

Steve: Not for this version, no. It is something we discuss almost every time we do a new version, though. If we do it, it would be more about simulating the fact that wounded soldiers tends to take one or more of their comrades out of the fight for a time to care for them. You won’t ever see medics healing casualties and sending them right back into action in Close Combat.

RPS: Are weapon and ammo scavenging in?

Steve: Yes. This will be basically the same as previous versions: Soldiers will scavenge ammo and weapons if they have none of their own left to fight with, but they’ll return to their normally assigned weapon(s) for the next battle.

RPS: What kind of interface changes can we expect?

Steve: The battle interface is getting a pretty big overhaul. The current system we’re experimenting with is much more contextual than the old engine’s monolithic right-click menu with every possible option on it. You click on one of your units, and then you click & hold on a target location or unit, and you’ll get a menu of the commands that you can use (such as movement at a location on the ground, or fire commands for an enemy unit). It’s a change, but I think it’s a good one. We’ll see what sort of player feedback we get on this during the beta.


The Lure of the Landsknechte

There was no shortage of industry on display at Home of Wargamers 2014 but anyone prowling Castello di Pavone's beamed banqueting halls and dung dankeons in search of startling novelty wouldn't have found a great deal to get excited about. The closest thing to a surprise was the announcement of Pike and Shot - a TBS marrying fairly conventional turn-based battle mechanics with a deliciously unfamiliar setting - The Thirty Years' War.

While the WIP screenshots suggest crudity, Pike and Shot's feature list actually promises considerable sophistication and subtlety. Byzantine Games' lead designer is Richard Bodley Scott, the man behind the Field of Glory: Renaissance tabletop wargaming rules. His expertise and willingness to borrow heavily from FoG:R means we should, fingers-crossed, end up with a game that's as trim as it is truthful.

With twenty different soldier types and a combat system clever enough to simulate mixed units and multifarious weapon practices (Pistols, for instance, were used in many different ways during the period, some force types preferring to discharge them at distance, others using them just before melee or cavalry impact) tactical blandness is unlikely to be an issue.

Naturally, morale and unit facing will be of major importance, and commanders that disregard topography can expect to be punished. The hills in the shot below convey close combat bonuses and mask troop movement; the fields and patches of woodland impact movement rates, formation disorder, cover ratings, and detection probability.

Byzantine aren't planning to represent commanders as separate units or reflect their abilities through an unpredictable activation system (We'll be able to move all our units every turn). With Philip Sabin's thoughts on simulating command dynamics fresh in my mind this friendly but unimaginative approach feels a tad disappointing.

On a more positive note, P&S's relatively meagre supply of historical scraps (10) will be supplemented by an impressive-sounding random battle generator. In the initial Thirty Years' War release (English Civil War and 16th Century Italian wars expansions are planned) playable factions will include the Bohemians, Holy Roman Empire/Catholic League, German Protestants, Danish, Swedish, Spanish, and French; selectable engagement types mean you can start battles huddled behind field fortifications or scanning horizons for vital reinforcements. Thanks to an era-linked army list system foes should always field historically plausible armies.

As appetising as a bowl of Bella Cantarella's famous mushroom risotto (but, hopefully, nowhere near as lethal) Pike & Shot should be with us before the end of this year's campaigning season.


The Flare Path Foxer

President James Garfield was collaged to death on this very spot on May 16th, 2014. Fortunately, after being chased down by richytsoe, Matchstick, skink74, JB, Matchstick's colleague, and FurryLippedSquid. the assassin (Chief Foxer Setter Roman) was wrestled to the ground by the strong hands and sharp wits of phlebas and billy_bunter. All those involved in the defoxing receive a Flare Path flair point and a clip-on Garfield beard (worn as a sign of respect by 80% of the US population in the week following the President's death).

a. USS Potomac
b. B-29 (Called the Washington by the RAF)
c. Fort Bliss Centennial stamp
d. Martin Baltimore
e. Alvis Stalwart
f. M41 Walker Bulldog
g. RoboRally board
h. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
i. Sir Arthur from Ghosts 'n Goblins


Apologies for the lack of Foxer last week. By way of compensation today's collage comes with a playable rather than a polishable prize. The generous Josephines at I-can't-tell-you-their-name-without-contravening-Flare-Path's-post-Doritosgate-ethics-policy have supplied a Steam code for the certifiably splendid I-can't-tell-you-the-title-without-contravening-Flare-Path's-post-Doritosgate-ethics-policy. Post the collage theme in the comments section below (All answers in the same thread, please) or mail it to me using the link at the top of the column (Readers unable to comment for any reason are always welcome to send in guesses. Correct/timely contributions will be acknowledged a week later in the usual manner.) and the prize could be yours.

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