The Flare Path: Wars Across the World
This Swiss Army knife needs sharpening
“A turn-ribbed, hex-shunning operational wargame elastic enough to simulate conflicts two millennia apart sensitively, and friendly and affordable enough to appeal to all stripes of strategy gamer - not just Slitherine and Paradox aficionados.”. If I'd read a pitch like this while drawing up my Dragons' Den shortlist a couple of weeks back, I suspect it would have gone straight on the 'pie in the sky' pile. Wars Across the World, a new DLC-fecund release that rifles history like Hermann Göring rifled art collections, really shouldn't work and almost doesn't, but happily none of its faults are terminal.
If you're one of the many (?) who own AGEod offerings but rarely if ever play them, then Strategiae's brainchild is bound to beckon. Realising that obscure play mechanisms and long, large scenarios, abraded the allure of titles like Civil War II and Rise of Prussia, Stéphane Parrin and his small band of AGEod escapees have set out to produce baffle-free games of similar richness that can be played to completion in two hours or less.
Whether intended or not WATW also feels like an attempt to give PC grogs a taste of what their comrades-in-cardboard have been enjoying for decades - low prices and a dazzling array of exotic themes. The Steam page listing the first batch of DLC has a whiff of the wonderfully diverse PnP wargaming scene about it.
Mingling with the single-scenario Operation Overlord, Battle of the Bulge, ACW and Napoleonic expansions, are opportunities to grow the borders of Sixties Israel, invade Eleventh Century England, and turn modern-day Mali into an Islamic state.
Shared mechanics means once you've learnt how to shepherd Shermans in Normandy or redcoats in Belgium you should have no problem overseeing war elephants in Italy or Viking warbands in Yorkshire. Twenty minutes with the text-reliant Bulge-based tutorials and you're set for life! Well, that's the theory anyway.
In reality, though streamlined combat and clearly phased turns ensure WATW is more approachable than the AGEod titles it channels, it isn't quite as scrutable as it should be. Little things like the lack of tooltips and a slightly clumsy drag-and-drop movement system that forces you to place friendly units stacks on empty terrain rather than on the enemy stacks you're aiming to engage, guarantee a modicum of confusion in the first few hours. After several days' play I'm still dipping into the manual at regular intervals in search of information on less-than-obvious aspects like reconnaissance, riverine transport, leadership effects and Victory Point generation. Invariably elements like these turn out to be underpinned by logical rules, but good luck in discerning those rules through GUI scrutiny or patient experimentation.
Ignore the overarching concept, and there's little that could be described as bold or ingenious in Strategiae's debut project. The treatment of things like morale, supply, sieges, and air and naval warfare, is spare and sensible rather than inspired. When opposing unit stacks collide, a combination of leader stats, terrain type, and stack compositions determine the number units need to undercut with their individual 1D10 rolls to trigger step losses or panics in enemy ranks (Hopefully, a future update will make that number crystal clear and introduce a way to auto-resolve or speed up lopsided engagements).
Perhaps the biggest risk in designing a universal wargame engine is that all that flexibility comes at the expense of character. Any game can repaint hexes and rename units to reflect different eras and theatres but it's a rare beast that can hopscotch through history conveying operational nuances and period colour as it goes. WATW avoids the Bog of Blandness with assistance from bespoke maps and decks of theme-steeped cards. Often referencing specific historical events or leaders, the latter don't have a massive impact on battle fortunes but they do, along with the cartography and counter art, help sell the illusion that you're playing a unique creation rather than a tissue-thin mod.
Unfortunately, while the cards and venues are working hard to convince you that you're playing something lovingly handcrafted, bugs and AI flaws are presently working just as energetically to persuade you that you're playing something still several months of patient testing and code tuning away from true battle readiness. Most of my sessions thus far have been interrupted by a freeze or two. Usually reloading helps. Sometimes it doesn't. At times deselected cards and icons have lingered on the screen like hopelessly bogged panzers. My last game refused to end because my cad of an artificial opponent decided to play his sixteenth and final turn over and over again.
As each DLC operation offers only one scenario (always playable from two or more different perspectives), and WATW doesn't yet boast multiplayer or an editor – both promised - challenge is very much in the hands of Strategiae's scenario artisan and AI coder at the moment. The fact that I triumphed fairly easily in four of my first five ops against foes that frequently seemed sleepy, occasionally genuinely bewildered, suggests that the French devs still have a fair amount of work to do in areas like unit StratAI and balance. Viewing the surprisingly long list of launch day DLC I wonder if it wouldn't have been wiser to focus on perfecting a core range of three or four ops before cranking open the martial flood gates.
I wonder too about the chosen business model. A free base engine with a strong demo op would have been a great way to introduce the curious to a series that may, if technical issues are addressed and the AI gingered, prove to be one of the best things to happen to PC wargaming in years.
With expansions as eyecatchingly offbeat as Malaya: 1941, Spain 1936, Finland 1918, and Innsmouth 1928 in the pipeline, it's inevitable Wars Across the World will feature in The Flare Path again. Hopefully the next time I talk about it, I'll able to dwell on opportunistic opponents and dramatic denouements, rather than tiresome bugs and unlikely cakewalks.
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