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The Flare Path: Waterloot

Simulation & wargame blather

You can't move in the Flare Path office at the moment for Battle of Waterloo bicentennial gubbins. The place is overflowing with cuddly toys, commemorative cider selections, souvenir chess sets and branded Wellington boots. I'm currently storing my paper clips in a porcelain Hougoumont, opening my letters with a 1/5 scale cavalry sabre, and treating my piles with 'Bonaparte Balm' haemorrhoids cream. To be honest, most of the stuff is complete tat. The only items unlikely to end up in the bin or at a local charity shop by the end of the week are the Airfix gift set, the Lord Uxbridge action figure (superb attention to detail on the uniform, and the detachable leg is a lovely touch) and the copy of Scourge of War: Waterloo.

Which doesn't mean I'm totally happy with NorbSoftDev's Scourge of War: Gettysburg sequel. Since its release on Tuesday, I've spent about fourteen hours with this £35 turnless recreation of Boney's blackest day. Those fourteen hours have been suffused with spectacle and crammed with challenge, but they've also been speckled with disappointment and disbelief.

The game comes with an impressive selection of play modes, a beautifully crafted venue and a splendid array of soldier sprites, there's no question of that. NSD's leather-aproned landscape gardeners have worked wonders with the relatively old tools at their disposal. Whether you're tramping the battlefield in HITS mode (Play with 'Headquarters in the Saddle' selected and your viewpoint is tied to the particular commander you're roleplaying) or skimming over it like a tardy cannonball with unrestricted WASD keys, there are echoes of period paintings and illustrations everywhere. Hillocks, hedgerows, and outbuildings that wargames have ignored for decades, are visible and tactically significant in Scourge of War: Waterloo.

But it's the teeming masses of multi-coloured warriors moving, fighting and dying atop this skilfully sculpted slab of Belgium that really takes the breath away. Though soldier sprites usually represent six individuals and tightly packed formations like the famous French assault columns are somewhat fudged, the sight of a large scenario in full swing is still utterly jawdropping. Titles like the Total Wars have been quietly shrinking locales and depopulating major historical scraps for years. To understand just how mean most pitched battle wargames are when it comes to head and bodycounts, you need to stand atop SoWW's east-west ridge during Drouet's initial infantry assault. Watching that tsunami of French flesh and steel surging up the slope towards waiting British, Dutch and German troops? Amazing.

Sadly, while SoWW communicates the scale and savagery of June 18, 1815 rather well, it struggles a bit with some of the tactical subtleties. Though the stout walled farms that protruded the Allied line Napoleon-ward at Hougoumont, La Haye Saint, and Papelotte look the part, the fighting that swirls around them in the game is shorthand of the curtest/crudest type.

Recreations of the desperate Rorke's Drift-style defences mounted by the likes of the King's German Legion (La Haye Saint) and the Coldstream Guards (Hougoumont) are impossible thanks to rigid formations and preposterously permeable walls. Lines of attackers and defenders regularly spectre straight through brick barriers. To seize a farm you don't infiltrate its environs then send knots of axe wielders or clamberers scurrying towards gates and walls, you pound it with cannons, surround it with infantry lines, and wait for firepower to destroy or dislodge the invisible garrison. Scenarios depicting the farm fights should have been some of the most exciting provided - in fact they are amongst the dullest.

The implementation of cavalry and infantry squares may disappoint some Waterloo scholars too. In the hands of the often tentative AI, the former rarely seem to grab much glory. To get the most out of your squadrons of sabre slashers, you must micro-manage - something that's not always possible during the grander scraps. As infantry lines tend to morph into squares at the first sniff of saddle-soap, successful cavalry charges require split-second timing and careful preparatory manoeuvres. In the heat of battle it's tempting to use dashing cuirasseurs and dragoons simply as sedentary square triggerers, parking them near to infantry threats to discourage movement and generate juicier artillery targets. James Hamilton wouldn't have approved.

Not that telling cavalry sorties aren't possible. In the pic above, my gallopers are just about to crash into the flank of some distracted Frenchies.

And in this one, one of Uxbridge's squadrons, having found a hole in the enemy right, is, rather improbably, putting the wind up 70+ guns!

At Waterloo, Wellington's men used infantry squares to great effect. French cavalry were drawn into the gaps between chequerboard-arranged squares and blasted to ribbons. In solo SoWW you're unlikely to see cleverly constructed, well disciplined defensive/offensive formations unless you've organised them yourself. Leave battalions in the hands of order-interpreting AI subordinates (the way most of the bigger scenarios are meant to be played) and it probably won't be long before you're looking down on a confused welter of constantly fidgeting units.

SoWW's AI, like that of its predecessor, is always interesting - full command chain modelling, different commander personalities, and interceptable couriers, see to that. Give it a battle line to extend, a VL to make for, or a flank to turn, and it generally makes a decent fist of it. What silicon COs struggle to do is prevent troop formations from tangling like pick-up sticks and pivoting like gale-buffeted weather vanes when threats are nearby. These messy ahistorical tendencies shouldn't stop you getting results (there's always the option to 'take command' of everyone), but they do corrode the illusion NSD's map makers, scenario authors and uniforms tailors have worked hard to create.

With moddable AI, it's not impossible scraps will be partially de-chaosed in the coming months. Fingers-crossed, the devs aren't too busy working on the inevitable(?) Quatre-Bras/Ligny expansion, to do a little behaviour tweaking themselves. Hopefully, patches will also bring detailed post-battle stats and a few extra battle sounds (more drums and battle cries please!) and flesh out the promising sandbox campaign system that débuts in this release.

While most Scourge of War veterans will doubtless bee-line for the 32 player co-op multiplayer or the old sandbox mode (essentially a highly flexible skirmish generator that lets you choose your battlefield and rank/level of responsibility) the new TW-style strat layer is arguably SoWW's most exciting feature. Utilizing generic maps and featuring configurable victory conditions (Destroy enemy, take specific town, or occupy majority of towns) it can be played at various command levels (go lowly, and you'll have fewer cats to herd) but doesn't currently support MP.

Once you've detached scouting elements (not mandatory) and worked out that destinations are set with clicks on floating town names rather than settlement centres (most odd), you're ready to head out in search of a foe who's likely split his force too. When army markers eventually meet, assuming neither party opts to retreat, a real-time battle is sparked, the results of which inevitably impact any subsequent engagements. Town-based training and slow fatigue/morale/wound recovery encourages a bit of planning and patience, and hints at potential development directions. With a sage addition here and there - a weather and logistical layer, some map-specific battle maps perhaps - this intriguing experiment in campaign design has the potential to mature into something pretty special.

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The Flare Path Foxer

The new FP Flair Point delivery drones were busy last weekend. A few stats:

Sorties flown: 191
FP Flair Points delivered: 15
Bird strikes: 11
CFITs: 48
Incidents involving power lines: 12
Incidents involving wind turbines: 3
Drones lost to ground fire*: 9

*Mr. Blackstaffe, a farmer whose land adjoins FP HQ, isn't all that keen on our octocopters using 'his' airspace.

(Theme: teeth. Defoxed by Bookmark, AFKAMC, Matchstick, Rorschach617, phlebas, AbyssUK, Stugle, and Hydrogene)

a plaque
b baby teeth
c tooth fairy
d canine teeth
e lion's teeth
f cavity
g toothbrush
h tooth pulp
i palmer notation

(Theme: corporal punishment. Defoxed by AFKAMC, Rorschach617, All is Well, Shiloh, Artiforg, mrpier and Schmouddle)

a martinet
b rod/corporal
c whip
d cane
e smack
f cat
g birch
h paddle
i chastise
j ruler


Thanks to a new early evening quiz show, foxers now appear regularly on British television. Beat the Brain's themed picture puzzles are awfully easy to crack and chronically short of interwar flying boats and 1950s movie stars, but Roman is still cockahoop that foxing/defoxing is back on The Idiot Box. He's never really forgiven Alasdair Milne for axing Basil Brush's Baffle Hour after the 1982 rabies scare.

All answers in one thread, please.

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