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The Flare Path: Where Cold Callers Get A Frosty Reception

Simulation & wargame blather

Peddlers of enchanted swords, bullpup energy weapons, and painfully unimaginative religions don't tend to linger long on the doorstep of FP Towers. Once they've clocked the knuckle tats and knobkerrie, and felt the hot breath of Galland, Wittmann, and Fozziwig on their faces/groins, most scamper away like spooked hares. Quite how Kerberos Productions managed to talk their way into my front parlour and persuade me to interrupt Combat Mission: Market Garden previewing to play Ground Pounders is a mystery up there with “Why, in thirty-odd years of PC wargame design, has no-one produced a decent English Civil War title?” and “Who in the Air Ministry thought the Rotabuggy was a good idea?”.

Name-checking Panzer General on its features page probably helped Sword of the Stars: Ground Pounders get a boot in my door. By the time I'd downloaded the latest alpha demo then spent a day thoughtfully overrunning hexagons, assigning combat dice and weaving cats-cradle-like defence nets, I was too engrossed to care about the fact that PG echoes are actually very faint.

Ignore minor GUI irritations, a busy art style that makes units hard to discern at times, and the currently non-functioning air combat, and there's plenty of reasons for contemplating an Indiegogo punt. The distinctive phased turn structure may seem a little over-wrought at first, but the more you play, the more you see the cleverness and imagination behind the design.

Every battle (the demo contains three skirmish scenarios and a tutorial) begins with a deployment phase and a blind board gamey bid for 'space superiority'. Commit fewer cards than your opponent, and you won't get to play any orbital bombardment/support cards during the coming scrap, or dissipate the FoW with periodic satellite recon. After the preliminaries, sessions slip into an engaging pattern of card drawing, logistical fussing, reinforcement, dice distribution, and movement and attack.

Wargamers more familiar with the rolling Russian steppe than the river-riven Saloth lowlands of Ke'Vanthu should enjoy the emphasis on supply and artillery support. While forage and airdrop cards can alleviate the effects of ammo and fuel shortages, careless coordination (HQ units draw provisions from fixed supply hexes then distribute them automatically within a limited radius) can be as disastrous in GP as it is in Unity of Command.

Less conventional and perhaps less logical than the supply system, is the so-called equipping phase during which units are temporarily strengthened with the results of an upturned dice pail. Want to give your mechanised infantry in the NW an extra edge? Give them all your sixes and fives. Think that MLRS unit in the SE won't be needed this turn? Lumber it with your ones and twos.

Neighbouring friendlies don't always work together in GP. Before attacks are executed, you manually forge support ties. Thanks to slightly opaque combat maths, I'm not entirely sure how these short-term bonds impact the bloodshed, but impact it they plainly do, and as with the dicey shenanigans, force you to prioritise and plan, Schwerpunkting rather than rolling forward in a bland, barely-considered wave.

It's a bit early to brand the AI, but I've seen it recoil sensibly when hit hard, and sneak (or spawn?) units into my flank, so the signs aren't discouraging. For a spot of intricate Battle Isle-reminiscent fun I strongly recommend a tryst with the trial.


Early Frost

Winkling a Market Garden ETA out of Battlefront is proving tricky, but the Combat Mission crafters have let me scout the add-on's maps and a few of its work-in-progress scenarios.

Those maps - the works of volunteer cartographers Ben 'Benpark' Donaldson and Pete 'Pete' Wenman - are truly breathtaking. While the game's tile-based scenery and limited building types and road alignment options mean FPS-grade fidelity is impossible, the depictions of Arnhem, Nijmegen and Oosterbeek are incomparably accurate, and almost certainly constitute the most complex battle-spaces ever seen in a tactical wargame.

Having looked down on the north end of Arnhem bridge countless times in Close Combat and Airborne Assault/Command Ops, to see it replicated in full fastidious 3D for the first time feels faintly magical. The scale of the structure, the way it relates to the buildings clustered round its ramp... it's all startlingly clear.

The cursory depiction of gardens and the use of blocky, fairly uniform structures to replicate the varied suburban dwellings of leafy Oosterbeek, mean that map is less convincing, but I was able to follow in-game rambles in Street View with little difficulty. If you live in the area and plan to buy this $35 add-on ($40 with the essential '2.0' CMBN upgrade) then you may, one day, find yourself routing Red Berets through your own backyard, or watching as a bad-tempered StuG tears chunks out of your bedroom wall.

To coincide with the arrival of MG, Battlefront will be rolling out a series of potentially popular urban warfare improvements. Less lithe/perceptive tanks, AT teams 'happy' to brave back-blasts and use Panzerschrecks and Bazookas inside buildings... within towns and cities it looks like the balance of power is set to shift back towards the PBI.

I can't say I've noticed any of the core code changes yet. I've been far too busy trying to emulate Frost and maintain a British presence in the heart of Arnhem. Helped on one occasion by some comedic German pathfinding on the bridge (quite possibly a problem unique to my early build) and hindered on another by some slow-down during a particularly intense real-time mode firefight (Again, possibly a preview code quirk) all my efforts thus far have ended with me, exhausted but exhilarated, mentally mouthing "Out of ammunition. God Save the King” then reluctantly prodding the 'surrender' button.


The Flare Path Foxer

My daily commute is long and tedious. If it wasn't for Essie Jain, Hop Harrigan, and wayside curios like the ones pictured below, I doubt I'd be able to endure it. To win flair points made from windscreen chips and butterfly wings, tell me where these pictures were taken.







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