Like Autumn, the forest alchemist, I've spent this week splashing hillsides with gold and crimson. In woods, fields and towns the length of West Germany I've been tirelessly turning earthy greens into vibrant reds and yellows. Hundreds of hurrying APCs, hastily dug-in MBTs, and hovering helo gunships have flared like frost-startled beech trees as I've fought to resist Red Storm's irresistible red storm. It's years since I witnessed such wholesale destruction in a tactical wargame, and years since I was so impressed by the rules and mechanisms underpinning hexagonal aggro.
After thirty years on the digital frontline, it's tempting to believe hex wargaming's best days are behind it. How many times can a developer switch settings or rearrange Action Points before the audience smell a Desert Rat? Far too many modern hexponents rely on stats, art, and scenario set-ups for freshness, rather than innovative, historically-derived core features. Far too many modern hexponents aren't On Target Simulations.
On Target's Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm hides its genius beneath a camo-net of conventionality. Its energetic, easy-to-grasp Eighties scraps are sausage-sliced into turns but, cleverly, the sausage slices aren't of uniform size.
The gaps between order sessions are specific to each side and alter dynamically as battles progress. A largely unscathed army well-equipped to deal with enemy electronic warfare assaults can expect far shorter 'command cycles' than one composed of rattled units and mauled HQs. Early on you might be sprinkling waypoints on the map every 15 minutes (in-game time); later, an hour or more of nailbiting action might pass between interventions. Visionary OTS have replaced the drab metronome beat of the traditional TBS with something far more insistent - far more in-step with war's strange syncopation.
Play with the optional Limited Staff Rule in effect (recommended) and the realism echoes get even louder. Opportunities to dispense directions aren't opportunities to dispense unlimited directions; rationed orders - a scandalously under-utilised wargaming concept - force the player to ponder and plan like a bona fide brass hat.
Resourceful AI, credible order delays, and a slim order selection further disincentivize micro-management. With just three movement orders available (move hasty, move deliberate, and assault) each with their own attendant automatic combat behaviours and mandatory muster phases, menu contemplation is kept to a minimum.
If things go badly wrong during an execution phase - if your convoy of speeding BMPs blunders into an arrowhead of unexpected Abrams - then sudden losses should prompt sensible self-preservation tactics. If you're lucky and haven't manually assigned targets to all your arty units, a helpful mortar battery or SPG might even decide to assist the withdrawing ambushees with some well-aimed smoke rounds or suppressive HE.
There's a hint of Combat Mission in the way units respond to unanticipated threats, and a dash of Command Ops (which happens to be on sale until the 10th) in the way computer-controlled foes constantly adapt to changing battlefield conditions. Hungry for victory locations but constantly assessing resistance levels along potential routes, SP adversaries are supple (if not always especially subtle) customers. They'll even build bridges and attempt counter-battery barrages on occasions. Play one of the 20-odd single scenarios a second or third time and the clusters of funereal crosses that sprout so readily during Red Storm engagements are sure to wind up decorating new hills and vales.
Given the scale of most of the engagements and the board game simplicity of the visuals, it's surprising just how visceral and intimate the fighting often feels. Choose to play with all combat animations visible and audio cues audible, and every AFV immolation or helo downing is represented by its own fiery flower and unmistakeable wav. As an enemy column rounds a corner or crests a ridge you sit spellbound counting the kills and steeling yourself for the inevitable volley of return fire.
Where other wargames wave their manslaughter mathematics in your face, Red Storm wisely keeps most of its fuzzy and mysterious. When a friendly HQ parked in the heart of a forest is showered with HE, or a pair of your precious Chieftains are missiled into oblivion by a phalanx of previously unseen BMDs, there are no numerical explanations; instinctively you know the enemy stonk was aimed at the strongest source of radio signals in the area (You really should have moved your command units around more assiduously) and the chem-weakened state of the Chieftain crews (Red Storm simulates chemical and nuclear warfare) and the distracting presence of nearby T-80s, probably played a part in the tankicide. In the circumstances, numbers would probably undermine the illusion rather than bolster it.
Tellingly, on the occasions the game does shamelessly parade its clockwork, it's at its weakest. On Target's uncharacteristically crude handling of victory and defeat conditions slightly blemishes an otherwise superb design. Currently, battles end horribly abruptly when either a hard time limit is reached or one force drops below 30% of its starting strength. Because, counter-intuitively, vanquished forces get to keep victory locations held when the defeat trigger is tugged, it's not uncommon to find yourself having 'lost' or drawn a battle on points because the enemy folded at an inopportune moment.
Other minor flaws include clumsy group selection implementation (there's no shortcut for selecting an HQ and its subordinates), an inability to create composite orders, and a rather unadventurous approach to campaigning. Red Storm's pair of linear five-battle campaigns boast some solid scenario design, and moderately interesting intermission replenishment decisions; what they don't offer is contextual colour or any Wargame: AirLand Battle-style opportunities to dictate the shape of the wider war.
I've yet to try the PBEM or hotseat multiplayer, but suspect they'd both prove at least as entertaining as solo play. A lot of work has plainly gone into balancing the single-player scens which bodes well for MP.
Of course, persuading potential PBEM partners to invest in the top-notch Red Storm will be significantly harder than it should be thanks to the lack of a demo and Matrix Games/Slitherine's ever-controversial pricing policy. While this hexemplary hexample of hexiana is significantly cheaper than the last eyecatching offering from Matrix, at £41 (UK download edition) it's still at least a tenner more than it probably needs to be to properly capitalise on its many unique and likeable traits.