3×3

Want to turn a green lane into a brown lane, tow a Gulaschkanone across a snowy field, or roam the Western Desert trashing Axis airfields? Get a 4×4. Want quick introductions to low-profile PC games of interest to wargamers and simmers? Read a 3×3. Prior to penning one of these features I’ll play three under-exposed underdogs for three hours each. While it would be cavalier to call the reports that result from these brief auditions ‘reviews’, it’s conceivable they might lead to more prolonged playtests, and prompt or prevent the odd purchase.

Wars Across The World: Levant 1941

Finding subjects for future Untapped Tussles articles could get difficult if Wars Across The World continues in its current vein. The 1941 Iraqi coup d’état and Allied invasion of Syria and Lebanon are the latest esoteric subconflicts playable in Strategiae’s splendidly peripatetic, unusually affordable modular TBS.

I say “esoteric”… For the 70,000 combatants involved in the fighting in the Levant – approximately 10,000 of whom would be killed or injured before the Australian advance on Beirut prompted the July 12 armistice – the episode was, of course, no sideshow. While Rashid Ali al-Gaylani‘s Germany-backed revolt in Iraq was crushed relatively quickly and painlessly, helped by advantageous terrain and the Allies’ lack of armour, Vichy French forces in Syria and Lebanon resisted tenaciously and, in places, very effectively.

If this was an Untapped Tussles I’d now spend a paragraph or two explaining why, in mid 1941, the dangerously overstretched Brits decided to launch Operation Exporter (In short, London was worried that the Axis would use the Vichy French territories as a base for inciting revolts in the region, and as a springboard for launching offensives towards the Suez Canal and Britain’s vital oil infrastructure in Iraq and Iran). I’d talk about how the presence of Free French forces in some battles (Australian, Indian, Transjordanian, Assyrian and Czech troops were also involved on the Allied side) actually stiffened enemy resolve. Roald Dahl and Jim Gordon would probably get a mention too.

But there’s no time for any of that malarkey, because I’ve got good and bad news to impart.

The good is that Levant 1941 is WatW at its most colourful, substantial, and educational. You’re effectively getting three intertwined games for your £4 – the aforementioned revolt and invasion, plus the British dimension of the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran. Playable from either side, the single 45-turn scenario takes around eight hours to complete according to Strategiae, and incorporates a dazzling variety of units and activities.

During my morning-long playest I fought battles in ‘familiar’ places such as Basra, Fallujah and Mosul. I bombed, furballed, and blockaded. My mouse clicks shipped reinforcements from Karachi to Umm Qasr, and sent rebels scampering back into the Mesopotamian Marshes. They airlifted supplies and soldiery to the besieged RAF base at Habbaniya, and engineered engagements between armoured cars and horseman in the scorpion-scouted wastes of the Arabian Desert. If Levant 1941 doesn’t kindle an interest in WW2 Middle Eastern history, nothing will.

There were moments early on when I thought I’d stumbled on that rare thing – a WatW DLC designed in such a way that the engine’s most disappointing and enduring shortcoming – mediocre AI – was barely noticeable. That optimism started to fade when I realised that the sizeable rebel force I’d ejected from Habbaniya had no plans to move from the unsupplied desert province SE of Ar-Rutbah it had retreated to. As I watched Rashid Ali al-Gaylani’s battered army shrivel and die in the middle of nowhere instead of doubling back, keen to disrupt my supply network and merge with other Axis counter stacks, my enthusiasm for this eccentric adjunct dipped noticeably.

It dipped further when I realised, half an hour later, that the game had no intention of letting me invade Syria or Lebanon. Having quelled the Iraqi revolt I waited for the green light that would allow me to push North. It never came. Instead a brusque results screen informed me that I’d lost on turn 26 because the Axis had somehow amassed 20 VP while being trounced in Iraq. Broken scripting? Poorly communicated victory conditions? Whatever the cause, I felt more than a little cheated.

Taking advantage of a “Play on anyway” option I went on to some fight some lively battles against the surprisingly aggressive Iranians, before slinking away to type these thoughts.

It’s quite possible that the engine’s AI frailties and the scenario’s victory condition quirks, are less conspicuous when playing as the Axis. As ever when talking about WatW DLC, it’s necessary to qualify all gripes with a reminder that this is a remarkably cheap offering with a daisy-fresh theme, great art, and foes that will, 80% of the time, acquit themselves well.

* * *

Combined Arms Operations Series

Named after a prog rock group that famously played themselves to death during a marathon jam session in 1974 [citation needed], Nemeton Singularity Simulations produce wargames every bit as singular as their namesake’s concept albums.

Now and again WeGo CAOS brings to mind Atomic’s V for Victory series, but, unfortunately, there’s little danger of it being mistaken for a modern homage.

For starters the £15 newcomer eschews historical scenarios. You get a sheaf of ten unzoomable maps, most of which are based on real locations, and a massive unit roster that encompasses five nations (Britain, France, Italy, Germany, USA, USSR) and all six years of WW2, and use these to generate three types of random skirmish (attack, defend, meeting).

Most of the units thronging the pre-battle purchase menus are regiment-sized, and can be broken down into smaller elements, or customised with portions of other units, during the course of play. The ability to buy large historically coherent forces quickly is there (A couple of mouse clicks secures an entire division). What Nemeton don’t seem to have provided is a way to manoeuvre these hulking formations through their HQs. Coming to CAOS hotfoot from an Airborne Assault: Red Devils Over Arnhem tour of duty, the absence of smart subordinates is particularly noticeable.

While you can only issue orders to single chits and stacks, a well thought-out order palette allows for some pretty fancy tactics. I love the fact that I can coordinate attacks by setting launch times, involve behind-the-frontline units in engagements via ‘Reserve’ and ‘Reinforce’ orders, and, with a ‘Rallypoint’ order, tell wavering forces where to retreat to if they’re dislodged during a turn’s 10-impulse non-intervention resolution phase. Employment of commands such as ‘Defensive March’ make recon-style probing simple. ‘Skirmish’ encourages units to engage in low-intensity harassment of nearby enemies. Bridge, minefield, and fortification-related battlefield engineering projects, nuanced automatic artillery behaviours… it’s all possible.

As the title suggests, the combat algorithms reward combined arms tactics. Support an infantry assault with armour, airpower, and artillery, and the chances of it succeeding improve substantially.

What I’ve seen thus far of the AI instils confidence. Apart from the time I managed to overrun a foe’s supply hub with a squadron of roving armoured cars – an achievement of questionable value as the scenario was of such short duration (games can be set up to last 10, 15, or 20 turns) that the resulting shortages didn’t have time to bite – my adversaries have generally done a fine job of parrying my thrusts, and/or crowbarring holes in my defences.

One of the challenges that comes with simultaneously executed turns is delivering turn results in a way that can be enjoyed and swiftly processed by the player. Sadly, it’s in this area where CAOS fumbles the Mills bomb.

A significant portion of my playtest was spent poring over poorly-integrated, text and number-heavy reports in search of explanations as to why, during an execution phase, this unit failed to advance or that one opted to retreat. There’s an option to replay turns impulse-by-impulse, but because CAOS has no equivalent to V4V’s pithy, map-linked battle summaries…

…this still means numerous icon-free, cornea-crucifying logs must be scoured for information.

Too reliant on numbers and a Lilliputian font, the counters and unit cards communicate just as clumsily as the battle reports. Want a quick overview of cohesion states or stacking totals? The filter options that should meet these needs simply display illegible numerals over chits that refuse to grow when the mousewheel is rolled. At times CAOS can be horribly unhelpful.

There’s a Sturmtiger-solid wargame engine here, but until Nemeton overhaul their GUI, embracing icons and magnifying text, it’s unlikely to see much action on Tally-Ho Corner.

* * *

Warplane Inc.

Before I tell you what this five-quid sidescroller is, let me tell you what’s it’s not.

Unforgivably, it’s not the 2D flightsim with plausible aerodynamics, dynamic campaign, AI wingmen, and sprinkle of squadron management that this Harrier Attack fiend has been waiting for for donkey’s years. Russian studio Nuclear Games have chosen to shackle their entertaining physics and unusually forensic damage modelling to a campaign system aimed squarely at the Grim Reaper demographic.

During the three hours I’ve spent mouse-guiding SPADs and Sturmoviks today, I’ve bought the farm over a hundred times. The prangs were the inevitable consequence of an upgrade approach that forces you to fly the same sortie dozens of times in order to generate the cash necessary to improve your steed’s performance, sturdiness, and weaponry. Because aircraft types start out as robust as meringues and with fuel tanks the size of espresso cups, it’s impossible to reach faraway destination aerodromes until you’ve climbed to the upper branches of a generic tech tree surrounded by twisted, flame-blackened airframes.

Death is entirely inconsequential. What matters is trashing as much, and travelling as far, as possible before your crate comets from the sky ideally slap-bang on top of a flak battery or halftrack. Thanks to satisfying bombing and strafing (if you’re sufficiently skilful you can also eliminate infantry with a daisy-cutting prop) tricky landings, and the detailed damage modelling, the grind isn’t nearly as wearying as it might be.

It matters where cannon rounds and shrapnel perforate airframes. Occasionally something hot and jagged will gain entrance to a fuel tank or cockpit occupant, prompting a sudden terminal plummet. More often than not, though, Death nibbles at your warbird before delivering the coup de grace. Hits to control cables and flying surfaces make themselves felt in mushy mouse responses. Once I was forced to alight using throttle inputs alone, my elevator having been shot to ribbons.

Like the campaign structure, the combination of fictional setting and mostly-WW2 aircraft isn’t entirely successful. The letters and load-screen pics  that attempt to inject a little humanity and pathos into proceedings, are rarely anything but obvious and sit uneasily alongside the campaign’s whatever-the-opposite-of-permadeath-is design philosophy.

I’m afraid I can’t telly you anything about ‘free flight’ (get as far as possible on an infinite map sprinkled with threats and refuelling/rearming strips), ‘air fight’ (dogfight until dead), ‘constructor’ (complete an aerial obstacle course in a plane you’ve designed yourself), or ‘air defence’ (protect a city with manually  operated AA guns), as all these modes remain tightly padlocked until the campaign is complete.

If Warplane Inc had crossed my path in the days when PC Gamer paid me to praise, pillory, and percentagise air warfare fare, at this point in the review process I’d be thinking “high 50s”.

7 Comments

  1. A bit of a mixed bag this week. Can’t say I’ve played WATW before but it looks interesting, does the suspect AI make the game easyier because it’s not bright or frustrating as it behaves madly? I never like my games too challenging, so that may be a small positive!

    • I enjoy WatW despite its AI quirks (Enemies sometimes mount foolish attacks, fail to show supply lines the respect they deserve, and abandon orphaned leaders) and occasional bugs (loading autosaves seems to fix most freezes for me). The “one ruleset, myriad conflicts” concept is a big part of the appeal.

      • I gave up on new DLC for WatW since the developers refuse to bring the new season packs to Steam. The last one they made available is season 2 from 2018. When questioned on it by several people they made a number of very weak excuses and said they were “looking into it”. Over two years later, still no progress. They keep trying to direct people to buy the seasons on their website, and do not even bother to provide Steam keys for those that do that. If they are going to market their game on Steam, they need to support the customers that use that platform. It defeats the purpose if users need to acquire and update DLC manually from a third party.

        • When I raised the issue of missing season packs with Strategiae, they offered no real explanation and made no firm commitment to bringing the packs to Steam. “You can get them through our website” seems to be the company line. I can sympathise with the position (after Steam and Plug In Digital take their cuts, there can’t be much left for Strategiae) but, as you point out, Steam customers deserve better.

          • Especially considering all they need to do is offer Steam keys for purchases on their site. Matrix Games does it, and as a result I usually purchase directly from them. They get the full cut, and the customer gets the convenience of Steam. If Straegiae wants to continue to play hardball with their customers, they can take the full cut of nothing from me… doesn’t seem like a winning strategy.

  2. CAOS looks/ed really interesting. Mainly because I really enjoy WEGO system games. Aleá Jacta Est from AGEOD is an all time favourite. But unzoomable! Come on! That in itself is unforgivable.

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