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 games of interest to wargamers and simmers? Read a 3×3. Prior to penning one of these articles I’ll play three tempting titles for three hours each. While it would be cavalier to call the reports that result from such brief auditions ‘reviews’, it’s conceivable they might lead to more prolonged playtests, and prompt or prevent the odd purchase.

Aircraft Carrier Survival

I suspect I’m not the only person misled by the title and early promo vids into thinking Aircraft Carrier Survival is a game primarily about organising damage control teams aboard stricken flat-tops. Now I’ve played the tutorials and had a tantalising taste of the campaign I realise you spend as much time plotting the destruction of enemy vessels as preventing the demise of your own. The Dorling Kindersley cam that instantly strips the hull plates from your floating airstrip is actually something of a (excuse the pun) sideshow.

Varsowians Gambit Games Studio have fashioned a £15 diversion that has more in common with Carriers at War and UBOAT than the Emergency series. Missions begin in port with taskforce customisation and replenishment. The aircraft mix in your hangars may be altered, new support ships commandeered, and additional officers and crewmen recruited.

You’re then whisked directly to discrete operational areas (long Silent Hunter-style voyages on vast oceanic maps don’t appear to be possible) and the process of investigating suspicious chart ?s with spotter planes begins. Once you’ve located and, ideally, fully identified the foe, your waves of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, and fighters can be dispatched.

Gambit seem to have read and digested their WW2 PTO history books. While, wisely, they haven’t attempted to compete with Drydock Dream Games on the detail and realism front, they do manage to communicate the fundamental truths of 1940s carrier warfare. Find your opponent before he finds you… Hit first and hit hard… Don’t get caught CAP-less or with a deck crowded with bombed-up planes… Armoured decks > wooden decks… Think like Nimitz and, if you’re lucky and have grasped how the slew of board game-reminiscent abstractions work, you should prevail.

Apart from some simple taskforce waypointing there’s very little RTS-style unit control in ACS. Once your winged snoopers and smiters are aloft you have zero control of them. Presented in the form of an optional, fairly generic cinematic, the results of a strike are determined behind-the-scenes by an array of factors including the sequence of tactics cards you arranged during the planning phase.

Cards, which are linked to the officers on your CV and come in three general types – defensive, offensive, and support – interact with each other in different ways depending on their positions. The cleverer your sequence the more havoc your package wreaks and the more likely it is to get back in fine fettle.

Executing the lengthy card sequences likely to lead to sinkings means launching major strikes (each card has an asset requirement associated with it) which in turn means thoughtful deck and squadron management. Attempting to launch a big attack when the sun is sinking or friendly CAP, recon, or anti-submarine aircraft are short of fuel, is a recipe for calamity.

The novelty of ACW’s mechanics combined with its plethora of secondary distractions (in addition to overseeing the flight deck you’re also expected to move officers and men about periodically to buff ship capabilities) ensured my first ninety minutes weren’t frustration or failure free. However, three hours in, having cleared, at the second attempt, the first campaign hurdle, I’m now sufficiently comfortable with the systems and sufficiently entertained by the plate-spinning to want to press on. Aircraft Carrier Survival has passed its audition. A full THC review is a distinct possibility.

* * *

Syrak

While I’ve purchased PC wargames in Syria in the past*, and played PC wargames set in Syria before, until this week I don’t believe I’d ever played a PC wargame designed in Syria.

* In 1998 I bought dubious copies of Close Combat 2, Soldiers at War, iPanzer ’44, and the Warcraft Battle Chest from a small games store in Damascus.

Easy on both the eye and ear, Syrak is is a slick, digital board game that sets out to shorthand the ongoing Syrian Civil War. SAA Studio, the Damascene outfit behind it, claim their £5 creation is “educational” and “does NOT promote any political views or opinion”. Based on what I’ve seen during my brief playtest, I’m not sure I’d agree.

Only playable solo from the ‘Resistance’ (Syria, Iran, Russia, Lebanese Hezbollah and others) side at present, the game sometimes bring to mind Twilight Struggle and its descendents with its card-driven play, and preoccupation with ‘influence’, espionage, and diplomacy.

But this is no cynical knock-off. Features like ‘the general’, a vulnerable player-avatar who can travel to foreign capitals to drum up support, or stay closer to home lowering card play costs and boosting combat chances, lend the design considerable personality.

You win by controlling Baghdad and Damascus at the end of a turn, by building a formidable tripartite international alliance, or by having the highest overall score (based on influence, resources, and controlled cities) at the final whistle. Games can be configured to last up to 60 turns.

Because forces can be deployed anywhere on the map at any time (a somewhat odd design decision), Damascus is an easy gain at the start of a game, and the AI orchestrating ‘Western Treaty Organisation’ forces doesn’t seem to fully grasp the importance of Iraq’s capital, it’s almost impossible to lose playing the current build (v0.60) if you you keep hurling high-quality military cards at Baghdad. If the devs can’t teach the red team to shutdown this shortcut to success, at the very least they should let players deactivate the victory condition via the settings.

Ignore an oddly worded disclaimer on the main menu screen, and Syrak has nothing to say about the Syrian Civil War’s dreadful civilian death toll and concomitant refugee crisis. Thus far the only reference I’ve seen to Assad’s use of chemical weapons is a vague, obfuscatory mention of the Khan Shaykhun attack in a flavour text. I’ve yet to draw weapon cards marked ‘SARIN‘ or ‘BARREL BOMB‘ and suspect I never will.

Alongside the low-key war crime denial is a sprinkling of anti USA and Israel rhetoric, and Russia and Iran flattery that sits awkwardly beside the “the game does NOT promote any political views or opinion” Steam page statement. ISIS are, for all intents and purposes, fully paid-up members of the ‘Western Treaty Organisation’. Terms like “imperialist” and “zionist” regularly appear on red cards. And in the small portion of the ‘codex’ (an in-game historical wiki) that I’ve managed to unlock, Russian war machines are lavishly praised.

Playing games about ongoing conflicts is conscience-chafing at the best of times. When those games either knowingly or unwittingly peddle propaganda while claiming to be impartial, and fail to uphold the Difficulty Compact into the bargain, giving in to that inner voice recommending abstention is awfully easy.

* * *

Freeway Fighter

Klotzen! Panzer Battles had been assigned this slot but disqualified itself by stubbornly refusing to launch on my machine. Its replacement, M1 Tank Platoon II, disgraced itself with inexplicably feeble frame-rates, hence Freeway Fighter, a £3 digital version of one of the few Fighting Fantasy gamebooks I never got around to trying in my youth.

The 13th FF tome starts with an eerily topical apocalyptic back-story, and a flurry of attribute-defining dice rolls. In addition to the usual character stats (Stamina, Skill, and Luck) you’re also asked to establish the Firepower and Armour of the weaponised Dodge Interceptor that will, fingers-crossed, convey you to the distant oil refinery willing to supply your agricultural settlement with precious fuel.

Naturally, between you and your goal there’s myriad ne’er-do-wells, environmental hazards, side-quests, and scavenging opportunities. The paragraphs that describe many of these come with spare-but-stylish Kevin Bulmer illustrations sure to stir memories if you were a White Dwarf reader in the days before the mag was homogenised by Games Workshop.

Ian Livingstone’s writing is as lean and wiry as Bulmer’s art. Wisely, the author resists the urge to strew adjectives and metaphors, and wax lyrical about sunsets. Yes, there’s no wit to speak of and no real eccentricity, but the Mad Max vibe is strong and the violence plentiful and easy to visualise.

If you’ve never tried Fighting Fantasy gamebooks before, the swift, cruel way adventures can come to a grinding halt may come as a bit of a shock. An easy-to-miss click-to-re-roll ‘cheat’ takes some of the sting out of scraps and skill tests (It also works during stat rolling). However, it’s no help at all in situations where Ian decides to ****-** * ****** ******* *** or announces, out of the blue, that you’ve run out of fuel and consequently failed your mission.

I had to restart four times during my first two hours, and more often than not it was an empty petrol tank that was to blame. If Ian had inserted situations where the player could make meaningful choices between, say, acquiring fuel and acquiring weaponry, instead of hiding vital jerrycans in obscure paragraphs, I probably wouldn’t have despair-quit two hours into my playtest and spent my final hour in the very pleasant company of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (£3), one of the less capricious alternatives to Freeway Fighter available on Steam.

13 Comments

  1. Please do include M1TP2 in a future one, have been curious about that for some time and missed it in its heyday.

    Aircraft Carrier Survival sounds much more interesting and feature rich than I had anticipated! May have to give it a spin.

  2. I don’t get the whole barrel bomb thing. They’re bombs. Every airforce on the planet uses bombs. The Ukrainians are using bombs, and using improvised aerial launch unguided explosives to extremely good effect (from drones no less).

    Drop a bomb from a hovering helicopter and it’s more accurate than a flurry of rockets from the rocket pod, more accurate than the first shot from an artillery gun, more accurate than a 600mph jet trying to dodge ground fire.

    Indiscriminate bombing is the issue, not the use of a barrel to make the bomb.

    I “played” The Warlock of Firetop Mountain on its release. In the 80s. Darn good series of books, glad they’re being shared with new generations in an accessible form.

      • But Syria doesn’t have the domestic capability to produce or cash to buy enough PGMs. Are they not allowed to use air power as a result? Is the RAF the only legitimate Air Force in the world as it’s the only one that has the kit, capability and doctrine to always minimise civ cas to as close to zero as possible?

        Not saying the Assad regime haven’t committed a boat load of ihl abuses but their use of unguided munitions is hardly their most reprehensible feature.

        • While I agree there’s nothing inherently immoral about improvised munitions, the way barrel bombs have been employed in Syria (bombing of hospitals, double-tap bombing etc), and the frequency of their use, has turned them into a symbol of Assad’s war effort. Leaving them out of a Syrian Civil War strategy game – a Syrian Civil War strategy game with cards devoted to other weapons like the Tomahawk, Su-35, and BM-30 Smerch – is like leaving Stukas out of similarly framed Fall Gelb wargame or Agent Orange or napalm out of an equivalent Vietnam War title. There’s a reason Assad consistently denies their existence. If the makers of Syrak are truly interested in making an impartial and educational game, I believe they have a duty to acknowledge barrel bombs and chemical weapons.

  3. I heartily recommend the Tin Man Games version of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain – all the text and pictures from the original book but with virtual miniature figures moving around constructed-before-your-eyes dioramas.

  4. I have great memories about “iPanzer ’44” and I would love to play it again but I was never able to make it work on Win 10 (was made for Win95)

  5. https://store.steampowered.com/app/324740/The_Warlock_of_Firetop_Mountain/

    That’s the one I’ve played, and it is a great time! I came to it chasing my high from completing Inkle’s Sorcery! games, and was not disappointed.

    https://store.steampowered.com/bundle/1581/Steve_Jacksons_Sorcery__The_Complete_Collection/

    I did not grow up with these books/games, but I’ve fallen in love with any of the digitifications of the Fighting Fantasy series I’ve seen. Thanks to Tim, I now see they have a whole series to burn through!

    https://store.steampowered.com/bundle/8086/Classics_Complete_Collection/

  6. Oooh, I was mad keen on the FF books as a little tacker. Many a happy day spent with four to five fingers inserted at different parts of the book: the original digital save-scumming, you could say. And I was never a big fan of the sci-fi efforts, either. I’ll have to check this out. I did get through Inkle’s Sorcery part 1 and 2 but never got around to finishing it – not sure why.

  7. Let me just take a moment to mention how much I appreciate the art style used in Freeway Fighter. It hits a sweet spot between detail and leaving room for your own imagination. When it comes to storytelling I always prefered black&white over the over-detailed full colour pseudo-relistic styles that are so prevalent in our days. Mostly for no other reason than not to be thought of as a second-grade product.

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