Wargamer’s Notebook 21

It has been a strange old month that means something of a stopgap column. The sole fan riots in the streets, tears fill the gutters. Or something. I’ve been far too busy to paint, deprived of my usual opponent because of overlapping holidays and finally I was unceremoniously hurled into the ravages of the NHS with a family illness to handle (because it seemed the NHS couldn’t afford to…). So, I have found myself conducting most of my hobbies remotely – reading magazines and rules on trains or in hospital chairs, catching up on mail and older stuff that has slipped through, and playing computer games late at night when the phone can’t ring and all is peaceful. The time now is 3.15am, the World Series is nicely poised at 1-1 with the Marlins looking favourite, and I suppose I’d better get this column finished as Duncan tells me Mr Hawkins has not yet produced a replacement. Perhaps, given my overreaction, I should have taken more heed of my old school chum Thomas Fuller who once said, “There is nothing so much that gratifies an ill tongue as when it finds an angry heart”.

Tempting me away from the undisputed delights of keyboard, 1500 word targets and deadlines are three computer games; one top drawer, one excellent (but not really my period) and a very creditable effort from a new company. Through my boardgaming interests, I have an acquaintance who is something rather important in the Evil Empire of Microsoft. On a recent visit across the pond, he passed me a beta copy of their latest game, Age of Empires, for review. He seemed quite proud as he handed it over, perhaps because this is, if my initial forays are indicative, easily one of the best computer games I have ever played. It probably even rates top five status, right up there with Syndicate, Sim City 2000, F1GP, Battle Isle and Transport Tycoon, since you ask – all slightly flawed, but superb anyway.

Age of Empires is a little bit of Civilization, a little bit of Warcraft and a whole lot of original game design and balanced development – something so sorely missing from virtually all computer game releases. The idea is that you build your empire from humble beginnings to become master of your domain. Probably the only complaint I’ve heard, but I’ve not experienced, is that it finishes too quickly. On the way you can build armies to squash your vile enemies underfoot, explore or research – all valid strategies. The game scores over many of its predecessors (especially the greatly overrated Civilisation) in that it is great fun to examine these various paths to victory, it looks absolutely beautiful (right from the opening sequence where a little chariot trots across the screen) and you can choose from several ‘tribes’ to vary the uniforms, units and architecture. An added bonus is the phenomenally good game editor. This pretty much allows you to set up anything you have in mind, even vaguely historical scenarios, and it is almost a sub-game in itself, so numerous are the options.

So why has Siggins flipped over this one? Well, many years ago I played in what must have been the best miniatures campaign, bar none, I’ve ever experienced. It was so good, even the fact that we used 4th Edition WRG Ancient rules for battle resolution didn’t spoil it. The set up was simple enough, drawing on Tony Bath, Terry Wise and Charles Grant’s pioneering ideas, but with an extra twist from a cunning and brilliantly clever umpire who kept the fog of war thick and flavoured (and exaggerated) every outcome with stories of treachery, severed heads and pitiless sieges. Basically you had a small standing army, a capital, a few outlying towns and taxation income with which to build troops. To get more, you went off and annexed neutrals or enemy holdings. Down the road, sometimes far off, were the rival capitals and a steady stream of spies and scouts could be seen raising dust, trying to find out enemy deployments and strengths. There was nothing special about the game, it was simply purestrain entertainment with the pleasure of running your own country, building units (lots of cheap archers? a chariot strike force? the odd crack unit of clibanarii? or just another moat for your castle…) and expanding and patrolling your empire.

The point here is that while the setting was not even remotely historical, with the right players (about a dozen I think) and an excellent umpire, it felt just right and one started to get the feel of the times and, importantly, the zen of your tribe. And now I have it on computer, jazzed up for the nineties and on tap whenever I fancy a quick hour or six. The aesthetic standards of the original were a little lower – a simple wall chart with coloured map pins – but we were all there, transfixed by the politics, the sieges and the crucial battles, planning and waiting for the nest Wednesday evening session. Every little skirmish held new dimensions, that unit of medium infantry spearmen was cherished because it had taken the last groat from your coffers, and (unlike so many others) it worked superbly. And so does Age of Empires. Highly recommended.

The next game up is also from Microsoft – Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far. I suspect you can work out from the title what we are dealing with here – an update of the strangely disappointing tactical WWII game, this time moved to Arnhem. And the transformation is incredible. The graphics have improved 200% (the little guys and tanks are just superb, the terrain even better, if a little bright in places) and now rank with the very best, the control interface is far better and the whole thing benefits from a familiar scenario, which surely everyone is at least aware of. The only factor stopping this one getting top marks is that it is not my favourite period, and I do get more than the odd pang of conscience when controlling individual soldiers who actually scream out of the screen… but that is me, and anyone who enjoyed the first game, or is bored with endless Steel Panthers scenarios, should get out and buy this one immediately. The old brain cells have been curiously stimulated by these two games, and I cannot imagine much more exciting than these engines being applied to other periods. Close Combat 3: Waterloo?

The third contender in this month’s PC stakes is Interactive Magic’s The Great Battles of Alexander. Those of you familiar with the Great Battles of History boardgame series from GMT (including Alexander, SPQR, Lion of the North, Samurai and so on) will recognise the source of this one. What we have here is a faithful reproduction of the boardgame enhanced, of course, with some good (but not state of the art) graphics and some impressive animations. The good news is that this makes a boardgame system that I had little time for at least playable and interesting – largely because of the aforementioned graphical impact, but also because it takes care of all that bookkeeping and counter shuffling! The subject matter, in the shape of ten of Alexander’s famous encounters (Granicus, Issus, Hydaspes, Gaugemela, Chaeronea (wasn’t that a single by The Knack?) and a cast of minors) helps as well and you can play either side, so plenty of elephants. The best feature is probably the campaign option that What isn’t quite so good is that the game takes almost as long as the boardgame to play (at least four hours, some scenarios as long as six) and that it is, evidently, still a boardgame. The hexes are there, the factors are there and in the background the die rolling is there. It is an old hobbyhorse of mine, but why transfer the exact same paradigm to a different medium, one that does not actually need it? Anyway, a very good initial product and if you liked the boardgames you will certainly want to own this one.

No shows apart from the excellent Society of Ancients AGM mini-event and fruitless visits to military book shops mean that my book of the month is split between The Way of The Noodle (a fine treatise on life, eating and Japanese cooking), the entire works of Dilbert (not so much a cartoon, more a documentary if my corporate life was typical), Shippey’s The Road to Middle Earth and Stephen Fry’s autobiography, Moab is my Washpot. Wonderful books all.

Next month, more mention of those F**ndry figures (the Renaissance range is coming, he dribbled) even though I do take the point on describing advert photos, the new Gripping Beast El Cid releases, hopefully some comments on What to Do With Beginners, recent rule sets and whatever else I can find at SELWG and Essen.

And finally, if Duncan approves the plan, I will be trying to start up a letters page directly related to Notebook – this can cover any subject, from basing through painting, rules, books, techniques and terrain to the withering of the hobby. I will edit this lot (rather than troubling The Godfather) to expunge any boring bits and ad hominem stuff. And no, I will not fill it with admiring letters, largely because I don’t get any. Address next time, so get writing with your questions and points because I know, by now, you have some to make.