Wargamer’s Notebook 23

SELWG was as good as ever. I think it may be getting to the point where the layout and format needs a refreshing change and rather smaller queues (advance tickets next year?), but one can hardly moan about a show that delivers consistent quality, a huge variety of good to outstanding games, an excellent turnout by the traders and a professionally run environment. The best game by some margin was by The GLC Club, an organisation rather overdue for a name change! Sadly, in terms of new products, there were none of interest but that’s the way it goes sometimes.

I fully take on board the comments made recently about my commenting on new figures that are featured as photographs in the same issue. The reason for this redundancy, in case it isn’t clear, is that I have little idea what adverts will be appearing in any given issue, and certainly no idea whether my comments will tie up chronologically. In fact, given the technological breakthroughs at printers and Macfarlane Towers (rumour has it he will soon possess a telephonic receiving device that actually rings), it is reasonable to assume that the ads will appear before my copy. This begs the question whether it is worth me commenting at all, since your eyes are as good a tool as you need to establish quality. So, one to ponder. Of course none of this is going to stop me telling you about the recent Foundry ACW gunners and Bronze Age chariots which are quite superb, the first of the Renaissance ranges, which are mouthwatering, and the SYW Hussars which are a little bit chunkier than I’d imagined them, but still rather nice – the separate pelisses, an approach long used by Bill Gaskin to facilitate variety, is a welcome move. Also tempting the credit card are the new releases from Gripping Beast – the El Cid range. For some reason I have a weakness for exotic Mediterranean or Asian troops, especially those with hoods or chainmail faceguards, and these fit the bill perfectly. I won’t go through the same old soapbox stuff again, but my main reason for espousing the Foundry ranges is to hold them up as the most fitting quality target at which others can aim. To my mind, with some of these outstanding figures, Gripping Beast are coming mighty close which can only be a good thing.

It has been an excellent few months for computer gaming. A succession of Battleground games, Battles of Alexander, SSI’s Age of Rifles, Age of Empires, Close Combat 2 (a game I have returned to time and again – the DIY scenarios are superb) and to top it all off we now have Sid Meier’s Gettysburg. Now this really is different. If you can imagine a game that is perhaps ten times faster than Battleground, has graphics of at least that quality with excellent animations to boot, which has all but dispensed with hexes, and which allows you to command, in real time, at the brigade level down to individual battalions, and you have a system that has enjoyed a lot of play here over the holidays. The basic idea of the game is to make wargames accessible. So we have intro screens that explain the situation with big maps and generals pointing, and an excellent voiceover track. There are about twenty different scenarios from the battle, and you can play either side at several different levels of difficulty. The actual system gives more than a little nod towards acknowledging command control, and if your aim in life is to sit on a hill, or even in your tent, issue orders to your brigades and then have a nap while the battle proceeds, this could be the game for you. Now one can debate whether this is a common form of generalship, but as we know it did happen. If on the other hand you are a Wellingtonian hands-on detail merchant, you can go in with the mouse pointer and unlimber, put troops into skirmish order or make them fire that well timed volley. The interface is excellent – you just click the unit’s flag, drag an arrow to where you want them to go, and tell them whether to advance, double-time or charge. They do the rest, unless you choose to step into the Colonel’s boots. The result is very pleasing, the whole thing rattles along at a frantic pace (neatly representing the time pressure of battle) and you will be hard put to be playing a scenario for more than 20 or 30 minutes. Compare this with the hours required for similar games and you will see the advantages pretty quickly. Probably the only downside (albeit only an initial one) is that it is tough to win some of the encounters. You’d expect Pickett’s Charge to be a tad difficult to pull off, but McPherson’s Ridge still eludes my faithful Rebs. That is however ultimately a compliment, because the last thing you want is a game that is too easy or an AI that is steamrollered into the ground by the fifth game. One can see that the enemy tactics are sound, they even try to outflank intelligently, and the sense of having a real opponent is very good indeed. Of course one can always play it two player anyway, given another PC or the ever more common modem and Internet link.

Also available now are two excellent games from Interactive Magic which competed for computer time with Gettysberg. The first is The Great Battles of Hannibal, a follow up to the Alexander game based on the successful GMT boardgame series. Although my interests lie far more with the Greeks, there is little to match the arrays of Romans and the herds of elephants that characterise this new release. I would also go as far as to say that the battles are far more interesting, especially the epic struggles of Cannae and Magnesia. While the system itself is unchanged, and still rather long winded, the general feel is now one of controlling large armies with at least some of the problems that engenders and the ‘line advance’ commands come into their own. Again, very impressive work that makes the boardgames virtually redundant.

From the same productive company comes Seven Kingdoms by Trevor Chan. Now this is not a historical system, although ones forces are clearly based on the Samurai and Romans, but the general appeal is one shared with the excellent Age of Empires – empire building, trade, diplomacy and not a little combat. The feel is rather more Warcraft than anything, which is good in itself, but with the added bonus of open ended gaming rather than tough, sometimes unsolvable, puzzles. The general plot is build stuff, build some more, explore, attack villages, attack rivals, trade and win. But the whole is put together with such aplomb, and that all too elusive ingredient, massive playability, that the experience is as close to addiction as I want to come. Very, very good and just the sort of game that could be lost among the hordes of Command & Conquer clones now appearing. Highly recommended.

The Gauntlet is an excellent little magazine, recently recommended to me by the human ball of Yorkshire Enthusiasm, Dave Popplewell. I suppose one could say that The Gauntlet is Wargamer’s Newsletter revamped for the nineties, and I mean that in the best possible way. The only problem is that I wouldn’t have heard of it without Dave’s input – so a higher profile is called for I think. I have issue nine in front of me and it contains reviews, comment, rule sets, articles on obscure subjects that would make even Duncan think twice, ‘humour’ (you can take or leave this, I found it better than average, and in a different universe to Runes of Loki) and tons of enthusiasm and information packed into its 60 nicely printed pages. At £9 for 4 issues, I don’t see how you can go wrong: Mark Hannam, 2F/R 65 Walker Road, Aberdeen, AB11 8DL. MHannam@Aol.Com. Mark also has rule sets for sale, including the Sun-tastically named Scudbusters – The One That Got Away made flesh.

The timing of this column, being written over the Christmas holidays between visits to the hospital to see my dad, is such that in a week or two I shall be going down to my shiny new PO Box to collect what I hope is a large bag of reader’s letters in readiness for next issue’s column. If they are anything like the batch that appeared in WI 126 I shall be a little displeased since I want to play down the personality wars in favour of good, constructive and enthusiastic hobby discussion, but I am grateful for anything. These will hopefully be joined by the unwinding of an embarrassing backlog of items – computer rulesets, traditional rulesets including, hidden somewhere, Piquet and probably Talonsoft’s Eastern Front among other items for your delectation. So, letters on any subject to Mike Siggins, PO Box 2062, Woodford Green, Essex IG9 5DL, email to msiggins@aol.com. And one of my New Year resolutions, for the umpteenth time, is to paint some more figures!