REVIEWS in FRONTLINE are printed for two purposes: one, so that you the reader can enjoy a fairly full description of games that you have no intention of buying. Two, so that, having enjoyed the description, you might decide that you do want to buy the game after all. The primary function of a review magazine like CRASH is undoubtedly to enable you to make sense of all the brightly coloured little boxes on the dealer’s shelf, and to choose which ones you actually want to part with money for. I also think that it helps to circulate ideas and a general awareness of the computer gaming scene to add to your enjoyment of the hobby; I always prefer reading bad reviews, but for utilitarian purposes — that is, deciding what I want to buy — I admit that the good ones are more useful. And it has occasionally been the case that I’ve bought a game on the strength of a review to be disappointed in it; it helps to know the reviewer’s methods and criteria. And so, for your own information, I shall describe mine.
Games are sent to me through the CRASH offices in Ludlow to my home in Oxford, sometimes weeks before I have to write the review, and sometimes days. No matter when they arrive, I always try to have at least two sessions on a game. Often, if I like it, and I have a lot of spare time, I play it much more extensively for the sheer enjoyment of it. If a game has extremely complex rules and lots of reading material with it I try not to be irritated by the extra time that entails, and remember what a delight it would be if I’d actually paid for the game. Software which arrives with instructions covering the back of an inlay has my sneaking sympathy, although I try to suppress it.
However, I do want to be forced to waste my time with a game, even if I don’t enjoy having to plough through lots of salutory background material. A game which forces me to play for ten hours when I really only have two to spare has certainly got something going for it. Some games are impossible to play for more than an hour, either because I finish them on my first attempt (that always has me pulling out the plug) or because they’re desperately boring. I usually go back to the desperately boring games a day later, to see if they improve upon acquaintance (several have, quite significantly); some just get played for another hour.
It’s much easier to write a review of a game I’ve played extensively and enjoyed. The most difficult reviews to write are those of games which I can see are good but which I don’t like or enjoy myself. I don’t entirely subscribe to the view that reviews are necessarily a reviewer’s personal opinion. I hope I can see that some games which do not appeal to me at all, and which I would never voluntarily play, have lots of strong and interesting qualities which readers who like that sort of thing will enjoy.
That’s why my reviews are predominantly descriptive. I give my opinion very much ‘for what it’s worth’, and try on the whole to let you the reader understand what sort of a game is on offer. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally enjoy doing a really bad review of a game that I can’t stand.., and I hope you enjoy reading them.
Last year the question was raised in FRONTLINE FORUM about whether it’s morally justifiable to base games on war. The correspondence raised strong feelings on both sides. It’s an issue which probably has to be faced by any thoughtful wargamer, and is worth further discussion.
However, this isn’t the place to debate the absolute moral issue of whether war is ever justifiable. The universal moral standard, that is always met — though never fully obeyed — In every society, condemns murder. But it also commends bravery, when it takes the form of defending one’s immediate circle from danger; and it has to be true that this overrides the killing of another person, and does not categorise it as the murder which the same code forbids. Whether individuals choose to rise above this distinction and categorise all killing as murder doesn’t alter the fact that the ‘loophole’ in human conscience is there, and that’s why many sincerely good people have felt comfortable with the concept (and indeed the experience) of going to war.
So much for the irresolvable; the issue we’re interested in is whether buying and playing wargames implies moral agreement with war in general is intrinsically wrong, or has nothing to do with the matter. Can you be an ardent pacifist and yet enjoy a game which simulates closely a historical battle? Or does such a game inevitably imply some sort of acquiescence in the fact of the battle? Should the large-scale slaughter of thousands of men (to put it emotively) be used as the background for a game?
The attitude of mind implied in the last question (one that’s quite often raised, especially in connection with games based on recent conflicts like Falklands ’82) is that a game is of necessity a trivial thing, because games are played for pleasure. Most mental activities voluntarily undertaken are undertaken in the expectation of pleasure. If you read about the battle of Waterloo under duress, it is because you are doing it as part of a school exam. If you read about it for any other reason, it is because you are interested; you mean — if you’re honest — that thinking about it and finding out about it is enjoyable to you. If you decide to take history as your subject at university or college, you do so — at least at first — because you think you’re going to enjoy history. Two years later, as you plough through the book on Waterloo at half past three in the morning, you may not see it like that, but basically your pursuit of knowledge about Waterloo is for your own enjoyment. The research historians who wrote the book presumably gained pleasure from it, too, but nobody would reasonably suggest that because people enjoy learning about, thinking about and even imagining the battle of Waterloo — a mater concerning the deaths of many men — that books about it are wrong. Logically this means that every unpleasant thing that has ever happened ought to be hushed up.
The fact that we have a game based on the battle is merely an extension of the principle. Those who play miniature wargames often have a genuine and elaborate historical interest in the subject, and so — sometimes — do those who play computer wargames. But it would surely be wrong to think that a serious, grown-up ‘historical interest’ would sanction something intrinsically wrong, if it were intrinsically wrong.
This holds true so long as the battle or war is a fact, which cannot be altered; and most wargames based on past wars are extremely deadpan, dry and factual. They reduced the experience to numbers, to a greater or lesser extent. If a particular game does not have a two-player option it is more often because of memory restrictions than any bias to one side. Even the potentially unsettling Falklands ’82 was an unemotional and dull a game as could be imagined.
It seems to me that wargames start to wander into dangerous territory when they approach the ideological: when they assume an inclination towards one side. Fantasy games irritate me in this respect, although of course they bear no relation to the real world; it is always the straight-limbed, clean-living humans from the south battling against the black and twisted evil ghouls from the north. On the other hand, people have as much right to write a game about a political opinion they may have as to write a book or an article about it. It doesn’t follow that the act of playing the game will imply acquiescence with the view, any more than reading the book or article does.
I come to the unexciting conclusion that playing wargames has nothing to do with agreeing with or disagreeing with war. That remains as much a separate issue from wargames as it does from books describing wars. It is merely a different way of exploring the same material.