Philippa Irving

FRONTLINE

OLD WARGAMES NEVER DIE...

OBSERVANT readers of FRONTLINE may have noticed the non-appearance of the column over the past couple of months. The reason for its disappearance was simple and highly unfortunate: a complete lack of strategic releases for the humble little Spectrum. With any luck CCS’s latest game Stalingrad should be out in time for review next month, but in the meantime the loyal wargaming readers of CRASH will be deprived no longer...

Following on from the ‘short-range’ retrospective in the STRATEGY SPECIAL, I’ve decided to do a round-up of a few very interesting antiques; games so old that quite a few of you who have started wargaming in the past year will have missed them. As I’ve often pointed out, thinking games like strategy and adventure haven’t progressed at the breakneck technological speed of their arcade counterparts and a wargame published in 1986 is by no means hopelessly out of date In 1988.

In fact I would like to start by peering further back into the mists of time and looking at two games that I still consider to be amongst the best ever released for the Spectrum — in any category. They are Mike Singleton’s Lords of Midnight and Doomdark’s Revenge. When it first appeared, Lords of Midnight caused a sensation in the Spectrum gaming press on account of its astonishing use of ‘landscaping’ graphics. The player begins the game in control of four characters leading armies against the semi-supernatural Doomdark, and when, at a keypress, he takes on the part of one of them, he sees the character’s surroundings through his own eyes. He can look around in all the compass directions and see hills, trees, towers and lakes nearby or in the distance. The illusion of three-dimensionality, even though it is only created by clever mathematics and a few skilful line-drawings, has to be seen to be fully appreciated. This illusion cloaks what is really a very straightforward cardboard-counters wargame of troop movement across a square-by-square map. There are standard rules regarding terrain, morale and leadership influence, and one of those ‘nasty demon hordes from the north’ fantasy scenarios. But it works magic on these elements and is a distinctive and fascinating game.

Doomdark’s Revenge takes it all a stage further: the map is much larger and the colour of the graphics represents different times of the day. Instead of fortress commanders who are automatically on the player’s side once contacted, the land of Icemark is dotted about with individual characters who may or may not decide to side with Luxor the Moonprince. I must admit that although I spent many wonderfully happy hours playing this game when I ought to have been studying, I never even got remotely near completing it. My military endeavours always ended in humiliating massacres, and I expended all my energies making a painstaking map and trying to make a record of all the inhabitants of the land. Rarely have I had such a sense of involvement with a computer-created world. I would recommend these two masterpieces to any strategist who hasn’t played them.

SOFT SELL

In February 1988 a ‘little’ game called Just Imagine was reviewed by my predecessor Sean Masterson; he gave it a tepid 59%. Although the game is flawed in that it’s virtually impossible to complete, it is highly entertaining and tackily addictive while interest lasts. It’s a ‘pure’ text strategy game, and puts the player in charge of a new software house. This scenario has the advantage of allowing the author to indulge in in-jokes and is likely to appeal to the player rather more than the dictatorship of a banana republic would.

In a fixed sequence of choices the player is asked to name his company, choose his game from a selection of three, name the game and decide upon various aspects of packaging and promotion. An initially refreshing element of humour becomes unbearably facetious by Turn 20. Random elements like good and bad reviews or break-ins have an influence on sales, which are analysed at the end of the turn. If the game has done very well it might get into the top five. The player has to judge how much to charge for the game, how many to produce in a particular month, and how far to continue promoting it after the first couple of months when sales are inevitably at their highest. If the player does particularly well he can take on another game — and that’s when it starts to get complicated. There are a sufficient number of possible permutations to give the player a sense of satisfaction and involvement... for a while, at least. After the first year the competition begins to hot up and the dreaded scourge of piracy starts to drain profits so drastically that it soon becomes impossible to stay in business. Certain random and unpredictable disasters are liable to wipe the business out too. Frustration eventually sets in. A friend of mine hacked and customised this game for me because I enjoyed it despite its flaws, and he was of the opinion that it was uncompleted in its original form. I was told, however, that PSS may have plans to re-release it in a revamped, updated version. I think it’s still worth playing — just for fun — as it is.

Their Finest Hour, from Century Communications, was awarded a CRASH Smash and described as ‘the finest wargame currently available to Spectrum owners’. It is a simulation of the Battle of Britain, presented in slick icon-driven style in The Fourth Protocol mode; still a bit of a novelty at the time of release. The player can choose the speed of the real-time play, which can be paused at will, and may attempt a single-day or campaign scenario. The continuation, day-by-day, of the campaign is dependent upon Churchill’s assessment of your progress. If you’ve done particularly badly, he may decide to remove you from command. The player does not engage in any direct combat, but moves the airforce into various stages of alertness, sets levels of flak, looks after the health of his pilots and makes sure that the planes are kept in good repair. When combat occurs the player selects the ‘aggression level’, which determines how likely the RAF squadron leader is to break off the attack before heavy casualties have been suffered. The packaging is impressive, and the documentation useful and well laid-out.

A COMPANY OF RATS

In the same month, Desert Rats came up for review. The original 48K version was less impressive than the 128K version, which has clearer graphics, more scenarios and better artificial intelligence routines. But Desert Rats is worth buying even if you’ve got a humble rubber-keyed 48K, because it’s well above the average standard for a traditional hardcore wargame. It recreates the whole of the North African campaign, from Rommel’s arrival there, in the spring of 1941, to his departure at the end of 1942, in five separate scenarios and one 824-turn epic. The mechanics of the game are straightforward and should be familiar to those who have played board wargames. Units are represented by symbolic squares and equipped with the usual variety of defining parameters, terrain has its effect, hidden movement is employed and play progresses in structured turns. The presentation is polished, the playability excellent and the potential for strategic complexity is great enough to keep any purchaser engrossed for a long time.

In July of 1986 Theatre Europe was first reviewed on the Spectrum. This was a wargame from PSS which had been a surprise hit on the Commodore; its Spectrum incarnation is just as entertaining and intriguing, although it lacks the chilling sound effects. It deals with the possibility of confrontation on a European battlefield between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. It’s a war which starts off with a front line of conventional forces facing each other somewhere in Germany, and can quickly escalate into the destruction of civilisation as we know it. Theatre Europe is certainly designed to include a moral in its game structure. Any kind of war between the superpowers is charged with the danger of escalation, and once such escalation had started the probable end would be disaster for both sides. It’s a tribute to the skill of the author that this lesson is taught without destroying the playability of the game. Winning Theatre Europe is a matter of making the most effective use of conventional forces, and keeping out of the chemical-nuclear escalation at all costs. On the first of three levels this is easy because the computer does not take the initiative in launching such attacks, but the difficulty of winning with the NATO forces is just enough to make the odd chemical strike a temptation. On the second and third levels the computer opponent makes free use of chemicals, and if the player retaliates he may get an unequal return. Setting the reflex system option is deadly, because any strike made by the computer will be repaid immediately. Before long ‘Fireplan Warm Puppy’ will be triggered; both sides discharge their entire nuclear arsenals over each other’s territory. The game is trimmed with some atmospheric novelties, like the deadpan NATO computer and the real phone number which the player must ring to obtain the authorisation code for a nuclear strike. Although strategic depth is fairly limited, all wargamers should try Theatre Europe. It’s now available as part of the Conflicts series from PSS, at a bargain price.

ISLAND-BASHING

Iwo Jima, also from PSS and reviewed in July, is a reasonably good game for a beginner. It involves the capture of the island of Iwo Jima by landing American forces. ‘Island-bashing’ games have a neatness about them which is satisfying; all troops are brought in from the outside, and all you have to do is roam about the self-contained map until you’ve rooted out all the enemy units. Essentially, that’s all there is to Iwo Jima. The graphics are unimpressive but functional. Options are limited to movement and combat, with a few rudimentary terrain effects. There is little in this game for the more experienced wargamer, and I fear that the shoddy presentation might make a newcomer suspect that all strategy games look amateurish. If he is able to ignore the aesthetics, the beginner will find Iwo Jima a good introduction to ‘serious’ wargaming.

Rebel Star was given a Smash in August, and is available from Firebird at £1.99. This was a re-release of a vintage classic, and is still fun to play. In a very simple yet involving strategy game, the player is given the task of trying to break into a diagrammatic starbase using a team of characters and robots with specific abilities and weaknesses. The first problem involves using the combined capabilities of this team to get a door open. Then the player has to co-ordinate the characters to overwhelm the defences of the starbase. The computer opponent is fairly intelligent and puts up a structured resistance. Play is straightforward and long-lasting, and at this price it’s difficult to go wrong. Very much an alternative for the battle-weary.

Another game with a sci-fi background appeared in the September Issue, from Argus Press Software Mind Games — Mission Omega. The player has one hour of real time to shut down the reactors of a mysterious but unquestionably hostile piece of apparatus making its way to Earth. The game is icon-driven and represents a blend of strategy and arcade. You must build robots, juggling the resources available to you, and send them on to the Omega vessel to locate its reactors. Someone who only enjoys troop-moving wargames may not have much time for Mission Omega, but more broad-minded strategists should find it an interesting challenge.

Johnny Reb II, from Lothlorien, is a traditional wargame set during the American Civil War. The presentation is good, and the range of orders allows varied strategies to be employed.

The November issue saw the release of another traditional battle re-construction, Napoleon at War by Ken Wright whose games are all similar in style. Napoleon at War reconstructs the Russian campaign, and allows the player either to give orders to individual units or to the corps commander. The latter option more accurately recreates the uncertainty of command under real field conditions, and can result in queries from the harried commanders. This excellent game is well up to the author’s usual standard and certainly worth acquiring for any wargame collection.

With any luck I should have some new releases to comment upon next month. In the meantime, have a good look at the back-catalogues of the wargaming software houses and see what you might have missed.


FRONTLINE FORUM

Due to my non-appearance of late, I have some catching up to do on the letters front. Included here are one or two old ones which have not been featured before. Apologies to those involved for the late response! However, I’m still here, so keep them coming!

Dear Philippa,
I have been meaning to write to FRONTLINE FORUM to voice my opinions of strategy games for sometime. I have had my Spectrum for almost four years now and in that time I have decided that strategy games are my favourite element in computer gaming and I have quite a few.

It all started with Lords of Midnight (often mistakenly classified as an adventure because of its fantasy setting). Since then I have acquired many more: Johnny Reb, Doomdark’s Revenge, Their Finest Hour, Vulcan and Theatre Europe to name but a few. As you will notice only Their Finest Hour and Vulcan are based on actual conflicts. Why? Well, I feel that re-fighting battles won (and lost) is no real challenge, unless there are options to change the scenario, as in the 128K version of Vulcan, because you can always find out how the battle was won, or, if you are playing the loser, what he should have done, in retrospect. Some may feel different and I suppose I might have started something here. Personally I would like more ‘What if?’ scenarios like the 128 Vulcan.

One of my major points is on the front of fantasy/SF wargames. This is a vast area which has gone largely unexploited. In such games the limitations of the units need not be so restricted. Rebelstar is a game which interest me enormously in its conception. Being an SF hybrid of its predecessor Chaos (also by J Gollop — incidentally, it’s now out on budget, why not give it a proper review Philippa?) it concentrates on different characters, variously equipped with differing capabilities. As a two player game it is most enthralling. ‘Which character can make the best use of Leader Krenon’s photon gun now he’s dead? Is it worth the risk of getting shot and possibly injured to retrieve it? What if the enemy gets it and uses it against us?’ There are so many different possibilities to take into consideration in the two player game it makes your head spin!

The use of different weapons (and other articles) is well thought out. The way you can take a dead character’s weapon be he friend or foe, is most realistic. Also when a character is killed in a doorway, it is blocked open until he is moved, leaving anyone behind him open to enemy fire — another realistic feature, as is opportunity fire (you can fire back and over your butt!). A sequel to Rebelstar would be most welcome (are you reading Mr Gallop?) It would be interesting to develop this type of game so that you could only see areas where your characters/units can see, a la ‘Vulcan et Shadow Fire’.

It would seem to me that strategy game programmers are lacking much in imagination. When a new idea does come out it is usually poorly implemented. Why not have a game based on an imaginary wild west gunfight. Mr Gollop’s style would work well here, or a battle between the police of the future and hostile rebels set in a futuristic city. A small, vastly outnumbered, but organised force against a huge leaderless army is always interesting. I am very surprised that battles from fantasy/SF books have not been licensed. How about the battles of Helms deep and The Pelanor Fields from Lord of the Rings? The latter is discussed in some depth in one of Tolkien’s unfinished books. We could also have The Illearth War from the Covenant book (a VERY interesting scenario there) and the battles of the Alends and Arigaraks from the Belgariod book. The Fedaykin versus The Sardakaur from Dune. Need I go on? I only wish I could program, then we would see!

What would also be interesting in these games is the introduction of magic.

Onto the moral dilemma you discussed in issue 51. I would not harm a fly, but if anyone other than a qualified brain surgeon tried to put a hole in my head or those I care about, I would try my hardest to stop him/her and if that means killing, then so be it. Playing wargames does not lessen my appreciation for life — if anything it enhances it. Think how lucky I am that I was not involved in any wars. Theatre Europe makes the point well, the idea being not to invade East Germany, but to defend it long enough for the Communist bloc to admit defeat. Although I do not agree with how the Warsaw pact is made out to be the bad guys; I doubt they would nuke the western world just because they could not invade West Germany. However, obviously, some war scenarios should definitely be avoided. I doubt anyone wants to see a game based on Northern Ireland or Lebanon.

Perhaps, someday, when a wargame has graphics like Lords of Midnight, has the individual realism of Rebelstar, the technical finesse of Vulcan and is based on one of my favourite fantasy wars, then I will be satisfied. Until then I hope I’ve sown some fertile seeds on fertile land.

PS. Has anyone out there got the excellent Formula 1 by CRL? I’ll swap ANY game for it!
Trev Smith

A review of Chaos seems like a very good idea. I’m getting so desperate that I’ll review anything!
PI

Dear Philippa,
I am writing to you in connection with the Battle of Britain by PSS. I am very interested in this conflict and I think that this is the best simulation of the battle, although there is one stupid thing about the game: in the actual battle pilots were up at 4am and they stood down at 9.30pm (except defiants). In the game as soon as you start the day the Luftwaffe came across in two waves and that’s the end of the day. It usually lasts from 8am to 10 or 11am which is stupid, since lots of raids didn’t usually come in until late afternoon. It would be great if the days lasted the same as the battle, and an hour or so our time. The game is so predictable, plus the Germans sent over their 109s to flush out the RAF. The game doesn’t simulate that, which is a big disappointment.

I think that atmosphere has as much part in the game as the game itself. Even if I was sitting there nearly all day, (game time) and just one recce came over, then the next day they came over in the massed formation, the atmosphere in the game would be great.

I wish Mr R T Smith of Vulcan fame, would do a Battle of Britain for just the 128. He could do a fantastic version; he could make it so realistic. I would even pay a lot of money if it was that good. Can’t someone bring out a really good Battle of Britain game?

Is there any chance you can get the POKEs to extend the time on the Battle of Britain? You haven’t got time to do anything like moving one squadron to another airfield before the Germans come over. The game must be able to be POKEd as it is. As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have a chance to enjoy the game because it plays so quickly — and that’s on the slow speed! Instead of adding rubbish like a title screen and the Blitzkrieg, they should have used every ounce of memory on a really good game. Please could you help me out, I can’t express enough how much I want a good Battle of Britain game.
David Carl

If this was ZZAP! 64, I would receive 20 letters next week saying ‘You should try the SSI game...’ Finding another Battle of Britain simulation on the Spectrum is more of a challenge. Can anybody help David?

Dear Philippa,
As a relative newcomer to the strategy scene, I’m keen to make a contribution to the general discussion. I have purchased both of Ken Wright’s most recent games, Yankee and Blitzkrieg and wish to make a comparison between the two along with a few compliments and criticisms.

Although they are obviously different in concept they are actually fairly similar. The graphics are almost identical, with Blitzkrieg getting the edge for its pretty flags — but is it a 20% edge, as your review suggests? The control method is much better on Blitzkrieg, although you quickly get used to Yankee’s awkward control method, but having your General’s making decisions is realistically infuriating in both games.

The combat is similar in its crudity and silence; men only die in set proportions or not at all it seems. Hidden movement is used well in both games. Remember in the 17th century gunpowder was used, not smokeless cordite, so once the battle began a General could see very little of the battle due to the smoke anyway. The scale of Blitzkrieg makes hidden movement acceptable.

I think the big differences between the two lies in realism and playability. In Blitzkrieg why is one Belgian unit as strong as a unit in Hitler’s crack 4th or 6th divisions? I think the system needs an Attack Modifier (like R T Smith’s games) as it is foolish to assume that units are all equally trained and equipped. The same could be applied to Yankee but I don’t believe the differences were too significant.

As for airpower, where is it? In Blitzkrieg the rulebook and history dictates what an important factor it was in the fall of France. It seems in trying to make the game a real challenge, and in that it succeeds, the realism has gone. No longer can Germany sweep aside resistance in its drive for France. The small variation and infuriating nature of Blitzkrieg make it low in addictivity whilst you keep coming back for more in Yankee. On the plus side, both games have shrewd and vicious computer opponents. Sorry Philippa, but I think you’ve overrated Blitzkrieg.
James Tye

I rate both Yankee and Blitzkrieg very highly. Perhaps in retrospect — as you suggest — it was unfair to give Blitzkrieg such a decided edge over Yankee. But I think I would uprate Yankee rather than downgrade Blitzkrieg.
PI

And finally a letter from the man responsible for Annals of Rome, Pegasus Bridge, and the bugs in both...

Dear Philippa,
I am a regular and compulsive reader of your column, not least because you seem, though unknowingly, to be a fan of mine or rather of my work. Let me explain: I programmed Annals of Rome on the Spectrum, for which you gave 85% overall, and said was your favourite game of the year. I also re-designed and programmed Pegasus Bridge — Spectrum and Amstrad versions — for which you gave 78% overall. For both of these I thank you; it’s been a great boost for my ego.

I’d like to point out that I also programmed the arcade sequence in Tobruk. I hesitated before mentioning this as I know how you loathe arcade sequences. However, so keen on my work are you that twice you have managed to sneak a piccy of it in under the mis-heading of CCS’s Vulcan — both in the review in April and the yearly round up, so I know you must really appreciate this skilled work of art!

I take special pride in a review from CRASH as it is, compared to the other computer press, of higher standards and quality. I have sung of its praises since it first came out, and it was a great help to me with the article the ‘Doc Martin’ Kidd wrote on me setting up in business.

Since the article I have stopped selling my own games and have moved on to freelance programming, mainly with PSS, since they publish strategy games, which I personally enjoy playing and programming the most.

Sorry about the history lesson, and other self indulgences. I will get to the point (at last she cried, holding back a yawn). I was most intrigued to read in your column that you run a PBM. What’s its name? What’s it about? And could I possibly join? For over a year now I have been bitten by the PBM bug and find it a great way to play the involved complex strategy games that I like. When I was interviewed I said I was interested in starting a PBM and have in fact just finished a PBM version of the best selling Dark Blades by Standard Games (see the last issue of CRASH for brief details). We might be planning a computer version to tie in with the game, which should be interesting if we can manage to cram all the megabytes of data from hard disk down to a Spectrum!

Please get in touch with details of your PBM, and keep up with the excellent reviews.
Stewart Green, T/A Data Design Systems

Everybody who’s interested in computer gaming should have a go at PBMs. This statement is of course entirely disinterested... As well as my own humorous RPG Revenge of the Many-Legged Man-Eating Mutant Tiger Hounds from Outer Space, our company runs Macedon — a complex and historically-accurate simulation of the carving-up of Europe after the fall of Alexander the Great.
PI