Philippa Irving


No doubt the winter will just be a chilly memory when you read this. But as I write the snow is still on the ground and the temperature is still far below zero. This is just the kind of weather where you can whisk yourself away on the wings of imagination to the burning dunes of the Desert Rats or the cosy (well, warm at least) depths of a submarine in the Silent Service. You don’t even need a pair of furry boots and a nice warm college scarf to keep your circulation going and your extremities un-frostbitten while tramping across Icemark thwarting Doomdark’s Revenge. I much prefer winter — it gives me an excuse to stay indoors with the computer.

Wargames occupy an interesting place in the field of ‘computer entertainment’ in that they, unlike any other software, resemble a form of non-computer gaming. This puts them in a vulnerable position. I think it’s true that most people would rather own a boxed wargame, with fine artwork, a solid playing board, hundreds of little cardboard counters and rules resembling a physics textbook. ‘Real’ miniature wargaming is something of a separate issue, with its own mystique; computer wargames, or most of them at least, owe their game mechanics to the board wargame.

A traditional board game offers many associated advantages. Already mentioned is the covetous pleasure of ownership; and the simple act of pressing out and sorting of the 2,356 cardboard counters is an afternoon’s absorbing entertainment in itself. Not to mention the masochistic delight with which the true wargamer approaches the rulebook. The disadvantages of board wargaming are; the need to spend lots of time playing them, the necessity of finding someone else to play with you, and the inconvenience caused by having to leave the game components set up between sessions. One inspired bound by my cat Gabrielle once sent Napoleon’s armies flying spectacularly across Europe!

A computer wargame like Desert Rats gets round these problems, and it’s obvious that complex board games of this sort are the ideal type of traditional game to be translated literally to computer. But to overcome what’s lost in translation, computer strategy games should make more of an effort than we usually see to exploit the unique opportunities for enhancement. Admittedly memory is always going to be working against the game designer, especially on 48K machines such as the Spectrum. I would like to see more thought put into packaging and presentation for a start, and more of the game’s ‘hidden rules’ — the equations determining the outcome of combat, for example — explained. Just because the computer does the work of dice-rolling and modifying, it doesn’t mean that the player does not wish to know what is involved.

Of course I’m talking about one particular type of computer wargame, and I’m not forgetting that there are other strategy games reviewed in FRONTLINE which belong more in the computer-only camp. But the particular charm of what the computer can do — rolling dice, doing sums and pretending to play a game with you — is ideally suited to merge usefully with the appeal of board wargames. This contrasts with the sheer fallacy of role-playing on a computer, which I find, because of lack of space, I will have to talk about next month.