Frontline with Philippa Irving


THE STRATEGY and wargame genre is the only one still offering a realistic market for the back-bedroom producer. This month which has been dominated by home-grown releases, and next month I’ll be reviewing another game from a very small concern. The situation comes about largely because the flashy packaging and elegant programming characteristic of ‘big business’ releases cannot, in this type of game, be self-justifying.

Yes, beautiful graphics are aesthetically pleasing, and in a computer game — whether arcade or arcade adventure — which seeks to create its own world, they can make an important contribution to the gameplay. But in a strategy game, the elements of play are more easily and more starkly exposed.

That’s why a simple, straightforward strategy game like this issue’s Boxing Manager, which uses nothing but sequential text messages and very BASIC animation, can be extremely addictive.

Computer arcade games are like no other game ever invented. But strategy and wargames are directly related to games that can be played by hand, in this fundamental way: they have to be genuinely well-designed to be any fun at all, and physical components do not necessarily affect one’s enjoyment. And of course computer wargames are directly derivative of board wargames.

This brings up the interesting similanty between the types of game which come under the auspices of Frontline, because on the surface a ‘pure’ strategy game and a simulation would seem to be different.

I’ve never really been into the real wargaming scene, mostly because I can’t afford to buy regiments in miniature metal and I certainly can’t afford the time to paint them. But it seems to me — from the outside — that the reconstruction of a historical battle is a genuine objective.

Board wargames shade slightly off to the less starkly realistic, probably because they tend to recreate large-scale campaigns like the entire Second World War or the Normandy landings, and therefore have to have more abstract rules.

But an abundance of rules is a characteristic of simulation games. The more the better; as many modifiers as one can imagine, so that one can describe exactly how far a treadless tank could move in heavy rain through four feet of mud while shooting at a foot regiment. The objective is to pin all reality down with numbers, and it doesn’t matter at all how many hours it takes to work out each turn so long as everything is being done thoroughly.

The fun of such a game can often lie not in winning or losing — for if one takes the side which lost in a hopeless battle then, unless there’s some obvious alternative strategy which eluded the generals of the day, history is honoured.

At the opposite extreme are games played with an ordinary pack of cards which epitomise the utilitarian medium. After all, there is nothing inherently interesting in a pack of playing cards, and though they may be beautifully painted most aren’t. The impact of a card’s design has been dulled by long familiarity, and it certainly makes no difference to the enjoyment of card games.

I happen to think that most card games are dull anyway, but bridge certainly is not. Bridge is one of the most addictive games known to man — particularly when it’s rubber rather than duplicate bridge. Its rules are simple, and it only has two ‘screens’ (bidding and play), but the strategic and social variations possible within its framework make it very difficult to give bridge up to eat and sleep. And for another type of mind, the same can be said about chess.

Successful computer strategy games reproduce this combination of easy, structured rules and rich strategic variation. Curiously enough, traditional games are usually extremely boring when translated literally to the computer; without human interaction, they seem pale. What works instead is ‘computer interaction’ — but the framework remains the same.

Computer wargames may have complex simulation-type rules, but because modifiers and calculations to put them into effect are done invisibly by the computer the emphasis has to be on a simple rule framework. A computer wargame which allowed the player no chance of winning at all (perhaps a successful spoof compilation could be Six Hopeless Historical Battles?) would satisfy no-one.