Inside Pitch Feb 89

Well, after last month's rather verbose 'What I did on my Holidays' essay (take a bow CHV), I am back with the rather shorter mid-winter number. Four people entered the Christmas quiz which isn't at all bad given the past apathetic responses. I am told by various parties that the questions were difficult which is hardly surprising as that is exactly what I had intended - who wants to be asked who The Fridge plays for? The gratifying fact was that on an eclectic basis, 91 of the 100 questions were answered correctly which rather proves my point. Roger Seaman scored a respectable 37, Paul Currie scored a winning 43 including a massive score on the Mental Age 8 section - he must be as bad as me, Alan Moon struggled to amass a pitiable 34 despite a near-perfect sports/nickname score (Wow - truly impressive for an American) and a certain Ellis Simpson, who has dubious eligibility anyway, took two months to research a score of 39. I believe he had assistance. I am feeling generous, so subscription prizes all round and congratulations to Paul Currie who gets to reign as Captain Gonzo for 1989. Answers elsewhere, and the questions no-one got were numbers 15, 32, 40, 45, 51, 71, 80, 92 and 98.

Well, four weeks into the year most of my carefully thought-out new year resolutions have gone by the board. However, I have so far stuck with the diet and increased exercise which are essential to stop me looking like a sumo wrestler. As a result, parts of Essex have been treated to the spectacular sight of me riding around on a mountain bike, which is actually great fun. I also forced myself to go and get my eyes tested as I want to start driving as soon as possible. Basically I am a bit short sighted and suspect I have needed them for a couple of years. I have just been putting it off. In the end it wasn't too bad; very impressive Nikon equipment, and all over in ten minutes. The verdict was that I do need glasses, but only for critical viewing such as driving, distant TV and the cinema. Phew. Having spent over £100 on the actual glasses (nasty in the January cashflow shortage) it was time to test them. The optician told me to wear them for an hour or so to get used to them and then take them off again. So, I trundled off down Oxford Street and it seemed like I was in a new world. Everything had sharp edges, buses actually had something meaningful on their destination boards and I could see decent women coming miles off. The strange effect of the glasses though was to create some pretty weird perspectives at the edge of vision and, funniest of all, it made the floor come into sharp focus which made me feel about three feet tall. I had a great time and was actually laughing as I waddled along feeling like Toulouse-Lautrec. Trouble was, I kept falling over kerbs and then I got a headache.

I normally start with sport but that has been woefully quiet apart from the Superbowl. The Five Nations rugby and the brilliant Bill McClaren continue to please and, shock horror, I also greatly enjoyed the World Darts final which was the most exciting game I've seen for some time. I can't admit to being a big fan of darts, if only from the street cred angle, but I normally watch the World semis and final and this one was a corker. I suggest that it beats snooker hands down as a TV spectator sport and the coverage is, correctly, a good deal more restrained. What with my growing interest in that exciting on-field barbarism that is Rugby League, I am in dire danger of losing my yuppie image.

Despite the fact that I have all but gone off pro football these days, I did sit down to watch the Superbowl for the first time in years. I am quite a fan of the 49ers, they are basically my second string team after the Steelers. Sadly, the boys from Pittsburgh don't warrant first string attention these days with only sparks of talent to compare to the golden years of the Seventies. Anyway, I thought the game was the best I've seen for some while and I did actually manage to stay awake for most of the first three quarters. It also seemed to go very quickly which was probably a reflection of the see-saw nature of the game. A fine game and one that might, just might, have revived my interest. Look out for a Paydirt series replay of the game between myself and Brian Walker in an upcoming Games International.

I recently enjoyed an excellent day at the Earl's Court Toy Fair in the company of Brian Walker and Alan Parr. It is the first time I've been along to the show and while I had a great time, I can see that repeat visits may not hold such instant appeal. I had a fine time wandering around the Hornby, Tamiya, Meccano, Subbuteo, Lego and Scalextric stands which I guess proves that I still haven't grown up. But the real aim was to check out the new games. While the number of launches wasn't staggering, there were a few notable previews. TSR have Martian Wars coming in June which is a Buck Rogers expansion system. They also had boxes for Red Storm Rising (yawn) and a previously unseen game called Europe Aflame which is due mid 1989. Also on the TSR stand was Maxi Bourse which is a German stockmarket game from Schmidt. Looks good, but as ever until you play it is is hard to tell. Chris Harvey was there with a very impressive stand and he handed me a trade price list which made me wonder why I buy games at any time but in the sales. TM Games had very little new on show in the boardgame line, just Spices of The World which is not exactly one for the grognard. What else. Both Spear's and Waddington's stands were very dull, Jumbo's Orient Express and Targui had a big display and MB had a very good looking fantasy boardgame called DungeonHeroBeastMasterQuest or something. Nice bits, but one for the family market. Those aside, it was fairly quiet on the 'serious' game front. Brian showed me 'Death Row' where all the hopeful inventors sit and I can't imagine a sadder bunch of efforts. Oh well.

Just Games in London have started to get in decent stocks of European games after some problems in shipping and obtaining rule translations. I have recently bought Ausbrecher AG, Barbarossa, Ben Hur, Alaska and Wildlife Adventure among others and I think the latter two illustrate some aspects of the German and European games flood. I mention these particular games because they seem to typify games that fall marginally above and below my 'interest' line. Wildlife is a fine game (see review) offering plenty of strategy and fun in about an hour and can be played on two levels by adults and kids. It falls well inside the range of games I would consider as 'playable family'. Alaska however, while not a bad game, just fails to make the cut. It suffers from a lack of any but the most basic strategic options (or I'm playing it wrong - another problem with converted rules) and is summed up for me as going through the motions. Auf Achse is pretty much the same, as is Talisman to give a UK parallel. The other category of games is typified by Heimlich & Co and Elefantenparade which, while good fun once or twice, offer little replay value as far as I'm concerned. Perhaps it is because I'm not very good at them.

To extend the point, when we were wading through Brian Walker's sackful of games at the North Shore meeting, I asked Brian how he decided, on the strength of the box, whether a game was a family game that had appeal for adults or one that was pretty basic, albeit with nice bits. The answer, after some discussion, seemed to be that he bought anything that looked interesting. This policy, while admirable in the cause of the hobby at large, undoubtedly exposes one to turkeys like Hexentanz or average stuff like Auf Achse. Plus it costs a lot of money. My view, given the rather high prices of these games in the UK, is to wait and read reviews from Brian or Alan Moon or preferably actually arrange to play the games before purchase. This is now very feasible at most conventions. The question of pricing is always controversial, and is also a hobby horse of mine (you probably will have noticed), but I do feel £20 for Borsenspiel and Alaska, £25 for Ben Hur, £18 for Sechs Tage Rennen and £10 for Ausbrecher and Hol's der Geier is a just a bit warm. Shopping around is difficult as Games Unlimited is the only other supplier to my knowledge. Perhaps a visit to Germany is in order now that Games International is supplying English rules where possible.

Another angle is the sheer number of games appearing, again largely through the efforts of Brian and the somewhat overshadowed Eamon at Games Unlimited. Despite the articles in GI and the North Shore newsletter and my regular grilling of Brian with questions ('What is Barbarossa? Can I still buy Bausack? When is Coup being reprinted? etc), I find it very hard to keep up to date with what games are new, whether they are any good, what the subject of the game is, whether it is available here and whether it has English rules. I end up with a long list of very interesting names and favourable comments but very little in the way of actual boxes. For instance, Lieber Bairisch Sterben sounds positively marvellous but what exactly is its status? Boy, is this annoying; game buying and ensuing poverty was never this hard to achieve in my younger days, one simply went to Tally-Ho Games, dribbled a lot and handed over the paper-round money. The overall problem is not really a problem at all, it is simply a return to fundamental gaming enjoyment that I haven't experienced since the days of Risk, Moviemaker and Escape from Colditz. This phenomena, known as the Challinger Syndrome, is biting hard at the moment and I find an evening spent playing three or four quick, fun games or one decent game like McMulti or Schoko is so much better than a four or five hour slog through Angola, Tokyo Express or some such similar 'game'. I still have nothing against decent historical games, simply that I want them to be quicker and more fun. Perhaps I'm changing, perhaps I'm getting old.

Whatever the reason, my game collection expands by the week. Egged on by the likes of Alan Moon and his reckless enthusiasm, I think my game purchasing has gone nova. The collection has increased from about 160 games in early 1988 to over 350 at present. Alan told me that there is a stage where the number of games climbs very steeply and I suppose I may be there right now. There are lots of games out there that I would buy instantly if I could find them at a reasonable price and I have a list of over 100 that I'm looking for, and that includes trying to fill in the gaps in my S&T set. The real problem is that when I've collected those, I'll simply look for more. The other problem is space and weight and I haven't got much scope left here. I suspect critical mass will be around the 500 mark when my room will implode and swallow most of Essex which many would argue would be A Good Thing.

While the boardgame market expands apace, the small but active sideshow of computer 'strategy' gaming is still trying to find its feet in the arcade game dominated market. Two of the latest candidates in the state of the art stakes are Carrier Command (Rainbird/BT) and Fire Brigade (Panther). Both games have been out for a while on other computers but have only recently appeared on the Amiga.

Carrier Command is not a bad game and gives a glimpse of what could be possible in a few years when those who are interested will have Mac II or Next type technology on their desks. The game centres around a near future fictional naval engagement in a group of islands. It is you against the computer and the only force at your disposal is one hi-tech assault carrier. The carrier has four planes that can be armed with various payloads and weaponry, four amphibious tanks and finally missiles, drones, laser and radar for defence. Because the game features a rudimentary logistics system, it is vital to capture islands to establish bases, fuel depots and factories as the computer is doing exactly that at high speed on the other side of the map. The strategic and tactical options are quite limited, but it is the way the game is presented that creates its appeal. All the features of the game are displayed as solid 3D graphics, it is possible to actually load pods, rockets, lasers etc onto the planes and tanks and see the complete launch sequence. The courses of carrier, planes and tanks can be individually set in the battle computer and then put on autopilot. The latter is necessary as most of the time you are enjoying the best feature of the game; the ability to switch the viewpoint and controls to any of the active individual planes and tanks. What I have seen of this game shows it to be a major step towards the computer game of the future which could feature 3D high resolution colour graphics, AI opponents, high system speed, easy user interface and plenty of scope. Probably the closest we have so far to this ideal are the simulators designed at Rediffusion and one hopes, eventually, this technology will appear in some form on home micros.

Fire Brigade has long been regarded as state of the art in WWII computer games and I at last have a copy. Sadly, due to the timing of this issue, I have only had time to try the game a couple of times so this will represent a preview and a full review will follow. My first impressions are that the game is streets ahead of anything else on the market but it still hasn't cracked some of the fundamental problems of WWII computer games. Load time is quite slow, ordering the units takes a while to get right and the learning curve is quite steep for even experienced gamers. That aside, it is a fascinating system and I will be expanding these comments next time.

I recently bumped into Frank Dunn in Virgin Games who retains his dry sense of humour and very up to date knowledge of the boardgame and computer markets. Frank described a new game on the Atari ST called Borodino. It sounds really excellent - ground level views of the battlefield showing terrain and the troops which are depicted similarly to those 5mm figure blocks. The game apparently has a powerful command parser and features messengers etc to convey orders to outlying commanders. The real beauty of the system is that with changes in the data and program, it should be possible to recreate any Napoleonic battle, or indeed battles of any pre-WWI era with some tweaking. Sounds good, and far better than the distinctly mediocre UMS system. Perhaps we will get a DYO set which will allow Franco-Prussian, Crimean and SYW games. Now such a system is commercially available, it means, unfortuantely, I can reveal my idea which was along the same lines. I guess one day I'll be first out with something original. Borodino should be available for the Amiga and IBM compatibles in the future.

Clive James all but took over the BBC earlier this year and while his material occasionally comes over as a bit naff, he normally remains good value. I thought both his short 'Postcards from...' series and the 'James learns to Drive' programme were superb viewing. The best of the three 'Postcards' was the clinical dissection of Rio's split society but I also enjoyed the Chicago programme, especially as I hope to be going there early this year. I thought his affectionate portrait of Paris was a touch overdone. Perhaps this is because I see little to differentiate the supposedly great city from London - both have very similar atmosphere, sights and attractions and only the language and food set them apart. Saturday Night Clive was less impressive but remained just about watchable. The first programme launched the amazing Morton Downey Jr. on the unsuspecting British public. I saw this 'chat show' host while in Boston last year and at the time I concluded that he was a mental case who had mistakenly been given a programme. His trademark is to get himself, the redneck studio audience and anyone else passing worked up into a frenzy of controversy which is directed, sometimes physically, at one or more of his 'guests'. Some of the quotes from Downey and the slobbering audience are sheer magic. There is no doubt that in his TV persona Downey has a few tiles loose, but after the interview on Clive James, it was easy to see that the guy is also an intelligent and clever performer who winds his victims up in an effort to get to the often less than savoury truth. Probably only in America could this happen.

Clive James also features in The Late Show, an admirable effort by the Beeb to air a regular arts programme. The 11.30pm slot is perfect for me as I am often sitting looking for something decent to watch just before I conk out for the night and until now it has been snooker or Prisoner Cell Block H, a true classic by anyone's standards. Needless to say, The Late Show is an improvement even if the content does sometimes give me as many laughs as the Australian epic. The sight of earnest little men daubing paint onto a canvas and calling it art never fails to raise a wry smile but sadly they will, of necessity, always feature in arty programmes. Those low points aside, the stories are interesting, the coverage of books, film, architecture and modern music is refreshing and the presenters seem more than competent at coping with encroaching pretentiousness. The real reason I like it is that it presents a slightly more critical and populist, and thus more accessible, image than the likes of Arena and the Southbank Show. Occasionally it forgets itself and gets carried away with some airy-fairy piece on a subject such as the beauty of the Lloyds Building and there have been some rather highbrow discussion programmes appearing on Fridays under James' control, though even these have got the old grey cells moving a bit. Nevertheless, any programme that has Fairground Attraction, the execrable Salman Rushie and coverage of the Paris Opera debacle in one week just has to be worth a look.

It took nearly three episodes to get going but the long awaited thirtysomething is now looking good. In the past I have joined the great hour-long U.S. series late on but I watched this one from the start and very nearly gave up on it. One can only handle so much yuppie angst and the first two episodes piled it on thick. The main problem for me was that the dialogue didn't work. I find it hard to believe that normal people, even intelligent normal people, talk like that. There were too many clever retorts and too much pseudo-spontaneous philosophy to work for me. What the early episodes did achieve, at the cost of a very weak plotline, was a quick and in depth introduction to the characters and to be fair, they are now developing nicely. Obviously Ken Olin, late of Hill Street, is a prime character and I believe he worries as much as I do. As such I can relate to him quite well which is a worry in itself as I am only twentysomething. Despite the slow start this is now well up on my approved list. Very watchable.

The last TV plug goes to The New Statesman which went improved from its good start to become excellent in the second series. To my mind this is far better satire than the sadly deteriorated Spitting Image. The humour is wicked and spot on, and Rik Mayall is perfectly cast. It just seems so strange to think of Mayall in his Young Ones guise when compared to this new departure. That's about it for the small screen. The new season of Film on Four contains some gems including Mona Lisa and Room with a View, and Roseanne is shaping up nicely for the work- dulled-brain slot on Friday evenings. And if I hear another opera singing advert I will scream.

Film of the month once again goes to a film seen on TV. L'Addition was a film I never bothered going to see at the cinema and I had fairly low expectations when it appeared on BBC just after Christmas. What it turned out to be was a typically French film with an excellent plot, acting and suspense. Pretty pointless saying much more really, if you saw it you will know what I mean and if you missed it, watch it next time.

Be seeing you.

Mike Siggins, 129 Ardmore Lane, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 5SB.

Sumo - Mike Siggins - Legal Notices and Other Information