The Inside Pitch Letter Column.

Well, such was the number of letters received last time I think I have enough to put this together, something I've wanted to do for ages. I apologise in advance to anyone who didn't really expect to have their letters printed. Please use NFP from now on if you are really shy and retiring like Messrs Vasey and Moon. The ethnic spelling and phraseology are retained to preserve the international flavout of IP. Hoho. First up:

Alan Moon of Beverly, Massachussets: 'So what's this rumor I hear that you have contracted for an oriental, 200+ pound, mail order bride? Hope you can afford to feed her. It is terrifying to picture you both on the motorway. (I suspect this alludes to my driving lessons. MS). Maybe the female Sumo will be able to drive.'

(Ah yes. The old abuse has been pouring in thick and fast since Brian 'Murray' Walker announced to the world in Games International about my unfortunate 'Sumo' nickname. Though if the abuse is this funny, I don't mind too much. MS)

Alan again: 'Sensation arrived today and I sat down to read it immediately. I was really enjoying "Inside Pitch" when I turned the page and found only whiteness on page 26. Bummmmer. If I'd known 43 was going to be the winning quiz score, I would have done ten minutes research. The day after I mailed my quiz answers, I realised that the new NBA team is Orlando, not Tampa. Bury is a biscuit. I can remember the smell from the Bury factory which covered the whole city of Elizabeth, New Jersey when the wind blew in the right direction.' (Mmm, yes Alan. Not sure what that has to do with the quiz though. MS)

'Considering the amount you write each month, you might as well start your own zine. You don't have to run that many games. Just start up a couple of the easy ones like Diplomacy, Railway Rivals, Nuclear Destruction, Man-Eater, United or something more unusual. You've probably considered this, no?'

(I have indeed, but only as a disaster scenario should Ellis finally give up the ghost and fold Sensation - hopefully an unlikely event. As it stands I take the easy path beloved of all subzine editors. I just type the stuff, print it, and send it off to Ellis who very kindly does all the grotty stuff like printing, collating, labels, credits and posting for me. The drawback of course is that Ellis gets most of the plaudits and nearly all the letters. Occasionally I daydream about the 'prestige' of running a zine but then I lie down for a while and feel better. I am more than content with the way it is now as long as Ellis carries on. As for games, I find the enthusiasm on my part wanes pretty quickly so I try not to get into running them. I am dead keen to start with and then six months in I find it hard going, so something like United would be a real killer and you won't catch me running Diplomacy in this lifetime. I think the only thing that would retain my interest would be baseball, I ran Pennant Race for the first 12 issues of IP. As I said in IP, that is now a possibility again. On the quiz, given your performance I doubt that 10 hours of research would have helped. The missing page is on its way to you. MS.)

Alan: 'On their way to you are two more packages with a total of 80+ magazines. Most of these are my entire collection of Narrow Gauge & Short Line Gazette and Model Railroading. The other magazines are six S&Ts and two All Star Replays. The other package contains Conquest of the Empire and some copies of Model Railway Craftsman.'

(A double giveaway here. This paragraph exposes yet another dormant passion of mine - American short line railways and models thereof. I do only look at the pictures, honest. 'I collect all the train numbers and stuff 'em up me bum'. It is just those Shays and Porters that make me go all weak at the knees. It also shows the extent of the frantic trading going on between myself, Alan and Ernst Knauth in Germany. MS.)

Alan: 'Tony (Soltis) and I played Red Storm Rising this week and enjoyed it quite a lot. It was fairly quick; less than three hours for the four turn scenario and that's with Tony being his usual methodical self. Simple mechanics but clever air and armor systems. Lots of die rolls but I enjoy rolling the bones. We're going back to play Red October now to make sure the reviewers haven't missed the boat on this one, so to speak.'

(I have offered my comments on RSR elsewhere this issue and stand firm in my belief (missed/imagined rule aside) that Red October is a major league turkey. I would be interested to hear from anyone else who has played it. That's enough Moon for now. Very small doses are best. MS)

Michael Hopcroft of Portland, Oregon: Did you see any of the NCAA title game this year between Michigan and Seton Hall? That was a classic game. I watched it in a bar opposite Civic Stadium trying to nurse my drinks in an attempt to avoid going broke. Overtime didn't help!

(As I said in Inside Pitch, sadly our TV companies haven't shown any NCAA basketball this year which is a sad loss, so all I needed was for Michael to unwittingly rub it in! I am reminded of that Walter Matthau film where a woman (Glenda Jackson?) uncomprehendingly tells him the score of a basketball game he is aching to see on TV, which throws him into agonies, only then to be told it was also a triple overtime game.)

Ulrich Blenneman of Hattingen, West Germany: 'As usually, I enjoyed 'Inside Pitch' very much. At present the TV shows the ice hockey 'A' World Championships. West Germany so far is pretty good. Until now I have enjoyed Canada vs USA (8- 2) most. The Canadian players Bellous and Muller were most impressive. Aren't you interested in attending Hexacon III?'

(Another lucky person seeing all sorts of interesting sport. I really must investigate these satellite dishes in the near future but what that will do to my leisure hours (and bank balance) I hate to think - even The S-Men have limits. I am indeed interested in Hexacon (a big German boardgame convention) and will be attending on both the Saturday and Sunday, apparently with at least fifteen other Brits which surprises me. I will not be playing with the following friendly lunatic though. MS)

Ben Volmert of Aachen, West Germany: 'The new game to be played by us at Hexacon is Wacht am Rhein. (Replacing the equally massive Highway to the Reich, no doubt due to table collapse. MS) I note your remark about our favour for monsters but in my opinion cons are the best opportunity for these kind of games. You may join our party and I will send the rules in the next letter if you are interested. Games International? I've heard of it but at the moment I get so many magazines about boardgaming that there is no time to read even all of them, not to mention the amount of money the hobby consumes.'

(How very true. I have subsequently politely turned down Ben's kind invitation to participate in the monster W.a.R. I fear I am past all that energetic stuff and my top limit is probably about four or five hours. I will be quite content with a few of the new German games like Maestro, Schickeria and Lieber Bairisch Sterben (if anyone will teach me), a bit of chat with Ernst and the other collectors, a few beers and a trip around the stunning Marksburg where the con is being held. I might even get to play Die Macher at last. A report will follow next time. MS)

Ben: 'The new games to be published this year have two main highlights for me: Fire Brigade and Hitler's Last Gamble. But what are the titles The Sun Never Sets and Eagles of the Gulf?'

(Fire Brigade (Panther's computer game on Kursk) remains a fixer. It has massive scope and has some clever ideas but my Amiga version is woefully slow and the learning curve does nothing to encourage me to play it. I understand the Mac and PC versions are much quicker. I can't say I am that excited by 3W's Last Gamble, yet another Bulge game from Danny 'I've got the perfect Bulge system - again' Parker, though it will of course appeal to all the tankies out there. Rumour has it that it is a re-published title originally done by Hobby Games of Japan. The latter two games from GDW do interest me though. Sun Never Sets is a First Battle series game on colonial expansion which is reckoned to be a very playable version of Pax Britannica. Eagles is the naval expansion kit for the very fine Air Superiority system which I will probably actually get round to playing, unlike Air Strike which seemed rather pointless. Neither of these has appeared at the time of writing but no doubt Origins will provide these and other releases. MS)

Andy Scarfe of Barnsley, S.Yorks.: 'The game system (of 'Drop Kick', an excellent replay game on the subject of Rugby League. MS) came about as I played a number of American Football games over Christmas and felt that there were enough similarities between the two sports to be easy to devise something similar for rugby league. I decided that the thing missing from all the games of this type that I'd played was just how a particular sport was organised; ie. how were fixtures arranged, what knock out cup competitions were there etc. So, I've put all this in 'Drop Kick'. Anyone buying the game can play every game of the 1987/8 season without knowing the full details of the game (although I would advise everyone to find out) and without needing to buy anything else. Because the game covers so many matches I used a fast-action system to allow the matches to be played quickly.

'As things stand I am not entirely happy with the game and intend to improve it, probably with the 1988/9 cards (due in October) if demand is great enough. I also have the full details of the Australian 1987 season and can produce cards but cannot afford to have them printed until I have sold more copies of 'Drop Kick'.'

(Which has to be the ideal lead-in for me to strongly suggest you send £6 to Andy at 1 Charles Street, Barnsley, South Yorkshire S70 1RB for a copy of his fine game. Andy is one of these annoying people who has actually got off his bottom and done something about putting a game together. Obviously inspired by Tomas Gustavsson's little gems and Lambourne's replay games, Drop Kick is a complete package in every way. Well printed (from a Macintosh?) on good quality card and supplied in a ziploc bag, you get background information, team sheets, well composed rules and examples, all of which combine for a quick, interesting dice based replay system. It even supplies the names of try scorers. An admirable effort. Also recently appearing in the publishing field with his King's War (an English Civil War game, also a very reasonable £6) is Chuckles Vasey.....)

Charles Vasey of East Sheen, London SW14: 'Anyway, back to 'Inside Pitch'. You were wittering on about The Challinger Syndrome. I reckon in part it is a matter of growing older, certainly growing wiser. The essence of the problem seems to be that one can no longer be bothered with nonsense like ASL but are quite happy to play Mohawk. Clearly a lot of those who play ASL do so because it is thought terrifically brainy stuff, and the ultimate experience, and if they concentrate very hard they might keep up appearances. Look at how many reviewers (mostly a horde of bottom baissers) dare to criticise the damn thing! Of course I would not deny that it will also cater adequately for those of a more mature bent who like tactical games and are willing to learn one system very well. For those of us who like innovation and change, as well as not needing to prove street-cred, I am afraid one cannot summon up the enthusiasm for games that involve a great deal of computational and mechanical action compared to little decision making. Instead one wants to maximise decisions and minimise work.'

(Yes, agreed. I have gone on before about games that are hard work - West End's Fireteam springs to mind - and the beauty of the new breed of European games is that they often have low key but clever mechanisms that allow the players to get on with enjoying the game through decision making and soaking up any atmosphere. The very best ones also offer lots of scope for cock-ups within those decision parameters. Drudgery such as record keeping and waiting on other players are also removed. The Big C continues...)

Charles: 'I never believed the nonsense that Jack Radey produced was greatly played compared to Russian Campaign and I think the reason is that most people are Challingers at heart (certainly in what they actually play). The classic German games, Cosmic Encounter and Football Strategy all deal with the legwork painlessly but leave the brainwork up to you. Stephen Kendall has a theory about how games need to be self-affirming. If most people are poor decision takers then perhaps they need lots of mechanicals to disguise their failings. It is hard to disguise you played '17' and he played 'I' in Football Strategy (mostly because he is jigging round the room high-fiving imaginary negroes).'

'Kingmaker was a game that screws up because its otherwise clever system is weighed down with vast blocks of tedious action (oddly enough totally unhistorical but there you are!). Trial of Strength (Yawn City) has the same problem but good old Mohawk is heavy on decision, light on counter shifting (except for having to throw those sodding dice). Thunder at Cassino is probably a good Challinger game, so, I think, is Chickamauga and most Balkoski games (St Lo for example is long but very eventful).'

(I think it is very difficult to form views about what the hobby is playing/has played. I am always surprised at what people are playing, at cons especially. Take young Ben and Ulrich, eagerly waiting to get to grips with those quivering stacks of counters in W.a.R. Take also Sensationcon '88 where ASL was by far the most popular game amongst gamers we'd never even heard of before. And there are always the 1829/Civilization diehards who are a fixture at most 'hobby' cons, neatly counterpointing all the nouveau-gamers playing minimalist German product with nice bits. Hardly a significant sample I grant you but a sample nevertheless. I would be interested to hear from Alan Moon on the American situation where it seems at least the North Shore club has been impressed by the German invasion.

(I also fear I may have unwittingly dragged Geoff Challinger's good name into the mire of discussion; I suspect Geoff would (now) no more play Thunder at Cassino (at four hours plus) than dye his hair dayglo pink and sport a nipple ring. I may be wrong. What I was trying to convey in the last IP was that Geoff and myself to an extent have turned to shorter, simpler games rather than the slugfests of previous years when time was less in demand. Challinger also seemed a good name to tag onto a syndrome. Meanwhile, Charles rounds off in typical style....)

Charles: 'You see Mike, the problem is you no longer care what people think, you lazy, unthankful, little bastard. I don't know why I'm bothering to write!'

(Because you love the exposure, you genial old fart. MS)

(Now back to our American correspondents who are at least fairly civil.)

Alan Moon again: 'I just got GI 4 today. I think some of the reviewers are throwing the rating system way out of kilter. I mean, Das Erbe des Maloney is certainly not a three star game in my estimation, and giving Dark Cults four stars is a total joke! Not to mention four stars for R E Lee reviewed by that Sumo guy. Of course, I haven't played it or even read the rules but then I knew I never would before I purchased it. But c'mon, observation balloons in a Civil War game? Finally, while I think Ancients is probably a very good game, the more so because it is so simple, does it really rate five stars? There are probably no more than 30-40 published games that I would rate five stars. I doubt Ancients really deserves to be in such exalted company. The integrity of the rating system cannot survive unless we are tough. What are we, mice or wrestlers?'

(Mouse, every time. Interesting point and one that I have thought about when reviewing this stuff. My initial response is that it is going to come down to personal taste anyway but you are tackling something deeper here. However, back to my criteria. I think I am I am basically quite critical of games but I did dish out a lot of stars in GI 4 so this needs some justifying. Surely the rub is that we are rating only current or new games rather than all time greats, so the stars are relative not absolute. Thus Murray's scale of stars as shown in the editorial is the determining factor and the one I work to. On this basis I would argue that Ancients is worth five stars (Highly recommended) but of course wouldn't rate above a three in the global view of things. Similarly, RE Lee is 'a very good game. Worth buying' and Maloney's probably is 'Worth a look'. All this is of course very subjective but you would have to award the likes of Squad Leader a five on the general scale but that doesn't mean The Last Hurrah is deserving of five as well.)

(On the subject of Clash of Arms' RE Lee, yes the rules were pretty ropey and I didn't stress this enough in the review but I thought I could see what Prados was getting at and the game works well. I stick by my other comments. The graphics are marvellous, the chrome is nice, the system isn't too slow and it has atmosphere. I don't understand your Observation Balloon comment - didn't they use them then? Just because someone has produced crap in the past doesn't mean he will continue to do so and in this case, given my admittedly weak knowledge of the ACW, it seems Prados has made amends at least partially. MS)

(Further to the above comments, I went on to ask Alan to produce a list of games that he would consider fitting for a top 50 'Hall of Fame' which he has duly produced with the results being listed elsewhere. Meanwhile, not all that Germany produces is BMW quality.....)

Alan: 'Forget about Mississippi. In fact, all the Mattel Germany games are disappointing. Cafe International is about the best and that is only average. Angeschmiert and Zug Nach Westen are downright turkeys. Der Aussriesser is terrible. Grand Prix is Okay, but not nearly as good as Niki Lauda's Formel Eins.'

(Cheery news all round then. So, has the rot started? I sincerely hope not. It is especially galling to hear that Mississippi is a turkey considering I have just been sent it from Germany and have obtained the rules from Murray. Sad to hear the others are also bad; what with the disappointing Ave Caesar that pretty much rules out the German output for this year. Nevertheless, I hear Maestro is good, I must have Coup if it re-shows, Schickeria looks promising, New York, New York is in Just Games and is above average (though basically a card game) and I am still sure there must be something in Lieber Bairisch Sterben.)

Michael Hopcroft again: 'A great sounding new game called Wayne Gretzky Hockey has just been released for the Amiga. In a few months they will even have NHL team disks for it. Hockey is one of my guilty pleasures and having to go without it all year because a perverse cable deal (the NHL sold national rights for $50 million to a pay channel which only serves a small part of the East coast!) is one of my larger emotional pains, especially with the playoffs on. The game is the equivalent of Earl Weaver Baseball for the NHL, with arcade and coaching modes which give you most of the options of the NHL coach. The animated screen graphics (featuring an aerial view of about two-thirds of the rink at a time) are reported to be quite something. Unfortunately I have no idea if and when a version will be released for the IBM and clones. If it does come out soon, it will have to be high on my list of things to get.'

(I have seen adverts and previews for the Gretzky game and I am a definite buyer. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen such a favourable reception for a game. Hopefully I can pick it up cheaply when I'm over for Origins though the problem I've found with these discount shops is that they never carry immediate stocks, which I guess is how they sell so cheaply. The failing of most hockey games so far has been that they have all been purely arcade based and rather hard to play. It was only a matter of time before a game like this appeared, though my bet was on Lance Haffner to produce the first. Obviously, a review will appear as soon as I get hold of a copy. I am staggered by the NHL cable story. Am I right in saying then that there is no ESPN or national network coverage any more apart from in, presumably, the New York area? I presume there are still local cable stations showing local games as there were in Boston last year? I find this amazing, it's like giving all the UK soccer coverage to Birmingham. MS)

Michael: 'So you're on a game designing kick? As you may know, I'm working on an RPG sourcebook right now, but beyond that I have no real plans. I'd like to do a multi-player postal fantasy game someday with random events, magic, combat and other court decisions. There is some of the Games Workshop stuff that people have asked me to buy, but they are simply too pricey. The prices they charge for their 3-D games are simply outrageous; $60 for the robot game Adeptus Titanicus, for example, which does not not include the price of a wide variety of miniatures and supplements. I also don't care for their world view; is it the British view that all the games have to be so dark in view, where evil is triumphant and good almost non-existant and where everything is corrupted? Some of what they've been putting out for Warhammer has been downright crazy. Somebody has a truly demented imagination, even by my standards. Either that or they read too much Moorcock in their formative years.'

(If you lived in the UK Michael I am sure you would feel aggrieved at most game prices, not only the dodgy designs from the GW boys in Nottingham. Nevertheless, the GW pricing in the States is an interesting parallel to the price of American games over here. I have moaned a lot about the $1=£1 (or worse) pricing of games in the UK, especially those imported by TM Games. So what happens? The Pound weakens against the dollar and they put the prices of American games down. Odd. The $60 Titanicus pricing takes some explaining and I have no real idea why, I can only think it might be a marketing ploy. The '3-D' games sell for £25 here which is, I respectfully submit, a rip off. That makes for $45 tops in the US but the chap I was speaking to in Carmel's Game Gallery said $60 was reasonable price for the components. He showed no signs of mental illness but perhaps they have lots of money in Carmel. He reckoned one reason was that US shops expect discounts of around 55-60% which would push the price up compared to the UK where discounts are lower (but not by a lot). Whatever the reason, I can only suggest you at least play the games before you buy as they are far from classics of the genre, though of course the bits are nice and spiky. I must agree on the apparent doom and gloom approach of the games but the kids who buy them seem to like it, though I have to say I find Realm of Chaos and its ilk rather disturbing. What we clearly do have here is a masterpiece of marketing and a feel for the market that is consistently spot on. I must admit to quite liking the Space Marine figures to look at. MS)

Mike Siggins, 129 Ardmore Lane, Buckhurst Hill, Essex IG9 5SB. 3/5/89.

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