Inside Pitch

The last few Inside Pitches have drawn some interesting comments from the readership. My good friend Garry Nicolson neatly summed it up as 'Parochial' and Steve Harvey, another old friend, deemed most of it 'Over my head' in the sense of being extremely obscure. Most notably though, Pete Birks slammed into Inside Pitch (and me) for displaying 'Elitism of the worst kind.' Grateful as I am for the attention and my very own syndrome, I am sure Pete didn't really mean this and probably should have accused me of exoticism. This latter I freely own up to. The accusation of elitism seems to imply that I am trying to get something over on people by daring to enjoy and write about the NBA or the NHL, which could not be further from the truth. I write about such things because they interest me and some of the Inside Pitch readers. I would have thought that Pete would have known me better than that.

January saw me heading over to Germany en route to Die Poppel Revue's (a German game magazine) winter games holiday that was held in Bizau, a small village in Austria's picturesque Vorarlberg region. This minicon has been running for three years now and the idea is simple enough; basically, the magazine staff books an entire hotel in a small ski resort and offers the limited places (around forty) to subscribers and their other halves. The lucky few turn up on the designated date with cars full of games, skis and warm clothing and get ready for a week of gaming, walking, skiing and eating. Needless to say this quite appealed and given the chance to go along by my good friends Ernst Knauth and Monika Schaback, I jumped at it.

The result was one of the most relaxing weeks I've spent in a long time. The company and food were excellent, the scenery typically Alp-ish and only the complete lack of snow prevented me from spending much of the week learning to ski. Of course the main attraction was theoretically gaming and here I have to admit that I couldn't handle the pace. These German chappies get up around nine, eat a hearty breakfast and play on through till the early hours stopping only to grab the occasional meal. And we are not talking Favoriten or Ausbrecher here, these are looooong brainbenders like 1863, Pax Britannica and Civilisation. Surprisingly, German games were outnumbered by American ones and the hits of the con were Conflix, a really weak race game, and Magic Realm which even with the second edition rules seems like a lot of work. Not surprisingly, Siggins took the easier route and read a few books, took in a few energetic walks, ate a bit and dabbled in the middleweight games. Nevertheless, I played more than three per day on average which ain't bad considering I read half a dozen books as well. Highlights for me were Liftoff (the superb Taskforce space-race game), Verflixte Zelle (a game about stuffing sponge babies into a phonebooth - strictly a one-off for late night play), Rails through the Rockies (a very atmospheric and realistic game that I'd previously missed. I reckon it has the beating of all other 'serious' railway games except RR) and the impressive Dicke Kartoffeln which is reviewed in Sumo this time.

Aside from being a good holiday, this strikes me as a good way to get a group of gamers together and run an extended con. Granted, Baycon and Manorcon now run to four days but I feel the surroundings of a small, family-run Austrian hotel are rather more attractive than Exeter or Birmingham. The only drawback was the language barrier. This is not what you would expect as just about everyone spoke good English and my 'listening German' came on in leaps and bounds. The problem was a nutty French woman who had married a German and had thus been forced to learn the lingo. I assume this was the reason for her alone constantly hassling me to speak German. Eventually it really got to me and I walked away, though I felt like giving her a mouthful and this is extreme for me. This is not the first time I have had difficulties with aggressive women. Revenge was mine though as, not surprisingly, there were rumours of partner swapping throughout the week and her hubby was one of those involved. Arf Arf. Cost was about #120 for the week for room and excellent board, plus about #90 for the flight. Good value compared to a British con, and I had a great time.

Baycon will probably have gone by the time you read this, but there still should be time to register for the 'Beer and Pretzels' gaming weekend (19-20th May) organised by Spirit Games of Burton-on-Trent. Mike Clifford, Ted Kelly and I will be there along with hobby luminaries such as Lambourne Games, David Watts and the Ragnar Brothers. Several demonstration games of all types are promised and I hope to have a playtest version of Darren Edwards' basketball game on display, as well as a pile of Sumos to thrust into unsuspecting hands. I am refusing to get too excited about this one for fear of disappointment, but it has the makings of a good event and I suggest you get along if you can. Tickets and details from Phil on 0283 511293. Let's hope they sell Pils as well as that 'orrible real beer.

With Essen and Nuremburg behind us, we are at that time of the year when there are plenty of rumours concerning the qualities of forthcoming games but no actual boxes. In many ways it is an exciting time, but also a frustrating one as the rumours are tempting and useless at the same time. At best they are based on one play or a brief description by a salesman, at worst on simply checking out the production standards. This leads to much embarrassment when a game is described as game of the year material and then it turns out to be a true turkey. So, in an ill- fated effort to cut down on this sort of premature puffing, until I have played the games myself I will try to reserve judgement. This could give rise to a little delay while I track down new games and rules but I hope the delays will be worth it in the shape of more considered reviews. For up to date, tempting news items (which I still enjoy greatly), I direct you to Games International which seems to have this area sown up and with which I can't hope to compete on either timing or coverage. Available from all good newsagents.

On the subject of games, it is getting to the point where you need to buy any decent British games as soon as you see them. This because their shelf life can be distinctly short-lived these days, though I do admit that the situation can be aggravated by my habit of waiting for the extortionate prices to drop or needing three or more copies of each game for the insatiable Messrs Moon and Knauth. Recent sudden disappearances include the lovely Seaside Frolics, Enochian Chess and the highly rated Deal Me In which can't be had for love nor money in London, rather like the late lamented Henry Games which I saw once but never again. Repeated phone calls and letters have failed to prise anything out of their London office but I can only keep pestering them in the hope they will sell me some copies of Vultures. What is it about certain companies who seemingly do not want to sell you their products, even if you make it easy for them by actually offering to hand over cash and collect them? Other games with that 'becoming scarce real soon look' are the Sleuth range, Oppression, Petticoat Lane, Really Nasty Horse Race and, from the States, Command No 1, Tales of the Arabian Nights and some other West End games, Dune and much of the older GDW series. Buy now if you want these in your collection.

As Spring rolls around yet again (the years seem to go quicker and quicker), my mind turns first to The Masters and then to baseball; both real and Gonzo varieties. The real thing looked decidedly dodgy for much of the winter and the resulting lock-out meant that Spring Training was cancelled. Fortunately, the season will start almost on schedule in early April and I hope to take in some Red Sox games when I go over later this month. However, even the threatened strike pales in comparison with the upheaval in Gonzo baseball. Two of the players from last year's league have decided to leap on the Rotisserie and Fantasy Baseball bandwagon and take Gonzo into the profesional PBM circuit. When the going gets tough, the tough turn pro. I discussed this development with Jake Halverstadt, designer of the much simpler original game, who was over here on holiday in February. He feels that they have done a good job and for the $30 special founder- member fee it should be worth playing. Personally, I think it may lose something as Gonzo Baseball has always been characterised by its flavoursome amateur reports and friendly atmosphere. Spreading that cameraderie among twenty six strangers and a professional layout may persuade me to move next year to a fundamentalist revival possibly being started by Jake. More news as it happens. Wake up at the back, there.

There is much consternation in the US collectors market about the phenomenally successful NBA Hoops collector cards. The first set sold like hot cakes and the David Robinson card is already worth a mint. There is talk of him being a major star in the next few years so his rookie card is correspondingly sought after. I have a full set thanks to Alan Moon and they are superbly produced - buy now for fun and profit. The real problem is the expansion cards that have just appeared. They cover the expansion teams and traded players but are only available in big boxes of which you have to buy several to get a full set. The drawback? The last card in the series, a Pistons World Champ team card, is deliberately put in only one of every ten boxes and the boxes cost $15 each. This means collectors are going up the wall looking for them and prices have already reached $35 for the one card, let alone the complete add-on sets. Amazing stuff and an indication of the lengths to which some collectors will go. I have settled for the set without one of these rarities.

Computers. Most of you who care will have got wise to Sim City, Millenium and Free Kick by now, all of which are indications of what can be done on a 16 bit machine when the talented programmers and designers get their acts together. They are also representative of the standard of strategy computer games now starting to appear in numbers and, compared to even a year ago, they have made great advances. Hopefully, it should get even better in the next few months. As I write, Harpoon sits on my left waiting for a thorough playthrough, the mouthwatering Railraod Tycoon (an 1830/Sim City hybrid) is imminent, I am awaiting delivery of 688 Attack Sub and TV Sports Basketball, SIAM have finally put together a set of decent railway simulations (with detail you won't believe) and the pacesetting Maxis are reputedly working on a terraforming simulation along the lines of Sim City. All this points toward a trend for more complex and interesting simulations that are rather more up my street than the arcade fare. Now that this level of game is possible, and apparently selling in numbers, perhaps we can hope for some really good sports, combat and unusual simulations (like Sim City) that have been possible for some while, but never delivered.

Once the conventional disk based software is up to speed, and we have a way to go yet, the industry's thoughts will finally turn to the future of computer gaming. My favourite current piece of technology is in fact software based and can run off of a standard hard disk. This is hypertext (commerically available on the Mac as Hypercard) which I feel has an awful lot to offer gaming, especially in the decision tree and interactive fiction fields. The current systems work as a series of programmable, linked cards that can include graphics, text and decision/command boxes which guide you intuitively through the database. There is also currently much excitement concerning CDI which is where you get to stick a CD ROM on the side of your present micro (or buy a dedicated system) and thus gain access to massive read-only storage for games and reference sources. Access speed is very good and the storage available should really be enough for even the very largest games. Campaign in North Africa? Small potatoes. Combine these storage devices with a decent hypertext or custom game design program and you should be away.

I know what I would like to do with this power, but let's hope the software houses catch on as they are the only ones able to produce CD based games. Their most recent short sighted comments are along the lines of 'We can't imagine any game filling up a CD Rom'. I am sure I can. We used say much the same about 800k floppies and 20Mb hard disks and look where they stand now. My feeling is that CD Rom may be an interim phase before proper WORMs (Write once, read many) or fully eraseable optical drives appear and then you really will have a system that could do almost whatever you want. Imagine for instance a truly well written, complex Jackson and Livingstone type gamebook on any subject, wargame systems to rival the military, sports sims that will make today's text-only products look pathetic, adventure games where you are free to roam around wherever you want on continents as opposed to dungeons, or a Tales of the Arabian Nights or Ambush paragraph type game with TV quality graphics and almost limitless scenarios, or Harpoon and flight sims with three dimensional simulator standard images. Sounds good, and that is by just applying existing games systems to technology that should be of an 'enabling' standard, thus creating possibilities so far undiscovered. Mmmm. Enthusiasm counter way off the scale there I think.

I am not sure who, if anyone, this will benefit but I will mention it anyway. As you may know, I have an Amiga computer and I have recently acquired, via an American disk, a public domain version of a Diplomacy game assistance program. From what I can work out it is exactly like those versions found on IBM PCs and seems to run very well - you input the orders and it works out all the results for you and displays it all with some nice graphics. I think it may even print out turn reports into ascii files. Sadly it is object code (C, I think) so I can't make the source available to owners of other computers. If there is anyone out there who, unlike me, is interested in this, drop me a disk and an SAE and I will do you a copy by return.

Making up slightly for the loss of NBA action this year, CBS Fox have released three or four videos licensed from the NBA and priced at a reasonable #10. Best of the bunch is undoubtedly MICHAEL JORDAN: COME FLY WITH ME. Corny eh? The cover promises 40 minutes of action of the world's greatest but what we actually get is a typically schmaltzy biography taking in his career from high school, through his days as a Tarheel and on to the slam dunking genius he is today. Quite why we have to suffer the appalling voiceover delivered in the usual slow, admiring drawl ('But reality has never looked so good. His elegance on the court has transformed the game into an art form.' Pass the sick bag.) rather than just some decent music, I don't know. All this sugar is thankfully interspersed with plenty of cracking film of those one handed dunks and the famous 'Air Jordan' sequences where he really does seem to fly. I can't help but feel a tape of just the basketball highlights would be better, but it would be rather short. Turn the sound down and enjoy.

I still haven't decided on a satellite TV dish. Well, more accurately, I have decided that I want one but can't get round to the hassle and expense of getting one installed. If anything, my television hours per week have dropped over the winter and I find myself craving more exotic viewing such as the NBA, cycling or some decent ice hockey. The reasons for the drop are more gaming and reading, much more writing (GI mainly) and the ever-tempting eight screen cinema that has opened at Queensway. Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to the Autumn ITV film season (which promises Aliens, Color of Money and Top Gun among others) because the films arriving on TV now are those that I missed in my non-cinema- going phase a few years back. However, the restricted TV viewing still included Michael Palin's Round the World in 80 Days that I watched with much enjoyment, the well presented Trans World Sport (unusual sports? This programme offers an endless supply) and on the comedy front, The Wonder Years and Whose Line Is It Anyway seem to get better and better.

I thought the best single programme was the BBC's three hour summary of eighties music shown on New Year's Eve. This opened with Department S and somehow managed to maintain a consistently high standard thereafter, but how did my ex- hero Paul Weller get into the Glumrock category? A pratt yes, but surely a happy pratt? Ultimately disappointing were Oranges are not the only Fruit which promised much but delivered little (powerful scenes excepted), St Elsewhere which fizzled rapidly and The Land of the Eagle which was rather boring despite the immense potential and the usual marvellous photography. If anything, the latter was too short, confusing as it did a mixture of history, wildlife and environmental issues and failing to adequately sum up any one of them. Finally, the hit of the season occupies that tacky slot populated by The Dukes of Hazzard, The A Team and CHIPS; I refer of course to the amazing Baywatch, surely the best ever early evening viewing for kids and adults alike.

I recently spotted an ad for a new nationally distributed baseball magazine, which will be launched in April. Apparently it will be called Baseball Times and comes from the same publisher as Touchdown. I assume that the dire First Base has now bitten the dust, so it will be good to get a replacement; it certainly can't be worse. As one baseball magazine appears, another is notable by its absence. Baseball Today appeared from nowhere in 1988 to rave reviews, including one in Inside Pitch. Its unusual mix of colour photos, well observed writing, games and card collecting was spot on. The Spring '89 preview issue managed to top even Street and Smith's and the summer one was better still. Since then, nothing, despite promising six issues per year. As a miffed subscriber, I rang them a couple of times recently to see what was going on. The first time I was promised a letter explaining what was happening and the second failed to get anything but weak excuses. So, be warned, this one could be a dead 'un. I've written off my #30 unless Visa can retrieve it for me.

There is very little happening at the moment in the sports gaming hobby (which judging by the recent Zine Poll results, is very much separate from the Diplomacy Hobby these days). The lowpoint of course has been the news of Sensation's fold which is probably the saddest news I've had since I discovered the postal hobby in 1981. Although I was involved with it from issue 10, Sensation was always one of my favourite reads and always had a thought provoking article, design piece, review or game report to enjoy. Moreover, it gave me my start in sub-editing and running games by post and you are now stuck with me until the grind gets to me as well. I will miss it and my thanks to Ellis for all those superb issues. In contrast, the highlights of the winter months include the news that Darren Edwards of Overtime fame is working on a new NBA game (which I will be helping to playtest) and, of course, Mike Clifford's Major League continues its frequent schedule. This one never fails to spark my already high enthusiasm for the subject and there have been some excellent articles in the last few issues. With the sad demise of Sensation, Major League is well set up be the worthy, but sole, flagship of this branch of the postal hobby. Mike will supply a copy of Major League to anyone interested in sports games in return for an SAE. Write to him at 48 Maberley Rd, Upper Norwood, London SE19 2JA.

Sportspages unveiled their 'Spring Collection' recently and, as usual, it contained a few pleasant surprises. Best of the batch was Thomas Boswell's new one, 'The Heart of the Order' (Penguin USA, #7). While very much more of the same, Boswell tackles his typically fascinating selection of baseball topics and almost every paragraph provides an insight, or a previously unexplored viewpoint. Baseball journalism of the highest order. Also a good read was 'The Physics of Baseball' (Robert K Adair, Harper & Row, #7) which covers the rather dry field of hard science in a fresh, elegant style. Most of the technical stuff is tucked away at the back of each chapter and the layman is cleverly guided through the physics behind the curveball, the knuckleball and the maximum possible distance of a home run, among others. Unusual, well written and enlightening. Not quite up to scratch was 'It ain't Cheatin' if you don't get Caught' (Bill Gutman, Penguin USA #7) which I hoped would be along the same lines as the superb 'Crooked Pitch', but which turned out to be a publisher's fill-in and lacking in anything apart from sensational, but singularly boring, stories about baseball cheats and frauds. Not great. Finally, for the stats freaks out there, your annual fix in the shape of the Sporting News guides is available along with several new abstract type publications. Best of the latter are Hoopstats and the Basketball Abstractwhich take the NBA apart from every conceivable angle. Sportspages continues to provide a very comprehensive range of books and, although their prices remain expensive, they deservedly retain the monopoly on good quality sports writing in London. Its only drawback is the anti-shoplifting devices that now get stuck into the back of all their books. I find this incredible; first barcodes, and now this.

I have done more writing over the last three weeks than I would have thought possible. It includes this issue of Sumo, seven pieces for GI, a long review for Perfidious Albion and about half a dozen 'necessary' letters a week to all corners of the globe. Why do I do it? The results are a big drain on free time, strange pains and twitches in my few typing fingers and a consuming desire to have a break from the keyboard. Perhaps I just need a holiday. In fact, some sort of break fits in nicely with my current plans as I have been wanting to clear the decks, relax in general and develop a few games ideas that I've been toying with for a while. There seems to be a growing movement by enterprising gamers to get their designs into print, often using DTP and gamekits, and frankly these are far more interesting than the turgid stuff currently being produced by most of the game companies. Whether I can produce anything on a par with those I've seen so far is debatable, but I am going to have a bash which seems to be the important thing.

Sumo - Mike Siggins