Computer Game Letters

Fergus Bastock, Bishopthorpe I found your comments on computer gaming perceptive. I am not at home with computers but always rather envied the technically minded who had access to the cornucopia of games available. Over the summer I was able to 'borrow' a friend's Amiga and purchased a number of titles (Nam, Their Finest Hour, Gettysburg etc). My conclusions were that the products are simply not worth the asking price.

John Webley, Salzgitter Bad Computer games, I probably only have three computer games that you would consider, Sim City, Sim Earth and Railroad Tycoon. Sim Earth is very pretty but isn't a game in any sense, I played it for about five hours off and on, Sim City I have played for maybe six or seven hours and Railroad Tycoon is 100 hours and rising. I find it absolutely compelling and really feel that you should give it another try, before discarding it. Admittedly I am playing it on a 386, but sometimes I find that it is going too fast for me, not too slow! I hear that Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley have now come up with Civilisation, if so then I will certainly buy it unseen, the only question is when Francis Tresham sues.

[MS: Pete Birks alluded to this in the latest Greatest Hits. The gist is that Francis may have intellectual property rights to Civilisation and, I guess to a lesser extent, Railroad Tycoon. Frankly, I doubt it as the games have far more in them than either boardgame and probably use completely different systems, but what do I know about copyright law? I think the themes are the strongest link but on 'look and feel' alone, he'll need Microsoft's and Apple's lawyers in tow.]

Paul Oakes, Wandsworth You specifically asked for no abuse when replying to your article on 18xx games. I can only assume the lack of a similar request at the start of the article on computer games was an invitation, which I'm glad to accept.

[MS: Uhoh. Things look bad for the Sumo man.]

I thought the computer games article was as fair and perceptive as Norman Lamont discussing the economy. You gloss over the major advantages offered and complain about trivial details as if conventional games are perfect.

[MS: Does Lamont do this? I thought the opposite usually applied. But then we don't do politics in Sumo. Moving swiftly along...]

Firstly, you complain that the percentage of strategic computer games worth the effort is unnacceptably low. It's a damn sight higher than the 'legendary' SPI's hit rate used to be - just look through your catalogue for a list of turkeys like Armada, Drive on Stalingrad (fine after errata set 3) and NATO.

Then you point out that computer games offer no 'nice bits' or 'heft factor'. Well bugger me, I'll reformat my Powermonger disks then - aren't animated displays 'nice bits'? You do admit computers allow solitaire play; this is a big feature. Even when playing two player on a computer there are major advantages. Consider Second Front. To play a board version of this you'd have to visit me (that's bad enough), we'd play for a few hours and I'd have to leave a 4 acre board set up for three months until we'd finished. By computer, I play a turn, post you the disk, and you have a go, and so on.

[MS: Perhaps I didn't stress this enough, but, yes, the solitaire strength is a major asset, perhaps the biggest. The trouble is for me that I quickly switch off when playing on my own (see the remarks on replayability last time). I cannot seem to get into playing Railroad Tycoon literally all night as seems to be a growing trend among you and Messrs Harrington and Woodhouse. I therefore turn to two player computer games and these have provided hours and hours of pleasure - perhaps even on a scale comparable to your solitaire gaming. I think immediately of Kick Off 2, PGA Golf, Lemmings, Hardball, Mule and Alien Breed but until now I have been disappointed by the 'one player has a turn while the other is reading/watching telly' problems of Empire and most wargames.]

[That was until I recently discovered Battle Isle. This is not a great program in itself (though we were admittedly playing a demo version) but its two player interface is excellent. Basically, the screen is split into two halves showing the map and units. Each player can see everything by scrolling (though this would easily lend itself to limited intelligence) but the clever bit is while one player performs movement, the other plots his firing in a sort of 'joint alternative' move system. There is therefore no downtime and you are so busy planning your move that you often don't look at the other guy's actions, even though they are literally nextdoor. The drawback is that the scrolling map is half the size of normal, which themselves are too small, but this will improve with better graphics. The subject matter is also pretty ropey, being modern/future land combat - if I tell you it features Mechfusilier regiments, you'll get the picture - but Napoleonics or Ancients with a decent command structure using the system would really be something. Those quibbles aside, I think there is scope here and I don't remember having seen it before.]

The price of computer games does not 'start where boardgames leave off', unless you are counting down. At a computer games fair I paid £18 max. while buying everything I'd gone for, while £25 seems to be the going rate for a bit of board with a cute picture on it and 30 blocks of coloured wood.

[MS: In saying that surely you are comparing the cheapest possible price for computer games against the most expensive boardgames - the European variety. I still say computer games are expensive allowing for what you get and the chances of it being any good.]

Anyway, onto Railroad Tycoon. Yes, one screen of graphics is poor, but the rest are more than adequate. The game can be slow on the Amiga until you learn to avoid disc access. Like you, I found getting started difficult, but I decided the game couldn't be meant to be this difficult, tried alternative approaches, discovered the stockmarket and found true happiness. In fact, the appeal of this game for me is the level of detail buried in the system for you to find out by trying various techniques of train management, track laying, share dealing etc. I ended finding most ideas out for myself, but the tip sheet I gave you lists some of the main methods.

As you say, a computer's ability to crank out the MIPS is useful which allows a much deeper level of complexity in the design to be introduced. Could you imagine 1830 with all the commodities, town growth patterns, track grades, freight classes and stock market detail of Railroad Tycoon?

By the way, 2nd Front, Storm Across Europe, Captive, Powermonger and the Koei series of games are also worth booting up for.

[MS: Which adds half a dozen to our list. Any more? I'm annoyed that I forgot to mention the Koei games last time as they typify almost everything that I was complaining about. OK, there is a game system in there that meshes well (rather like the way Empire simply 'works') but the games are so basic and Risk-like that I wonder quite where they have got their reputation. I am surprised you, an experienced gamer, tolerate and apparently enjoy the tactical combat systems which are, to sum it up in a word, laughable. I achieved more realism when I used to roll marbles at my Airfix men.]

John Harrington, Enfield Taking the computer games first, you ask "Why all the excitement?" Did you mean within the postal games hobby or in society in general? If the latter, then I think we can fairly simply sum up the market's apparent satisfaction with games software in preference to board games and RPG as a "profile thing", as George Bush would probably call it.

The U.K. has no real board game tradition so even if the industry were turning out two stunners a month it would not mean shit to a tree as far as the U.K. citizen is concerned. As for RPGs, these have caught on in a big way among the munchkin market and are (I suspect) still going strong among the veterans who discovered them back in the early eighties but they too have probably failed to make any serious inroads into the leisure market as populated by Mr. & Mrs. Normal. I am sure I have remarked upon it before, but you only have to look in W.H. Smiths to see what a massive number of hobby pastimes are capable in Britain of sustaining one or more national magazines to realise what an enormous task it is for the board game industry to grab even a token amount of a typical adult's leisure time. As a review in Cycling Weekly of some game called The Tour made clear, give the average Briton a game which does not entail rolling two dice (doubles roll again!) and then moving Greg LeMond on to a square which enables him to "Buy new streamlined helmet for $50. Move forward three spaces" and he is lost.

I don't know why, but computer games seem to appeal to Joe Public in a way board games have not for some forty odd years now. There seems to be something in the hobby for car mechanics and bank managers alike. It is very possible that playing computer games is now the second most enjoyable solitary pastime a man can indulge in.

The success of computer games within the games playing hobby is a slightly different matter. I would agree with you that the strike rate of successes to clinkers is not particularly good and yet, as you say, the satisfaction level is pretty high. It is probably true to say that the volume of software releases is far outweighing the board game releases these days, so although 98% of it may be dross, the remaining 2% in terms of numbers of games is still going to be reasonably high. Plus of course one man's 2% quality stuff is going to be another man's dross, because I would categorise virtually all adventure games as dross, whereas Theo Clarke clearly would not.

So, in the eyes of the consumer, despite a lot of chaff, there are still going to a significant number of releases each year which he or she is going to be quite keen on, and with the back-up of the computer press he/she is also going to hear about their release, be fed a lot of hype and maybe even get an authorative review of the stuff he is interested in. But now here's the crux I think. When Johnny Punter buys a game and he genuinely likes it, he can play it as often as he likes (and does). This is not the case with board games, as those of us who bought Star Trader and have still not played it once will testify. Now when I buy a game like Railroad Tycoon (okay, when I get given a game like Railroad Tycoon by that nice Mr. Walker) and proceed to spend about 200 hours playing it during the course of a year, my satisfaction levels are pretty high. I feel I have got value for money.

On the other hand, when I buy Six Day Race at the fag end of the craze for it and quickly discover no one wants to play it any more because it has been played to death, I am buggered aren't I? I haven't got value for money and even though I know it's a groovy game my satisfaction level is low. So I don't think your comment about leisure software offering low bangs per buck stands up at all. At £40 for 200 hours Railroad Tycoon is excellent value and I reckon I am only about 25% of the way through the "satisfaction curve". I've hardly touched the Europe map yet and only recently got involved in taking over other companies.

Most of your observations viz solitaire suitability, artificial intelligence hidden movement and to a certain extent the visuals ("nice bits" has lasted a long time now as a hobby cliche), I would agree with. Certainly for traditional war games (e.g. Napoleonics) I certainly prefer to have the map and counters on the table in front of me. Of course, I would also prefer the computer to do the number crunching and the counter moving for me too but until such time as touch-sensitive plinths are provided with each computer wargame (like in some of the computer chess games which read which piece is on which square through some sort of bar code jobbie on the bottom of the chess piece) then we are not going to get the best of both worlds.

At this point, in discussing the visual impact of computer games, I would like to ask you if you have ever played Silent Service at 2.00am with the lights off? [MS: Yes. And I make the pinging noises.] Or Indy 500 with the sound card being channelled through the Grateful Dead's P.A. system? Okay, I know the last example has nothing to do with visuals but it is worth pointing out that if computer games had been invented before board games, one of the areas you would probably be complaining about is crap aurals on boardgames.

I was going to try and mount a weighty defence of the appeal of Railroad Tycoon but I presume Oakes has performed this function already. What I will say is that the proof of the pudding and all that: Oakes has played it to destruction (on an Amiga even!), Woody has played it to death and was constantly moaning about the need to buy a PC so he can play it at home. Okay, I know Woody would use the PC for other things but if his primary reason for buying one is to play Railroad Tycoon we are talking about 800 quid for a game here. Overpriced? You tell me; you've got far more experience of paying ridiculous prices for games than me if what I read in the Independent is true.

[MS: OK, let's chop this one off right now as this is coming in from all directions at the moment. The prices quoted in the Indy were inflated and were in any case my opinion on the prices that might be paid by a collector, certainly not by me. It may surprise many of you to know that the highest price I have ever paid for a game is £50 - and that was for Homas Tour, a purchase I considered deserving of an exceptional outlay. Most of my purchases average £10 per game or lower. Being termed a collector, or being interested in prices 'attainable', does not necessarily mean I would pay them myself. I still say, perhaps as a result, that computer games are way overpriced.]

Your most telling comment was "I want those A4 Gresleys running as soon as physically possible". That's odd. I hate it when a new engine is developed. Struggling to make ends meet with a couple of Grasshoppers is where it's at, man. Do I go into debt to connect to a new town? Will the income justify it? These are the interesting dilemmas, not "Shall I spend $70,000 of my $2,000,000 cash balance on getting an A4 in. Well, it is for me, anyway, but then I like watching things in slow motion. As a kid I used to hang around in the bathroom after a bath just to watch the water slowly empty out the tub. Weird, huh?

Perhaps you are just not suited to the type of strategy game at which the leisure software industry currently excels. The most noticeable trend has been, I think, towards putting an immense amount of detail in. The space exploration games look like they were devised by Carl Sagan with "billllliyuns and billllliyuns of bee-yings on multi-toodinous plan-etts" and the dungeon master clones probably have more detail in them than the whole range of Forgotten Realms RPG adventures available in paper format. The games are devised to be played over several hundred hours, they have taken many months to devise and the good ones are therefore undoubtedly worth the money. Which brings us back to the question, why aren't there more good ones? Which is where we came in, isn't it?

The last thing I want to say in Railroad Tycoon's praise is that it totally ruined Sim City for me. I'd played Railroad Tycoon a lot before I tried Sim City. When I finally played it I did so non-stop for 120 minutes, since when it has stayed in its box. Compared to Railroad Tycoon, the rate at which decisions need to be made is sluggish, the range of decisions to be made is very limited and the means for reviewing the success of those decisions is inadequate. Give me more stats, jack!

[MS: I think you need to play them in reverse order; Sim City is only going to have impact if you haven't played Tycoon.]

So I would not include Sim City on my own personal list of stonking software but am prepared to concede that it was a ground breaker in terms of design, but so was the overrated Populous. If you are going to include M.U.L.E. on your all-time list then you can chuck in another oldie, RAILS WEST! Reckoned by me, Kevin Warne, probably Woody and Oakes and a couple of other dudes you've not heard of as the best game of any sort (RPG, board or computer) ever (hyperbole alert!). If Railroad Tycoon is a 10, Rails West! is about an 18, but it has been a while since I played it. If anyone has a copy of it on the Atari 800/xl format I'll buy it for £100. [MS: This sounds like a good game.] I'll even consider buying it on some other format provided the seller can also provide me with the wherewithal to play it.

I'd also like to nominate Midwinter II (Flames of Freedom), although the number of disk accesses do drag it down a lot. There's been lots of bonza golf games, notably Leaderboard, Mean 18 and PGA Tour, all of which have been or will be improved on by the next generation. One of my favourites is Kennedy Approach, a simple but absorbing air traffic control game that has the same sort of addictive appeal as Tetris. And where was Hardball? More baseball afficianado elitism or have you got genuine reasons for not rating it in the Hall of Fame?

[MS: I excluded sport games (they tend to be either semi arcade or stats based) in the introduction to the article, but agree with all these nominations in the non-strategy field. Unlike Paul Oakes, who can't abide computer golf games for some reason, these are among my favourites. When I get my PC, Links will be near the top of the buy list. Tetris has seen extended service on the Amiga recently and in the end I had to 'do a Bilbo' and get rid of the disk as it was becoming worryingly compulsive. 'Just one more game' was eating up hours.]

Close run things to Hall of Fame material include Nobunaga's Ambition, Pro Tennis Tour (too arcadey again, I guess), Perfect General, Lost Admiral, Gold of the Americas and Warlords. Dunno about Lemmings, I've never played it.

[MS: Lemmings goes straight into the top five as far as I'm concerned. See comments in Inside Pitch. Thanks for the, er, lengthy input John.]

Ben Volmert, Aachen I don't share all your opinions on computer games. One of the best commercial games I know is War in Russia for my old Atari 800. It's very strongly related to a boardgame but the computer takes on all the bookeeping, something boardgamers would never be able to do. Second Front, its follow-up, tried to improve even this but contained some errors, especially in the computer player module. If the new edition of SF were error free, I would immediately buy a copy.

Ellis Simpson, Glasgow I found myself nodding in agreement throughout most of the piece on computer games. A game which I have played is Fire Brigade. I enjoyed it the most because it appeared to be at the correct level. I issued orders and the units did their best to comply with them. It was also fairly quick.

Virtually every other puchase has been a disappointment. Even for someone like myself, who is not afraid of complexity, the overwheleming feeling I have had in the computer gaming field is that I am being conned. Why? Because I cannot see the inner workings of their games. I do not know, in most circumstances, what their movement rules and combat rules and supply rules and all the other rules actually mean. Yes, some of the games provide formulae; however they are so complicated that I can't help feeling that they have been designed to confuse rather than inform. In any event, if I have a paper boardgame in front of me I can normally tell from a perusal whether or not it plays in a manner which is acceptable to me and recreates the period in an acceptable fashion.

Somehow the tactile sensation and the standard of boardgaming maps and counters and rules at the top end of the design market has much more replay value than a computer screen. Of course, part of this is because the graphics on many computers are poor and part of it is because the processing power still cannot cope with what is required to simulate a live opponent. Also, my simple brain cannot cope with only seeing part of the map at one time which is something that most computer games seem to revel in.

The recent acquisition of No Greater Glory [SSI's new Strategic ACW game] is something that I have persevered with although I am suspicious that I do not know how the detailed information is put together. For example, the various politicians have home territory allegiances as well as political bias. If your cabinet is too full of liberals you will suffer from the radical wing and so forth. I cannot tell how this is balanced and I also cannot tell how to get the Union Army moving but that is another question. The point is that the game clearly has a lot of information available, tells you how some of it relates and comes close to Fire Brigade in producing the feel of being in command. Perhaps that is the core. A computer game which puts you in command as opposed to you in the trenches will be a success in my household.

[MS: This game is given an in depth analysis (with tips) by Phil Murphy in the latest Strategy Plus - it certainly looks interesting. While on the subject, Strategy Plus is currently running an excellent series by Chris Crawford on the history of the computer game and I'm told that a Fritz Bonner (of Liftoff fame) interview is forthcoming.]

[I am grateful for those who sent in their comments. I think, as a general rule, computer game reviews will be short or pop up in Inside Pitch and coverage will be low key. Obviously, when something special comes along in the strategy field I will do it justice, but for now Sumo will be sticking with boardgames as its core business. In fairness and in the absence of new publications, Strategy Plus is as good as you are going to get to complement on the computer side.]

On to the Bloomfield Auction or back to 18xx Letters.

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