My Finals are looming closer, and like everyone else, I’ve drawn out an impressive revision timetable which I shall spend the next three months ignoring. Next term, Trinity term, brings so many distractions. The balls! The punting! Productions of ‘Hamlet’ in the pouring rain! CRASH deadlines... And very soon I shall be appearing in ZZAP! too, doing battle with the enemy via a Commodore and disc drive (apologies to all you Spectrum purists, but someone has to pay for all the balls and punting).
FRONTLINE may have a title which suggests the battlefield, and it’s true that nearly all of the games I’ve had for review since I started have been wargames, but I am supposed to be here to cover strategy games as well. That is, strategy games other than wargames, and these have not been very inspiring in the past. One thinks of the banana republic, of starving or revolting peasants, of general election and taxes. One thinks of Football Manager and, though hopefully not too hard, of The Great Space Race. These are the sort of games which can be played in terms of simple numerical input, Yes/No responses and multiple choices, and they are on the whole momentously unsatisfying. A lot of imagination has to go into the concept to make the numbers meaningful and the objectives the strategy achieves interesting to the player, getting these factors right made Football Manager a playable and addictive game. The Great Space Race, in contrast, is a complete failure because of the confused mass of irrelevant statistics it generates in response to a minimum of player input, and the tangled, open-ended rewards offered. The limited-input statistic game can benefit greatly from good design but it can never be a living, moving work of computer entertainment. The format has limited potential.
Theoretically, however, strategy needn’t mean banana republics or wargames only. There is potential within the standard wargame format to treat a different scenario, which is an area of gaming almost entirely unexplored and undeveloped. Adventure games are quite often fantasy or science fiction — ‘whodunnits’ and related thrillers might these days be added as a third standard background — but there are certainly a fair number of notable exceptions which treat ‘alternative’ plot-lines. The novelty and quite often the humour of these — Hampstead, for instance — can be extremely appealing, and, what is more important to the software producers, commercially successful. The comparison between wargames and standard adventures isn’t exactly a parallel one, because adventures are related to written literature and wargames are specifically designed to simulate battle situations. Any other concept which rides on the back of the ‘cardboard counters’ set-up will probably seem artificial; wargames also define their own conclusion and reward by their closed, combative gameplay, and this might be rather hard to transfer to an alternative context.
But what is a strategy game anyway? It is not merely a game which requires the use of the mind rather than the reflexes to play successfully. Marsport and its companion games are solveable, not zappable, but have a solution which is arrived at by working out an inter-connected set of puzzles and involves the player in no subtle decision making. At the other extreme the cheerfully genocidal Uridium needs some careful thinking and planning to play well; shooting the waves of wotsits is easy, it’s working out an individual approach to each level, and deciding which to go for and which to leave alone, that gets the highest scores and makes the gameplay satisfying and involving.
Decision making is a fundamental component of a strategy game. In The Great Space Race it is the only component, which probably demonstrates the point as well as any; nobody would deny that, however appalling, TGSR is a strategy game. Wargames require the player to make many subtle decisions every game turn, balancing risks, preserving supply, and, in some games, spending resource points. It would be possible — not easy, but game designing is not easy — to construct a game which was neither too closely based on the potentially stifling wargame format, nor of the branching bannana republic type. There are certainly board games which present some intriguing ideas, and could be adapted and enhanced to the computer: the old-fashioned, eternally-valid games like Monopoly and Diplomacy and the newer, more complex systems like Illuminati. It’s true that some of these rely on diplomatic interaction, but there must be some ideas, suitable to the computer, which don’t.
Time to return to Middle English and Shakespeare. Next month, if I survive this week’s revision programme, I’ll be complaining about the Software Scene.