Every once in a while a computer game comes along which promises to be a panacea for the solo wargamer. In the early days there were the low-res charms of Ancient Battles, the Wargames Construction Set and the Universal Military Simulator for the Atari and the Amiga. With the rise of the PC we were treated to a plethora of complex hex-based games, alongside the simpler pleasures of Age of Rifles and the Great Battles series. Finally, in the last few years, we’ve found ourselves with a wide choice of ‘real time’ games, not least the thoroughly enjoyable Total War series (of which Rome: Barbarian Invasion is a personal favourite).
The initial impact of each new generation of computer games often raises the question of what kind of future exists for tabletop wargaming, particularly for those of us who primarily play solo. I’ve found this to be the case again recently after buying Slitherine’s Field Of Glory PC game. Despite the limitations of the AI (which have been partially addressed in recent updates), I found the game impressive enough to buy the first three expansion sets, covering the ancient world in the eras of Greece and Rome, and the Middle Ages. With the ability to create custom scenarios, an easy-to-use multiplayer function and a substantial community of online players, FoG seemed to offer itself up as the latest Holy Grail for the solo player.
Having immersed myself in FoG, I’ve noticed a familiar pattern beginning to emerge. The more I play the game, the more I find that its inherent oddities and limitations seem almost designed to annoy and frustrate. Let’s leave aside the clunky AI, which can be offset by selecting a lower points total for one’s own army (though that in itself is hardly an elegant solution). Even in the multiplayer game there are serious issues which the game designers seem unwilling to address. First and foremost there is a lack of basic documentation, which means that even a moderately experienced player will find him/herself sending units into combat with a rather vague notion of how that combat will pan out. Secondly, chance seems to play an inordinately important part in combat resolution, such that ‘common sense’ historical outcomes can rarely be relied upon once battle has commenced. The game’s designers have defended this as representing the fortunes of war and the fog of battle, and many players are happy to go along with this. But for others, myself included, the lack of a decent manual (even in electronic form) combined with an excessive reliance on chance factors, takes the shine off what would otherwise be a very fine computer game.
And there’s the rub. With computer games, the focus of attention always seems to shift, in the final analysis, to the limitations of the package. Whether it’s bugs and program crashes, or eccentric games design and programming, or just a straightforward lack of documentation, the peculiarities of the software invariably end up taking centre stage. Of course, there is always the promise that the next upgrade, the next release, or even the next generation of games, will fix all the problems and answer all our prayers. That perfect computer game is always, tantalisingly, just over the horizon.
Worse still, however good the game may be, it’s longevity is always limited by the survival of the operating system that it’s tied into. While it’s possible to find emulators for old operating systems, or even to hang onto that old Win95 PC just in case you fancy playing a retro game or two, once the Microsoft gods have decreed the dawn of a new age in computing (something that seems to happen with depressing regularity), then you know that the days are numbered for your favourite computer wargame.
As with other less-than-perfect games in the past, I will probably continue to use Field of Glory to fight out some of the battlefield encounters within my broader solo campaigns. And once I’ve got over my present sense of disappointment, I may even return to the multi-player version of the game. But, as with other generations of computer software, it’s simply not good enough to replace the tabletop wargame. And in the final analysis I suppose that’s really not such a bad thing.