FoG Bound

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.

12 thoughts on “FoG Bound

  1. The problem I find with most PC games is that if you are the type of gamer that likes to tweak rules, here you cannot, even if you are a programmer. Sort of an extension upon your argument about not knowing how it works.

    The Civilization line of games got progressively better with regards to tweakability. It would be nice if others would follow that line.

  2. That would be fantastic wouldn’t it? Certainly FoG, with the option of filtering out the huge dose of randomness and with the addition of a simple pdf manual, could be a real winner. But the need to turn a profit always seems to kick in early on. Slitherine are actually pretty good at upgrading the software and listening to their customer base, but new releases of the FoG army lists (mirroring the published tabletop lists) always take precedence over improving the core program. Although ironically in the long term that could be rather short-sighted from a commercial point of view as well.

  3. I will admit that one of the disappointments with PC based wargames has been the fact that they, to a greater or lessor extent, always seem to want to reproduce a tabletop game, which they just can’t do.

    One of the things I’ve always loved about the Civ Series was that they did not try to do that – they were designed or developed just as a Civ game. Of course, I hate having to do a major upgrade of the PC each time a new release of Civilization comes out but in many respects, that does at least keep pushing the graphics envelope and that is perhaps not such a bad thing.

    I’ve ummed and ahhhed over Slitherine’s FoG, and each time I go to purchase I seem to find a couple of books at Book Depository that soak up the available budget. So, is FoG worth the cost for a solo gamer? Is it worth it if you have a live(ish) opponent living 1,000km away? If you didn’t have it but knew what you do now, would you still go ahead and buy it?

  4. Hi Thomo, good to hear from you mate!

    >>So, is FoG worth the cost for a solo gamer? Is it worth it if you have a live(ish) opponent living 1,000km away? If you didn’t have it but knew what you do now, would you still go ahead and buy it?

    That’s the billion dollar question really isn’t it? On balance – I’d say yes. It’s frustrating at times, but I suspect I’ll go back to it again and again, not least to provide the battlefield component of solo campaigns. I’d suggest just buying the core program, which is pretty reasonably priced, and hold off on purchasing the expansion packs until you’re sure as to whether it’s for you or not. I suspect you’ll love it…or loathe it! I introduced a friend to it a little while ago and he’s now a big fan, so it’s very much down to invidual preferences/inclinations.

  5. I used to play ‘Age Of Rifles’ until Windows became unable to run it (without having to poke the operating system about). But, as you say, there were annoyances which couldn’t be addressed because, unlike a set of written rules, you can’t tweak and house-rule.

    I’ve never really bothered with computer wargames since. I like Guitar Hero and various Lego games on the PS2/X-Box, but to me it’s a different kind of gaming – a break from the Real Thing.

  6. Never let the old operating system put you off from playing your favourite PC game. Many of the old DOS games run perfectly using DOSBOX, and any thar ran in windows’95 or ’98 will run perfectly in XP or Vista.
    Windows 7 is a problem area that I have encountered,as it tends to screw up the graphics of games.

  7. Thanks for the review – I’m still in two minds about this one. Incidentally, I’ve had a bit of a virtual conversation with Simon the Big Red Bat over on his blog about adapting your solo campaign ideas for the Romans:

    Would you mind if I wrote this up and stuck on my blog? I’ll make sure to give you credit and links to your page.

    Cheers, and keep up the good work.

  8. I play solo tabletop games against the computer every day (Im retired!) mainly because I need the computer opponent. Ive found no human player can match the availability of a computer, even if they can email several turns a day. Ive learned to relax about oddities in the rules. War is a very complicated and surprising business where almost anything can happen and does.

    I use age of rifles, the Tiller games, and field of glory.

    Well Im off to Waterloo!

  9. Hi George, I used to love Age of Rifles, but sadly my pc won’t run it any more – hrumph! I think I have what counsellors call “attachment issues” with old computer games ;o)

  10. The John Tiller games can be programmed to provide a very interesting miniatures opponent. I am trying to organize more people to learn to program the available scenarios, then we can share them. Id like to hear from anyone interested, and have details on my wargaming website:

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