Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 133 / SEPTEMBER 1991 / PAGE 108

Abstract war games. (computer games)
by Orson Scott Card

You don't have to approve of war to enjoy playing war games. Besides, there are different kinds of war games. Some are combat games--those arcade games where you kick or blast your way through an endless onslaught of enemies in order to reach a higher level where you have to kick or blast your way through even more enemies. Victory depends on the reflexes and skills the player develops--by playing, you train yourself into a perfect "soldier" for that game.

Some war games are strategic, like the excellent Command H.Q. (Microplay), in which you play on a large map, manipulating nations and armies. The whole war is your responsibility.

Some war games are tactical, a sort of middle ground in which you maneuver the individual units of a larger force. Your game is usually a single battle consisting of many engagements and firefights. Your units may be as large as divisions or as small as tanks or individual soldiers--but you, as the player, control many of them, not just one or two.

The boundaries between these kinds of war games are never firmly fixed. Insofar as the Ultima games are war games, are they combat games because you control the individual combat decisions of a very small team? Or tactical, because you maneuver and control several players?

Does it matter? Well, it does if you're playing war games for real. When, at the Marine University in Quantico, I sat in on a war game session led by Captain John Schmitt (author of what may be the most concisely brilliant book of strategy ever written), it really mattered whether you thought strategically as well as tactically--because someday what you did in the game might show up on the battlefield.

Likewise, the best of the officers playing the game took into account the individual abilities of soldiers in their made-up squads. "I'd put my two best marksmen here and have them move very slowly into position there during the night. I know they could get there because I trained them to do it." Combat ability, tactics, and strategy--every step along the continuuum is important.

But there's another continuum, too, when it comes to war games: abstraction versus simulation. Chess, for instance, is a highly abstracted war game. Sure, we speak of "knights" and "castling," but there's no sense in which our use of bishops and queens reflects real warfare! And as for moving castles . . . well, enough said.

So when I tell you that Full Metal Planet (Infogrames, copyrighted and distributed in the U.S. by Data East) is a fairly abstract tactical game, that doesn't mean that it isn't a good war game. It does mean that you won't get the thrill of kicking your way through a whole bunch of enemies--combat is only scarcely more graphic than seeing one piece take another in chess. Yet you get another kind of thrill--the excitement of maneuvering your forces defensively and offensively against very tough computer opponents or other human players, under a very tight time limit of no more than 25 moves.

Unrealistic? No, just abstract. The graphics are gorgeous, somewhat impressionistic and yet grittily real. It's a bleak alien landscape, where your corporation and up to four computer opponents and three other humans are trying to gather as much ore as possible, all the while blasting or capturing the other corporations' equipage and trying to keep its men from doing the same to you.

The rules of movement are quite abstract, and the battles themselves are simple. The playing field is a hex grid with a sea whose unpredictable tides can drastically alter your movement capability. It sounds simple, but the complications are as intricate as chess.

Whether you prefer twitch games or games like Full Metal Planet is just a matter of whether you want your reflexes to play the game for you or you sometimes want the game to reach your brain.