January is always a slow month for new game releases and this year follows suit. There’s been a few eyebrow raisers. The much-buzzed-about Hero Emblems is, like a levitating Gilbert Gottfried, something I can admire without wanting to spend a lot of time with. Clancy has given the highest possible recommendation to Hadean Lands, but it’s the sort of thing you have to be in a very particular mood for.
But there are a hell of a lot of good games just over the next hill. I’ve been knuckle-down in some projects I can’t tell you about just yet (wait until I do) but I’ve found the time to mess around with some very promising pre-release betas for games that are nearing launch.
So don’t fret, people. There’s a lot of worthwhile stuff coming — I’m not even getting into some of the other games I’ve seen because it’s movie night here high atop Mount Hexmap and I think I’ve almost got my lady wife convinced about watching the Director’s Cut of Das Boot. Almost.
When I was a kid, my first two wargames were purchased from an infrequently-disturbed bottom shelf at the Salvation Army charity shop. One of the two has since become the answer to an unfairly difficult trivia question (James Clavell’s Whirlwind) but the other was–by chance–a bona fide classic: Advanced Squad Leader.
Whirlwind was a mystifying jumble of chits comprising a game about mercenary helicopter pilots in Revolutionary Iran. I didn’t get the game at all, but I thought the map of Iran and the helicopter chits were pretty neat.
Advanced Squad Leader was also a let-down at first — to my exasperation it turned out to be just a rulebook with no pieces. When I overcame my pre-teen indignation and sat down to read it, I was mesmerized. Here was a game of WWII combat that simulated individual infantry squads in excruciating detail. It blew my mind. It was nothing like the video games I played with my friends, which rewarded reflexes and hand-eye coordination, qualities that my Little League coaches noted that I possessed in no measurable quantities. ASL was about patience and cunning and moxie, which I did have — or at least, I thought I was more likely to develop. I promptly flipped those Whirlwind chits over onto their blank sides and inked them up into ersatz ASL counters.
ASL became a kind of religion for me. I took me weeks of poring over the enormous rulebook for its obscured truths to become clear to me, and I preached the virtues of the game to every neighborhood kid I could wrangle into sitting down for a tutorial. Re-readings of the rulebook and new gameplay situations led to moments of revelation and doctrinal revision. It was probably six months before the version of Advanced Squad Leader being played in my neighborhood resembled the intended gameplay, but my fellow converts and I carried on playing it for years.
John Hill, who designed the original Squad Leader (from which ASL descended) and many other notable wargames, passed away last week at the age of 69. Even if you never played Squad Leader or its immediate offspring, you’ve probably played a game that it influenced. Squad Leader’s attention to low-level tactical detail was unique for its time. The game sold hundreds of thousands of copies and spawned tournaments, meet-ups, and mailing lists all over the world. It inspired game designers like X-Com creator Julian Gollop and attempts to translate it into a computer game gave us Atomic’s Close Combat and Combat Mission.
Lift a glass for John Hill tonight. And I’ll see if I can’t find my make-shift ASL counters the next time I’m at my parents’ house. (Hat-tip to Michael B. for passing on the news.)
What an unexpected blast of releases last week, huh? We’ve got a ton of reviews in the hopper right now: Jacob’s turned in Anomaly Defenders, Alex is working on Banner Saga, Kelsey is on Stalag 17 (remember that one? their website is working now too, by the by), Clancy is doing terrifying experiments on something or other, and I’ve got Card Dungeon and Strategy & Tactics reviews ready to go, with Russian Front not too far behind. Plus — we’ve got a interview with some giants of the gaming industry going up on Tuesday about their next game, which is coming to tablets much, much sooner than some of you might be expecting. Whew. That’s a lotta stuff.
This is probably the last Sunday Almanac for a little while, my friends, so milk all of the lovely linky goodness you can out of this one — print it out and put it up in the dashboard of your Spitfire. I’m getting married in a couple of weeks and will be around sporadically until December, but when I return all tanned and jet-lagged I’ll have a crate or two worth of hyperlinks for you to peruse. Dave and Clancy will be running the show in my absence and I’ve been programming them for months. Don’t say “Cochise” around them — that’s the attack word.
[Update: Stalag 17’s escape tunnel appears to have led right back into the prison. It doesn’t work on iOS 8 — so don’t hold your breath for that review.]
If we ain’t outta here in ten minutes, we won’t need no rocket to fly through space.
This week’s Almanac was originally going to be a rant at EA over the new SimCity BuildIt details that they divulged to Pocket Gamer‘s intrepid Mark Brown. But as Typhoid Mary once said: I’m not worried about all that crap.
I interviewed designer Vlaada Chvatil about this game on Friday and if I interpret the howls emanating from the PT Writers’ Dungeon correctly, Neumann should be putting the finishing touches on our review momentarily. But here’s the short version: this game is damn good, and you’re going to be playing it tonight for longer than you’d planned. I’ve taken the liberty of preparing some excuses you can use when you turn up to the office an hour late tomorrow morning.
“The boiler exploded.”
“My wife/husband has become the Gatekeeper/Keymaster of Gozer the Gozerian.”
“Time is an illusion/flat circle.”
One of those should do the trick. Sunday links after the jump.
Lady F and I were at the RA this weekend to see the Dennis Hopper photography exhibit, and were greeted by this installation of U-boats lurking in the entryway. None of the young ticket-rippers working that day seemed to know who the artist was or what the work was called. Sorry about the glare — unlike Mr Hopper I’m a crummy photographer.
This week’s Almanac isn’t a story or a rant; it’s just a clear-out. My sinister office here at PT HQ high atop Mount Hexmap is almost completely papered over with post-its and notes written to myself on the backs of Woolworth receipts and racing forms — I can hardly keep my plans for superweapons straight from my schematics for mind control devices. Intolerable.
After the jump: small updates from developers we care about and stuff that has slipped through the cracks over the last couple of weeks.
Yes, it’s true. Pocket Tactics readers are smarter, more attractive, and uphold higher standards of personal hygiene than the average Joe or Jane. It’s been scientifically proven by the results of this year’s Reader Survey, which over a thousand of you graciously volunteered your time to fill out last week. I thought perhaps you’d enjoy seeing some of the data from it.
Fair warning: this Almanac is all naval-gazing inside-baseball tomfoolery about PT. If you don’t care (who could blame you?) then we’ll see you tomorrow for news and my review of Spymaster.
“Forward to Mount Hexmap and the glorious ultimate victory of premium games, Comrades!”
I believe it was Churchill who said that advertising is the worst way of supporting a website, except for all the others that have been attempted. Well for the moment, at least, advertising provides most of the revenue that pays Pocket Tactics‘ bills and pays for the services of our exceptional staff (Neumann, Clancy, Kelsey, FNG Jacob) and our unexceptional staff (Owen).
So that we can brag to our advertisers about how attractive and intelligent our readership is, we do one annual survey to get to know you better. Last month there were about 150,000 different people that came to PT around a million times, so we’d love to hear a little bit about who you are and what you think.
I promise in every legally binding way that we won’t use this information for anything nefarious or sell it or anything like that. We just want to be able to tell our advertisers that you’re 60% Americans and 14% left-handed and 21% Whigs and that sort of thing.
I’ve got a bunch of promo codes for good iOS games to give away as a thank-you for taking the time to do the survey. Leave us your email address and the end of the survey (totally optional) and I’ll give them away in a random drawing at the end of this week.
Vindolanda, photo taken by the author. Blurriness on account of the pub lunch, not the fault of the camera.
Pa Faraday was over on business from the motherland, so we took the weekend to go to Hadrian’s Wall, a British landmark that I’d never seen in all the years I’ve lived here. Moving to a new place comes with a regrettable impulse to adopt the jaded ways of a local as rapidly as possible, sacrificing the opportunity to gawp about as a tourist. I was glad for the excuse.
There’s no shortage of towns in England’s north that advertise muric attractions — fifteen-hundred years after resisting imperial rule like a toddler fights bedtime, the English are decidedly pro-Roman now. We chose more or less at random to visit Vindolanda, which involved a train to Bardon Mill, a friendly little town where the eponymous mill still stands, the pub serves a respectable lunch (try the curry), and the locals are keen to have new ears to bend about how hapless Newcastle United FC are.
Vindolanda is about a mile’s walk from the town (don’t bother getting a cab — working for the local taxi services appears to be some sort of penal duty, judging from their enthusiasm for picking up customers) and it’s one of the most remarkable ancient Roman sites I’ve ever seen. The stone walls of the 3rd-century Roman fort are partially preserved, as are the footings of the surrounding village — it’s more impressive than the nearby remains of Hadrian’s Wall, which you could stumble over without noticing. You can walk through these remarkable ruins and then visit a modern on-site museum where a carefully curated collection of artefacts from the site are on display: pilum spears, funerary stones, a huge assortment of leather shoes that look strong enough to walk in today.
Most important among the artefacts are the Vindolanda tablets, hundreds of tiny scraps of wood inscribed with (to the Romans) unimportant everyday messages that give us a crucial window into everyday life in classical Britain: troop head-counts, thank-you notes for gifts (and passive-aggressive letters wondering about the absence of a thank-you note), informal business proposals. If you look at poorly spelled and lazily punctuated internet comments and worry about the state of civilization, have a gander at the ropey cursive writing and casual approach to grammar in the Vindolanda tablets and be assured that people have been like that for at least a couple of thousand years.
If you find yourself in the north of England with an afternoon to kill, go to Vindolanda. You can even volunteer to join the ongoing excavations there, which I might do myself next summer. If you can’t make it to England, you can look at the Vindolanda tablets online — read them on a rainy day and have a friend tell you that he misses Joey Barton for a fuller Hadrian’s Wall visit experience.
It’s the summer bank holiday today, so there will be just one more post today. Almanac links after the jump.