Everybody gets old — the question is, how do you realize it? I realized I was old when I stopped being surprised by things that would have shocked me in my twenties. Russia ruled by a madman? No longer shocking. US soon to be ruled by a madman? No longer shocking. Game touted as Computer Squad Leader ends up being disappointing? Well…
After the jump, okay, I can still be surprised by some things.
Computer wargames feel like they’re stuck in some sort of sad entertainment backwater. While other genres experience evolution and expansion, computer wargamers are like those passengers on that ship in the Twilight Zone doomed to be sunk by the same German U-boat every night until the end of time: they have this vague feeling something is going to happen at a certain time, but they aren’t sure what. Uncomfortable premonitions? We’ve all had them. And then someone releases Combat Mission: Shock Force, and we’re on our way to the sea bottom, once again.
I hadn’t heard anything about Tigers on the Hunt before it was released, so I wasn’t sitting around, uneasily waiting for the inevitable torpedo strike. The name is an obvious homage to or rip-off of Tigers on the Prowl, a hardcore, rivet-counting turn-based game that any old-school wargamer would recognize as a DOS-based incarnation of pure bliss and everyone else would treat as a digital manifestation of mental illness. Look at the screenshots on that thing, and understand that those are from Tigers on the Prowl Two. You don’t want to know what the original looked like. But I’ll show you anyway.
The other salient point is that game was released in 1996. Boris Yeltsin was still drunk, I was about to vote for Bob Dole, and you could get on airplanes without having to prove that you weren’t planning to take down NORAD using your travel tub of Castle Forbes Lime Oil Shaving Cream. If you can’t remember what that was like, that’s weird, because I can sure remember what it was like to have to remember non-intuitive keystrokes in the absence of mouse support just to play some game about tanks. Since then, the world got a lot more complicated. And computer wargames stayed exactly the same.
I’m just being a curmudgeon. Give me a break — like I said, I’m old. There have been several breakthrough products in the genre that try to replicate clumsy cardboard squares with ten thousand times more computing power than it took to deter the USSR from nuking us in 1985. Tomislav Uzelac’s Unity of Command, Shenandoah Studio’s Battle of the Bulge, and pretty much everything by Panther Games have all shown us different ways to rearrange our hexes and boxes and cute little bobbleheaded Nazis to give wargamers a new approach to putting a German panzer unit right in the middle of Moscow oh yeah suck it Stalin — I mean, exploring mankind’s greatest conflict. Shenandoah Studio gave us a way to kick Hitler’s ass in France, Russia, and l’Afrique, until they died because the number of people who appreciated their masterpiece collapsed under the weight of the team it took to deliver it to them. In the meantime, we get stuff like Tigers on the Hunt.
Tigers on the Hunt is a transparent attempt to replicate a certain type of gameplay that is a natural product of a person sitting across from you at a table, picking up physical counters, and moving them across a game board. “I move here, do you shoot at me? How about now? What about now?” It’s an imitation of the thing without its essence. It’s like that Star Trek episode where Trelane recreates 18th-century Earth just by observing it from 900 light years away, so the food has no taste because how are you going to know what Georgian era food tastes like if you watch it from space? And how are you going to know what playing Squad Leader is like if you’re just clicking on buttons without another person around?
If you were trying to alienate computer gamers unfamiliar with Squad Leader, as well as Squad Leader fans, but only had one game to do it, Tigers on the Hunt would be your game of choice. It is clearly built on the framework of Squad Leader, in a way that any Squad Leader player will instantly recognize, and it uses terms that are like a second language to him or her. Hindrance, Rout Phase, Covered Arc, TEM. But if you don’t know what these are, good luck. Hindrance is sort of described in a rudimentary glossary, but only that it “affects LOS” and also “reduces fire accuracy.” TEM is not only never defined (I’ll end the suspense – it means Terrain Effect Modifier), but is also just described as being “low,” “medium,” or “high.” Yet when you look at the actual terrain effect chart, this effect is listed as “DEF.” In a game where the designers throw around terms without definition, I would think that they could at least be consistent. “Is TEM the same as DEF, and if not, where is the TEM of terrain listed?” is a question I could imagine on game forums if new players somehow got far enough into the game to ask the question, which is another one of those fantasy scenarios of which my age has now disabused me. The interface, which will make no friends of anyone, was described by someone as “looking like a debug screen”. It’s so bad that you can’t even change which counter in a stack is on top.
The Squad Leader veterans, on the other hand, will be annoyed by the inability to do certain things, like change a Gun’s Covered Arc, and the AI’s inability to function on the attack. But what should bother people most who want to experience real Squad Leader on the computer is that the game hides everything that makes Squad Leader what it is. Want to figure out exactly how best to divide your firegroup to have the best chance of breaking that German squad with the LMG in the stone building. Good luck. You have no idea even how many firepower factors you have, or what the leader modifications are. That road hex you need to cross to get to the woods is covered by a Russian machinegun. Chances of being hit? Who knows. How much does my tank’s chance to hit decrease if I move my Main Armament’s Covered Arc? Uhhh All the minute details that you need to sweat and that make the game such an obsessive quest to bend every beam and strut of the rules to your benefit are behind an opaque wall of obfuscation. Which is inimical to the whole point of having a boardgame in which you hang on every single modifier.
I still remember, to this day, a game I played in what I think must have been around 1997, in a small, local tournament. We were playing a scenario from the ASL Annual magazine called “Zon with the Wind,” a small, half-map scenario that requires the Americans to exit a certain number of squads of paratroops off the edge of the map, in the face of two German 88s. I needed to get one more squad off to win, but the gantlet I had to run seemed almost impossible to survive. I made it through one clear hex. Then the next. By the third, my opponent and I were both standing. By the fourth, there was a crowd of people around us. By the fifth, the crowd was yelling. The dice kept rolling high for him, low for me, spinning in the dice cup as we slammed them, red and white, harder and harder into the glass. My 7-4-7 and his leader made it off the map, thanks to something like seven or eight consecutive successful morale checks without even a Pin result. My opponent had been diced in the worst way possible. And we both felt satisfied with the game. That’s a crazy feeling that not many boardgames can replicate. Tigers on the Hunt sure can’t. But is it even reasonable to expect it to try?
I feel a bit sad that people who desire a Squad-Leader-like game experience but have no local opponents or time to play need to resort to things like Tigers on the Hunt, because it’s kind of like resorting to, uh … let me put it another way. Whether it is trying to do this or not is not all that important, because what it is actually achieving is a certain kind of precise, regimented, procedural gameplay that I am convinced satisfies some sort of wargame craving, which is the craving for gaming order. And this is what a game like Tigers on the Hunt does perfectly.
I’ve long since come to terms with the fact that as a board wargamer, I exist somewhere on the autism spectrum, maybe on the highly functioning part, sure, but what can I say when I find something fundamentally attractive about a bunch of perfect squares with regular symbols on them aligned on a hexagonal grid with visually pleasing icons and numbers in a way that suggests a cross between World War II and a honeycomb? I love arranging counters just so. I love clipping the corners so they look oh so perfectly regular. I can stare at these until my eyes have permanent retinal damage in the form of NATO symbols. I’m sick, but I’m happy. You wish you had it this good.
We aren’t all like this. Some of us like little soldiery things. Some of us like highly textured 3D models that we can endlessly rotate round and round like the toys we played with when we were eight. Some of us would rather have it all be some abstract shapes that we fit together on a grid made of stars. But we all like something. My friend Nick Karp, designer of Vietnam 1965-75, probably the greatest strategic Vietnam wargame ever made, recently described wargamers as “a series of infinitesimally intersecting Venn diagrams.” We like history, we like games, we like complex systems, we like math, we like things all lined up in a goddamn row all nice, like. We hate sloppy corners.
Don’t believe me? I’ve been playing a lot of this game called Atlantic Fleet. It’s a pretty nice game, what with the cool ship models and the turn-based gameplay and the solution to making ship-to-ship combat engaging. But you know what? There’s some disconnect for me between the cool models and the way they move that just drives me nuts. And the way the sight lines are drawn. And a bunch of other tiny things that emphasize the disconnect between the ships that looks like real ships, and the lines that look like my old Atari. Like I said, it’s a sickness. But it’s my sickness. And I’m not at all sorry about it.
Because while I can rant all day about how infuriatingly primitive Tigers on the Hunt is, I’m somehow more comfortable with its aesthetic and utilitarian consistency than I am with Atlantic Fleet’s. Because when I play Tigers on the Hunt, I can watch the system roll through its motions and feel every shake and shudder of the gears. I’m massaging my compulsions, and it feels good. Atlantic Fleet is lying to me, somehow. The ships move so weirdly. Shouldn’t they really be little cardboard rectangles? Who are they kidding?
And that utilitarian aesthetic consistency is precisely what this kind of gaming requires. It’s what makes me want to play more scenarios, even though I can clearly see all the game’s flaws. There is something about moving your tank one, two, three hexes, and then suddenly being hit by an AT gun and knocked out. Or moving — wincing — moving — wincing — and then getting behind cover, amazed that you somehow arrived safely. This is one million times better when someone is sitting across from you, rolling dice, but to a certain kind of gamer, namely me, this is a fundamental gaming experience. It’s the interactivity that Euros finally established as the standard of care in entertainment therapy, but which Squad Leader had achieved in 1977. Rest in peace, John Hill. You were way ahead of your time.
So despite the terrible interface, the AI that can only defend, and the lack of any emotional reaction from my digital playing partner, I’m slowly playing through all the scenarios, and enjoying the way each one of them unfolds, even though I know I’m essentially playing the Pan-and-Scan version of a bad remake of a widescreen Sven Nykvist film: it’s obviously not the real thing, and it kind of misses the point, but you can see the underlying genius in spite of all this. Plus, I know my TEM from my DEF. And because it’s hardwired into me by now, I’ll never forget it.