I had hoped to write about more games in this article, or even to do an issue on games, but it just isn't going to happen. Partly I haven't had time to play too many games (I never do, it seems), and partly I didn't receive responses from companies like Spectrum Holobyte and Maxis. Oh well, too bad on them - now I won't get to say nice things about their programs. Delta Tao and Berkeley Systems however do win out, particularly with Spaceward Ho! and Lunatic Fringe.
First, this is my method of deciding if a game is good or not. I spend a lot of time testing software and writing, and I never lack something productive to on my Mac, so I don't often play computer games. I often try PD/Shareware games and the occasional commercial game, and the true test of a game is if I continue playing it after a couple of test runs. I suspect that this situation is not the norm, so if you have tons of time to play games you may not agree with some of my impressions.
I've been playing three sorts of games these last few months, strategy, arcade, and board games (which generally end up being puzzles of a sort). In the strategy section I've mainly played Delta Tao's cowboy space opera Spaceward Ho! over their other entry, Strategic Conquest. Why? Quite frankly, I have more fun playing Spaceward Ho!. Strategic Conquest puts you on an island with a single army-producing city. The goal is simple: conquer the other cities on the island, have them produce various types of ships and airplanes, explore the rest of the world, and kill anything you meet. Each army, ship, or airplane gets its own chance to move, and after you've been playing for a while it becomes tedious to attend to all the pieces, even though you can put them to sleep to avoid dealing with them. For me, Strategic Conquest wants too much guidance for actions that may not be interesting, such as directing a tank to drive to a seaport and board a transport ship. Such detail makes Strategic Conquest far more realistic than Spaceward Ho!, which handles more of the routine actions for you, but I guess I'm not interested in too much realism in a strategy wargame. A personal foible, I'm sure, since I never liked the graph-paper wargames as a kid either. If you do enjoy that sort of game, you'll love Strategic Conquest.
Spaceward Ho! avoids the extreme realism with a liberal dose of humor, all in the name of playability. Planets have wonderful icons that identify whether or not they belong to you or to another player and whether or not they will ever be profitable. When you send a fleet away from a planet or call one back, appropriate cowboy sounds play. In addition, you control everything in Spaceward Ho! with a set of simple bar graphs and an easy click and drag interface, removing it greatly from the blood and guts realism in Strategic Conquest. One final humanistic note: in Spaceward Ho!, when you colonize a planet, you get a population; in Strategic Conquest, conquering a city lets you decide what sort of war machine it should produce. I'm not going to try to cover Spaceward Ho! more here since Ken Hancock did an excellent job in his review of it in TidBITS-056.
Both Spaceward Ho! and Strategic Conquest can be played over an AppleTalk network, and Strategic Conquest can also be played via modem. As with most computer games, having the computer around when you're alone is great, but beating up on your friends over the network is even more fun. A friend and I played Spaceward Ho! over the network for about 6 hours straight before being pulled away by a prior commitment. Luckily we resumed later that night so I could take over the universe.
Both Strategic Conquest and Spaceward Ho! can be fast paced in big games, but nothing beats Lunatic Fringe for good clean arcade action. Lunatic Fringe's main claim to fame is that it is actually a screen saver in the More After Dark package (an excellent package in its own right, and a good present - whoops, that reminds me I have to order it for my uncle; don't tell him). Programmed by the talented Ben Haller of Solarian II fame, Lunatic Fringe is essentially a jazzed-up, weirded-out version of Asteroids, complete with some of the best sounds this side of Spaceward Ho! and the meanest enemies around. If you like jetting around the known, though fairly small, universe avoiding asteroids and numerous types of nasties while collecting yummies and points, you'll find little more enjoyable than Lunatic Fringe. [Just don't let anyone accidently move your mouse while you play. Evidently I destroyed one of Adam's best games by jiggling the mouse pad at a bad moment. -Tonya]. To those who complain that a screensaver shouldn't be a game, I say "Humbug!" Screensavers are fun, and Lunatic Fringe is fun, and if you don't like it your monitor might have an off switch that works as a screensaver and conserves energy too.
Tile's Play bridges the gap between the previous category of arcade games and the next category of board games. The game resembles those slide puzzles with one piece missing, although in Tile's Play each piece has one of several tunnel sections on it. You must move the pieces around, connecting the correct ones to form a tunnel, a task which wouldn't be easy even if you had a lot of time. You have more than a time limit, though. After you've been working a short time, a small yellow ball starts rolling from one corner of the screen through the tunnel you've built for it to the other corner of the screen. It doesn't roll quickly, but there's no way to stop it (short of creating a tunnel loop, I guess). Lest that seem too easy, some tiles are locked in place (luckily clearly marked), and there are two other entities that travel in the tunnels and appear in higher levels. The first just tries to eat your yellow ball and you have to make sure to keep it out of the tunnel you're building. The second doesn't hurt your ball, but can randomly cause tunnel sections to mutate, ruining your carefully-laid plumbing. You'll find Tile's Play a twisty, stressful game as you struggle to get your yellow ball to the other side of the screen, and little is more nerve-wracking then when you have to move the tile that actually holds the rolling ball so it can bridge an otherwise fatal gap. Tile's Play is $15 shareware from Suresh Kumar (email@example.com) and currently requires a color monitor. Highly recommended.
In the straight board game section, I usually find myself playing Stained Glass, $25 shareware from Nick Schlott. Like Tile's Play, it appears to require a color monitor. Unlike most of the other games I've talked about here, Stained Glass is not intuitively obvious. It resembles those games where you try to remove all but one peg from the board by jumping one over another repeatedly. In Stained Glass, that simple action is complicated by the colors of the panes of glass in the 6 x 12 grid. The grid has three primary colors, red, blue, and yellow, and three secondary colors, green, pink, and orange, which are the result of two primary panes being on the same square. Stained Glass has four different types of jumps. First are those jumps where a primary color jumps over another primary color to an empty space, deleting the jumped pane. Second are the jumps when a primary color jumps over a secondary color that contains a component of that primary color, at which point the component is subtracted. (Remember which colors make up which other colors? Good, I don't.) The third type of move is when a primary color jumps another primary color, but lands on another primary color after doing so. The jumped pane is deleted, and the pane that is landed on combines with the pane that did the jumping to create another color (that's why you can't land on a secondary color, since blue plus orange equals mud, as the excellent help section tells us). The final type of move is the simplest, where a secondary color like green jumps another secondary color to either land on an empty square or another pane of green. In either case the jumped pane is deleted. Hmm, it sounds confusing, but it's actually fun and extremely challenging to play. I wish I was better at colors - I find it difficult to remember all the possibilities and in the process make too many random moves.
Delta Tao's pair, Strategic Conquest and Spaceward Ho!, and the More After Dark collection from Berkeley Systems (which requires After Dark 2.0v, by the way) should all be available from your favorite purveyor of commercial software. Tile's Play and Stained Glass you'll have to find on the nets or in a user group's shareware library, but any of these games would make a good present for someone wanting to play games on the Macintosh this holiday season.
Delta Tao documentation
Tile's Play documentation
Stained Glasss help