Want to turn a green lane into a brown lane, tow a Gulaschkanone across a snowy field, or roam the Western Desert trashing Axis airfields? Get a 4×4. Want quick introductions to low-profile PC games of interest to wargamers and simmers? Read a 3×3. Prior to penning one of these features I’ll play three under-exposed underdogs for three hours each. While it would be cavalier to call the reports that result from these brief auditions ‘reviews’, it’s conceivable they might lead to more prolonged playtests, and prompt or prevent the odd purchase.
In the final days of WW2, a colourful miscellany of warriors and VIPs defend a picturesque Tyrolean castle against a heavily-armed force of SS diehards; the scrap consomméd in this fine port of a fine board game feels like the climax of a Where Eagles Dare-style war movie, but, remarkably, it actually happened.
On May 5th 1945, American and Wehrmacht troops, Austrian resistance fighters, an SS officer, and a group of French PoWs that included two ex Prime Ministers and a tennis star, joined forces to fight a desperate defensive action against elements of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Divison. The good guys had the high ground, the stout stonework, and an ‘Easy Eight’ Sherman, the baddies superior numbers, multiple mortars and HMGs, a Pak 40 and an ’88’.
In real life the tenants of Castle Itter lost their M4, but held out until an American relief force arrived. Achieving a similar result in this £6 fun grenade – especially if you play at “veteran” or “elite” difficulty – requires sound tactics and, occasionally, a functioning lucky rabbit’s foot or equivalent. Regular manual consultations and lashings of free time are not necessary. Thanks to beautifully crafted rules, automation in all the right places, and a 20-turn time limit, Castle Itter delivers its gripping combat yarns in around 40 minutes.
At the heart of the game are systems honed on the Eastern Front. Designer David Thompson adapts the mechanics that made Pavlov’s House so compelling. ‘AI’ attackers approach along multiple converging tracks while player-controlled defenders, occupying castle positions colour-coded for LoS/LoF purposes, do their best to suppress or eliminate them. Unpredictable factors like enemy progress, the gradual destruction of the fortress, and disruption and deaths from incoming fire, combine with predictable ones such as limited Action Point availability and character exhaustion, to create a decision space that’s always changing and never dull.
That single AP you’ve got left this turn – how should you spend it? Get Rushford to reload Besotten Jenny’s main gun? Recover Schrader so that next turn he can use his ‘command’ ability to energise the other occupants of the Great Hall? Order Pollock to use his BAR to discourage movement on the purple/NW side the castle? Or ask Gangl in the Keep to have a potshot at that Aufklärer who’s now just one node from the main building? Choices, choices!
Ingenious victory conditions inspired by the events of May 5th provide further food for thought. Can you engineer Borotra’s escape? Is it time to abandon Besotten Jenny (if anyone perishes inside the Sherman, 5 potential VPs go begging)? Losing a game of Castle Itter is easy – just allow an enemy to enter the main buildings – but to achieve an ‘Epic Victory’ – the highest of the four victory levels – simply holding off the SS isn’t enough.
Digitization has been deftly handled by developer Jérémy Zurcher. Important stats and counter receptacles hem a screen-friendly zoomable board without obscuring it. The simple but effective analog AI doesn’t dilly-dally. Rule clarifications are always close at hand should you need them. Well-chosen sound effects and music do their bit in keeping the player’s pulse rate lively.
Is Castle Itter superior to Pavlov’s House? After three hours with the former, I’m tempted to say the question is academic. Whichever of these two solitaire gems you opt to buy first, you’re guaranteed short-form wargaming at its very best.
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The Australian tax dollars that have part-funded the development of Hot Brass, seem to have been well spent. Not only is this SWAT sim as plausible as it is fraught, it’s unusually keen to promote trigger unhappiness.
Accidentally perforate a petrified shop assistant while scouring a 7-11 for armed suspects? MISSION FAIL. Locate then liquidate one of those armed suspects before giving them the chance to throw down their weapon and surrender? MISSION FAIL.
The strict rules of engagement together with Alien Breed-style movement (your avatar is directed with WASD keys or gamepad rather than mouse clicks) drive away the vast majority of “Hmm, have Walk With Kings just ripped-off Door Kickers?” thoughts. Any remaining vestiges of cynicism are banished by entertaining features like destructible walls and opportunistic opponents.
Not only can you make your own doors and peepholes with slugs and buckshot, you can lose your life to a foe who’s apparently thrown in the towel. Turning your back on a surrendered suspect before cuffing them and collecting nearby firearms is asking for trouble.
Larynxes are just important as lead spitters in HB. Vocal warnings and commands delivered with RMB presses insure you against “operator infraction” mission failures, and sometimes persuade enemies to give in without a fight. When a suspect fails to respond to repeated instructions, you’re permitted to use lethal force only if that suspect is armed. Chap advancing towards you with fists raised? Reach for your taser rather than your pistol or suffer what passes for consequences in a video game. Quick threat analysis in dangerous situations is at the heart of the thought-provoking Hot Brass.
While I can’t fault the firefights and their deliciously tense preambles, or the title’s message, map design, and AI, I believe the Melburnian devs could and should do more to ensure purchasers who choose to play solo don’t find themselves unable to make campaign progress because of leathery challenges like Mission 5, ‘Homecoming’.
This nocturnal op takes place at a motel and involves detaining the leader of a biker gang who flees for the nearest map edge at the first sign of trouble. Working alongside a chum or sibling (local co-op is an option), or attempting it online with up to three companions, the odds of catching Piper are, I’m sure, good. However, lone wolves will need lashings of luck and patience in order to prevail. Easily frustrated? Wait for campaign changes or recruit a partner before tackling this £9-until-May-11 palm dampener.
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Master of Magic
I selected the third of this week’s trio not realising that it’s physically impossible to tear yourself away from Master of Magic three hours into your first game. Simtex’s sorcerous Civ-like has been hypnotising Saruman wannabes for over a quarter of a century, but, distracted by Panzers and planes, I failed to notice it until Slitherine bought the rights and re-released this enhanceable version through Steam.
Now I’ve a couple of thoroughly engrossing games under my Girdle of Trouser Retention, I fully understand why the Epsom lizardmen thought it was worth blowing the fairy dust off this relic. As moreish and accessible as its history-steeped inspiration, MoM is, for my money, richer and more colourful.
You 4X in randomly generated worlds liberally sprinkled with monster-haunted dungeons, lairs, and magical nodes. Exploration and expansion eventually leads to contact with other races headed by wizards with personalities as palpable, armies as diverse, and spellbooks as doorstep-thick as your own.
War, when it comes – and it will come – makes up for what it lacks in groggy subtleties (there’s no morale modelling and terrain has little impact) with combatant variety and AI competence.
Frequently led by artefact-equipped heroes and bolstered by summoned creatures, armies incorporate units distinguished by more than just hitpoints, armour ratings, magical resistance and attack stats.
Almost everything with a pulse or without one (there are undead warriors, natch) on the small tiled battlefields has a special ability or two up its sleeve.
Militarism without urbanisation is impossible. Settlements populate armies and provision them. Too busy planning invasions or repulsing them to oversee municipal building projects? An AI assistant will happily handle civic tasks for you. Touches like this together with the plethora of tooltips and natty mechanisms for things like marine transportation means MoM rarely intimidates or overwhelms.
Captivated by the unembellished, DOSBox-incorporating legacy version I’ve not yet tried playing with the free Community Patch or £2 Caster of Magic DLC installed. The one purchasable adjunct I have tested, left me colder than a lich lord’s codpiece. Some might consider paying an additional £5 for Windows compatibility when that compatibility adds around three minutes to an otherwise speedy launch process and offers no obvious advantages over a maximised DOSBox window, somewhat foolish.