games with more – high on adrenaline low on testosterone (1999)

(Roger Frost TES Xmas 1999)

Game of chess anyone? Some games have kudos that computer games have a hard time to match. Telling people you play space invaders all night can have you banished to a corner of the staff room. It’s no surprise really – making computers respectable in the classroom took ages, so playing games should have no chance.  

But while defending earth from aliens will always be thankless, new breeds of game have appeared to earn the thinkers vote. Adventures, strategy games and caring for a computer pet, ring the cerebral sounds that make for a wholesome Xmas game. These are the games without shame

The first stop at the shops is Microsoft Age of Empires, just out in an edition called ‘The Age of Kings’ (age 7-adult, £39.99). In this epic game you rule the Franks, Britons, Celts – one of 13 kingdoms – and build your tiny tribe into a world beating force. You set your villagers to work chopping trees, building houses and planting crops. You evolve your technology, build armaments or speculate with resources. In this new edition economics and diplomacy figure large and you can now achieve victory by trading with other civilizations; fighting to glory or building supreme defences. The birds eye view of men and women at work is impressive and they now talk in a range of tongues. The graphics are more functional too, so you can board enemy ships to capture them. A new tutorial prepares you for roles such as Joan of Arc, William Wallace and Genghis Khan – so if you’re ever stuck to explain historical ideas, here’s an astounding game to refer to.

Such is the depth of many games, a huge community of players exchange tips daily over the Internet. When Creatures (age 8-adult, Mindscape) appeared it too developed a cult following – except that here they trade more than tips, they trade ‘Norn’s’ – artificial creatures they raise and breed!  Coming from Creature Labs, Creatures is an environment populated by living and breathing virtual pets. This world has seasons, weather and plants that grow.  The creatures have brains, digital DNA and a biochemistry so detailed that the game has spun off research tools. You teach the ‘Norns’, feed them, and protect them from toxic plants. They’re funny too: they talk in speech bubbles and soon tell you if they don’t like what you’re doing. Just an hour after birth, they take a shine to the opposite sex and start breeding. Later, having passed on their genes, they die. First time through, this is incredibly sad but it’s a clue that here is no game with a set plot – but an amazing model that works and happens.

New is Creatures 3, with a bigger world, real ecology, and real physics where objects fall and have momentum. It’s easier too as its starter family are educated so they at least know they have to eat. With its larger graphics, Creatures Adventures (age 6+) is the better buy for the kids. Children care for the bright-eyed creatures, playing and even baking bread with them. They take photos to treasure special moments – and when the Norn creatures die, put them a special corner of the garden. Children learn to cope with this, and they ask interesting questions, mostly about having babies.  

Making the strategy game accessible to younger children is Legoland (age 6-12 £34.99), which puts children in charge of a theme park. Featuring favourite rides like the driving school from the real theme parks, it is easy to relate to. Nevertheless, here is a business management game with a target to build a park that draws in customers. Good designs are rewarded with new attractions, Lego sculptures and rides. Fresh and colourful, this is challenging fun. It follows a rich crop of Lego titles, all three of which won Gold Awards from PIN, the Parents Information Network earlier this year.

The quality, and good values, continue in Lego Rock Raiders (age 8+ £39.99), another new strategy title. It is a full-scale adventure where models come to life and children use technology to mine for precious Lego ore. They explore underground, choose their tools and transport and send back reports from sensors that detect rocks, air quality and temperature. Deep down lurk hazards like poisonous gas and dangerous rock monsters whose food you about to take. Everything is nice and fun: just don’t get the monsters angry; weapons include a teleporter gun and a painless freezer gun. Defend yourself and the monsters shatter into loads of tiny ones. Sweet fun. 

more games

Resource based strategy games, such as these, tend to rate high on satisfaction, and lower on adrenaline. There are masses of options and decisions to make, there are limits too as you run out of food, money or materials. Countless variables and countless variation make for games with the mileage of a full time hobby – so remember to exchange pleasantries with the folk at home.

If you’re stuck, you can chat with others in Internet newsgroups or visit a website – both provide tips to move forward. Some offer ‘cheat codes’ which blast you too fast towards success and can spoil the game. While there are more strategy games than you have life for, they come in flavours to suit all tastes.

Roller Coaster Tycoon (Hasbro) – run a theme park with this top title

Railroad Tycoon (Microprose) – manage the railways

Sim City (Maxis) – run the city services

Theme hospital – hospital management, US style with earnings as a key resource.

Command & Conquer – war between fictional modern worlds

Civilisation (Microprose) – an earlier offering from the same folk who developed Age of Empires and Railroad Tycoon.

Star Wars – The Gungan Frontier (Lucas Learning) – build a city and run an eco-system.

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