Monday, 1 October 2012

War Games On t'Telly

No project updates, as I've been busily painting all week (the boring kind, that involves walls and stepping in paint trays). But Kraken's mention of how BBC 2 once tried to make Total War into a viable gameshow got me thinking about the few and failed attempts to put games on the gogglebox.

Game of War

A Channel 4 pilot series. Broadcast in 1997, with the production values of 1970s Open University and the strategic insight of Hungry Hunrgy Hippos.

It was hosted by Angela Rippon, whose main qualification for the job was that she could look directly at the camera and say, clearly and loudly, at the beginning and end of each episode, "It was just ... a GAME of war!"

She didn't even do that thing where she kicks her legs
and sings about facing the music.
The premise of this show was an interesting one (certainly enough to draw in a War Studies undergraduate): two opposing commanders (actual ex-military officers), each supported by a pair of advisers (usually military historians) would re-fight historical battles: Balaklava, Naseby and Waterloo.

To recreate the 'fog of war', each team would be sequestered into different rooms with two different tabletops. They knew where their own armies were moving, but they could only guess (or find out, from reconnaissance, or people shooting at them) where the enemy were.

... because if you're going to recreate history, it's important to be as boring as possible.
And also to wear a tie.

In a central room was Ms Rippon and a third tabletop, where the 'true' battle was taking place. This was monitored by a pair of gamemasters – straight out of geek central casting – who made the decisions, and rolled the dice, and whose word was law.

For they wore the Cardigans of Authority.

Oh yes, dice. Plural. Two of them. Every outcome of the battle, from the fall of the Imperial Guard to Charge of the Light Brigade, was decided by two measly D6.

Come on! That's barely a magic phase!

Still, at least there would be plenty of colour on the tables. One of the biggest attractions of tabletop gaming are the beautifully painted miniatures. And with so many models and collections of the Napoleonic era, you'd get some lovely shots of the Armée du Nord as it swept majestically across the...

Oh, merde .

Yep, little plastic bits represented the armies. And about halfway through each battle, everyone got a bit bored of placing them exactly and just started shoving them around.

Angela Rippon did her best to keep things exciting (I've mentioned the catchphrase already). While the Cardiganed Ones moved around the pieces, she would talk to two more historians to analyse what was going on.

This could have been a good spot for some historical insight, except that everyone seemed to be intent on pretending that this was actually happening. i.e. "The Light Brigade has JUST charged in - and they've driven off the Russians. History has changed!"

Anyway, at the end of the programme, Angela assured us that this had only been ... a GAME of War. Just in case you might be afraid that, victorious at Naseby, Charles I was going to close down Parliament or something.

Side note: one of my War Studies lecturers appeared in episode as an advisor. I'm afraid his side got thrashed rather badly, and he did not take defeat in a sporting manner (all we heard in the next lecture was "Cavalry can't do that!"). Don't worry professor, it was only ... a GAME of ...well, you get the idea.

Time Commanders

Trust the Beeb to find a way of making you eat your greens. Time Commanders was a much more entertaining way of learning about ancient battles. Started in 2003, ran for two series and did a hell of a lot better than Game of War.

No actual time-travel was involved in this production.

As Kraken mentioned, this was basically the battle phase of Total War on a very large computer screen. The host, Eddie Mair, would bring on a team of four men (always men, alternating between lads, dads or students) and they would play against the computer (the trailer implied it was a cryogenically-preserved centurion with cables in his brain, but it WASN'T. It was just a computer).

Team Flesh-And-Blood were usually the Roman army, fighting a re-enactment of some ancient battle (you always hoped it would have elephants).

One guy was the overall general, issuing the orders; two others were given tactical command on the ground. I don't recall what the fourth one did, but I guess someone had to make the tea.

This was pre-Lord of the Rings. We had primitive tastes.

In terms of play, they did start off with some tabletop counters - large plastic blocks like casino chips, so even less personality than before. They used these counters to map out their strategy before activating the computer simulation - at which point, sod the counters.

One advantage the plastic counters had was that it gave the historians something to play with. Ah yes, for if you have historians, then you can show four grown men playing a computer game for an hour and file it under 'educational' programming.

There were a pair of historians: a short, enthusiastic one named Mike Loades who liked smashing the plastic counters into each other as he demonstrated the attack plan; and a tall, languid one named Aryeh Nusbacher. Like Angela Rippon before him, Aryeh Nusbacher decided to go with a catchphrase: "The Roman cavalry ... is crap."

Didn't matter what battle it was, didn't matter if the Romans weren't even fighting, Nusbacher would never just say that the Roman infantry was great (because .... duh). No, he wanted to be very clear that the Roman cavalry ... is crap.

This was before Gladiator, when the Roman cavalry ... is awesome.

With eight times the number of episodes as Game of War, this was obviously more entertaining. But it had its flaws: looking at it from a military eye, and a gaming eye (I'm bifocal like that), it was obvious that the human team had a big advantage over history: the 1 hour programme length. To fit everything into a 25-minute battle, plus commentary, the computer's AI had to play aggressively and go on the attack every time. Being the Romans, all you had to do was set up sensibly and keep it tight - no imperative to seize the initiative meant no risks (although some numbskulls would still manage to mess up in grand fashion).

The other issue was modern technology: while the general-subordinate division was a good way of maintaining team-play (I don't think the general was actually allowed to get hands-on, so while he made decisions, the others had to execute them), the computer screens allowed the players to have an aerial view of the battlefield - which is a lot more than Caesar ever had.

I recall that one team in particular ruthlessly exploited this advantage, and basically had aerial reconnaissance for the whole game. Eddie Mair even congratulated them on such a clever tactic.

No it wasn't Eddie. It was CHEATING.

And not having a living opponent to sulk and throw a wobbly when they lost (I'm looking at you, professor) took some of the fun out of the game. Two sides of two, and no computer, would have been more fun I reckon.

Maybe with a matching set of golf clubs and food processor as the prize...

In the light of the 2016 revival, I have taken a look at Time Commanders Resurrected!


Not a proper tabletop game, but some people like it. In 1993 the UK found itself in the unusual position of cheering on British Grandmaster Nigel Short in the World Chess Finals.

For reasons best known to themselves, Channel 4 bought the rights (there was actually a bidding war with BBC 2) and devoted towards it a level of broadcasting resources that would not be seen until the 2012 Paralympics.

There were a few problems with this:
  • Nigel Short was rubbish. He was comprehensively beaten by Gary Kasparov 12½-7½ (and most of those points were half-points from draws - oh yes, after watching a match for hours, the two players can still just shrug and go, 'nahh, this was a waste of time').
  • Chess does not lend itself well to television. Channel 4 would show endless live footage of two men staring at the board, while the pundits desperately tried to keep things lively by drawing possible moves on the primative computer graphic in the corner of the screen. Sometimes if a piece was making a really long move up the board, they would add the sound effect: "Zzzump!". Seriously.
  • Chess rules allow a player to get up and leave the arena to have a lie down or a ham sandwich. You're now watching a contest that is too dull for even the competitors to stick around.
In their heads, both men are humming the tune of "I Know Him So Well."

Not to be outdone, BBC actually tried counter-programming against this. The two runners-up to this final - Anatoly Karpov and Jan Timman - were playing a rival tournament at the same time, and BBC2 decided to cover this instead.

So no world title at stake, no Team-GB interest, and they didn't even broadcast in real-time, so you were denied that note of panic in the pundit's voice when he realised that Nigel wasn't coming back from his toilet break before they would have to stop for the News at 7.

It was an experiment that was never repeated. I'm not even sure chess is played any more.

Skirmish! with Alan Partridge

"The format was absorbing: players would vie to complete fictional or historical military operations with the fewest casualties, answering general knowledge questions to gain territorial advantage, tot up 'gung ho' points or accrue weaponry."

As shown on satellite channel, UK Conquest. Sadly, I couldn't find any recordings of this.


  1. You've forgotten the greatest TV gaming experience of all time. Knightmare - the closest LARPing ever got to being primetime.

    1. As someone who can still do a passable impression of a Goblin Horn (da-nunnnh-na! da-nunnnh-na!) that really is a shocking omission.

      Ming you, it really deserves a post all to itself, including Hordris the Confuser, Pickle the Elf and mighty Treguard himself.

    2. Time Turns
      The Fire Burns
      Time Out Is Gone
      The Game Goes On

  2. Loved the article, though. Makes you wonder who commissions these things!