By Scott Parrino 09 Jun 2004 0
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Back to the Future

When I was a teen in the 70?s my favorite magazine, other than what I hid under my mattress, was Strategy & Tactics. Computers - sealed in dust tight rooms and guarded by men with white shirts and crewcuts - were only owned by large corporations and secret government agencies. What came out of the closet back when soda meant Coke or Pepsi and wargaming was a dirty little secret, was usually labeled either Simulations Publications (SPI) or Avalon Hill.

But don?t confuse Hexwar with nostalgia. Hexwar is an inspired ?Back to the Future? entertainment service that leverages the Internet to solve two of board wargaming?s most vexing problems: locating a level playing field and like-minded opponents. Because Hexwar can be played in bite-sized chunks, it may also help bridge the gap between the ?Really cool, man,? and ?Yo, that?s tight!? generation of gamers.

Introduction, Presentation, and Plot: Gaming by Subscription

What players will most see in Hexwar will reflect their prior background and experience. Graybeards will regard it as a convenient way to (finally) play the great old games they?ve got stored in the attic. Anybody who came along in the early computer gaming era will recognize it as PBEM (playing by e-mail) on steroids, cum gamer dating service. The post-Doom generation, accustomed as they are to military simulators and shooters, will find waging war at a higher level of abstraction an intriguing novelty; especially since it doesn?t take seven people all day to set-up.

As it stands now, Hexwar subscribers can choose from five games to play, each of which offers a ?campaign? as well as several shorter scenarios:

Game Topic Folio Series Comments
Napoleon at Waterloo World?s most famous battle. Predated Quads but became their spiritual template. Everybody has a Napoleon complex. Introductory fun!
Crusader Desert War (WW2) North Africa Still working out the kinks for all us Rommel wannabes. 
Bloody Ridge Guadalcanal Island War Great play balance. Innovative Zone of Control rules.
Saipan Saipan Island War Meet on the beach For an all or nothing brawl.
Bastogne Battle of the Bulge West Wall Keep fog of war rules off. Play balance askew. 

Due to be introduced soon are Supercharge, Cauldron and Kasserine from the North Africa quad as well as Arnhem from West Wall. Also under consideration are games from the Blue and Grey (American Civil War) and Napoleon at War Quads. Members have lobbied heavily for bringing the Panzergruppe Guderian game system, arguably SPI?s biggest success as a boardgame, online as well. Subscribing to Hexwar means always having something to look forward to, in any case.

Installation & Technical Issues: Gaming Goes ASP

Hexwar is not Hexware. Games are played in a browser. One immediate advantage is that neither heavy horsepower nor technical acumen are prerequisites for playing. Players do need an Internet connection to download the required files and exchange game turns, but after I put the games into their default directories I encountered no installation issues or other situations requiring technical troubleshooting.

Before beginning, one must download the Hexwar Game Launcher plus the actual game files (one per module) themselves, but that was a simple ?point and click? affair and it takes up very little space on a drive. Each individual game weighs in at about two megabytes, with updates usually running under 200K. In other words, this service will work perfectly well with a dial-up phone line.

After the initial installation, it?s not unusual to find minor bug fixes. Older games such as Napoleon at Waterloo tend to be stable but even those must be periodically upgraded as enhanced graphics and play aids get introduced. Recently introduced games have required frequent bug patches. Crusader is well past a dozen and counting, but that?s atypical because it represents a particularly ambitious addition to the Hexwar selection of games.

The only genuine problems I experienced were those typical of any company doing business over the Internet. Providing an online service means being exposed to things that impact bandwidth: hackers, viruses, spam etc? There were a couple of minor service interruptions, but they required no action on my part and were quickly remedied.



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