I am the sort of gamer that publishers loathe. I never pre-order, rarely buy a new game until it has at least halved in price, and wouldn't touch a pay-to-play MMO with a Savlon-smeared barge pole. If the Ubisofts, EAs, and Take-Twos of this world, want to reach tight, patient, super-picky souls like me, they must change their ways pretty radically. For starters they've got to slash their RRPs and rethink their dastardly DRM schemes. To be on the safe side they should probably also seek out and assimilate or assassinate all the splendid bedroom coders that have been keeping me in free strategy clover for years.
If you can live without fancy 3D graphics and luscious sound, there's a feast of top-drawer tactical entertainment waiting just a click or two away. A few of these titles - gems like The Battle For Wesnoth, FreeCol and Battleships Forever - you've probably already heard of. Some, like the five shy stars described below, may be new to you.
Brass & Steel
When Mark Pay isn't wandering the seashell-lined catacombs beneath his hometown or planning the next instalment of his acclaimed Spirit Engine RPG series, he's busy developing instantly likeable WW2 strategy.
The turn-based Brass & Steel is only an alpha chrysalis at present, but even without the planned campaigns and historical scenarios, it has weeks of play in it. Whether you rush into battle via the quickstart option or spend a little time tailoring a bespoke skirmish, riveting easily-grasped Normandy action is guaranteed.
Behind the cute Cannon Fodder-esque visuals lurks a wargame of surprising depth. Morale, suppression, smoke shells, off-map artillery, air support, towable guns... it's all in there. Even the armoured duels have an unexpected air of authority to them, Mark eschewing hitpoints in favour of a brutal-yet-believable penetration check approach. Attacking a Jagdpanther frontally with a feeble Humber armoured car? Expect to see most if not all of your rounds bounce off into the Bocage.
In the latest build the random gridded battlefields feature hills and far more persuasive settlements, and the impressively diverse unit rosters (just British and Germans at the moment) include recon jeeps and BMW motorcycle combinations. The AI guiding foes and friendly allies has also been tweaked. Though a tad gung-ho at times, you'll find it more than capable of delivering challenging and eventful engagements.
June 18th, 1987. Across a birch-dotted valley somewhere in Eastern Europe, a line of US APCs nervously scurry. The friendly scout teams on the wooded slopes ahead hear the rumble of thunder first, but by then it's much too late. Two MiG 21s are overhead in an instant, cluster bombs tumbling from their wings as they pass. In the welter of detonations, three APCs shudder to a halt. The surviving vehicles race for the treeline and disgorge their passengers while Vulcan mini-guns spew leaden fury at the fast-fleeing aircraft.
The first exchange in a typically tense Armored Brigade battle. This real-time wargame by Finnish coder Juha Kellokoski hides rare fidelity and drama under its unassuming top-down visuals. Veterans of the marvellous Close Combat and Combat Mission games will feel right at home with the realism, the right-click order menus and the brutal suddenness of AFV demises. They may need to do some homework on Cold War equipment to get the most out of their material though. Unless you know your acronyms and NATO icons, you'll want to drop the camera as low it goes and dab the Specs button for each unit to work out exactly what you're using.
At the heart of the game is a random skirmish generator that allows you to create anything from cosy company-sized scraps for single villages, hills and road junctions, to massive armour clashes on vast 225 square-kilometre tracts of desert or tundra. If you're a newcomer, it's probably wise to start with small venues, keep Combat Power tallies low, and let the computer pick your forces.