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.
Of all the projects that have sprung from Spring none is weirder or more wonder-stuffed than this bastard child of Starcraft and Darwinia. There's a tripartite war raging within the acid-etched cloisters of the Mainframe. The square-jawed System with its spherical Bits, tanky Bytes and ground-pounding Pointers is locked in perpetual battle with the febrile Network (teleporter-exploiting swarms of nimble Flows and Packets) and the tricksy Hackers (morphing Bugs, stealthy Worms and foe-freezing Denial Of Services). It's a fierce and finely-balanced conflict, and blimey is it pretty.
KP's dozen official skirmish/multiplayer maps possess a stark Tron-tinged beauty that's perfectly complimented by the crisp neon geometries of the units that seethe over them. Even if you detest frantic click-heavy strategy (and this is frantic click-heavy strategy) you'll want to download this just to float about during a big team game admiring the multi-coloured mayhem and listening to the quality bit-tune soundtrack.
There's even a newish play mode targeted specifically at reluctant commanders. In Heroic your army does its own thing while you dart around directly controlling a single up-gunned, up-armoured super-unit. Bits in trouble down in the canyon? Trundle Marble Madness-style to their aid. Bugs struggling to capture a vent (the strategic points on which structures are built)? Scuttle over and lend them a laser-tipped mandible. Splendid stuff. Oh, and being a Spring spin-off, the multiplayer facilities are of course superb.
Advanced Strategic Command
Only in ASC can a Butterfly kill a Cobra and a Monster Wig kill a Clam. This homage to Blue Byte's long-lived Battle Isle series has a unit roster as long as a teenage Eel or a straightened Boomerang (sub and aircraft respectively). As you pummel and scheme your way through the solid English-language campaign (there are also two with Deutsch briefings) you'll encounter a staggering array of vehicles from tanks to hovercrafts, armoured trains to ekranoplans.
Unusually for a hex wargame, a fair few of these conveyances come without weaponry. To prevail in many missions it's vital to recycle battlefield wreckage, prospect for minerals, construct buildings, jam enemy radars, and resupply and repair your frontline forces. Don't be fooled by the fusty-looking screenshots. A lot of thought and experience has gone into this design.
The maturity and ambition of the project really shows in multiplayer. As well as conventional PBEM and hotseat modes, players with basic German language skills can participate in an online multiverse forming alliances to fight interconnected wars across multiple planets. Whether you're cooperating with a stranger from a Düsseldorf or a sibling in the same room, the bond is sure to be strengthened if you take advantage of the excellent unit and resource transfer capability.
Serviceable AI, a decent tutorial, and an interface that, once you've adapted to its unorthodoxy, is actually rather efficient, cap a game that, if it weren't for its German roots and antique looks, would almost certainly be up there with Battle For Wesnoth in the popular imagination.
You're going to have to cut me some slack at this point. Transcendence isn't really a strategy game, but I can't resist recommending it. To live long and prosper in this improbably rich 2D X3, this magnetic micro Elite, you'll need a mix of old-fashioned arcade skills, economic good sense, and wanderlust. Oh, and a dash of luck.
George 'Anacreon' Moromisato, one of the founding fathers of the 4X genre, invites you to step into the boots/sandals of a deep space pilgrim embarking on the long journey to the mystical Galactic Core. Your initial vessel, be it a dumpy freighter, a svelte star yacht, or an up-for-it gunship, is ill-equipped for the rigours of this trip. To have any chance of surviving the numerous pirate-infested systems en-route, you must steadily upgrade your weapons, armour, and propulsion systems.
How is a brassic holy traveller supposed to do that? Well there's always money to be made mining asteroids, scavenging, bandit-hunting, trading on the white or black market, escorting freighters for the Korov shipping company, or fighting for the Commonwealth. You never ply the inky vacuum for long without chancing on a station or settlement with work available for a willing captain.
Elegant controls, clear maps and a simple autopilot mode mean navigating the vastness of space is easy and relatively quick. Naturally episodic and admirably accessible, this is a game that fits a five-minute play window as neatly as it fits a five hour one.