Around 10 years ago I went on holiday to Morocco with a friend called Dave. We stayed in Marrakesh and went up into the Atlas mountains, where I’ve never been so cold and so hot in a single day. Towards the end of the holiday we visited Essaouira, a coastal holiday town. It was October – the sun was hot, but the wind, coming off the sea, was strong and sharply cold. Looking for something to do one afternoon we found ourselves taking shelter at a cafe in a sunny square.
Dave loves chess and go. I don’t know go, and I’ve never played chess with him. To be honest I don’t want to. Apart from being afraid of how good he is – and he’s really good – the thought of playing fills me with panic. With my pieces all laid out at the start, I’m frozen by the thought of all the intense thinking that lies ahead, the possibilities and patterns I’ll fail to see, the profound complexity. But strangely, I love turn-based strategy videogames. And I really love GBA Advance Wars.
When I suggested playing a game of Advance Wars at that cafe, Dave, who’d never played before, was puzzled why I liked it, given my dislike of chess. I’d never really thought about my preferences until then. In the face of Dave’s love of the stern elegance of chess and go, I couldn’t help fearing they were down to a childish delight in pixel graphics and bleepy noises.
Yep, ever the cringing videogame apologist. But looking back, I think it was actually a different sort of weakness. Strategy videogames give a lot more tactical freedom than chess. The abstract simplicity of chess leads to a far more disciplined and demanding game, one that, at its highest levels, is codified by classifications of opening moves. Compared to chess’ 32 pieces, Advance Wars throws many more variables into the mix, such as terrain types, unit types, special skills and objectives, with the result that you just don’t need to be so rigorous – at least to win a level. And I’m lazy enough for this to not only be OK but also attractive.
So we played a game. My initial advantage of, well, knowing how to play led to an early lead, but Dave’s innate intellect soon put us into deadlock and then me into retreat. We played the entire afternoon, drinking mint tea, passing the GBA between us and watching people pass by in the square. His slow crushing of what I suppose I hoped could be my game made it a tense experience, his methodical slow turns driving me wild with impatience. The light failed us as dusk fell, the GBA’s unlit screen impossible to see, and we finally stopped with Dave inching to a certain victory.
As hard-fought as the game was, I knew all along that Dave would beat me – I couldn’t hide behind the tactical complexity for long. I guess it’s a mark of Advance Wars’ brilliance. Both deeply attractive in a way in which videogames excel and logically exacting, the best player will always win in the end.
I’ve never played against another human player again, which means I still have the game saved in my Advance Wars cart. The record of that afternoon appears as sharply as it ever did – tanks and battleships frozen in battle, bases ready to churn out another wave of troops. I’ll leave it, I think, for as long as its internal battery holds out.