The Game Room

Well, here it is. I feared this day from the moment I began writing a column about games, hiding my worry behind a wall of self-delusion insulated with false bravado. But I guess the only way through is to face up to it: like a kid who, a month after getting hired at a candy factory, turns green at the merest whiff of chocolate, I am sick of computer games.

I know; I'm as shocked as you are. I no longer want to wander dimly lit corridors blowing the upper torsos off of any vaguely threatening strangers I bump into. That 6-foot pneumatic blonde over there in spike heels and a bra made out of animal skulls, beckoning me with her taser whip: is she really marriage material? Folks, not even the promise of a street-illegal Chevy outfitted with big iron spikes on its front bumper and the promise of a heady afternoon spent turning unsuspecting pedestrians into vague discolorations on asphalt holds any allure for me and I'm from Boston !

Even as I test the beta version of a new game, and the office walls reverberate with the screams of the dying and the impotent wails of hundreds of virtual orphans, my thoughts hark back to when playing a game meant pulling something out of the closet in the family room and reading instructions printed inside a box lid. Well, now is a good time for this sort of early-onset senility, because a lot of classic games are finally getting the treatment they deserve. With the latest official versions of these games of old, gamers can enjoy an enhanced experience . . . not a slavish copy that adds only the risk of developing brain cancer from the monitor and carpal tunnel syndrome from the keyboard.

Taking a Risk

For me, computer versions of Risk have been like alternate-party presidential campaigns. I dive into each new one with great hopes, and I climb out again mere moments later, hoping that the next try is more impressive.

It's hard to imagine a board game with greater prospects for digital treatment than Risk. Monopoly, for example, is about acquiring property through financial deals, the goal being to control the majority of a town in New Jersey -- small potatoes. In Risk, you have the variously social and antisocial mechanism of Napoleonic land war, and if you win, well, you'll be grinding the entire damned planet under the iron-studded sole of your totalitarian jackboot. It's a game of both subtle and dramatic strategy, in which every decision you make must be informed not just by the locations and strengths of the armies on the board but also by knowledge of your opponents' personalities.

Although I have longtime friends who are avid Risk gamers, MacSoft's Risk II ($30; 800/229-2714, www.wizardworks.com/macsoft ) is the first version of this game that I can both understand and play competitively. It has scores of computer opponents and prefab missions (and Internet and network play, naturally), but the big accomplishment of Risk II is the interface it drops over game play and tactics. The board game's mixture of cards, dice, and game pieces is reduced to an easier-to-suss-out (for me, anyway) display.

This makes a killer combination: like a more traditional military-strategy game, this computer version allows sophisticated game play. But as in a board game, the complexity of the strategy is kept to a level that beginner and intermediate gamers can easily manage. You can focus on the game play, not the bookkeeping. It's hard to imagine Patton worrying about tables of hit points, you know?

Wordplay

When you get down to the p's and q's, MacSoft's new version of Scrabble ($30) isn't all that different from previous editions -- both the commercial ones and the unauthorized shareware knockoffs.

The computer personalities and players in this game are terrific. Opponents of all skill levels are represented, each with different styles of play. It doesn't take long to identify the opponents that give you the best mixture of incompetence and inspired brilliance. And then there's the online perfessor, whose ability to review and analyze your play means that the next time you shuffle the tiles, man alive, you can totally kick your grandma's ass.

What makes this Scrabble truly great is . . . the graphics. There, I said it. I'm praising the magnificent color and compelling 3-D graphics of a board game . Shoot me now.

But honestly, what sells the game is the fact that it just looks and feels right. A Scrabble board and its color scheme are familiar to anyone who had a childhood (or at least the sort of childhood that involved word games rather than chucking tennis balls at bats to screw with their radar). The colors are right, the angles are right, and the lighting and shading of the tiles are right.

Another Brick in the, er, Robot

Lego building sets, in their basic form, are cool. Assuming that you wisely shun the kits for building predesigned fighter planes and the like, they represent the atoms from which you can build any physical item you can imagine.

Lego MindStorms ( http://mindstorms.lego.com ) takes this basic idea one further: it's a fat Lego brick (the RCX) with a programmable computer inside it, plus a collection of mechanical doodads and sensors. With these tools, you can build almost any programmable mechanical gizmo you can think up.

Obviously, this thing is way too cool to give to a kid.

It's endlessly play-withable but also eminently practical. More often than I'd like to admit, I've taken the kit off the shelf to build a solution to an actual problem: a mechanism to feed my goldfish while I'm away, a simple button-pusher to make sure one of my servers stays powered up until I get back to it. I've got a well-stocked junk box and could build something far geekier using a couple of servos and actuators, but MindStorms is much more tactile, much more seat-of-your-pants, and ultimately much more satisfying.

It's also way too cool to let a simple thing such as its included Windows software stop you from playing with it. Obviously, you can work around this inconvenience by running a Windows emulator, but Pitsco and Lego also have a Mac-compatible product for schools called Robolab ($325; 800/362-4308, www.pitsco-legodacta.com ), a kid-friendly drag-and-drop programming scheme. Several homespun ways to control MindStorms via the Mac have popped up, including NQC (Not Quite C), a more traditional coding system -- and it's free.

Now Back to Killing

After a month of all of this thinking and board-gaming, you know, I'm refreshed. My well of blood lust springs forth anew, and I'm killing people and blowing things up far more dramatically than I ever did before. If there's one thing this experience has taught me, it's that you can never really become tired of ultraviolence; you just have to always remain faithful to the impulse for mayhem and never simply take it for granted.

You know, vivisectioning would be great as a triple-word score.

Brilliant general/columnist ANDY IHNATKO was finally defeated during his ill-fated attempt to conquer Yakutsk and Irkutsk.

Take a Risk: It's definitely one of the most beautiful board games ever made . . . and it's a kick to play, too.
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