Once upon a time, in 1977 to be exact, there was an Ogre. It lived in a small plastic case and ate gamers. Or rather it ate their time and money in small amounts. It was cheap and fast playing yet stayed true to the basic precepts of hex and counter wargaming — if you wanted a satisfying strategic challenge in a convenient package, you wanted an Ogre. It first made a digital appearance in 1986, so this new version celebrates 40 years since the board game and just over 30 since the last video game.
For all those decades, Ogre remains popular. Some of that is nostalgia, of course, but nostalgia alone can’t explain the continued appeal through so many editions. Some of its is the concept: one side has a slew of sci-fi vehicles from infantry through tanks to hovercraft. The other only has a single unit, the fearsome Ogre, a vast cybernetic tank which is the equivalent of a whole army. The fact that one side only needs to worry about a single unit makes this a great hex and counter game for beginners.
Most of what keeps the Ogre fed, though, is a simple matter of it offering a lot of cybernuclear bang for its buck. There are two sets of rules, classic and advanced, both available for play here as you prefer. The classic ones are super easy, a fine lesson in boiling down mechanics to first principles. You move, then you attack. How much damage you do is down to a dice roll cross-referenced with the amount of ordnance used. It’s an exercise in using movement, terrain and a little bit of playing the odds to try and apply your firepower as efficiently as possible. It seems a little primitive by modern standards, but it does what it does with austere skill.
Little tweaks to the system add depth to the puzzle. Hovercraft are pretty rubbish units but they can move again after firing, making it possible to keep them out of range. There are several models of Ogre but all have multiple systems: tracks, missiles and guns. Damage to each reduces the Ogre’s potency. So units targeting the terrible tank have a dilemma in choosing the most important aspect to take down. It’s engaging, fun and – by hex and counter board game standards – fast.
So it’s frustrating that this particular adaptation does its best to try and make the translation as slow as possible. Movement and combat animations are either off, leaving the unfolding turn a mystery, or slow, meaning a game takes as long on the screen as on the table, which is 30-60 minutes, depending on the scenario. The UI is obtuse, with critical information difficult to find when you need it. There’s no undo, no auto-save, making the ease of clicking the wrong button a double d’oh. It doesn’t help that the game looks like it could almost be mistaken for the 1986 version, with clumsy sprites and flat, dull terrain.
Gameplay, though, is faithfully intact and it still holds up after 40 years. There are a series of tutorials to guide you through how both rule sets work. And once you’ve got over the initial barbs on the interface and presentation, it’s easy to get sucked in. Ogre has that puzzle-like quality that all the best wargames do, and if you get the answer wrong, it’s just the click of a button to try again.
This aspect is well emphasised in what is the game’s strongest feature: its single-player campaign. This consists of ten brand-new scenarios of increasing difficulty. Each is a fresh puzzle in its own right, and some bend the rules of the original to add new twists and turns to the potential solutions. As a bonus, a threadbare but engaging narrative develops as you beat each one. It’s not much, but it adds some much-needed colour to the otherwise drab near-future setting of the board game.
The AI is serviceable but not spectacular — while you can also play the original game scenarios solitaire, they’re less appealing than the campaign. Although solo is where the game works best, multiplayer is well catered for, too. You can play hotseat or online with the latter offering a variety of game modes, including ranked play. The reliance on dice – especially the ubiquitous 5+ to knock treads off Ogre tracks – can be annoying in ladder matches. But hey, it’s a fast, fun game, best not taken too seriously.
What’s rather more serious is a slew of bugs. When I first tried Ogre on a gaming PC, it was unplayable. The units didn’t line up with the hex grid, so you had no idea where anything actually was. I tried it on another, lower-spec machine and that problem went away. But there were other, less serious issues. The “move history” box not opening, or failing to populate when it did. Save games crashing. The whole thing locking up when trying to attack scenery. Nothing that completely ruined the game, but a very poor showing at a premium price point.
In spite its age, Ogre deserves to be introduced to a new generation of gamers. It remains an exemplary game of its style and it should be easy to smooth over any quirks with a smart digital makeover. Unfortunately, although this version ticks all the basic boxes for a board game adaptation (including cracking solo play), it’s anything but smooth. You might be better off trying the bargain basement Pocket Edition of the physical game, and waiting to see if its digital cousin gets a few patches.