WHOM THE GODS WISH TO ANNOY
It's all about race war, but it's quite innocuous. The Settlers, version III of which has recently been released (Blue Byte, Windows, pounds 35; DVD version forthcoming), is one of those God games, like Civilisation or SimCity, in which players have to manage simulated societies. In this scenario, bored deities looking for amusement kidnap representatives of the ancient Asian, Greek and Egyptian races (no, not "peoples" or "ethnic groups") and drop them on to virgin land, where they have to establish settlements and defeat each other. Click on the building menu and watch the little men tramp to and fro with their planks and hammers; fail to match construction with production, and watch it all grind to a halt while a rival colony thrives. Engrossing stuff, and worthy of a footnote in the annals of cultural politics for its success in taking the sting out of the r-word.
OH MY GOD, THEY'VE MERCHANDISED KENNY TO DEATH
At the moment it seems to be impossible to buy a T-shirt which doesn't have Stan, Kyle, Cartman or Kenny all over it. But there is an alternative. There's South Park: the Official PC Desktop Theme and Screensaver (Telstar, Windows, pounds 20). It's all here: the catchphrases, the gems of dialogue (including "Mom, Kitty's being a dildo"), the cows, the aliens, Cartman's anal probe, and a montage showing several of Kenny's demises. There are also sound samples to attach to your e-mails - or homework, or memos - and a calendar. And if your screen didn't need saving before, it will after you've accidentally turned your cursor into Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo. Though the Cartman icon is a big improvement on the default "My Computer".
HOW DO THEY DO THAT?
David Macaulay's The Way Things Work has sold a million discs after translation from book to CD-ROM, although its heart is in the old mechanical world of cogs, levers and pulleys. For the 10th anniversary of the original book, the disc has been updated with a digital domain and a new introductory movie, in which the circle is squared. Electronic zeros and ones are translated into pumpkins and boxes, while the Heath-Robinson design of the "Virtual Mammoth Simulator 1.0" makes a gentle dig at the primitive state of the virtual- reality art. The new features in The NEW Way Things Work (Dorling Kindersley, Windows and Mac, pounds 30) don't justify an upgrade - there are only 10 items in the digital domain - but do provide more good reasons to buy this delightful disc if there isn't an earlier edition in your house.
You've missed the last posting date to the rest of the world, but there are still 12 e-mailing days before Christmas. If you have a software package that can handle HTML mail (such as Netscape Communicator) it's easy to send overseas chums Season's Greeting in full festive colour. HTML mail is e-mail in the form of Web pages: you can use pretty colours, insert pictures, include Web links or give your text a pictorial background (Windows' Outlook Express includes a selection of tacky wallpapers that looks as though they were drawn on an Amiga 10 years ago). It's neater than sending a picture file as an attachment, and politer than inviting your friends to download their Christmas cards from your Web site. As a timewaster, HTML mail beats fiddling with your desktop icons hollow. In theory, colour should be a stylish alternative to emoticons - ; -) etc - as a way of compensating for the clipped emotional bandwidth of typical e-mail messages. Send your message in dark blue text on a grey background, and your friend will recognise your mood before he or she has read a word. Although in practice, you are likely to spend far too long figuring out that pink-on-lime doesn't work.
Then there's the fun of searching out obscure image files to use as backgrounds, and trying to find text colours that are legible on top of them. If your correspondent is equally taken with the charms of HTML mail, the process is likely to become even lengthier, as you each strive to turnwhat were once simple written messages into multimedia productions. On theother hand, if the other party doesn't have a program that can receive HTMLmail, all your efforts will have been a perfect waste of time.
PLANNING IN DEPTH
There's no such thing as an "instant action" button in Titanic: Challenge of Discovery (Mindscape, Windows, pounds 30). The game is anchored by Robert D Ballard, who located the wreck of the Titanic, and the player has to do things by his book. Before mounting an expedition to the site of the tragedy, you have to carry out successful explorations of other famous wrecks. And every time, you have to research the wreck, hire a crew - though I can't say I trusted any of the characters hanging around the port - learn how all the kit works, watch the budget, and handle the personality flaws among the people you eventually take to sea. About the only thing you're spared is writing the grant application.