Risk is a better game because it trades on the fundamentals of human interaction, alliance and betrayal. The possibilities are limited, though, by the fact that all the players are round the same table. If you want to enter a pact, you have to make your overtures in full view of all parties. The traitor's style is also cramped. Risk players could never carry off a classic defection like that of the barons in Braveheart. It's checkers, not chess.
This is where Tom Clancy, Red Storm Entertainment and Politika come in. Red Storm is Clancy's multimedia company; Politika is a CD-ROM game (Mindscape, Windows 95/Macintosh, pounds 39.99) that comes bundled with a paperback, and links players via the Net. While the book is a clattering romp featuring merciless female terrorists and highly trained operatives whose best friends are their Heckler & Koch MP5Ks, the game is Risk writ large. Its map of the formerly Soviet lands bears a resemblance to the Risk map, which anticipated the break-up of the USSR decades ago. The players represent a range of factions which are vying for power in Russia after Boris Yeltsin's sudden death. Instead of the top hat and the racing car, there are nationalists, Communists, reformers, separatists, the former KGB, the mafia, the Church and of course the military.
Though it is possible to play on one's own, with the computer handling the other roles, Politika's raison d'etre is "conversational gaming", in which players spend most of their time communicating with each other: trading, buying influence, negotiating alliances. Tom Clancy sees multiplayer gaming as "a new art form". Whether you consider it art or not, Politika is an impressive demonstration of how computers can make games both more like the real world, and more entertaining, too.
APRES BORIS, LE DELUGE
The new technology of the Web has led many companies to rediscover an old notion, that the purpose of advertising is to inform the public about products. In hypermedia, information is staging a comeback against image. It goes beyond the products, too. At Veuve Clicquot's smart and orderly site, the information covers not just the Champagne, but the company's place in French history, and of course the Widow herself. Its rivals Piper-Heidsieck, by contrast, treat the Web more like television. Although there is some token information about Cham-pagne, there's more about cinema and showbiz. The purpose of the site is to project Java-enhanced glamour.
As for the actual stuff in the bottles, both companies' products do well in Wine Spectator's searchable database of 55,000 wine reviews. A treasury of oenobabble, that one suspects could be machine-generated, it has high praise for Piper-Heidsieck's Extra-Dry, with its "subtle, lingering finish", while the Brut is categorised as "toasty in aroma, lean and a bit tart in flavour". Veuve Clicquot might have mixed feelings about its Demi-Sec being described as "a nicely spicy, gingery bubbly". This season, that kind of brand association is scary.
BAIRD AND THE BEAST
For our devoted Old English following, a quick seasonal burst of "Hwt, Hrodulf readnosa hrandeor". The rest of Philip Chapman-Bell's poem can be found on Cathy Ball's Old English pages, which are firm Technofile favourites. It gains in the Modern English translation: "That beast didn't have unshiny nostrils!/The goodly nose-cartilage glittered and glowed". A HyperChristmas to one and all!
GADGET OF THE WEEK
SAITEK KASPAROV PORTABLE TALKING COACH
There's a faint whiff of irony about a computer chess game which is named after the chess whizz who was defeated by a computer. This one talks, too, though not actually in the Grand Master's voice. If you've ever needed help with your game, or if you just want a challenging adversary, the 256 level settings available here should be enough to satisfy you. The Talking Coach (pounds 49.99) is a tiny portable with a chessboard which can sense where you place the pieces, and then offer hints, allow you to take back a move, and prevent you from cheating with an embarrassing cry of "Illegal move!" It's especially useful for chess novices, as it speaks a general introduction to the game, and can guide you through the pitfalls of how to move a knight and what terms like castling mean. If you prefer a human opponent, then the computer will humbly accept the role of referee. The detachable lid keeps all the chess pieces in place while you're on the move, and the computer will retain the moves in its memory for up to two years, if you really need some serious time to think. The Talking Coach is available from Argos, Toys 'R' Us and Index. David Phelan
David Blatner's small but perfectly formed The Joy of Pi (Penguin, pounds 12.99) contains the first million digits of pi, the constant underlying the relationship between a circle's radius and its circumference. Should you, for any reason, want more decimal places, the book's website can send you to the Useless Pages' Pi section, whence you can go on to a page offering an awe-inspiring 50 million digits of pi, downloadable in 20 compressed files of 2,500,000 digits each.
If you're intimidated by maths, a pi tour is an essential Web journey to make. Within a few clicks, it becomes clear that mathematicians make aromatherapy fans look like hardboiled rationalists. A whole cult is devoted to generating ever more digits for pi - over 6 billion and counting - and looking for signs, elusive so far, that there is some sort of pattern in there. Other pursuits include memorising as many digits as possible. Simon Plouffe, a mathematician and co-author of the Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences, once held the world record, but gave up at 4,400. "You stop mainly because it is boring to do that all the time," he explains.
Not all piphiles (many of whom appear to live in the Nordic countries) are obsessed with precision. One page celebrates Pi Approximation Day, 22 July, or 22/7. Another eschews the greatest shaggy dog tale in maths for the elegance of perfect accuracy; it presents the square root of 4 to 499,999 decimal places.
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