It is not the intention of this series to chronicle each and every game that we happen to be not very good at: there are a lot of them, for a start, and speaking personally there’s enough whining from me on the subject on this site (and possibly also in the comments sections of reviews at Just Games Retro) already. Some people understand, and are good at, strategy games. I am not one of them, and I’m ok with that.

Having said all that, there are a handful of titles with which I’ve dabbled sufficiently to harbour Specific Regret of the type we can file away securely in this vault. One example would be the venerable 4x classic Master of Orion 2, a long-time favourite of my friend and colleague Stoo. I have reasonably fond memories of the two of us taking on the galaxy in hot-seat multiplayer mode about 20 years ago: however, subsequent attempts to rekindle those feelings as a solo player indicate that in all likelihood my previous efforts relied on significant guidance from my fellow player, drawing upon his knowledge of the game to steer me through each turn while avoiding serious catastrophe.

As a youngster, strategy games struck me as being rather too much on the dull and dusty side to be of any interest. On the Atari ST, strategy seemed to mean serious military battle games like Austerlitz and Waterloo: even something like the original Civilization seemed too history-based, far less exciting to adolescent eyes than action-packed shooters, football or racing games. The only exception of note was a game called Millennium 2.2, which was kind of a precursor to the likes of Master of Orion, and appealed on the basis of its sci-fi setting and atmospheric music: again, though, I’m not sure if I played it properly or just messed around not knowing what I was doing until it was game over.

The era of real-time strategy certainly changed my perceptions of the genre. Playing Westwood’s Dune 2, I understood for the first time the basics of resource collection, building a base and directing attacks, because it was all so easily explained and accomplished: click here and watch it happen. Early missions were extremely gentle, acting effectively as a tutorial, with House Atreides mentat Cyril on hand to give you hints and tips. (And, yes, it would always be House Atreides: here began my pathological need to play as “the good guys” in these games and ignore entirely the other campaigns). The presentation was glossy and exciting, from the movie-like introduction to little in-game touches such as the repeated verbal acknowledgements of your commands that would become a hallmark of the genre.

Westwood followed Dune 2 with Command and Conquer, which to my mind was the first strategy game to be actively marketed as fun and exciting: ditching the slightly nerdy Dune licence in favour of a contemporary alternate reality based around a war between fictional terrorists and the self-appointed world police, utilising CD technology to add video cut scenes and ramp up the presentation in general. Real-time strategy is for everyone: anyone can build a base, collect Tiberium and amass an army to do their bidding, while some cool music plays in the background. Again, early missions were gentle, allowing you to focus on doing rather than thinking.

And there was the problem for me: when things did start to require some level of thought, it was too tough to take and I found myself defeated rather too easily. The pace of the action, part of that initial excitement and appeal, started to become overwhelming, and the clarity and speed of thought required to succeed more and more elusive. 1996’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert was probably the C&C game I played most, and it certainly left a mark on me in a way that the original didn’t, but I can’t readily recall just how far I got in the campaign: the missions in which you didn’t have a base as such and had to guide a handful of units around, Cannon Fodder style, did get on my nerves and possibly it was one of these that defeated me.

During this site’s earliest years, the critical consensus was that Command and Conquer was old hat, and relied on linear tactics and build and rush gameplay. Tiberian Sun was considered a disappointment, and 3D rivals such as Ground Control and Homeworld (another of Stoo’s favourites) were being pushed as superior RTS options. In the context of such comments, I cobbled together a review of Red Alert, albeit not a particularly detailed or insightful one, but I felt sufficiently moved to defend it, even if my low level of expertise meant I had little right to do so.

Tiberian Sun itself was also the subject of a write-up, and must have been played for a period deemed sufficient to meet 2007 FFG quality standards (whatever they were…I certainly didn’t get to the end). I can remember very little about it now, except a sense that it lacked a certain spark that the previous games had, and the fact that employing Hollywood stars to participate in the cut scenes undermined their cheesy charm somewhat.

It was Red Alert 2 that finally killed me off. Contemporary reviews had been kinder than they had been to Tiberian Sun, and so I was convinced to give it a go, only to find that I failed spectacularly on a very early mission. I think that’s when I realised I wasn’t actually ever any good at Command and Conquer: I’d played it, and thought I’d enjoyed it, but probably I hadn’t. Amid all the criticism of it being a build and rush title that wasn’t a “real” strategy game, I must have thought that if something so popular and accessible was beyond me, I really did need to hand over my gaming badge.

I realise now of course that it’s absolutely fine to be rubbish at games. But even in the course of writing this piece, consigning C&C to the Vault of Regret, I got sucked in again. Firing up the old Westwood RTS games for a bit of research, I began a Dune 2 campaign as House Atreides and coasted through the first two, extremely easy, levels. “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps Command and Conquer is too hectic for me, but I remember this, and it seems like it might be a simpler and more considered affair. I’ll keep going and perhaps I could write a review at some point.”

Come mission 3, also known as The First Mission In Which More Than One Thing Attacks You, things are on fire, I’ve built things in the wrong order, I’m out of credits and my base is being overrun by Harkkonen. And I’m realising that your units will do very little without you actively telling them, commands have to be issued one at a time, and everything moves incredibly slowly.

Compare that experience with my attempt to have a quick go at Master of Orion 2 to grab some screenshots. Yes, it has an exciting looking intro movie, with spaceships and explosions, and that, but once you get into the game proper, there are menus and numbers and charts: there’s no softening you up with an introductory bit where you build a couple of concrete slabs and feel like a champion. Hit with the stark realities from the start, at least it’s honest: no, Rik, this game isn’t for you – go and do something else.