"Wham!" Yells the man in the floral shirt to my left. If it were a pub quiz and he'd been asked to name the worst band of the '80s, he'd be well within his rights. Sadly, it's not. It's a Civilization IV hands-on multiplayer event in (genuinely) sunny Baltimore, and shirt-boy is celebrating another minor victory, while increasingly getting on my wick.
It could have been worse. Ten hours earlier, myself and a UK PR man were stumbling round a car park at midnight in the smack capital of the Eastern seaboard, searching desperately for entertainment having jettisoned ourselves from a meal that had degenerated into an in-depth discussion on the intricacies of Morrowind.
My fellow diners are now gathered round a table at the Firaxis office, mainly sporting the regulation uniform of polo shirts tucked into slacks, offset with greasy hair and white socks. I couldn't be any deeper in geek hell if Captain Spock were overseeing proceedings.
"So has everyone played Civ before?" asks a Firaxis beard, to audible snorts of contempt from the assembled nerderati. Accordingly, I decide not to mention that my entire Civ career consists of unsuccessfully attempting the tutorial of Civ III. Besides, I'm already unpopular enough as it is, being a) the only Brit, b) half an hour late, and c) unable to speak binary.
With this limited background, I install myself as a very outside chance in the multiplayer game that's just got underway. I am China and I am clueless. Faking it like a pro, I studiously survey the map in front of me. Clicking randomly on a few things, I remarkably manage to build the city of Beijing, rapidly putting a wall round it and defending it with a clutch of archers.
WARRIORS, COME OUT TO PLAY
Getting a taste for exploration, I put together some scouts and send them out into the wild, whereby they promptly kill a lion. My warriors are less successful, straying into shirt-boy territory and impetuously declaring war. As the screen zooms into a 3D battle, shirt-boy screams "Take that, caveman!" as his mounted troops vanquish my boys. Taking it personally, I throw my best men at him, but he again comes out on top, howling: "Take that War Chariot! Think you're all cool and stuff."
During the ensuing battles, he utters the improbable line: "I just rolled over an archer unit and it felt good," followed by a nearferal, "Bring it! Bring it! Bring it!" Calm down dear, it's a turn-based strategy game. Thankfully, the game is soon halted due to time constraints. Remarkably, I haven't completely disgraced myself, finishing in a creditable mid-table position, with such achievements as researching fishing and animal husbandry, becoming a Buddhist, and, crucially, keeping shirt-boy out of my city. "Your horses were stomping round my rice paddies," he wistfully announces, to no-one in particular.
SAVING PRIVATE RYAN
Next up is a 2v2 team game, and with the yanks rapidly pairing up, I'm left to join forces with a pasty teenager by the name of Ryan Meier, son of Sid and regular in the Firaxis QA department. Something of a result, his Germans and my Americans rapidly set about populating the East of the map, with Washington, New York and Boston sitting incongruously alongside the likes of Munich and Berlin, with trade routes established by road.
Taking a peaceful approach, we build our empire rapidly, with Ryan attempting to 'turn' rival cities by dropping a so-called culture bomb in their immediate vicinity. I, meanwhile, keep myself busy by building a couple of aqueducts and killing the odd wolf in near total silence. As the nearby PR man texts me: "Not much whoopin' and a'hollerin' coming from you Stevie boy."