Will the smart-arse who said, "Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it," please go and stand in the corner with a dunce hat on (It was poet and philosopher George Santayana, actually - Culture Ed). 'Doomed' to repeat it? 'Privileged' more like. Being in the position to repeat history is a genuine joy, especially when the history in question is pin-cushioned with arrows or wreathed in gun smoke and the reliving is done via the medium of electro-digital personal computing.
The games you see arrayed below are a selection of fine free wargames that bring military events alive in ways that Messers Holmes, Ambrose, Hart-Davis and their ilk can only dream of. The visuals might be basic and the learning curves are steep. But overlook these shortcomings and you're in for some memorable martial mayhem.
FIELD OF STRATEGY II
Developer: Tristan Pannerec
Most wargames feature a single operation or theatre. FoS2 covers the entire history of human warmongery. Ancient, Medieval, Napoleonic, WW2 - it's all here. Whether you're rolling through the Ardennes in your Panzers or running down Hittites with your chariots, the opposition puts up stiff resistance and the battle outcomes are plausible. The only thing that's really missing is a zoom function and comelier visuals.
STEEL PANTHERS: WORLD AT WAR
It's a sign of Matrix's confidence that they're prepared to give SP:WAW away for nothing. This tactical TBS is as old as the hills, but it's one of the richest, most credible WWII games ever made. The scenario folder bulges with 344 scraps involving the likes of Red Berets, White Russians and Italian Blackshirts. There's even a few Spanish Civil War engagements thrown in too.
Developer: Juha Kellokoski
On a wreckage-strewn desert highway a T-72 dukes it out with an M1A1 Abrams. In the middle of a snowy village an M113 APC trundles towards an undetected minefield. In a forest clearing the carcass of an Apache gunship smoulders besides its vanquisher, a Shilka mobile AA tank. Welcome to the world of Armored Brigade, a real-time wargame that hides convincing Cold War combat drama under unassuming 2D top-down visuals. Friendlier than most thanks to a slick Close Combat-style interface and more varied thanks to randomly generated battlefields and pick-your-own armies. Future plans include adding British forces and multiplayer to the mix.
Developer: Historical Software
This has all the hallmarks of an army training tool. Set in the present day, it's insanely detailed (smoke grenades come in ten different colours), it's multiplayer only and it's got the kind of hamfisted interface that most game devs would have strangled at birth. Thankfully improvements are coming thick and fast, with the GUI offset by lovely 3D battlefields, an authentic military vibe and Bulge-based WWII content.
GLOBAL CONFLICT BLUE 2
Developer: Dewitt Colclough
Not angry houses, but angry houseboats. This pearl is a modern-day naval warfare sim conducted in real-time through a radar-style display. If you remember Harpoon you'll know roughly what to expect - it's Defcon with realism. Unlike Harpoon, GCB2 also offers 3D glimpses of the battlespace. These aren't particularly refined but they do enhance an already fascinating wargame.