19 April 1996

WELL OUTCLASSED

BY NINE-YEAR-OLD

I remember my first farm set vividly.

It gave me hours of entertainment as I pushed the little red tractor with its bright yellow trailer around the paddocks, dropping off plastic bales of hay for the plastic cows and sheep.

But that was 30 years ago. Todays model farm is somewhat more sophisticated.

Id just about heard of SimCity from James, our resident nine-year-old. All his friends play it at school, building up simulated urban societies on computer, dealing with all sorts of contemporary problems such as air pollution, traffic congestion and power shortages.

SimFarm, according to the packaging, is SimCitys "country cousin."

Well, I have to confess computers are not my strong point. Even at school, calculators were banned until after Id finished maths Olevel. And at university computing more or less passed me by as they tried to teach us how to become programmers rather than how to use a spreadsheet.

It was therefore with some trepidation that I sat down at James PC, instruction manual in one hand, mouse in the other, ready to create my first farm.

Having chosen the climate I wanted and placed my farmstead close to a river (good for irrigation) but away from the town (dont want too much urban infringement at this delicate stage) I set about spending some of my $40,000 cash reserves.

Ten minutes later and I was pretty well equipped. Little red tractor, bright yellow trailer (can this be mere coincidence?), together with plough, planter, sprayer and harvester.

The simulation develops quickly. At the press of a few buttons my fields were planted with a diverse assortment of peanuts, sorghum, strawberries and rice. (Well, the software is American!)

Each crop has its own requirements and it was not long before I was running up further bills installing water pumps, digging drainage ditches and applying a range of sprays and fertilisers as prompted by the computer. All this costs money, of course, and a quick glance at the bank account showed me down to $15,000 already.

Before too long (and at SimFarm, time can pass as slowly or as quickly as you want) the first crop was harvested and in one of my silos.

I clicked on the "sell" button, ready to start making my fortune, only to find the strawberries were "bad" and their market value was $0. To rub salt into the wound I was then told my taxes would be due in three months, my bank balance was insufficient and there was a tornado approaching!

Either I could sell some land, take out a bank loan or quit this game and start a new one.

Like most things, getting it right takes practise. But after a few hours (and a couple more bankruptcies) my farming skills had improved. My bank balance had grown, my farmhouse had been upgraded and I even owned a light aircraft (or "crop duster" according to the SimFarm inventory).

I had also ventured into livestock production, though that ended in disaster as the sheep ran out of water, broke through the fences and started eating the crops. (Hitting them with the bulldozer didnt seem to stop them, but it is possible to build fences round them if youre quick.)

The detail and sophistication of SimFarm is truly impressive.

For example, building roads around the farm and keeping your machines under cover slows down depreciation and is good for the balance sheet. Alternatively, all farm operations can be done on "auto-lease," though this tends to be more expensive.

Crops can be sold before harvesting and it is advisable to keep an eye on market prices to try and catch the peaks. Similarly, crops kept in store go up and down in value. This is affected by quality.

Crop rotation also works well, once youve learnt the different nutrient requirements and climatic preferences.

Which all begs the question is the game really suitable for a nine-year-old?

Well, I was in for a rude awakening. Within a couple of hours of starting the game, and without once looking at the reference manual, James had already consulted the crop adviser, sold to the futures market, gambled at the rodeo, crashed half a dozen crop dusters and was well on the way to his first million $.

Philip Clarke

*SimFarm is available through most High Street entertainment software outlets, as part of the SimClassics 2 package. Alternatively contact Maxis (0171 4902333) for further details.

James amassed his farming fortune speedily – and without reference to the manual – but the author had many agricultural disasters to overcome.

Todays budding

farmers are as likely

to play their games

on a computer screen

as the hearth rug.

Sim Farm is childs

play in both

senses of the word.