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Monthly Archives: January 2020

Master of Orion

 

Given the shadow which the original Master of Orion still casts over the gaming landscape of today, one might be forgiven for assuming, as many younger gamers doubtless do, that it was the very first conquer-the-galaxy grand-strategy game ever made. The reality, however, is quite different. For all that its position of influence is hardly misbegotten for other very good reasons, it was already the heir to a long tradition of such games at the time of its release in 1993. In fact, the tradition dates back to well before computer games as we know them today even existed.

The roots of the strategic space opera can be traced back to the tabletop game known as Diplomacy, designed by Allan B. Calhamer and first published in 1959 by Avalon Hill. Taking place in the years just prior to World War I, it put seven players in the roles of leaders of the various “great powers” of Europe. Although it included a playing board, tokens, and most of the other accoutrements of a typical board game, the real action, at least if you were playing it properly, was entirely social, in the alliances that were forged and broken and the shady deals that were struck. In this respect, it presaged many of the ideas that would later go into Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. It thus represents an instant in gaming history as seminal in its own way as the 1954 publication of Avalon Hill’s Tactics, the canonical first tabletop wargame and the one which touched off the hobby of experiential gaming in general. But just as importantly for our purposes, Diplomacy‘s shifting alliances and the back-stabbings they led to would become an essential part of countless strategic space operas, including Master of Orion 34 years later.

Because getting seven friends together in the same room for the all-day affair that was a complete game of Diplomacy was almost as hard in the 1960s as it is today, inventive gamers developed systems for playing it via post; the first example of this breed would seem to date from 1963. And once players had started modifying the rules of Diplomacy to make it work under this new paradigm, it was a relatively short leap to begin making entirely new play-by-post games with new themes which shared some commonalities of approach with Calhamer’s magnum opus.

Thus in December of 1966, Dan Brannon announced a play-by-post game called Xeno, whose concept sounds very familiar indeed in the broad strokes. Each player started with a cluster of five planets — a tiny toehold in a sprawling, unknown galaxy waiting to be colonized. “The vastness of the playing space, the secrecy of the identity of the other players, the secrecy of the locations of ships and planets, the total lack of information without efforts of investigation, all these factors are meant to create the real problems of a race trying to expand to other planets,” wrote Brannon. Although the new game would be like Diplomacy in that it would presumably still culminate in negotiations, betrayals, and the inevitable final war to determine the ultimate victor, these stages would now be preceded by those of exploration and colonization, until a galaxy that had seemed so unfathomably big at the start proved not to be big enough to accommodate all of its would-be space empires. Certainly all of this too will be familiar to any player of Master of Orion or one of its heirs. Brannon’s game even included a tech tree of sorts, with players able to acquire better engines, weapons, and shields for their ships every eight turns they managed to survive.

In practice, Xeno played out at a pace to which the word “glacial” hardly does justice. The game didn’t really get started until September of 1967, and by a year after that just three turns had been completed. I don’t know whether a single full game of it was ever finished. Nevertheless, it proved hugely influential within the small community of experiential-gaming fanzines and play-by-post enthusiasts. The first similar game, called Galaxy and run by H. David Montgomery, had already appeared before Xeno had processed its third turn.

But the idea was, literally and figuratively speaking, too big for the medium for which it had been devised; it was just too compelling to remain confined to those few stalwart souls with the patience for play-by-post gaming. It soon branched out into two new mediums, each of which offered a more immediate sort of satisfaction.

In 1975, following rejections from Avalon Hill and others, one Howard Thompson formed his own company to publish the face-to-face board game Stellar Conquest, the first strategic space opera to appear in an actual box on store shelves. When Stellar Conquest became a success, it spawned a string of similar board games with titles like Godsfire, Outreach, Second Empire, and Starfall during this, the heyday of experiential gaming on the tabletop. But the big problem with such games was their sheer scope and math-heavy nature, which were enough to test the limits of many a salty old grognard who usually reveled in complexity. They all took at least three or four hours to play in their simplest variants, and a single game of at least one of them — SPI’s Outreach — could absorb weeks of gaming Saturdays. Meanwhile they were all dependent on pages and pages of fiddly manual calculations, in the time before spreadsheet macros or even handheld calculators were commonplace. (One hates to contemplate the plight of the Outreach group who have just spent the last two months resolving who shall become master of the galaxy, only to discover that the victor made a mistake on her production worksheet back on the second turn which invalidated all of the numbers that followed…) These games were, in other words, crying out for computerization.

Luckily, then, that too had already started to happen by the end of the 1970s. One of the reasons that play-by-post games of this type tended to run so sluggishly — beyond, that is, the inherent sluggishness of the medium itself — came down to the same problem as that faced by their tabletop progeny: the burden their size and complexity placed on their administrators. Therefore in 1976, Rick Loomis, the founder of a little company called Flying Buffalo, started running the commercial play-by-post game Starweb on what gaming historian Shannon Appelcline has called “probably the first computer ever purchased exclusively to play games” (or, at least, to administrate them): a $14,000 Raytheon 704 minicomputer. He would continue to run Starweb for more than thirty years — albeit presumably not on the same computer throughout that time.

But the first full-fledged incarnation of the computerized strategic space opera — in the sense of a self-contained game meant to be played locally on a single computer — arrived only in 1983. Called Reach for the Stars, it was the first fruit of what would turn into a long-running and prolific partnership between the Aussies Roger Keating and Ian Trout, who in that rather grandiose fashion that was so typical of grognard culture had named themselves the Strategic Studies Group. Reach for the Stars was based so heavily upon Stellar Conquest that it’s been called an outright unlicensed clone. Nevertheless, it’s a remarkable achievement for the way that it manages to capture that sense of size and scope that is such a huge part of these games’ appeal on 8-bit Apple IIs and Commodore 64s with just 64 K of memory. Although the whole is necessarily rather bare-bones compared to what would come later, the computer players’ artificial intelligence, always a point of pride with Keating and Trout, is surprisingly effective; on the harder difficulty level, the computer can truly give you a run for your money, and seems to do so without relying solely on egregious cheating.

It doesn’t look like much, but the basic hallmarks of the strategic space opera are all there in Reach for the Stars.

Reach for the Stars did very well, prompting updated ports to more powerful machines like the Apple Macintosh and IIGS and the Commodore Amiga as the decade wore on. A modest trickle of other boxed computer games of a similar stripe also appeared, albeit none which did much to comprehensively improve on SSG’s effort: Imperium Galactum, Spaceward Ho!, Armada 2525, Pax Imperia. Meanwhile the commercial online service CompuServe offered up MegaWars III, in which up to 100 players vied for control of the galaxy; it played a bit like one of those years-long play-by-post campaigns of yore compressed into four to six weeks of constant — and expensive, given CompuServe’s hourly dial-up rates — action and intrigue. Even the shareware scene got in on the act, via titles like Anacreon: Reconstruction 4021 and the earliest versions of the cult classic VGA Planets, a game which is still actively maintained and played to this day. And then, finally, along came Master of Orion in 1993 to truly take this style of game to the next level.

Had things gone just a little bit differently, Master of Orion too might have been a shareware release. It was designed in the spare time of Steve Barcia, an electrical engineer living in Austin, Texas, and programmed by Steve himself, his wife Marcia Barcia, and their friend Ken Burd. Steve claims not ever to have played any of the computer games I’ve just mentioned, but, as an avid and longtime tabletop gamer, he was very familiar with Stellar Conquest and a number of its successors. (No surprise there: Howard Thompson and his game were in fact also products of Austin’s vibrant board-gaming scene.)

After working on their computer game, which they called Star Lords, on and off for years, the little band of hobbyist programmers submitted it to MicroProse, whose grand-strategy game of Civilization, a creation of their leading in-house designer Sid Meier, had just taken the world by storm. A MicroProse producer named Jeff Johannigman — himself another member of the Austin gaming fraternity, as it happened, one who had just left Origin Systems in Austin to join MicroProse up in Baltimore — took a shine to the unpolished gem and signed its creators to develop it further. Seeing their hobby about to become a real business, the trio quit their jobs, took the name of SimTex, and leased a cramped office above a gyro joint to finish their game under Johannigman’s remote supervision, with a little additional help from MicroProse’s art department.

A fellow named Alan Emrich was one of most prominent voices in strategy-game criticism at the time; he was the foremost scribe on the subject at Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s accepted journal of record, and had just published a book-length strategy guide on Civilization in tandem with Johnny Wilson, the same magazine’s senior editor. Thanks to that project, Emrich was well-connected with MicroProse, and was happy to serve as a sounding board for them. And so, one fateful day very early in 1993, Johannigman asked if he’d like to have a look at a new submission called Star Lords.

As Emrich himself puts it, his initial impressions “were not that great.” He remembers thinking the game looked like “something from the late 1980s” — an eternity in the fast-changing computing scene of the early 1990s. Yet there was just something about it; the more he played, the more he wanted to keep playing. So, he shared Star Lords with his friend Tom Hughes, with whom he’d been playing tabletop and computerized strategy games for twenty years. Hughes had the same experience. Emrich:

After intense, repeated playing of the game, Tom and I were soon making numerous suggestions to [Johannigman], who, in turn, got tired of passing them on to the designer and lead programmer, Steve Barcia. Soon, we were talking to Steve directly. The telephone lines were burning regularly and a lot of ideas went back and forth. All the while, Steve was cooking up a better and better game. It was during this time that the title changed to Master of Orion and the game’s theme and focus crystallized.

I wrote a sneak preview for Computer Gaming World magazine where I indicated that Master of Orion was shaping up to be a good game. It had a lot of promise, but I didn’t think it was up there with Sid Meier’s Civilization, the hobby’s hallmark of strategy gaming at that time. But by the time that story hit the newsstands, I had changed my mind. I found myself still playing the game constantly and was reflecting on that fact when Tom called me. We talked about Master of Orion, of course, and Tom said, “You know, I think this game might become more addicting even than Civilization.” I replied, “You know, I think it already is.”

I was hard on Emrich in earlier articles for his silly assertion that Civilization‘s inclusion of global warming as a threat to progress and women’s suffrage as a Wonder of the World constituted some form of surrender to left-wing political correctness, as I was for his even sillier assertion that the game’s simplistic and highly artificial economic model could somehow be held up as proof for the pseudo-scientific theory of trickle-down economics. Therefore let me be very clear in praising him here: Emrich and Hughes played an absolutely massive role in making Master of Orion one of the greatest strategy games of all time. Their contribution was such that SimTex took the unusual step of adding to the credits listing a “Special Thanks to Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes for their invaluable design critiquing and suggestions.” If anything, that credit would seem to be more ungenerous than the opposite. By all indications, a pair of full-fledged co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of proportion to the reality of their contribution. The two would go on to write the exhaustive official strategy guide for the game, a tome numbering more than 400 pages. No one could have been more qualified to tackle that project.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Emrich did one more great service for Master of Orion and, one might even say, for gaming in general. In a “revealing sneak preview” of the game, published in the September 1993 issue of Computer Gaming World, he pronounced it to be “rated XXXX.” After the requisite measure of back-patting for such edgy turns of phrase as these, Emrich settled down to explain what he really meant by the label: “XXXX” in this context stood for “EXplore, EXpand, EXploit, and EXterminate.” And thus was a new sub-genre label born. The formulation from the article was quickly shortened to “4X” by enterprising gamers uninterested in making strained allusions to pornographic films. In that form, it would be applied to countless titles going forward, right up to the present day, and retroactively applied to countless titles of the past, including all of the earlier space operas I’ve just described as well as the original Civilization — a game to which the “EXterminate” part of the label fits perhaps less well, but such is life.

Emrich’s article also creates an amusing distinction for the more pedantic ludic taxonomists and linguists among us. Although Master of Orion definitely was not, as we’ve now seen at some length, the first 4X game in the abstract, it was the very first 4X game to be called a 4X game. Maybe this accounts for some of the pride of place it holds in modern gaming culture?

However that may be, though, the lion’s share of the credit for Master of Orion‘s enduring influence must surely be ascribed to what a superb game it is in its own right. If it didn’t invent the 4X space opera, it did in some sense perfect it, at least in its digital form. It doesn’t do anything conceptually new on the face of it — you’re still leading an alien race as it expands through a randomly created galaxy, competing with other races in the fields of economics, technology, diplomacy, and warfare to become the dominant civilization — but it just does it all so well.

A new game of Master of Orion begins with you choosing a galaxy size (from small to huge), a difficulty level (from simple to impossible), and a quantity of opposing aliens to compete against (from one to five). Then you choose which specific race you would like to play; you have ten possibilities in all, drawing from a well-worn book of science-fiction tropes, from angry cats in space to hive-mind-powered insects, from living rocks to pacifistic brainiacs, alongside the inevitable humans. Once you’ve made your choice, you’re cast into the deep end — or rather into deep space — with a single half-developed planet, a colony ship for settling a second planet as soon as you find a likely candidate, two unarmed scout ships for exploring for just such a candidate, and a minimal set of starting technologies.

You must parlay these underwhelming tools into galactic domination hundreds of turns later. You can take the last part of the 4X tag literally and win out by utterly exterminating all of your rivals, but a slightly less genocidal approach is a victory in the “Galactic Council” which meets every quarter-century (i.e., every 25 turns). Here everyone can vote on which of the two most currently populous empires’ leaders they prefer to appoint as ruler of the galaxy, with “everyone” in this context including the two leading emperors themselves. Each empire gets a number of votes determined by its population, and the first to collect two-thirds of the total vote wins outright. (Well, almost… it is possible for you to refuse to respect the outcome of a vote that goes against you, but doing so will cause all of your rivals to declare immediate and perpetual war against you, whilst effectively pooling all of their own resources and technology. Good luck with that!)

A typical game of Master of Orion plays out over three broad stages. The first stage is the land grab, the wide-open exploration and colonization phase that happens before you meet your rival aliens. Here your challenge is to balance the economic development of your existing planets against your need to settle as many new ones as possible to put yourself in a good position for the mid-game. (When exactly do I stop spending my home planet’s resources on improving its own infrastructure and start using them to build more colony ships?) The mid-game begins when you start to bump into your rivals, and comes to entail much jockeying for influence, as the various races begin to sort themselves into rival factions. (The Alkaris, bird-like creatures, loathe the Mrrshans, the aforementioned race of frenzied pussycats, and their loathing is returned in kind. I don’t have strong feelings about either one — but whose side would it most behoove me to choose from a purely strategic perspective?) The end-game is nigh when the there is no more room for anyone to expand, apart from taking planets from a rival by force, and the once-expansive galaxy suddenly seems claustrophobic. It often, although by no means always, is marked by a massive war that finally secures somebody that elusive two-thirds majority in the Galactic Council. (I’m so close now! Do I attack those stubbornly intractable Bulrathi to try to knock down their population and get myself over the two-thirds threshold that way, or do I keep trying to sweet-talk and bribe them into voting for me?) The length and character of all of these stages will of course greatly depend on the initial setup you chose; the first stage might be all but nonexistent in a small galaxy with five rivals, while it will go on for a long, long time indeed in a huge galaxy with just one or two opponents. (The former scenario is, for the record, far more challenging.)

And that’s how it goes, generally speaking. Yet the core genius of Master of Orion actually lies in how resistant it is to generalization. It’s no exaggeration to say that there really is no “typical” game; I’ve enjoyed plenty which played out in nothing like the pattern I’ve just described for you. I’ve played games in which I never fired a single shot in anger, even ones where I’ve never built a single armed ship of war, just as I’ve played others where I was in a constant war for survival from beginning to end. Master of Orion is gaming’s best box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get when you jump into a new galaxy. Everything about the design is engineered to keep you from falling back on patterns universally applicable to the “typical” game. It’s this quality, more so than any other, that makes Master of Orion so consistently rewarding. If I was to be stranded on the proverbial desert island, I have a pretty good idea of at least one of the games I’d choose to take with me.

I’ll return momentarily to the question of just how Master of Orion manages to build so much variation into a fairly simple set of core rules. I think it might be instructive to do so, however, in comparison with another game, one I’ve already had occasion to mention several times in this article: Civilization.

As I’m so often at pains to point out, game design is, like any creative pursuit, a form of public dialog. Certainly Civilization itself comes with a long list of antecedents, including most notably Walter Bright’s mainframe game Empire, Dani Bunten Berry’s PC game Seven Cities of Gold, and the Avalon Hill board game with which Civilization shares its name. Likewise, Civilization has its progeny, among them Master of Orion. By no means was it the sole influence on the latter; as we’ve seen, Master of Orion was also greatly influenced by the 4X space-opera tradition in board games, especially during its early phases of development.

Still, the mark of Civilization as well can be seen all over its finished design. (After all, Alan Emrich had just literally written the book on Civilization when he started bombarding Barcia with design suggestions…) For example, Master of Orion, unlike all of its space-opera predecessors, on the computer or otherwise, doesn’t bother at all with multiplayer options, preferring to optimize the single-player experience in their stead. One can’t help but feel that it was Civilization, which was likewise bereft of the multiplayer options that earlier grand-strategy games had always included as a matter of course, that empowered Steve Barcia and company to go this way.

At the same time, though, we cannot say that Jeff Johannigman was being particularly accurate when he took to calling Master of OrionCivilization in space” for the benefit of journalists. For all that it’s easy enough to understand what made such shorthand so tempting — this new project too was a grand-strategy game played on a huge scale, incorporating technology, economics, diplomacy, and military conflict — it wasn’t ultimately fair to either game. Master of Orion is very much its own thing. Its interface, for example, is completely different. (Ironically, Barcia’s follow-up to Master of Orion, the fantasy 4X Master of Magic, hews much closer to Civilization in that respect.) In Master of Orion, Civilization‘s influence often runs as much in a negative as a positive direction; that is to say, there are places where the later design is lifting ideas from the earlier one, but also taking it upon itself to correct perceived weaknesses in their implementation.

I have to use the qualifier “perceived” there because the two games have such different personalities. Simply put, Civilization prioritizes its fictional context over its actual mechanics, while Master of Orion does just the opposite. Together they illustrate the flexibility of the interactive digital medium, showing how great games can be great in such markedly different ways, even when they’re as closely linked in terms of genre as these two are.

Civilization explicitly bills itself as a grand journey through human history, from the time in our distant past when the first hunter-gatherers settled down in villages to an optimistic near-future in space. The rules underpinning the journey are loose-goosey, full of potential exploits. The most infamous of these is undoubtedly the barbarian-horde strategy, in which you research only a few minimal technologies necessary for war-making and never attempt to evolve your society or participate in any meaningful diplomacy thereafter, but merely flood the world with miserable hardscrabble cities supporting primitive armies, attacking everything that moves until every other civilization is extinct. At the lower and moderate difficulty levels at least, this strategy works every single time, albeit whilst bypassing most of what the game was meant to be about. As put by Ralph Betza, a contributor to an early Civilization strategy guide posted to Usenet: “You can always play Despotic Conquest, regardless of the world you find yourself starting with, and you can always win without using any of the many ways to cheat. When you choose any other strategy, you are deliberately risking a loss in order to make the game more interesting.”

So very much in Civilization is of limited utility at best in purely mechanical terms. Many or most of the much-vaunted Wonders of the World, for example, really aren’t worth the cost you have to pay for them. But that’s okay; you pay for them anyway because you like the idea of having built the Pyramids of Giza or the Globe Theatre or Project Apollo, just as you choose not to go all Genghis Khan on the world because you’d rather build a civilization you can feel proud of. Perhaps the clearest statement of Civilization‘s guiding design philosophy can be found in the manual. It says that, even if you make it all the way to the end of the game only to see one of your rivals achieve the ultimate goal of mounting an expedition to Alpha Centauri before you do, “the successful direction of your civilization through the centuries is an achievement. You have survived countless wars, the pollution of the industrial age, and the risks of nuclear weapons.” Or, as Sid Meier himself puts it, “a game of Civilization is an epic story.”

We’re happy to preach peace and cooperation, as long as we’re the top dogs… er, birds.

Such sentiments are deeply foreign to Master of Orion; this is a zero-sum game if ever there was one. If you lose the final Galactic Council vote, there’s no attaboy for getting this far, much less any consolation delivered that the galaxy has entered a new era of peaceful cooperation with some other race in the leadership role. Instead the closing cinematic tells you that you’ve left the known galaxy and “set forth to conquer new worlds, vowing to return and claim the renowned title of Master of Orion.” (Better to rule in Hell, right?) There are no Wonders of the World in Master of Orion, and, while there is a tech tree to work through, you won’t find on it any of Civilization‘s more humanistic advances, such as Chivalry or Mysticism, or even Communism or The Corporation. What you get instead are technologies — it’s telling that Master of Orion talks about a “tech tree,” while Civilization prefers the word “advances” — with a direct practical application to settling worlds and making war, divided into the STEM-centric categories of Computers, Construction, Force Fields, Planetology, Propulsion, and Weapons.

So, Civilization is the more idealistic, more educational, perhaps even the nobler of the two games. And yet it often plays a little awkwardly — which awkwardness we forgive because of its aspirational qualities. Master of Orion‘s fictional context is a much thinner veneer to stretch over its mechanics, while words like “idealistic” simply don’t exist in its vocabulary. And yet, being without any high-flown themes to fall back on, it makes sure that its mechanics are absolutely tight. These dichotomies can create a dilemma for a critic like yours truly. If you asked me which game presents a better argument for gaming writ large as a potentially uplifting, ennobling pursuit, I know which of the two I’d have to point to. But then, when I’m just looking for a fun, challenging, intriguing game to play… well, let’s just say that I’ve played a lot more Master of Orion than Civilization over the last quarter-century. Indeed, Master of Orion can easily be read as the work of a designer who looked at Civilization and was unimpressed with its touchy-feely side, then set out to make a game that fixed all the other failings which that side obscured.

By way of a first example, let’s consider the two games’ implementation of an advances chart — or a tech tree, whichever you prefer. Arguably the most transformative single advance in Civilization is Railroads; they let you move your military units between your cities almost instantaneously, which makes attacks much easier and quicker to mount for warlike players and enables the more peaceful types to protect their holdings with a much smaller (and thus less expensive) standing army. The Railroads advance is so pivotal that some players build their entire strategy around acquiring it as soon as possible, by finding it on the advances chart as soon as the game begins in 4000 BC and working their way backward to find the absolute shortest path for reaching it. This is obviously problematic from a storytelling standpoint; it’s not as if the earliest villagers set about learning the craft of Pottery with an eye toward getting their hands on Railroads 6000 years later. More importantly, though, it’s damaging to the longevity of the game itself, in that it means that players can and will always employ that same Railroads strategy just as soon as they figure out what a winner it is. Here we stumble over one of the subtler but nonetheless significant axioms of game design: if you give players a hammer that works on every nail, many or most of them will use it — and only it — over and over again, even if it winds up decreasing their overall enjoyment. It’s for this reason that some players continue to use even the barbarian-horde strategy in Civilization, boring though it is. Or, to take an outside example: how many designers of CRPGs have lovingly crafted dozens of spells with their own unique advantages and disadvantages, only to watch players burn up everything they encounter with a trusty Fireball?

Master of Orion, on the other hand, works hard at every turn to make such one-size-fits-all strategies impossible — and nowhere more so than in its tech tree. When a new game begins, each race is given a randomized selection of technologies that are possible for it to research, constituting only about half of the total number of technologies in the game. Thus, while a technology roughly equivalent to Civilization‘s Railroads does exist in Master of Orion — Star Gates — you don’t know if this or any other technology is actually available to you until you advance far enough up the tree to reach the spot where it ought to be. You can’t base your entire strategy around a predictable technology progression. While you can acquire technologies that didn’t make it into your tree by trading with other empires, bullying them into giving them to you, or attacking their planets and taking them, that’s a much more fraught, uncertain path to go down than doing the research yourself, one that requires a fair amount of seat-of-your-pants strategy in its own right. Any way you slice it, in other words, you have to improvise.

We’ve been lucky here in that Hydrogen Fuel Cells, the first range-extending technology and a fairly cheap one, is available in our tree. If it wasn’t, and if we didn’t have a lot of stars conveniently close by, we’d have to dedicate our entire empire to attaining a more advanced and thus more expensive range-extending technology, lest we be left behind in the initial land grab. But this would of course mean neglecting other aspects of our empire’s development. Trade-offs like this are a constant fact of life in Master of Orion.

This one clever design choice has repercussions for every other aspect of the game. Take, for instance, the endlessly fascinating game-within-a-game of designing your fleet of starships. If the tech tree was static, players would inevitably settle upon a small set of go-to designs that worked for their style of play. As it is, though, every new ship is a fresh balancing act, its equipment calibrated to maximize your side’s technological strengths and mitigate its weaknesses, while also taking into careful account the strengths and weaknesses of the foe you expect to use it against, about which you’ve hopefully been compiling information through your espionage network. Do you build a huge number of tiny, fast, maneuverable fighters, or do you build just a few lumbering galactic dreadnoughts? Or do you build something in between? There are no universally correct answers, just sets of changing circumstances.

Another source of dynamism are the alien races you play and those you play against. The cultures in Civilization have no intrinsic strengths and weaknesses, just sets of leader tendencies when played by the computer; for your part, you’re free to play the Mongols as pacifists, or for that matter the Russians as paragons of liberal democracy and global cooperation. But in Master of Orion, each race’s unique affordances force you to play it differently. Likewise, each opposing race’s affordances in combination with those of your own force you to respond differently to that race when you encounter it, whether on the other side of a diplomats’ table or on a battlefield in space. Further, most races have one technology they’re unusually good at researching and one they’re unusually bad at. Throw in varying degrees of affinity and prejudice toward the other races, and, again, you’ve got an enormous amount of variation which defies cookie-cutter strategizing. (It’s worth noting that there’s a great deal of asymmetry here; Steve Barcia and his helpers didn’t share so many modern designers’ obsession with symmetrical play balance above all else. Some races are clearly more powerful than others: the brainiac Psilons get a huge research bonus, the insectoid Klackons get a huge bonus in worker productivity, and the Humans get huge bonuses in trade and diplomacy. Meanwhile the avian Alkaris, the feline Mrrshan, and the ursine Bulrathis have bonuses which only apply during combat, and can be overcome fairly easily by races with other, more all-encompassing advantages.)

There are yet more touches to bring yet more dynamism. Random events occur from time to time in the galaxy, some of which can change everything at a stroke: a gigantic space amoeba might show up and start eating stars, forcing everyone to forget their petty squabbles for a while and band together against this apocalyptic threat. And then there’s the mysterious star Orion, from which the game takes it name, which houses the wonders of a long-dead alien culture from the mythical past. Taking possession of it might just win the game for you — but first you’ll have to defeat its almost inconceivably powerful Guardian.

One of the perennial problems of 4X games, Civilization among them, is the long anticlimax, which begins at that point when you know you’re going to conquer the world or be the first to blast off for Alpha Centauri, but well before you actually do so. (What Civilization player isn’t familiar with the delights of scouring the map for that one remaining rival city tucked away on some forgotten island in some forgotten corner?) Here too Master of Orion comes with a mitigating idea, in the form of the Galactic Council whose workings I’ve already described. It means that, as soon as you can collect two-thirds of the vote — whether through wily diplomacy or the simpler expedient of conquering until two-thirds of the galaxy’s population is your own — the game ends and you get your victory screen.

Indeed, one of the overarching design themes of Master of Orion is its determination to minimize the boring stuff. It must be admitted, of course, that boredom is in the eye of the beholder. Non-fans have occasionally dismissed the whole 4X space-opera sub-genre as “Microsoft Excel in space,” and Master of Orion too requires a level of comfort with — or, better yet, a degree of fascination with — numbers and ratios; you’ll spend at least as much time tinkering with your economy as you will engaging in space battles. Yet the game does everything it can to minimize the pain here as well. While hardly a simple game in absolute terms, it is quite a streamlined example of its type; certainly it’s much less fiddly than Civilization. Planet management is abstracted into a set of five sliding ratio bars, allowing you decide what percentage of that planet’s total output should be devoted to building ships, building defensive installations, building industrial infrastructure, cleaning up pollution, and researching new technologies. Unlike in Civilization, there is no list of specialized structures to build one at a time, much less a need to laboriously develop the land square by square with a specialized unit. Some degree of micro-management is always going to be in the nature of this type of game, but managing dozens of planets in Master of Orion is far less painful than managing dozens of cities in Civilization.

The research screen as well operates through sliding ratio bars which let you decide how much effort to devote to each of six categories of technology. In other words, you’re almost always researching multiple advances at once in Master of Orion, whereas in Civilization you only research one at a time. Further, you can never predict for sure when a technology will arrive; while each has a base cost in research points, “paying” it leads only to a slowly increasing randomized chance of acquiring the technology on any given turn. (That’s the meaning of the “17%” next to Force Fields in the screenshot above.) You also receive bonuses for maintaining steady research over a long run of turns, rather than throwing all of your research points into one technology, then into something else, etc. All of this as well serves to make the game more unpredictable and dynamic.

In short, Master of Orion tries really, really hard to work with you rather than against you, and succeeds to such a degree that it can sometimes feel like the game is reading your mind. A reductionist critic of the sort I can be on occasion might say that there are just two types of games: those that actually got played before their release and those that didn’t. With only rare exceptions, this distinction, more so than the intrinsic brilliance of the design team or any other factor, is the best predictor of the quality of the end result. Master of Orion is clearly a game that got played, and played extensively, with all of the feedback thus gathered being incorporated into the final design. The interface is about as perfect as the technical limitations of 1993 allow it to be; nothing you can possibly want to do is more than two clicks away. And the game is replete with subtle little conveniences that you only come to appreciate with time — like, just to take one example, the way it asks if you want to automatically adjust the ecology spending on every one of your planets when you acquire a more efficient environmental-cleanup technology. This lived-in quality can only be acquired the honest, old-fashioned way: by giving your game to actual players and then listening to what they tell you about it, whether the points they bring up are big or small, game-breaking or trivial.

This thoroughgoing commitment to quality is made all the more remarkable by our knowledge of circumstances inside MicroProse while Master of Orion was going through these critical final phases of its development. When the contract to publish the game was signed, MicroProse was in desperate financial straits, having lost bundles on an ill-advised standup-arcade game along with expensive forays into adventure games and CRPGs, genres far from their traditional bread and butter of military simulations and grand-strategy games. Although other projects suffered badly from the chaos, Master of Orion, perhaps because it was a rather low-priority project entrusted largely to an outside team located over a thousand miles away, was given the time and space to become its best self. It was still a work in progress on June 21, 1993, when MicroProse’s mercurial, ofttimes erratic founder and CEO “Wild Bill” Stealey sold the company to Spectrum Holobyte, a publisher with a relatively small portfolio of extant games but a big roll of venture capital behind them.

Master of Orion thus became one of the first releases from the newly conjoined entity on October 1, 1993. Helped along by the evangelism of Alan Emrich and his pals at Computer Gaming World, it did about as well as such a cerebral title, almost completely bereft of audiovisual bells and whistles, could possibly do in the new age of multimedia computing; it became the biggest strategy hit since Civilization, and the biggest 4X space opera to that point, in any medium. Later computerized iterations on the concept, including its own sequels, doubtless sold more copies in absolute numbers, but the original Master of Orion has gone on to become one of the truly seminal titles in gaming history, almost as much so as the original Civilization. It remains the game to which every new 4X space opera — and there have been many of them, far more than have tried to capture the more elusively idealistic appeal of Civilization — must be compared.

Sometimes a status such as that enjoyed by Master of Orion arrives thanks to an historical accident or a mere flashy technical innovation, but that is definitively not the case here. Master of Orion remains as rewarding as ever in all its near-infinite variation. Personally, I like to embrace its dynamic spirit for everything it’s worth by throwing a (virtual) die to set up a new game, letting the Universe decide what size galaxy I play in, how many rivals I play with, and which race I play myself. The end result never fails to be enjoyable, whether it winds up a desperate free-for-all between six alien civilizations compressed into a tiny galaxy with just 24 stars, or a wide-open, stately game of peaceful exploration in a galaxy with over 100 of them. In short, Master of Orion is the most inexhaustible well of entertainment I’ve ever found in the form of a single computer game — a timeless classic that never fails to punish you for playing lazy, but never fails to reward you for playing well. I’ve been pulling it out to try to conquer another random galaxy at least once every year or two for half my life already. I suspect I’ll still be doing so until the day I die.

(Sources: the books Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay, Designers & Dragons, Volume 1: The 1970s by Shannon Appelcline, and Master of Orion: The Official Strategy Guide by Alan Emrich and Tom E. Hughes, Jr.; Computer Gaming World of December 1983, June/July 1985, October 1991, June 1993, August 1993, September 1993, December 1993, and October 1995; Commodore Disk User of May 1988; Softline of March 1983. Online sources include “Per Aspera Ad Astra” by Jon Peterson from ROMchip, Alan Emrich’s historical notes from the old Master of Orion III site, a Steve Barcia video interview which originally appeared in the CD-ROM magazine Interactive Entertainment., and the Civilization Usenet FAQ, lasted updated by “Dave” in 1994.

Master of Orion I and II are available for purchase together from GOG.com. I highly recommend a tutorial, compiled many years ago by Sirian and now available only via archive.org, as an excellent way for new players to learn the ropes.)

 
 

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Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space (and Space-Program Games in General)

“Demography is destiny,” said the French sociologist Auguste Comte apocryphally in the nineteenth century. That truism has been taken to heart by many in the time since — not least by our political classes. Yet it applies equally in the world of the arts and entertainment. For in any free market, the nature of production is dictated as much by the consumers as by the producers.

Certainly this is true of computer games. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, they were largely the province of a rather specific demographic indeed: single white males between the ages of ten and thirty from relatively privileged socioeconomic circumstances, with a bent toward intellectual rather than active pursuits — i.e., the stereotypical “nerds” of pop culture. Computer games reflected the tastes of these boys and young men in other kinds of entertainment and leisure-time hobbies: Dungeons & Dragons, Star Wars, jet fighters, World War II, action movies, heavy-metal music, fast cars, and, when they could get a glimpse of them, fast women. Although I too have liked all of these things to a greater or lesser degree at some point in my life — I did, after all, grow up as a member of exactly the demographic in question — their extreme prevalence in the cultural ghetto about which I write has often left me searching, sometimes in vain, for games with a different set of values and antecedents.

But this article is not about one or more of those interesting cultural outliers. It’s rather about an interestingly scanty subgenre of games which seems like it ought to have been perfect for the demographic I’ve just described, but that for some reason just never quite took off. Specifically, I speak of games based on the realities of space exploration in a contemporary context, as opposed to the outer-space fantasias of Star Wars and the like. After all, just about every nerdy teenage boy goes through a race-for-the-Moon phase at some point. (And why not? Has humanity ever embarked on a grander collective adventure?) Further, games on this subject would seemingly have fit in well with the broader craze for realistic simulation, as manifested by everything from F-15 Strike Eagle to SimCity, which had taken a firm grip on the industry by the end of the 1980s.

And yet there just weren’t many simulations of this particular type, and even fewer of them that did very well. It strikes me that it’s worth asking why this is so. Was there something about this subject that just didn’t work as a game, or are we dealing with a mere historical accident here? Let’s begin with a brief survey of the field of earlier games that did venture out into this territory before we turn to the one that will be our main focus for today. To help in doing so, we’ll further divide the field into two categories: vehicular simulations of spaceflight and games of space-program management.

The earliest game of the former type actually predates the personal computer. Created on a big DEC PDP-8 by a Massachusetts high-school student named Jim Storer, inspired by the real Neil Armstrong’s nerve-wracking manual landing on the Moon in 1969, the very year it was first programmed, Lunar demanded that you set your own landing craft down gently before your fuel ran out. Implemented entirely in text — you simply entered the number of fuel units you wished to burn each turn in response to a changing textual status display — it inspired dozens of clones and variants, most going under the more accurately descriptive name of Lunar Lander. By the dawn of the personal-computing age in 1978, David Ahl was able to write in his landmark book BASIC Computer Games that Lunar Lander in all its incarnations was “far and away the most popular computer game” of them all. It was even converted into a graphical standup-arcade game by Atari in 1979, in which form its quiet, cerebral tension made it an incongruous outlier indeed in an arcade full of shoot-em-ups.

Other programmers got inevitably more expansive in their ambitions for spaceflight simulation after Lunar Lander. By 1986, with the release of Spectrum HoloByte’s Orbiter, they had graduated to offering up a complete Space Shuttle flight simulator, covering all the stages of a mission from liftoff to landing. (Sadly, it arrived just in time for the Challenger disaster…) In 1992, Virgin Software published an even more complex and complete iteration on the concept, entitled simply Shuttle.

Yet neither of these later simulations came close to matching their simplistic predecessor in popularity. Their subject matter, it seemed, just didn’t quite work as a hardcore simulation. A simulation of a jet fighter flying into a war zone — such as the popular and long-lived Falcon series which Spectrum HoloByte produced after Orbiter — offered an intriguing range of tactical possibilities which a simulation of a Space Shuttle did not. A fighter pilot flying into combat is lord of his domain, in complete control of his airplane; the outcomes of his battles are entirely up to him. An astronaut flying into space, on the other hand, is merely the tip of a long spear of cooperative hierarchy; situations like those last few minutes before the Eagle landed, when Neil Armstrong was making all of the decisions and executing them all alone, have been vanishingly rare in the history of space flight. If, as Sid Meier likes to say, a good game is “a series of interesting decisions,” this fact makes spaceflight as it has existed so far in our historical reality problematic as the subject of a compelling simulation. Too often, Orbiter and Shuttle felt like exercises in rote button-mashing — button-mashing which you were expected to do exactly when and how ground control told you. Perhaps you weren’t quite the spam in a can the test-pilot peers of the earliest astronauts had so mocked them for being, but it sure felt that way at times. “As strange as it may seem,” wrote Computer Gaming World magazine of Orbiter, “a lot of flying the Shuttle is boring — a lot of pushing buttons, running computer programs, and the like — and it shows.”

In light of this, it’s telling that arguably the most entertaining of these spaceflight simulators opted for a less hardcore, more impressionistic approach. Apollo 18, developed by the Canadian studio Artech and published by Accolade in 1987, posited an alternative history where at least one of NASA’s final trio of cancelled Moon missions actually did take place. In keeping with Artech designer and theoretician-in-chief Michael Bate’s concept of “aesthetic simulation,” Apollo 18 portrayed a mission to the Moon not as a holistic vehicular simulation but as a series of mini-games, jumping from the perspective of ground control to that of the astronauts in space whenever it felt the need. This more free-wheeling, almost cinematic approach, combined perhaps with the fact that going to the Moon is inherently more exciting than releasing yet another whatsit from the Shuttle’s cargo bay in low Earth orbit, made the game a more riveting experience than its Shuttle-centric peers. Still, even it ran out of legs fairly quickly; once you’d worked through the steps of getting to the Moon and back once or twice, there just wasn’t much motivation to do so again.

So much for simulation. In the category of strategic space-program managers, we have an equally mixed bag.

Just as with the venerable Lunar Lander, one of the very first attempts to portray the contemporary conquest of space in this way was also the most successful of its era, in both financial and artistic terms. I wrote at some length long ago about 1984’s Project: Space Station, an earnest effort, masterminded by a fellow named Lawrence Holland who would go on to become LucasArts’s flight-simulator guru, to portray the construction and operation of a commercial space station in Earth orbit. Both space stations and private enterprise in space were much in vogue at the time, thanks respectively to President Ronald Reagan’s announcement of plans to build a station called Freedom in his 1984 State of the Union address and the realities of a terminally underfunded NASA whose priorities shifted with the political winds — realities which would ensure that Freedom itself never got off the drawing board, although it would gradually morph into the joint project known as the International Space Station. As I wrote in that older article, Project: Space Station, which blended an overarching strategy game with light vehicular simulation, came heartbreakingly close to greatness. But in the end, it was somewhat undone by a lack of feedback mechanisms and poor command and control — weaknesses which, it should be said, feel more like a result of the limited 8-bit hardware on which it ran than a failure of design in the abstract. But whatever its failings, it was by all indications reasonably successful in its day, enough so that, when its original publisher HESware went bankrupt within a year of its release, it was picked up at auction by Accolade and re-released by them in the same year they published Apollo 18.

Alas, Project: Space Station‘s immediate successors would prove markedly less rewarding as games to play or products to sell. Space MAX, created and self-published by a former Jet Propulsion Laboratories engineer named Tom Keller in 1986, poured on the detail at the expense of playability, until it came to resemble one of NASA’s long-range planning tools more than a computer game. And Karl Buiter’s Earth Orbit Stations of 1987 buried a very appealing premise, focusing more on the mechanical details of building a modular space station than had either of the earlier games of its type, under an atrocious presentation layer which Computer Gaming World described as “a textbook case of how not to design a [GUI] interface.” And after those two less-than-compelling efforts, the strategic space-program-management subgenre pretty much dried up.

This, then, was the underwhelming state of contemporary-spaceflight games in general in 1993, when Interplay published a new take on the subject matter bearing the name of one of the most famous astronauts of all — in fact, the one who had actually been sitting there beside Neil Armstrong when he was making that hair-raising landing on the Moon. Like Apollo 18, Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space chose to turn back the clock to those glory days of the Moon race rather than focusing on present-day space stations engaged in the comparatively plebeian labor of developing new industrial-chemical compounds and new medical treatments, important though such things undoubtedly are. The managerial perspective it adopted, however, had more to do with Project: Space Station than Apollo 18. A noble effort in its way, as indeed were all those games I’ve just written about, its own points of failure have perhaps even more to tell us about game design than theirs do.


Fritz Bronner

The driving force behind Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space wasn’t its astronaut mascot — no surprise there, right? — but rather one Fritz Bronner, a less famous American whose name would have fit perfectly to one of the German rocket scientists who helped Wernher von Braun build the Saturn V rocket that sent men to the Moon. In the early 1980s, as a young man with dreams of becoming an actor, Bronner spent many an evening playing a variety of tabletop wargames and RPGs with his buddies in his home state of Florida. On one of those evenings, he had just finished an RPG session when he turned on the television to see a rocket launch on the news — an event he always watched with interest, being a self-described “space fanatic.” The thought process he went through then, with his mind still addled by game systems and dice rolls, will waken immediate recognition in anyone who has ever played Race into Space. For the most fundamental mechanic in that game has its origin right here:

The game player in me suddenly wondered what the odds were for a successful launch. The next thought I had was the chance of failure. I formulated in my mind a guess on the total number of [successful] launches versus failures. I quickly concluded that out of ten previous launches, nine of them were successful. Just before liftoff, I rolled the percentile dice and rolled below the range, which indicated to me that the launch would be successful. A few minutes later, another satellite reached orbit. I was elated that I had come up with a pseudo-model for launch success.

Immediately I wondered how a manned launch would work. I started to play with some rough mathematical figures. I selected a one-stage rocket and a two-stage rocket and then realized that I would have to devise a safety factor for a capsule. I think I came up with around 85 percent for the capsule. Then I plunged into what mission steps would occur in spaceflight. I rolled the dice on a three-step suborbital flight and to my excitement it worked! Suddenly each step of the mission was monumentally important. I became tense as I rolled the dice. It reminded me of the flavor of the early spaceflights.

I called [my friend] Steve [Stipp] over and told him of my successful suborbital flight. After his own successful flight, we both gleefully started scribbling notes on possible payload weights and additional mission steps. Soon we had scraps of paper filled with my horribly drawn stick figures of capsules that were lofting astronauts into space.

At this point, it was success or total failure on a mission step. We both realized that it was too crude and unrealistic for a rocket to always blow up on the pad. There were cancelled launches and aborts that should be considered. We laughed and played and scribbled more notes and sketched drawings for several hours, and then folded it up and forgot about it for several years.

In 1985, Bronner’s acting dream took him from Florida to New York City. His wife was working as a long-haul flight attendant, leaving him with plenty of solitude for contemplation in between auditions there in the big city. A television documentary called Spaceflight refreshed his memories of playing that improvised dice-throwing game of space launches. Just as importantly, it shifted his thinking toward an historical perspective. What if he made a game about the space race of the 1950s and 1960s, with one player in the role of the Americans and the other of the Soviets, each trying to be the first to reach the Moon? Each player would have to research the technology necessary for each stage of the endeavor, then test it with a live launch. The tension that would make for interesting choices was clear: that between researching everything exhaustively to achieve the best possible safety rating and pushing the timetable to beat out your opponent. At bottom, then, it would be a “press your luck” game — an evergreen in tabletop game design, but implemented here in the service of a thoroughly unique theme. For the next couple of years, Bronner continued to develop and refine the concept, even sending samples to many board-game publishers, albeit without managing to stir up much interest.

In 1987, Bronner’s acting dream took him from New York City to Hollywood. While he would never become the movie star he might have imagined back in Florida, he would carve out a solid career for himself as one of the film industry’s unglamorous but indispensable utility players; he would take bit parts in dozens of movies and television shows alongside starring roles in hundreds of commercials, and eventually also take on small-time writing, directing, and producing gigs. A year after arriving in Hollywood, he wrangled a meeting with the Los Angeles-based Task Force Games, best known for their Star Fleet Battles tactical space-combat games which took place in the Star Trek universe. He finally got a positive response from this publisher, and soon signed a contract with them to publish the board game Liftoff!.

Liftoff! made its public bow in the summer of 1989 at the Origins International Game Expo, one of the tabletop hobby’s two biggest American events, which happened to be held that year right there in Los Angeles. The reaction to Bronner’s game at Origins was cautiously favorable, but it never translated into much in the way of sales in the months that followed. Task Force Games had been bought by the computer-game publisher New World Computing the year before they signed the contract with Bronner; it was for this reason that they were in the Los Angeles area at all, having been moved there from Amarillo, Texas, to join their new parent. Yet the relationship wasn’t living up to either partner’s expectations. Profits, which tended to be scant at the best of times in the tabletop industry, had become nonexistent, as the expected synergies between the computer and the tabletop business failed to materialize. In 1990, Task Force’s founder John Olsen scraped together enough funding to buy his company back out from under New World and moved with it back to Amarillo. Necessity forced the downsized entity to focus its resources on Star Fleet Battles, its most well-known and marketable franchise. Liftoff! died on the vine.

But Fritz Bronner wasn’t willing to let his game go so gently into that good night. Although he had never owned a computer in the past, his arrival in Hollywood had coincided with the beginnings of a buzz from the more forward-thinking members of the media elite about the future of interactive video and multimedia computing. It certainly hadn’t been lost on Bronner when signing the contract with Task Force Games that the company’s parent was a publisher of computer games. In fact, he had tried to interest New World in a digital version of Liftoff! repeatedly, but could never really get their attention. Fortunately, his attorney had assured that the contract he signed with Task Force/New World gave them just one year to develop a computerized version, if they wished to do so; afterward, those rights reverted to Bronner himself. He soon bought his first computer, a used Commodore Amiga 500, to consider the possibilities. In the summer of 1990, he started talking with a young programmer named Michael K. McCarty. At year’s end, the two of them formed a company which they named Strategic Visions, and began working on a demo to show to publishers.

It perhaps says something about the zeitgeist of gaming on the cusp of the multimedia age that Bronner and McCarty elected to make their demo a non-interactive video rather than an interactive game. From the start, Bronner’s vision for the project had been to move the mechanics of the board game onto the computer essentially intact, then spice them up with lots of video footage from the archives of NASA and the Soviet space program. His timing in this respect was perfect: the fall of the Iron Curtain helped immensely in getting access to the latter’s videos. Meanwhile the fact that all of the footage was the product of government agencies, and thus released into the public domain, helped in another way. Less positively, this overweening focus on the multimedia aspects of the project, which would continue throughout its duration, would rather distract from some worrisome flaws in the foundation of the actual rules set — an issue we’ll return to a bit later.

In the short term, though, the non-interactive demo served its purpose. In contrast to the relative lack of interest the tabletop design had garnered, the proposed digital version attracted lots of publishers when Bronner and McCarty brought their demo to the Summer Consumer Electronics Show for private screenings in June of 1991. The videos Bronner showed of rockets soaring and exploding were well-nigh irresistible to an industry all abuzz with talk of interactive movies incorporating just this type of real-world footage. Over thirty potential partners viewed the demo reel in the course of the show, and several of them came forward with serious offers.

Bronner settled on Interplay Productions for several reasons: they were also Los Angeles-based, always a nice advantage; he got on well with Interplay’s head Brian Fargo; and Fargo had immediately run with an idea Bronner had mentioned in passing, that of signing up Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin — by far the most gregarious and ambitious of the Apollo 11 astronauts in terms of media and marketing — to lend his endorsement to the game. Indeed, Fargo already had Aldrin on board when the contract was signed in August of 1991. Thus did Liftoff! become Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space.

Aldrin’s direct participation encompassed nothing more than marketing — he regaled a long string of trade-show attendees and magazine editors with his well-worn tales of landing on the Moon, while saying next to nothing about the game itself — but it did lead to the computer game’s most significant substantive addition to the board game. Bronner added a roster of astronauts to be recruited and trained, who manifested differing strengths and weaknesses and even differing personalities which could cause them to be more or less effective when combined into crews. The idea and approach are so similar to the astronaut management found in Project: Space Station that one suspects they must have been inspired by that earlier game. That said, I have no proof that this was so.

Otherwise, though, Race into Space is a fairly straightforward re-implementation of Liftoff! rather than a major expansion upon it. In fact, some parts of the board game are actually trimmed away, such as the ability to play as the head of a fictional European or Asian space agency, which Bronner had included in order to allow up to four players to gather around the tabletop. Race into Space, on the other hand, is limited to two players, each of them controlled either by a human or the computer.

Pitched to Interplay with an absurdly optimistic six-month development timeline, Race into Space ran over that estimate by a factor of three. Indeed, it became the first game in history to get two feature-length previews in Computer Gaming World, one in January of 1992 and one in December of the same year. An early decision to switch development from the fading Amiga to MS-DOS didn’t help matters; nor did Strategic Visions’s need to rely on Interplay’s art team for most of the non-digitized graphics, work that got done only as time allowed betwixt and between other in-house projects. Most of all, though, the project began just a little bit too early, before the typical consumer computer was quite able to live up to Bronner’s multimedia ambitions. Even the version of the game that finally did ship on floppy disk in March of 1993 was heavily compromised by the limitations of its storage medium, with digitized still photographs standing in for most of the videos the original demo had promised. Players would have to wait for the CD-ROM version, which didn’t arrive until fourteen months later, to truly see the game as its designer had imagined it.



Race into Space is played in turns lasting six months each, beginning in 1957 and stretching until either 1977 arrives or someone manages to land on the Moon. Economics will play a big role in your success or lack thereof; you’re provided with a semiannual budget which increases only gradually, with the completion of major milestones according it a more substantial boost — especially if you manage them before your opponent — and catastrophic failures having the opposite effect. This approach is rather ahistorical on the face of it — in a classic example of throwing money at a problem until it bears fruit, the budget of NASA in particular was dictated more by the achievements of the Soviets than by the agency’s own accomplishments — but is probably necessary for Race into Space to work as a game.

As the game goes on, you build up your program’s facilities — adding things like additional launch pads to let you carry out more launches per turn.

Still, the core of the experience remains what it was when a young Fritz Bronner first started experimenting with the idea of a space-program-management game in the early 1980s: watching with bated breath from mission control as your rockets go up, hoping each successive step will go off without a hitch to get you your next mission milestone. Said milestones encompass everything from launching the first unmanned satellite — the game begins in the year of Sputnik — to the Moon landing itself. Yet, beyond the first few milestones at any rate, they don’t break down into a mere linear progression of steps to be mindlessly walked through. You can combine milestones into one mission; for example, you might make your first flight of eight days or more duration the same one where your astronauts first execute a space walk. And you can also skip some of them entirely, if you’re pressed for time and are willing to forgo the budget boosts with which they tempt you; the aforementioned space walk, for example, isn’t even strictly necessary for a Moon landing.

Most importantly, Race into Space lets you implement not only the historical method of getting to the Moon — that of employing a space capsule which orbits the Moon and a separate landing craft to take part of the crew down to the surface — but also a number of other approaches that were discussed at the time, such as an all-in-one-spacecraft approach (this requires developing a monster rocket that makes a Saturn V look like a kid’s toy) or even a reusable space shuttle (this requires both an enormous investment of time and money and a really slow opponent). The variety of alternate histories the game allows is not infinite — more on that momentarily — but is enough to provide for at least a few interesting and even educational playthroughs. If nothing else, you’ll walk away from your failed attempts to rewrite history with a better understanding of why NASA chose the approach they did.

Achieving firsts is extremely important because it increases your program’s prestige — which in turn leads to an increase in its budget. If things go too disastrously wrong, you can even be fired from your post as program director.

But alas, Race into Space soon begins to show those cracks in its foundation which I alluded to earlier, which are partly born from the lack of a clear sense of its own goals as a game. One can imagine at least three abstract approaches fitting into the general framework of “a managerial game about the race to the Moon.” One would be a heavily experiential game, in the spirit of Michael Bate’s aesthetic simulations, de-emphasizing the competitive aspects in favor of taking the player on a journey through those heady early days of the space age. Another would be a replayable game of hardcore strategy, in which the fiction of the Moon race functions as a mere thematic skin for the mechanical underpinnings which quickly become the player’s real focus. And still another would be an open-ended sandbox, a learning tool that lets the player experiment with many different approaches to landing on the Moon and to spaceflight in general.

Race into Space never firmly commits to any one of these approaches, but rather feints toward all of them in various places. The end result is a confusing mishmash of elements that are constantly cutting against one another. The heavy reliance on photographs, video, and sound clips from the period in question seem to push it into the experiential camp, but its board-game-derived mechanics and relatively short play time — a full game usually takes no more than two or three hours to play — pull it in the second direction I outlined. And so the cognitive dissonances start to add up. The video clips lose their appeal when you’re forced to click through the same ones over and over, every time you play, even as it remains debatable whether the mechanics are really compelling enough to make it a game you want to return to again and again under any circumstances; there are really only one or two best paths to follow to get to the Moon, and once you’ve found them there’s little reason to keep playing. Meanwhile the game’s educational sandbox potential, while by no means nonexistent, is also sharply limited. True to its board-game roots, Race into Space doesn’t simulate spaceflight at all beyond rolling dice against an arbitrary set of success-or-failure percentiles. In terms of spaceflight hardware, it lets you mix and match a set of pieces it provides for you, and pour money into each piece’s research to push its reliability percentage up, but it’s nowhere near sophisticated enough to let you develop your own components from scratch. Here too, then, it feints in a promising direction without going far enough to truly satisfy over the long term.

Yet this sense of confusion about what Race into Space actually wants to be constitutes only its second biggest problem. Its biggest problem of all doesn’t require as much design philosophy to explain: the darn thing is just too darn hard. Something is badly off with the math behind this game — something you sense more than you can know. Playing it quickly begins to feel like that memorable montage of exploding and misguided rockets from the film The Right Stuff. You can recover in fairly short order from failed launches in the early phases, when you’re mostly launching unmanned craft, but they turn devastating when they start chewing through your astronaut corps like a wolf in a chicken coop. Failed missions not only destroy the morale of your surviving astronauts, causing them to perform worse, but knock the reliability of the failed component almost all the way back to zero, forcing you to research it up again from scratch. This of course makes no sense in strictly logical terms; in the absence of any new inputs, a defective component should be defective to exactly the same extent on the next flight. Rather than conveying the rounds of investigation and soul-searching that always accompanied a real loss of life in the space program, as it was doubtless intended to do, this mechanic just furthers the impression that the game is out to get you at any cost. The fact that the computer player mysteriously seems to be able to cut more corners than you without killing astronauts by the dozens contributes strongly to the same impression.

Screens like this one appear distressingly frequently, almost regardless of how thoroughly you research and develop your components. Either the real NASA was incredibly lucky, or something is off inside this game’s numbers. Perhaps a bit of both?

Unkind though it may sound to say, I can’t help but suspect that Race into Space‘s issues in this area reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of statistics on the part of a younger Fritz Bronner — a misunderstanding that somehow never got corrected through all his years of working on his game. A mission does not, as one might initially imagine, have a chance of success equal to the reliability percentage of its dodgiest hardware component. On the contrary: the various components actually undergo reliability checks at various times — often at multiple times — during a mission. Therefore even a stack of components which have all been researched up to a reliability of 95 percent still has a substantial chance of failing in some more or less disastrous way on a more complex mission. And yet you simply don’t have time to laboriously research every component up to its maximum reliability, which for many of them is substantially below 95 percent anyway. You’re in a Moon race, after all. You have to roll the dice. Small wonder that so many players over the years have advocated save-scumming — that dastardly practice of saving and reloading until the dice roll your way — as the only practical way to play. That, or play a two-human-player game, but just click through your “opponent’s” turns without doing anything. Playing that way, you might just be able to get to the Moon before 1977.

So, despite the historical verisimilitude it works so hard to inculcate via its video clips and all the other period-specific touches, Race into Space‘s mechanics lead to a simple game of luck at bottom, and one where the odds are stacked against you at that. There is no opportunity to jump in and make decisions when a mission starts to go wrong — no chance, in other words, to improvise your way through a drama like the Apollo 13 mission. You’re a mere helpless bystander from the moment a mission begins until it ends.

The game’s delight in making its players’ rockets go boom provoked such howls of protests from early purchasers of the original floppy-based release that Interplay soon released a patch to tweak the numbers somewhat — although still nowhere near enough in the opinion of most. The very fact that Bronner felt able to manipulate the numbers in this way, of course, demolished any remaining belief players might have harbored that the numbers had any real historical basis at all. Clearly they were strictly arbitrary. Bronner never did achieve a balance that felt both playable and true to history. And that failure makes it difficult to consider Race into Space as a whole as anything but another interestingly failed attempt at making a game out of real-world space exploration.

Race into Space sold in reasonable numbers for Interplay, but never huge ones, especially after word of just how frustrating it could be got around on the street. Thus none of Bronner’s plans for sequels, which he had publicly discussed at some length in the run-up to release, ever got off the metaphorical launching pad. Strategic Visions soon folded up shop, and Bronner continued his career in Hollywood. He’s never designed another game.

Ironically, the sequels Bronner discussed may actually have made for better games than this one. One idea, for example, would have focused on a manned mission to Mars. Removed from the context of real history, not being surrounded by all those grainy old video clips reminding players of what once was, such a game would have been able to exist entirely on its own terms, and may have wound up feeling more satisfying because of it even if its mechanics had been left largely unchanged.

As it is, though, Race into Space displays that most telling sign of an ingenious game idea with questionable execution: players lining up with ways to fix it. Their efforts were confined to the realms of speculation and hex editors until 2005, when, the rights having reverted to Fritz Bronner, he generously released the game and all of its source code under the General Public License. In the time since, a small community of enthusiasts has continued to port and refine the game on a sporadic basis, but it’s never managed to garner a critical mass of developers or players. Ditto an attempt at a full-fledged commercial revival of the concept by the wargame publisher Slitherine, which arrived complete with the original game’s astronaut mascot in 2014 under the name Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager.


While Race into Space‘s most specific, practical design mistakes aren’t too hard to identify, the more generalized failings of it and its peers in the scanty tradition of contemporary-space-program games do rather prompt one to ask another question: is there something about the subject matter itself that causes it not to work as a satisfying game? I believe I’ve actually done a reasonable job of answering that question already for the case of spaceborne vehicular simulations: as I noted near the beginning of this article, an astronaut in space just doesn’t have enough independent agency in most situations to make for a reasonably realistic simulation that’s also engaging as a game. But what of the other broad category of games I’ve addressed today, the one to which Race into Space belongs: that of space-program managerial games?

For a long, long time after Race into Space, one might have been forgiven for assuming that space-program managers as well were indeed nonstarters as satisfying games. But then, in 2015, a game called Kerbal Space Program came along to prove such naysayers wrong. I don’t usually write about modern games here, but I will briefly outline the premise of this one.

The titular Kerbals are a species of furry green aliens who run a space program of their own on their planet of Kerbin. Despite their cartoony cuteness, said space program itself is simulated with meticulous attention to detail, including all of the particulars of physics and aeronautics which Race into Space so conspicuously lacks. Players with an interest in rocketry or aeronautical engineering can and do lose years of leisure time to it. It may or may not be a game for you, but it is, by any objective definition, an impressive piece of work, far more intrinsically fascinating than any other that I’ve written about today.

And how does it accomplish this feat? One obvious answer is that it knows what it wants to be first and foremost: a sandbox for exploring the practical possibilities and limitations of space travel using the technology of our own recent past, present, and near future. A dedicated modding community has helped the designers to graft on additional layers of competitive strategy and economics for those who want them. Nevertheless, the game’s central delight remains that of creation and discovery. Kerbal Space Program is, in other words, one of the preeminent sandbox games of our time. And it’s completely comfortable with itself in that role, being free of the cognitive dissonances of Race into Space.

This stronger sense of itself is certainly one of the secrets to Kerbal Space Program‘s success. And here’s another: having noted earlier that the proposed non-historical sequels to Race into Space may have led to more compelling games, I’ll now submit Kerbal Space Program as Exhibit One in evidence for that argument. Freed from the weight of all that real human history, existing as it does in a world of cartoon aliens, it can just be a game.

Games can be great tools for exploring other lives and other times, but sometimes you just want to play. History, after all, doesn’t occur for our ludic amusement. Every wargamer knows that the number of unaltered historical battles that lead to good games is very small indeed; most real battles have their outcomes foreordained before they even begin. Perhaps the Apollo program and the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station and all the rest just don’t have the right stuff to make a worthy game. But that’s okay — because it means that, instead of recreating the storied past, we can imagine an exciting future. That goal is at least equally worthy — and, as Kerbal Space Program so thoroughly illustrates, it’s something that a game about space exploration can most definitely do, and do well at that.

When you play Race into Space as the Americans, each turn begins with a newscast from “Carter Walcrite” — a nod to Walter Cronkite, the television anchorman whose dulcet tones were the voice of the space race for many Americans, whom a number of surveys revealed to be the most trusted person in the United States during the turbulent 1960s. (I’ll leave the comparisons with contemporary attitudes toward journalism as an exercise for the reader…) Although the inclusion of all this loving period detail is wonderful on one level, on another it can be oddly stultifying to your attempts to write your own history.

(Sources: the books The Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space Companion by Fritz Bronner, Designers & Dragons, Volume 2 by Shannon Appelcline, and BASIC Computer Games by David Ahl; Computer Gaming World of August 1986, March 1987, October 1987, February 1988, January 1992, May 1992, December 1992, and August 1993; Strategy & Tactics 212. Online sources include Leon Baradat’s comprehensive Race into Space site, the article “The Buzz is Gone” at The Escapist, and Steve Stipp’s homepage.

You can download the current open-source edition of Race into Space for free, or purchase its spiritual successor Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager.)

 
 

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