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Category Archives: Digital Antiquaria

Ethics in Strategy Gaming, Part 1: Panzer General

I apologize for liking German generals. I suppose I ought not to.

— Desmond Young

When I attempted to play the SSI computer game Panzer General as part of this ongoing journey through gaming history, I could recognize objectively that it was a fine game, perfectly in my wheelhouse in many ways, with its interesting but not overly fiddly mechanics, its clean and attractive aesthetic presentation, and the sense of unfolding narrative and personal identification that comes with embodying the role of a German general leading an army through the campaigns of World War II. But for all that, I just couldn’t enjoy it. When I conquered Poland, I didn’t feel any sense of martial pride; all I could see in my mind’s eye were the Warsaw ghettos and Auschwitz. I found I could take no pleasure in invading countries that had done nothing to my own — invasions that were preludes, as I knew all too well, to committing concerted genocide on a substantial portion of their populations. Simply put, I could take no pleasure from playing a Nazi.

So, Panzer General prompted me to ask a host of questions about the way that we process the events of history, as well as the boundaries — inevitably different for each of us — between acceptable and unacceptable content in games. At the core of this inquiry lies a pair of bizarrely contradictory factoids. The Nazi regime of 1933 to 1945 is widely considered to be the ultimate exemplar of Evil on a national scale, its Führer such a profoundly malevolent figure as to defy comparison with literally anyone else, such that to evoke him in an argument on any other subject is, so Godwin’s Law tells us, so histrionic as to represent an immediate forfeiture of one’s right to be taken seriously. And yet in Panzer General we have a mass-market American computer game in which you play a willing tool of Adolf Hitler’s evil, complete with all the flag-waving enthusiasm we might expect to see bestowed upon an American general in the same conflict. If the paradoxical attitudes toward World War II which these factoids epitomize weren’t so deeply embedded in our culture, we would be left utterly baffled. For my part, I felt that I needed to understand better where those selfsame attitudes had come from.

I should note here that my intention isn’t to condemn those people whose tolerance for moral ambiguity allows them to enjoy Panzer General in the spirit which SSI no doubt intended. Still less do I want this article to come across as anti-German rather than anti-Nazi. The present-day population of Germany is still reckoning with those twelve terrible years in their country’s long and oft-inspiring history, and for the most part they’re doing a decent job of it. As an American, I’m certainly in no position to cast aspersions; if a different game had crossed my radar, this article might have been about the legacy of the American Civil War and the ongoing adulation in many American cultural corners of Confederate generals who fought for the privilege of continuing to enslave their fellow humans. As always here, my objective is to offer some food for thought and perchance to enlighten just a bit. It’s definitely not to hector anyone.


Prisoners at the Dachau concentration camp greet their liberators, April 1945.

The occasional reports which reached the Allied countries of the horrors of the Holocaust during the early and middle years of World War II were widely dismissed, unfortunately but perhaps understandably, as gross exaggerations. But when American and British armies finally began to liberate the first of the concentration camps in late 1944, those reports’ veracity could no longer be denied. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied forces attacking Germany from the west, made it a point to bear witness to what had taken place in the camps. He ordered that all of his men should pass through one or more of them: “We are told the American soldier does not know what he is fighting for. Now, at least, we know what he is fighting against.” Eisenhower also made special provisions for bringing journalists to the camps to record the “evidence of atrocity” for readers back home and for posterity.

After the war, the hastily convened Nuremberg trials brought much more evidence of the Holocaust to light, not just for the assembled panel of judges but for ordinary people all over the world; the proceedings were covered in great detail by journalists. But after the trials concluded in late 1946, with eleven defendants having been sentenced to death and a further seven sentenced to prison terms of various lengths, the Western political establishment seemed to believe the matter was settled, evincing a devout wish just to move on that was out of all keeping with the crimes against humanity which had been uncovered. To understand why, we need look no further than the looming Cold War, that next titanic ideological struggle, which had started taking shape well before the previous war had ended. Now that the Cold War was becoming an undeniable reality,  the United States and its allies needed the new West Germany to join their cause wholeheartedly. There was no time for retribution.

A pernicious myth took hold at this juncture, one which has yet to be entirely vanquished in some circles. It lived then, as it still does to some extent today, because it served the purposes of the people who chose to believe in it. The historian Harold Marcuse names “ignorance, resistance, and victimization” as the myth’s core components. It claims that the crimes of the Holocaust were entirely the work of an evil inner cabal that was close to Hitler personally, that the vast majority of Germans — the so-called “good Germans” — never even realized any of it was happening, and that most of those who did stumble across the truth were appropriately horrified and outraged. But in the end, as the reasoning goes, they were Hitler’s victims as well, unable to do much of anything about it if they didn’t want to suffer the same fate as the people already in the concentration camps.

There were grains of truth to the argument; certainly the Gestapo was a much-feared presence in daily German life. But the fact remains that German resistance to Hitler was never as widespread as the apologists would like it to have been; every metric we have at our disposal would seem to indicate that the Nazi regime enjoyed broad popular support at least until the final disastrous year or two of the war.

The claim of widespread public ignorance of Hitler’s crimes, meanwhile, was patently absurd on the face of it. The Holocaust wasn’t a plot hatched in secret by shadowy conspirators; it was a massive bureaucratic effort which marshaled the resources of the entire state, from the secretaries who requisitioned the stocks of Zyklon B poison gas to the thousands of guards who tortured and killed the prisoners in the camps. Could the “good Germans” really not have seen the trains lumbering through their villages with their emaciated human cargoes? Could they really not have smelled the stench of death which rose over the concentration camps day after day? In order not to know, one would have had to willfully closed one’s eyes, nose, and ears if not one’s heart — which may very well have been the case for some, but is hardly a compelling defense.

Nevertheless, the myth of the ignorant, resistant, and victimized “good” Germans was widely accepted by the beginning of the 1950s. The Germans who had actually lived through the war had every motivation to minimize their complicity in the abominations of Nazism, while the political establishment of the West had no desire to rock the boat by asking difficult questions of their new allies against communism. The Holocaust was treated as vaguely gauche — a disreputable topic, inappropriate for discussion in polite company. To confront people with it was regarded as an act of irresponsible political agitation. In 1956, for example, when the French director Alain Resnais announced Night and Fog, a chilling 32-minute film which juxtaposed images of the concentration camps as they looked in that year with archival footage from the war years, the West German government lodged an immediate complaint with the French government, which in turned pressured the Cannes Film Festival into rejecting the movie as anti-German agitprop. The attitudes inculcated during this period begin to explain the existence of Panzer General so many years later, casting you cheerfully and with no expressed reservations whatsoever in the role of a German general of the Second World War.


The ugly truth behind Panzer General‘s glorification of Nazi aggression: a group of Polish prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot in the fall of 1939. Images like this one run through my mind constantly whenever I attempt to play the game.

But they aren’t a complete explanation, given that it would seem to be even harder to believe in the guiltlessness of German soldiers than civilians. The former were, after all, the ones who actually pointed the guns and pulled the trigger; their crimes would seem to be active ones, as opposed to the passive acquiescence of the latter. Even if they wished to claim that they personally had only pointed their rifles at enemy combatants, they couldn’t possibly plead ignorance of the horrifying crimes against noncombatants that were committed right under their noses by those all around them, right from the first weeks of the war. But, remarkably, a defense was mounted on their behalf, one that was similar in the broad strokes at least to that of the “good” German civilians.

The myth of the “clean Wehrmacht” held that the vast majority of German officers and soldiers were in fact no more guilty than the soldiers of the Allied armies. Most or all of the German war crimes, so the reasoning went, were the work of the dreaded SS Einsatzgruppen who traveled just behind the regular army units, maiming, torturing, raping, and massacring civilians in staggering numbers. Anecdotes abounded — some of them probably even true — telling how the ordinary German soldiers and their “professional” leadership had regarded their SS comrades with disgust, had considered them no better than butchers — cowards who preferred enemies that couldn’t fight back — and had shunned their company completely.

To be sure, the Einsatzgruppen were real, and did fill precisely the grisly role ascribed to them. But they were hardly the only German soldiers who murdered in cold blood. And, even if they had been, the fact that the ordinary soldiers found them unappealing doesn’t absolve them of blame for facilitating their activities. Note that the “ignorance” part of the “ignorance, resistance, victimization” defense has fallen away uncontested in the case of the German soldiers — as has, for that matter, the claim of resistance. All that’s left to shield them from blame is the claim of victimhood. Their country ordered them to carry out ethnic cleansing, we are told, and so they had no choice but to do so.

For all its patent weaknesses as an argument, the clean Wehrmacht would become a bedrock of a new strand of historical writing as well as a culture of wargaming that would be tightly coupled to it — the same culture that would eventually yield Panzer General. We can perhaps best understand the myth and its ramifications through the career of its archetypal exemplar, not coincidentally a wargaming perennial: Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.


Erwin Rommel in 1942, during his heyday as the “Desert Fox.”

Like Hitler, Rommel fought in the trenches during World War I, albeit as a junior officer rather than an enlisted man. He remained in the army between the wars, although his progress through the ranks wasn’t meteoric by any means; by 1937, when he published an influential book on infantry tactics, he had risen no higher than colonel. Having expressed no strong political beliefs prior to the ascension of Hitler, he became by all indications a great admirer of the dictator and his ideology thereafter. Although he never formally joined the Nazi party, he became close friends with Joseph Goebbels, its propaganda minister. “Yesterday the Führer spoke,” he wrote in a letter to his wife in 1938. “Today’s soldier must be political because he must always be ready to take action for the new politics. The German military is the sword of the new German worldview.”

That year Rommel was assigned personal responsibility for Hitler’s security. The Fūhrer, who had read his book and felt the kinship of their front-line service in the previous war, took as much of a shine to Rommel as Rommel did to him. On March 15, 1939, in the final act of German aggression prior to the one which would spark a world war, Rommel entered what was left of an independent Czechoslovakia at Hitler’s side; he would later take proud credit for having urged Hitler to push aggressively forward and occupy Prague Castle with a minimum of delay. He was promoted to major general shortly thereafter.

Rommel played a part in the invasions of Poland and then France and the Low Countries in the early years of World War II, winning the Knight’s Cross for his bold leadership of an armored division in the latter campaign. Then, on February 12, 1941, the newly promoted lieutenant general was sent to command the German forces in North Africa. It was here that his legend would be made.

Over the course of the next twenty months, Rommel led his outnumbered army through a series of improbably successful actions, punctuated by only occasional, generally more modest setbacks. Hitler promoted him to field marshal after one of his more dramatic victories, his capture of Tobruk, Libya, in June of 1942.

The North African front was a clean one by the standards of almost any other theater of World War II; it was largely a war of army against army, with civilians pushed to the sidelines. Thus it would go down in legend as “the war without hate,” a term coined by Rommel himself. This was war as wargamers would later wish it could always be: mobile armies duking it out in unobstructed desert terrain, a situation with room for all kinds of tactical give-and-take and noble derring-do, far removed from all that messiness of the Holocaust and the savagery of the Eastern Front. North Africa was never more than a secondary theater, the merest sideshow in comparison to the existential struggle going on in the Soviet Union — but it was precisely this fact that gave it its unique qualities.

Rommel’s men came to love him. They loved his flair for the unexpected, his concern for their well-being, and the way he stood right there with them on the front line when they engaged the enemy. More surprisingly, the soldiers he fought against came to respect him just as much. By early 1942, they had given him his eternal nickname: “The Desert Fox.” They respected him the way an athlete might respect a worthy and honorable player for the opposing team, respected not just his real or alleged tactical genius but the fact that he waged war with a scrupulous adherence to the rules that seemed a relic of a long-gone age of gentlemen soldiers.

The growing weight of Allied manpower and equipment following the entry of the United States into the war finally brought Rommel up short at the Second Battle of El Alamein in northern Egypt in October and November of 1942, forcing him to make a months-long retreat all the way to Tunisia. (Winston Churchill famously wrote about this battle that “before Alamein, we never had a victory. After Alamein, we never had a defeat.”) Rommel was recalled to Germany in March of 1943, by which time North Africa had become a lost cause despite all of his efforts. The last German forces left there would surrender two months later.

In November of 1943, Rommel was placed in charge of the armies defending the coastline of France against the Allied counter-invasion that must inevitably come. By now, he was apparently beginning to entertain some doubts about the Führer. He flirted with a cabal of officers who were considering, as they put it, “extra-military solutions” to bring an end to a war which they now believed to be hopeless. Some of these officers’ discussions evolved into an attempted assassination of Hitler on July 20, 1944. The attempt failed; the bomb which Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted within the Führer’s headquarters caused much chaos and killed three men, but only slightly injured its real target.

There has been heated debate ever since about Rommel’s precise role in the conspiracy and assassination attempt. We know that he wasn’t present at the scene, but surprisingly little beyond that. Did he give the plan his tacit or explicit blessing? Was he an active co-conspirator, possibly even the man slated to take the reins of the German state after Hitler’s death? Or did he have nothing whatsoever to do with it? The temptations here are obvious for those who wish to see Rommel as an exemplar of moral virtue in uniform. And yet, as we’ll shortly see, not even his most unabashed admirers are in agreement about his involvement — or lack thereof — in the plot. There’s enough evidence to pick and choose from to support almost any point of view.

At any rate, Rommel had much else to occupy him at that time; the D-Day invasion had come on June 6, 1944. Three days before the assassination attempt, while he was out doing what he could to rally his overstretched, outnumbered army of defenders, his staff car was strafed by Allied fighters, and he was seriously wounded. Thus he was lying in hospital on the fateful day. Although he was not suspected of having been one of the conspirators for quite some time thereafter, Hitler had been none too pleased with his decision to fall back from the beaches of Normandy, ignoring express orders to fight to the death there. For this reason, Rommel would never return to his command.

Three months after these events, after having conducted dozens of interrogations, the Gestapo had come to suspect if not know that Rommel had been involved in the assassination plot at one level or another — and such a suspicion was, of course, more than enough to get a person condemned in Nazi Germany. Two officers visited him in his home and offered him a choice. He could commit suicide using the cyanide tablets they had helpfully brought along, whereupon his death would be announced as having come as a result of his recent battle injuries and he would be buried with full military honors. Or he could be dragged before the People’s Court on charges of treason, which would not only mean certain death for him but quite probably death or imprisonment for his wife and two children as well. Rommel chose suicide, thus putting the crowning touch on his legend: the noble warrior who makes the supreme sacrifice with wide-open eyes in order to spare his family — a fate not out of keeping with, say, a hero of the Iliad.


The book which, more than any other, is responsible for cementing the vision of an heroic, noble Rommel in the popular imagination.

For all that Rommel’s story perhaps always had some of the stuff of myth about it, his canonization as the face of the clean Wehrmacht was by no means always assured. It is true that, during his period of greatest success in North Africa, a mystique had begun to attach itself to him among Allied journalists as well as Allied soldiers. After his defeat at the Second Battle of El Alamein, however, the mystique faded. Few to none among the Allied brass were losing sleep over Rommel before the D-Day landings, and The New York Times mentioned his eventual death only in passing, referring to him only as a “Hitler favorite,” making no use of his “Desert Fox” sobriquet. At war’s end, he was far from the best known of the German generals.

The man responsible more than any other for elevating Rommel to belated stardom was a Briton named Desmond Young, a journalist by trade who saw combat in both world wars and somehow still managed to retain the notion that war can be a stirring adventure for sporting gentlemen. In June of 1942, while serving as a brigadier in charge of public relations for the Indian divisions fighting for the Allies in North Africa, he was captured by the Germans, and had a passing encounter with Rommel himself that left an indelible stamp on him. Ordered by his captors to drive over with them and negotiate the surrender of another Allied encampment which was continuing the fight, he refused, and the situation began to grow tense. Then Rommel appeared on the scene. Young:

At this moment a Volkswagen drove up. Out of it jumped a short, stocky but wiry figure, correctly dressed, unlike the rest of us, in jacket and breeches. I noticed that he had a bright blue eye, a firm jaw, and an air of command. One did not need to understand German to realize that he was asking, “What goes on here?” They talked together for a few seconds. Then the officer who spoke English turned to me. “The general rules,” he said sourly, “that if you do not choose to obey the order I have just given you, you cannot be compelled to do so.” I looked at the general and saw, as I thought, the ghost of a smile. At any rate, his intervention seemed to be worth a salute. I cut him one before I stepped back into the ranks to be driven into captivity.

From that one brief, real or imagined glance of shared understanding and respect stemmed the posthumous legend of Erwin Rommel. For in 1950, Young published a book entitled simply Rommel, a fawningly uncritical biography of its subject in 250 breezy pages. Even as he emphasized Rommel’s chivalry, courage, and tactical genius at every turn, Young bent over backward to justify his willingness to serve the epitome of twentieth-century evil. One passage is particularly amusing for the way it anachronistically places Rommel’s avowed support for Hitler into a Cold War, anti-communist context, revealing in the process perhaps more than its author intended.

Like ninety percent of Germans who had no direct contact with Hitler or his movement, he [Rommel] regarded him as an idealist, a patriot with some sound ideas who might pull Germany together and save her from Communism. This may have seemed a naïve estimate; it was no more naïve than that of many people in England who saw him as a ridiculous little man with a silly mustache. Both views were founded in wishful thinking. But the Germans, having had a bellyful of defeat and a good taste of Communism, at least had some excuse for believing what they wished to believe.

Only one component of the full legend of Rommel as it is known today is missing from Young’s hagiography: Rommel, said Young, “had never been a party to the [attempted] killing of Hitler, nor would he have agreed to it.” He had rather been the loyal soldier to the end, right down to his swallowing of the final poison pill.

Rommel became a success out of all keeping with any normal military biography upon its publication in Britain, then an equally big bestseller in the United States upon its publication there one year later. Some historians and thoughtful reviewers pointed out the problematic aspects of Desmond Young’s unabashed hero worship, but their voices were drowned out in the general acclaim for what truly was an entertaining, well-written, even oddly endearing little book. In the end, it sold at least 1 million copies.

Its initial success in Britain was such that Hollywood rushed a movie into production before the book had even made it across the Atlantic. Wanting to get the film out quickly, before the Rommel craze had run its course, 20th Century Fox didn’t have time to stage much in the way of battle scenes; the filmmakers would later admit that a closing battlefield montage of old newsreel footage was inserted in the hope that viewers would leave the theater thinking that “they have seen a lot more action and battle stuff than they actually have.” Rommel was played by stolid leading man James Mason; he and all of the other German characters spoke American English with the flat Midwestern enunciation so typical of the Hollywood of that period.

Although it hewed closely to Desmond Young’s book for the most part, the movie did make one critical alteration: it postulated that Rommel had turned definitively against Hitler late in the war and, after a long internal struggle over whether it was honorable to do so, had joined the assassination plot. This change was made not least because, even in this period of reconciliation and letting bygones be bygones, studio executives were nervous to release a film that made a hero out of a man who had died an unrepentant Nazi. But on the other hand, a repentant Nazi who saw the light, took action against evil, and died for having done so was, as the film’s screenwriter put it, a downright “Shakespearean” protagonist. From now on, then, this generous interpretation too became an integral part of Rommel’s legend.

Desmond Young, who served as an advisor for the film, didn’t seem overly bothered by its departures from what he believed to be the real circumstances surrounding the death of Rommel. In fact, to capitalize on what future generations would have called the marketing synergy between his book and the film, later editions of the former picked up a new subtitle: The Desert Fox.

The film proved a big hit, on much the same terms as the book: widespread popular acclaim, accompanied by the merest undercurrent of concern that a Nazi general might be less than entirely worthy of such full-throated approbation. Among the most strident of the critical voices was the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council:

We regard this film as a cruel distortion of history, an affront to the memory of the brave soldiers of all allied nations, a gratuitous insult to the free peoples who spent their strength and their substance to save a world from engulfment by Nazism. There is only one major villain in this picture: Hitler. The audience is asked to believe that only he was both a buffoon and an evil man; that the soldier Rommel — and other German generals — were military men, without “political” aims or motivations, carrying out orders. The world knows that totalitarianism infects the whole body politic of a nation, that neither fascism nor communism can be sustained except with the active collaboration in its depravity of politicians, diplomats, and generals — especially generals. To depict Rommel as less than such an active collaborator in Nazism is to twist history beyond recognition.

In 1953, the final building block of the legendary Rommel fell into place when the British historian and military theorist B.H. Liddell Hart published a book called The Rommel Papers. Hart was himself a complicated, vaguely pathetic character. At the end of the Second World War, he had been in nearly complete disgrace, having been one of the primary architects of the Allies’ disastrous would-be defense of France against the German invasion of 1940, a classic example of trying to fight the last war — in this case, imagining a repeat of the static trench battles of the First World War — rather than reckoning with the realities of the current one. But in the years that followed, he rehabilitated his reputation by latching onto some of his old writings from the 1920s, when he had been at least occasionally an advocate for a more mobile approach to warfare. Hart befriended many of the surviving German generals — often by visiting them in their prison cells — and bolstered his case via a tacit quid pro quo that would have gone something like this if anyone had dared to speak it aloud: “Say that you developed Blitzkrieg warfare by reading my old texts, and I’ll use my influence to promote the position that you were only a soldier following orders and don’t deserve to die in prison.” Being friendly with Desmond Young, Hart convinced the latter to include another assertion of his influence in his biography of Rommel: Rommel, wrote Young, had before the war “studied the writings of Captain Liddell Hart with more attention than they received from most British senior officers.” This was completely untrue; Rommel probably never even heard of Hart during his lifetime.

Be that as it may, Hart definitely did ingratiate himself with the general’s widow Lucia and his son Manfred after the war was over, and enlisted their aid for his own book about Rommel. The Rommel Papers proved a shaggy, unwieldy beast, combining together the following, presented here in order of historical worthiness: 1) what existed of a memoir which Rommel had been writing during the months of limbo that preceded the demand that he commit suicide; 2) a selection of Rommel’s wartime letters to Lucia; 3) Manfred Rommel’s recollections of the circumstances of his father’s death; and 4) Hart’s own oft-extended footnotes, “clarifying” and embellishing the other texts. Hart wrote of Rommel that “he was a military genius — more so than any other soldier who succeeded in rising to high command in the war.” He then went on to make the cheeky claim — writing of himself in the third person, no less! — that Rommel “could in many respects be termed Liddell Hart’s pupil” in the science of mobile, mechanized warfare. Meanwhile Manfred Rommel, who would go on to a long and fruitful political career, was almost as transparently self-serving in writing that his father had definitively “broken” with Nazism by 1943 and “brought himself, from his knowledge of the Führer’s crimes, to act against him.”

The Rommel Papers was another big success, its sales figures more than sufficient to drown out anyone who voiced concern about its editor’s patent lack of objectivity. The man who had for a time been Hitler’s favorite general was now firmly ensconced as an odd sort of folk hero in the postwar democratic West.


Brave warrior or foolish prima donna? Rommel leads the charge from his half-track.

We’ll return to our examination of how this romantic figure paved the way for the likes of Panzer General momentarily. Before we do that, though, it might be worthwhile to examine the sustainability of this version of Rommel’s life story. We can boil our skepticism down to two questions. Was Rommel really all that as a general? And what is his true moral culpability for the role he played in the Second World War?

The first question is, if not exactly straightforward to answer, at least somewhat less fraught than the second. Rommel’s primary asset, many students of military strategy now agree, was his sheer boldness rather than any genius for the intricate details of war. Throughout his career, he had the reputation of a maverick, born of a willingness to disobey orders when it suited him. And as often as not, his seemingly reckless gambits caught his enemies off-guard and wound up succeeding.

But Rommel certainly had his weaknesses as a battlefield tactician, as even many of his biggest fans will reluctantly acknowledge. The greatest of them was probably his complete disinterest in the logistics of war. Rommel made a regular habit of outrunning his supply chains in North Africa. “The desert,” he said, “is a tactician’s paradise and a quartermaster’s hell” — but he did nothing to make his quartermaster’s job easier. When his army ran out of fuel or bullets, he started by blaming his subordinates, then moved on to blaming the Italian navy, which was in fact delivering more supplies than his army actually required most days, only to watch them pile up on the wharves of the Middle East’s port cities for want of a way to transport them inland to an army that had burrowed too deeply too quickly into the enemy’s territory.

Rommel’s men may have loved him, but his peers in the hierarchy of the Wehrmacht had little use for him for the most part, considering him a glory hound whose high-profile commands were mostly down to his friendship with Joseph Goebbels. They pointed out that his much-vaunted habit of standing with his men on the front lines during battles, pistol in hand like a latter-day Napoleon, made it impossible for him to observe the bigger tactical picture. There was a reason that most other generals of the war stayed in their headquarters tents well back from the front, right next to a junction box of telephone cables — and this reason had nothing to do with personal cowardice, as some Rommel boosters would have you believe.

Len Deighton, a well-known author of military fiction and nonfiction, writes bluntly in Blood, Tears and Folly, his recent revisionist history of World War II, that “Rommel was not one of the war’s great generals,” calling him “more adept at self-publicity than skillful in the conduct of warfare.” He credits much of Rommel’s success in North Africa to the German signals-intelligence service, which tapped into most of the principal Allied communication networks. (To be fair, Rommel’s opponents would be given an even more complete picture of his own plans and movements before the North African war was over, once the Enigma code breakers fully came into their own.)

In the end, then, we can say that Rommel possessed a remarkable ability to inspire his men combined with no small measure of battlefield audacity, but that these strengths were offset by a congenital unwillingness to sweat the details of war and an inability to play well with others as part of a joint military operation. The degree to which his strengths outweighed his weaknesses, or vice versa, must inevitably be in the eye of the beholder. We can say with certainty only that the North African theater, which gave his audacity such a sprawling blank canvas to paint upon and which allowed him nearly absolute authority to do whatever he liked, was the perfect place to make a legend out of him. Fair enough. What of the other, still thornier question of Rommel’s moral culpability?

The linchpin of the absolution which Desmond Young, Liddell Hart, and so many others since them have given Rommel is that he was simply a professional soldier obeying orders as he had sworn to do, all while remaining studiously apolitical. As we’ve already seen, this doesn’t quite jibe with the facts of the case: prior to 1943 at least, Rommel was a personal friend of Goebbels and an enthusiastic follower of Hitler, and plainly stated before the war that he considered it a good soldier’s duty to be political. But let’s accept the premise on its own terms for the moment at least, and see what else we can make of it.

On a strictly legal basis, “I was just following orders” is far from a cut-and-dried defense. Most codes of military justice state explicitly that a soldier is obligated not to follow an order which violates international laws to which his country is a signatory, such as the Geneva Convention. When Rommel led an armored division into France in 1940, the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind it. The fact that Rommel may have been made personally uncomfortable by their actions, may have made a conscious or unconscious decision not to witness them, may even have managed to avoid having similar units attached to his army in North Africa, doesn’t absolve him of guilt any more than it does any other German soldier who was a knowing accomplice to atrocity.

But then, legalistic arguments are inadequate if we really want to get to the heart of the matter. Rommel’s actions in Czechoslovakia, in Poland, in France, and elsewhere in Europe led directly to the murder of millions of Jews. And had the “war without hate” in North Africa ended in German victory, the ethnic hatred of his Nazi masters would have made its presence felt there too soon enough. I believe that a human being has a higher moral duty that transcends jurisprudence and the military chain of command alike. Surely it ought to be eminently noncontroversial to say that being a party to genocide is categorically wrong. I don’t pretend to know what I would have done in Rommel’s situation, but I do know what would have been the right thing to do. Leading genocidal armies of conquest with the excuse that such is one’s “duty” as a soldier strikes me as moral cowardice rather than its opposite. I hope that we can someday live in a world free of the sort of didactic thinking that is still used far too often to excuse Rommel for doing so.

But you are of course free to make your own judgments on these questions; these are merely my opinions, which I present by way of explaining why I don’t wish to deify Erwin Rommel and why Panzer General‘s glorification of his ilk makes me feel so queasy.


The History Channel — also sometimes known as the “all World War II, all the time” channel.

“It is well that war is so terrible,” said Robert E. Lee, famously if apocryphally. “Otherwise we would grow too fond of it.” New Yorker profile writer Larissa MacFarquhar struck a similar note from the opposite direction in a recent interview:

People who are pacifists always talk about how terrible war is because it is so bloody and violent and wasteful. What they’re not getting is that people who like war — or don’t dislike war — admit all that; they know all that. It’s very obvious, but for them it’s worth it because of the stimulation, as they see it, to human greatness.

I cannot hope to solve the puzzle of humanity’s eternal attraction to war despite the suffering and death it brings. I can note, however, that one way to enjoy the good aspects of war without all that pesky suffering and dying is to wage it in the imagination rather than in physical reality. Once the political questions which wars decide have been settled and the casualties have been tallied and mourned, we can fight the conflicts of yore all over again in our imaginations, milking them for all of the drama, heroism, and adventure that may have been obscured in the moment by their other horrifying realities. Desmond Young, Liddell Hart, and their fellow travelers embraced this idea enthusiastically during the middle of the twentieth century, and in doing so founded what amounted to a whole new genre of books: the popular military history.

Many more broad-minded historians came to hate this new class of writers for their willingness to wave away the truly important aspects of history. Military historians, they complained, insisted on viewing war as a sport (American football and cricket were common metaphors) or a game (chess tended to be the point of comparison here), all whilst ignoring their causes and effects on the broader scale of human civilization — not to mention the many pivotal changes in the course of human history that have had nothing to do with wars and battles. Some went so far as to claim that the military historians weren’t writing proper histories at all, but merely escapist entertainments, the equivalent of romance novels for the middle-aged men who consumed them.

Personally, I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly, any more than I generally rush to criticize anyone for his choice of reading materials. It seems to me that military history can be educational and, yes, enjoyable, but one does have to be aware of its limitations. It provides a window into only a single, very specific area of human experience. Its obsessive interest in how wars were fought at a granular level leaves unanswered more important questions about why they were fought and how the world changed in their aftermath.

Nevertheless, military history has been the dominant face of popular history in the West ever since Desmond Young and Liddell Hart wrote about Erwin Rommel. By the 1990s, the “Military History” shelf of the typical bookstore was twice as large as all the rest of its history section put together. Authors like Stephen Ambrose sold millions of books with their vivid depictions of combat on land, in the air, and at sea, even as cable-television stations like The History Channel reran the greatest battles of World War II on an endless loop. Needless to say, the legend of the noble warrior Erwin Rommel featured prominently in all of this. One particularly overwrought television documentary, for example, labeled him “the last knight,” and concluded with these words: “Erwin Rommel, soldier, was laid to rest in the village cemetery of Herrlingen. It planted back into the soil of a disgraced Germany at least one seed of honor and decency for a new flower.” (Perhaps the romance-novel charge does have some merit…)


The first release of Afrika Korps. It’s telling that the game is named after Rommel’s army in North Africa, not the Allied one.

In the same year that The Rommel Papers were published, a correspondent for The Irish Times attended an odd museum exhibition in London that was devoted to Rommel’s exploits. He wrote the following afterward:

One fact was impressed upon me: that there is a strategy of warfare which, for the devotees, has little to do with blood and horror and death. The maps were being scrutinized like precious works. There was the impression that war was an enthralling game, like cricket. Viewing Rommel in this sense, I concluded that I had as much right to make a judgment as a professional footballer at a modern-art exhibition.

If military history approached war as a metaphorical game, then why not turn it into a literal game? After all, what could be better for a military-history buff than to live out the conflicts that had heretofore existed only within the pages of his books and try out alternate strategies? In 1954, Charles S. Roberts published a board game called Tactics through his new Avalon Hill Game Company. The canonical first commercial wargame ever, it depicted warfare in a somewhat abstracted, non-historical context. But six years later, Roberts and his company surfaced again with Gettysburg, the first wargame to engage with an historical conflict. Going forward, not all readers of military history would be wargamers, but all wargamers would be readers of military history.

Avalon Hill released a steady trickle of games over the next few years, most of them depictions of other battles of the American Civil War, the only conflict that even approached the popularity of the Second World War among American military-history readers. But by 1964 sales figures were trending in the wrong direction. Seeking to reverse the slide, Roberts shifted his focus to World War II, designing what would prove to be one of his company’s biggest and most iconic games of all.

As the name would imply, Afrika Korps dealt with the North African theater of the war, giving armchair generals a chance to step into the smartly shined boots of Erwin Rommel: “Now the legend of the Desert Fox is recreated!” trumpeted the box text. The game established several precedents. First, it made the North African front into a perennial favorite with wargamers for the same reasons that it was so popular with military-history authors and their readers: its wide-open terrain and the resulting room for tactical maneuvering, and its supposedly sporting, gentlemanly nature. Second, it taught many who played it that the Germans were simply cooler: they had better technology, better esprit de corps, even better uniforms than the stodgy Allies to offset their generally inferior numbers. And finally, it introduced the wargame cliché of the “Rommel unit”: a unit whose commander is such a superhero that he can break the rules that usually govern the game by sheer force of will. As a whole, notes Joseph Allen Campo in his recent PhD thesis on cultural perceptions of Rommel, “the focus on Rommel and more generally the German side (many wargames feature prominent German military motifs and use German military nomenclature) cater to a genre that customarily finds more interest in playing the underdog, relying on [the player’s] brains rather than overwhelming force, and accepting the challenge of reversing the historical result.”

Coincidentally or not, tabletop wargaming grew in popularity by leaps and bounds after the release of Afrika Korps. At its peak in 1980, the industry sold 2.2 million games.

I hope that the chain of causation and influence which brought us Panzer General thirty years after Afrika Korps is becoming clear by now. I won’t belabor it unduly, given that I’ve already told most of the story in other articles. Suffice to say that in 1979 an avid young tabletop wargamer named Joel Billings decided to found a company to bring his hobby to the personal computers that were just entering the marketplace at that time. That company, which Billings called Strategic Simulations, Incorporated, specialized in digital wargames for much of its existence, and was the very same one which brought Panzer General to store shelves in 1994.


The gallant panzer general gets his orders. (How can you argue with cool uniforms like these?) The game studiously avoids swastikas. In popular culture, the swastika has come to stand for the Gestapo, SS, and other “bad” Nazis, while the older iconography of the Iron Cross or eagle wings stands in for the “clean” Wehrmacht. But the real distinction is, as we’ve seen, less clear-cut than many would like it to be.

Erwin Rommel is never mentioned by name in Panzer General, but his larger-than-life persona of legend is stamped all over it. He is, after all, the personification of the Wehrmacht as wargamers know it — not as barbaric invaders and espousers of a loathsome racist creed which they are all too eager to use to justify genocide, but as clever, audacious, courageous warriors with great fashion sense and all the best kit. Afrika Korps: “You can re-create Field Marshall Rommel’s daring exploits at Bengasi, Tobruk, El Alamein, and points in between!” Panzer General:

Imagine that you are the Panzer General. You are the brightest and best of the new Axis generals in the Second World War. Go from triumph to triumph, invading and seizing the capitals of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and ultimately the United States of America on your way to conquering the whole world!

In terms of the broader culture — the one that doesn’t tend to read a lot of military history or play a lot of wargames — Panzer General was already an anachronism in 1994. In 1960, the American journalist William L. Shirer had published The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which over the course of its 1200-plus pages documented in meticulous detail exactly what the Nazi regime had done and how it had done it. Close on that book’s heels, the capture and trial of Holocaust administrator Adolf Eichmann in an Israeli court consumed the world’s attention much as the Nuremberg trials had a decade and a half previously — only now television brought the proceedings, and the atrocities they documented, to a much more visceral sort of light. In West Germany, the student activism of the hippie era, accompanied by the election of a social-democratic chancellor who was less beholden to the tradition of forgetfulness, finally pushed the country toward a proper reckoning with its past. A spate of unsparing books, films, and even museums about the Holocaust and the other crimes of the Nazi regime appeared in West Germany and elsewhere in the years that followed, fully acknowledging for the first time the complicity of those Germans who weren’t in Hitler’s inner circle. A new understanding became palpable among Germans: that they couldn’t escape from their past by denying guilt and wishing atrocities away; that the only way to ensure that something like the Third Reich never took root again was to examine how they themselves or their parents, living in a nation as civilized as any other in Europe, could have been tempted down such a sickening path.

These developments were as welcome as they were necessary, both for Germans and for all of the other citizens of the world. Yet Panzer General and the cultural milieu that had spawned it remained caught in that strange interregnum of the 1950s, as do most of the wargames of today.

So, having now a reasonable idea of how we got to this place where patriotic Americans bought a game in which they played the role of genocidal foreign conquerors of their country’s capital, it’s up to each of us to decide how we feel about it. What sorts of subject matter are appropriate for a game? Before you rush to answer, ask yourself how you would feel about, say, a version of Transport Tycoon where you have to move Jews from the cities where they live to the concentration camps where they will die. If, as I dearly hope, you would prefer not to play such a game, ask yourself what the difference between Panzer General and that other game really are. For your actions in Panzer General will also lead to the deaths of millions, at only one more degree of remove at best.

Or am I hopelessly overthinking it? Is Panzer General just a piece of harmless entertainment that happens to play with a subset of the stuff of history?

It’s a judgment call that’s personal to each of us. For my part, I can play the German side in a conventional wargame easily enough if I need to, although I would prefer to take the Allied side. But Panzer General, with its eagerness to embed me in the role of a German general goose-stepping and kowtowing to his Führer, is a bridge too far for me. I would feel more comfortable with it if it made some effort to acknowledge — even via a footnote in the manual! — the horrors of the ideology which it depicts as all stirring music and proudly waving banners.

Before I attempt to say more than that, I’d like to look at another game released the same year as Panzer General, designed by a veteran of the same wargaming culture that spawned SSI. It takes place in a very different historical milieu, but leaves us with some of the same broad questions about the ethical obligations — or lack thereof — that come attached to a game that purports to depict real historical events.

(Sources: the books Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past by Norbert Frei, Divided Memory: The Nazi Past in Two Germanys by Jeffrey Herf, War Stories: The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany by Robert G. Moeller, Rommel: The Desert Fox by Desmond Young, The Rommel Papers by B.H. Liddell Hart, In Hitler’s Shadow by Richard J. Evans, Legacies of Dachau: The Uses and Abuses of a Concentration Camp, 1933-2001 by Harold Marcuse, Blood, Tears, and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II by Len Deighton, War Without Hate: The Desert Campaign of 1940-43 by John Bierman and Colin Smith, The Real War (1914-1918) by B.H. Liddell Hart,  Uncovering the Holocaust: The International Reception of Night and Fog by Ewout van der Knaap, and The Complete Wargames Handbook by James F. Dunnigan. But my spirit guide and crib sheet through much of this article was Joseph Campo’s superb 2019 PhD thesis for UC Santa Barbara, “Desert Fox or Hitler Favorite? Myths and Memories of Erwin Rommel: 1941-1970.”)

 
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Posted by on November 20, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Opening the Gold Box, Part 7: Back to the Roots

We made it simple yet complex enough for those people who really got into it. We added graphics and made it a beautiful game with a totally transparent interface. It took all the ugly stuff out of playing a military strategy game and left the fun and the gameplay. That was a conscious effort. It wasn’t just, “Gee, I like artwork in wargames, so let’s throw it in.”

— SSI marketing manager Karen Conroe, speaking about Panzer General in 1996

When we last checked in with Joel Billings and his crew of grognards turned CRPG mavens at SSI, it was early 1994 and they had just lost their Dungeons & Dragons license, by far their biggest source of revenue over the past seven years. While Billings continued to beat the bushes for the buyer that his company plainly needed if it was to have any hope of surviving in the changed gaming landscape of the mid-1990s, it wasn’t immediately obvious to the rest of the in-house staff just what they should be doing now. Ever since signing the Dungeons & Dragons deal with TSR back in 1987, virtually all they had worked on were games under that license; SSI’s other games had all come from outside studios. But now here they were, with no Dungeons & Dragons, no clear direction forward, and quite possibly no long-term future at all. Instead of devoting their time to polishing up their résumés, as most people in their situation would have done, they plunged into a passion project the likes of which they hadn’t been able to permit themselves for many years. And lo and behold, the end result would prove to be the game that turned their commercial fortunes around, for a while anyway.

The project began with Paul Murray, an SSI stalwart who had first begun to program games for the company back in 1981. Most recently, he had been assigned to port Dark Sun: Shattered Lands, SSI’s ambitious and expensive attempt to prove to TSR that they deserved to retain the Dungeons & Dragons license, to the Super Nintendo console. But cash-flow problems during 1993 had forced Billings to shelve the port, leaving Murray without much to do. So, he started to tinker with a style of game which SSI hadn’t done in-house in nearly a decade: a traditional hex-based wargame, based on World War II in Europe. From the beginning, he envisioned it as a “lite” game, emphasizing fun at least as much as historical accuracy — i.e., what old-timers called a “beer and pretzels” wargame. In much of this, he was inspired by a Japanese game for the Sega Genesis console called Advanced Daisenryaku, which had never been officially imported to the United States or even translated into English, but which he and his office mates had somehow stumbled upon and immediately found so addicting that they were willing to struggle their way through it in Japanese. (When Alan Emrich from Computer Gaming World magazine visited the SSI offices, he saw them all playing it “with a crude translation of the Japanese manual lying beside the Sega Genesis.”)

After Dark Sun was released to disappointing sales, thus sounding the death knell for the Dungeons & Dragons license, Murray continued to poke away at his “fast and fun little wargame,” which he called Panzer General. And a remarkable thing happened: more and more of his colleagues, both those in technical and creative roles and those ostensibly far removed from them, coalesced around him. Even Joel Billings and his right-hand man Chuck Kroegel, who between them made all of the big decisions in the executive suites, rolled up their sleeves and made their first active contributions to the nuts and bolts of an SSI game in years. They did so largely after hours, as did many of the others who worked on Panzer General. It became a shared labor of love, a refuge from those harsh external realities that seemed destined to crush SSI under their weight.

At this point, a music fan like me finds it hard to resist comparisons with some of great dead-ender albums in the history of that art form, like Big Star’s Third. If SSI’s beer-and-pretzels wargame doesn’t have quite the same heft as an artistic statement like that one, it is true that the staff there felt the same freedom to experiment, to make exactly the game they wanted to make, all born from the same sense that there was nothing really left to lose. Desperation can be oddly freeing in that respect. Billings still speaks of Panzer General as the most satisfying single project he’s ever been involved with. After the extended detour into Dungeons & Dragons, he and his like-minded colleagues got to go back to the type of game that they personally loved most. It felt like going home. If this was to be the end of SSI, how poetically apt to bring things full circle before the curtain fell.

But make no mistake: Panzer General was not to look or sound like the ugly, fussy SSI wargames of yore. It was very much envisioned as a product of the 1990s, bringing all of the latest technology to bear on the hoary old wargame genre in a way that no one had yet attempted. It would be the first SSI game to require high-resolution SVGA graphics cards, the first to incorporate real-world video clips and voice acting, the first to take full advantage of the capabilities of CD-ROM. Luckily, the nature of the game lent itself to doing much of this on the cheap. Instead of filming actors, SSI could simply digitize public-domain newsreel footage of World War II battle scenes. Meanwhile the voice acting could be limited to a single Reichsmarschall giving you your orders in the sort of clipped, German-accented English that anyone who has ever seen a 1950s Hollywood war movie will feel right at home with. Thanks to the re-purposed media and plenty of free labor from SSI staffers, Panzer General wound up costing less than $400,000 to make — barely a third the cost of Dark Sun.

In addition to all of its multimedia flash, Panzer General evinced a lot of clever design. During 1994, strategy-game designers seemed to discover all at once the value of personalizing their players’ experiences, by giving them more embodied roles to play and by introducing elements of story and CRPG-style character progression. X-COM and Master of Magic are the first two obvious examples of these new approaches from that year, while Panzer General provides the third. One can only assume that SSI learned something from all those Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs.

The overall structure of Panzer General draws heavily from Advanced Daisenryaku. It’s a scenario-based rather than a grand-strategy game. If you choose to play the full campaign, you begin on September 1, 1939, leading the Wehrmacht into Poland. You then progress through a campaign which includes 38 potential scenarios in all, covering the Western and Eastern Fronts of the war in Europe as well as the battles in North Africa, but you’ll never see all of them on a single play-through. Panzer General rather uses a Wing Commander– style campaign tree: doing poorly will lead you to the “loser scenario,” and can eventually get you drummed out of the military entirely; doing well leads you to the next stage of world domination, with additional rewards in the form of “prestige points” which you can spend to improve your army. There’s an inherent design tension in such an approach, which I discussed at some length already in the context of Wing Commander: it gives beginning or unskilled players an unhappy experience by punishing them with ever more brutally difficult missions, even as it “rewards” the players who might actually have a chance of beating those missions by bypassing them. Within its chosen framework, however, Panzer General‘s campaign is very well-executed, with plenty of alternative outcomes on offer. In the absolute best case — in game terms, that is — you can invade and defeat Britain in 1940, as Adolf Hitler so conspicuously failed to do in real life, then go on to take Moscow, and finally attain the ultimate Panzer General achievement: conquering Washington, D.C.

As that last unlikely battle in particular would suggest, Panzer General‘s fidelity to real history is limited at best. You don’t have to look too far to find veteran grognards complaining about all the places where it falls short as a simulation, perhaps most notably in its near-complete disinterest in the vagaries of supply lines. But then again, the realism of even those wargames that strive more earnestly for historical accuracy can be and often is exaggerated; those games strike me more as arbitrary systems tweaked to produce the same results as the historical battles they purport to simulate than true simulations in the abstract.

The most important thing Panzer General has going for it is that, historically accurate or not, it’s fun. The interface is quick and well-nigh effortless, while the scenario-based approach assures that you’re only getting the exciting parts of warfare; your forces are already drawn up facing the enemy as each scenario begins. And the game is indeed very attractive to look at, with the flashier elements employed sparingly enough that they never start to annoy.

Still, its true secret weapon lies in those aforementioned CRPG elements. Even as you play the role of a German general who collects more and more prestige, accompanied by more and more exciting battlefield assignments, the units you command also move from battle to battle with you, improving their own skills as they go. The effect comes close to matching the identification which X-COM so effectively manages to create between you and your individual soldiers; you can even name your units here, just as you can your soldiers in that other game. You develop a real bond with the units — infantry, artillery, tanks, airplanes, in places even ships — who have fought so many battles for you. You begin to husband them, to work hard to rescue them when they get into a jam, and find yourself fairly shattered — and then fairly livid — when an enemy ambush takes one of them out. You can even mold the makeup of your army to suit your play style to some extent, by choosing which types of units to spend your precious prestige points on. This makes your personal investment in their successes and failures all the greater; the emotional stakes are surprisingly high in this game.


Each scenario in Panzer General begins with some vintage newsreel footage, an approach which has ironically aged much better than the cutting-edge green-screened full-motion-video presentations of so many of its contemporaries. Unlike them, Panzer General has remained an aestheically attractive game to this day.

The map where all of the actions take place. The game is entirely controlled by clicking on your units and the strip of icons running down the right side of the screen. You can mouse over a unit or icon to see a textual description of its status and/or function at the bottom or top of the screen — as close as any 1995 game got to the tool tips of today. SSI’s overarching priority was to make accessible a genre previously known for its inscrutability.

Clashes between units take place right on the main map, accompanied by little animations which spice up the proceedings without overstaying their welcome.

A unit-information screen, showing not only its raw statistics but a running tally of its battle record. You can name your units and watch them collect experience and battle citations as the war goes on.

You can tailor the makeup of your army by spending prestige points to purchase units that suit your style of play.



While his staff beavered away on Panzer General, Joel Billings continued to cast about for a buyer for his company before it was too late. It wasn’t easy; with the loss of the Dungeons & Dragons license he had lost his most enticing single asset. All of SSI’s core competencies were profoundly out of fashion; CRPGs in general were in the doldrums, and wargames were niche products in an industry that had little shelf space left for anything beyond the broadly popular. Nevertheless, he managed in the end to make a deal.

The backstory leading up to that deal has much to tell us about the waves of mergers and acquisitions that had been sweeping the industry for years by this point. It begins with The Software Toolworks, a company founded by an enterprising kit-computer hacker named Walt Bilofsky all the way back in 1980. He quietly built it into a major player in educational and consumer software over the course of the next decade, by jumping early into the distribution and media-duplication sides of the industry and through two blockbuster products of the sort which don’t attract the hardcore gamer demographic and thus seldom feature in histories like this one, but which had immense Main Street appeal in their day: The Chessmaster 2000 and Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. The combined sales of these two alone exceeded 750,000 units by 1989, the year The Software Toolworks acquired Mindscape.

The latter company was formed in 1983 by one Roger Buoy, and went on to make a name in educational software as well as with innovative games of a slightly intellectual bent: the civilian-spaceflight simulation The Halley Project; a line of bookware text adventures; the early point-and-click graphic adventures developed by ICOM Simulations; Balance of Power, Chris Crawford’s seminal anti-wargame of contemporary geopolitics. Then, too, Mindscape imported and/or distributed many additional games, including those of Cinemaware. But as the decade wound down their bottom line sank increasingly into the red, and in December of 1989 Buoy sold out to The Software Toolworks for $21.5 million.

In the years that followed that acquisition, The Software Toolworks moved into the Nintendo market, releasing many games there under the Mindscape imprint; console titles would make up 42 percent of their overall revenue by 1994. At the same time, they continued to enjoy great success on computers, with the Mavis Beacon series in particular. That entirely fictional typing teacher — a black woman at that, a brave and noble choice to have made in the mid-1980s — became an odd sort of virtual celebrity, with other companies going so far as to ask for her endorsement of their own products, with journalists who joined much of the general public in assuming she was a real person repeatedly asking for interviews. In 1994, The Software Toolworks’s annual sales hit $150 million. On May 12 of that year, the Pearson Group of Britain bought the fast-growing company.

Pearson was a giant of print publishing, both in their homeland and internationally. Formed in 1843 as a construction company, they began buying up magazines and newspapers in the 1920s, building themselves a veritable print empire by the 1970s, with such household names as Penguin Books in their stable. Their sudden plunge into computer software in 1994 was endemic of what we might call the second wave of bookware, when it was widely anticipated that interactive multimedia “books” published on CD-ROM would come to supplement if not entirely supplant the traditional paper-based variety. Bookware’s second wave would last little longer than its first — it would become clear well before the decade’s end that the Internet rather than physical CD-ROMs was destined to become the next century’s preferred method of information exchange — but while it lasted it brought a lot of big companies like the Pearson Group into software, splashing lots of money around in the process; Pearson paid no less than $462 million for The Software Toolworks. Being unenamored with the name of the entity they had just purchased, Pearson changed it — to Mindscape, an imprint that had heretofore represented only a quarter or so of The Software Toolworks’s overall business.

But the wheeling and dealing wasn’t over yet. Within weeks of being themselves acquired, the new Mindscape entered into serious talks with Joel Billings about the prospect of buying SSI. The latter was manifestly dealing from a position of weakness. The Dungeons & Dragons license was gone, as was the reputation SSI had enjoyed during the 1980s as the industry’s premiere maker of strategy games; that crown had been ceded to MicroProse. The only really viable franchise that remained to them was the Tony La Russa Baseball series. Nevertheless, Mindscape believed they saw talent both in SSI’s management and in their technical and creative staff. Said talent was worth taking a chance on, it was decided, given that the price was so laughably cheap. On October 7, 1994, an independent SSI ceased to exist, when Mindscape bought the company for slightly under $2.6 million. Billings was promised that it would be business as usual for most of them in their Sunnyvale, California, office, apart from the quarter of existing staff, mostly working on the sales and packaging side, who were made redundant by the acquisition and would have to be let go.

Once that pain was finished, a rather spectacular honeymoon period began. Mindscape was able to give SSI distribution they could only have dreamed of in the past, getting their games onto the shelves of such mainstream retailers as Office Depot and K-Mart. And in return, SSI delivered Panzer General. Released just a month after the acquisition was finalized, it garnered a gushing five-out-of-five-stars review from Computer Gaming World, who called it “not just a wargame but an adventure” in reference to its uniquely embodied campaign. Add to that its attractive multimedia presentation and its fun and accessible gameplay, then sprinkle over the whole the eternal American nostalgia for all things World War II, and you had a recipe for one of the breakout hits of that Christmas season — the first example of same which SSI had had since Eye of the Beholder back in 1991. Helped along no doubt by Mindscape’s distributional clout, it went on to sell more than 200,000 copies in its first fifteen months. Eventually it surpassed even the sales figures of Pool of Radiance to become SSI’s most popular single game ever. In fact, Panzer General still stands today as the most successful computerized wargame in history.

The game’s success was positively thrilling for Joel Billings, now ensconced as a “regular, full-time employee” of Mindscape, complete with a 401(k) plan and eligibility for the Executive Bonus Plan. His real passion had always been wargames; those were, after all, the games he had originally founded his company in order to make. To have come full circle here at the end of SSI’s independent existence, and to have done so in such smashing fashion at that, felt like a belated vindication. There was only one slight regret to mar the picture. “I wonder what would have happened if Panzer General had come out before the Mindscape acquisition…” he can’t help but muse today.

Taken as a whole, Panzer General deserved every bit of its success: it was and is a fine game. For some of us then and now, there is only one fly in the ointment: we have no desire to play a Nazi. I’ll return to a range of issues which Panzer General raises about the relationship of games to the real world and to our historical memory in my next article. For today, however, I have another story to finish telling.



To say that Mindscape was initially pleased with their new acquisition hardly begins to state the case. “We rocketed!” thanks to Panzer General, remembers Billings: “Mindscape loved us!” And why not? As an in-house-developed original product with no outside royalties whatsoever to pay on its huge sales, Panzer General alone recouped two and a half times the cost of purchasing SSI in its first year on the market. A set of three shovelware collections which between them included all of the old Gold Box Dungeons & Dragons CRPGS also did surprisingly well, selling more than 100,000 profit-rich copies in all before the final expiration of even SSI’s non-exclusive deal with TSR forced them off the market on July 1, 1995.

In the longer run, however, the mass-market ambitions of Mindscape proved a poor fit with the nichey tradition of SSI. To save production costs and capitalize on the success of Panzer General, SSI used its engine as the basis of a 5-Star General series, first presenting World War II from the perspective of an Allied general in Europe, then moving farther afield to a high-fantasy setting, to outer space, to World War II in the Pacific. Although those games certainly had their fans — Fantasy General in particular is fondly remembered today — the overall trend line was dismayingly similar to that of the Gold Box games: a rather brilliant initial game followed by a series of increasingly rote sequels running inside an increasingly decrepit-seeming engine, resulting in steadily decreasing sales figures. By the time the engine was updated for Panzer General IIPeople’s General, Panzer General III, and, Lord help us, Panzer General 3D Assault, a distinct note of desperation was peeking through. SSI’s other attempts to embrace the mass-market, such as a series of real-time strategy games based on the tabletop-miniatures game Warhammer, felt equally sterile, as if their hearts just weren’t in it.

Certainly Joel Billings personally found the mainstream market to be less than congenial. In February of 1996, he was promoted to become the head of Mindscape’s entire games division, but found himself completely out of his depth there. Within six months, he asked for and was granted a demotion, back to being merely the head of SSI.

But even SSI was no longer the place it once had been; it seemed to lose a little more of its identity with each passing year, as the acquisitions and consolidations continued around it. Mindscape was bought by The Learning Company in 1998, after Pearson’s realization that software — at least software shipped on physical media — was not destined to be the future of publishing writ large. Then Mattel bought The Learning Company in 1999. They closed SSI’s Sunnyvale offices the following year, keeping the name as a brand only. That same year, they sold The Learning Company once again, to the Gores Technology Group, who then turned around and sold all of the gaming divisions to the French publisher Ubisoft in 2001. SSI was now a creaky anachronism in Ubisoft’s trendy lineup. The last game to ship with the SSI name on its box was Destroyer Command, in February of 2002 — almost exactly 22 years after a young Joel Billings had first started calling computer stores to offer them something called Computer Bismark.

Billings himself was long gone by 2002, cast adrift with the final closing of SSI’s Sunnyvale offices. Thoroughly fed up with the mainstream-gaming rat race, he returned to the only thing he had ever truly wanted to do, making and selling his beloved wargames. For almost two decades now he’s run 2 By 3 Games with Gary Grigsby and Keith Brors, two designers and programmers from the salad days of SSI. They make absurdly massive, gleefully complex, defiantly inaccessible World War II wargames, implemented at a level of depth and breadth of which SSI could only have dreamed. And, thanks to the indie revolution in games and the wonders of digital distribution, they manage to sell enough of them to keep at it. Good for them, I say.

Melancholy though SSI’s ultimate fate proved to be, they did outlive their erstwhile partners TSR. After flooding their limited and slowly shrinking market of active Dungeons & Dragons players with way too many campaign settings and rules supplements during the first half of the 1990s, TSR saw the chickens come home to roost right about the time they parted ways with SSI, when sales of the paperback novels that had done much to sustain them to this point also began to collapse. For all that they had never been anyone’s idea of literary masterpieces, the early Dungeons & Dragons novels had been competently plotted, fast-paced reads that more than satisfied their target demographic’s limited expectations of them. For years, though, editorial standards there as well had been slowly falling, and it seemed that readers were finally noticing. After the Christmas season of 1996, Random House, who distributed all of TSR’s products to the bookstore trade, informed them that they would be returning millions of dollars worth of unsold books and games. TSR lacked the cash to pay Random House, as they did to print more product. And, laboring under a serious debt load already, they found there was no one willing to lend them any more money. They were caught in a classic corporate death spiral.

The savior that emerged was welcome in its way — any port in a storm, right? — but also deeply humiliating. Wizards of the Coast, the maker of the collectible card game Magic: The Gathering which had done so much to decimate TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons business in recent years, now bought their victim from Lorraine Williams for about $30 million, with much or most of that sum going to repay of the debts TSR had accrued.

Still, TSR’s final humiliation proved a welcome development on the whole for their most famous game; in the eyes of most gamers, Wizards became a better steward of Dungeons & Dragons than TSR had been for a long time if ever. They cut back on the fire hose of oft-redundant product, whilst streamlining the rules for new editions of the game that were more intuitively playable than the old. Ironically, many of the new approaches were ported back to the tabletop from digital iterations of Dungeons & Dragons, which themselves found a new lease on life with Interplay’s massive hit Baldur’s Gate in 1998. Meanwhile the “open gaming” D20 license, which Wizards of the Coast launched with great fanfare along with the official third edition of Dungeons & Dragons in 2000, drew from the ideals of open-source software. While tabletop Dungeons & Dragons would have its ups and downs under Wizards of the Coast, it would never again descend to the depths it had plumbed in 1997. A world without Dungeons & Dragons now seems all but unimaginable; in 1997, it was all too real a prospect.

All of which is to say that Dungeons & Dragons will continue to be a regular touchstone here as we continue our voyage through gaming history. Whether the computerized versions of the game that came after the end of an independent TSR and SSI are up to the standards of the Gold Box line is of course a matter of opinion. But one thing cannot be debated: the story of Dungeons & Dragons and computers is far from over.

(Sources: As with all of my SSI articles, much of this one is drawn from the SSI archive at the Strong Museum of Play. Other sources include the book Designers and Dragons, ’70 to ’79 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of June 1994, September 1994, December 1994, and January 1995; PC Review of June 1992; Retro Gamer 94 and 198; Chicago Tribune of December 2 1985 and December 6 1989; New York Times of June 13 1994. Online sources include Matt Barton’s interview with Joel Billings, the Video Game Newsroom Time Machine interview with Joel Billings, and the Mental Floss “profile” of the fictional Mavis Beacon.

Oddly given its popularity back in the day and its ongoing influence on computer wargaming, the original Panzer General has not been re-released for digital distribution; this is made doubly odd by the fact that some of the less successful later games in the 5-Star General series have been re-released. It’s too large for me to host here even if I wasn’t nervous about the legal implications of doing so, but I have prepared a stub of the game that’s ready to go if you just add to the appropriate version of DOSBox for your platform of choice and an ISO image of the CD-ROM. A final hint: as of this writing, you can find the latter on archive.org if you look hard enough.)

 
 

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Master of Magic

Steve Barcia started thinking about his second grand-strategy game well before he had finished creating his first one. While he was waiting for his latest iteration of Master of Orion to compile each day in the cramped Austin, Texas, offices of his company SimTex, he sketched in the mental details of a follow-up that would take place in a fantasy rather than science-fictional milieu. As soon as the one game was finished, he wrote up a design document for the next one and shared it with the rest of the SimTex staff. Within two weeks, they were charging full-speed ahead on Master of Magic. It would ship under the MicroProse imprint in time for the Christmas of 1994, only a year after its predecessor, despite being one of the most complex strategy games yet made for a computer. If there’s no rest for the wicked, it would seem that Barcia and company had been very bad indeed.

Given the new game’s title and its short development cycle, one might suspect it to be little more than a reskinned Master of Orion. In reality, though, such could hardly be further from the truth. Master of Magic is a wildly different experience from Master of Orion, enough so that one would scarcely guess it to have come from the same designer. Where Master of Orion is polished to perfection, its every element carefully considered and tested, Master of Magic is a far more ramshackle affair, a pile of diverse ideas thrown together — some more fully realized than others, some literally not working at all if we want to get pedantic about it. Nevertheless, it all comes out okay in the end; the game’s variety, generosity, and sheer chutzpah win through. Master of Magic is simply fun —  every bit as much fun as Master of Orion. Just don’t try this at home, budding designers.

Master of Orion was frequently billed as “Civilization in Space” by a slightly lazy press. It’s therefore ironic to note that it’s actually Master of Magic which betrays a major influence from Sid Meier’s 1991 magnum opus. Barcia began laying down the basics of his first game in the late 1980s, and thus its mechanics and interface are most indebted to the conquer-the-galaxy board and computer games which appeared before that point. By the time he started on Master of Magic, however, Barcia had had plenty of time to play and admire Civilization and to clone some of its approaches. It’s thus at least a bit more defensible to call Master of Magic “Fantasy Civilization,” as was and is done from time to time, even if doing so still falls well short of a complete description. Certainly the magazine Computer Gaming World made no bones about it in its review of the game:

The city display will be familiar to players of Sid Meier’s Civilization. In fact, we wouldn’t want to suggest that the same code was used, but it sure looks like it could have been. From the graphic representation of the buildings themselves to the rows of farming, working, and rebelling citizens, the city display is a near-verbatim copy of the earlier design.

The city-management screen in Master of Magic, which is almost a carbon copy of the one in Civilization. Many of the systems behind it work exactly the same as well.

This, then, is one important aspect of Master of Magic. You start with a single village which you must grow and develop. Meanwhile you send out settlers to found other cities, or armies to conquer ones that already exist. You improve your cities by ordering their populations to build structures that increase their production or otherwise cause them to function more efficiently. All of this will be very familiar indeed to any Civilization veteran. That said, the city-building side of Master of Magic is generally simplified in comparison to Civilization. There is, for example, no tech tree to research in order to unlock new types of buildings. Instead buildings themselves unlock other buildings, as shown by a handy chart included in the manual: constructing a builder’s hall unlocks the granary, shrine, library, miner’s guild, and city walls; constructing a granary unlocks the farmer’s market; etc., etc. Steve Barcia, who was eager for understandable reasons to ensure that the similarities to Civilization weren’t overstated, explained the simplifications by noting that the two games had fundamentally different design goals: “Civilization focuses on internal problems. In Master of Magic, it’s the external; it’s conquest.”

The main Master of Magic screen, where you examine the map and move your units around. While it departs a bit more from the layout of Civilization than does the city-management screen, the inspiration remains obvious, right down to the shortcut keys.

So, although you move your units around the map exactly as you do in Civilization — to be fair, that game in turn borrows the approach from the much older Empire — things go in a dramatically different direction once combat begins: Master of Magic places much more emphasis on combat than does Civilization. In the latter game, each unit moves independently over the map; in Master of Magic, you form larger armies by “stacking” up to nine units together. When two units bump into each other on the world map in Civilization, one loses and is completely destroyed and the other wins and survives completely intact, all depending on a single roll of the virtual dice which is compared against their respective attack and defense ratings. In Master of Magic, by contrast, combat takes place on a separate screen, with plenty of room for your tactical genius to make its presence felt. Units here can be “wounded” by having only some of their number killed, needing time to heal and replenish themselves.

Fighting a tactical battle. Given that I have only one group of halberdiers against seven groups of zombies and and one of skeletons, my best option here is to flee — assuming I don’t have a Turn Undead spell at my disposal, that is.

But the most important addition of all to the combat model, the game’s first real stroke of genius, is that of experience points: as units fight and survive battles, they become better, tougher and stronger, able eventually to punch well above their rookie weight. Granted, Civilization too has the barest inkling of this; a unit which wins a battle there has a chance of becoming a “veteran,” with a bonus to its attack and defense. Master of Magic, however, takes the concept to another level entirely. And then it adds a second stroke of genius: heroes, individual captains who can be recruited to join your cause and lead your armies into battle. They too earn experience and improve their skills; you can even find or make magical weapons and armor for them.

A hero levels up.

In the context of its own day, Master of Magic thus joined Julian Gollop’s X-COM, which was released about six months before it, as one of the foremost exemplars of a new trend in strategy games, that of using CRPG elements to forge a more personal, even emotional bond between the player and the figures she commands. It works brilliantly here, just as it does in X-COM. You come to identify deeply with your units and especially your heroes as you nurture their development, and come to mourn the loss of one of them almost like that of a real friend.

The debt which Master of Magic owes to the CRPG genre extends to other areas as well. Its randomly generated maps are seeded not just with neutral and enemy towns but with “fallen temples,” “abandoned keeps,” and “mysterious caves.” You can send your units and heroes to confront what is found within, if you dare; your reward for doing so is booty and the experience they earn, assuming they survive. Just exploring the world, revealing and clearing out more and more of the map, is thoroughly enjoyable even before you meet any of the computer players who are doing the same thing.

Do we dare to enter the fallen temple?

But it’s the game’s third and final layer rather than the city building or unit management that is its most defining attribute, not to mention the source of its name. The fact is that you really do play a master of magic, a wizard competing to conquer the world against up to four other wizards under the control of the computer. As such, you have spells at your disposal… boy, do you have spells. The magic system draws heavily from Magic: The Gathering, the collectible card game of fantasy combat that took the culture of tabletop gaming by storm in the early 1990s. Magic here is divided into five “books”: Life, Nature, Sorcery, Chaos, and Death. When you begin a new game, you choose your wizard from a list of fourteen possibilities, each of which specializes in one or two books of magic and has some other individual advantage to boot. Or, if you’re playing at one of the higher difficulty levels, you can also build your own wizard from scratch.

Most hardcore players wouldn’t think of playing with anything other than a customized wizard; you see one of them being made here. Not being much of a power gamer, I’m generally happy taking one of the fourteen pre-made wizards, which offer plenty of variety in themselves.

Either way, you enter the game with just a few low-level spells in your particular book or books. In place of the technological research trees of Civilization and Master of Orion, here you research new spells. Their number and variety are positively mind-boggling: there are 40 spells associated with each book, plus 16 that everyone can learn regardless of specialty, for a total of no less than 216 in the game as a whole. But Master of Magic borrows a trick from Master of Orion to great effect: not all of the potential spells in your books are available for research on any given playthrough, meaning that the sort of rote strategies that are possible in climbing Civilization‘s static research tree cannot be relied upon here. Because you get a different set of possible spells even if you play the very same wizard twice in a row, you constantly have to think on your feet. Needless to say, your overall strategy must be dictated to a large extent by the spells that show up in your research list. If you gain early access to Floating Island, for example, you have a handy means of crossing oceans before your opponents may be able to; if not, you might need to build expensive shipyards early on in at least some of your coastal cities.

Hmm… which spell should I research next?

Your source of spell-research points is mana, which you harvest from the land’s so-called “places of power.” It’s the most essential resource in the game, and thus the source of some agonizing decisions. For mana, you see, is not only important for research. You must balance the amount of it which you devote to research against that which goes to casting spells in the field and that which goes to improving upon your innate spell-casting capabilities; this last category of mana, in other words, serves as your wizard’s equivalent to experience points.

You change the ratio of mana you devote to various purposes by manipulating the three staffs to the left.

The thoroughgoing watchword of Master of Magic is variety, applying not only to the list of spells but to every aspect of the game. The sheer amount of stuff here would be impressive in a modern game, and was well-nigh unprecedented at the time of this one’s release. In addition to choosing one of fourteen starting wizards, you choose a starting race for her to command from another fourteen possibilities; each of these races comes with its own unique set of units to be unlocked and raised, as well as a unique mix of buildings that it can erect in its towns. You can choose a world with small, medium, or large land masses, with weak, normal or powerful magic. All these possible starting parameters alone ensure that the game will take a long time indeed to get old. Then, once you actually begin to play, you find an absurdly wide array of monsters to contend with, heroes to recruit, and magical arms and armor to dredge up. And then there are all those spells: spells to buff your units and heroes and to nerf your enemies’, to summon fantastical creatures to join your ranks, to disrupt your foes’ own magic. Eventually your powers become downright Biblical, as you control the winds and blight your enemies’ fields and forests — but be aware that they can potentially do the same things to you. By way of a final touch, you have not one but two complete worlds to explore and conquer; there are two separate dimensions in the game, the relatively mundane Arcanus and the magic-rich realm of Myrror. You can move between them by means of special portals on the landscape which you must discover and secure — or, inevitably, via yet another spell you can research. It will take you a long, long time to see everything that Master of Magic has to offer.

You can explore and conquer two different planes. This map shows part of just one of them.

Master of Magic‘s huge diversity of content does as much as its theme and its core mechanics to give it a very different personality from that of its predecessor Master of Orion. I love both games just about equally, but most others I’ve talked to tend to express a marked preference for one or the other. Board-game aficionados often speak of two schools of design, named after their typical continents of origin: the Eurogame, where a fairly small number of moving parts is carefully tuned for a perfectly coherent, perfectly balanced, Neoclassical experience; and the “Ameritrash” game, which is distinguished by its Romantic exuberance in throwing everything but the kitchen sink into the mix, just to see what will happen. It’s hopefully clear by now that Master of Magic is very much the latter sort of game. While there are whole worlds of emergent strategy to be found in all of its variety, there are also moments of friction when things don’t quite gel.

The most disappointingly half-baked aspect of Master of Magic is, perhaps not coincidentally, its one feature that actually was lifted wholesale from Master of Orion: its diplomatic model. You communicate with the other wizards here just as you do the leaders of the other alien races in the older game, but it’s harder to divine why you should do so. In some circumstances, it’s possible to win a game of Master of Orion without ever firing a shot in anger, by persuading your counterparts to vote you into supremacy via clever diplomacy. Master of Magic, however, lacks any equivalent victory condition; the only way to win here is to wipe out your foes. This fact turns your negotiations over treaties and favors into an even more cynical exercise than it is in Master of Orion; it’s a foregone conclusion that absolutely everyone is only playing for time before unsheathing their trusty daggers for the backstab. Further, there’s little ultimate point to all of your diplomatic contortions. Any opposing wizard who agrees to a peace treaty is probably weak enough that you can defeat her in war, or is just trying to milk a little bit more tribute out of you before she declares war on you three turns later. There’s very little reason to ever even initiate diplomatic relations, other than perhaps to trade for a spell you have an urgent need for. I know that I tend to ignore diplomacy entirely, and have never felt overly disadvantaged by it — a statement one could never make about Master of Orion. When playing Master of Magic, I do sometimes find myself missing the intricate dance of negotiation in Master of Orion, which can be as exciting as any space battle — but then, Master of Magic is, as I’ve already noted, a very different game.

Those who’ve played Master of Orion will find this menu very familiar. Alas, it’s used to far less compelling effect here.

One consequence of your inability to schmooze your way to victory is a drawn-out endgame, a problem all too typical of these types of grand-strategy games which Master of Orion manages to deftly avoid thanks to its Galactic Council. There comes a point in every game of Master of Magic when you know you’re going to win — or the opposite. Assuming it’s to be the former, everything becomes a bit rote from that point on, even as conquering those last pesky cities of your enemies can be quite time-consuming. Although you can win by advancing all the way up the spell-research tree and casting the “Spell of Mastery” instead of wiping out all of your opponents militarily — this is the game’s equivalent of blasting off for Alpha Centauri in Civilization — that process is even more time-consuming. And because all of the enemy wizards rush to attack you with everything they have as soon as you start to research the Spell of Mastery, your game is still guaranteed to end in genocidal total war.

Master of Magic also runs afoul of another typical problem of its genre which its predecessor mostly manages to sidestep: the micromanagement bugbear. Most players develop a consistent pattern for building up their cities early on, one which they vary only under special circumstances. While the game does offer a “vizier” who can manage your cities for you, his choices tend to be hopelessly nonsensical. A way of setting up building queues in advance for each city, coupled ideally with a default queue you could define for yourself, would have been a wonderful addition. As it is, you’re in for an awful lot of busywork in the later stages of building your fantasy empire.

One final area of the game that’s frequently singled out for criticism is the artificial intelligence of your opponents, which leaves a lot to be desired. In the grand tradition of Civilization and Master of Orion, cranking up the difficulty level doesn’t make the other wizards smarter; as far as I can determine, it doesn’t actually change their set behaviors at all. What it does do is cheat on their behalf ever more egregiously, by giving them bigger and bigger production bonuses. Many understandably find this solution to the problem of making the game challenging for the veteran player to be less than ideal.

Still, a recent development in the small but surprisingly active world of ongoing Master of Magic fandom provides an object lesson in being careful what you wish for. Just this year, a group of fans, working in association with the current owners of the game’s intellectual property, released Caster of Magic, a comprehensive patch/expansion that, among many other things, dramatically upgrades the artificial intelligence. Personally, I find it no fun whatsoever, and I’ve heard many others say the same thing. Playing against its smart, ruthless, ultra-agressive enemy wizards only served to clarify for me what I really enjoy about Master of Magic: exploring the worlds, building up my units and heroes, researching and trying out new spells. For me, it’s as much experiential CRPG as zero-sum strategy game. If I could add something to the game, it would be more diverse encounter areas, possibly with elements of story to them, to further emphasize these qualities. This is not to say that you’re wrong to play in a different way, wrong to enjoy the game for other reasons; certainly there are many who love what Caster of Magic does to the game. It does, however, serve to illustrate that the field of ludic artificial intelligence, which is so often characterized as simply the struggle to make the computer play just like a human, becomes more complicated than that formulation just as soon as it collides with real-world game design.

Caster of Magic is in fact merely the latest example of a long tradition of patching Master of Magic, stemming from the fact that the game as originally released desperately needed all the patching it could get. Both before and after their acquisition by Spectrum Holobyte in 1993, MicroProse was among the publishers most prone to ship games before their time in response to external financial pressures. As one of the company’s big titles for the Christmas of 1994, Master of Magic fell victim to this unfortunate tendency. In yet another marked contrast to Master of Orion, Steve Barcia’s second grand-strategy game shipped so riddled with bugs that it was essentially unplayable; the game crashed more often than not during battles. (“Save every turn, save before every battle, save every time you can,” became the player’s rule of thumb as summarized by Computer Gaming World.) A series of patches gradually solved the worst of the issues, but there remain to this day spells in the game that don’t quite work correctly. Master of Magic could have used its own incarnations of Alan Emrich and Tom Hughes, the two outsiders who took an early interest in Master of Orion during its development and offered so much feedback and practical advice over the months that followed that co-designer credits wouldn’t have been out of order. Failing that, just a few more months in the oven and a round or two of proper testing could have done much for it.

Although its overall reception was gravely impacted by its unconscionable state at the time of its release, a small group of players fell in love with the game for its crazy multitudinousness and kept its memory alive for years, then decades. They did so not least because Master of Magic became the opposite of Master of Orion in one final, supremely ironic way: whereas Master of Orion spawned about a thousand 4X rule-the-galaxy copycats of varying degrees of quality, nobody else has ever done a game quite like Master of Magic. The year after it appeared, New World Computing released Heroes of Might and Magic, a superficially similar blending of strategy and CRPG elements, but one that was dramatically different in the details: it was a more tightly focused effort, with pre-crafted maps in place of randomly generated worlds, a modest but carefully tuned suite of spells and creatures in place of a decadent cornucopia of same, and a multi-mission story-oriented campaign in place of a wide-open sandbox to play in. When Heroes of Might and Magic — admittedly, a superb game in its own right — became the hit that Master of Magic had not, it became the model for fantasy strategy games going forward.

So, Master of Magic remains a unique experience to this day. While it’s definitely no paragon of balanced game design, its rambunctious riot of possibility ensures that it stays interesting over the long term; this is one quality that it certainly does share with Master of Orion. In fact, I like to play Master of Magic just like I play that game: I throw the dice to set up the parameters of my world, my wizard, and my minions, and then have at it, assured that, whatever awaits me, it will be completely different from the last time I played. That’s the kind of variety that can keep you playing a game forever.

Each race has its own set of city names. Those of the barbarians are real-world German cities — including Flensburg, where my wife grew up. What’s up with that?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of September 1994, December 1994, January 1995, May 1995, and October 1995; PC Gamer of January 1995; Electronic Entertainment of January 1995; Computer Player of February 1995; Next Generation of January 1995; InfoWorld of December 1994; Interactive Entertainment CD-ROM of October 1994 and November 1994; Hyper of June 1995.

Master of Magic is available for digital purchase at GOG.com.)

 

 
 

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Transport Tycoon

Anyone who has followed the career of the British game developer Chris Sawyer down through the years knows that he prefers to go his own way. This was true from the very beginning.

In 1980, when Sawyer was fourteen years old, Sinclair Research subcontracted out the manufacture of the ZX80 — the cheap microcomputer that was about to take all of Britain by storm — to the Timex plant located in his hometown of Dundee, Scotland. From that moment on, Dundee was a Sinclair town. And small wonder: by 1983, with the cheap and cheerful Sinclair Spectrum pushing Britain toward the status of the most computer-mad nation on earth on a per-capita basis, the house that Uncle Clive built had become a significant part of the city’s economy. Half of the Dundee kids who were interested in computers seemed to have gotten jobs at the Timex plant, while the other half had just gotten Speccys for their living rooms.

Sawyer was no less fascinated with computers than his peers, but he was also a dyed-in-the-wool iconoclast. Just as the Spectrum boom was nearing its peak, he saved up his money to buy… a Camputers Lynx, one of those oddball also-rans of the 1980s which are remembered only by collectors today. And when it became clear that this first computer of his was destined for orphandom, he chose to invest in a Memotech MTX, another doomed machine.

His strange taste in hardware proved a blessing in disguise. With very little software available for the likes of a Lynx or MTX, Sawyer was forced to learn how to make his own fun, forced to become a programmer of games rather than a mere player of them. He would read about a game for another, more popular platform in a magazine, look carefully at the screenshots thereof, and make his own version that played as he imagined the original must.

One day in 1984, Sawyer’s chemistry teacher called him aside. Knowing that his student liked to program, the teacher showed him a newspaper article he had clipped out, telling how another local boy had made £1000 selling his games. Sawyer was inspired. By the time he moved to Glasgow to attend university in the fall of that year, he had made contact with Memotech themselves, who were eager for software of any stripe for their struggling machine. Absolutely no one — least of all the soon-to-be-bankrupt Memotech — got rich off the MTX, but Sawyer did make enough money to buy a printer and floppy-disk drive.

Even after Memotech bit the dust, he continued to go his own way as stubbornly as ever. Instead of a Commodore Amiga or Atari ST like his friends were buying, he scraped together the last of his Memotech earnings to buy an Amstrad MS-DOS machine, another definite minority taste at the time among gamers in Britain.

Once again, though, the road less traveled proved advantageous. In need of a job just after graduating from university, he contacted Jacqui Lyons, a former literary agent who had made a spectacular debut as Britain’s first ever software agent when she auctioned off to the highest bidder the porting rights to Ian Bell and David Braben’s game Elite, a sensation on the BBC Micro that went on to become the British game of its decade, thanks not least to her efforts. Now, Sawyer learned from her that the British industry had need for MS-DOS specialists — not so much for the domestic or even continental European market, but in order to bring its games to American shores, where MS-DOS was fast becoming the biggest platform of them all. Thus Lyons gave Sawyer a contract to port StarRay, an enhanced version of the old arcade classic Defender, from the Amiga to MS-DOS (the end result would be published in the United States as Revenge of Defender). When that went well, he was entrusted with the MS-DOS port of Virus, the long-awaited second game from David Braben himself.

Sawyer spent the next five years doing yet more ports. He worked alone from his Scottish home, evincing already the reclusive tendencies that would eventually get him labelled one of gaming’s greatest “enigmas,” whilst building a reputation for speed and efficiency that would also never desert him. He was arguably better versed in the tricky art of Intel assembly language than any other person in the British games industry; he refused to write in a high-level language, a resolve he has stayed true to to this day. “I enjoyed the work and it paid well,” he remembers, “though I became very frustrated that often I was unable to finish a contract because I’d caught up with the original game’s programmer and had to wait for him before I could convert the remainder of the game. My solution was to take on two conversions at the same time.” He developed a particularly good relationship with Braben, becoming the only programmer besides himself to which the latter was willing to entrust the hallowed name of Elite. In 1991, Sawyer coded Elite Plus, an enhanced version of the game for the latest MS-DOS machines; he then ported Frontier: Elite II, its belated, ambitious, and ultimately underwhelming sequel, to MS-DOS in 1993.

Up to this point, Chris Sawyer had been widely and fairly judged as a technician rather than a creative force. The teenager who had cloned games he had never actually seen from magazine reviews seemed every bit the father of the man who still earned his living by making other people’s games look and play as well as possible on alternative hardware. But now came the great leap that would elevate his name into the firmament where lived the superstars of British game development — names like David Braben, Peter Molyneux, and David Jones (another product of the tech-obsessed city of Dundee, as it happened). Sawyer may have been a late arrival, but in the final reckoning he would outshine all of them in terms of the sheer quantity of pounds his games brought in.

As so often happens when you look closely at such things, Sawyer’s inexplicable dizzying leap into original game design is perhaps less inexplicable or dizzying than it first appears. Certainly his first masterstroke wasn’t made from whole cloth. It sprouted rather from the fertile soil of Railroad Tycoon from MicroProse Software, Sid Meier’s brilliant 1990 game of railroad logistics and Gilded Age financial warfare. Sawyer:

I was fascinated with Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon game. I played it for hours and hours; it was definitely my favorite game at the time. The viewpoint was just an overhead 2D map, though, and I wondered whether [an] isometric viewpoint would be better, and if other modes of transport should be included. I was inspired.

So, while he was waiting for his better-known colleagues to send him the next chunks of their own games for conversion to MS-DOS, Sawyer began to tinker. By the time Elite II was wrapping up, he had an ugly but working demo of an enhanced version of Railroad Tycoon which did indeed shift the viewpoint from vertically overhead to isometric. “I decided to devote all my time to the game for a few months and see what developed,” he says. He convinced a talented free-lance artist named Simon Foster, who was already an established name in commercial graphics but was looking to break into games, to provide illustrations, even as he made the bold decision to step up to cutting-edge SVGA graphics, at more than twice the resolution of standard VGA. At the end of that few months, he was more convinced than ever that he had a winner on his hands: “Even people who didn’t normally play computer games would sit for hours on end, totally engrossed in building railway lines, routing trains, and making as much profit as possible.” He soon made his train simulator into an all-encompassing transportation simulator, adding trucks and buses, ships and ferries, airplanes and even helicopters.

The choice of publisher was obvious. Jacqui Lyons connected him with MicroProse’s British office, who immediately saw the potential for marketing the game as a pseudo-sequel to Railroad Tycoon; thus it was agreed that it would be known as Transport Tycoon. It shipped under that name in Europe and North America in time for the Christmas of 1994. And just like that, Chris Sawyer’s days of toiling as an anonymous porter were behind him, as he took his place among the stars. His elevation was richly deserved based on his game’s surface qualities alone.



Indeed, its groundbreaking interface is as good a place as any to begin to sing Transport Tycoon‘s praises. Any long-running, in-depth historical project such as this one of mine winds up becoming a form of time travel for its propagator, who comes to live a part of his life in the past which he studies. The fact is, I just don’t have much time to play modern games that aren’t on the syllabus. My near-complete immersion in ludic antiquity means that I get some sense of how these old games must have looked to the people who saw them for the first time. When I fired up Transport Tycoon after years of playing VGA games sporting interfaces that were technically mouse-driven but still lacking most of the flexibility we’ve come to expect from a modern GUI, my jaw dropped to the proverbial floor. Transport Tycoon plays, looks, and even sounds completely different from any of its peers of 1994.

Transport Tycoon

But no need to take my word for it: Julian Gollop, the mind behind the iconic X-Com series, happened to visit MicroProse while the folks there were playing around with a pre-release version of Transport Tycoon. He describes it as looking “awesomely sophisticated” in comparison to anything else on the market: “Especially the interface, because he [Sawyer] had essentially programmed his own Windows-style interface on top of DOS, which in itself must have been quite a lot of effort, let alone making the actual game. The X-Com interface was incredibly primitive by comparison.”

Windows, windows everywhere. All of them are dynamically updated in real time, all of them are interactive, and all of them can be dragged where you will.

As Gollop notes, Transport Tycoon‘s interface is built around windows which you can open and close whenever you wish and drag around the screen to wherever you want them. All of these windows are updated in real time. If you bring up a view of a vehicle, you see it going about its business there in its window, moving through the same world that fills the screen behind it. Bring up ten vehicles, and you can watch all of them at once with a little judicious clicking and dragging. Click on a certain icon in any of those windows, and the main view jumps to the location of that vehicle. In the context of its time, all of this is absolutely stunning.

But we should step back now and cover the basics. Transport Tycoon presents 100 years of shipping — by railroad, by road, by sea, and by air — stretching from 1930 until 2030. It plays in real time, but is nevertheless a sedately paced, even relaxing affair on the whole. You begin with a modest bank loan and a map full of cities, factories, and natural resources craving connection, and go from there. Up to seven computer opponents can join you, or you can play with another human via a modem link-up, but competition isn’t the real heart of the game’s appeal. No, the core appeal — the thing that will bring you back to it over and over — is laying out your transportation network as efficiently as possible, then sitting back to watch it in action. You need to raise and lower land at times, build tunnels and bridges at others. You need to see to the signals on your railroad to ensure that traffic moves briskly but safely. And of course you need to purchase the vehicles themselves and assign them their routes. It’s almost indescribably satisfying to watch your network in action, just as it’s almost impossible to resist tweaking it constantly to squeeze that much more efficiency out of it. Transport Tycoon is a software toy of the highest order, as well as a series of endlessly intriguing spatial puzzles. (How can I get from Point A to Point B most effectively when I’ve already built all this other stuff in between?)

As with Railroad Tycoon, the economy of the world in Transport Tycoon is to at least some extent linked to your actions as a transportation mogul. And also as in Railroad Tycoon, subsidies will occasionally pop up to bring attention to under-served places. (These windows too are interactive. Clicking them once brings you to the first location mentioned; twice brings you to the second. The interface never ceases to amaze.) Hardcore puzzlers can take the subsidies as challenges; these places have often remained unlinked because getting between them is hard for one reason or another.

For all the obvious and acknowledged inspiration of Railroad Tycoon, Transport Tycoon gradually reveals a very different personality. Whereas Sid Meier’s game is at least as much a cutthroat business simulation as a model-railroad set, Chris Sawyer’s really is all about its busy little vehicles, lacking the stock trading of the earlier game or even its rate wars. Here you compete with your opponents for the choicest spots on which to built stations and terminals, and try to serve your mutual customers better so as to win more of their business, but none of it ever feels quite so life-or-death. This is a much more easygoing experience.

Unlike Railroad Tycoon with its maps based on different regions of the real world, Transport Tycoon take place in a landscape of the imagination — more specifically, the computer’s imagination; each new map is randomly generated. This makes its relationship to real history that much more attenuated. Although its timeline covers some decidedly fraught decades in our world, wars are never fought in its, and crises of any stripe are unheard of. Big-picture circumstances never change at all beyond more and more people needing to haul both themselves and more and more of their stuff from place to place.

Pleasantness is an underrated quality in games, as it perhaps is in people, but it’s one that Transport Tycoon has in spades. After a long stressful day, watching this bustling but orderly little world is a nice way to unwind, even if you’re not actually doing all that much. This was by design; Sawyer says that he consciously created “something that was fun to watch as well as rewarding to play.” Simon Foster’s graphics are the perfect compromise between clarity and detail. Nothing is static; everything in the environment, not just the vehicles that drive through it, is moving, changing, developing. Buildings go up before your eyes, towns expand, crops appear and then disappear on the farms as you haul them away, forests grow and are cut and grow again. Meanwhile John Broomhall, MicroProse’s long-serving in-house composer, outdoes himself with a jazzy soundtrack that screams mid-century Americana. Despite the game’s British origins, the whole experience evokes that time of boundless American optimism and prosperity before the costs of Progress became clear, back when better living and heavy industry were synonymous. It’s a soothing balm to our current disillusioned, pandemic-addled souls.



Then again, Transport Tycoon needs every ounce of good will it can generate — because, taken purely as a piece of zero-sum game design, it’s horribly, hopelessly broken. Pretty much none of the mechanisms that surround the core simulation engine — the things that ostensibly make Transport Tycoon into a proper game rather than just a software toy — work properly.

The drawn-out length of the thing is a good starting point for a discussion of its flaws. Transport Tycoon runs at only one speed; there is no fast-forward function. By my calculation, playing through the full 100 years would take you somewhere north of 30 hours if you never paused it at all in order to plan your construction projects. This is problematic in itself; some other, shorter options for playing a complete game would hardly have gone amiss. Yet it’s made worse because the rest of the game just isn’t set up to support such an extended length.

There’s a limit of 40 trains, 80 road vehicles, 50 ships, and 80 airplanes in the game. If you’re expanding with any degree of energy whatsoever, you’ll begin to hit those limits before you’re a third of the way in. After this, all you can do is optimize to take advantage of the newer vehicles which allow you to haul more stuff more quickly. But there’s nothing that compels you to do so beyond the siren song of your inner perfectionist because the economy is completely broken. Your finances might be mildly challenged during the first few years of a game of Transport Tycoon, especially if you choose the Hard difficulty level, but after that you have all the money in the world; you couldn’t go bankrupt if you tried.

This effectively infinite bankroll makes cost-benefit analysis meaningless, causing what ought to be interesting dilemmas — the meat of a good strategy game — to become moot. Consider: you need to run a railroad line over some very uneven terrain in order to connect a farm to a factory. In theory, you should be forced to balance the delays caused by steep grades on a track against the considerable cost of raising and lowering land to avoid them. In practice, though, you need do no such thing: money is flowing like water, so you just flatten out the land without giving it a second thought. Or: you need to choose which locomotive to employ for a vital but short jaunt between two neighboring cities. In theory, you should contemplate whether buying the latest 120-mile-per-hour silver streak of an engine is really worth the money on a local commuter route like this one, where the train will spend as much time loading and unloading in the station as traveling. In practice, though, you just buy the silver streak, because why not? What else are you going to do with your money?

Transport Tycoon likes to present itself as a hardcore business simulation. Don’t believe it for a second.

And as for the competition… oh, my. Your computer opponents succeed only in annoying the heck out of you with their epic stupidity; they’re forever building absurd Gordian knots of roads and rails that go absolutely nowhere, inadvertently blocking you from reaching the places that you actually need to get to. Building your way around their mess is a challenge of a sort, to be sure, but not a very satisfying one in that it demolishes any semblance of the clean, efficient networks that are such a pleasure to watch in action. Like a lot of players, I usually just turn the computer opponents off completely so I can concentrate on my own logistical works of art. The only way to get a really enjoyable competitive game out of Transport Tycoon is presumably to connect two computers, each with a real human behind the screen. (Unfortunately, I was never able to test that side of the game myself, as getting such a link-up working in DOSBox today is a tall order indeed.)

The artificial “intelligence” of your computer opponents provides the most vivid demonstration this side of a populist politician of what happens when extreme ambition collides with extreme incompetence. Its stupidity has become so legendary that at least one web page is devoted to showcasing the best or worst — depending on how you look at it — of its roads to nowhere.

Beginning about twenty years in, maintenance begins to annoy you even more than the computer players. Every vehicle in the game has a service life which, once exceeded, results in a constant stream of schedule-destroying breakdowns. It’s an interesting mechanic in theory, but utter tedium in practice. When you get a message that a vehicle is getting old, you have to manually send it to the nearest depot, wait for it to arrive, and then manually replace it with a newer version. There’s nothing fun or challenging about doing so; nor, what with all the money you’ve banked by this point, are there any financial concerns to balance. It’s just pure busywork. Not coincidentally, it’s right when vehicles start to age out of service that I tend to bail on most of my games of Transport Tycoon — and, if anecdotal evidence is any guide, I’m far from alone in that. If you become one of the few to persevere, however, you’ll eventually reach the late stages, where you get to contemplate manually pulling up all of your railroad tracks to replace them with monorail tracks. This is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it would be.

The end of a century of Transport Tycoon — a screen shockingly few players ever see.

Recluse that he is, Chris Sawyer has given very few in-depth interviews over the course of his career. He did, however, talk with Retro Gamer magazine at some length in 2015. I was particularly intrigued by one thing he said there, in response to a question about how much input MicroProse had in shaping the finished Transport Tycoon: “I think they did suggest some changes, but few made it into the game — either it wasn’t possible to do what they wanted or I was too stubborn!” I do have to wonder if those rejected suggestions might have fixed some of the game’s obvious, fundamental issues. But then again, the all-important Christmas deadline was just as likely the real determiner. MicroProse was one of the publishers most prone to releasing games before their time, and Transport Tycoon actually reached stores in far better shape than many of their other games.

A game with as many fundamental design issues as this one has shouldn’t be recommendable. And yet I find Transport Tycoon impossible not to like, much less to hate. The presentation is just so slick and charming, and building out your transportation infrastructure is just so soothing and satisfying, that the game transcends its faults for me, blows a hole through all of the critical facilities which tell me that a game needs to succeed as a whole to receive the label of classic. In fact, it leaves me in what feels perilously close to an ethical dilemma, as my critic’s brain wrestles with my player’s heart. The closest point of comparison I can offer is a game that is as different as can be from Transport Tycoon in most other ways: the CRPG Ultima VII. Please bear with me while I engage in the supreme arrogance of quoting myself:

Classic games, it seems to me, can be plotted on a continuum between two archetypes. At one pole are the games which do everything right — those whose designers, faced with a multitude of small and large choices, have made the right choice every time. Ultima Underworld, the spinoff game which Origin released just two weeks before Ultima VII, is one of these.

The other archetypal classic game is much rarer: the game whose designers have made a lot of really problematic choices, to the point that certain parts of it may be flat-out broken, but which nevertheless charms and delights due to some ineffable spirit that overshadows everything else. Ultima VII is the finest example of this type that I can think of. Its list of trouble spots is longer than that of many genuinely bad games, and yet its special qualities are so special that I can only recommend that you play it.

The special qualities of Transport Tycoon are special enough to yield the same recommendation. Most games focus on destruction in one way or another; the designer presents you with a complete, functioning system, and then you go through and tear it all down. How wonderful to be able instead to point at a smoothly humming thing of beauty on the screen and know that you built that.



So, the superlative reviews that followed Transport Tycoon‘s release were perhaps justified in spite of it all. “If you like the kind of ‘toying around’ and micromanagement offered by SimCity,” wrote Computer Gaming World magazine, “you might find that your romantic partners will split up with you, you will lose your job, your pets will starve, your computer will overheat, and you won’t even notice.” PC Gamer, the emerging populist rival to that older, more high-toned magazine, simply said that Transport Tycoon was “as good as PC gaming gets.” Edge magazine in Britain wrote that “it’s clear that Railroad Tycoon was a mere rehearsal. Transport Tycoon takes open-ended strategy games a giant step further.”

The game proved popular enough that MicroProse released a modestly enhanced Transport Tycoon Deluxe the following year, with optional fixed instead of randomly generated maps, with an editor for making your own versions of same, with new environments (arctic, tropical, or the ultra-whimsical Toy Land), and with some tweaks to gameplay (railroad signals grew somewhat more complex and flexible, and the timeline was shifted twenty years forward to run from 1950 to 2050, with a correspondingly more futuristic selection of vehicles on offer by the end). Rather bizarrely, however, no effort was made to fix the game’s fundamental issues of poor artificial intelligence, too much busywork, a broken economy, and an over-extended play time. In this sense, the deluxe edition was a colossal missed opportunity. Transport Tycoon is a really fun game even with all of its infelicities; without them, it could have been a staggeringly great one.

Indeed, Transport Tycoon‘s peculiar combination of fascination and frustration caused it to become one of those games that players felt a compulsion to somehow fix. Ten years worth of fan-made patches and tweaks finally yielded in 2004 to the first release of OpenTTD, an open-source clone of the game. The latter has continued to receive updates ever since, and has joined the likes of FreeCiv and NetHack as a staple of what we might call “hacker gaming.” As such, it evinces both the typical advantages and disadvantages of its species. A huge array of options and add-ons is available to correct every one of the problems I’ve outlined above and then some, but the process of choosing the right ones and putting them all together can be daunting, enough so as to drive away the player who just wants a fun, balanced game that plays well right out of the (virtual) box.

But enough of that; this is intended to be a review of the original Transport Tycoon rather than its later incarnations. In any such review, the obvious point of comparison remains its inspiration of Railroad Tycoon. This fact is not always to Transport Tycoon‘s benefit: it cannot be denied that the older game is also the more fully-realized. There are many reasons to prefer it: its carefully honed balance, the verisimilitude provided by its deeper connection to real history, its slightly more advanced train management (I dearly miss in Transport Tycoon the ability to change your trains’ consists automatically at stations), the fact that you can reasonably expect to finish a single game in an evening or two. And yet there’s something to be said as well for Transport Tycoon‘s more easygoing personality and more pronounced sandbox flavor, not to mention its groundbreaking interface and delightful aesthetic presentation. If I had to choose one, the critic and the pedant in me would demand that I take Railroad Tycoon. But luckily, we don’t really have to choose, do we?

(Sources: Computer Gaming World of October 1991 and March 1995; Edge of December 1993, February 1994, and February 1995; Electronic Entertainment of March 1995; Retro Gamer 4, 8, 58, 74, 98, and 138. Online sources include a Wired profile of Chris Sawyer and a EuroGamer interview with him, as well as his own home page.

Transport Tycoon has never received a digital re-release. I therefore take the liberty of hosting a version here that’s ready to run; just add the Windows, Macintosh, or Linux version of DOSBox. Do note, however, that most modern players prefer OpenTTD, which is free in all senses of the word.)

 
 

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X-COM

X-COM seemed to come out of nowhere. Its release was not preceded by an enormous marketing campaign with an enormous amount of hype. It had no video demo playing in the front window of Babbages, it wasn’t advertised twelve months in advance on glossy foldout magazine inserts, it had no flashing point-of-purchase kiosks. It didn’t come in a box designed by origamists from the school of abstract expressionism. It featured no full-motion video starring the best TV actors of the 80s; it had no voice-overs. It offered neither Super VGA graphics, nor General MIDI support. It wasn’t Doom-like, Myst-like, or otherwise like a hit game from the previous season; it didn’t steal the best features from several other successful games. It wasn’t even on a CD-ROM!

In short, if you plugged X-COM’s variables into the “success formula” currently in use by the majority of large game companies, you’d come up with a big, fat goose egg. According to the prevailing wisdom, there’s no way X-COM could survive in today’s gaming marketplace. And yet it sold and sold, and gamers played on and on.

— Chris Lombardi, writing in the April 1995 issue of Computer Gaming World

In the early days of game development, there existed little to no separation between the roles of game programmer and game designer. Those stalwart pioneers who programmed the games they themselves designed could be grouped into two broad categories, depending on the side from which they entered the field. There were the technologists, who were fascinated first and foremost with the inner workings of computers, and chose games as the most challenging, creatively satisfying type of software to which they could apply their talents. And then there were those who loved games themselves above all else, and learned to program computers strictly in order to make better, more exciting ones than could be implemented using only paper, cardboard, and the players’ imaginations. Julian Gollop, the mastermind behind the legendary original X-COM, fell most definitely into this latter category. He turned to the computer only when the games he wanted to make left him no other choice.

Growing up in the English county of Essex, Julian and his younger brother Nick lived surrounded by games, courtesy of their father. “Every Christmas, we didn’t watch TV, we’d play games endlessly,” Julian says. From Cluedo, they progressed to Escape from Colditz, then on to the likes of Sniper! and Squad Leader.

Julian turned fifteen in 1980, the year that the Sinclair ZX80 arrived to set off a microcomputer fever all across Britain, but he was initially immune to the affliction. Unimpressed by the simplistic games he saw being implemented on those early machines, which often had as little as 1 K of memory, he started making his own designs to be played the old-fashioned way, face-to-face around a tabletop. It was only when he hit a wall of complexity with one of them that he reassessed the potential of computers.

The game in question was called Time Lords; as the name would imply, it was based on the Doctor Who television serials. It asked two to five players to travel through time and space and alter the course of history to their advantage, but grew so complex that it came to require an additional person to serve in the less-than-rewarding capacity of referee.

By this point, it was 1982, and a friend of Julian’s named Andy Greene had acquired one of the first BBC Micros. Its relatively cavernous 32 K of memory opened up the possibility of using the computer as a referee instead of a bored human. Greene coded up the program in BASIC, staying faithful to Julian’s board game to the extent of demanding that players leave the room when it wasn’t their turn, so as not to see anything they weren’t supposed to of their opponents’ actions. The owner of the tabletop-games store where Julian shopped was so impressed with the result that he founded a new company, Red Shift Games, in order to publish it. They all traveled to computer fairs together, carrying copies of the computerized Time Lords packaged in Ziploc baggies. The game didn’t take the world by storm — Personal Computer News, one of the few publications to review it, pronounced it a “bored game” instead of a board game — but it was a start.

The two friends next made Islandia, another multiplayer strategy game of a similar stripe. In the meantime, Julian acquired a Sinclair Spectrum, the cheap and cheerful little machine destined to drive British computer gaming for the next half-decade. Having now a strong motivation to learn to program it, Julian did just that. His first self-coded game, and his first on the Spectrum, appeared in 1984 in the form of Nebula, a conquer-the-galaxy exercise that for the first time offered a computer opponent to play against.

The artificial intelligence disappeared again from his next game, but it mattered not at all. Rebelstar Raiders was the prototype for Julian Gollop’s most famous work. In contrast to the big-picture strategy of his earlier games, it focused on individual soldiers in conflict with one another in a Starship Troopers-like science-fictional milieu. Still, it was very much based on the board games he loved; there was a lot of Sniper! and Squad Leader in its turn-based design. Despite being such a cerebral game, despite being one that you couldn’t even play without a mate to hand, it attracted considerable attention. Red Shift faded out of existence shortly thereafter as its owner lost interest in the endeavor, but Rebelstar Raiders had already made Julian’s reputation, such that other publishers were now knocking at his door.

Rebelstar Raiders, the first of Julian Gollop’s turn-based tactical-combat games. Ten years later, the approach would culminate in X-COM.

It must have been a thrill for Julian Gollop the board-game fanatic when Games Workshop, the leading British publisher of hobbyist tabletop games, signed him to make a computer game for their new — if ultimately brief-lived — digital division. Chaos, a spell-slinging fantasy free-for-all ironically based to some extent on a Games Workshop board game known as Warlock — not that Julian told them that! — didn’t sell as well as Rebelstar Raiders, although it has since become something of a cult classic.

So, understandably, Julian went where the market was. Between 1986 and 1988, he produced three more iterations on the Rebelstar Raiders concept, each boasting computer opponents as well as multiplayer options and each elaborating further upon the foundation of its predecessor. Game designers are a bit like authors in some ways. Some authors — like, say, Margaret Atwood — try their hands at a wide variety of genres and approaches, while others — like, say, John Cheever — compulsively sift through the same material in search of new nuggets of insight. Julian became, in the minds of the British public at least, an example of the Cheever type of designer. “It could be said by the cruelest among us that Julian has only ever written one game,” wrote the magazine New Computer Express in 1990, “but has released various substantially enhanced versions of it over the years.”

Of those enhanced versions, Julian published Rebelstar and Rebelstar 2: Alien Encounter through Firebird as a lone-wolf developer, then published Laser Squad through a small outfit known as Blaze Software. Before he made this last game, he founded a company called Target Games — soon to be renamed to the less generic Mythos Games — with his father as silent partner and his brother Nick in an active role; the latter had by now become an accomplished programmer in his own right, in fact surpassing Julian’s talents in that area. In 1990, the brothers made the Chaos sequel Lords of Chaos together in order to prove to the likes of New Computer Express that Julian was at least a two-trick pony. And then came the series of events that would lead to Julian Gollop, whose games were reasonably popular in Britain but virtually unknown elsewhere, becoming one of the acknowledged leading lights of strategy gaming all over the world.



The road to X-COM traveled through the terrain of happenstance rather than any master plan. Julian’s career-defining project started as Laser Squad 2 in spirit and even in name, the next manifestation of his ongoing obsession with small-scale, turn-based, single-unit tactics. The big leap forward this time was to be an isometric viewpoint, adding an element of depth to the battlefield. He and Nick coded a proof of concept on an Atari ST. While they were doing so, Blaze Software disappeared, yet another ephemeral entity in a volatile industry. Now, the brothers needed a new publisher for their latest game.

Both of them had been playing hours and hours of Railroad Tycoon, from the American publisher MicroProse. Knowing that MicroProse had a British branch, they decided to take their demo there first. It was a bold move in its way; as I’ve already noted, their games were popular in their sphere, but had mostly borne the imprints of smaller publishers and had mostly been sold at cheaper price points. MicroProse was a different animal entirely, carrying with it the cachet that still clung in Europe to American games, with their bigger budgets and higher production values. In their quiet English way, the Gollops were making a bid for the big leagues.

Luckily for them, MicroProse’s British office was far more than just a foreign adjunct to the American headquarters. It was a dynamic, creative place in its own right, which took advantage of the laissez-faire attitude of “Wild” Bill Stealey, MicroProse’s flamboyant fly-boy founder, to blaze its own trails. When the Gollops brought in the nascent Laser Squad 2, they were gratified to find that just about everyone at MicroProse UK already knew of them and their games. Peter Moreland, the head of development, was cautiously interested, but with plenty of caveats. For one thing, they would need to make the game on MS-DOS rather than the Atari ST in order to reach the American market. For another, a small-scale tactical-combat game alone wouldn’t be sufficient — wouldn’t be, he said, “MicroProse enough.” After making their name in the 1980s with Wild Bill’s beloved flight simulators, MicroProse was becoming at least as well known in this incipient new decade for grand-strategy games of or in the spirit of their star designer Sid Meier, like the aforementioned Railroad Tycoon and the soon-to-be-released Civilization. The emphasis here was on the “grand.” A Laser Squad 2 just wouldn’t be big enough for MicroProse.

Finally, Moreland wasn’t thrilled by all these far-future soldiers fighting battles in unknown regions of space for reasons that were abstract at best. Who could really relate to any of that? He wanted something more down to earth — literally. Maybe something to do with alien visitors in UFOs… that sort of thing. Julian nodded along, then went home to do some research and refine his proposal.

He quickly learned that he was living in the midst of a fecund period in the peculiar field of UFOlogy. In 1989, a sketchy character named Bob Lazar had given an interview for a Las Vegas television station in which he claimed to have been employed as a civilian contractor at the top-secret Nevada military base known only as Area 51. In that location, so he said, the American Air Force was actively engaged in testing fantastic technologies derived from extraterrestrial visitors. The interview would go down in history as the wellspring of a whole generation of starry-eyed conspiracy theorists, whose outlandish beliefs would soon enter the popular media zeitgeist via such vehicles as the television series The X-Files. When Julian first investigated the subject in 1991, however, UFOs and aliens were still a fairly underground obsession. Nevertheless, he took much from the early lore and legends of Area 51, such as a supposed new chemical element — called ununpentium by Lazar, elerium by the eventual game — which powered the aliens’ spaceships.

His other major source of inspiration was the 1970 British television series entitled simply UFO. In fact, his game would eventually be released as UFO: Enemy Unknown in Europe, capitalizing on the association with a show that a surprising number of people there still remembered. (I’ve chosen to use the American name of X-COM globally in this article because all subsequent games in the franchise would be known all over the world under that name; it has long since become the iconic one.) UFO the television series takes place in the then-near-future of 1980, when aliens are visiting the Earth in ever-increasing numbers, abducting humans and wreaking more and more havoc. An international organization known as SHADO (“Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation”) has been formed to combat the menace. The show follows the exploits of the SHADO operatives, complete with outlandish “futuristic” costumes and sets and gloriously cheesy special effects. Gollop lifted this basic scenario and moved it to his own near-future: to the year 1999, thus managing to nail not only his decade’s burgeoning obsession with aliens but also its unease about the looming millennium.

The game is divided into two distinct halves — so much so that each half is almost literally an entirely separate game: each unloads itself completely from memory to run a separate executable file at the point of transition, caching on the hard drive before doing so the relatively small amount of state data which its companion needs to access.

The first part that you see is the strategic level. As the general in charge of the “Extra-Terrestrial Combat Force,” or X-COM — the name was suggested by Stephen Hand and Mike Brunton, two in-house design consultants at MicroProse UK — you must hire soldiers and buy equipment for them; research new technologies, a process which comes more and more to entail reverse-engineering captured alien artifacts in order to use your enemy’s own technology against them; build new bases at strategic locations around the world, as well as improve your existing ones (you start with just one modest base); and send your aircraft out to intercept the alien craft that are swarming the Earth. In keeping with the timeless logic of computer games, the countries of the Earth have chosen to make X-COM, the planet’s one real hope for defeating the alien menace, into a resource-constrained semi-capitalist enterprise; you’ll often need to sell gadgets you’ve manufactured or stolen from the aliens in order to make ends meet, and if you fail to perform well your sponsoring countries will cut their funding.

The “Geoscape” view, where you place your bases and use them to intercept airborne alien attackers. You can find a wealth of discussion online about where best to position your first base — but naturally, most people prefer to put it in their home town. Like the ability to name your individual soldiers, the ability to start right in your own backyard forges a personal connection between the game and its player.

This half of the game was a dizzying leap into uncharted territory for the Gollop brothers. Thankfully, then, they were on very familiar ground when it came to the other half: the half that kicks in when your airborne interceptors force a UFO to land, or when you manage to catch the aliens in the act of terrorizing some poor city, or when the aliens themselves attack one of your bases. Here you find yourself in what amounts to Laser Squad 2 in form and spirit if not in name: an ultra-detailed turn-based single-unit combat simulator, the latest version of a game which Julian Gollop had already made four times before. (Or close enough to it, at any rate: X-COM, the culmination of what had begun with Rebelstar Raiders on the Spectrum, is ironically single-player only, whereas that first game had not just allowed but required two humans to play.) Although the strategic layer sounds far more complex than this tactical layer — and, indeed, it is in certain ways — it’s actually the tactical game where you spend the majority of your time, fighting battles which can consume an entire evening each.

The “Battlescape” view, where tactical combat takes place.

For all their differences, the two halves of the game do interlock in the end as two facets of a whole. Your research efforts, equipment purchases, and hiring practices in the strategic half determine the nature of the force you lead into the tactical man-against-alien battles. Less obviously but just as significantly, your primary reward for said battles proves to be the recovery of alien equipment, alien corpses, and even live alien specimens (all is fair in love and genocidal interplanetary war), which you cart back to your bases to place at the disposal of your research teams. And so the symbiotic relationship continues: your researchers use what you recover as grist for their mill, which lets you go into tougher battles with better equipment to hand, thereby to bring back still richer spoils.

The capsule description of the finished game which I’ve just provided mirrors almost perfectly the proposal which Julian Gollop delivered to MicroProse; the design would change surprisingly little in the process of development. MicroProse thought it sounded just fine as-is.



The contract which the Gollops signed with MicroProse specified that the former would be responsible for all of the design and coding, while the latter would provide the visual and audio assets. MicroProse UK did hold up their end of the bargain, but had an oddly casual attitude toward the project in general. Julian remembers their producer as “very laid back — he would come over once a month, we would go to the pub, talk about the game for a bit, and he would go home.” Otherwise, the Gollops worked largely alone after their first rush of consultations with the MicroProse mother ship had faded into the past. Time dragged on and on while they struggled with this massively complicated game, one half of which was unlike anything they had ever even contemplated before.

X-COM‘s UFOpaedia is a direct equivalent to Civilization‘s innovative Civilopedia, its most obvious single nod to Sid Meier’s equally influential but very, very different game.

As it did so, much happened in the broader world of MicroProse. On the positive side, Sid Meier’s Civilization was released at the end of 1991. But despite this and some other success stories, MicroProse’s financial foundation was growing ever more shaky, as their ambitions outran their core competencies. The company lost millions on an ill-judged attempt to enter the stand-up arcade market, then lost millions more on baroque CRPGs and flashy interactivity-lite adventure games. After an IPO that was supposed to bail them out went badly off the rails, Wild Bill Stealey sold out in June of 1993 to Spectrum Holobyte, another American publisher. The deal seemed to make sense: Spectrum Holobyte had a lot of money, thanks not least to generous venture capitalists, but a rather thin portfolio of games, while MicroProse had a lot of games both out and in the pipeline but had just about run out of money.

Spectrum Holobyte sifted carefully through their new possession’s projects in development, passing judgment on which were potential winners and which certain losers. According to Julian Gollop, Spectrum Holobyte told MicroProse UK in no uncertain terms to cancel X-COM. On the face of it, it wasn’t an unreasonable point of view to take. The Gollops had been working for almost two years by this point, and still had few concrete results to show for their efforts. It really did seem that they were hopelessly out of their depth. Luckily for them, however, Peter Moreland and others in the British office still believed in them. They nodded along with the order to bin X-COM, then quietly kept the project on the books. At this point, it didn’t cost them much of anything to do so; the art was already done, and now it was up to the Gollops to sink or swim with it.

X-COM bobbed up to the surface six months later, when the new, allegedly joint management team — Stealey would soon leave the company, feeling himself to have been thoroughly sidelined — started casting about for a game to feature in Europe in the first quarter of 1994, thereby to make the accountants happy. Peter Moreland piped up sheepishly: “You remember that UFO project you told us to cancel? Well, it’s actually still kicking around…” And so the Gollop brothers, who had been laboring under strangely little external pressure for the past 26 months or so, were now ordered to get their game done already. They managed it, just — UFO: Enemy Unknown shipped in Europe in March of 1994 — but some of the problems in the finished game definitely stem from the deadline that was so arbitrarily imposed from on high.

But if the game could have used a few more months in the oven, it nonetheless shipped in better condition than many other MicroProse games had during the recent stretch of financial difficulties. It garnered immediate rave reviews, while its sales also received a boost from another source. The first episode of The X-Files had aired the previous September in the United States, followed by airings across Europe. Just like that, a game about hostile alien visitors seemed a lot more relevant. Indeed, the game possessed much the same foreboding atmosphere as the show, from its muted color palette to MicroProse composer John Broomhall’s quietly malevolent soundtrack, which he had created in just two months in the final mad rush up to the release deadline. He couldn’t have done a better job if he’d had two years.

X-COM: UFO Defense shipped a few months later in North America, into a cultural zeitgeist that was if anything even more primed for it. Computer Gaming World, the American industry’s journal of record, gave it five stars out of five, and its sales soared well into the six digits. As the quote that opened this article attests, X-COM was in many ways the antithesis of what most publishers believed constituted a hit game in the context of 1994. Its graphics were little more than functional; it had no full-motion video, no real-time 3D rendering, no digitized voices; it fit perfectly well on a few floppy disks, thank you very much, with no need for any new-fangled CD-ROM drive. And yet it sold better than the vast majority of those other “cutting-edge” games. Many took its success as a welcome sign that gaming hadn’t yet lost its soul completely — that good old-fashioned gameplay could still trump production values from time to time.



The original X-COM‘s reputation has only grown more hallowed in the years since its release. It’s become a perennial on best-games-of-all-time lists, even ones whose authors weren’t yet born at the time of its release. For this is a game, so we’re told, that transcends its archaic presentation, that absolutely any student of game design needs to play.

That’s rather ironic in that X-COM is a game that really shouldn’t work at all according to many of the conventional rules of design. For example, it’s one of the most famous of all violators of what’s become known as the Covert Action Rule, as formulated by Sid Meier and named after one of his own less successful designs. The rule states that pacing is as important in a strategy game as it is in any other genre, that “mini-games” which pull the player away from the overarching strategic view need to be short and to the point, as is the case in Meier’s classic Pirates!. If they drag on too long, Meier tells us, the player loses focus on the bigger picture, forgets what she’s been trying to accomplish there, gets pulled out of that elusive state of “flow.”

But, as I already noted, X-COM‘s tactical battles can drag on for an hour or two at a time — and no one seems be bothered by this at all. What gives?

By way of an answer to that question, I would first note that the Covert Action Rule is, like virtually all supposedly hard-and-fast rules of game design, riddled with caveats and exceptions. (Personally, I don’t even agree that violating the yet-to-be-formulated Covert Action Rule was the worst problem of Covert Action itself.) And I would also note that X-COM does at least a couple of things extraordinarily well as compensation, better than any strategy game that came before it. Indeed, one can argue that no earlier grand-strategy game even attempted to do these things — not, at least, to anything like the same extent. Interestingly, both inspired strokes are borrowed from other gaming genres.

The first is the intriguing mystery surrounding the aliens, which is peeled back layer by layer as you progress. As your scientists study the equipment and alien corpses brought back from the battle sites and interrogate the live aliens your soldiers have captured, you learn more and more about where your enemies come from and what motivates them to attack the Earth so relentlessly. It doesn’t take long to reach a point where you look forward to the next piece of this puzzle as excitedly as you do the next cool gun or piece of armor. By the time the whole experience culminates in a desperate attack on the aliens’ home base, you’re all in. Granted, a byproduct of this sense of unfolding discovery is that you may not feel like revisiting the game after you win; for many or most of us, this is a strategy game to play through once rather than over and over again. But on the other hand, considering the fifty hours or more it will take you to get through it once, it’s hard to complain overmuch about that fact. Needless to say, when you do play it for the first time you should meticulously avoid spoilers about What Is Really Going On Here.

Learning more about the alien invaders via an autopsy. The game was ahead of its time; the year after X-COM‘s release, at the height of the X-Files-fueled UFO craze, the Fox television channel would broadcast Alien Autopsy: Fact or Fiction? in the United States. (For the record, it was most assuredly the latter.)

X-COM‘s other, even more brilliant stroke is the sense of identification it builds between you and the soldiers you send into battle. Each soldier has unique strengths and weaknesses, forcing you to carefully consider the role she plays in combat: a burly, fearless character who can carry enough weaponry to outfit your average platoon but couldn’t hit the proverbial broad side of a barn must be handled in a very different way from a slender, nervous sharpshooter. As your soldiers (hopefully) survive missions, their skills improve, CRPG-style. Thus you have plenty of practical reasons to be more loathe to lose a seasoned veteran than a greenhorn fresh out of basic training. And yet this purely zero-sum calculus doesn’t fully explain why each mission is so nail-bitingly tense, so full of agonizing decisions balancing risk against reward.

One of X-COM‘s most defining design choices is also one of its simplest: it lets you name each soldier for yourself. As you play, you form a picture of each of them in your imagination, even though the game itself never describes any of them to you as anything other than a list of numbers. Losing a soldier who’s been around for a while feels weirdly like losing a genuine acquaintance. For here too you can’t help but embellish the thin scaffolding of fact the game provides with your own story of what happened: the grizzled old-timer who went out one time too many, whose nerves just couldn’t handle another firefight; the foolhardy, testosterone-addled youth who threw himself into every battle like he was indestructible, until one day he wasn’t. X-COM provides the merest glimpse of what it must feel like to be an actual commander in war: the overwhelming stress of having the lives of others hanging on your decisions, the guilty second-guessing that inevitably goes on when you lose someone. It has something that games all too often lack: a sense of consequences for your actions. Theoretically at least, the best way to play it is in iron-man mode: no saving and restoring to fix bad outcomes, dead is dead, own your decisions as commander.

Beginning with just a name you choose for yourself and a handful of statistics which the game provides, your imagination will conjure a whole personality for each of your soldiers. Dwight here, for example, likes guitars, Cadillacs, and hillbilly music.

In one of those strange concordances that tend to crop up in many creative fields, X-COM wasn’t the only strategy game of 1994 to bring in CRPG elements to great effect. Ironically, these innovations occurred just as the CRPG genre itself was in its worst doldrums since Ultima I and Wizadry I had first brought it to prominence. Today, even as the CRPG has long since regained its mojo as a gaming genre, CRPG elements have become the special sauce ladled over a wide array of other types of games. X-COM was among the first to show how tasty the end result could be.

I have to say, however, that I find other elements of X-COM less appetizing, and that its strengths don’t quite overcome its weaknesses in my mind sufficiently to win it a place on my personal list of best games ever. My first stumbling block is the game’s learning curve, which is not just steep but unnecessarily so. I’d like to quote Garth Deangelis, who led the team that created XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the critically acclaimed franchise reboot that was released in 2012:

While [the original X-COM] may have been magnificent, it was also a unique beast when it came to beginning a new game. We often joked that the diehards who mastered the game independently belonged to an elite club because by today’s standards the learning curve was like climbing Mount Everest.

As soon as you fire up the original, you’re placed in a Geoscape with the Earth silently looming, and various options to explore within your base — including reading (unexplained) financial reports, approving manufacturing requests (without any context as to what those would mean later on), and examining a blueprint (which hinted at the possibility for base expansion), for example — the player is given no direction.

Even going on your first combat mission can be a bit of a mystery (and when you first step off the Skyranger, the game will kill off a few of your soldiers before you even see your first alien — welcome to X-COM!).

There’s certainly a place for complex games, and complexity will always come complete with a learning curve of some sort. But, again, X-COM‘s curve is just unnecessarily steep. Consider: when you begin a new game, you have two interceptors already in your hangar for bringing down UFOs. Fair enough. Unfortunately, they come equipped with sub-optimal Stingray missiles and borderline-useless cannon. So, one of the first tasks of the experienced player becomes to requisition some more advanced Avalanche missiles, put them on her interceptors, and sell off the old junk. Why can the game not just start you off with a reasonable weapons load-out? A similar question applies to the equipment carried by your individual soldiers, as it does to the well-nigh indefensible layout of your starting base itself, which makes it guaranteed to fall to the first squad of marauding aliens who come calling. The new player is likely to assume, reasonably enough, that the decisions the game has already made for her are good ones. She finds out otherwise only by being kicked in the teeth as a result of them. This is not good game design. The impression created is of a game that is not tough but fair, but rather actively out to get her.

Your starting base layout. By no means should you assume that this is a defensible one. In fact, many players spend a lot of money at the very beginning ripping it up completely and starting all over again. Why should this be necessary?

You’ll never use a large swath of the subpar weapons and equipment included in X-COM, which rather begs the questions what they’re doing in there. The game could have profited greatly from an editor empowered to pare back all of this extraneous nonsense and home in on its core appeal. Likewise, the user interface in the strategic portion operates on the principle that, if one mouse click is good, ten must be that much better; everything is way more convoluted than it needs to be. Just buying and selling equipment is agonizing.

The tactical game’s interface is also dauntingly complex, but does have somewhat more method to its madness, being the beneficiary of all of Julian Gollop’s earlier experience with this sort of game. Still, even tactical combat, so widely and justly lauded as the beating heart of X-COM, is not without its frustrations. Certainly every X-COM player is all too familiar with the last-alien-on-the-map syndrome, where you sometimes have to spend fifteen or twenty minutes methodically hunting the one remaining enemy, who’s hunkered down in some obscure corner somewhere. The nature of the game is such that you can’t relax even in these situations; getting careless can still get one or more of your precious soldiers killed before you even realize what’s happening. But, although perhaps a realistic depiction of war, this part of the game just isn’t much fun. The problem is frustrating not least because it’s so easily soluble: just have the remaining aliens commit suicide to avoid capture — something entirely in keeping with their nature — when their numbers get too depleted.

All of these niggling problems mark X-COM as the kind of game I have to rant about here all too often: the kind that was never actually played before its release. For all its extended development time, it still needed a few more months filled with play-testing and polishing to reach its full potential. X-COM‘s most infamous bug serves as a reminder of just how little of either it got: its difficulty levels are broken. If you select something other than the “beginner” difficulty, it reverts back to the easiest level after the first combat mission. In one sense, this is a blessing: the beginner difficulty is more than difficult enough for the vast majority of players. On the other, though… how the heck could something as basic as that be overlooked? There’s only one way that I can see: if you barely played the game at all before you put it in a box and shipped it out the door.

To his credit, Julian Gollop himself is well aware of these issues and freely acknowledges them — does so much more freely in fact than some of his game’s biggest fans. He notes the influence of vintage Avalon Hill and SPI board games, some of which were so demanding that just being able to play them at all — never mind playing them well — was an odd sort of badge of honor for the grognards of the 1970s and early 1980s. He would appear to agree with me that there’s a bit too much of their style of complexity-for-its-own-sake in X-COM:

I believe that a good game may have relatively simple rules, but have complex situations arise from them. Strategy games tend to do that very well, you know — even the simplest ones are very good at that. I think it’s possible to have an accessible game which doesn’t have amazingly complex rules, but still has a kind of emerging complexity within what happens — you know, what players do, what players explore. For me, that’s the Holy Grail of game design. So, I don’t think that I would probably go back to making games as complex as [X-COM].

Like poets, game designers often simplify their work as they age, the better to capture the real essence of what they’re trying to express.



But whatever their final evaluation of the first game, most players then and now would agree that few franchises have been as thoroughly botched by their trustees as X-COM was afterward. When the first X-COM became an out-of-left-field hit, MicroProse UK, who had great need of hits at the time to impress the Spectrum Holobyte brass, wanted the Gollops to provide a sequel within a year. Knowing that that amount of time would allow them to do little more than reskin the existing engine, they worked out a deal: they would give their publisher their source code and let them make a quickie sequel in-house, while they themselves developed a more ambitious sequel for later release.

The in-house MicroProse project became 1995’s X-COM: Terror from the Deep, which posited that, forty years after their defeat at the end of the first game, the aliens have returned to try again. The wrinkle this time is that they’ve set up bases under the Earth’s oceans, which you must attack and eradicate. Unfortunately, Terror from the Deep does little to correct the original’s problems; if anything, it makes them worse. Most notably, it’s an even more difficult game than its predecessor, a decision that’s hard to understand on any level. Was anyone really complaining that X-COM was too easy? All in all, Terror from the Deep is exactly the unimaginative quickie sequel which the Gollops weren’t excited about having to make.

Nevertheless, it’s arguably the best of the post-original, pre-reboot generation of X-COM games. X-COM: Apocalypse, the Gollops’ own sequel, was a project on a vastly greater scale than the first two X-COM games, a scale to which they themselves struggled to adapt. It was riven by bureaucratic snafus and constant conflict between developer and publisher, and the resulting process of design-by-fractious-committee turned it into a game that did a lot of different things — turned-based and real-time combat in the very same game! — but did none of them all that well, nor even looked all that good whilst doing them. Julian Gollop today calls it “the worst experience of my entire career” and “a nightmare.” He and Nick cut all ties with MicroProse after its 1997 release.

After that, MicroProse lost the plot entirely, stamping the X-COM label onto games that had virtually nothing in common with the first one. X-COM: Interceptor (1998) was a space simulator in the mode of Wing Commander; Em@il Games: X-COM (1999) was a casual multiplayer networked affair; X-COM: Enforcer (2001) was a mindless shoot-em-up. This last proved to be the final straw;  the X-COM name disappeared for the next eleven years, until XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the reboot by Firaxis Games.

If you ask me, said reboot is in absolute terms a better game than the original, picking up on almost all of its considerable strengths while eliminating most of its weaknesses. But it cannot, of course, lay claim to the same importance in the history of gaming. Despite its flaws, the original X-COM taught designers to personalize strategy games, showed them how to raise the emotional stakes in a genre previously associated only with cool calculation. For that reason, it richly deserves its reputation as one of the most important games of its era.

(Sources: the book Grand Thieves and Tomb Raiders: How British Video Games Conquered the World by Magnus Anderson and Rebecca Levene; Amstrad Action of October 1989; Computer Gaming World of August 1994, September 1994, April 1995, and July 1995; Crash of Christmas 1988 and May 1989; Game Developer of April 2013; Retro Gamer 13, 68, 81, 104, 106, 112, and 124; Amiga Format of December 1989, June 1994, and November 1994; Computer and Video Games of December 1988; Games TM 46; New Computer Express of September 15 1990; Games Machine of July 1988; Your Sinclair of August 1990 and September 1990; Personal Computer News of July 21 1983. Online sources include Julian Gollop’s X-COM postmortem from the 2013 Game Developers Conference, “The Story of X-COM at EuroGamer, and David Jenkins’s interview with Julian Gollop at Metro.

The original X-COM is available for digital purchase at GOG.com, as are most of the other X-COM games mentioned in this article.)

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2020 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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