Originally announced as a product for the Christmas of 1995, it took the sequel one full year longer than that to actually appear. And this was, it must be said, all for the better. Master of Magic had been a rather brilliant piece of game design whose commercial prospects had been all but destroyed by its premature release in a woefully buggy state. To their credit, SimTex patched it, patched it, and then patched it some more in the months that followed, until it had realized most of its immense potential as a game. But by then the damage had been done, and what might have been an era-defining strategy game like Civilization — or, indeed, the first Master of Orion — had been consigned to the status of a cult classic. On the bright side, MicroProse did at least learn a lesson from this debacle: Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares was given the time it needed to become its best self. The game that shipped just in time for the Christmas of 1996 was polished on a surface level, whilst being relatively well-balanced and mostly bug-free under the hood.
Gamers’ expectations had changed in some very significant ways in the three years since its predecessor’s release, and not generally to said predecessor’s benefit. The industry had now completed the transition from VGA graphics, usually running at a resolution of 320 X 200, to SVGA, with its resolutions of 640 X 480 or even more. The qualitative difference belies the quantitative one. Seen from the perspective of today, the jump to SVGA strikes me as the moment when game graphics stop looking undeniably old, when they can, in the best cases at any rate, look perfectly attractive and even contemporary. Unfortunately, Master of Orion I was caught on the wrong side of this dividing line; a 1993 game like it tended to look far uglier in 1996 than, say, a 1996 game would in 1999.
So, the first and most obvious upgrade in Master of Orion II was a thoroughgoing SVGA facelift. The contrast is truly night and day when you stand the two games up side by side; the older one looks painfully pixelated and blurry, the newer one crisp and sharp, so much so that it’s hard to believe that only three years separate them. But the differences at the interface level are more than just cosmetic. Master of Orion II‘s presentation also reflects the faster processor and larger memory of the typical 1996 computer, as well as an emerging belief in this post-Windows 95 era that the interface of even a complex strategy game aimed at the hardcore ought to be welcoming, intuitive, and to whatever extent possible self-explanatory. The one we see here is a little marvel, perfectly laid out, with everything in what one intuitively feels to be its right place, with a helpful explanation never any farther away than a right click on whatever you have a question about. It takes advantage of all of the types of manipulation that are possible with a mouse — in particular, it sports some of the cleverest use of drag-and-drop yet seen in a game to this point. In short, everything just works the way you think it ought to work, which is just about the finest compliment you can give to a user interface. Master of Orion I, for all that it did the best it could with the tools at its disposal in 1993, feels slow, jerky, and clumsy by comparison — not to mention ugly.
The home screen of Master of Orion I…
…and its equivalent in Master of Orion II. One of the many benefits of a higher resolution is that even the “Huge” galaxy I’ve chosen to play in here now fits onto a single screen.
If Master of Orion II had attempted to be nothing other than a more attractive, playable version of its antecedent, plenty of the original game’s fans would doubtless have welcomed it on that basis alone. In fact, one is initially tempted to believe that this is where its ambitions end. When we go to set up a new game, what we find is pretty much what we would imagine seeing in just such a workmanlike upgrade. Once again, we’re off to conquer a procedurally generated galaxy of whatever size we like, from Small to Huge, while anywhere from two to eight other alien races are attempting to do the same. Sure, there are a few more races to play as or against this time, a new option to play as a custom race with strengths and weaknesses of our own choosing, and a few other new wrinkles here and there, but nothing really astonishing. For example, we do have the option of playing against other real people over a network now, but that was becoming par for the course in this post-DOOM era, when just about every game was expected to offer some sort of networked multiplayer support, and could expect to be dinged by the critics if it didn’t. So, we feel ourselves to be in thoroughly familiar territory when the game proper begins, greeting us with that familiar field of stars, representing yet another galaxy waiting to be explored and conquered.
Master of Orion II‘s complete disconnection from the real world can be an advantage: it can stereotype like crazy when it comes to the different races, thereby making each of them very distinct and memorable. None of us have to feel guilty for hating the Darlocks for the gang of low-down, backstabbing, spying blackguards they are. If Civilization tried to paint its nationalities with such a broad brush, it would be… problematic.
But when we click on our home star, we get our first shock: we see that each star now has multiple planets instead of the single one we’re used to being presented with in the name of abstraction and simplicity. Then we realize that the simple slider bars governing each planetary colony’s output have been replaced by a much more elaborate management screen, where we decide what proportion of our population will work on food production (a commodity we never even had to worry about before), on industrial production, and on research. And we soon learn that now we have to construct each individual upgrade we wish our colony to take advantage of by slotting it into a build queue that owes more to Master of Magic — and by extension to that game’s strong influence Civilization — than it does to Master of Orion I.
By the middle and late game, your options for building stuff can begin to overwhelm; by now you’re managing dozens (or more) of individual colonies, each with its own screen like this. The game does offer an “auto-build” option, but it rarely makes smart choices; you can kiss your chances of winning goodbye if you use it on any but the easiest couple of difficulty levels. It would be wonderful if you could set up default build queues of your own and drag and drop them onto colonies, but the game’s interest in automation doesn’t extend this far.
This theme of superficial similarities obscuring much greater complexity will remain the dominant one. The mechanics of Master of Orion II are actually derived as much from Master of Magic and Civilization as from Master of Orion I. It is, that is to say, nowhere near such a straightforward extension of its forerunner as Civilization II is. It’s rather a whole new game, with whole new approaches in several places. Whereas the original Master of Orion was completely comfortable with high-level abstraction, the sequel’s natural instinct is to drill down into the details of everything it can. Does this make it better? Let’s table that question for just a moment, and look at some of the other ways in which the game has changed and stayed the same.
The old research system, which allowed you to make progress in six different fields at once by manipulating a set of proportional sliders, has been replaced by one where you can research just one technology at a time, like in Civilization. It’s one of the few places where the second game is less self-consciously “realistic” than the first; the scientific establishment of most real space-faring societies will presumably be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But, in harking back so clearly to Civilization rather than to its own predecessor, it says much about where Steve Barcia’s head was at as he was putting this game together.
Master of Orion I injected some entropy into its systems by giving you the opportunity to research only a randomized subset of the full technology tree, forcing you to think on your feet and play the hand you were given. The sequel divides the full ladder of Progress into groupings of one to three technologies that are always the same, and lets you choose one of them from each group — and only one of them — for yourself rather than choosing for you. You still can’t research everything, in other words, but now it’s you who decides what does get researched. (This assumes that you aren’t playing a race with the “Creative” ability, which lets you gain access to all available technologies each step of the way, badly unbalancing the game in the process.)
The research screen in a game that’s pretty far along. We can choose to research in just one of the eight categories at a time, and must choose just one technology within that category. The others are lost to us, unless we can trade for or steal them from another race.
We’re on more familiar ground when it comes to our spaceships and all that involves them. Once again, we can design our own ships using all of the fancy technologies our scientists have recently invented, and once again we can command them ourselves in tactical battles that don’t depart all that much from what we saw in the first game. That said, even here there are some fresh complications. There’s a new “command point” system that makes the number of fleets we can field dependent on the communications infrastructure we’ve built in our empire, while now we also need to build “freighters” to move food from our bread-basket planets to those focused more on industry or research. Another new wrinkle here is the addition of “leaders,” individuals who come along to offer us their services from time to time. They’re the equivalent of Master of Magic‘s heroes, to the extent that they even level up CRPG-style over time, although they wind up being vastly less consequential and memorable than they were in that game.
Leaders for hire show up from time to time, but you never develop the bonds with them that you do with Master of Magic‘s heroes. That’s a pity; done differently, leaders might have added some emotional interest to a game that can feel a bit dry.
The last major facet of the game after colony, research, and ship management is your relationship with the other aliens you eventually encounter. Here again, we’re on fairly familiar ground, with trade treaties, declarations of war and peace and alliance, and spying for purposes of information theft or sabotage all being possible and, on the more advanced difficulty levels, necessary. We have three ways of winning the game, which is one more than in Master of Orion I. As before, we can simply exterminate all of the other empires, or we can win enough of them over through friendship or intimidation that they vote to make us the supreme leader of a Galactic Council. But we can now also travel to a different dimension and defeat a mysterious alien race called the Antarans that live there, whereupon all of the races back in our home dimension will recognize us as the superior beings we’ve just proved ourselves to be. Here there are more echoes of Master of Magic — specifically, of that game’s two planes of Arcanus and Myrror and the dimensional gates that link them together.
The workings of the Galactic Council vote are virtually unchanged from Master of Orion I.
What to make of this motley blend, which I would call approximately 50 percent Master of Orion I, 25 percent Civilization, and 25 percent Master of Magic? First, let me tell you what most fans of grand strategy think. Then, I’ll give you my own contrarian take on it..
The verdict of the masses is clear: Master of Orion II is one of the most beloved and influential strategy games of all time. As popular in the latter 1990s as any grand-strategy game not called Civilization, it’s still widely played today — much more so, I would reckon, than the likes of its contemporary Civilization II. (Certainly Master of Orion II looks far less dated today by virtue of not running under Windows and using the Windows 3 widgets — to say nothing of those oh-so-1990s live-action video clips Civilization II featured.) It’s often described as the archetypal strategic space opera, the Platonic ideal which every new space-based grand-strategy game must either imitate or kick against (or a little of both). And why not? Having received several patches back in the day to correct the few issues in its first release, it’s finely balanced (that “Creative” ability aside — and even it has been made more expensive than it used to be), rich in content, and reasonably attractive to look at even today. And on top of all that there’s a gob-smackingly good interface that hardly seems dated at all. What’s not to like?
Well… a few things, in this humble writer’s opinion. For me, the acid test for additional complexity in a game is partially whether it leads to more “interesting choices,” as Sid Meier would put it, but even more whether it makes the fiction come more alive. (I am, after all, very much an experiential player, very much in tune with Meier’s description of the ideal game of Civilization as “an epic story.”) Without one or preferably both of these qualities, added complexity just leads to added tedium in my book. In the beginning, when I’m developing only one or two planets, I can make a solid case for Master of Orion II‘s hands-on approach to colony management using these criteria. But when one or two colonies become one or two dozen, then eventually one or two hundred, the negatives rather outweigh the positives for me. Any benefits you get out of dragging all those little colonists around manually live only at the margins, as it were. For the reality is that you’ll quickly come up with a standard, rote approach to building up each new planet, and see it through as thoughtlessly as you put your shirt on each morning. At most, you might have just a few default approaches, depending on whether you want the colony to focus on agriculture, industry, or research. Only in a rare crisis, or maybe in the rare case of a truly exceptional planet, will you mix it up all that much.
Master of Orion II strikes me as emblematic of a very specific era in strategy gaming, when advances in computing hardware weren’t redounding entirely to the benefit of game design. During the 1980s and early 1990s, designs were brutally constrained by slow processors and small memories; games like the first Master of Orion (as well as such earlier space operas as the 1983 SSG classic Reach for the Stars) were forced by their circumstance to boil things down to their essentials. By 1996, however, with processor speeds starting to be measured in the hundreds of megahertz and memory in the tens of megabytes, there was much more space for bells, whistles, and finicky knob-twiddling. We can see this in Civilization II, and we can see it even more in Master of Orion II. The problem, I want to say, was that computing technology had fallen into a sort of uncanny valley: the latest hardware could support a lot more mechanical, quantitative complexity, but wasn’t yet sufficient to implement more fundamental, qualitative changes, such as automation that allows the human player to intervene only where and when she will and improved artificial intelligence for the computer players. Tellingly, this last is the place where Master of Orion II has changed least. You still have the same tiny set of rudimentary diplomatic options, and the computer players remain as simple-minded and manipulable as ever. As with so many games of this era, the higher difficulty levels don’t make the computer players smarter; they only let them cheat more egregiously, giving them ever greater bonuses to all of the relevant numbers.
There are tantalizing hints that Steve Barcia had more revolutionary ambitions for Master of Orion II at one point in time. Alan Emrich, the Computer Gaming World scribe who coined the term “4X” (“Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate”) for the first game and did so much to shape it as an early play-tester that a co-designer credit might not have been out of order, was still in touch with SimTex while they worked on the second. He states that Barcia originally “envisioned a ‘layered’ design approach so that people could focus on what they wanted to play. Unfortunately, that goal wasn’t reached.” Perhaps the team fell back on what was relatively easy to do when these ambitions proved too hard to realize, or perhaps at least part of the explanation lies in another event: fairly early in the game’s development, Barcia sold his studio to his publisher MicroProse, and accepted a more hands-off executive role at the parent company. From then on, the day-to-day design work on Master of Orion II largely fell to one Ken Burd, previously the lead programmer.
For whatever reason, Master of Orion II not only fails to advance the conceptual state of the art in grand strategy, but actually backpedals on some of the important innovations of its predecessor, which had already addressed some of the gameplay problems of the then-nascent 4X genre. I lament most of all the replacement of the first game’s unique approach to research with something much more typical of the genre. By giving you the possibility of researching only a limited subset of technologies, and not allowing you to dictate what that subset consists of, Master of Orion I forced you to improvise, to build your strategy around what your scientific establishment happened to be good at. (No beam-weapon technologies? Better learn to use missiles! Weak on spaceship-range-extending technologies to colonize faraway star systems? Better wring every last bit of potential out of those closer to home!) In doing so, it ensured that every single game you played was different. Master of Orion II, by contrast, strikes me as too amenable to rote, static strategizing that can be written up almost like an adventure-game walkthrough: set up your race like this, research this, this, and this, and then you have this, which will let you do this… every single time. Once you’ve come up with a set of standard operating procedures that works for you, you’ve done so forever. After that point, “it’s hard to lose Master of Orion II,” as the well-known game critic Tom Chick admitted in an otherwise glowing 2000 retrospective.
In the end, then, the sequel is a peculiar mix of craft and complacency. By no means can one call it just a re-skinning; it does depart significantly from its antecedent. And yet it does so in ways that actually make it stand out less rather than more from other grand-strategy games of its era, thanks to the anxiety of influence.
For influence, you see, can be a funny thing. Most creative pursuits should be and are a sort of dialog. Games especially have always built upon one another, with each worthy innovation — grandly conceptual or strictly granular, it really doesn’t matter — finding its way into other games that follow, quite possibly in a more evolved form; much of what I’ve written on this very site over the past decade and change constitutes an extended attempt to illustrate that process in action. Yet influence can prove a double-edged sword when it hardens into a stultifying conventional wisdom about how games ought to be. Back in 1973, the literary critic Harold Bloom coined the term “anxiety of influence” in reference to the gravitational pull that the great works of the past can exert on later writers, convincing them to cast aside their precious idiosyncrasies out of a perceived need to conform to the way things ought to be done in the world of letters. I would argue that Civilization‘s set of approaches have cast a similar pall over grand-strategy-game design. The first Master of Orion escaped its long shadow, having been well along already by the time Sid Meier’s own landmark game was released. But it’s just about the last grand-strategy game about which that can be said. Master of Orion II reverts to what had by 1996 become the mean: a predictable set of bits and bobs for the player to busy herself with, arranged in a comfortably predictable way.
When I think back to games of Master of Orion I, I remember the big events, the lightning invasions and deft diplomatic coups and unexpected discoveries. When I think back to games of Master of Orion II, I just picture a sea of data. When there are too many decisions, it’s hard to call any of them interesting. Then again, maybe it’s just me. I know that there are players who love complexity for its own sake, who see games as big, fascinating systems to tweak and fiddle with — the more complicated the better. My problem, if problem it be, is that I tend to see games as experiences — as stories.
Ah, well. Horses for courses. If you’re one of those who love Master of Orion II — and I’m sure that category includes many of you reading this — rest assured that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. As for me, all this time spent with the sequel has only given me the itch to fire up the first one again…
Although I’ve never seen any hard sales numbers, all indications are that Master of Orion II was about as commercially successful as a game this time-consuming, slow-paced, and cerebral — and not named Civilization — could possibly be, most likely selling well into the hundreds of thousands of units. Yet its success didn’t lead to an especially bright future for SimTex — or MicroProse Austin, as it had now become known. In fact, the studio never managed to finish another game after it. Its last years were consumed by an expensive boondoggle known as Guardians: Agents of Justice, another brainchild of Steve Barcia, an “X-COM in tights,” with superheroes and supervillains instead of soldiers and aliens. That sounds like a pretty fantastic idea to me. But sadly, a turn-based tactical-combat game was at odds with all of the prevailing trends in an industry increasingly dominated by first-person shooters and real-time strategy; one frustrated MicroProse executive complained loudly that Barcia’s game was “slow as a pig.” It was accordingly forced through redesign after redesign, without ever arriving at anything that both satisfied the real or perceived needs of the marketers and was still fun to play. At last, in mid-1998, MicroProse pulled the plug on the project, shutting down the entirety of its brief-lived Austin-based subsidiary at the same time. And so that was that for SimTex; Master of Orion III, when it came, would be the work of a completely different group of people.
Guardians: Agents of Justice was widely hyped over the years. MicroProse plugged it enthusiastically at each of the first four E3 trade shows, and a preview was the cover story of Computer Games Strategy Plus‘s December 1997 issue. “At least Agents never graced a CGW cover,” joshed Terry Coleman of the rival Computer Gaming World just after Guardians‘s definitive cancellation.
Steve Barcia never took up the design reins of another game after conceiving Guardians of Justice, focusing instead on his new career in management, which took him to the very different milieu of the Nintendo-exclusive action-games house Retro Studios after his tenure at MicroProse ended. Some might consider this an odd, perchance even vaguely tragic fate for the designer of three of the most respected and beloved grand-strategy games of all time. On the other hand, maybe he’d just said all he had to say in game design, and saw no need to risk tarnishing his stellar reputation. Either way, his creative legacy is more than secure.
How do you make a sequel to a game that covers all of human history?
— Brian Reynolds
At the risk of making a niche website still more niche, allow me to wax philosophical for a moment on the subject of those Roman numerals that have been appearing just after the names of so many digital games almost from the very beginning. It seems to me that game sequels can be divided into two broad categories: the fiction-driven and the systems-driven.
Like so much else during gaming’s formative years, fiction-driven sequels were built off the example of Hollywood, which had already discovered that no happily ever after need ever be permanent if there was more money to be made by getting the old gang of heroes back together and confronting them with some new threat. Game sequels likewise promised their players a continuation of an existing story, or a new one that took place in a familiar setting with familiar characters. Some of the most iconic names in 1980s and early 1990s gaming operated in this mode: Zork, Ultima, Wizardry, King’s Quest, Carmen Sandiego, Leisure Suit Larry, Wing Commander. As anyone who has observed the progress of those series will readily attest, their technology did advance dramatically over the years. And yet this was only a part of the reason people stayed loyal to them. Gamers also wanted to get the next bit of story out of them, wanted to do something new in their comfortingly recognizable worlds. Unsurprisingly, the fiction-driven sequel was most dominant among games that foregrounded their fictions — namely the narrative-heavy genres of the adventure game and the CRPG.
But there was another type of sequel, which functioned less like a blockbuster Hollywood franchise and more like the version numbers found at the end of other types of computer software. It was the domain of games that were less interested in their fictions. These sequels rather promised to do and be essentially the same thing as their forerunner(s), only to do and be it even better, taking full advantage of the latest advances in hardware. Throughout the 1980s and well into the 1990s, the technology- or systems-driven sequel was largely confined to the field of vehicular simulations, a seemingly fussily specific pursuit that was actually the source in some years of no less than 25 percent of the industry’s total revenues. The poster child for the category is Microsoft’s Flight Simulator series, the most venerable in the entire history of computer gaming, being still alive and well as I write these words today, almost 43 years after it debuted on the 16 K Radio Shack TRS-80 under the imprint of its original publisher subLogic. If you were to follow this franchise’s evolution through each and every installment, from that monochrome, character-graphic-based first specimen to today’s photo-realistic feast for the senses, you’d wind up with a pretty good appreciation of the extraordinary advances personal computing has undergone over the past four decades and change. Each new Flight Simulator didn’t so much promise a new experience as the same old one perfected, with better graphics, better sound, a better frame rate, better flight modeling, etc. When you bought the latest Flight Simulator — or F-15 Strike Eagle, or Gunship, or Falcon — you did so hoping it would take you one or two steps closer to that Platonic ideal of flying the real thing. (The fact that each installment was so clearly merely a step down that road arguably explains why these types of games have tended to age more poorly than others, and why you don’t find nearly as many bloggers and YouTubers rhapsodizing about old simulations today as you do games in most other genres.)
For a long time, the conventional wisdom in the industry held that strategy games were a poor fit with both of these modes of sequel-making. After all, they didn’t foreground narrative in the same way as adventures and CRPGs, but neither were they so forthrightly tech-centric as simulations. As a result, strategy games — even the really successful ones — were almost always standalone affairs.
But all that changed in a big way in 1993, when Maxis Software released SimCity 2000, a sequel to its landmark city-builder of four years earlier. SimCity 2000 was a systems-driven sequel in the purest sense. It didn’t attempt to be anything other than what its predecessor had been; it just tried to be a better incarnation of that thing. Designer Will Wright had done his level best to incorporate every bit of feedback he had received from players of his original game, whilst also taking full advantage of the latest hardware to improve the graphics, sound, and interface. “Is SimCity 2000 a better program than the original SimCity?” asked Computer Gaming World magazine rhetorically. “It is without question a superior program. Is it more fun than the original SimCity? It is.” Wright was rewarded for his willingness to revisit his past with another huge hit, even bigger than his last one.
Other publishers greeted SimCity 2000‘s success as something of a revelation. At a stroke, they realized that the would-be city planners and generals among their customers were as willing as the would-be pilots and submarine captains to buy a sequel that enhanced a game they had already bought before, by sprucing up the graphics, addressing exploits, incongruities, and other weaknesses, and giving them some additional complexity to sink their teeth into. For better or for worse, the industry’s mania for franchises and sequels thus came to encompass strategy games as well.
In the next few articles, I’d like to examine a few of the more interesting results of this revelation — not SimCity 2000, a game about which I have oddly little to say, but another trio that would probably never have come to be without it to serve as a commercial proof of concept. All of the games I’ll write about are widely regarded as strategy classics, but I must confess that I can find unreserved love in my heart for only one of them. As for which one that is, and the reasons for my slight skepticism about the others… well, you’ll just have to read on and see, won’t you?
Civilization, Sid Meier’s colossally ambitious and yet compulsively playable strategy game of everything, was first released by MicroProse Software just in time to miss the bulk of the Christmas 1991 buying season. That would have been the death knell of many a game, but not this one. Instead Civilization became the most celebrated computer game since SimCity in terms of mainstream-media coverage, even as it also became a great favorite with the hardcore gamers. Journalists writing for newspapers and glossy lifestyle magazines were intrigued by it for much the same reason they had been attracted to SimCity, because its sweeping, optimistic view of human Progress writ large down through the ages marked it in their eyes as something uniquely high-toned, inspiring, and even educational in a cultural ghetto whose abiding interest in dwarfs, elves, and magic spells left outsiders like them and their readers nonplussed. The gamers loved it, of course, simply because it could be so ridiculously fun to play. Never a chart-topping hit, Civilization became a much rarer and more precious treasure: a perennial strong seller over months and then years, until long after it had begun to look downright crude in comparison to all of the slick multimedia extravaganzas surrounding it on store shelves. It eventually sold 850,000 copies in this low-key way.
Yet neither MicroProse nor Sid Meier himself did anything to capitalize on its success for some years. The former turned to other games inside and outside of the grand-strategy tent, while the latter turned his attention to C.P.U. Bach, a quirky passion project in computer-generated music that wasn’t even a game at all and didn’t even run on conventional computers. (Its home was the 3DO multimedia console.) The closest thing to a Civilization sequel or expansion in the three years after the original game’s release was Colonization, a MicroProse game from designer Brian Reynolds that borrowed some of Civilization‘s systems and applied them to the more historically grounded scenario of the European colonization of the New World. The Colonization box sported a blurb declaring that “the tradition of Civilization continues,” while Sid Meier’s name became a possessive prefix before the new game’s title. (Reynolds’s own name, by contrast, was nowhere to be found on the box.) Both of these were signs that MicroProse’s restless marketing department felt that the legacy of Civilization ought to be worth something, even if it wasn’t yet sure how best to make use of it.
Colonization hit the scene in 1994, one year after SimCity 2000 had been accorded such a positive reception, and proceeded to sell an impressive 300,000 copies. These two success stories together altered MicroProse’s perception of Civilization forever, transforming what had started as just an opportunistic bit of marketing on Colonization‘s box into an earnest attempt to build a franchise. Not one but two new Civilization games were quickly authorized. The one called CivNet was rather a stopgap project, which transplanted the original game from MS-DOS to Windows and added networked or hot-seat multiplayer capabilities to the equation. The other Civilization project was also to run under Windows, but was to be a far more extensive revamping of the original, making it bigger, prettier, and better balanced than before. Its working title of Civilization 2000 made clear its inspiration. Only at the last minute would MicroProse think better of making SimCity 2000‘s influence quite so explicit, and rename it simply Civilization II.
Unfortunately for MicroProse’s peace of mind, Sid Meier, a designer who always followed his own muse, said that he had no interest whatsoever in repeating himself at this point in time. Thus the project devolved to Brian Reynolds as the logical second choice: he had acquitted himself pretty well with Colonization, and Meier liked him a lot and would at least be willing to serve as his advisor, as he had for Reynold’s first strategy game. “They pitched it to me as if [they thought] I was probably going to be really upset,” laughs Reynolds. “I guess they thought I had my heart set on inventing another weird idea like Colonization. ‘Okay, will he be too mad if we tell him that we want him to do Civilization 2000?’ Which of course to me was the ultimate dream job. You couldn’t have asked me to do something I wanted to do more than make a version of Civilization.”
Like his mentor Meier, Reynolds was an accomplished programmer as well as game designer. This allowed him to do the initial work of hammering out a prototype on his own — from, of all locations, Yorkshire, England, where he had moved to be with his wife, an academic who was there on a one-year Fulbright scholarship. While she went off to teach and be taught every day, he sat in their little flat putting together the game that would transform Civilization from a one-off success into the archetypal strategy franchise.
As Reynolds would be the first to admit, Civilization II is more of a nuts-and-bolts iteration on what came before than any wild flight of fresh creativity. He approached his task as a sacred trust. Reynolds:
My core vision for Civ II was not to be the guy that broke Civilization. How can I make each thing a little bit better without breaking any of it? I wanted to make the AI better. I wanted to make it harder. I wanted to add detail. I wanted to pee in all the corners. I didn’t have the idea that we were going to change one thing and everything else would stay the same. I wanted to make everything a little bit better. So, I both totally respected [Civilization I] as an amazing game, and thought, I can totally do a better job at every part of this game. It was a strange combination of humility and arrogance.
Reynolds knew all too well that Civilization I could get pretty wonky pretty quickly when you drilled down into the details. He made it his mission to fix as many of these incongruities as possible — both the ones that could be actively exploited by clever players and the ones that were just kind of weird to think about.
At the top of his list was the game’s combat system, the source of much hilarity over the years, what with the way it made it possible — not exactly likely, mind you, but possible — for a militia of ancient spearmen to attack and wipe out a modern tank platoon. This was a result of the game’s simplistic “one hit and done” approach to combat. Let’s consider our case of a militia attacking tanks. A militia has an attack strength of one, a tank platoon a defense strength of five. The outcome of the confrontation is determined by adding these numbers together, then taking each individual unit’s strength as its chance of destroying the other unit rather than being destroyed itself. In this case, then, our doughty militia men have a one-in-six chance of annihilating the tanks rather than vice versa — not great odds, to be sure, but undoubtedly better than those they would enjoy in any real showdown.
It was economic factors that made this state of affairs truly unbalancing. A very viable strategy for winning Civilization every single time was the “barbarian hordes” approach: forgo virtually all technological and social development, flood the map with small, primitive cities, then use those cities to pump out huge numbers of primitive units. A computer opponent diligently climbing the tech tree and developing its society over a broader front would in time be able to create vastly superior units like tanks, but would never come close to matching your armies in quantity. So, you could play the law of averages: you might have to attack a given tank platoon five times or more with different militias, but you knew that you would eventually destroy it, as you would the rest of your opponent’s fancy high-tech military with your staggering numbers of bottom feeders. The barbarian-horde strategy made for an unfun way to play once the joy of that initial eureka moment of discovering it faded, yet many players found the allure of near-certain victory on even the highest difficulty levels hard to resist. Part of a game designer’s job is to save players like this from themselves.
This was in fact the one area of Civilization II that Sid Meier himself dived into with some enthusiasm. He’d been playing a lot of Master of Magic, yet another MicroProse game that betrayed an undeniable Civilization influence, although unlike Colonization it was never marketed on the basis of those similarities. When two units met on the world map in Master of Magic, a separate tactical-battle screen opened up for you to manage the fight. Meier went so far as prototyping such a system for Civilization II, but gave up on it in the end as a poor fit with the game’s core identity. “Being king is the heart of Civilization,” he says. “Slumming as a lowly general puts the player in an entirely different story (not to mention violates the Covert Action rule). Win-or-lose battles are not the only interesting choice on the path to good game design, but they’re the only choice that leads to Civ.”
With his mentor having thus come up empty, Brian Reynolds addressed the problem via a more circumspect complication of the first game’s battle mechanics. He added a third and fourth statistic to each unit: firepower and hit points. Now, instead of being one-and-done, each successful “hit” would merely subtract the one unit’s firepower from the other’s total hit points, and then the battle would continue until one or the other reached zero hits points. The surviving unit would quite possibly exit the battle “wounded” and would need some time to recuperate, adding another dimension to military strategy. It was still just barely possible that a wildly inferior unit could defeat its better — especially if the latter came into a battle already at less than its maximum hit points — but such occurrences became the vanishingly rare miracles they ought to be. Consider: Civilization II‘s equivalent of a militia — renamed now to “warriors” — has ones across the board for all four statistics; a tank platoon, by contrast, has an attack strength of ten, a defense strength of five, a firepower of one, and three hit points when undamaged. This means that a group of ancient warriors needs to roll the same lucky number three times in a row on a simulated six-sided die in order to attack an undamaged tank platoon and win. A one-in-six chance has become one chance in 216 — odds that we can just about imagine applying in the real world, where freak happenstances really do occur from time to time.
This change was of a piece with those Reynolds introduced at every level of the game — pragmatic and judicious, evolutionary rather than revolutionary in spirit. I won’t enumerate them exhaustively here, but will just note that they were all very defensible if not always essential in this author’s opinion.
Civilization II was written for Windows 3, and uses that operating system’s standard Windows interface.
The layers of the program that were not immediately visible to the player got an equally judicious sprucing up — especially diplomacy and artificial intelligence, areas where the original had been particularly lacking. The computer players became less erratic in their interactions with you and with one another; no longer would Mahatma Gandhi go to bed one night a peacenik and wake up a nuke-spewing madman. Combined with other systemic changes, such as a rule making it impossible for players to park their military units inside the city boundaries of their alleged allies, these improvements made it much less frustrating to pursue a peaceful, diplomatic path to victory — made it less likely, that is to say, that the other players would annoy you into opening a can of Gandhi-style whip-ass on them just to get them out of your hair.
In addition to the complications that were introduced to address specific weaknesses of the first game, Civilization II got a whole lot more stuff for the sake of it: more nationalities to play and play against (21 instead of 14); more advances to research (89 instead of 71); more types of units to move around the map (51 instead of 28); a bewildering variety of new geological, biological, and ecological parameters to manipulate to ensure that the game built for you just the sort of random world that you desired to play in; even a new, ultra-hard “Deity” difficulty level to address Reynold’s complaint that Meier’s Civilization was just too easy. There was also a new style of government added to the original five: “Fundamentalism” continued the tradition of mixing political, economic, and now religious ideologies indiscriminately, with all of them seen through a late-twentieth-century American triumphalist lens that might have been offensive if it wasn’t so endearingly naïve in its conviction that the great debates down through history about how human society can be most justly organized had all been definitively resolved in favor of American-style democracy and capitalism. And then the game got seven new Wonders of the World to add to the existing 21. Like their returning stablemates, they were a peculiar mix of the abstract and the concrete, from Adam Smith’s Trading Company (there’s that triumphalism again!) in the realm of the former to the Eiffel Tower in that of the latter.
Reynolds’s most generous move of all was to crack open the black box of the game for its players, turning it into a toolkit that let them try their own hands at strategy-game design. Most of the text and vital statistics were stored in plain-text files that anyone could open up in an editor and tinker with. Names could be changed, graphics and sounds could be replaced, and almost every number in the game could be altered at will. MicroProse encouraged players to incorporate their most ambitious “mods” into set-piece scenarios, which replaced the usual randomized map and millennia-spanning timeline with a more focused premise. Scenarios dealing with Rome during the time of transition from Republic to Empire and World War II in Europe were included with the game to get the juices flowing. In shrinking the timeline so dramatically and focusing on smaller goals, scenarios did tend to bleed away some of Civilization‘s high-concept magic and turn it into more of a typical strategic war game, but that didn’t stop the hardcore fans from embracing them. They delivered scenarios of their own about everything from Egyptian, Greek, and Norse mythology to the recent Gulf War against Iraq, from a version of Conway’s Game of Life to a cut-throat competition among Santa’s elves to become the dominant toy makers.
The ultimate expression of Brian Reynolds’s toolkit approach can be seen right there on the menu every time you start a new game of Civilization II, under the heading of simply “Cheat.” You can use it to change anything you want any time you want, at the expense of not having your high score recorded, should you earn one. At a click of the mouse, you can banish an opposing player from the game, research any advance instantly, give yourself infinite money… you name it. More importantly in the long run, the Cheat menu lets you peek behind the curtain to find out exactly what is going on at any given moment, almost like a programmer sitting in front of a debugging console. Sid Meier was shocked the first time he saw it.
Cheating was an inherent part of the game now, right on the main screen? This was not good. Like all storytelling, gaming is about the journey, and if you’re actively finding ways to jump to the end, then we haven’t made the fantasy compelling enough. A gripping novel would never start with an insert labeled, “Here’s the Last Page, in Case You Want to Read It Now.” Players who feel so inclined will instinctively find their own ways to cheat, and we shouldn’t have to help them out. I could not be convinced this was a good idea.
But Reynolds stuck to his guns, and finally Meier let him have it his way. It was, he now acknowledges, the right decision. The Cheat menu let players rummage around under the hood of the game as it was running, until some of them came to understand it practically as well as Reynolds himself. This was a whole new grade of catnip for the types of mind that tend to be attracted by big, complex strategy games like this one. Meanwhile the loss of a high score to boast about was enough to ensure that gamers weren’t unduly tempted to use the Cheat menu when playing for keeps, as it were.
Of course, the finished Civilization II is not solely a creation of Brian Reynolds. After he returned from Britain with his prototype in hand, two other MicroProse designers named Doug Kaufman and Jeff Briggs joined him for the hard work of polishing, refining, and balancing. Ditto a team of artists and even a film crew.
Yes, a film crew: the aspect of Civilization II that most indelibly dates it to the mid-1990s — even more so than its Windows 3 interface — must surely be your “High Council,” who pop up from time to time to offer their wildly divergent input on the subject of what you should be doing next. They’re played by real actors, hamming it up gleefully in video clips, changing from togas to armor to military uniforms to business suits as the centuries go by. Most bizarre of all is the entertainment advisor, played by… an Elvis Presley impersonator. What can one say? This sort of thing was widely expected to be the future of gaming, and MicroProse didn’t want to be left completely in the cold when the much-mooted merger of Silicon Valley and Hollywood finally became a reality.
Civilization II was released in the spring of 1996 to glowing reviews. Computer Gaming World gave it five stars out of five, calling it “a spectacularly addictive and time-consuming sequel.” Everything I’ve said in this article and earlier ones about the appeal, success, and staying power of Civilization I applies treble to Civilization II. It sold 3 million copies over the five years after its release, staying on store shelves right up to the time that the inevitable Civilization III arrived to replace it. Having now thoroughly internalized the lesson that strategy games could become franchises too, MicroProse sustained interest in the interim with two scenario packs, a “Multiplayer Gold Edition” that did for Civilization II what CivNet had done for Civilization I, and another reworking called Civilization II: Test of Time that extended the timeline of the game into the distant future. Civilization as a whole thus become one of gaming’s most inescapable franchises, the one name in the field of grand strategy that even most non-gamers know.
Given all of this, and given the obvious amount of care and even love that was lavished on Civilization II, I feel a bit guilty to admit that I struggled to get into it when I played it in preparation for this article. Some of my lack of enthusiasm may be down to purely proximate causes. I played a lot of Civilization I in preparation for the long series of articles I wrote about it and the Progress-focused, deeply American worldview it embodies, and the sequel is just more of the same from this perspective. If I’d come to Civilization II cold, as did the majority of those 3 million people who bought it, I might well have had a very different experience with it.
Still, I do think there’s a bit more to my sense of vague dissatisfaction than just a jaded player’s ennui. I miss one or two bold leaps in Civilization II to go along with all of the incrementalist tinkering. Its designers made no real effort to address the big issues that dog games of this ilk: the predictable tech tree that lends itself to rote strategies, the ever more crushing burden of micromanagement as your empire expands, and an anticlimactic endgame that can go on for hours after you already know you’re going to win. How funny to think that Master of Orion, another game published by MicroProse, had already done a very credible job of addressing all of these problems three years before Civilization II came to be!
Then, too, Civilization II may be less wonky than its predecessor, but I find that I actually miss the older game’s cock-eyed jeu d’esprit, of which those ancient militias beating up on tanks was part and parcel. Civilization II‘s presentation, using the stock Windows 3 menus and widgets, is crisper and cleaner, but only adds to the slight sense of sterility that dogs the whole production. Playing it can feel rather like working a spreadsheet at times — always a danger in these kinds of big, data-driven strategy games. Those cheesy High Council videos serve as a welcome relief from the austerity of it all; if you ask me, the game could have used some more of that sort of thing.
I do appreciate the effort that went into all the new nationalities, advances, units, and starting parameters. In the end, though, Civilization II only provides further proof for me — as if I needed it — that shoehorning more stuff into a game doesn’t always or even usually make it better, just slower and more ponderous. In this sense too, I prefer its faster playing, more lovably gonzo predecessor. It strikes me that Civilization II is more of a gamer’s game, emphasizing min-maxing and efficient play above all else, at the expense of the original’s desire to become a flight of the imagination, letting you literally write your own history of a world. Sid Meier liked to call his game first and foremost “an epic story.” I haven’t heard any similar choice of words from Brian Reynolds, and I’ve definitely never felt when playing Civilization I that it needed to be harder, as he did.
I hasten to emphasize, however, that mine is very much a minority opinion. Civilization II was taken up as a veritable way of life by huge numbers of strategy gamers, some of whom have refused to abandon it to this day, delivering verdicts on the later installments in the series every bit as mixed as my opinions about this one. Good for them, I say; there are no rights or wrongs in matters like these, only preferences.
Postscript: The Eternal War
In 2012, a fan with the online handle of Lycerius struck a chord with media outlets all over the world when he went public with a single game of Civilization II which he had been playing on and off for ten years of real time. His description of it is… well, chilling may not be too strong a word.
The world is a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation. There are three remaining super nations in AD 3991, each competing for the scant resources left on the planet after dozens of nuclear wars have rendered vast swaths of the world uninhabitable wastelands.
The ice caps have melted over 20 times, due primarily to the many nuclear wars. As a result, every inch of land in the world that isn’t a mountain is inundated swampland, useless to farming. Most of which is irradiated anyway.
As a result, big cities are a thing of the distant past. Roughly 90 percent of the world’s population has died either from nuclear annihilation or famine caused by the global warming that has left absolutely zero arable land to farm. Engineers are busy continuously building roads so that new armies can reach the front lines. Roads that are destroyed the very next turn. So, there isn’t any time to clear swamps or clean up the nuclear fallout.
Only three massive nations are left: the Celts (me), the Vikings, and the Americans. Between the three of us, we have conquered all the other nations that have ever existed and assimilated them into our respective empires.
You’ve heard of the 100 Year War? Try the 1700 Year War. The three remaining nations have been locked in an eternal death struggle for almost 2000 years. Peace seems to be impossible. Every time a ceasefire is signed, the Vikings will surprise-attack me or the Americans the very next turn, often with nuclear weapons. So, I can only assume that peace will come only when they’re wiped out. It is this that perpetuates the war ad infinitum.
Because of SDI, ICBMs are usually only used against armies outside of cities. Instead, cities are constantly attacked by spies who plant nuclear devices which then detonate. Usually the downside to this is that every nation in the world declares war on you. But this is already the case, so it’s no longer a deterrent to anyone, myself included.
The only governments left are two theocracies and myself, a communist state. I wanted to stay a democracy, but the Senate would always overrule me when I wanted to declare war before the Vikings did. This would delay my attack and render my turn and often my plans useless. And of course the Vikings would then break the ceasefire like clockwork the very next turn. I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire. But of course the people hate me now, and every few years since then, there are massive guerrilla uprisings in the heart of my empire that I have to deal with, which saps resources from the war effort.
The military stalemate is airtight, perfectly balanced because all remaining nations already have all the technologies, so there is no advantage. And there are so many units at once on the map that you could lose twenty tank units and not have your lines dented because you have a constant stream moving to the front. This also means that cities are not only tiny towns full of starving people, but that you can never improve the city. “So you want a granary so you can eat? Sorry! I have to build another tank instead. Maybe next time.”
My goal for the next few years is to try to end the war and use the engineers to clear swamps and fallout so that farming may resume. I want to rebuild the world. But I’m not sure how.
One can’t help but think about George Orwell’s Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia when reading of Lycerius’s three perpetually warring empires. Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, his after-action report has the uncanny feel of a dispatch from one of our own world’s disturbingly possible futures. Many people today would surely say that recent events have made his dystopia seem even more probable than ten years ago.
But never fear: legions of fans downloaded the saved game of the “Eternal War” which Lycerius posted and started looking for a way to end the post-apocalyptic paralysis. A practical soul who called himself “stumpster” soon figured out how to do so: “I opted for a page out of MacArthur’s book and performed my own Incheon landing.” In the game of Civilization, there is always a way. Let us hope the same holds true in reality.
Civilization II is not currently available for online purchase. You can, however, find it readily enough on any number of abandonware archives; some are dodgier than others, so be cautious. I recommend that you avoid the Multiplayer Gold Edition in favor of the original unless you really, really want to play with your mates. For, in a rather shocking oversight, MicroProse released the Gold Edition with bugged artificial intelligence that makes all of the computer-controlled players ridiculously aggressive and will keep you more or less constantly at war with everyone. If perpetual war is your thing, on the other hand, go for it…
Update: See Blake’s comment below for information on how to get the Multiplayer Gold Edition running with the original artificial intelligence, thereby getting the best of both worlds!
Once you’ve managed to acquire it, there’s a surprisingly easy way to run Civilization II on modern versions of Windows. You just need to install a little tool called WineVDM, and then the game should install and run transparently, right from the Windows desktop. It’s probably possible to get it running on Linux and MacOS using the standard Wine layer, but I haven’t tested this personally.)
In a feat of robust programming of which its makers deserve to be proud, Civilization II is capable of scaling to seemingly any size of screen. Here it is running on my Windows 10 desktop at a resolution of 3440 X 1440 — numbers that might as well have been a billion by a million back in 1996.
This truth ought to be self-evident, but it’s often lost in histories of gaming. People like me tend to rely, perhaps a bit too much, on what I sometimes call the cataloging approach to gaming history. You all know the recipe for such articles: start with a discrete classic (or occasionally infamous) game, add a narrative of who made it and how they did so, pour in an evaluation of its merits and demerits, and season the final concoction with a description of its place in the evolution of gaming in general. I’ve written plenty of such articles in the past, and will doubtless write plenty more of them in the future.
What such articles sometimes lose sight of, however, is a broader cultural context that’s to be found beyond the permeable borders of the gaming ghetto. The ideas and influences that are turned into games come from all over the place, being reflections of the societies that surround them and the interests of the people who make them. (For much of gaming history, these people have been mostly young white and Asian men from fairly privileged socioeconomic circumstances, which, needless to say, has had its own impact on the types of games that exist and the subjects they tackle.) Sometimes the pop culture that influences games is so blindingly obvious that we almost can become blind to it: what would digital games be today if Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had never invented the tabletop game of Dungeons & Dragons, or if J.R.R. Tolkien had never written The Lord of the Rings, or if George Lucas had never made Star Wars? But it’s the subtler influences that I find most interesting to ferret out — like, for instance, the way that techno-thriller author Tom Clancy’s brand of American military triumphalism fed into the combat simulations made by companies like Microprose, which at times commanded a quarter or more of the overall computer-gaming market during the 1980s and 1990s.
When I realized a decade or so ago that I had somehow stumbled into writing a broad, encompassing history of computer gaming, I promised myself that I would try to bring out connections like these whenever possible. I’m not sure that I’ve always kept that promise on an article-by-article basis, but I have always tried to keep one eye at least on the bigger picture, to give this site some credibility as a broad cultural history rather than just a catalog of neat games that appeared down through time — not that it hasn’t also been the latter, of course. In short, I’ve always wanted to understand how outside culture bleeds into the seemingly insular world of gaming, and how gaming has left its mark on the world outside its boundaries. (This last has barely begun to happen at the point in history we’ve reached now, more than ten years into this project, but rest assured that the “gamefication” of everyday life is not that far away.) There are many reasons to play old games, the most popular ones being simply because they’re fun on their own merits and because of the warm and fuzzy feelings of nostalgia they invoke in us folks of a certain age. But another reason, which is no less defensible, is that they give us a chance to become time travelers in a more impersonal sense, by giving us a direct pipeline to a receding past.
So, please indulge me now in a case study about how changing fashions in the way we view one of the most enduring mytho-historical tropes of modern culture impacted games. The sinking of the brand-new, “unsinkable” luxury liner the Titanic following a collision with a North Atlantic iceberg on the night of April 14, 1912, is the delicious tragedy that we just can’t seem to let go of, an irresistible mixture of symbolism, theme, romance, pathos, mystery, and heroism to which we keep returning over and over. Just as many historical novels have more to tell us about the times in which they were written than the times they allegedly chronicle, the lens through which we view the Titanic has been as much a mirror we hold up to our contemporary selves as a window into the past. For example, during the unsentimental, materialist 1980s, the last full decade before our virtual online existences started to compete with our flesh-and-blood reality, the Titanic was discussed primarily as a thing, to be found, probed, and perhaps even raised above the waves once again. But then, in 1997 — an altogether dreamier, more fanciful time to be alive — a hit film reminded us why we had all fallen in love with the Titanic to begin with: because it’s such a great story, or rather collection of them, a beautiful canvas for our imaginations. My next three articles will examine these competing visions of the Titanic, and the games that were made in response to them — no fewer than ten games in all, plus one intriguing idea for a game that was never made.
The first person to propose finding and raising the Titanic from its watery grave did so barely a year after the ship had sunk. Charles Smith was a Colorado mining engineer who knew nothing about ships or the sea, but was convinced that his own area of expertise was as applicable to the problem of a seaborne salvage operation as it was to that of cracking open an elusive new seam of gold. It seems that when one goes through life with a miner’s hammer in one hand, everything looks like a suitable nail. “My object is to deliver the Titanic to its owners without further injury so that the great vessel may be rebuilt,” Smith declared. “Much of the cargo, or all of it, would be recovered. All the bodies which sank with the doomed ship have long since been embalmed by the action of the seawater, and when they are at last brought back to the surface they will be easily identifiable and prepared for reverential burial.”
Smith’s plan hinged on electromagnets, one of the trendy technological wonders of his age. He would build a massive one — possibly the most massive one ever built — sail or drag it out to the Titanic‘s last known location, turn it on, and let the sunken ship’s steel hull pull it to its bosom. With the wreck thus pinpointed on the ocean floor, he would descend in a custom-made submarine to attach hundreds more magnets to the hull, each with a rope leading back to a steam-powered winch aboard one of a dozen or so boats on the surface. When all was ready, the winches would all be activated in unison, and the 46,000-ton vessel would be slowly lifted back to the surface, then towed to a dry dock, repaired, and placed back into service. Smith estimated that the whole operation would require just $1.5 million and 162 men, and would take about three months: one month to find the wreck, one month to prepare it, and one month to raise it and tow it to safety. “It is merely a matter of magnets,” he insisted.
The plan left something to be desired in terms of basic physics, not to mention in its understanding of basic human psychology; how many passengers would really want to sail on a ship on which more than 1500 people had died in horrific circumstances? Yet it was taken bizarrely seriously in the popular press, which churned out excited headlines like “Can the Lost Titanic Be Raised?” Alas, potential investors proved less credulous: Smith managed to raise just $10,000 of the $1.5 million he said he needed. After the onset of the First World War, a more diffuse tragedy than the sinking of the Titanic but one that was many orders of magnitude more immense, he and his scheme faded back into obscurity, just another of the frivolous pipe dreams of a more innocent era.
More than half a century later, in the late 1960s, a British odd-jobber and Titanic obsessive named Doug Woolley captured headlines with a scheme that was almost as outlandish as that of Charles Smith. He would attach 200 deflated pontoons all around the Titanic‘s hull. Then they would be filled with hydrogen which would be extracted from the surrounding seawater via electrolysis, and the ship would rise majestically to the surface like the mother of all hot-air balloons. He said the whole operation would cost about £4.8 million and could be accomplished within one year.
To say that Woolley lacked qualifications in deep-sea salvage hardly begins to state the case. He was working in a pantyhose factory at the same time that he was holding press conferences about raising the Titanic. He had never personally sailed farther than the width of the English Channel, and was conducting what he insisted were groundbreaking experiments in electrolysis in his dingy flat’s bathtub. And he was rather putting the cart before the horse anyway, given that no one knew precisely where the Titanic lay; whereas Charles Smith had at least made some attempt to address that part of the problem, Woolley just took it on faith that it would turn up when he started to look around for it.
Wooley’s dream never had a chance in the real world, but the world of fiction was another matter. In 1976, the American author Clive Cussler published the third of what would become many pulpy adventure novels featuring his hero Dirk Pitt, a sort of Tom Swift for grown-ups. The novel was called Raise the Titanic!, and had a plot involving byzanium, a precious (and fictional) mineral, a radioactive power source whose potential dwarfs that of uranium or plutonium, whose only known reserves happened to be aboard the Titanic on that fateful night. Pitt and his friends concoct a plan for raising the ship — why they don’t just try to raise the byzanium in its hold is never adequately explained — that bears distinct similarities to Doug Woolley’s scheme: they will seal off the interior of the ship and pump it full of compressed air to cause it to float to the surface. This they succeed in doing, fighting off Soviet saboteurs all the while.
The novel became a bestseller, whereupon Hollywood made it into a big-budget summer movie in 1980. The scale model of the Titanic that was constructed for the film’s climactic scene of the ship breaking the ocean’s surface cost $7 million, as much as the original vessel when not adjusting for inflation. But surprisingly, even the Titanic name and a titanic budget worthy of the ship couldn’t save the film; it was savaged by critics, and turned into a box-office bomb. “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic,” quipped its producer Lew Grade later.
Although the method employed by Dirk Pitt and his friends for raising the Titanic was hopeless for a vessel of this size at this depth, it was adapted from real-world techniques already in use for raising ships that had sunk in shallower waters. For a cottage industry of shipwreck recovery had arisen after World War II. With an estimated quarter of a million or more ships having sunk since humanity first began to ply the world’s waterways, the pickings in the most popular sea lanes were rich. People made fortunes by poring over old nautical records, searching doggedly where the ships they found in them were believed to have sunk, and retrieving the gold, silver, and other valuable in their holds. The Caribbean, which had once positively teemed with Spain’s treasure-laden galleons sailing from the New World back to the Old, was particularly fertile ground.
Meanwhile others had invented the new field of maritime archaeology, with the purpose of studying and preserving the wrecks they found instead of looting them for profit. Soon every other issue of National Geographic seemed to contain some new undersea discovery, illustrated in full-color Kodachrome. For example, the Titanic‘s sister ship the Britannic, which had struck a German mine and sunk off the coast of Greece in 1916 while serving as a hospital ship, was found by the famous French undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau in 1975.
Admittedly, the boundaries between the treasure hunter and the maritime archaeologist weren’t always clear. Many of the adventurous folks who got into this racket had a little bit of both in them, along with a hefty hankering for the notoriety that would come their way if they became, say, the first person to send back pictures of the most famous of all sunken ships in the world.
The problem with the Titanic, the thing which made it so much harder to find than the likes of the Britannic, was that it had sunk in the deep water of the open ocean rather than the coastal water of the Mediterranean. The deep ocean floor is the most inaccessible geography on our planet; even today, marine scientists like to say that we know more about the surface of Mars than we do about the landscapes under our own planet’s oceans. That said, people did come up with various ideas for locating the Titanic from the ocean’s surface that were more or less feasible. For example, Commander John Grattan, the Royal Navy’s anointed expert in diving and submersibles, proposed scouring the ocean floor with a huge active sonar array towed behind a trawler. But such plans would be dauntingly expensive to implement. And, even if the Titanic was found from the surface, what next? Only a few submersibles in the world were capable of diving to the wreck’s depth of two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface, and they were all in the hands of the United States Navy, which wasn’t in the habit of renting them out to private treasure hunters to use for snapping pictures and collecting souvenirs.
One man, however, judged that the fame and money that would follow a credible claim of just having found the Titanic — never mind the photographs, much less any salvage operations — would be enough to make the task eminently worth taking on. “Cadillac” Jack Grimm was a flamboyant Texas oilman with a taste for exotic adventure and pseudoscience, who had already mounted expeditions in search of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, and the Loch Ness Monster, who had once traveled to the North Pole in the hope of proving that the Earth was hollow. His greatest achievement to date in this mold, at least if you asked him, was the recovery of a piece of Noah’s Ark from the side of Mount Ararat in Turkey — never mind that the scientific community universally scoffed at his alleged find.
In the summer of 1980, while Raise the Titanic was bombing in box offices, Grimm funded a search for the real ship that was broadly similar to the approach suggested by John Grattan: a trawler dragged behind it a sonar array which hovered a few hundred feet above the ocean floor. Over a period of more than a week, the boat methodically covered an area of about ten square miles that was judged the most likely to contain the wreck. It returned to port without a smoking gun, but its crew did create a list of fourteen sites within the search area that had sent back suspiciously regular sonar echoes, any of which could be indicative of a large human-made object like the Titanic. “I think we got that heifer corralled in a box canyon,” Grimm told the press in his usual colorful diction.
Indeed, Grimm knew how to work the press like the master of ceremonies at a rodeo, and he poured on the juice now. He announced that he would mount a second expedition the following summer to exhaustively search each of the fourteen sites with a more sensitive sonar array, an iron-detecting magnetometer, and a camera capable of sending back grainy photographs. He arranged this time to borrow from the Coast Guard the Gyre, a cutting-edge oceanographic research vessel, and funded a documentary film that was to be hosted by Orson Welles; the film crew would sail with the second expedition in order to capture the instant of discovery. He was, he told the assembled journalists on the day he himself sailed with the Gyre, absolutely convinced that he would be known to the world as the man who had found the Titanic by the time his feet next touched dry land.
Looking for an expert to support, debunk, or qualify his showy optimism, some journalists turned to one Robert Ballard, an oceanographer and diver with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who was arguably the world’s foremost expert on deep-ocean exploration of a more scientific bent, whose greatest achievement to date had been his discovery of underwater hydrothermal vents and the unique forms of animal life that clustered around these precious oases of warmth on the bitter-cold ocean floor. The polar opposite of Grimm in temperament, the cautious Ballard said that, while Grimm’s overall approach was viable if conducted carefully and thoroughly, it would nevertheless be difficult to convince the public that he truly had found the Titanic absent high-quality, closeup photographs of the wreck. He was diplomatic enough not to add that Grimm’s earlier trafficking in mythical monsters and Biblical literalism would cause any claim he made to seem that much more dubious without overwhelming proof.
Meanwhile Grimm’s expedition set to work, contending with unstable weather that kept the Gyre‘s captain on a constant knife-edge. One by one, the crew eliminated the promising locations that had been identified the previous year. As the number of remaining possibilities dwindled, the mood onboard grew dimmer and dimmer. At last, the fourteenth and final site was crossed off the list. They had come up dry.
Or had they? On the way home, flipping in desultory fashion through the photographs that been returned to the surface, Grimm stumbled upon an image that gave him goosebumps: something that looked for all the world like a large human-made object, smoothly tapered like the wings of an airplane, rising out of the mud of the ocean floor. He was sure it must be a blade from one of the Titanic‘s 26-ton propellers.
Grimm immediately radioed the Coast Guard and asked to hang onto the Gyre for another week. But the Coast Guard refused, even when he name-dropped President Ronald Reagan, whom he claimed was a close personal friend. There was nothing for it but to continue the journey home. He was certain he had found the Titanic, but even his own team of experts, never mind outsiders, were unconvinced. They said that the blurry photograph was more likely than not just another rocky outcropping. An extraordinary claim required extraordinary proof, and this one picture was not it. Which didn’t stop Grimm’s documentary, once it was finished, from claiming it to be all but conclusive proof.
Grimm did try one more time to seal the deal. In the summer of 1983, he set off again aboard a research vessel, borrowed this time from Columbia University. But this trip was plagued by even worse weather than the last one. After several days of frantic searching for a propeller which seemed to have disappeared back into the ocean floor whence it had sprouted, 40-knot winds forced him to cut the expedition short. Grimm, who was prone to seasickness and had a deadly fear of water, decided enough was enough after this latest miserable experience. He never mounted a fourth expedition.
But the Titanic wasn’t to remain hidden much longer. For even as Jack Grimm was capturing headlines with his expeditions, Robert Ballard and his colleagues at Woods Hole were quietly developing an uncrewed deep-water sled equipped with an array of powerful searchlights and high-resolution still and video cameras, all operable by remote control from the surface. He called it the Argo, after the ship which the mythical Greek hero Jason had sailed into the unknown sea that lay beyond the Hellespont. Being not without a streak of public-relations savvy of his own, Ballard thought it would be quite a coup to use his expensive new toy to find and send back images of the Titanic, an achievement for which Grimm had obligingly primed the press’s pump.
That, at any rate, was how the story was reported in the 1980s. A more complicated and truthful version emerged years later. It seems that the United States Navy had funded much of the Argo‘s development and construction, with the understanding that it would be able to use it and its creator from time to time for its own purposes. (Ballard had longstanding relationships in the Navy, having served from 1967 to 1970 as an active-duty officer and being still a reservist.) The first favor was called in almost as soon as the Argo was ready for action. The Navy brass were very concerned about two nuclear attack submarines which had been lost in the 1960s in the North Atlantic, not far from where the Titanic had gone down. They were eager to ensure that the subs’ reactor cores had not ruptured and, just as importantly, that the Soviets hadn’t found the vessels and looted them for secrets. A search for the Titanic would make the perfect cover story for Ballard’s activities in this otherwise deserted stretch of open ocean. The Navy gave him two months to play with; if he completed his classified investigations more quickly than that, he could use the rest of his time to really search for the Titanic. As it happened, it took him slightly over a month and a half to find the two submarines and put the Navy’s mind at ease that neither was leaking radioactivity and neither had been plundered. He was left with twelve days in which to find the Titanic.
Ballard and his Argo were sailing aboard the research vessel Knorr, the workhorse of Woods Hole. That same summer, a French team under an oceanographer named Jean-Louis Michel had tried to find the Titanic using sonar, but had come up empty. This failure, combined with the failures of Jack Grimm’s expeditions, convinced Ballard that he shouldn’t be looking for a reasonably intact ship on the ocean floor; the area had been scoured so thoroughly with sonar by now that such an object would surely have been found if it existed. He believed that the ship must be far more badly damaged than had been previously assumed — in fact, that it had possibly broken into many pieces during its long plunge to the bottom. Instead of looking for a whole ship, he would look for the debris left by a sinking ship. Since sonar had no way of distinguishing small bits of human-made rubble from the natural detritus of the ocean floor, the only way to conduct such a search was visually, using the Argo‘s camera feeds. Time was short, the area to be searched was large, and this was an exhaustingly tedious way to go about it, but he would do what he could before he had to head home.
The twelve days were half up on the early morning of September 1, 1985, when, with Ballard fast asleep in his cabin, a shout went up from the Argo control room: “Wreckage!” By the time Ballard had burst into the room, the crew had zeroed in on a clearly manufactured metal object that they were certain was a boiler for the great ship’s engines. Everyone in the cramped little room burst into spontaneous cheers. But then, just as quickly, the mood turned sober. “We realized we were dancing on someone’s grave, and we were embarrassed,” remembered Ballard later. He suggested that they all observe a moment of silence. This they did, and then they got back to work.
Ballard and company carefully traced the “debris field” they had found back to each of its termini. At one end lay the front half of the ship, intact enough to still be readily recognizable for what it was; at the other end lay the rear half, so badly mangled that it looked like little more than a colossal pile of rusted metal and other junk. It was obvious what had happened: the ship’s back had broken as it plunged beneath the waves, and the two halves had separated completely from one another and finished the long fall separately, raining boilers, supports, furniture, bric-à-brac, and doubtless plenty of now-vanished human corpses from their open ends down onto the ocean floor between the two, like a gigantic busted piñata.
Needless to say, this discovery caused all but the most committed of dreamers to give up on any hopes of raising the ship. Grimm’s “propeller” lay well away from the real wreck site, proving to be nothing more than the unusual rock formation so many scientists had suspected it to be. On the other hand, it would later emerge that Grimm had towed his sonar array within 500 feet of the real ship’s bow back in 1981. Robert Ballard had been both very good and very, very lucky — a potent combination in any endeavor.
The September 3, 1985, edition of The New York Times included a small article printed near the bottom of the front page: “Wreckage of Titanic Reported Discovered 12,000 Feet Down.” It was the first trickle in what would become a torrent of media coverage. Soon the first photographs began making their way back from the North Atlantic — haunting images of a propeller (the real one this time), of a cabin porthole, of crockery and pots and a stoking port for the boilers. The killer shot captured much of the ship’s bow, its shape unmistakable to even the rankest layperson.
At this point, the story becomes for better or for worse as much a tale of mass media as exploration and discovery. Robert Ballard became more than just a run-of-the-mill celebrity; “folk hero” is a better description of his status. He returned to the wreck in the summer of 1986 with a crewed submersible called the Alvin, one of those aforementioned few vehicles in the world capable of withstanding the almost inconceivable cold and pressure that exist two and a half miles below the ocean’s surface; Ballard’s enviable connections had allowed him to borrow this unique vessel from the Navy. The photographs he came up with this time were stunning, allegories of splendid desolation fit to be framed and hung in a Romantic poet’s library. The press and the public they served couldn’t get enough. They experienced vicariously the same emotions Ballard had felt as he gazed out the window of the Alvin: “As I peered entranced through my viewport, I could easily imagine people walking down the promenade, looking out of the windows I was now looking into. Here I was on the bottom of the ocean gazing at recognizable, man-made artifacts. I was looking [at] decks along which [people] had walked, rooms in which they had slept, joked, made love.”
The wreck of the Titanic was simply inescapable for the next few years in the United States, Britain, and much of the rest of the world, the subject of newspaper and magazine articles, books, documentary films, museum exhibits, and even tourism; charter companies sold expensive junkets out to the spot in the ocean directly above the wreck. And, as with any media sensation worth its salt, there were also controversies. Jack Grimm resurfaced with a spurious legal claim, quickly dismissed by the courts, that he rather than Robert Ballard was the rightful discoverer of the wreck by virtue of having passed so close to it with his sonar array. And already in 1987 a dodgy outfit managed to mount an underwater expedition of its own to the site, damaging the wreck in the process of grabbing a handful of objects that were later unveiled in a tacky syndicated-television special. Host Telly Savalas and his panel of “experts” pawing through these precious artifacts was the twentieth-century equivalent of the amateur archaeologists of the nineteenth century blasting away at the interior of the Pyramid of Khufu with gunpowder.
The Titanic wreck site has continued to attract both earnest maritime archaeologists and shameless profiteers ever since, along with every gradient in between the two. But our interest today is in the early years of the Titanic mania spawned by the initial search for and discovery of the wreck. It’s time for us turn in that context to computer games, a very young form of media at the time Jack Grimm and Robert Ballard were making headlines, but one that was already responding to and reflecting the broader landscape of old media around it. In the case of the Titanic mania, this led to an entire sub-genre of games about the discovery of, exploration of, and in some cases the raising of the famous luxury liner. I’ll reveal upfront that none of these games is a deathless classic. Yet each is an instant of cultural history, suspended in the digital ether like the Titanic in its underwater grave.
The earliest game I know of which tackles the subject of the discovery and salvage of the Titanic predates Robert Ballard’s finding of the wreck by well over a year. Released in early 1984 in Britain only for the Sinclair Spectrum, the oddly titled Titanic: The Adventure Begins… is rather a reflection of the hype which surrounded Jack Grimm’s three expeditions. It was re-released two years later in not only the original Spectrum but a Commodore 64 version, doubtless in response to the news of Ballard’s discovery. It’s very much a product of the collective sugar rush that was the early British games industry, when just about any enterprising bedroom coder could slap a game together, pay a duplication house for a run of cassettes containing it, pay a print shop for a simple insert for the case, and sell the end result for a few quid in corner software shops all over the country.
Programmer Paul Hill, who called himself R&R Software, was clever enough to recognize that at least a third of the battle of finding the Titanic was funding the expedition. Accordingly, the first of the three radically different stages of his game involves finding a sponsor and outfitting your boat and crew, whilst keeping enough cash in reserve to pay your running costs once you head to sea. Stage two is the search for the wreck, which you conduct by sending diving teams down to promising locations identified on the NASA satellite photo you hopefully purchased during the previous stage; matters are complicated here by the icebergs that dot the ocean’s surface. Finally, stage three lets you actually explore the wreck, which in this alternate reality sits on the ocean floor conveniently intact. This stage, the most elaborate by far, is an exercise in mapping a three-level maze of almost 500 locations, looking for the game’s MacGuffin, a fortune in gold that supposedly went down with the ship.
Paul Hill’s knowledge of the realities of deep-water exploration is clearly nonexistent; the scuba divers he imagines frolicking through the wreck would have been crushed like bugs before they made it halfway down to 12,500 feet. Nor is his game any paragon of thoughtful design; much of your success or lack thereof depends on blind luck. Nevertheless, there’s a certain gonzo charm to the thing, a product of a time well before gameplay genres calcified into a set of straitjacketed expectations, when a game could do and be almost anything its programmer could dream up and dare to implement with the primitive tools at his disposal. In this sense, it’s a time capsule par excellence. I only wish I could hear the song which Paul Hill put on the tape’s flip side, an “epic rock track” by a bunch of his mates who called themselves Rare Breed. Sadly, this exposure did not lead to a record deal…
In Sinkable, his recent book-length meditation on the wreck of the Titanic and the hold it continues to exert on our imaginations, Daniel Stone writes that “the complexity of salvage can make it painfully boring. Like building an amusement park or passing a law, the process is far less interesting than the finished product. The film Raise the Titanic was a commercial flop because the title was the most breathtaking part.” Much the same might be said about many of the games featured here; an archaeological expedition to the Titanic is one of a surprisingly large number of possible game subjects which sound exciting in the abstract, but which are damnably difficult to turn into a satisfying gameplay loop once you drill down to the details. Unsurprisingly, then, those designers who came closest to making a compelling go of it were the ones who were willing to season their simulations with a degree of whimsy. The British game R.M.S. Titanic, which was also released in the United States as a budget title under the name of Titanic: The Recovery Mission, is a case in point.
Appearing in Britain in early 1986, R.M.S. Titanic technically postdates Robert Ballard’s discovery of the real ship, but was probably already in development before that point. It’s the product of a small studio who called themselves Oxford Digital Enterprises, whose one previous game was thoroughly in keeping with the highbrow expectations engendered by that name, being a four-stage journey through William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that was published at the height of the bookware boom. R.M.S. Titanic, which was released for the Commodore 64 only, is by contrast all of a piece. Although you have to manage your finances and logistics much like in The Adventure Begins, you do so side-by-side with your exploration of the wreck.
All of the facets of this game are much more involved. You have half a dozen fickle backers whom you must keep mollified in order to keep the funding coming in; this you do by recovering alluring artifacts from the wreck and generating favorable press coverage. Indeed, working the press is another important part of the game. You field questions from reporters in press conferences, trying to tailor your responses to the organs they write for; the Titanic Historical Society has different priorities than Pravda.
But the heart of the game still takes place underwater, as it should. The game presumes that you have already located the wreck, and thus focuses only on your exploration of same with an uncrewed, remote-controlled submersible, which is simulated in some detail. You control its movements, set the intensity of its light, and can pick up and manipulate objects using its mechanical arm, keeping one eye always on its battery level; running out of juice under the ocean is disastrously expensive. As in The Adventure Begins, the ship here is conveniently intact, a maze of decks and rooms to be explored. Here, however, your way is blocked by lots and lots of locked doors. The game’s fanciful side comes to the fore via your method of opening them: each door is a little object-combination puzzle. For example, you might need to combine a cherry with a sundae in order to open the door that leads into an ice-cream parlor.
The game’s fiction, such as it is, has it that a previous expedition has already placed eight deflated balloons in the ship, then somehow lost track of where they are (and apparently locked all of the doors behind themselves). Your ultimate goal is to reach all of the balloons and inflate them, in order to raise the ship to the surface. As must be abundantly clear by now, there is much about this game that makes no sense whatsoever. If you’re wondering how a sundae and a cherry have survived for more than 70 years on the ocean floor, I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you.
Still, much the same sense of giddy possibility clings to R.M.S. Titanic as to The Adventure Begins, combined with more sophisticated programming. The underwater scenes are almost unnervingly atmospheric despite — or because of? — the low resolution of the graphics, all flickering light peering into the eerie gloom. I remember being quite captivated by this game for several weeks as a young teenager, even though I never got very far in it.
For its difficulty is its real Achilles heel. As you move deeper and deeper into the ship, the object combinations you must divine grow more and more esoteric and the sheer quantity of objects and geography to reckon with grows more and more daunting. The first documented instance of anyone solving this game dates from after the millennium, when a patient German named Stefan Schönfelder finally accomplished the feat by making extensive use of emulator save states. The ending sequence proved predictably underwhelming; in this era of gaming, the journey had to be its own reward.
By the late 1980s, the shift to more powerful computers made a credible full-on simulation of marine archaeology seem like an increasingly realizable possibility. This would prove a mixed blessing, for all of the reasons listed by Daniel Stone above.
Search for the Titanic was released in 1989 by the American budget software house Capstone, who were best known for casino simulations. There were a flagship version for MS-DOS and a heavily redacted one for the trusty old Commodore 64. Despite or because of having been “reviewed for authenticity by the staff of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute,” it’s one of the most brutally boring computer games ever made. The broad strokes are familiar: you have to deal with the business aspects of an expedition to the Titanic alongside the seaborne bits. This time out, however, you have to build up your reputation and financing by exploring a dozen or so less famous wrecks before you get a crack at the Titanic.
The actual dives are almost totally beyond your control; the game is primarily a simulation of finding the location of the wrecks from the surface. In this and much else, the designers’ guiding principal seems to have been, “Implement all the boring stuff, but be sure to leave out all the fun stuff.” If this is what you get when you do the research and take marine archaeology seriously, give me scuba divers swimming around at 12,500 feet and doors with ham-sandwich-activated locks any day.
There are two things that I find hilarious about this game. The first is that your reward for slogging through this simulation that has less pizazz than your average Excel spreadsheet is a set of digitized photographs of the wreck; it reminds me of those awful games of computerized strip poker I used to play as a sexually frustrated teenager, giving a whole new dimension to the neologism “disaster porn.” The other is that someone recently saw fit to dredge this stinker of a game up off the bottom and put it up for sale on a digital storefront for a fiver. To call that an audacious move is the understatement of the year. For, as Trent Nickson wrote in his 2005 review of Search for the Titanic for the Lemon 64 website, “I don’t really know how you could tart this game up to make it fun.” Suffice to say that the designers never even tried.
Thankfully, someone else did try very hard to make marine archaeology fun. Sea Rogue was the first game by a small San Diego studio called Software Sorcery, and was published by Microprose for MS-DOS on their Microplay budget label in 1992. It was created with the assistance of a retired Navy captain whose expertise was underwater salvage, and was billed as a simulation. None of this sounds overly promising in light of the previous game in this survey.
But when you start to play the thing, it quickly becomes clear that Software Sorcery has made an aesthetic rather than a literal simulation — a game which endeavors to give you a taste of its real-world subject matter, but which never overwhelms you with boring detail, which understands that games need to be fun first and foremost. The Titanic is pushed somewhat into the background here; it’s just one of about 150 different wrecks you can find and explore, from the Spanish treasure galleons that litter the floor of the Caribbean to such other legendary modern wrecks as the World War II German battleship Bismarck. Sea Rogue is by far the most ambitious game on this list; there are a lot of moving parts here. I want to say that it’s the best game here as well.
The older game which Sea Rogue immediately brings to mind, even before any of the ones above, is the Sid Meier classic Pirates!. You start out in Norfolk with an old trawler, eager to make your fortune as a wreck hunter. So, you sail up and down the east coast of the United States and into the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, seeking clues to wreck sites at each port of call. As you find and dive the wrecks and sell off the loot you acquire thereby back on land, you gradually improve your boat and your equipment. Eventually, you’ll have enough dosh to replace your rusty old tub entirely, first with a state-of-the-art research vessel and then with a beyond-state-of-the-art submarine, the Sea Rogue from which the game takes it name. These vessels make it practical to travel much farther — all the way to Britain, Europe, Africa, and into the Mediterranean, another veritable watery junkyard. And the Sea Rogue allows you to reach deep-water wrecks like the Titanic.
As I said, there’s a lot going on here. You have a crew to manage, who have CRPG-style statistics that improve with experience, assuming you invest in shore-based training every time they level up. Your relationships with different countries are affected by how much respect — or lack thereof — you show to their ships’ wreck sites; aggravate them too much and they’ll send their navies after you. You can hire research assistants, take on salvage contracts, even detect undersea mineral deposits and earn a finder’s fee.
Meanwhile up to five computer-managed competitors are doing the same things you are. One of them, the fellow named Evil Eddie, is particularly nasty, and will sometimes attack your vessel at sea or ambush your divers underwater. This means you need to make provisions for defending yourself, need to have some guns of your own available.
I absolutely love the premise, love the way it blends the unabashedly fantastic with the real-world subculture of wreck hunting. Half of the thick manual is given over to a list of every single one of those 150 ships that are waiting to be found, each and every one of them a real, documented wreck, ranging from Viking longboats to modern Soviet submarines. In order to earn full value for any treasures you recover, you have to ferret out the name of any ship you find from clues at the site, cross-referenced with the descriptions in the manual. The Titanic and Bismarck aren’t the only ships in this game that you’ve heard of before: there are also vessels like the Hunley, the Andrea Doria, the Lusitania, and much of the Spanish Armada to be found. If you approach your endeavors in the right imaginative spirit, you’ll feel a genuine shiver go up your spine when you discover one of these storied ships, and may just go scurrying off to Wikipedia to learn more about it.
Still, it’s possible that my love for the premise makes me more kindly disposed toward the game than it deserves. For it lacks the compulsive playability of Pirates!. The interface is clunky, and, while the big manual does a reasonably good job of telling which keys to press and where to click the mouse, it often fails to explain why you’re doing so; I must confess that I still don’t completely understand the sonar-scanning screen even after playing the game for a considerable number of hours. And then, for all that the developers strained mightily to give you lots of different things to do, from decoding radio messages to chasing down Pirates!-style treasure maps, it never quite gels into a cohesive whole. The competition aspect of the affair never feels all that urgent even when Evil Eddie starts shooting at you. It all becomes a bit samey sooner than it ought to, sorely lacking Pirates!‘s addictive kinetic quality; in the older game, you actually sail your ship from place to place with the joystick, where here you just plot a course on a map, hit a key, and jump instantly to your destination. Perhaps the game’s biggest weakness is the wreck-diving mini-game, which consumes far more time than anything else you do but plays like a not especially exciting board game, complete with an ocean floor made up of discrete squares. Again, the developers plainly tried to spice it up, by introducing roaming sharks that occasionally attack your divers. But there’s no variety from wreck to wreck to keep your interest up; you’ll quickly develop a rote approach to the task that works every time, one that is about as exciting as cutting your lawn (a task with which it has much in common).
In the end, then, Sea Rogue is more of a game that I want to love — that I sometimes manage to convince myself that I at least like — than one I really can enjoy over the longer haul. Call it a brilliant concept, imperfectly realized. In all the years since its release, there’s been nothing else quite like it. I remain convinced that there’s a great game in there somewhere, and I’d be thrilled to see the idea revived with richer and more varied content, ideally spanning all of the world’s oceans, with the sense of atmosphere that Sea Rogue‘s workmanlike graphics and sound struggle to inculcate. We have hugely successful games today in which you do nothing but drive a truck around a continent’s highways and byways. Why not one where you travel its seaways in search of treasures from the past?
(I’ve prepared a Sea Rogue download for you which should be fairly simple to get running under your platform’s version of DOSBox.)
Whatever else one can say about Capstone, someone there clearly had a real interest in marine archaeology. For in 1993, four years after Search for the Titanic, they returned to the scene of that crime with Discoveries of the Deep for MS-DOS. It’s a vastly better effort. Then again, how could it not be?
Discoveries of the Deep is an edutational product aimed at youngsters, and sports the sense of whimsy that Search for the Titanic so sorely lacked, including a credible darts game and a shoot-em-up arcade game in your boat’s galley, ready to play when all of this oceanography business starts to become too much. The main game is structured around seven missions which you may undertake in any order. Only one of them involves the Titanic; the others range from investigating airplane crashes in the Bermuda Triangle to disposing of underwater toxic waste. It plays as a simplified version of the premise we’ve been seeing over and over: sail out to the general vicinity of your goal, search from the surface until you pinpoint it precisely, then get into your submersible to complete your mission. Only the economic element is lacking, replaced with a refreshing focus on environmental science; you definitely won’t be looting the Titanic this time out. Although there’s not overmuch to the experience in the final analysis, what there is is colorful and good-hearted. One can easily imagine this game going down a treat in a classroom back in the day, and it still wouldn’t be a bad choice for a kid of the right age — about ten years old is probably the sweet spot — with an interest in the ocean and the things that lie beneath it. Chalk it up as a partial atonement for Search for the Titanic.
(Like Search for the Titanic, Discoveries of the Deep is available on GOG.com as a digital purchase.)
The last wreck-hunting game of this lineage to date appeared in 1998, the year after James Cameron’s film about the disaster rejiggered all of the pop culture surrounding the Titanic in a way which we’ll examine in my next two articles. Titanic: Challenge of Discovery is simultaneously one of a number of cash-in products made in response to the film’s enormous success and a throwback to an earlier era, when the ship existed in the public’s imagination primarily as a wreck. The game’s box copy would have one believe that Robert Ballard himself made it, declaring it “a dramatic game of deep-sea exploration from the man who discovered the Titanic.” This only serves as grist for the mill of Ballard’s critics, who have been muttering behind the scenes for decades now that he is a bit too eager for the limelight and the money that comes with it, having by now lent his name to a jumble of slapdash products like this one that’s about as large as the sunken Titanic‘s debris field.
Challenge of Discovery was created by a “multimedia” studio rather than a games studio, an outfit called Maris Multimedia to be exact, and was published by Panasonic Interactive for Windows. It came rather late in the day of the multimedia boom, but otherwise bears all the hallmarks of its checkered lineage: a surfeit of video clips, including some featuring Ballard himself, and a paucity of worthwhile gameplay. I’ve written about the problems which plagued creations of this sort at some length elsewhere, so I won’t belabor those points here.
In this game, you’re expected to explore three shipwrecks: a man-of-war from the Spanish Armada, the Bismarck (whose wreck was discovered by Ballard in 1989), and finally the Titanic. But it’s painfully clear that far more attention was lavished on the video clips than the gameplay, which is slow, dull, and buggy, to the point that parts of the game are outright broken. Neither the traditional hardcore gamer demographic nor the different, more casual audience whom Panasonic was presumably trying to attract had anywhere near enough patience for this exercise in tedium. All told, it makes for a dispiriting capstone to a strand of games that had a lot of potential in their individual ingredients, but that no one ever quite managed to bake into a comprehensively delicious cake.
(You can find CD images for Challenge of Discovery by searching on archive.org. But, like a lot of shoddily programmed early Windows software, this game is a nightmare to get running on modern systems. I was finally able to succeed by using a Windows 95 — not Windows 98, mind you — installation running through Oracle VirtualBox. If you’re determined to try out this terrible game for yourself, this YouTube video will show you how to get your Windows 95 virtual machine going.)
Next time, then, we’ll turn to a very different way of approaching the Titanic as a gaming subject, and find out whether anyone had more luck there…
Just what do you do next after you’ve created an epic, career-defining masterpiece? That was the question facing Sid Meier after the release of Civilization in the waning days of 1991, after the gushing reviews and the impressive sales figures had begun pouring in to his employer MicroProse. How could he go back to making games that were merely about something when he had already made the game of everything? “Civilization was such a big game that it’s hard to find a topic that doesn’t feel as if you were going backwards,” he admitted in an interview in the summer of 1992. Anything he did next seemed destined to be an anticlimax.
Meier’s first decision about his future was an eminently sensible one: he would take a break. Asked what he was currently working on during that same interview, his reply was blunt: “Absolutely nothing! I’m going to take it easy for a while.” And truly, if anyone in the games industry deserved a timeout, it was him. Meier had maintained an insane pace for the last decade, acting as both lead designer and lead programmer on no less than 21 commercially released games, three of them — Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and of course Civilization — universally lauded icons whose influence has remained pervasive to this day. Indeed, those three games alone, released within five years of one another, constitute as extraordinary a creative outpouring as the field of gaming has ever known. But now, Meier was finally feeling burnt out, even as his marriage was ending — at least partially the result, no doubt, of all those years spent burning the candle at both ends. He desperately needed to catch his breath.
The Sid Meier who returned to the job months later had a new attitude toward his work. He wouldn’t try to somehow top Civilization in terms of scale and scope, but would rather use the fame and money it had brought him to work on whatever most interested him personally at any given time, whilst maintaining a much more sustainable work-life balance. Sometimes these projects would strike others — not least among them MicroProse’s management team — as almost perversely esoteric.
Never was this more the case than with his very first post-Civilization endeavor, as dramatic a departure from the expected as any game designer has ever dared to make. In fact, C.P.U. Bach wasn’t actually a game at all.
The music of Johann Sebastian Bach had long been enormously important to Meier, as he wrote in his recent memoir:
The sense I get when I listen to his work is that he’s not telling me his story, but humanity’s story. He’s sharing the joys and sorrows of his life in a more universal sense, a language that doesn’t require me to understand the specifics of his situation. I can read a book from eighteenth-century Germany, and find some amount of empathy with the historical figures inside, but there will always be a forced translation of culture, society, and a thousand other details that I can never truly understand. Bach isn’t bogged down in those things — he’s cutting straight to the heart of what we already have in common. He can reach across those three hundred years and make me, a man who manipulates electromagnetic circuits with my fingertips on a keyboard, feel just as profoundly as he made an impoverished farmer feel during a traditional rural celebration. He includes me in his story, just as I wanted to include my players in my games; we make the story together. Bach’s music is a perfect illustration of the idea that it’s not the artist that matters, but the connection between us.
Often described as the greatest single musical genius in the history of the world, Bach is as close to a universally beloved composer as one can find, as respected by jazz and rock musicians as he is in the classical concert halls. And mathematicians tend to find him almost equally alluring: the intricate patterns of his fugues illustrate the mathematical concepts that underlie all music, even as they take on a fragile beauty in their own right, outside the sound that they produce. The interior of Bach’s music is a virtual reality as compelling as any videogame, coming complete with an odd interactive quality. Meier:
He routinely used something called invertible counterpoint, in which the notes are designed to be reversible for an entirely new, but still enjoyable, sound. He also had a fondness for puzzle canons, in which he would write alternating lines of music and leave the others blank for his students — often his own children — to figure out what most logically belonged in between.
Bach even went so far as to hide codes in many of his works. Substituting place values for letters creates a numeric total of 14 for his last name, and this number is repeatedly embedded in the patterns of his pieces, as is its reverse 41, which happens to be the value of his last name plus his first two initials. His magnum opus, The Art of the Fugue, plays the letters of his name in the notes themselves (in German notation, the letter B refers to the note we call B-flat, and H is used for B-natural). At the top of one famous piece, The Well-Tempered Clavier, he drew a strange, looping flourish that scholars now believe is a coded set of instructions for how to tune the piano to play in every possible key, opening up new possibilities for variation and modulation.
With C.P.U. Bach, Meier attempted to make a computer write and play “new” Bach compositions, working off of the known techniques of the master, taking advantage of the way that his musical patterns were, as Meier puts it, “both predictable and stunning.” Meier insists that he created the program with no intent to diminish his favorite composer, only to celebrate him. “Creating a computer [program] that creates art counts as a form of artistic expression itself,” he says.
To aid him in the endeavor, he enlisted one Jeff Briggs, a soundtrack composer at MicroProse. Together the two labored away for more than a year on the most defiantly artsy, uncommercial product of MicroProse or Sid Meier’s history. They decided to publish it exclusively on the new 3DO multimedia console, another first for the company and the designer, because they couldn’t bear to hear their creation through the often low-fidelity computer sound cards of the time; by targeting the 3DO, they guaranteed that their program’s compositions would be heard by everyone in CD-quality fidelity.
Still, the end result is a bit underwhelming, managing only to provide an ironic proof of the uniquely human genius of Johann Sebastian Bach. C.P.U. Bach generates music that is pleasantly Bach-like, but it cannot recreate the ineffable transcendence of the master’s great works.
Pick a Baroque musical form, and C.P.U. Bach will compose a brand new example of same for you.
An esoteric product for a console that would itself prove a failure, C.P.U. Bach sold horribly upon its release in 1994. But Meier doesn’t apologize for having made this least likely of all possible follow-ups to Civilization: “My only regret is that [it] is essentially unplayable today, now that the physical console has become a lost relic.” Sometimes you just have to follow your muse, in game design as in music — or, in this case, in a bit of both.
While Sid Meier was first taking a breather and then pursuing his passion project, the public image of MicroProse was being transformed by Civilization. Having made their name in the 1980s as a publisher of vehicular military simulations, they suddenly became the premiere publisher of strategy games in the eyes of many, taking over that crown from SSI, who had largely abandoned those roots to plunge deep into licensed Dungeons & Dragons CRPGs. MicroProse was soon inundated with submissions from outsiders who had played Civilization and wanted their strategy game to go out with the same label on the box as that one, thank you very much. By no means were all of the strategy games MicroProse came to publish as a result equally worthy, but the cream of the crop — titles like Master of Orion, Master of Magic, X-COM, and Transport Tycoon — were as creatively and commercially successful as the genre got during the first half of the 1990s.
The great irony about the MicroProse of this period is that these kinds of games, the ones with which the company was now most identified in the minds of gamers, were almost all sourced from outsiders while the company’s internal developers marched in a multitude of other directions. Much effort was still poured into making yet more hardcore flight simulators like the ones of old, a case of diminishing returns as the tension of the Cold War and the euphoria of the First Gulf War faded into the past. Other internal teams plunged into standup-arcade machines, casual “office games,”complicated CRPGs, and a line of multimedia-heavy adventure games that were meant to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Sierra and LucasArts.
These ventures ranged from modest successes to utter disasters in the marketplace, trending more toward the latter as time went on. The income from the outside-developed strategy games wasn’t enough to offset the losses; by 1993, the company was facing serious financial problems. In June of that year, Spectrum Holobyte, a company with a smaller product catalog but a large amount of venture capital, acquired MicroProse.
Many projects were cancelled in the wake of the acquisition, leaving many employees in limbo, waiting to find out whether their future held a new work assignment or a pink slip. One of this group was Brian Reynolds, a programmer and dedicated tabletop wargamer who had come to MicroProse to escape from his Berkeley graduate program in philosophy and been assigned to the now-cancelled adventure line. With nothing else to do, he started to tinker with a strategy game dealing with what he found to be one of the most fascinating subjects in all of human history: the colonization of the New World. Having never designed a grand-strategy game before, he used Civilization, his favorite example of the genre, as something of a crutch: he adapted most of its core systems to function within his more focused, time-limited scenario. (Although said scenario brings to mind immediately Dani Bunten Berry’s Seven Cities of Gold — a game which was ironically a huge influence on Meier’s Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, and Civilization — Reynolds claims not to have had it much in mind when he started working on his own game. “I didn’t personally like it as a game,” he says. “It all felt like empty forests.”) Reynolds had little expectation that his efforts would amount to much of anything in the end. “I was just doing this until they laid me off,” he says. Although he was working in the same building as Meier, it never even occurred to him to ask for the Civilization source code. Instead he reverse-engineered it in the same way that any other hacker would have been forced to do.
Nevertheless, word of the prototype slowly spread around the office, finally reaching Meier. “Can you come talk to Sid about this?” Reynold’s manager asked him one day. From that day forward, Colonization was an official MicroProse project.
The powers that were at the company would undoubtedly have preferred to give the reins of the project to Meier, placing Reynolds in some sort of junior design and/or programming role. But Meier was, as we’ve already seen, up to his eyebrows in Johann Sebastian Bach at the time, and was notoriously hard to corral under any circumstances. Further, his sense of fair play was finely developed. “This is your idea,” he said to Reynolds. “You deserve to have ownership of it.” He negotiated an arrangement with MicroProse’s management whereby he would serve as a design advisor, but the project as a whole would very much remain Brian Reynold’s.
Having secured our charter…
… we set off for the New World.
The early game of exploration and settlement is in some ways the most satisfying, being free from the micromanagement that crops up later.
The map can get crowded indeed as time goes on.
Like so much in the game, the city-management screen draws heavily from Civilization, but the row of trade goods along the bottom of the screen reflects the more complex economic model.
We declare independence! Hopefully our armies are up for the war that will follow.
The finished Colonization lets you play as the British, the Spanish, the Dutch, or the French. You begin the game in that pivotal year of 1492, ready to explore and found your first colony in the Americas. In keeping with the historical theme, trade is extremely important — much more so than in the highly abstracted economic model employed by Civilization. Sugar, cotton, and tobacco — grown, processed, and shipped back to the Old World — are the key to your colonies’ prosperity. (Brian Reynolds has said only semi-facetiously that his intention with Colonization was to “combine together all the best things from Civilization and Railroad Tycoon — because that would make the game even better!”) Naturally, you have to deal with the Native Americans who already inhabit the lands into which you want to expand, as you do the other European powers who are jockeying for dominance. Your ultimate goal is to build a federation of colonies self-sufficient enough to declare independence from its mother country, an event which is always followed by a war. If you win said war, you’ve won the game. If, on the other hand, you lose the war, or fail to force an outcome to it by 1850, or fail to trigger it at all by 1800, you lose the game.
Even if we set aside for the moment some of the uncomfortable questions raised by its historical theme and the aspects thereof which it chooses to include and exclude, Colonization reveals itself to be a competent game but far from a great one. Sid Meier himself has confessed to some serious misgivings about the rigid path — independence by an arbitrary date or bust — down which Brian Reynolds elected to force its player:
It was a grandiose, win-or-lose proposition with the potential to invalidate hours of successful gameplay. Generally speaking, I would never risk alienating the player to that degree. It was historically accurate, however, and Brian saw it as a satisfying boss battle rather than a last-minute bait and switch, so I deferred to him. Good games don’t get made by committee.
Not only is the choice problematic from a purely gameplay perspective, but it carries unfortunate overtones of all-too-typically-American historical chauvinism in forcing the Spanish, Dutch, and French colonies to clone the experience of the British colonies that turned into the United States in order to win the game — the implication being that those colonies’ very different real histories mark them as having somehow done things wrong in contrast to the can-do Yankees.
But Colonization has plenty of other, more practical flaws. Micromanagement, that ever-present bane of so many grand-strategy games, is a serious issue here, thanks not least to the nitty-gritty complexities of the economic model; by the time you’re getting close to the point of considering independence, you’ll be so bogged down with the busywork of handing out granular work assignments to your colonists and overseeing every freight shipment back home that you’ll be in danger of losing all sense of any bigger picture. In contrast to the seamless wholeness of Civilization, Colonization remains always a game of disparate parts that don’t quite mesh. For example, the military units you can raise always seem bizarrely expensive in proportion to their potency. It takes an eternity of micro-managing tedium to build even a halfway decent military, and even when you finally get to send it out into the field you still have to spend the vast majority of your time worrying about more, shall we say, down-to-earth matters than fighting battles — like, say, whether you’ve trained enough carpenters in your cities and whether their tools are in good repair. The funnest parts of Colonization are the parts you spend the least amount of time doing.
In the end, then, Colonization never manages to answer the question of just why you ought to be playing this game instead of the more generous, open-ended, historically expansive Civilization. Computer Gaming World magazine, the industry’s journal of record at the time of the game’s release in late 1994, published a sharply negative review, saying that there was “more tedium and less care” in Colonization than in Civilization.
One might expect such a review from such an influential publication to be a game’s death knell. Surprisingly, though, Colonization did quite well for itself in the marketplace. Brian Reynolds estimates today that it sold around 300,000 copies. Although that figure strikes me as perhaps a little on the high side, there’s no question that the game was a solid success. For proof, one need only look to what Reynolds got to do next: he was given the coveted role of lead designer on Civilization II after Sid Meier, ever the iconoclast, refused it.
But here’s the odd thing: Meier’s name would appear in bold letters on the box of Civilization II, as it had on the box of Colonization before it, while that of Brian Reynolds was nowhere to be found on either. MicroProse’s marketing department had first hit upon the idea of using Meier’s name prominently back in 1987, when they’d pondered how to sell Pirates!, a game that was not only radically different from anything MicroProse had released before but was impossible to comfortably classify into any existing gaming genre. It seemed to work; Sid Meier’s Pirates! became a big hit. Since then, the official titles of most of Meier’s games had come with the same prefix. Sid Meier’s Colonization, however, was something new, marking the first time that MicroProse’s marketers assigned Meier ownership of a game he hadn’t truly designed at all. “Yes, I made suggestions along the way,” he says today, “but it had been up to Brian whether to accept them. Colonization was not Sid Meier’s game.”
And yet the name emblazoned at the top of the box stated just the opposite. Meier rationalizes this fact by claiming that “‘Sid Meier’s’ now meant ‘Sid Meier mentored and approved’ instead of ‘Sid Meier personally coded.'” But even this statement is hard to reconcile with the text on the back of the box, which speaks of “Colonization, the newest strategy game from Sid Meier [that] continues the great tradition of Civilization.” Clearly MicroProse’s marketing department, if not Meier himself, was completely eager to make the public believe that Sid Meier had designed Colonization, full stop — and, indeed, the game was received on exactly these terms by the press and public. Brian Reynolds, for his part, was happy to give his mentor all of the public credit for his work, as long as it helped the game to sell better and gave him a chance to design more games in the future. The soft-spoken, thoughtful Sid Meier, already the most unlikely of celebrities, had now achieved the ultimate in celebrity status: he had become a brand unto himself. I trust that I don’t need to dwell on the irony of this in light of his statement that “it’s not the artist that matters.”
But MicroProse’s decision to publicly credit Colonization to someone other than the person who had actually designed it is hardly the most fraught of the ethical dilemmas raised by the game. As I’ve already noted, the narrative about the colonization of the New World which it forces its player to enact is in fact the semi-mythical origin story of the United States. It’s a story that’s deeply rooted in the minds of white Americans like myself, having been planted there by the grade-school history lessons we all remember: Pilgrims eating their Thanksgiving dinner with the Indians, Bostonians dumping British tea into the ocean to protest taxation without representation, Paul Revere making his midnight ride, George Washington leading the new country to victory in war and then showing it how it ought to conduct itself in peace.
In presenting all this grade-school history as, if not quite inevitable, at least the one satisfactory course of events — it is, after all, a matter of recreating the American founding myth or losing the game — Colonization happily jettisons any and all moral complexity. One obvious example is its handling of the Native American peoples who were already living in the New World when Europeans decided to claim those lands for themselves. In the game, the Native Americans you encounter early on are an amiable if primitive and slightly dim bunch who are happy enough to acknowledge your hegemony and work for you as long as you give them cigars to smoke and stylish winter coats to wear. Later on, when they start to get uppity, they’re easy enough to put back in line using the stick instead of the carrot.
And then there’s the game’s handling of slavery — or rather its lack of same. It’s no exaggeration to say that all of the modern-day countries of North and South America were built by the sweat of slaves’ brows. Certainly the extent to which the United States in particular was shaped by what John C. Calhoun dubbed The Peculiar Institution can hardly be overstated; the country’s original sin still remains with us today in the form of an Electoral College and Senate that embody the peculiarly undemocratic practice of valuing the votes of some citizens more than those of others, not to mention the fault lines of racial animus that still fracture American politics and society. Yet the game of Colonization neatly sidesteps all of this; in its world, slavery simply doesn’t exist. Is this okay, or is it dangerous to so blithely dismiss the sins and suffering of our ancestors in a game that otherwise purports to faithfully recreate history?
Johnny L. Wilson, the editor-in-chief of Computer Gaming World, stood virtually alone among his peers in expressing concern about the thin slice of life’s rich pageant that games of the 1990s were willing and able to encompass. He alone spoke of “the preponderance of violent solutions as opposed to creative exploration and experimentation, the increasingly narrow scope of subject matter perceived as marketable, the limited nature of non-player characters and our assumptions about game players.” Unsurprisingly, then, he was the first and as it turned out the only gaming journalist of his era to address Colonization not just as a good, bad, or indifferent game in the abstract, but as a rhetorical statement about the era which it attempted to recreate, whether it wished to be such a thing or not. (As the school of Deconstructionism constantly reminds us, it’s often the works that aren’t actually trying to say anything at all about a subject which end up having the most to tell us about their makers’ attitudes toward it…) Wilson raised his concerns before Colonization was even released, when it existed only in a beta version sent to magazines like his.
Two upcoming games on the colonial era will excise slavery from the reality they are simulating: Sid Meier’s Colonization from MicroProse and Impressions’ High Seas Trader. Both design teams find the idea of slavery, much less the institution of slavery, to be repugnant, and both teams resist the idea of “rewarding” the gamer for behavior which is and was abominable.
This reminds me of the film at Mount Vernon where the narration explains that Washington abhorred slavery, so he left wording in his will so that, upon his and Martha’s deaths, his slaves would be freed. To me, that’s tantamount to saying, “I’ll correct this immoral practice as soon as it doesn’t cost me anything anymore!”
It is obvious that George didn’t find it economically viable to be moral in that circumstance. So, if slavery was such an important facet of the colonial economy that even the “father of our country” couldn’t figure out how to build a successful business without it, how do we expect to understand the period in which he lived without having the same simulated tools at our disposal? Maybe we would have some belated appreciation for those early slaves if we didn’t try to ignore the fact of their existence.
Of course, we know what the answer is going to be. The game designers will say that they “only put in the cool parts” of history. We hear that. Yet, while there is nothing wrong with emphasizing the most entertaining parts of a historical situation, there is a danger in misrepresenting that historical situation. Maybe it doesn’t add credibility to the revisionist argument that Auschwitz never happened when we remove the Waffen SS from a computer game, but what happens when someone removes Auschwitz from the map? What happens when it is removed from the history books?
Removing the horrors of history from computer games may not be a grand conspiracy to whitewash history, but it may well be a dangerous first step.
Wilson’s editorial prompted an exchange in the reader-letters section of a subsequent issue. I’d like to reprint it in an only slightly edited form here because the points raised still pop up regularly today in similar discussions. We begin with a letter from one Ken Fishkin, who takes exception with Wilson’s position.
Johnny Wilson seems to have forgotten that the primary purpose of a game is to entertain. Computer games routinely engage in drastic alterations, simplifications, and omissions of history. Railroad Tycoon omitted Chinese labor and union strife. In SimCity, the mayor is an absolute dictator who can blithely bulldoze residential neighborhoods and churches with a mere click of the mouse, and build the Golden Gate Bridge in weeks instead of decades. In Sid Meier’s Civilization, Abraham Lincoln is immortal, phalanxes can sink battleships, and religious strife, arguably the single most important factor in the history of international relations, is totally omitted. And yet Computer Gaming World gave these games its highest praise, placing all of them in its Hall of Fame!
It is hypocritical of Computer Gaming World to criticize Sid Meier’s Colonization in the same issue in which it effusively praises Sid Meier’s Civilization. Computer Gaming World used to know that computer games shouldn’t be held to the same standards of historical accuracy as a textbook.
The magazine’s editorial staff — or really, one has to suspect, Wilson himself — replied thusly:
Is it hypocritical? The same Johnny Wilson that wrote the column had an entire chapter in The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook which talked about the realities that were not simulated (along with some elaborate workarounds that would enable gamers to see how much had been abstracted) and he also questioned certain historical abstractions in [his Civilization strategy guide] Rome on 640K a Day. Do these citations seem hypocritical? Different games have different levels of perspective and different levels of abstraction. Their success or failure will always depend on the merit of their gameplay, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t consider their historical/factual underpinning as well.
Even if certain historical/real aspects have to be abstracted for the sake of gameplay, the designers have a responsibility to acknowledge, tip their hat to, or clarify those conditions which they have abstracted. When it comes to orders of battle and dominant practices, they should be addressed in some way and not ignored because they are inconvenient. We agree that a game should be balanced enough to play well, but the lessons of history should not be totally glossed over. We fear that there is a tendency of late to do just that.
Finally, we have a letter from Gilbert L. Brahms, writing in support of Wilson’s position.
Your theses are very well-taken. Computer games become nothing [more] than schlock entertainment if they strip realism from historical recreations. There is no point in presenting any [game] referring to World War II Germany without presenting Nazism in all its symbology, nay, without including the imagery which ensorcelled those desperate and gullible Germans of the time into surrendering themselves “mit ganzen Willen” to Hitler’s blandishments.
The sins of the past are not eradicated by repression; in fact, they become all the more fascinating for having become forbidden fruit. Only critical confrontation can clarify such atrocities as occurred in the 1940s and can tutor us to resist such temptations again, in ourselves as well as in others.
If, therefore, a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.
I’ll return to the arguments presented above in due course. Before I do that, though, I’d like to take a brief leap forward in time.
In 2008, Firaxis Games — a company founded by Sid Meier, Brian Reynolds, and Jeff Briggs — announced a new version of Colonization, which once again chose to present Native Americans as dim-witted primitives and to completely ignore the historical reality of slavery. Even before its release, Ben Fritz, a gaming blogger for Variety, loudly attacked it for having committed the vaguely defined, all-purpose crime of being “offensive.” Fritz’s blog post is neither well-argued nor well-written — “I literally exclaimed ‘holy sh*t’ out loud when I was reading an email this morning,” goes its unpromising beginning — so I won’t bother to quote more from it here. But it was a harbinger of the controversy to come, which came to dominate the critical discussion around the new Colonization to the point that its qualities as a mere game were all but ignored. Firaxis published the following terse missive in a fruitless attempt to defuse the situation:
For seventeen years the Civilization series has given people the opportunity to create their own history of the world. Colonization deals with a specific time in global history, and treats the events of that time with respect and care. As with all previous versions of Civilization, the game does not endorse any particular position or strategy – players can and should make their own moral judgments. Firaxis keeps the player at the center of the game by providing them with interesting choices and decisions to make, which has proven to be a fun experience for millions of people around the world.
Whatever its merits or lack thereof, this argument was largely ignored. The cat was now well and truly out of the bag, and many academics in particular rushed to criticize the “gamefication of imperialism” that was supposedly at the core of even the original game of Civilization. In his recent memoir, Sid Meier describes their critiques with bemusement and more than a touch of condescension.
This philosophical analysis quickly spread to my older titles — or as one paper described them, my “Althusserian unconscious manifestations of cultural claims” with “hidden pedagogical aspirations.” Pirates! wasn’t about swashbuckling, it turned out, but rather “asymmetrical and illegal activities [that] seem to undermine the hierarchical status quo while ultimately underlining it.” Even C.P.U. Bach was accused of revealing “a darker side to the ideological sources at work behind ludic techniques.”
All I can say is that our motives were sincere, and maybe these guys have a little too much time on their hands.
For all that I’m usually happy to make fun of the impenetrable writing which too many academics use to disguise banal ideas, I won’t waste space shooting those fish in a barrel here. It’s more interesting to consider the differing cultural moments exemplified by the wildly divergent receptions of the two versions of Colonization — from a nearly complete silence on the subject of the potentially problematic aspects of its theme and implementation thereof to red-faced shouting matches all over the Internet on the same subjects. Through this lens, we can see how much more seriously people came to take games over a span of fourteen years, as well as how much more diverse the people playing and writing about them became. And we can also see, of course, how the broader dialog around history changed.
Those changes have only continued and, if anything, accelerated in the time since 2008; I write these words at the close of a year in which the debates surrounding our various historical legacies have become more charged than ever. One side accuses the other of ignoring all of the positive aspects of the past and trying to “cancel” any historical figure who doesn’t live up to its fashionable modern ideals of “wokeness.” Meanwhile the opposing side accuses its antagonists of being far too eager to all too literally whitewash the past and make excuses for the reprehensible conduct of its would-be heroes. Mostly, though, the two sides prefer just to call one another nasty names.
So, rather than wading further into that morass, let’s return to the arguments I reprinted without much commentary above, applying them now not only to Colonization but also to Panzer General, the subject of my first article in this two-part series. It strikes me that the best way to unpack a subtle and difficult subject might be to consider in turn each line of argument supporting the claim that Colonization — and by implication Panzer General — are fine just as they are. We’ll begin with the last of them: Firaxis’s corporate response to the controversy surrounding the second Colonization.
Said response can be summed up as the “it’s not the game, it’s the player!” argument. It’s long been trotted out in defense of a huge swath of games with objectionable or potentially objectionable content; Peter Molyneux was using it to defend the ultra-violence in Syndicate already in 1993, and there are doubtless examples that predate even that one. The core assertion here is that the game doesn’t force the player’s hand at all — that in a game like, say, Grand Theft Auto it’s the player who chooses to indulge in vehicular mayhem instead of driving politely from place to place like a law-abiding citizen.
Of course, this argument can’t be used as an equally efficacious escape hatch for all games. While Panzer General will allow you to command the Allied forces if you play a single scenario, the grand campaign which is the heart of that game’s appeal only allows you to play a Nazi general, and certainly gives you no option to turn against the Nazi cause at some point, as Erwin Rommel may or may not have done, beyond the obvious remedy of shutting off the computer. But Colonization does appear to do a little better on this front, at least at first glance. As many defenders of the game are at pains to point out, you can choose to treat the Native Americans you encounter relatively gently in comparison to the European colonizers of recorded history (admittedly, not really a high bar to clear). Still, the fact does remain that you will be forced to subjugate them to one degree or another in order to win the game, simply because you need the land and resources which they control if you hope to win the final war for independence.
Here, then, we come to the fatal flaw that undermines almost all applications of this argument. Its proponents would seemingly have you believe that the games of which they speak are rhetorically neutral sandboxes, exact mirror images of some tangible objective reality. But this they are not. Even if they purport to “simulate” real events to one degree or another, they can hope to capture only a tiny sliver of their lived experience, shot through with the conscious and subconscious interests and biases of the people who make them. These last are often most clearly revealed through a game’s victory conditions, as they are in the case of Colonization. To play Colonization the “right” way — to play it as the designers intended it to be played — requires you to exploit and subjugate the people who were already in the New World millennia before your country arrived to claim it. Again, then, we’re forced to confront the fact that every example of a creative expression is a statement about its creators’ worldview, whether those creators consciously wish it to be such a thing or not. Labeling it a simulation does nothing to change this.
The handling — or rather non-handling — of slavery by Colonization is an even more telling case in point. By excising slavery entirely, Colonization loses all claim to being a simulation of real history to any recognizable degree whatsoever, given how deeply intertwined the Peculiar Institution was with everything the game does deign to depict. Just as importantly, the absence of slavery invalidates at a stroke the claim that the game is merely a neutral sandbox of a bygone historical reality for the player’s id, ego, and superego to prance through. For this yawning absence is something over which the player has no control. She isn’t given the chance to take the moral high road by refusing to participate in the slave trade; the designers have made that choice for her, as they have so many others.
I require less space to dispense with Ken Fishkin’s equating of Railroad Tycoon‘s decision not to include exploited Chinese laborers and SimCity‘s casting you in the role of an autocratic mayor with the ethical perils represented by Colonization‘s decision not to include slavery and Panzer General‘s casting you in the role of a Nazi invader. Although Fishkin expresses the position about as well as can reasonably be expected, these sorts of pedantic, context-less gotcha arguments are seldom very convincing to anyone other than the overly rigid thinkers who trot them out. I freely acknowledge that all games which purport to depict the real world do indeed simplify it enormously and choose a very specific domain to focus upon. So, yes, Railroad Tycoon as well does whitewash the history it presents to some extent. Yet the exploitation of Chinese labor in the Old West, appalling though it was, cannot compare to the pervasive legacy of American slavery and the European Holocaust in today’s world. Debaters who claim otherwise quickly start to sound disingenuous. In any discussion of this nature, space has to be allowed for degree as well as kind.
And so we arrive at Fishkin’s other argument from principle, the very place where these sorts of discussions always tend to wind up sooner or later. “The primary purpose of a game is to entertain,” he tells us. Compare that statement with these assertions of Gilbert L. Brahms: “Computer games become nothing [more] than schlock entertainment if they strip realism from historical recreations. If a computer game should truly aspire to become a work of art, it must fulfill both the recreative and the didactive functions inherent in all serious aesthetic productions: it must present horrible conflicts with all of their nasty details.” Oh, my. It seems that we’ve landed smack dab in the middle of the “are games art?” debate. What on earth do we do with this?
Many of us have been conditioned since childhood to believe that games are supposed to be fun — no more, no less. Therefore when a game crosses our path that aspires to be more than just fun — or, even more strangely, doesn’t aspire to be “fun” in the typical sense of the word at all — we can find it deeply confusing. And, people being people, our first reaction is often outrage. Three years before the second version of Colonization was released, one Danny Ledonne made Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, an earnest if rather gawkily adolescent attempt to explore the backgrounds and motivations of the perpetrators of the high-school massacre in question. A book on the same theme would have been accepted and reviewed on its merits, but the game received widespread condemnation simply for existing. Since games by definition can aspire only to being fun, Ledonne must consider it fun to reenact the Columbine massacre, right? The “games as art” and “serious games” crews tried to explain that this edifice of reasoning was built upon a faulty set of assumptions, but the two sides mostly just talked past one another.
Although the “just a game” defense may seem a tempting get-out-of-jail-free card in the context of a Panzer General or a Colonization, one should think long and hard before one plays it. For to do so is to infantilize the entire medium — to place it into some other, fundamentally different category from books and movies and other forms of media that are allowed a place at the table where serious cultural dialog takes place.
The second version of Colonization found itself impaled on the horns of these two very different sets of assumptions about games. Its excision of slavery drew howls of protest calling it out for its shameful whitewashing of history. But just imagine the alternative! As Rebecca Mir and Trevor Owens pointed out in a journal article after the hubbub had died down, the controversy we got was nothing compared to the one we would have had if Colonization had given the naysayers what many of them claimed to want: had better captured historical reality by actually letting you own and trade slaves. The arguments against the one approach are predicated on the supposition that at least some types of games are more than idle entertainments, that a game which bills itself as a reasonably accurate reenactment of colonial history and yet excises slavery from its narrative deserves to be condemned in the same terms as a book or movie which does the same; the arguments against the other are rooted in the supposition that games are just fun, and how dare you propose that it’s fun to join the slave trade. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Perhaps the only practical solution to the dilemma is that of simply not making any more versions of Colonization. No, it’s not a terribly satisfying solution, placing limits as it does on what games are allowed to do and be. Nevertheless, it’s the one that Firaxis will almost certainly choose to employ in the future.
I do want to emphasize one more time here at the end of this pair of articles that neither Panzer General nor Colonization was created with any conscious bad intent. They stem from a time when computer gaming was much more culturally homogeneous than it has become, when computer gamers were to an almost overwhelming degree affluent, stereotypically “nerdy” white males between the ages of 10 and 35. People of privilege that they were, usually immersed in the hard sciences rather than the irritatingly amorphous but more empathetic humanities, they struggled to identify with those crosscurrents of society and history outside their own. Although the wargaming subculture that spawned Panzer General and Colonization still exists, and would still receive those exact games today in the same unquestioning way, it’s vastly smaller than it used to be in proportion to the overall mass of gamers. And, again, its blind spots then and now remain venal sins at worst in the grand scale of things.
That said, I for one am happy that the trajectory of gaming since 1994 has been ever outward, both in terms of the types of people who play games and the kinds of themes and experiences those games present. Indeed, it sometimes seems to me that their very scope of possibility is half the reason we can so easily confuse one another when we try to talk about games. Certainly one person’s idea of a satisfying game can be markedly different from another’s, such that even as brilliant a mind as that of Sid Meier can have trouble containing it all. His famous categorical claim that a good game is a “series of interesting decisions” is true enough in the case of the games he prefers to play and make, but fails to reckon with the more experiential aspects of interactivity which many players find at least equally appealing. It’s thus no surprise that he offhandedly dismisses adventures games and other interactive experiences that are more tightly plotted and less zero-sum.
I’ve often wondered whether this label of “game” is really all that useful at all, whether there’s really any more taxonomical kinship between a Colonization and a Super Columbine RPG! than there is between, say, books and movies. Digital games are the ultimate form of bastard media, appropriating elements from all of the others and then slathering on top of it all the special sauce of interactivity. Perhaps someday we’ll figure out how to talk about this amorphous stew of possibility that just keeps bubbling up out of the pot we want to use to contain it; perhaps someday we’ll divide it up into a collection of separate categories of media, using those things we call “gaming genres” now as their basis. In the meantime, we’ll just have to hang on for the ride, and try not to rush to judgment too quickly when our expectations of the medium don’t align with those of others.
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.