The only problem with my blog is that it requires me to sit down, type, collect photos, scan, proof read, and put together a solid article.
If you’d like more interim retro/gaming talk, feel free to follow me on my Facebook account. Lately I’ve been playing the King’s Quest series (Gasp! Yes, I know – I’m only just NOW playing this series. During those days I only just had a Commodore 64, 128, and Amiga computer, and by the time I got into DOS gaming KQ 5-6 were on shelves, and I just missed the series.)
The excellent, and totally free, remakes are available here - they even have the full blessing of original creator Roberta Williams’ on the games!
We can basically credit the old company called Strategic Simulations Inc (or SSI) for giving us the world’s first, serious home computer wargame. It was a rather ugly (even for its time) game called Computer Bismarck.
As the name implies, the game was about sinking the infamous German battleship Bismarck, via British forces. As the British player, you had available a range of forces to use in the battles, and ultimate search and sinking of the Bismarck – and as the Germans, various forces to stop said attacks.
The game used a typically-ugly display for the time – a world of ugly violet colors, neon-green landscapes, and block text characters.
But, for the time, this was an amazing game.
Programmed over the course of about six months, the two guys involved (Joel Billings and John Lyons), had a good rapport with each other, and both thought that computers would make ideal platforms for playing wargames on.
It was even programmed in BASIC, and then compiled to help give a boost to its speed (BASIC, while easy to program for, is a very slow language for computers to run).
What inspired him to program a wargame onto a computer? Like I said in my previous entry in this series: Wargames were noted for involving lots of math, lots of paperwork, and requiring lots of space. He saw a computer wargame as a means of solving all of these issues.
And the final battle of the Bismarck made for a good situation to give this a first try at.
Once they started to program the game, Billings started to explore the video games market – even approaching Avalon Hill at a gaming convention – and basically found that his new game was getting a lukewarm reception.
In truth, the computer game they were programming was rather a clone of Avalon Hill’s own Bismarck wargame itself – something that AH would later sue them over.
The basic idea that people held at the time was that a computer didn’t have the ability to run a serious wargame. Bad graphics (not even comparable to the cardboard maps and counters of the day, much less intricately-painted miniatures) and slow speeds just didn’t seem to grab people’s attention.
But these two guys saw something else in the game’s potential that everybody else seemed to be missing: A computer could do things, such as fog-of-war, that was really not easily attainable in a traditional hex-and-counter wargame.
For example: The second a German naval unit is placed onto any sort of ocean map, the British player is going to head straight towards it, knowing that it’s either going to be the actual Bismarck itself, or at least a smaller German unit to sink and eliminate from the equation.
Fog-of-war is next to impossible to properly implement on a traditional hex-and-counter wargame. Some very solid, and creative, attempts have been made at it, but a computer is the only means by which real fog-of-war can be achieved.
Oh, and if you don’t know: Fog-of-war is the unavoidable, and inherent, confusion that arises in any battle. Not knowing exactly where the enemy is, what his strengths are, etc. That’s fog-of-war.
The only shame for Computer Bismarck was that they really didn’t use the potential of the computer to implement such a scenario, but instead stuck to rather traditional hex-and-counter gameplay. As such, yes, most of the German forces are clearly visible at all times. It’s a game of careful out-maneuvering at the core. A few reviewers at the time criticized Computer Bismarck for not taking better advantage of the platform, and I agree.
Programmed initially for the Apple II, because it had the better graphics capabilities at the time, the two guys realized that for the game to be a success, it would have to offer absolutely top-notch packaging, manual, and art.
To this end they used a real magazine publisher’s camera to create the nice box art, made sure that a top-quality printed manual was included, and even took-out a full-page advertisement for the game in BYTE magazine.
The published release of the game was, as BYTE magazine said: “A milestone in the development of commercial wargames.”
Despite its flaws, and being rather a rip-off of Avalon Hills original game, Computer Bismarck was a big success, and can be credited for launching the successful SSI company, and of making people take computer war gaming as a serious thing.
I’ve got about 2/3 of the next article written; sorry it’s taken so long. Between my artistic efforts, and chronic illness, I sometimes can get bogged down.
In case you missed it, THE video game find of our year has been literally unearthed: http://kotaku.com/e-t-found-in-new-mexico-landfill-1568100161