Strategy Gaming: Part IV -- In the Beginning Strategy Gaming: You've Come a Long Way, Baby
By - Mark H. Walker
And so we begin our look into turn-based gaming. We've talked about the difference in strategy and wargames, and doled out a ladleful of information on each genre. Now it's time for the main course. Let's get started.
Victory Games' Ambush is one of my all time favorite board wargames. It is also one of the first true computer wargames. Released in 1980 by Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), the game depicted man to man fighting in World War II. Throughout the eighties SSI continued to produce a legion of wargames (War in Russia (1984), Mech Brigade (1985), and Typhoon of Steel (1988)) with help from esteemed designer, Gary Grigsby. He was not, however, their only game guru. Norm Koger strode on the wargaming design scene in 1989 with Red Lightning, an operational depiction of a fictitious 1980s Soviet assault into Central Europe. Koger would come into his own in the 90's designing five games through 1998.
The California based company also produced one of the industries early strategy game success stories. Released in 1984, Colonial Conquest, was a solid depiction of Europe's colonization of the New World.
Way over on the other side of the big pond (i.e. the Pacific Ocean), Roger Keating -- who first designed for SSI (Computer Conflict (1980), Germany 1985 (1982)) founded his own company -- Strategic Studies Group -- and blew the rest of the naval wargame world out of the water with his (co-designed with Ian Trout) Carriers at War (1985). The team continued the assault of wargamer's pocketbooks with the modern (WWI to Desert Storm) operational level ground combat series titled, Battlefront, and their similar Civil War series, Decisive Battles of the Civil War.
Of course SSG and SSI weren't the only companies involved in war and strategy gaming. Crusade in Europe, released in 1985 by Microprose and designed by future gaming design legend Sid Meier was a darn good game about the WWII European Theater of Operations. And Interstel (now that's definitely NOT a household name) distributed one of the finest strategy games of the 80's -- Mark Baldwin's Empire (1987).
Larry Bonds' Harpoon -- arguably the greatest wargame of all-time -- was released in 1988. A nearly direct conversion of Larry Bond's miniature rules, Harpoon was both fun AND realistic -- a claim few games can make.
The Roaring '90s
The computer industry stepped up to the commercial plate in the 90's and the strategy and wargaming genre was no exception. Although the blossoming of the real-time side of the strategy equation significantly slowed the sales of turn-based gaming, there were still many solid hits through the decade.
Leading the strategy hit parade was Sid Meier's Civilization. Released in 1991, Civilization, and its successors -- Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, and Civilization III -- are probably the greatest strategy games of all time. Each game's open-ended, build-a-civilization-from-scratch, premise attracted legions of fans. Unfortunately, that same premise turned many gamers off... the end game was just too long. SSI's copycat franchise Imperialism hit stores in 1997, and they followed it up with Imperialism II in 1999. The games were similar to Civilization, but covered a smaller slice of time -- the age of imperialism. By the same token Strategy First's Europa Universalis (I and II) series let gamers develop and battle throughout Europe and the New World from the days of Joan of Arc to Napoleon. Released in the first two years of the millennium, the games sold well and proved that there was still a market for complex strategy games.
Reach for the Stars
Also complex were the plethora of space-based "4X' games released in the late eighties, nineties, and early 21st century. The 4Xs stand for "Explore, Expand, Exploit, and Exterminate," and no game did it better than SSG's Reach for the Stars. In it the gamer must explore the galaxy, develop planets, research technology trees, establish relations with new races, and fight those races who don't wish to talk. The game was a bit hit and spawned numerous "me-too" titles. Microprose's Master of Orion (1994) and Master of Orion: Battle of Antares (1996) were two excellent examples, but by no means the only ones. The Logic Factory's Ascendancy came out in 1995, and Malfador Machinations continues to develop their Space Empires franchise. But Holistic's Emperor of the Fading Suns (1996) is my favorite, hands down. Fading Suns not only lets you explore, research, and fight in space, but allows players to take the fight to the planet's surface. Only in Fading Suns can the gamer fight hex by hex for the planet of their choice.