Strategy games and simulations from SSI. (evaluation) Brian J. Murphy.
Strategy Games and Simulations From SSI
What killed the dinosaurs? It wasn't a shift in the Earth's orbit, volcanic action, the movement of the continents, or a sudden cooling of the atmosphere. It was a plague, bourne to Earth by meteorites, and it is on its way here again!
That, at least, is the scenario for the destruction of the human race advanced by Steven Faber in his game Epidemic designed for Strategic Simulations, Inc. It is one of several exciting games released by SSI this year.
In Epidemic you are the commander of a global medical team, based in Antarctica and charged with defending the entire planet against the space plague. You are given powers that no dictator ever dreamed of. You even have the right to destroy totally vast regions of the planet if necessary to halt the advance of the deadly virus.
As the game begins a hi-res color display charts the progress of the infection in the fourteen regions into which the world has been divided. You can quickly determine which parts of the planet are infected, where curative measures have been undertaken, how many millions have died and which areas most need your attention.
Next you'll see a radar screen, charting the approach of new meteorites which threaten to hit untouched areas and infect new populations. Watching the course of the meteors, plotted against a world map, you will be able to predict which will hit the land and which will fall harmlessly into the sea.
Now that you have the big picture, you can make the important tactical decisions needed to beat the malignant microbes. You have a diverse arsenal of weapons--medical, political, and military--at your disposal. In areas where the disease is at a less virulent level (killing only one or two million a day) you may use as many as eight different cures. Each has its advantages and drawbacks.
Interferon, for example, works well in killing the virus, but supplies are always severely limited, and a one-day allocation is the maximum for any region. X-ray machines are effective at first, but they have a high breakdown rate. In communist states martial law works well in preventing people from passing the disease along, but it does not work in democracies. The best hope lies in a complex gene splice technique which limits the growth of virus populations. Unfortunately the process takes five days to show results, by which time the disease may be out of control.
When all else fails there is the ultimate weapon; you can nuke an entire region. This is the indicated therapy when the disease is completely out of control, threatening to spread to other regions. Of course it is wrong to nuke heavily populated areas because, after all, carnage will be appalling--and counts against your game score.
The weapons to use against those pesky meteors are your nuclear missiles. During each turn you have to choose, when exercising your limited number of options, between curing the sick and firing at incoming meteorites.
There are four levels of difficulty which you may choose at the beginning of the game, each requiring its own strategy for victory. The shortest scenario, Level 4, is playable in from 20 minutes to a half-hour. Level 1, the hardest scenario, is playable in an hour. At Level 1 you have eight meteors on the radar screen and start with a significant portion of the world infected. In Level 4 the situation is less complex and more easily managed.
The game system is easy to master, and play is smooth. On-screen prompts and menus are clearly presented and the game moves along very quickly. The graphics are colorful and well designed. The disk offers a game save feature and there is a utility for formatting blank disks as game savers.
The documentation is entertainingly written and supports the program well, but even without the manual and player aid cards, a first time gamer stands a good chance of picking up the rules just by booting the disk and following the prompts. Who ever thought the end of the world could be so much fun?
Another, more realistic, scenario for the end of the world is advanced in the first two games of the SSI When Superpowers Collide series, Germany 1985 and RDF 1985. These games simulate a war in the near future that begins with Soviet invasions of central Germany and the Persian Gulf oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
In Germany 1985, you may choose two-player or solitaire action in two scenarios: Advance to Contact and Invasion. Units for the NATO side include battalions of tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), self-propelled artillery, air cavalry, and engineers. The Russians have battalions of tanks, APCs, artillery, rocket firing Katushka trucks, infantry, and engineers.
When the computer is playing the Russian side, the NATO player can expect rough handling. No matter which of the three levels of difficulty you select, the Russians will use their superior numbers in tanks and artillery to maximum advantage. This is no game for inexperienced wargamers. Even advanced players will need all their skills to avert a crushing Russian victory.
In the Invasion scenario, the Russians must size vital river crossings from the NATO defenders: On the west bank of the river that divides the hi-res color battle field is a major airfield and several cities and villages. To win the game, the Russian side must occupy as many of these objectives as possible.
In the solitaire mode, as the game begins, the NATO player's forces are automatically deployed by the computer to guard the two major bridges at the top and center of the battlefield (in the two-player mode, the NATO player deploys his forces manually). In the first turn only an advance guard of Soviets advances onto the battlefield. In the third turn the Soviets outflank your river defenses, with forces entering the battlefield from the south-central edge, west of the river.
If your forces seem inadequate to the task of turning back this attack, they probably are. NATO's major reinforcements do not arrive until about halfway through the game (the game lasts from 20 to 22 turns). Your job is to keep yourself in the ballgame, with as few units as possible destroyed, until reinforcements can appear. Even then, taking back all the real estate the Russians have captured is a Herculean task.
In the Advance to Contact scenario, the NATO and Soviet armies enter from opposite edges of the battlefield. The major objectives are the village squares and the lone airfield. With no major rivers for the Soviets to cross on this battlefield NATO plays with no natural moat to delay the enemy advance, as in Invasion.
The battlefront is fluid, with the enemy units, as directed by the computer, probing for those sectors which you have had to leave lightly defended because of your limited numbers. The NATO player will find it very hard to dam the massive Soviet armored flood.
If this is what an actual Soviet invasion of West Germany would be like, we are all in real trouble.
RDF 1985, the second game in the Superpowers series, shares a rulebook with Germany 1985 (in fact, you have to have the Germany rulebook before you can play RDF).
In this new scenario the United States Rapid Deployment Force is on its first combat mission--to halt a Soviet takeover of Saudi Arabia's Persian Gulf oil fields. The important difference between Germany and RDF is that in RDF the good guys have a better chance at winning.
There is only one scenario, but you can play it in two-player or solitaire mode and at varying levels of difficulty, depending on how many Soviet reinforcements you are prepared to face. The first US troops on the scene are airdropped infantry. You may choose the drop zones yourself or let the computer assign them automatically.
Once your men are on the ground their first job is to grab an airfield--part of your reinforcements will need that airfield. Next in importance is to capture all the towns, oil fields, and airfields you can safely occupy. Remember that all these objectives are considered in Soviet possession until you overrun them, and the number of these objectives you hold determines who wins.
Finally, you must gain control of seacoast squares. Half was through the game the Navy arrives with reinforcements, but they can't land them unless you control a section of the seacoast.
The game system, designed by Roger Keating, is very elegant and makes good use of the capabilities of the Apple as a wargame simulator. Single key and CONTROL/key commands move a cursor around a map made of 1092 squares. The fine high-resolution color graphics system provides a very good simulation of both horizontal and vertical scrolling.
The command system is complex and elegant. To select a unit for command you place the cursor over the unit, and key M for move. Now you have several options. You may change the mode of the unit to prepare it for combat, defense, attack, support fire, or to regroup. You may move the unit, with distances varying according to mode. Moving a unit next to an enemy initiates combat. If the enemy is in sight, you may opt to call in tactical airstrikes.
Germany and RDF come closer than any wargames I have seen to being fully automatic. The game control system can automatically cycle round to each unit, eliminating the possibility of your forgetting to move one. Units can be ordered to automatically move and fire, head for predesignated locations on the battlefield, and occupy villages and other objectives. This takes much of the work out of wargaming.
Another nice aspect of this game system is the realistic way that combat is handled. When your forces collide with the Soviets, a complex formula for determining the outcome of the ensuing combat is applied. The factors which influence the battle result include how many enemy units are in sight of yours (and can fire on you), your strength, the enemy's strength, how the two sides use the terrain, and the mode the unit was in when attacked.
As elegant and realistic as this game system is, it is hard to remember all the things you must be doing--or could be doing--to win the battle. The difficulty is compounded by a beastly rule book for Germany 1985. It will take several readings for you to acquire a firm grasp of the rules (Hint: If you play the sample turn you will learn faster).
Germany 1985 and RDF 1985 are not right for first-time wargamers. Even experienced wargame buffs would be well advised not to take them lightly. Once you have mastered the game system, however, you are in for one of the most formidable wargame challenges you are likely to experience--even if you give yourself a break and have the computer play the NATO forces while you command the Russians.
The year is 1942, and even with Russia and the United States in the war, Adolf Hitler's dream of world conquest could still come true. His hopes are pinned on the Afrika Corps commanded by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the master tank commander known as The Desert Fox. Standing in his way to the Suez Canal and an eventual linkup with the Japanese is the British Eighth Army and an island sitting astride Rommel's air and sea supply lanes--Malta.
In Gary Grigsby's Bomb Alley, the Axis player has one important job: to keep British convoys from resupplying their "unsinkable aircraft carrier,' Malta. In this monster-sized naval/air strategic-level simulation the players have at their disposal virtually all of the ships and planes which took part in the actual campaign between June and late August, 1942. The Axis player commands over 150 ships, from cruisers to motor torpedo boats. The British player has a similarly diverse collection, numbering over 160 vessels.
The game control system is essentially the same as used in Grigsby's other "monster' game, Guadalcanal Campaign. Each player may have as many as eight task forces on the map at any time on a variety of missions including bombardment (to support--or attack-- invading Nazi ground troops on Malta), transport, combat, submarine, emergency resupply and evacuation.
Waves of bombers pound ships and shore installations. Other planes are used to search for enemy convoys. Submarines lurk in the waters through which the enemy must pass. British convoys of transport ships are heavily escorted by cruisers and destroyers, intended to draw the bombers and subs away from the transports.
The key to the game is the proper use and convervation of air power. The planes simulated in Bomb Alley represent a wide range of the many types flown during the war. The Axis player intercepts British bombing missions with high performance Messerschmidt Me 109 fighters. The British player counters with nimble Spitfires. Alongside other classic planes like the deadly Ju87 Stuka divebomber, the Do17 bomber and the Ju52 trimotor transport are such lesser known planes as the Fairey Fulmar, the biplane Swordfish torpedo plane, and the deadly Italian bomber, the SIAI Marchetti SM 79.
The action in Bomb Alley is fast and complex. Unlike Guadalcanal, in which combat is infrequent (carrier task forces spend many game turns in harbor refitting and reforming, reflecting the way the real campaign was fought), Bomb Alley offers combat almost every turn.
The main campaign scenario is 164 turns long, covering the period from June 11 to August 31, 1942. That is a formidable gaming challenge in itself. For those with less time and patience, there are two shorter scenarios. One is a re-creation of the last-ditch attempt to resupply the island, "Operation Pedestal,' the other is a re-creation of the German invasion of Crete.
The strong point the three scenarios share is realism. They faithfully recreate the strategic choices the commanders faced and the dilemmas they had to resolve. The ships and the planes all perform according to historical fact. Add to this the non-stop action and you have a formula for great strategic wargaming.
For those who want to avoid the problems of the high command, who like to look at wargaming from the point of view of the average grunt, the reappearance of Ed Williger's Computer Ambush should provide delight. This vastly speeded-up new version is a re-creation of squad-level combat, set in 1944.
To refresh your memory, the game begins with a squad of U.S. infantrymen attacking a French village, led by tough top Sergeant J.C. "Buck' Padooka--the kind of guy who makes Sgt. Rock of Easy Company look like a sissy.
Padooka's instincts tell him that hidden somewhere in that village is a squad of tough Wehrmacht veterans. He is right. It turns out that hard-bitten Feldwebel Kurt Reich's squad is ready and waiting for the Amis. Reich is no Nazi, but he is a real pro; he defends that village as if it were his own front yard.
In this simulation, if you play one of the five solitaire scenarios, the computer does the decision-making for the Germans. Your job is to try to figure where, in that maze of half-ruined buildings, Reich had concealed his squad. Your job is to ferret them out.
The human tools you have to work with vary in quality to say the least. Each of the ten men in the squad has a distinctive personality, as revealed in the dossiers provided in the rulebook. With some careful reading and a little practice, you learn how you can use their human strengths and weaknesses to the best advantage in combat.
The movement/combat system seems bewildering at first, but with a little study and play experience it turns out to be exceptionally flexible.
Almost every move, every action in squad combat has been faithfully recreated. The men can walk, run, crawl, dodge, fall down, or stand up. They can move in a straight line or dodge, sneak cautiously or run at full tilt. They can fire automatic weapons and rifles, plant explosive charges, or lob grenades. In hand to hand combat the men can use their knives, bayonets, and garrotes. You provide the tactics--and experience the tension of combat-- yourself.
When Computer Ambush first appeared, Creative's reviewer (Nov. 1980) praised it for its realism but observed that the program consumed about 30 minutes of computing time per game turn to resolve movement and combat. Plastered prominently on the cellophane wrapper of the new version is the notice that the game plays "40x Faster,' a claim which I have verified.
Key parts of the program were rewritten in assembly language, and a program bug discovered when the complaints started to roll in two years ago has been eliminated, according to SSI. The result is that the movement/combat resolution which took a half hour of computing now takes a minute or less. It is an improvement that elevates Computer Ambush from a game for die-hard players only to its deserved status as a classic. (Die-hards please note: SSI will update your old Computer Ambush disk for $20.)
Galactic Adventures, designed by Tom Reamy, is as far away from the nittygritty of real life warfare as you can get. It is a fantasy/role playing game which can be as simple or as complex as you like, depending on your mood of the moment.
As the game starts, you choose which species you want to be. Perhaps you'll choose to be a superhuman Wodanite, an elephantine Dulbian, a feathered Cygnian, or a mysterious Zorcon. You have seven species from which to choose, and each has its own special abilities and deficiencies. Fortunately, you get a chance to "accentuate the positive' by assuming skills in weaponry and in such fields as medicine, black hole engineering, linguistics, lock picking, and logic.
The next step is to buy some weapons and tools. These are obtainable at the market and the weapons shop, but at a price. Fortunately, you have 30,000 frilbees to spend on whatever you need. The important thing to remember is that you can carry only five items at a time.
Once you are equipped, the next step is to set out for the streets of the city to recruit a band of hardy adventurers who will follow you wherever you go-- provided you pay them on time. Sometimes, during recruitment, prospective fellow adventurers will attempt to eat you for dinner or attempt to tear you limb from limb. Try not to let this sort of thing disillusion you as you dodge laser sword thrusts and disruptor bolts.
With your band of heroes recruited, it is on to training. Gaining combat experience is important, and setting upon an outnumbered and underequipped band of aliens is as good a way as any to get it. Besides, if you win, you can look forward to the always entertaining tradition of looting your victims.
Before combat, the game system sets up a color battlefield on which you will meet your opponents. Symbols on the battlefield represent you and your opponents and tip you off as to their armament and armor. Obstacles on the field which block your line of sight, however, can make your enemy disappear temporarily. Never fear; a few battles and you will have-learned how to use long range weapons like the Gemstone and phasor rifles and how to win hand-to-hand using a laser sword or a vibro knife.
Another form of training comes as you complete various jobs offered by creatures you encounter in the streets. These jobs require your non-combat skills. Fascinating jobs you will be offered include star piloting, noetic logic, linguistics, cyborg jockeying, and gunnery. Each successfully completed job raises your skill level and fattens your purse; each bungled contract results in a heavy fine.
When you and your fellow adventurers are ready, you can visit one of the guilds for an assigned adventure. The job may include interstellar combat, a battle with aliens on their own turf, or another mission equally as dangerous and potentially profitable.
The capacity of Galactic Adventures for new adventure experiences is virtually endless. You can spend an evening ambushing citizens, running cargo or passengers through hyperspace, battling Banshees, or solving logic puzzles.
You also have the option of creating your own adventure scenarios. You can build your own battlefield, pick your enemies, and decide what treasures will be won.
Echoes of science fiction writers like Larry Niven and Fred Saberhagen are found throughout this creative game, but the most important influence is that of your own imagination. Unlike some role playing games, there is no final goal or prize to be won. You win by staying alive and by attaining your own personal goals. The world of Galactic Adventures is what you make it. With a good imagination, it can be a most fascinating place, where you will spend many happily violent hours.
Photo: Germany 1985.
Photo: RDF 1985.
Photo: Bomb Alley.
Photo: Computer Ambush.
Photo: Galactic Adventures.
Products: Epidemic (video game)
Germany 1985 (video game)
RDF 1985 (video game)
Bomb Alley (video game)
Computer Ambush (video game)
Galactic Adventures (video game)