Classic Computer Magazine Archive ST-Log ISSUE 23 / SEPTEMBER 1988 / PAGE 60


by Ian Chadwick

Ian Chadwick is a Toronto-based technical writer. He lives with his wife, Susan, their cats, dog, computers, guitars, war games, homemade wine and beer and 10,000 books in a somewhat too small house. His current pastimes are designing a simulation of Napoleon's campaigns and gardening.

I was rather surprised to receive several letters asking about a comment I made way back when, about using my Toshiba T1100 + laptop and my Atari ST together. Let me clarify it, for all those who asked. Any IBM PC or compatible with a 3.5-inch drive can format a disk that the ST can read from and write to. The PC can also read and write to it, so they can both use it to share files. However, unless you have a special program to do it, many PCs cannot write single-sided (360K) floppies in a 3.5-inch drive. My Toshiba can do it, but not my AT clone.

The ST cannot normally write to a disk readable by the PC unless you use a program that writes the correct boot sector to conform to the MS-DOS standard. One example is the excellent DC Formatter, a public-domain utility from Double Click Software. Others are available on most bulletin boards. This process does not alter the disk in any way so as to make it unusable by the ST—it simply allows both systems to use it.

You can write 360K floppies on the ST and write the MS-DOS boot sector for the PC to read. The PC seems quite tolerant about reading from and writing to the single-sided disks, even if it won't format them. The PC is less fault-tolerant than the ST; so I recommend that, if possible, you format your disks in the PC, rather than the ST.

However, there is a caveat. You must write the MS-DOS boot sector before you write any files to the disk—immediately after format is the best time. One of the things the boot sector establishes is which sector(s) holds the directory table. On the ST, sector 11 is the norm, but on the PC it's sector 07. If you write the boot sector after you've copied files to the disk, you can't read them on either machine! I haven't found a "restore" utility which changes a disk back to ST format yet.

Another caveat is to beware of "twister" and other fancy formatting techniques on the ST. I've had problems using these disks between systems, so stick to the standard single or double sided formats and you won't have any problems.

Data files (straight text or ASCII) and any software-compatible files (e.g., Word Perfect) can then be transferred between machines and used by programs. Of course, program files can't be used at all, since they're written for different processors. However, it means you can buy a cheap XT clone with a 40mb hard drive and use it to store all of your ST software for about the same price as a dedicated ST hard disk!

Which brings up another issue: I have a Supra 20mb hard disk—an early model, not one of their slim-line versions. I have trouble with it. When it's cold or has not been used in a while, it stubbornly refuses to boot right away. I have to turn it and the computer on and off several times, and usually let it run a long while before it "catches" and boots. This can take as long as 15 minutes; no small wait.

This problem has been with me for a long time—ever since I've owned it— and remains despite updates to my boot program. I'm not sure I have the latest boot. I once asked Supra about the problem via CompuServe, but I got a less than satisfactory answer. The problem remains, and I am less than happy with my drive's performance. I have considered upgrading to 40mb or even 60mb, but my experience with this drive discourages me from pursuing Supra's line further. I'd appreciate any advice from readers about this and other hard-drive issues.

I just received Firebird's Universal Military Simulator (UMS) and have spent considerable time with it. Anyone who knows me is aware of my penchant for military games and history. For years I wrote a column about computer war games for the largest military history/game magazine. My library is full of military reference books. My board-war-gaming friends, like me, have little time for long, drawn-out games; so I always look forward to a new war game for my computer.

From the advertisements, I expected something truly amazing. It promised to be a design kit with which the user could create any historical battle. For we grognards, this is a ticket to the promised land. Alas, promises made are not always kept.

SSI released Wargame Construction Set (WCS) last year, a game designed along similar lines, in which the user can create his own armies and battlefields. WCS is quite a good package, albeit limited because it allows far too few units on a side to truly simulate a lot of historical battles and has a somewhat limited range of terrain types—probably the result of too close adherence to the 8-bit versions in the translation. It does, however, allow a spectrum of unit types, including helicopters, infantry, tanks, cavalry and boats. WCS plays wells and aside from the limitations, it's a good, enjoyable package. It makes good use of color and the mouse; it has sound effects, interesting screen graphics and reasonably intelligent algorithms to handle things like combat, spotting and the aggressive nature of the computer-controlled opponent.

UMS, on the other hand, is even more limited, to the point of ridiculousness. A maximum of 24 units is allowed on a side: 18 regulars, six "wildcards." That rules out a lot of battles right there: Too many compromises have to be made to fit an actual order of battle into 24 units. In the Waterloo scenario, in order to fit the battle into the unit restrictions, historical units are simply ignored, and artillery is lumped into corps units. The entire Prussian army is gone, along with Grouchy's corps!

None of the units onscreen look like anything military: They appear as black and white signposts with an abbreviated name and a unit symbol. So much for historical color.

Terrain is worse. There are only clear and woods squares. Clear can be given four height levels: depression, flat, hill and ridge. That's it. You might think you were fighting on the moon! Woods are simply green squares. They don't look anything at all like woods. The effects of these limited types of terrain on combat are only discussed in passing, in the documentation.

The playing area map is a lifeless grid work without even the slightest visual appeal. It doesn't even pretend to simulate real terrain, merely abstracts it. The back of the package announces: "You no longer have to settle for inferior graphics ..." I'd be pleased if they were as good as inferior!

Towns, villages and landmarks can be added, but aside from visual clutter, they have no effect on play. The chateaux and farms at Waterloo, so bitterly contested, are nothing in UMS. Worse perhaps, there is no provision for water: no rivers, seas, shorelines. Battles like Marengo, Austerlitz, Saipan, Stalingrad, Wavre and a thousand others which were fought around or near water and which played so critical a role in the action can't be simulated. Most of the predesigned scenarios in the package were also fought around water—for example, the Smohain river that restricted Napoleon's right wing, Rock Creek that runs east of Gettysburg.

The combat results provide interesting, if not very amusing and unpredictable results. I've had crack units—advancing heavy infantry, good morale, 2,000 strong—beaten by 500 retreating infantry with poor morale, my division taking 1000 + casualties while handing out only 100 themselves! Artillery is considerably over-gunned, at least in the Waterloo scenario. A single unit (I Corps, 46 guns) can cause 500 + casualties in a single tenminute phase. A trifle historical? This happens a bit too often to be considered a unique event.

Unit speeds are another curiosity. Heavy infantry, they say, march at 12.5 mph. (British army marching pace is only 4 mph!) Artillery move at 18.5 mph. (No time is required to limber and unlimber the guns!) By this I gather they assume all artillery is horse artillery; a sad mistake since they weren't. Cavalry also travels at 18.5 mph, only 50% faster than the infantry (and a lot slower than charge speed!) and no faster then the heavily encumbered artillery. I guess they came by these figures by lottery; there's no reason for them otherwise.

In combat, units retreat in any direction. They don't logically fall back towards their supply source. They don't run pell-mell away from the advancing enemy, even when they have room to do so. Instead, the appear to move randomly, often into enemy units, sometimes causing severe casualties as they retreat. Just plain nonsense.

The scenario booklet suggests that the human take Wellington's army and force the computer Napoleon to attack to show how weak the Emperor's position was. Well, I made the computer take the Duke's forces instead, but I let the computer decide all the strategy. It drove the troops out of the positions and headlong into my French army. As a result, it was soundly defeated. Why couldn't the computer recognize its superior position? Not a very intelligent routine, I'd say.

The UMS order of battle for Waterloo in the scenario booklet is based on sources at least 90 years old, and the numbers disagree with modern sources such as Chandler and Bowden. It contains basic mistakes such as splitting the Young Guard into 1st & 3rd Tirailleurs and 1st & 3rd Voltigeurs and assigning their leadership to Duhesme (misspelled "Duheame"), the division commander and his second, Barrois. In actuality the 1st Tirailleurs and 1st Voltigeurs were together under Chartrand and the 3rd Tirailleurs and 3rd Voltigeurs were together under Guye. Finally, the 21st Division (VI Corps) under General Teste, 4,000 men, is missing. This sort of mistake is very irritating, especially to a history buff.

There is no level for army morale to break. Armies don't fight to the last man. They break, they rout, they collapse at a certain point when the overall morale breaks. In UMS, they fight to the last.

Crazy. And there are more problems. I can't get the program to work if any desk accessories are installed (therefore it won't work with my hard disk since it loads several accessories). There is an annoying double redraw of many screens. There's no undo option. There's no hands-off automatic mode (computer vs. computer); you have to manually press N for "next phase" all the time. There is no grid numbering system for the map, so it's easy to misplace terrain and units when trying to create a scenario. From what I can fathom, moving diagonally costs the same in movement points as moving the same number of squares orthogonally, ignoring basic lessons of geometry. You can create "wildcard" units but their effect and purpose are unexplained. Then again, the rule book explains very little else, so why worry about one more detail?

I wish the designers had bothered to read some of the books on the topic, such as Dupuy's Numbers, Prediction and War or Rothenberg's The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon, Keagan's Face of Battle. UMS's designers showed no insight into the mechanics of battle at all.

My sneaking suspicion is that UMS was translated exactly as is from the C64 version, complete with errors, nagging limitations, ugly graphics and lousy history. SSI, in translating WCS, made some allowances for the ST. Firebird did not. Whatever strengths this program has (and it does have a few) are drowned by the deluge of weaknesses. Back to the drawing board folks: We expect a lot better from you than rehashed C64 programs! UMS goes back onto the shelf, at the bottom of the heap.

Remember Max Think? Hippo Concept? I do. They were outline processors, like Think Tank and Ready for the Mac/PC. They obviously didn't make much of a splash, because I haven't seen Max around for at least a year and Hippo went the way of the Anthracotherio idea (the ancestral artiodactyls). Too bad. I liked Concept even more than Max, especially since it created an ASCII file I could edit with a word processor.

I like outline processors. I use Ready all the time on my PC and have just found a PD version called PCO. They provide a unique approach to data organization, a tree structure that can't be recreated easily in a word processor. I'm using one to keep achronological record of battles of the Napoleonic Wars. For this sort of database, an outline is extremely well suited; you can see the overview, zoom in on any detail, open whole sections and explore. You're not limited to fields and other vertebrate structures.

This little blurb is by way of asking for any information about existing (surviving?) ST outliners. I'd like to transfer some more of my PC data over to my ST. Send your cards and letters. . . .

Pretentious? Moi?

Editorial constraints (not to mention the threat of lawsuit) prevent me from putting into print my more rabid attacks on such areas of interest as mediocre software development, Atari's weak support of the ST, lukewarm media response, the competition, and other tender areas. So instead of putting my thoughts in print, I'm going to publish them on DELPHI, in the ST SIG area. Free-wheeling personal opinion and point of view only, not necessarily the editorial viewpoint of this magazine, not for reprint. Responses welcome. Watch for it on DELPHI.