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Memory Lane – Eagles

So this was the big one. I was working in a Miami lumber yard, I didn’t know anyone. I was pretty much on my own. I needed a playmate. Then one day, while sorting the board stacks, I came up with a neat World War One flying idea.

Planes could have a percentage chance to turn 90 degrees (else they went straight and THEN turned in their next move). Diving increased their chances, climbing decreased it. Same thing for speed – each plane might go one or two squares, based on their speed percentage. Simple yet elegant. I wrote it using a series of fonts to animate the plane movements and, on a lark, sent it to Strategic Simulations Inc, the powerhouse of computer military simulations.

And they bought it.

This was one of the headiest things that ever happened to me. To see my game in magazines and in shops. To get big royalty checks (I took my entire evening computer science class out to pizza). It was really, really cool. Fame is a very intoxicating drug.

I still have the game on the shelf, and the original art hanging in my kitchen. Every now and then I look at it and think, you know, it wouldn’t be any trouble at all to write this grid-based game in Excel, to duplicate what I’d done and advance it further (how about hundreds of planes on various patrols, allowing you to play at a tactical AND strategic level?).

Yes, someday.

Memory Lane – Game aids for StarWars, Top Secret, Maatac

At this point in my life, I started looking at the computer from its tool perspective rather than its game-creation angle. For one thing, I was doing a lot of DMing for my StarWars universe (hosting at least two games a week at VPI).

Here, the computer came in very handy. First off, back then there was very little home word processing – for college papers, I’d hand-write them and then take them to a secretary pool to get them typed up. For games, all the tables that people needed turned into over-Xeroxed messes covered with hit-point notes and pizza stains. Suddenly, with the word processing cartridge in my Atari, I could actually type in these charts and print out a bunch for my players! Revolutionary!

Also, more importantly, I wrote a program to handle a lot of the heavy table-trashing that combat took up. Now, when resolving roleplaying combat, I could run down a form (while off-handedly describing the action) and tell people what they needed to roll to hit (call it legacy, but the players still wanted to roll their own dice to hit – having the computer do it nearly raised a revolt!). And, in tuning the gameplay, I actually remembering writing a program to shoot 10,000 stormtroopers 10,000 times to get the percentages of deaths, knockouts and still-standings. It took the Atari about a minute to clump through the run.

There were other play aids developed. Besides the Role Playing game Top Secret, I also coding it the laborious combat tables for Maatac, the futuristic tank-to-tank miniature game. Now, instead of looking up every weapon system, one at a time, for each tank’s barrage, the player would just call out “Two heavies, range twenty one, armor C” to the person manning the keyboard. Somehow, using a computer to resolve a simulated computer’s combat efforts seemed more nature than our early attempts to fully automate StarWars. Nobody protested.

It was truly a labor-saving device.

Memory Lane – Estates of Seth

Now this one I do remember. Following the dismal ???? of Seth (discussed in last week’s blog) I approached my next game more methodically. I wanted to do a full rewrite of the Pits engine. No more of the round-robin combat – now you’d actually have locations to worry about. I think we also put minor magic into the game, so there were wizards and archery, too. Now everything was done on a grid, with ranges and blocking squares and all that.

The Estates were outside of town, a ruin of a mansion with walls around it, fallen- down, roofless rooms inside and a level of vaults below. You could actually walk wherever you wanted, even leaving the party (those slugs!) and go wherever you pleased. And wandering monsters actually wandered, occasionally leaving their lairs to bump around the halls for a bit before returning. Oh, there was even an “outside” town-to-estates-and-back game, automatically linking the first Pits game to the second. And, oh, the things we could do with fonts. I even had the writing in an olde-englishe font.

It was an okay game – we played it on and off for a bit. I think most of us were transitioning in our lives – I was leaving home to go to Tech and my brother and his friends were budding out of the larval stage and becoming something resembling pre-formed humans. It was a good game, probably better designed and written than the other two, but for some reason just not as much fun as the original. And that’s the thing about game design. You might think that you’ve made great strides over your former games but when it’s all said and done, it’s just, well, meh.

Memory Lane – ???? of Seth

Over fifty-five years of living, there are (frankly) people I have forgotten. I am certain there are friends (girlfriends and otherwise) who I no longer recall. I’ve lived in a lot of places and knew a lot of people, so there it is.

But it’s incredible for me to think that I made a game that I don’t remember. Vaguely, I remember coding something in after Pits, to take advantage of the new speeds (and space limitations) of DOS (Disk Operating System on the Atari). And the use of the font-modification software we’d gotten from a magazine. And there were other things I wanted to add, better ways of playing. But I don’t remember what they were.

I think, in a misty way, that this game was actually the “journey from the town to the Pit” game, where you had to cast around a random land looking for the dungeon entrance. I think I wrote that to fill out more of the Seth universe. Players would leave the city, travel across the land, and then when they got to the site they could enter (and get a full listing of the party so they could retype them in when they started Pits. Sounds like a kludgy way of doing it, but we were men back then).  I’ve actually rewritten this paragraph as more random memories come to me from so far away.

So I spent three months or so writing a game that we hardly ever used. I think the whole “play one game just to play another” turned out to be a drag, especially when you got there and got slagged in the first room, and had to exit the game and then retype everything in for the journey home.

So there you go. Like cities in fallen empires, this game has been forgotten by everyone, including the designer.

Memory Lane – Pits of Seth

Dungeon Crawls are a really stable design. The “story” idea is that some vast castle was somehow swept away, leaving its dungeons behind. All manner of monsters and creatures live in the down-below, hording gold and gems and trying to eat anyone who ventures down. So it’s a perfect setup – a very restrained environment (doors and walls and passageways) and the opportunity for characters to make the game more difficult (and rewarding) by leveling up (i.e. stair-ing down).

Most of the dungeon games available back then (the few there were) were preprogrammed once-throughs. I hated that. Why would I want to master a game I could only go through once? With that, I came up with a fairly clever idea of random dungeon generation (well, they looked like they had been hewn by drunken dwarven miners but it WAS random) – squares would either be intersections, east-west corridors, north-south corridors or rooms. The area the player was in would be drawn based on their square and the squares around them (i.e. if you were in a passageway and there was a room nearby, a door would be drawn). It was topdown and pretty simple, but fun all the same.

For combat, I coded in Melee (by Steve Jackson games). It was a pretty basic game that gave you abilities and weapons and armor, and was a lot of fun to play.

Six players were permitted to participate (they had to stay in a group). There was no auto-mapping – someone had to draw things out on graph paper as we went along (and there was no more chilling statement from your mapper than “…wait. That can’t be right.”). Overall, it was a really fun game, one that we played from time to time at the Edain, and later it became a staple of Virginia Tech Friday nights.

Outside of Eagles, this game probably got played the most. We hacked and slashed for years with it.

Memory Lane – Shark Lark

Shark Lark was an interesting  effort. Where Battle for Berlin used some hidden placement, Lark was all about it.

So there is a game grid, something like 10 or 15 on a side, all water with beaches along the east and west edge. At the beginning of the game, you could pick how many players (yes, it was multiplayer in a hot-key sorta way) and how many sharks.

Sharks would cruise at one or two squares a turn, holding a course and only turning when they hit a beach or board edge. If they detected a player, they would charge at three. Half the time, their fin would be visible (the “^” character).  If a shark hit a player, he was dead.

Players could run three squares on sand, swim slowly at one and fast at two. Of course, swimming fast mean sharks could detect a player further away (I don’t remember just what these ranges were). Once a player was detected, up came the fin and the race was on.

This game revealed a funny strategy – it someone tipped off the sharks and they were going for him, that was the time to stroke for it because sharks would not switch targets. Also good for laughs were players getting killed on one turn, then killed again and again as other sharks came in over following turns. Hoo boy.

We actually played this game once or twice at the Edain Wargame Club around 1980 or so – it was fun for ten players to try to get across the straits and maybe one or two make it. But I was learning more about coding and from this foundation, I started what would be one of my most solid games, Pits of Seth!

Back to Solar Trader

So last week Robert finished up his coding and handed the ST code back to me.  Unfortunately, I’ve been under the weather, and made no progress so far.  The good news – I’m finally feeling better, so I’ll be working tonight.  Be prepared, soon, Space won’t be so lonely.

Memory Lane – Battle for Berlin

I bought my Atari 800 for one thing – Star Rangers. But the computer came with Basic (via a cartridge) and a big manual for how to use that language. And since I had a job as a security guard and had nothing to do in the overnight shift save read, I decided to see how programming worked.

I remember sitting on a loading dock at my little presswood desk, the manual in my lap, having an epiphany.

With a computer, you could hide values!

Even better, you could ACCESS those values! And you didn’t even know what those values were!

This was an amazing thought. Back then, games were physical things, with maps and counters and hexagons. The only way you could hide values was to flip a counter upside down (and let’s not talk about the chance of staining the counter with finger oil or ripping the paper backing or anything like that). The moment you had to check that counter’s identity, you knew what it was. The secret was out.

But with a computer, a value could remain secret. In fact, the actual presence of the counter could be hidden. The possibilities (in 1980) were amazing!

Battle For Berlin was my very first working game. Essentially it was nothing more than a three-way battle (between American, German and Russian soldiers) for the 3×3 grid of “Berlin”. You could move or you could shoot. If you saw someone and shot at them, you had so-so chance of killing them. I think some squares had descriptive elements (so you, and others, could figure out your locations). I even seem to recall random artillery coming down, killing players in a given square and moving things right along. As I remember, the point of the game rapidly came down to assembling your little group of randomly placed soldiers back into something like a platoon, so you could pick off individualists.

I remember playing this thing with my brother and his friends and having a pretty good time. And how amazed I was that the computer could act as a dungeon master and referee, hiding things from its players and acting upon circumstances we didn’t even know.  That idea burned in my head, and came to light fully in my next effort, Shark Lark!

A lifetime of games

I can’t say why I’m writing this, other than the fact that I woke up in the pre-dawn stillness, cat curled under my arm, the world silent outside the open window, with a remembrance of all the games I’d written in my life.

I’m going to list them here, and in future posts, will describe each one in detail.

How many have you played? (and if I forget one, please remind me)

The list (in order of creation)

  • Battle for Berlin
  • Shark Lark
  • Pits of Seth
  • ???? of Seth
  • Estates of Seth
  • Game aids for StarWars, Top Secret, Maatac
  • Eagles
  • DeathRace
  • After the Fall
  • CyberTank (and CyberShip)
  • Shark Lark
  • Iron Mike
  • Dispatcher Panel
  • Pits of Seth (Excel Version)
  • System War One
  • Time Tripper
  • Pits of Seth 2
  • Solar Trader
  • Freight Agent

Distracted but returning to orbit

It’s been a long couple of weeks – I released an article about our Dispatcher’s Panel and that resulted in a lot of “favor” coding (I’d like to ask a “favor” if you’d add…). So I had about two or three of these to do (ever look at code you’ve written five years back? Ugh!).

And then there was the delema at the model train club – we use physical cards to forward freight cars between through freights, the yards and various industries. The problem here was that the old dudes were walking off with pocketfuls of cards after their runs. And once you were missing cards (including their lading slips) it was always another trip to Office Max to get more printed. So I took it apon myself to write a switchlist generation program (much harder than it looks, and not for release – see paragraph one for reasons why). And now that’s just about done.

So finally I’m going to get back to ST. We’ve got interceptions by ships neutral and otherwise to work out. So now, when you piss off the mob and jump into your ship and leave that planet behind, they just might have a bounty hunter waiting for you.

Space just got a little more deadly.

Coming soon…