Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Game 255: Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio

A Cambrian explosion of Hamurabi clones diverged throughout the 70's, undoubtedly driven by David Ahl's BASIC conversion. The emphasis on formulas appealed to the computer nerds of the day, its primitive implementation lent itself well to expansion, the BASIC language made this simple, and programmers around the world took their shots at it, sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes producing entirely new games. Like so many Cambrian species, the vast majority are extinct, forgotten, with not even a fossil record to remember them by, and yet, virtually all economic simulation games owe their lineage to this event.

One of the most successful of these games was Santa Paravia and Fiumaccio, a city management title originally published in the December 1978 issue of SoftSide Magazine as a TRS-80 BASIC type-in program, where it's billed as Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio and credited to Rev. George Blank. It was successful enough to receive an expanded tournament edition, ports to Apple II and Commodore computers, and a graphical remake on 16-bit machines in the late 80's. The full extent of its influence is unknown, but designer Brian Reynolds cites it as an influence.

In Santa Paravia, you own a sizeable fiefdom in 15th century Italy and are tasked to develop and expand it into a city-state, with the ultimate goal of recognition as a king or queen - a title contingent on accomplishing tasks such as accumulating money, land, population, and city improvements.

Up to six players may compete with the goal of being first to reach the highest rank, but interaction is limited. Each player gets their own fiefdom, with player one owning Santa Paravia, player two owning Fiumaccio, player three owning Torricella, and so on. Apart from the race to the crown, the only means of interaction is the possibility to steal another player's lands, should your army become much larger than theirs.

There are quite a few versions of Santa Paravia available to download, most of them as loose BAS files, but I'm not sure I trust these to be accurate to the type-in. Quite a few have typos, and a number all have a coding error where a 50% interest rate is incorrectly calculated by adding 1.5 to the debt instead of multiplying by it. I've instead chosen to play the cassette version distributed by Instant Software Inc around 1979-1980, knowing that it features some minor enhancements over Blank's original.

I spent some time puzzling over Santa Paravia's mechanics - the instructions don't really tell you how to succeed, or even what your goals are. The article in SoftSide goes into some detail, but a lot of the information there is wrong.

The first thing you might want to understand about Santa Paravia is how to achieve ranks. There are twelve goals, mentioned in the magazine but not the ingame instructions:

  • Build 10 markets
  • Build 10 palaces
  • Build 10 cathedrals
  • Build 10 mills
  • House 50 nobles
  • Hire 500 soldiers
  • House 100 clergy
  • House 500 merchants
  • House 20,000 serfs
  • Own 60,000 hectares of land
  • Own 50,000 florins
  • Achieve an economic factor 50 (not directly visible)

You don't need to achieve all of these goals in order to win, but each is worth up to 10 points, with partial credit given for partial completion. At the easiest difficulty, you must earn 48 points. At the most difficult, you must earn 72.

After spending some time coming to grips with how things work, I went for the highest difficulty, Grand Master.

Each turn has three decision-making phases, starting with the harvest.


Here, we already have some improvements from the Hamurabi format. Instead of simply buying or selling land for grain in a one-time, irrevocable decision, you may buy or sell both grain and land for currency. Make a mistake and buy the wrong amount of land? It's okay, you can just sell it back. Unfortunately, there's no good indication here of the amount of land you currently own, so you'll need to keep track of that yourself.

Once you commit your purchases, you have to decide how much grain to distribute. The amount must be between 20% and 80% of your reserve.

Here, there's a critically important factor - always distribute at least 130% of the demand. If you haven't got enough grain, buy it. If you haven't got enough money, sell some of your land or accept debt. This encourages people to come to your land - not just serfs, but also nobles, merchants, and clergy, who you absolutely need on the higher difficulties. Furthermore, you get an economy bonus. The number of serfs who come is affected by the amount of extra grain you give them, but the rest don't care - you either meet the 130% threshold or you don't.

Two other factors are important but not quite as much, because unlike in Hamurabi, grain production isn't everything. The amount of "workable" land is equal to your number of serfs times five. To optimize your harvest, you will have enough leftover grain to seed your lands at a rate of one stere per two hectares.

Hidden from this screen are your serfs and hectares. We always begin with 2000 serfs and 10000 hectares, a perfect proportion so that all of the land is workable.

Math time. 130% of the demand is 14820. I will also need 5000 to seed all of my land. If I have 19820 steres, these plans work out. 14820 is less than 80% of that total. I already have more than that, so I sell the difference rather than let the rats eat it.

Prior experience tells me that I can count on collecting 1500 florins in taxes on my first turn. Land isn't cheap right now, but it's inexpensive enough to pay off later, so I'll buy 1533 hectares for 3066 florins and end my turn exactly 1500 in debt. And finally, distribute the 14820 steres to the people.

Paravian babies are born ready to work.

As I mentioned, whenever immigration occurs, it includes nobles, merchants, and clergy. This is kept hidden from you, for some reason.

The next phase is taxes.

You can play around with the rates and see your projected income before committing. The instructions say that high taxes slow economic growth, but this isn't quite accurate. There are two rules, which come into effect the following turn:

  • If the sum values of Customs and Sales taxes add up to under 35%, then 1-4 merchants will immigrate.
  • There is a (100% - 5*[INCOME TAX)) chance that 0-1 nobles immigrate, and 1-2 clergy immigrate.

I want nobles and clergy, so I keep income tax at zero. And I've found that customs duties always pay better than sales tax, so I keep customs at 34% and sales tax at zero.

But the real money comes from corruption. And that brings us to justice.

The maximum level is "outrageous," where the judges are bribed, verdicts go to the highest bidder, and you get 700 florins per title you've achieved. SoftSide says this harms the economy, but I haven't seen any proof of this. There are two main downsides - the first is a severe score penalty. And this isn't that big a deal - just set it to "fair" on turns where you think you'll get promoted, and the score penalty will immediately go away. Then you can go back to outrageous justice once you acquire a new title; you can't get demoted by losing points, and you'll enjoy even more lavish kickbacks with your higher title. The second downside is that serfs tend to flee, but with my 130% grain demand strategy the population seems to trend upward regardless, and I don't need a lot of serfs to win as long as they produce enough grain to feed themselves and everyone else.

Before the third phase, we get a view of our fiefdom.

And an anticipation of Civilization's city view

This is mostly visual fluff, but the icons here are meaningful. The size of the rectangle indicates how much land we own. The squiggles in its upper-right corner are supposed to be a plowman driving a horse, and its position indicates optimal grain harvesting for the amount of land owned - when we have too many serfs to put to work, he'll be above the line, and when we have unused land, he'll be farther below it. Lastly, the castle in the upper left means we are adequately defended.

The final phase is state purchases.

  • All buildings improve the economy, and the more expensive the building, the bigger the effect.
  • Marketplaces generate 75 florins every turn - hardly amazing as it takes 14 turns to turn a profit and your game isn't guaranteed to last more than 20 - but also attract merchants.
  • Mills generate 56-305 florins every turn and improve the economy even more, but each mill owned causes 100 serfs to be unproductive for harvesting grain.
  • Palaces attract nobles.
  • Cathedrals attract clergy.
  • Soldiers are needed as your land grows, or you risk invasion. Each platoon bought converts 20 serfs into soldiers, and will cost 60 florins every turn.

 For now, I invest in a single marketplace, and the turn ends.

Here, grain is cheap and land costs more than I want to pay for. So my strategy is to buy as much grain as I can and still have manageable debt, and give it all to encourage serf immigration.


I buy another 2 marketplaces.

For the next few years I continued this pattern, selling extra grain, buying land on credit, and refilling my pockets through Machiavellian justice. By the year 1405, I was pulling in over 3000 florins per turn, owned 10 marketplaces, and my population included 11 nobles, 45 soldiers, 16 clergy, 118 merchants, and 2595 serfs working 13146 hectares of land. It was time to seek a promotion, so I temporarily set my justice level to "fair" and lived the next turn in austerity, buying just a mill when I could have otherwise afforded two.


New taxes under Baron Ahab. That crown won't buy itself.

With my newfound wealth I bought three mills in 1406 A.D. And this was just the beginning. With each turn, wealth increases - more merchants mean more duties, improved economy means more tax revenue (i.e. more duties), more mills mean more export revenue, and more titles mean more payola. But the cost for more titles goes up as well - at first you can advance through marketplaces at a cost of $1000 per point, but no more than ten count. Eventually cathedrals cost $5000 for the same prestige benefit, though they also bring in clergy and further improve the economy.

By 1409, I became a count, was bringing in 5899 florin per year, and acquired my tenth mill. I started investing in soldiers, which provide no economic benefit other than land protection and require yearly salaries, but at an up-front cost of 500 florin per 20 men, it would only cost me 12,500 florin to get the maximum score bonus and advance another rank.

It only took until 1411 to reach the next rank, Marquis.


Poor harvest meant I had to buy grain at inflated prices to meet demand, let alone the 130% rates I'd always done, but the price of land had doubled, so I simply sold some of my extra, unused land to make the gold difference. I bought 18,028 grain and sold 285 hectares, and the immigration continued as I allocated 31,857 steres of grain despite the shortage.

Taxes and bribes were now bringing in 7432 florin per year, and I could start building a palace to advance my rank further.

Depicted: Castle, partially finished palace, ten marketplaces, ten mills.

1413 A.D. saw my promotion to Duke, and another poor harvest. No matter, I was bringing in 9180 that year, and bought five more palace installments. The next year I bought the last one, and in 1415 A.D. was promoted to Grand Duke, and brought in 11,176, which I began investing in expensive cathedrals.

At this point I stopped buying land except for when it became unusually cheap. The money would be better spent on a cathedral.

Complete palace and in-progress cathedral.

In 1418, I got promoted to Prince, which could have brought in 13821 florins, but I was pretty sure the end was near, kept justice fair, and finished the cathedral, paid for on borrowed coin. This, combined with my population, was enough to get me crowned king.

GAB rating: Above Average. Santa Paravia was recommended to me almost two years ago, and I'm glad I played. It isn't going to blow any minds today, it's not especially convincing as a simulation or as a historically accurate setting, and success at higher levels depends entirely on understanding its invisible rules, but planning my city, managing harvests, and seeing my numbers go up as I made the right decisions was a fun little spreadsheet exercise. It's not hard to see how games like Civilization and SimCity might have been inspired by its gameplay family, if not by this exact title.

Coming up next is an all-time classic.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Game 254: Hamurabi

Download my VB.NET port of Hamurabi here:

I knew we'd be getting here eventually. There aren't many pre-Pong games that could really be considered foundational to major genres, but Hamurabi, a 1968 resource management sim responsible for inspiring a host of clones and expanded versions, is clearly one of them, and possibly the last such game I'll cover. A simplistic exercise in managing grain, land, and people, Hamurabi is cited as the ancestor of city management sims and their cousins business management sims, so it was only a matter of time before I ran into a such a game that claimed it as an influence, and my next whale, M.U.LE., is exactly that - a business management game with a simulated economy and an emphasis on resource management, whose creators claimed Hamurabi as an influence.

Hamurabi - said to be spelled that way due to an 8-character filename limitation - charges you, as an administrator of ancient Sumeria, to manage the city's grain supply. The annual harvest can be wildly unpredictable; most of the time, a properly managed city will yield a surplus which can be invested in more land, but sometimes it will come up short no matter what you do, and there will be famine if you haven't got enough in reserve. Random disasters - plagues and grain-eating rats - can strike without warning too.

Like most early mainframe games, Hamurabi exists in many versions, being nearly as easy to modify and expand as it was to distribute. There are modern versions today, coded in languages like Javascript and PHP and playable online. The most influential version was undoubtedly David Ahl's BASIC conversion published in 1973, which added some flavor text, a 10-year performance assessment, and the possibility of impeachment should you perform extremely badly in any given year. As is my usual policy, I intend to play Hamurabi in the closest representation of its original incarnation as possible, which usually means seeking out the earliest extant version.

The roots of Hamurabi date back to 1964, when elementary schoolteacher Mabel Addis co-wrote and directed The Sumerian Game as an educational exercise. Aided by slide-projected images and instructions on cassette tape, The Sumerian Game isn't so much a computer game as it is a classroom game aided by a computer. Even if it were possible to run the program today, it wouldn't be meaningful without the multimedia presentation or a human administrator to coordinate them and run the game. The program itself is lost, as are most of the slides, the audio, source code, and what printouts still exist only cover the first of three stages, representing a dynastic reign.

The original version of Hamurabi is a FOCAL program written by DEC employee Doug Dyment, who adapted the managerial concept of The Sumerian Game. DEC would list it in a 1969 catalog as The Sumer Game, and list a code printout in 1970 as King of Sumeria, the latter of which is the source I've chosen, and which Ahl's BASIC conversion is likely based on. This game, I want to stress, is not a conversion of Addis' program, but an original game inspired by the idea behind it. It's also comparatively much simpler; the presentation and narrative elements weren't possible to convey in a 4KB FOCAL program, and the gameplay elements are pretty basic, with little to do but decide how you're going to allocate your grain on a year-to-year basis.

Hamurabi isn't the first FOCAL game I've covered; over two years ago I did the 1969 version of Lunar Lander. Today, as was the case then, there's no way to run FOCAL programs, so I wrote my own VB.NET conversion, re-using the classes that I created for my Lunar conversion. Unlike that game, randomness makes it difficult to verify conversion accuracy by looking at original printouts of the FOCAL program, but I did my best.

Hamurabi is all about managing grain. All you can do is trade grain for land, feed your people grain, and seed your land with grain. Success requires understanding its internal rules:

  • Every person requires 20 bushels of grain per year. Those not fed will starve to death.
  • Every seeded acre produces grain the following year.
  • Every two acres that you seed costs one bushel.
  • You may not seed more than ten acres per person in the city.
  • On the next turn, a random number between 1-5 is generated. Every seeded acre produces that many bushels.

There are other rules, but they're less important. The price of land fluctuates, but buying low and selling high is not a winning strategy - the meager gains are outweighed by risk of rats eating your grain reserves, so it's best to spend all of your leftover grain on land.

Hamurabi's turn-flow starts by asking you how much land to buy or sell, but in reality, this is probably the last thing you should decide. Here's my thought process for the above turn:

  • I own 1000 acres.
  • I want to seed as many acres as possible.
  • With 100 people, I could potentially seed all 1,000 of my acres, but if I buy more they'll be unworked.
  • I do not know whether I will need to sell land to achieve my goals, so I will for now pretend I am going to sell all of them, which gets me 20,000 bushels.
  • Combined with the 2800 bushels in store, I would have a maximum of 22,800 bushels to play with.
  • I want to feed everyone. This will cost 2,000 bushels, leaving me with 20,800.
  • I want to seed as much land as possible. The upper limit is 1,000, due to my population.
  • Seeding a single acre costs 20.5 bushels. 20 to buy back the acre, 0.5 to seed it.
  • My 20,800 bushes are enough to seed the limit, so I "buy" back the 1,000 I sold, cancelling out the 1,000 that I sold, leaving me with 800 bushels for seed.
  • Seeding 1,000 acres will cost 500 bushels, leaving me with 300.
  • These 300 can be spent on 15 acres of land which will remain fallow. Better to do this than risk letting rats eat them.
  • Final decisions - buy 15 acres, feed 2000 bushels to my people, seed 1000 acres.
  • This costs 300 bushels for land, 2000 bushels for food, and 500 bushels for seed - exactly what I have to spend.

A lot of those steps may seem unnecessary - in order to reach the conclusion that I don't want to sell any land this turn, I had to first pretend I was selling all of them, only to conclude I'd buy them all back halfway down the list of steps. But sometimes you do need to sell land to accomplish your goals, and the same thought process helps me know.

The second turn had a poor yield - nothing you can do to prevent this from happening - and I'd definitely have to sell some land to prevent starvation. My thought process here:

  • I own 1015 acres.
  • My 109 people could seed up to 1090 acres.
  • My land could be sold for 22,330 bushels.
  • Combined with the 1000 bushels in store, my city is worth 23,330 bushels.
  • I want to feed everyone. This will cost 2,180 bushels, leaving me with 21,150.
  • Seeding a single acre costs 22.5 bushels. I can only seed 940 of them.
  • I will sell 75 acres, so that I have exactly 940 acres left. This gets me as many bushels as I'll need to feed everyone, seed all 940 acres, and have 20 left over.
  • Final decisions - sell 75 acres, feed 2180 bushels to my people, seed 940 acres.
  • This gets me 1650 bushels for the land and costs me 2180 for food and 470 for seed. Net cost of 1000 bushels, exactly what I have.


You might think feeding everyone all the time is a good idea. Turns out this will definitely cause problems down the line. Poor yields will force you to sell land to make the difference, and less land means less grain to harvest from them, which will spiral until you simply don't have enough land to feed people no matter how good the yield per acre is. Harsh as it may seem, you've got to starve your people sometimes.

I employed a new, fiscally conservative-approved strategy - only people with jobs get to eat. Got 117 people, but only 940 acres? Too bad - I'll buy another 21 acres, and have exactly enough grain left over to seed 960 acres and feed the 96 people it takes to work them, but the rest can starve to death. Most of the time I could afford to feed everyone, but when the harvest was bad, I had to downsize both my land and my people in proportion.

With this strategy, my acreage and population stabilized within a turn and grew steadily. Some people had to starve, but within two turns I was back to a population of 117, and with an acreage of 1182. Mediocre yields made me sell some of it, but not so much that anyone had to starve. On turn 10, my city grew to 1396 acres and 150 people, but poor yields forced me to sell 102 acres and starve a bunch of my citizens.

The turn after that, plague struck, cutting my population in half. On the bright side, this meant no more starvation until the population regrew itself beyond what the land could support.

Over the next ten turns, grain harvest was below average, and I got hit by more plagues. At the end of turn 20, I had suffered three plagues in total, and the city had 77 people, but 1418 acres.

I'm pretty sure my city growth would trend upward if I continued, but this was getting boring. Then I had an idea - you can't feed everyone all of the time, but what happens if you never feed anyone? I restarted, and what happens was... interesting.


Everybody starves to death every turn, but an empty city full of land repopulates very quickly, and with so much grain saved by not feeding people, you can afford to buy more and more land. One year you have a population that starves to death while farming, giving you a big windfall. The next year, you don't get much farming done because everyone's dead, but you spend what you've got on land. And the year after that, huge immigration waves arrive, letting you repeat the process, for bigger and bigger gains each turn. Plagues aren't even that big a problem, because you were just going to let them starve anyway.

818 immigrants come to a land where nobody ever gets to eat.

By the end of turn 20, I had almost tripled my city size - far outperforming the 42% growth when I played with a "feed everyone most of the time" strategy. Every other turn was guaranteed to produce city growth, regardless of bad luck. Strong harvests during turns where I had people helped, of course, but even poor ones were beneficial.

So, I think I "won" Hamurabi, but at what cost? This might be the most depraved evil I've ever done in a computer game. This strategy, by the way, will not work in Ahl's BASIC conversion, as letting too many people starve in a single turn will immediately end the game.

GAB rating: Average. Hamurabi is seminal, but like most mainframe computer games, rather basic. It is interesting, though, that despite the simplicity, there are multiple viable strategies to "success," depending on how you define that.

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