Friday, October 25, 2019

Game 104: Tanktics

As I noted in my “road to Galaxy” post, Chris Crawford’s Tanktics is the earliest computer game with a direct relation to Avalon Hill, first written in 1976, self-published in 1978, and distributed by Avalon Hill in 1981. Mobygames lists these as the releases:
  • 1976 – IBM FORTRAN version, by Crawford
  • 1977 – KIM-1 version, by Crawford
  • 1978 – Commodore PET BASIC version, self-published by Crawford
  • 1981 – Commodore PET re-release by Avalon Hill, coded by Crawford
    • Apple II port by Tod Frye
    • Atari 8-bit port by Crawford
    • TRS-80 port by Bob Smith
  • 1983 – FM-7 port by CRI Middleware

Preceding this post, Crawford and I exchanged some emails, and his very valuable notes cleared up multiple points of ambiguity.

[Tanktics] at Wargy I was my first attempt, and had many weaknesses. I completely rewrote it from scratch to get the version for the KIM-1, and then completely rewrote that from scratch to get the version I self-published. I then made some revisions for the Avalon-Hill version. […] All of the games in the series used a map with cardboard counters. The computer printed out coordinates of tanks and the player used those coordinates to locate the tanks on the map. Before I self-published, the maps were handmade.

On the Wargy I game:
“Wargy” referred to the meeting; the game, I believe, was called Tanktics, but I’m not sure.

On the KIM-1 version:
The shift from FORTRAN to 6502 assembler required major changes. I preserved the basic concept of a group of tanks fighting over a simplified terrain with just four types of terrain. The map had only 256 hexes.

On the self-published release:
This version was closer to its predecessor, but it used a larger map. […] The version I sold had a black-and-white printed, folded map.

Crawford also sent photos of some of his old maps, with additional notes.

Tanktics II was the first game I did for my KIM-1 system. It had only 256 hexes and a single tank on each side. The two players actually split the little keyboard down the middle. Each one had his own map.

[Tanktics III] was the full game for my expanded KIM-1 system with 4K of RAM and my “tiny terminals”. Again, the two players could not see each other’s maps. Each side had 8 tanks, but different tank types could be set.

Tanktics IV [was] the commercial version I made for the PET. This was printed and folded twice for shipping down to 8.5” by 11”. It used the same map as I used in Tanktics III, only black and white.

None of these versions remain available anywhere now. Avalon Hill’s extant 1981 releases, which use a different map layout from these previous versions, can be thought of as Tanktics V, and I’ve opted to play the PET version as the most “original” available version.

The game’s most distinguishing feature, unchanged from the earlier versions, is that you must have a map to play this game, showing a kind of designer’s mindset that I haven’t really seen since the Magnavox Odyssey. We take it for granted that a computer game will be self-contained in the computer program itself, needing only input from the user, and displaying all of the necessary information to the user on-screen. Even in 1962, SpaceWar! had on-screen graphics to represent everything, only relying on the players to manually keep score, and before long it was capable of doing that on its own too. Here, Crawford views Tanktics as more of a computer-aided board game than a computer game, though unlike Odyssey the computer does keep track of the complete game state – it is the player’s responsibility to manually move the physical game pieces as instructed, not as a means of changing the game state, but as a means of providing himself a visual aid, since the computer program has no graphics.

You use the map to plan your tanks’ movements, and key them into the computer, which will calculate the results of your actions, decide your opponent’s actions, and display the results; your tanks’ new positions, enemy sightings, and hits and misses. This necessity will make playing Tanktics a hard pass for most players, but I found it oddly immersive, like being in a command center, isolated from the action and making life and death decisions blind except for the terse radio updates coming from the tank commanders (“Panzer VIb-A arrived at coordinates BB23, spotted JS-II-G at coordinates Z15”), and a map that I had trust myself to read and update accurately.

Avalon Hill provided a full color map board in the box, but the scans available are low resolution and the printed coordinates are difficult to read.

Eventually, I found something even better than a legible scan; a module for a board game simulator called Vassal, which includes a high resolution board scan, and partial rules implementation. I’d still need the computer program to play, but could use Vassal to keep track of the tanks’ movements and positions instead of needing to use Gimp as I had originally planned.

Download the module and Vassal engine here:

Program screenshot

Vassal board initial status

The manual is nearly twice as long as Midway Campaign’s, and just as dense, with one page of unit stats and five pages of gameplay instructions.

There are five scenarios to play:
  • Meeting engagement – Meet the Russians at an objective hex and eliminate them.
  • Hedgehog defense – Your tanks start at the hex and the Russians will come to you.
  • Armored assault – The Russians have stationary guns placed at the hex and you must attack.
  • Line defense – Your tanks are positioned in a line in front of the hex and the Russians will try to breach you.
  • Line assault – The Russians have stationary guns placed in a line in front of the hex and you must try to breach them.

You may then decide the tanks for each side – you may pick between one and eight for yourself, and however many you pick, the Russians will get twice as many. You must also decide which tanks each side will get, and here I feel this poses a design problem. How is the player supposed to know what tank layouts will provide a fun challenge? The manual suggests giving yourself weaker tanks to increase the challenge, but would it be reasonable to defeat 16 of the strongest Russian tanks with 8 of the weakest Panzers? And if not, where is the line drawn between a reasonable challenge and an unreasonable one? The manual gives no concrete suggestions. It also paradoxically suggests giving yourself a mix of strong and fast tanks for both mobility and firepower, and this creates a conflict between making a sound tactical decision and creating a challenging scenario.

I decided my first game would be Scenario #1, with 8 vs. 16 tanks, and the most powerful available to each side.

Stat tables

Setup menu

Starting positions

Right off the bat, my company could see three of the Russians. Tanks can fire or move, but may not do both on the same turn. As part of a move, they may rotate, the sole purpose of which is to orient the tank’s front, where armor is the thickest.

Russian tank ‘j’ was the most vulnerable, seen by my tanks d, f, and g. My tank ‘d’ could also see g and i.

I had tanks ‘f’ and ‘g’ fire on ‘j,’ knocking it out.

My ‘d’ fired at ‘i’ but missed.

I moved my remaining tanks a few spaces toward the objective, seeking cover in dense terrain when possible. Three Russians fired on me on their turn, scoring one hit.

Turn 2 start

An oddity in Tanktics is that rotating in place costs 2 movement points per edge. So, for example, rotating 180 degrees costs 6 movement points. However, when a tank moves, it automatically orients itself in the direction of travel at no additional movement cost. This leads to an odd situation where rotating a north-facing tank 180 degrees so that it faces south costs 6 points, but moving it south into a clear hex only costs 2 and still causes it to face south.

My three front-facing tanks fired. My g knocked out their i, my e knocked out their g, and my d missed. I kept moving my other tanks, and on the computer’s turn, they did not fire.

Turn 3 start

Only e had a shot here, and missed. The rest inched toward the objective. Careless movement cost me; two of the enemy’s tanks blew up two of mine.

Turn 4 start

I had e fire again, and missed again, and the rest of the surviving tanks continued moving up, more careful this time to stick to dense terrain.

It paid off. The Russians didn’t see me, and at the start of the next turn, I had three in my sights.

Turn 5 start

Four of my five tanks could fire, but they all missed. The fifth, b, moved north into the depression.Once again, the Russians did not return fire, and on the next turn, I saw even more of them.

Turn 6 start

Here I noticed a tank in a place where I had left wreck in the last turn. Unlike the Germans, Russian wrecks get removed from the map, probably because the AI doesn’t know how to move around them.

My tanks all missed again, but the Russians didn’t return fire. This continued for a few turns, my undetected tanks either moving toward the objective or firing and missing, and the Russians inching closer as well.

The Russian numbers dwindled, but as the tanks got ever closer to the objective, and therefore to each other, they started spotting me and firing, knocking out another one of my Panzers. By turn 15, it was down to 4 vs. 4.

Turn 15 start

Panzers a, b, and f knocked out d and h, and e inched ever so closer.

Turn 16 start

4 vs. 2. I blew up n, missed o, and then o circled around the objective hex, where my tanks blew it up as it reached the southern-adjacent hex were l’s wreck was.

The scoring system doesn’t make a lot of sense. Points are awarded and deducted as follows:
  • 50 pts for owning the tank closest to the objective
  • 1 pt per hex moved toward the objective per tank
  • -1 pt per hex moved away from the objective per tank
  • -3 pts per turn
  • Variable points for destroying tanks

But… the game only ends in three possible ways, regardless of scenario. You lose all your tanks, you destroy all their tanks, or you quit in the middle. Only destruction of the enemy is a satisfying conclusion, which guarantees you the 50 points for having the objective, and the points from destroying tanks dwarf the points gained from hex advancement. The three-point penalty per turn is the only factor with an appreciable score difference, and in two of the scenarios, where you are defending the objective from a Russian advance, it makes even less sense that you’d be penalized if the enemy took a long time to reach the objective, while you waited to destroy them. Perhaps in a game with fewer tanks, the scoring system would have more variance from the little things, but playing with fewer tanks didn’t appeal.

In fact, I found replays of the other scenarios disappointing. In the “defend” scenarios, you’re encouraged to wait for the Russians to come to you, since you don’t know what direction they’ll come from, only that they are headed for the objective, and moving too far from the objective will cost you points. In the “attack” scenarios, even if you can punch a hole in a weak spot of the Russian gun line and break through to the objective, you’ll still need to search for and destroy the rest of them before the game ends, which is tedious to do safely and reckless to do quickly.

I also would have also liked just a bit more transparency in how the sighting and shooting mechanics work. The manual states that it’s purposefully obscure, and that they expect you to learn the same way real armor commanders did – by experience, trials, errors, and improvement. Fair enough intentions, but I’d still prefer to be met halfway. Terrain and distance clearly make a big difference, but I was never sure whether it was better to aim for the tank in the forest or the tank in the rough a bit further away. I tried to look at the BASIC code for clues, but found it mostly incomprehensible, despite only being a little over 200 lines long.

In spite of some strange design choices, and AI that can be charitably called unsophisticated, this is a very functional and complete personal computer wargame, clearly way ahead of its time in 1978, though a retrospective capsule review by CGW suggests it was a bit long in the tooth by 1981. Multiple contemporary disk-based wargames by SSI offered greater depth and on-screen graphics, as did Crawford’s own Eastern Front 1941, published the same year by Atari. I’m not scheduled to visit these games until my 1985 phase, when Phantasie and Balance of Power will show up on my whaling list, but I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Game 103: Midway Campaign

I’m not quite the model of a modern major general, but I’ve observed a pattern of turning-point battles in the history of war. An aggressor is victorious for months to years, but eventually suffers a failed push, and then because of loss of strategic position, loss of resources, or loss of morale, withdraws, is unable to regain their momentum, and eventually loses the war. Such was the case from Marathon to Borodino (Waterloo was more of a last stand), Gettysburg, the Battle of Britain, and in June 1942, the Imperial Japanese Navy suffered irreversible loss of all position, resources, and morale from a disastrous assault on Midway Atoll.

As I mentioned in the last post, details on Midway Campaign’s development are scant. Mobygames releases state 1980 releases for Atari 8-bit, Commodore PET, and TRS-80, and doesn’t list an Apple II release until 1983, but this is inconsistent with the cover art section, where, like B-1 Nuclear Bomber, there is a photo of an Apple/PET/TRS tape copyrighted 1980.

Between these three versions, the TRS-80 version has a slightly different screen layout.

Apple II

Commodore PET


The TRS-80 is more attractively laid out, with aligned columns for the text, but I played the Apple II version anyway, on the assumption that this was a feature added to the TRS-80 version rather than one taken away from the Apple II and PET versions.

As with B-1 Nuclear Bomber, my notes on Apple II emulation via MAME still apply, and you can follow my guide if you want to play too, using the notes on AppleSoft BASIC.

This is a game where you will be completely lost without reading the manual. There are only three pages worth of instructions, but they are dense.

The setup – US codebreakers have intercepted an IJN plan to capture Midway Island and establish naval superiority in the Pacific by destroying the remaining U.S carriers, which form the backbone of the modern navy. On the 4th of June, four carriers, supported by cruisers and destroyers, will approach Midway from the northwest and destroy its underdefended airbase. A support force from the west will then bombard the beach defenses. On the 5th, an invasion force will make landfall, and a second support group will wait in ambush to destroy the U.S. counterstrike force from Pearl Harbor. The US Navy, only able to muster three carriers, their support cruisers, and an undersized force of land-based aircraft at Midway, nevertheless has the advantage of surprise, as the IJN does not expect to face any resistance until the invasion is complete.

You command two task forces on the map, the ‘6’ designates TF-16 (Enterprise, Hornet, cruiser escort), the ‘7’ designates TF-17 (Yorktown and cruisers), and the ‘*’ designates Midway (with airfield and stationary AA guns). The IJN has three; a single carrier group designated ‘C’, and a heavy cruiser group and transport group designated with ‘J’s. You may order each task force to alter its course, or launch aircraft from any individual carrier, or from Midway. Aircraft may be put on patrol to defend their task force, “spotted” for launch, or ordered to attack an enemy task force. Aircraft come in three varieties – fighters, dive-bombers, and torpedo bombers, and cannot be launched at night.

A point of confusion in the manual is that “spotted” can mean two different things. A spotted aircraft is one that is on deck, armed, and prepared to launch. A spotted task force is one that the enemy has seen and may attack.

The campaign is over when one side loses their last carrier, or when any task force leaves the map. Once this occurs, the game will end as soon as any ongoing air strikes conclude.

Starting off, the display here shows our task forces to the northeast of Midway. It’s 1200 on June 3, one day before the IJN task force is scheduled to attack. Both of my task forces have their carriers and are headed 205 degrees, roughly in the direction of Midway. This suited me fine, and I called a status report.

I let a turn elapse, and our scouts spotted approaching ships from the west.

This was, no doubt the heavy cruiser group.

The space between two adjacent dots marks 100nm, and our carriers can strike within a range of 200nm, while theirs can within 235nm. In other words, we have a maximum range of two dots, and they have the maximum range of a chess knight.

I was more worried about the carriers, so I kept a steady course, rather than pursue the cruisers.

By nightfall, I lost track of the cruisers.

By 0100 the next day, my ships were on course to sail right past Midway, so I changed their courses to due west, and hopefully intercept the carriers.

At about 0900, Midway was under attack!

There was a pause, and the updates continued:

Kates are torpedo bombers, which aren’t well distinguished from dive-bombers in the manual. My understanding is that dive-bombers are more accurate, but torpedo bombers are more lethal to ships. Fortunately, Midway is not a ship.

A status report showed Midway had sustained light damage, but was down about half of its aircraft. I probably should have assigned its the fighters to patrol the night before, but it was too late.

I put the Midway fighters on patrol, and armed my carrier fighters, as they’d be in striking range soon.

Spotting all of the aircraft on the Enterprise and Hornet

Next round, they attacked Midway again, and we traded a few fighters, but their bombers went largely untouched.

Midway had sustained heavy damage, and was unable to launch its aircraft. I launched a counter-attack with the entire strike force of my carriers.

Launching from the Enterprise and Hornet. Midway’s aircraft must remain below.

Next round, my strike forces reached their targets.

The Enterprise and Hornet were unsuccessful.

Yorktown was a bit more successful

And Midway took more hits

With my carriers’ entire flight decks away, all I could do now was wait for them to return and rearm.


Second IJN task force spotted


According to the manual, the IJN carriers will prioritize my carriers over Midway if spotted, and prioritize TF-16 over TF-17, so I put the Enterprise and Hornet’s fighters on patrol, and armed their bombers and all of Yorktown’s aircraft for a strike.

A turn passed without incident, and I launched my strike forces.

12 of Enterprises undefended bombers were shot down, and two of them landed hits on Akagi and Kaga.

One of Hornet’s undefended bombers was shot down, and thirteen of them landed hits and near misses on all four carriers.

Yorkdown’s fighters engaged IJN fighters, shooting down 18, who shot down 7 of Yorktown’s bombers and 1 fighter.

The IJN strike force did attack TF-16, whose patrolling fighters shot down an incredible 66 bombers. Enterprise and Hornet nonetheless took multiple hits from 45 bombers that made it through, and Hornet was so badly damaged that its strike force had to land on Enterprise instead.

Hornet was a sitting duck, unable to launch any fighters to defend itself, as the IJN strike force retaliated, and Enterprise’s patrol could only shoot down 27 bombers. 39 bombers made it through, finished off Hornet, and sank Enterprise, along with all of the bombers on it that I had just re-armed.

I had Yorktown launch all of its remaining aircraft. It performed miserably; the fighters missed the target completely, leaving most of its bombers to be shot down by the carrier’s patrol, and the few that made it through did little damage. The retaliation on Yorktown was thankfully light.

Yorkdown launched again. Once again, the fighters missed the target, 10 bombers were shot down by patrol, and the rest did little damage. This time retaliation on Yorktown was heavy, and its returning strike force bailed out.

Nothing I could do now but retreat, which I did safely under the cover of night. As Yorktown fled, explosions from Kaga and Akagi could be detected.

As dawn broke, Japanese ships and cruisers were spotted.

The north “J” were the carriers, which just hadn’t been identified yet.

The carriers continued to batter Midway as Yorktown made its escape. The battering stopped eventually, and we spotted the transports, but there was nothing to be done about it.

The game ended as my task forces left the map, and the score showed a Japanese strategic victory.

There was one thing that puzzled me, and it had been puzzling me even before I had started playing. The IJN strategy involves three task forces, only one with carriers, but all three have a role in attacking Midway. And yet, the combat mechanics in the manual are only described in terms of fighters, bombers, and AA. What do the Japanese cruiser and transport task forces actually do? In my playthrough, neither of them actually did anything except approach Midway. Were they just there as targets of opportunity for my own carriers?

I had another go, to see if I could do better.

This time, I set my task forces to 225 degrees so that they’d both arrive one point west of Midway, exactly in between it and the point where I first spotted the carriers last time.

Before night fell, I saw the carrier task force approaching from the north.

I maintained the course. Night would soon fall, which puts the kibosh on air strikes, but I prepared for morning by arming all of the Yorktown aircraft, the Enterprise and Hornet bombers, and patrolling the Enterprise and Hornet fighters.

My task forces arrived one dot north of Midway at 0300. One point of annoyance is that there’s no way, as far as I can tell, to park your vehicles. All you can really do is reverse their course every few turns so that they stay more or less in place.

Dawn broke, and the Japanese caught me very off-guard by attacking the undefended Yorktown!

Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Enterprise and Hornet launched their bombers. Without fighter support, 30 went down, but the rest inflicted hits on multiple carriers, destroying Akagi and Soryu.

My remaining carrier fleet

I launched my Midway strike force, re-armed the fighters at Enterprise and Hornet, and launched them the next turn.

The Midway strike force sank Kaga and Hiryu, giving me total air superiority in the operation. My other strike forces landed hits on the cruisers, granting “victory points.”

The main IJN task force then started to retreat, so I pursued, eager to score more victory points, but the game ended once it pulled out of Midway’s range.

That’s more or less how the real Midway went, but I was eager to see if I could do better. What if Yorktown had been defended by patrols? The fighters hadn’t done me a lot of good in strikes, most of the time they’d just miss their target and leave the bombers undefended anyway, and the bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown did a fine job without fighter escort anyway.

This time, the carriers struck Midway first, before I could see them. The paltry Midway defense force couldn’t do much to slow the bombers, who inflicted heavy damage. My carriers attacked the fleet, but their counter-attacks sank Enterprise and Hornet, leaving Yorktown to fight alone.

Yorktown survived the day and inflicted heavy damage on the carriers, which continued burning throughout the night, but Yorktown was down to its last nine bombers. Soryu sank before dawn.

Dawn broke, and the enemy carriers continued burning, too badly damaged to launch bombers, but my scouts didn’t spot them until 1732, at which point it was clear they were retreating.

Night fell soon, and the Japanese carriers escaped, heavily damaged. The game ended, and declared the battle a marginal Japanese victory.

It seems there’s a lot of luck involved here. In my second game, leaving the Yorktown undefended turned out to not be a good move, and likely cost me the ship, and yet I came out ahead because the strike force targeted it with everything they had, leaving their carriers underdefended, allowing me to cripple them with my remaining combined forces. It was better that Yorktown be a total loss, than allow my other two carriers to be damaged, and luck plays yet another role in determining how effective your strikes are. A lucky round of bombs will completely prevent them from launching their aircraft, all but ensuring U.S. victory, while multiple less lucky bombings may only scratch the paint job, allowing them to retaliate. Luck further determines how late in the day you spot the carriers, and whether you spot them before they hit you can make all the difference in the world.

That said, for a game designed to run on a 16KB machine without a floppy drive, it packs quite a bit of sophisticated war simulation into this svelte size, or at least a pretty good illusion of it. Decisions feel meaningful in spite of randomness, and watching the outcome of your strikes is suitably tense. There are limitations, of course. I’m still convinced that the Japanese cruiser and transport task forces don’t actually do anything, and carriers are the only ships that matter. Ship-to-ship combat doesn’t happen at all, battleships don’t even exist, and all the cruiser escorts do is impotently fire on the aircraft dropping bombs on their carriers.

Historically, the carriers won Midway, and the destruction of the Japanese carriers, which had carried a major tactical victory at Pearl Harbor six months before, doomed Japan. Earlier naval battles in WWII had proven that battleships, long since a symbol of naval dominance, were obsolete, and that victory at sea was no longer possible without air support.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Game 102: B-1 Nuclear Bomber and the road to Galaxy

Avalon Hill, the most iconic wargame producer of all time, has a curious role in computer game history as it pertains to Data Driven Gamer. In the early 80’s, they published a number of computer wargames under its Microcomputer Games label, including Telengard, which I’ve covered early on in this blog. Nowadays we wouldn’t think of Telengard as a wargame, but in 1982 the wargaming roots of RPGs weren’t such a distant memory. Gary Gygax had even (unsuccessfully) pitched Dungeons & Dragons to Avalon Hill at one point.

Unusually, very few of their games are “Avalon Hill originals,” but were mostly licensed distribution deals of single-author games that they discovered. Telengard, for instance, underwent continuous development from 1978 to 1981 by Daniel Lawrence, starting as an 8KB PET game, and was expanded to 32KB and ported to the Apple II and TRS-80 before Avalon Hill took any notice. It’s impossible to know if there are any real differences between Lawrence’s 1981 versions and Avalon Hill’s 1982 versions, or if Avalon Hill contributed any code to it, but from what I've seen, altering games directly wasn't their style.

This creates a puzzling challenge for my chronological approach. Do I go by the years that the games were originally released, or the years when Avalon Hill published them? The earliest game, for instance, which would become an Avalon Hill title, is Chris Crawford’s Tanktics, which he originally demonstrated at a wargaming convention in 1976. But Avalon Hill’s release wasn’t until 1981!

Apart from Telengard, the only whale by Avalon Hill is a 1981 space wargame called Galaxy. According to its designer Tom Cleaver, he had originally created a game called Galactic Empires for the Apple II in Integer BASIC, and in late 1979 had re-written it in Applesoft BASIC. Avalon Hill was impressed with this version and commissioned another re-write, and in 1981 would produce ports to the major platforms of the day under Cleaver’s supervision.

The same year, as mentioned, Avalon Hill published Tanktics, a WWII strategy game that feels very much like one they might have created as a board game, but didn’t. It came with a foldable map board and armor tokens, which were required for play, as the computer game had no graphics and used coordinate notation to indicate hex positions on the board. Previously in 1978, Crawford had self-published his previous version and distributed it in Ziploc bags with paper maps. Before that, he had demonstrated his first version, Wargy I, at a wargaming convention in 1976. Avalon Hill's 1981 re-releases, on Commodore PET, Apple II, Atari 400, and TRS-80 computers, are all that still exist today of this game.

One of Avalon Hill’s releases of 1980, their first year of publishing computer games, is Midway Campaign. There doesn’t seem to be a lot known about its development, and there isn’t even a credited designer – the manual credits a mysterious “National Microcomputer Associates,” but it’s one of the more well-known early titles by the company, so I am covering it.

Three other 1980 releases, B-1 Nuclear Bomber, North Atlantic Convoy Raider, and Nukewar, do have a credited designer, Gary Bedrosian. According to Mobygames, he independently created all three games originally in 1978, on a microcomputer by North Star. His fourth game, a text adventure Lords of Karma, would later also be published by Avalon Hill, in 1981. Once again, the originals likely do not exist anymore, and information is scarce. I don’t even know where Mobygames’ source for the North Star releases is (and let me know if you do!). I’ve chosen to play B-1 Nuclear Bomber, as it has the most Mobygames votes of the four.

Given that I am able to treat Galactic Empires and Avalon Hill’s Galaxy as different games, and that Avalon Hill’s Tanktics is almost certainly a different game from its 1976 incarnation, I’ve decided to go by Avalon Hill’s release dates, which is a departure from how I usually do it (I treated Telengard, for instance, as a 1978 title, and considered pedit5/dnd/DND to be its ancestors).

And so, my road to Galaxy looks like this:

Before seriously playing B-1 Nuclear Bomber, I briefly checked out the Apple II and TRS-80 versions, which were released simultaneously and distributed together on a cassette tape. Both are written in BASIC, and the TRS-80 version is a bit more advanced, with sound effects, semi-realtime play, and a curses-style CRT display rather than a printout-style one more commonly seen in BASIC games.

But being more advanced doesn’t necessarily mean it’s more authentic, and more importantly, this version is nearly unplayable, because the input dropping is insane. I don’t know if this is an emulation bug, but when the display updates, which happens every 5-6 seconds, you have a very short window of time, slightly less than one second, to enter your commands. Type a keystroke outside of this window, and you won’t even get a sign that it registered until the next display refresh, and even then, it might just get dropped.

I won’t suffer that when there are other options, and I am going with Apple II on the grounds that between it and the PET, the Apple II was more powerful, more popular, and almost universally supported by Avalon Hill during its first few years of operation.

As a cassette-based game, this won’t work in AppleWin unless you use a pirate compilation disk image, which aren’t that hard to find, but may differ from the original. I opted not to, and if you want to play this way too, I wrote instructions on playing Apple II cassette games in MAME including some sanitized tape files, which you can read here (this uses AppleSoft BASIC, so you will need the Apple ][+ mode):

Before playing, I read a copy of the 1980 manual. The goal is to take a nuclear bomber into Soviet Russia and drop a megaton SRAM on a designated target. Soviet airspace is defended by MIGs and SAMs, and your countermeasures include ECMs, Phoenix missiles, and evasive action maneuvers. A primary target is chosen at random from a list of possibilities, all population centers with at least a million persons, and the rest will be secondary targets. Soviet defenses will periodically attempt to intercept with a MIG or SAM, and their alertness depends on your altitude, proximity to a defense complex, and whether or not you have armed the SRAM. ECMs and evasive actions are more effective against SAMs, while Phoenix missiles are more effective against MIGs and can also take out complexes.

In other words, this is Dr. Strangelove: The Game.

Re-releases of this game came with a map of Soviet airspace, but the 1980 release didn’t, so I tried to see if I could do without.

I set a course for Murmansk and my altitude to 300.

I should note here that in this version of the game, time does not pass until you enter a command. Some commands take longer than others, and there is a lag proportional to the amount of time passed. For example, navigation takes a few minutes of ingame time, and takes a few seconds before control is returned to you. ECMs take a few seconds of ingame time, and return control to you instantly. Autopilot can take hours of ingame time, and can take minutes of real time, but it will end as soon as an event occurs, such as a launched interceptor, or arriving in range of a target.

With my primary target over 2,000KM away, I put the plane into autopilot for an hour, and was interrupted by a SAM interceptor.

I launched ECMs. Lots of ECMs.

And then I did a status and target check.

Getting close!

Murmansk was in range. So I armed the bomb and dropped it.

Ten, fifteen million casualties, tops!

While I was at it, I decided to launch a missile at Pechenga.

Mission complete, so I got the coordinates to Thule AFB and autopiloted back home.

I was a bit puzzled by how trivial my victory was. Apart from a brief foray into the TRS-80 version, this was my first attempt at B-1 Nuclear Bomber, and my victory just seemed so shallow. I didn’t do much more than follow the instructions in the manual! My only real tactical decision here was to fly at 300m, and this was because the manual said lower altitudes meant less frequent air defense, but warned against flying lower than 300m. Apart from that, I navigated directly to my primary target, used ECMs against a SAM, armed my bomb at the last moment, dropped it, took out a target of opportunity, and navigated directly home.

I tried a replay to see if things would be any different. This time my primary target was Leningrad, and I used the same tactics as before, except that I didn’t bother changing my altitude.

I did face more resistance, and at one point had a MIG and SAM launched simultaneously, but a single ECM neutralized both.

Bases around Leningrad launched a ton of ordinance in my direction, but I nuked it before they could intercept.

And then a single ECM neutralized more than half of my threats.

The rest were also neutralized with more ECMs.

On the way back, I took out a defense complex, but another SAM and MIG proved very stubborn in resisting my ECMs. After many, many attempts, I did neutralize the SAM, but the MIG just wouldn’t get off my tail. I launched my missiles at it, but all missed. Eventually, after many more ECM failures, I tried an evasive maneuver, which worked immediately.

Another SAM on the way back refused to self-destruct, but lost its target when I took evasive action.

I made it back home on autopilot.

I took one last mission, just to see if it would be easy a second time at low altitude. It was.

A retrospective capsule review by CGW states “its play mechanics were embarrassing when it was initially released.” The cover art and clinical presentation suggests a fairly complex flight sim. And for all I know, maybe there is some complex aeronautical computation going on under the hood, but I doubt it, and didn’t care enough to look. Either way, this game can be beaten with extremely simple tactics – fly low, fly direct, drop the big one, and then fly home, while using countermeasures to throw off interceptors and missiles to knock out defense complexes when possible. There’s no need to plot weaving courses around defense complexes to avoid the worst of the Soviet defenses. The hardest part of it all is not forgetting the failsafe code.

Now wouldn’t that have been a letdown ending to Dr. Strangelove.

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