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.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Reach for the Stars: Won! + Versions comparison

Big shocker - a 150-turn game of Reach for the Stars is radically different from a 40-turn one. Even though my 150-turn game had a slower start thanks to the task force setup rule, and slower expansion thanks to the solar debris rule, my empire grew exponentially until it ran out of space, and took on the rest of the galaxy through force. At the end of my 40-turn game, I had four planets, three of them taken by conquest. Now, I'm on turn 139 out of 150 and had 50 worlds, 13 of them by conquest. The process of deciding what to build turn by turn is pretty time consuming, but I've only got six of these phases left.

Here, I'm going to show how two turns near the end of the game are conducted, starting with turn 139.

The state of the galaxy in Turn 139

This general map of the galaxy isn't all that useful to be honest, but it's the closest thing the game has to a one-screen summary of the game state, except perhaps for the scoreboard. The galaxy wraps around the borders.

This is what the icons mean:

  • A solid white box is a friendly fleet orbiting a star system. There is no visual distinction between fleets at stars I control and fleets at stars I don't control, but almost all of these are ones I do control.
  • A white box with a colored star in the middle is a star system with at least one planet that I control, with no fleets present. The color of the star indicates star class, but this is a moot point right now and never meant much to me to begin with.
  • A black box with a white border is an enemy fleet. During production phases, the only enemy fleets visible to you are ones orbiting stars with planets that you control, which means that every black box here is an interdicted system, and therefore a problem that needs to be solved.
  • A colored star without a box around it is a star system that I cannot observe because I have no fleets there and do not own any of its planets.
  • Numbers designate the sectors of the galaxy, 1 through 9. This has no meaningful effect on gameplay, but are useful landmarks when scrolling through the main galaxy view.

Odd-numbered turns such as this one begin with the production phase and follow with a movement phase. I have 3615 RP's in reserve which I can use at any non-interdicted planet or a combination of them in addition to the RP's generated by the planets themselves, which can be as high as 632 at an extremely industrious one. Typical use of these reserves are to rapidly build up a developing planet producing very few RP's on its own so that it can be self-sufficient next turn, or to instantly build a bunch of warships  at a convenient planet beyond what it could normally build on its own.

However, before committing any production orders at all, I am already planning my movements, because my movement needs will inform production needs.

Most of my planets are overpopulated, so I won't mention it every single time I build transports.


The right-facing Enterprise icons are my own fleets, and other ship icons represent enemy fleets - mostly Player Four in this case. The green and pink text is my own annotation - green for my own systems, pink for the rest, which I assume are colonized by my opponents and heavily defended by PDB's. One system here, unlabeled, is the white dwarf Sabik which went nova long ago. Numbers are the count of M4 warships, which is the only kind of ship I care about for production planning purposes. A zero means other ship types are present. Enemy fleets are only visible when fighting your fleets or when they've moved into systems with planets you control; for all I know, there could be thousands of warships at Arneb. Megrez has no inhabitable planets, and in retrospect, I should have used another color for these stars, but it's too late now.

There are four problems in this sector that need my attention. Etamin is interdicted by two M4 warships, Nunki by two more, and Nihal by a single M1 warship. The fourth problem is that one of the planets on Etamin is uninhabited, thanks to several turns of heavy bombardment.

Etamin, being interdicted, can't access the global reserve, but as it has 100 factories, it can build four M4 warships locally, which should easily be enough to drive out the two sent here by Player Four. It's also overpopulated, which is something that happens constantly at this point in the game. There's enough RP left over from the warships to build some transports, which I can use to repopulate the other planet.

The other planet here is borderline useless, having been bombarded so much that it can only support six factories. But points are points, and I'll get some just by having people here.

As for the other problems, I can have Nihal build a single M4 warship, plus transports for its overpopulation. Nunki can only build two, but I'll send another two from Kochab. With a warp speed of 17 hexes per turn, M4 warships can go pretty much anywhere in a sector in a single turn, as long as there isn't solar debris in the way.

No problems in sector 2, but Altair is undeveloped and vulnerable, having been recently liberated from a bothersome fleet. I immediately max out its industrial capacity and give it the maximum possible investment in social growth and PDB's, which in total costs me 526 of my global pool's 3615 RP.

We can see space dust here, which slows down any ship passing through it.


Here we can see my main conquering fleet, which last turn I had absentmindedly sent to Gemma, a system with no habitable planets. I'll sent it up to Thuban instead, which has two.

Regulus is under attack and can only build one warship while interdicted. So I'll send over Agena's four. In the mean time, Agena and Schedar both need help being built up, so I let them draw from the global RP pool, leaving me with 2070.

Sector 4 is where Player Four's main fleet resides, orbiting Almak, blasting the crap out of my colony there. In fact, there are three planets there, one occupied by me, one by Player Three, and one by Player Four.

As much as I'd like to summon a big fleet near Almak, sent it in to decimate Player Four and take the other two planets there for myself, this just isn't possible. I could send part of my own fleet from Gemma, but I'd rather focus on taking Thuban. If I counterattacked with a big enough fleet, Player Four would probably just withdraw and bother me somewhere else. So I'd rather just delay him at Almak for as long as possible with inexpensive PDB's. Almak is likely to fall before the end of the game, but with any luck Player Three and Four will fight over it for some time while I keep conquering their planets.

Zosma and Sirius both draw a bit from the global RP pool, leaving me with 1732 RP.

There's a lot of stuff in sector 5, but only two problems. At Deneb, which has two M4 warships, I build another two, so that I can send four to Acrux. Deneb is also quite overpopulated - it had been interdicted for a long time - so I build a lot of transports. At Pollux I build some emergency PDB's, and at Ross, I build two warships to send to Pollux.

All of this costs a lot of RP. I've only got 752 left in the global pool.


Three systems are under attack here. At Nath I can build some emergency PDB's, but only one warship. At Rastaban I build two warships. At Izar, another two. At Phaeda, I can build another seven, enough that I can have exactly four at each of these systems, but this depletes my global RP reserve almost completely; only 41 RP are left.

Not much going on here.

Nor here.

Gemma to Thuban viewed properly.

I finished up my production orders on the remaining 19 planets, which was straightforward. Overpopulated planets had transports built, and if any RP remained, put into social development to repair the damage caused by overpopulation. Where planets were industrialized but not fully developed, I put as much into planetary and social development as I could. At fully developed worlds, I just put their RP's into the pool for next turn. Most of the planets that I hadn't already built up earlier had full industrial capacity already; a few were missing one or two factories from being bombed in earlier turns, but these could be replaced locally. 

Procyon, which had 50% of its industrial capacity filled, had to forgo re-allotment, as the meager remains in the RP pool didn't allow for this. Kochab had no industry whatsoever, and had to remain this way for now.

The production cycle was complete, and moved onto turn 139's movement cycle. As I had planned during my production phase:

  • At sector 1, I moved two M4 warships from Kochab to Nunki.
  • At sector 3, I moved four M4 warships from Agena to Regulus.
  • At sector 5, I moved four M4 warships from Deneb to Acrux, and two from Ross to Pollux.
  • At sector 7, I moved seven M4 warships from Phaeda; three to Nath, two to Rastaban, and two to Izar.
  • At sector 9, I moved 51 M4 warships from Gemma to Thuban.

Everything else on the board - scattered warships and a massive load of transports, was sent to Thuban. They'd come when they'd come.

I finalized my orders and ended the turn.

Roughly a minute passed, as the AI players pondered their own moves, and some symbols flashed across the screen to represent them, too quickly for me to follow.

Then, combat happened.

  • My warships arrived at Acrux, and Player Four withdrew.
  • Transports from Player Four arrived unexpectedly at Kochab, which was defended only by transports of my own. Player Four won, but barely. Thankfully, Kochab had PDB's, so there was little risk of a landing by transports alone.
  • My warships arrived at Pollux, which Player Four had reinforced. We were equally matched, but Player Four won without losing a single ship.
  • Players Three and Four fought a lot at Almak, but gave me no way to see what was going on.
  • Players Three and Four fought briefly at Tarazed.
  • Combat at Nihal against a whopping 54 M4 warships from Player Three, plus a few M3's and M1's. It is unclear where they came from, but I had no chance of winning here. I withdrew to Thuban.
  • Combat at Antares as Player Three sent two M1 warships there. My transports in orbit are enough to destroy one and make the other withdraw.
  • Combat at Phaeda. Player Four moved two warships here, but four of my own arrive from an earlier turn. They withdraw.
  • Combat at Thuban, defended by 28 M4 warships by Player Four. They fight valiantly but it's hopeless, and withdraw when they are down to the last four. I am left with 49 of my own, and gain 538 victory points.

Next came the planet attack phase, and I had my main fleet right over Thuban.

Two planets, only one of them colonized. I immediately sent my transports to take the uncolonized world and attacked the other, easily taking out all of the PDB's, leaving me with 24 surviving warships.

Afterward, the AI attacked some of my planets, in a typically confusing manner that leaves you wondering what just happened.


This action whizzes by without any of your input, and normally the only way I'd know what just happened is by tediously checking my list of planets to see if any are missing, but since I recorded a video this time, here's what happened:

  • Player Three attacks Player Four's planet on Almak with 2 warships, and wins with 1 survivor.
  • Player Three attacks Nihal with 54 warships, and wins, with 23 survivors.
  • Player Four attacks Spica with 3 warships, and loses.
  • Player Four attacks Schedar with 2 warships and wins without loss.
  • Player Four attacks Rigel with 5 warships and wins, with 2 survivors.
  • Player Four attacks Zosma with 3 warships and loses.
  • Player Four attacks Deneb with 3 warships and wins, with 1 survivor.
  • A bunch of boom sounds while Deneb is at the center of the screen.

I had lost Nihal and both of my planets on it, but gained Thuban, with one planet already settled, and another one ready to be conquered. In addition, the chaos on Almak caused me to regain control of one of the planets there, which Player Four had conquered some time ago. Almak was definitely a volatile situation, though.

Turn 140, being even, has only a movement phase.

A single enemy transport hovers over Kochab, so I send one warship from Etamin to shoo it away, and have the transports at Etamin settle the uncolonized planet there.

From Nunki, two warships go to Wesen, and the other two to Aludra.

I move warships from Regulus to Schedar.

Jumping ahead to sector 6, I move two ships from Phaeda to Adara, and four from Nath to Pollux.

A rare Player Three fleet sprite appears over Almak!

Things get complicated in Sector 4, and Sector 6 reserves have to pitch in to help. Two ships apiece go from Phaeda and Izar to Vega. Four from Rastaban and the other two from Izar to go Almak. Two from Etamin goes to Sirius, and the last goes to Rigel.

Shedir is the only system here with enemy ships I haven't already ordered to be intercepted, but I can't see a good way to get at it. Solar debris means it would take three turns for backup from Acrux to arrive. At least there are PDB's there. I send another ship from Acrux to Rigel.

I send my remaining three ships from Acrux to Deneb. Acrux is conveniently the only star in a position to send anything there.

Nothing to do here.

I could move my fleet from Thuban to Mirzam in preparation for another attack, but there's still one unconquered world at Thuban, and if I leave it alone, they could build PDB's. So for now I leave my fleet there. Transports will arrive soon, and then I can take it and move on.

I moved all other fleets toward Thuban.

Events during the combat phase:

  • Player Four withdraws from Adara.
  • Player Four withdraws from Kochab as 32 of my warships land there.
  • Player Four withdraws from Wesen.
  • Player Two lands a surprise attack on Schedar with 16 warships, and I withdraw.
  • Player Four routed at Pollux.
  • Melee with Player Three and Player Four on Almak, but both opponents withdraw.
  • Player Four withdraws from Rigel.
  • Surprise attack on Antares. One warship of my own arrives, but is destroyed along with several transports.
  • Player Four rallies a useless defense fleet at Thuban. One of my warships is destroyed, but so are most of them, awarding me 112 victory points.

Events during the planet attack phase:

  • On Almak, 5 of my warships attack Player Three's planet and win, with 4 survivors.
  • Transports arrive at Thuban and I immediately land, conquering its outstanding planet.
  • Player Two attacks Spica with 4 warships and wins with 1 survivor.
  • Player Two attacks Schedar with 13 warships and wins with 9 survivors.
  • Natural disaster on Zosma harms the social level somewhat.

I lost two planets on Schedar and one on Antares, and gained one on Etamin and Thuban. But I had nearly 30,000 victory points, leading over my closest rival Player Four by over 12,000.

I won't go into further extreme detail over what transpired over the final ten turns, but these were the major events:

  • Turn 141 - Victories at Antares and Mirzam, and PDB's destroyed. Defeats at Izar, Ross, and Etamin. One world at Etamin lost to Player Four.
  • Turn 142 - Two planets on Mirzam conquered. Ships regrouped to Schedar. Victories at Schedar and Etamin, and PDB's destroyed, reclaiming a lost colony on each. Defeats at Pollux and Aludra. 52 worlds on 31 systems controlled, and a 13,000 point lead.
  • Turn 143 - Victories on Schedar and Almak, and PDB's destroyed. Defeat at Antares and Etamin.
  • Turn 144 - Planet on Schedar conquered. Ships regrouped to Antares. Player Three attempts to attack Schedar but is thwarted by a very large group of transports arriving this turn. Victory at Antares, but I'm not ready to conquer it. Successful defense of Etamin. Defeat at Nunki, planet lost. 15,000 point lead.
  • Turn 145 - Defeats at Adara, Almak, Acrux, and Etamin. Etamin is lost. Nunki rebels and reverts back to my control.
  • Turn 146 - Antares conquered. Ships regrouped to Etamin. Defeats at Kochab, Schedar, and Almak. Kochab is lost. Victory at Etamin - one planet reverts to my control and the other is recolonized. One colony at Agena starves to death. 16,000 point lead.
  • Turn 147 - Agena recolonized. Ships regrouped to Kochab. Victories at Kochab, Acrux, Almak, and Etamin. PDB's destroyed at Kochab and Almak, and Kochab conquered. Defeats on Spica and Regulus. 54 worlds on 31 systems controlled, and a 17,000 point lead.
  • Turn 148 - All ships moved to the nearest unconquered worlds, as this is nearing the end. Defeats on Mintaka and Dubhe. Victories on Nihal, Wolf, and Polaris. PDB's and Nihal and Polaris destroyed, but Wolf has too many. I attempt to take Arneb with 387 transports - this fails but it takes out most of their PDB's. 18,000 point lead.
  • Turn 149 - Final production cycle. I forgo all economic investment and build only PDB's and transport/warship combos to attack nearby planets. PDB's are doubled wherever possible. Nihal and Almak conquered. Defeats at Algol, Nunki, Kochab, Dubhe, Almak, Wolf. Kochab is lost, and the planet on Almak is retaken. Victories at Arneb, Tarazed, Polaris, and Diphda, and all PDB's on these planets are destroyed. One planet of Tarazed colonized. 56 worlds on 32 systems controlled, and a 19,000 point lead.
  • Turn 150 - Final turn. Arneb and Tarazed conquered. Defeats on Saiph, Schedar, and Adara. One planet on Schedar lost. Victories on Polaris, Wolf, and Diphda. Diphda conquered. I bombard Polaris for a few points, as conquest is impossible. Wolf has too many PDB's to fight.

My final share of the galaxy was 58 planets on 34 systems, and my final score was nearly 40,000 - not quite enough for an "overwhelming" victory even if scores above 32,000 worked properly, but come on. I more than doubled the score of my nearest rival.

GAB rating: Good. Reach for the Stars is lightyears ahead of any 8-bit strategy game I've seen yet. You can see its wargame roots, with its hex grid and victory points - no surprise given it's based on a hex-and-counter board game - but overall it bears a closer resemblance to Master of Orion from a decade later than it does to any of its contemporaries, and strikes a similarly right complexity balance.

It isn't perfect - the presentation is dry, the interface doesn't always make it simple to find out things I want to know, the AI can behave erratically, harassing your weak systems with laserpoint precision one turn only to back off for no good reason the next, and your success in short games is very much at the whims of the CPU while long games get bogged down in micromanagement. Nevertheless, this is far and away the best strategy game I've seen as of 1983, it anticipates one of my favorite genres, and strikes the right chords, providing an addictive experience where it seems like every turn might lead to an exciting conquest, discovery, or development. I promote this to the ivory deck, with my unqualified recommendation to all fans of grand strategy.

Keating and Trout released two major revisions of Reach for the Stars in the years to come. The Second Edition was released in 1985 for Apple II and Commodore 64 like the original. It features:

  • A reworked UI skin that uses graphics and lowercase fonts rather than the BASIC-like text displays seen in the original.
  • Fixes for a few of the original interface warts. "Q" is now consistently used to commit orders, and movement phases now prompt you to end them once all units have moved; no more pressing Ctrl+E.
  • A "tutorial" mode - essentially just a standard game with default gameplay options and a fixed RNG seed to ensure that the instructions in the manual align with what happens ingame.
  • Some new optional gameplay features.

The new optional features are:

  • Variable movement costs - Tweak the speeds of all ship types
  • Automatic explorer move - Explorers always explore on their own, without needing to be prompted to with the Ctrl+X shortcut.
  • Hidden victory conditions - Scoreboards are locked out until the end of the game, leaving the current winner a mystery.
  • Enhanced computer players - Even harder computer opponents. The manual offers no specifics on what this means, except for a dire warning against letting an enhanced veteran get on his feet.
  • Random game - New values are randomly assigned to all movements and research and production costs.
Unfortunately, it doesn't fix any of my biggest gripes with the original version. The starmap still doesn't show you things like who owns which planets or how big the fleets are, and there's no good way to know when you've lost a planet.

Third Edition, released in 1988, was similarly released for Apple II and Commodore 64, and also ported to Amiga, Apple IIgs, Macintosh, PC, and PC-98 computers by third parties. This version completely reworks the interface, changing it from a command-based interface to a menu-based one, although some of the old keyboard commands still work. Despite the interface overhaul, all of my main complaints remain.

Third Edition also provides some gameplay tweaks, but the biggest one is the addition of an Advanced Scenario, with these new gameplay features:

  • Planets support armies in addition to PDB's. On peacefully settled planets, armies are recruited from the local population. On conquered planets, they must be brought in from offworld by transports. Armies defend planets from invasion, pacify the population on conquered planets, and are necessary to maintain PDB's.
  • Conquered planets rebel if the local population exceeds the army size by a factor of four.
  • On conquered planets, almost everything costs double.
  • PDB's no longer require maintenance, but do require presence of armies, which do require maintenance. Transports that land on hostile or conquered planets now convert into armies instead of PDB's, and if enemy armies are present, will fight for control of the planet. PDB's may be constructed on conquered planets.
  • Explorer ships may not be constructed.
  • Expanded tech trees. Instead of just having four levels of ship tech, there are also four levels of navigation tech, and industrial tech.
  • Ships may not travel beyond a maximum range of a friendly colony. Improved navigation technlogy will expand this.
  • The number of factories you may purchase per turn is limited by the planet's population size.
  • Overpopulated planets automatically cull their surplus population at the end of each turn, without any environmental damage.
  • Maintainance costs increase progressively as a planet's social level improves.
  • Planet's industrial and population capacities may improve when social and planet environment levels max out.


Here are comparison shots of each version.

Players menu:

Options menu:

Features menu:

Start of turn - note the removal of sector numbers in Third Edition:

"Flickering cursor" mode - this is buried in a menu in Third Edition.

Star map - in Third Edition the cursor is movable and the selected planet's name will be highlighted:

Planet orders - in Third Edition the middle column shows quantity ordered and the right column shows RP spent, rather than the inconsistent notation used before:

Task Force orders - in Third Edition this is split between two menus:

Task Force formation - in Third edition movement orders are here instead of in the above screen:

Utility menu:

Task Force report:

Star System report:

Victory report:

System Task Force list:

Orbital combat:

Planetary combat:

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