Friday, March 19, 2021

Game 245: Computer Bismarck and the roads from early SSI

Wargames are among the nichest of all genres, but a crucial part of early computer game history. I've never been into them myself - they've always struck me as dense, abstract, and inaccessible - but can't deny that they've been instrumental to many of my favorite strategy games, and of course to RPGs.

Two of the most prolific computer wargame developers in the 80's were Avalon Hill and Strategic Simulations Inc, and they make for some interesting comparisons and parallels. I covered a selection of Avalon Hill's early titles more than a year ago - the company's primary business had been in boardgames, as it is now, but branched out into publishing computer wargames under their Microcomputer Games label. Most of these were licensed from independent programmers, and all of the games I played had been coded in BASIC, as it was their policy to favor BASIC games for the ease in portability and to encourage user modification.

SSI, on the other hand, was always a computer game house, from its 1979 inception when founder/designer Joel Billings' Computer Bismark was rejected by Avalon Hill for publishing, and he decided to self publish instead. Unlike Avalon Hill, none of their games from 1983 and earlier make whale status, or even come that close. Wargames like Battle of the Bulge and Battle for Normandy, acclaimed by CGW, only garnered 10-13 Mobygames votes of the requisite 25, and their most popular by this measure, Computer Baseball, only got 16. Avalon Hill's comparatively primitive B-1 Nuclear Bomber and Midway Campaign both come close with 24 votes each, and by 1982, Galaxy and Telengard pass the threshhold. SSI's wargames from this period, from the looks of it, are quite a bit more sophisticated, deep, and mature as war simulations. Perhaps Avalon Hill's games have more votes precisely because they're not as deep and therefore more accessible.

What's most important to me about these early SSI games isn't what they accomplished as war simulators, but what they led to. In 1983, Billings' partner Roger Keating left SSI to found a new studio Strategic Studies Group, whose debut title, Reach for the Stars, is among the first 4x strategy games and anticipates Master of Orion. The earliest extant games of Danielle Bunten Berry, then Dan Bunten, were created for SSI before leaving to design M.U.L.E. for Electronic Arts, an all-time classic which had been inspired by the ancient Hamurabi family of resource management games. SSI themselves later developed several noteworthy CRPG with wargame-like features, starting with Phantasie and Questron, and soon after the famous Gold Box series. Their line of wargames continued too, with 1994's Panzer General the most famous of them all. Avalon Hill, conversely, doesn't have a single whale to their credit coming out after 1983.

Using a combination of sources - mostly Mobygames vote counts and credits pages, but also using CGW's wargaming column, I've picked a selection of early SSI titles to give myself a broad representation of their early works, but also to serve as introductions to the other developers mentioned.


Computer Bismarck was developed for the Apple II on the recommendation of Trip Hawkins, who founded M.U.L.E.'s publisher Electronic Arts. Everything really is connected!

The German battleship Bismarck, launched in February 1939, was, according to SSI, the mightiest battleship yet constructed. Weighing over 41,000 tons, plated with armor nearly impervious to shells and torpedoes, as fast as a cruiser, and armed with eight 15-inch long range guns and a secondary battery with dozens of medium-caliber and flak cannons, the Bismarck was a powerful threat to the proud British navy, which had already suffered terrible losses to German U-boats.

On May 22, 1941, Allied reconnaissance reported that the Bismarck, last seen on the Norwegian coast, was gone - lost somewhere in the northern Atlantic, where crucial Allied convoys were vulnerable to attack. Under orders from the Admiralty, the fleet moved westward to hunt and sink the Bismarck. In the following nine day pursuit and naval battle, described in painfully specific historical detail in the manual, the Bismarck was caught and overwhelmed by a fleet of two battleships, a carrier, three cruisers, and seven destroyers. Outgunned and unable to slip away, the Bismarck sustained over 400 hits, disabling her rudder and guns. Her surviving crew scuttled and abandoned ship. All but 115 of the 2,200 man crew were killed or MIA.

The manual for this game is pretty intimidating. Eleven dense, double-columned pages describe commands, movement rules for all ship types, rules on reconnaissance, spotting, and shadowing, weather, and of course combat. On top of that, there are maps, vehicle stat tables, and turn record cards. Simply reading it without the game at hand for reference, I couldn't really take in much except the general goal of the game - search for the Bismarck and destroy it. The British have a fleet at their disposal with four battleships, seven cruisers, a destroyer flotilla, seven convoys, two sub groups, and four airfields, plus the possibility of reinforcements including two carriers. The Bismarck is only escorted by the Prinz Eugen cruiser and four wolf packs, but the Bismarck must merely evade detection in order to win.

The concept invites comparisons to Avalon Hill's Midway Campaign, another wargame about a WWII naval conflict in which one side had greater numbers and the other had more powerful ships and the element of surprise, and both games ran in 16KB BASIC, but Bismarck is clearly an order of magnitude more complex. Midway Campaign's gameplay instructions took up about 2 1/2 pages of its 4-page manual. This is possible because while Midway Campaign was distributed on tape and the entire program had to fit in 16KB, Computer Bismarck consists of seven programs, each of which can be loaded from disk into memory as needed, plus data files for the map and ship tables.

To try to grasp how to play, I started with a few practice games, keeping the manual for reference. In my most successful learning attempt, I positioned my fleet into a wall formation to the west of Ireland, where the Bismarck and its escort cruiser Prinz Eugen were eventually spotted but unsuccessfully shadowed as they broke through the blockade without engaging, disappearing into the stormy Atlantic and leaving behind a few wolf packs which harassed my convoys. Although I could see the U-boats' positions, my attempts to fight them were futile; no matter how many ships I moved into the square, it seemed that my ships would only return fire when a wolf pack struck first, and I somehow managed to crash my carrier's sole squadron when I thought I had ordered it to make a complete attack and return trip.

Eventually, the Bismarck's position was revealed, five sectors west of the blockade, and my recon planes were close enough to close in and shadow, buying me time as I moved my fleet away from the subs and toward the target. The planes eventually ran out of fuel and crashed, but not before enough of my fleet could get in range and take over the shadowing job, and soon after reinforcements arrived. They entered the map far from the action, but with the Bismarck slippery enough to evade combat for awhile but not enough to avoid being followed, they eventually caught up.

In the meantime, during the combat phase of one turn, the Bismarck slipped away to the east, but the Prinz Eugen and wolfpack escort stayed behind and fought. The cruiser did not last long. My subs caught up with the Bismarck and attacked without giving it a chance to escape, but inflicted little damage. A few turns later, the Bismarck engaged a destroyer flotilla, utterly annihilating it.

Quite a bit later, the Bismarck finally failed to disengage from combat, and while it did some light damage to two of my battleships, it quickly went down under a veritable hail of torpedoes and shells from seven battleships, ten cruisers, and two destroyer flotillas. In total, I scored 92 points from the destruction of the two warships, one submarine, and convoy survival, but the Germans scored 180 for the destruction of so many convoys, destroyers, and all the planes that I crashed. So, Pyrrhic victory?

I re-read the manual, absorbing more this time, and tried again to see if I could do better. Before playing, you're given a few options:

  • First, to enter a number from 1 to 99. I'm pretty sure that the purpose of this is to seed the RNG, like in Akalabeth.
  • Whether you wish to play against another human, or against Admiral Otto von Computer. The game just doesn't seem like it would be much fun for whoever plays as the Germans, though according to the designer's notes the computer opponent was a late addition.
  • Whether or not to play an introductory scenario. The only affect of this, as far as I can tell, is that before the game starts you will be told exactly where the Bismarck will end its first turn.
  • To enter a secret two-digit number as a password. Presumably this is a vestigial feature of the two-player mode, but still required for singleplayer. I guess that you're supposed to leave the room when your opponent is playing so you can't see their movements, and then it prompts you for your password before returning control to you so that your opponent can't cheat and play your turn for you.


The starting map:

 An overview of what's going on here with all those letters and numbers:

  • M's represent merchant convoys, which are worth points for you to get to certain destinations, and points for the Germans if destroyed. The three "M2" convoys have battleship and cruiser escorts.
  • The D represents a destroyer flotilla, escorting two battleships.
  • C's represent cruisers.
  • B's represent battleships, but right now none appear because no sector contains only battleships.
  • S's represent sub groups.
  • The numbers to the right of these letters indicate the total search strength of the ships in that sector.
  • The numbers on the right edge of the map indicate the visibility at that latitude. To see anything in a square, the search strength must match or exceed the visibility level. Right now I'm practically blind.
  • F represents fog. Ships in fog are virtually invisible.
  • Crosses mean airfields and ports.

A big drawback of the map function is that it can't show you when multiple units occupy the same sector, and the weakest tends to take priority. That's why we don't' see any B's here - the ships they escort or are escorted by overwrite them. Even worse, when you move a unit, it "erases" the square, regardless of if other units remain behind, making it look as if it's empty! There are commands to redraw the map, but once you start issuing ship movement orders, you're stuck in that mode and can't use the map commands until you're done issuing orders to all of the ships, which is frequently a source of frustration - there's nothing more annoying than having to figure out what orders to give a ship when the map is wrong, and you can't redraw the map until after you've given orders!

The most important non-movement order is Patrol, which greatly improves the ship's search factor; 4 for most of the battleships and cruisers, and 3 for submarines. At night, patrols' search factors are 2-3, but moving ships only have a factor of 1 regardless of time of day.

I decided to repeat my strategy from before, setting up a wide search net northwest of Ireland, and hoping that the Bismarck would pass through it and be seen. The risk was that if it went around, or slipped through its holes, I'd have no way of knowing. This time, though, I sent my convoys, which can't patrol, directly to their objectives, unescorted. I had my planes search closely in tight formations around the UK coasts.

The map after moving everything and redrawing.

End of turn 2. The wall is starting to form.

Turn 3. Nightfall. Consolidated the wall a bit for concentrated nighttime visibility and recalled all the planes just to be safe. The fog has lifted.

Turn 4. A few ships patrol, and two level bombers scout the coast of Bergen but it's not enough.

Turn 5. The wall is coming together, and planes scout the Bergen coast.

Turn 6. A column of ships have good visibility in five sectors, my subs head north around England, and planets continue to scout Bergen.

My planes spotted the Bismarck! It never left port.

The Bismarck sailed south, but my plane shadowed successfully, and reinforcements were deployed at Scapa Flow and Clyde bases in England.

Start of turn 7. Bismarck is the color-inverted B.

I moved every ship but the convoys toward Bergen, and did my best to keep the Bismarck under aerial observation, with with Scapa Flow's reinforcements consisting of a battleship, carrier, four cruisers, and a destroyer flotilla, this was hardly necessary. I was able to attack the Bismarck with this group right away, starting with a torpedo bomber run launched from the carrier.

End of turn 7. Four cruisers, a destroyer flotilla, six recon planes, and three bombers are on the Bismarck.

I expected combat, but none at all happened, and the next turn the Bismarck was gone, with no opportunity presented to shadow. But I kept moving my forces toward its location, and spread out the Scapa Flow fleet. I had to recall most of the planes to refuel. Then I realized what happened - the fog had returned, and the Bismarck got away in it.

End of turn 8. Note the fog at Bergen.

The Bismarck was spotted again! My destroyers had the first shot at it.

Damnit guys. You suck.

Next, the battleship had a chance to engage.

Aaand it got away.

Night fell, but my surviving destroyers were able to shadow. Guess they're good for something. I dogpiled my fleet on the Bismarck once again. I had to ground most of the planes to refuel, except for the torpedo bomber, with which I once again attempted a bombing run from the carrier.

End of turn 9. A battleship, three cruisers and half a destroyer flotilla are on the Bismarck.

The combat phase began. The torpedo bombers struck first, which shows that the game recognized my intent, but missed the 120 foot wide vessel completely.

Next, the surface ships engaged, though the destroyers stayed out of the fight, I'm guessing because they were out of torpedoes. The Bismarck did not disengage.

Round 1 results: You sank my battleship!

Neither fleet annihilated, round 2 began.

Why not? Were you saving them?

Bye bye, Otto.

The game didn't end, as the Prinz Eugen was still a target of opportunity, but I didn't feel like scouring the ocean for it. I simply put my warships in patrol, kept the planes grounded, and continued moving the convoys toward their destinations. Subs sank one of my battleships, and a plane somehow crashed even though I had them all grounded, but I didn't care at this point. All but one of the convoys made it to their destination, two of them on the final turn that they were allowed to move. The Prinz Eugen was never seen or heard from.

I guess I was fortunate that the Bismarck hadn't moved at all before I spotted it, because it made the task of sinking it much easier. But I didn't feel like playing again to see if another scenario might play out.

GAB rating: Average. This game has the steepest learning curve I've seen yet in any game played on this blog, though a lot of that has to do with grappling with the interface, which is frankly quite clumsy. For instance, why are there three kinds of ship movement orders, when only one is valid for any given ship? And why is one called "Fast Move" when it's slower than a regular move? And the "move plane" orders mode, for some inexplicable reason, forces you to manually issue "no orders" to your torpedo bombers when it isn't legal for them to move (e.g. their carrier hasn't even arrived yet!), even though it's smart enough to skip other planes when they're grounded and reloading.

The learning curve would be fine if there was a good payoff of deep gameplay, but Computer Bismarck just isn't satisfying enough to be worth the effort. My wins did not make me feel smart, they made me feel lucky, and combat just seemed like a mess of randomness, with the odds heavily in British favor. And the wolf packs were a nuisance that couldn't be mitigated.

A lawsuit from Avalon Hill, settled out of court, alleged that SSI's design had been improperly appropriated from their board game Bismarck, and from a brief overview of the manual of its 1978 second edition, the similarities are indeed strong enough to preclude coincidence. But, there is a crucial difference - Avalon Hill's design is set up like Battleship in that each player has their own board and set of tokens for secretive movement, but the mere act of searching a sector would signal to the other player that you have a ship or plane eligible to search there. Finding nothing would give information to the enemy and none to you. Only Computer Bismarck permits fair and secret spotting, which is why Billings put so much emphasis on it. To allow this in a board game would require a human arbiter, and who would want to be stuck in that role? As the manual notes, automating this sort of tedium is exactly what computers are for.

I do wonder how much I'll enjoy SSI's other offerings of this era. These games weren't really meant for me, but given that Computer Bismarck was one of the first games of its kind, I have to be open minded to the idea that they'll get better. We'll see if they do, to an extent that I have more fun playing them.


  1. No boardgame Bismarck? Maybe that was a joke? There were two editions: 1962 and 1978.

    The computer version was developed to optimize the boardgame's hidden information aspect, and add a 1-player variant. Otherwise it was a 2 player game.

    1. I'm not at all surprised that there were board games simulating the pursuit and sinking of the Bismarck, but I am a little surprised that Billings copied Avalon Hill's 1978 design so closely, and then had the audacity to try to sell it back to them! Still, Avalon Hill didn't implement a way to search in secret - how could they? And this aspect is crucial to the Computer Bismarck experience.

      Paragraph concerning board games revised.

    2. The description cites, "A player may choose not to search with a particular unit, thus keeping its location secret (common tactic for German player, obviously)." At the time however it was a brilliant and accurate recreation of the hunt for the Bismarck. The game was a hit because it retains the realism and accuracy if you willing to accept the bookkeeping involved.

      That's the thing about wargames: they will put up with a lot if it means a more realistic experience. They're not looking for a "roll your dice and move your mice" kind of game. I have seen wargames with rules about whether or not sirens are attached to your Stukas and if they are, the attacked unit has to undergo a morale check. You say: needless record-keeping which Stukas have what and extra dice rolls that could easily be abstracted away. Wargamers love it because it attempts to simulate what actually happened.

      The 1962 edition of Bismarck was produced for the PC and Apple as DREADNOUGHTS.

  2. I tested a bit, and I confirm that the number you choose from 1 to 99 at the beginning is the seed. 100% it determines the weather for all the game. I believe it also determines the strategy chosen by the Bismark, possibly it was manually done based on the weather.
    I had one case where the strategy chosen was hugging the coast of Scotland as far as possible. Found turn 1 by patrol planes from Scapa Flow, sunk turn 4 by some many hits it maxed out and displayed "99 hits"


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