Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Games 262-263: Tax Dodge & Archon: The Light and the Dark

It was almost the start of the 1983 phase of Data Driven Gamer when we covered the first games of Automated Simulations. By 1981, its co-founder Jon Freeman had developed a slew of BASIC games that had principally targeted the TRS-80 but also found ports to Apple, Atari, and Commodore computers - the D&D-inspired Dunjonquest series of dungeon crawlers, a multitude of spinoffs, the StarQuest series, and movie monster simulator Crush, Crumble, & Chomp! By 1981, Freeman quit, having grown tired of the limitations of BASIC and unable to convince his partner to see things his way.

Freeman and his wife Anne Westfall, an Automated Simulations programmer, founded "Free Fall Associates" in 1982 and co-produced Tax Dodge, a Pac-Man inspired arcade-style game for Atari computers that took advantage of its comparatively advanced graphics, sound, and speed, being coded in machine language instead of the interpreted BASIC code that propelled those lumbering simulations of their earlier years. Ironically, Automated Simulations would soon after head in a similar direction without Freeman's involvement, also focusing on arcade-style games in machine language for Atari computers, such as 1983's seminal Jumpman.

As for Free Fall, Tax Dodge was a flop, and they found themselves in the same place that several other stories of 1983 have ended up - Electronic Arts. Joined by designer and fellow Automated Simulations alumnus Paul Reiche III, they developed their first games for EA, starting with the one that would become their most famous title of all, Archon.


This post covers those first two games by Free Fall Associates.

Game 262: Tax Dodge


Jon Freeman wasn't shy about inserting his neoconservative views into his work. StarQuest: Rescue at Rigel was a thinly veiled metaphor for the Iran hostage crisis, where the "High Tollah" have taken prisoners and you play a space commando and perform a daring, guns blazing rescue mission. In its follow-up Star Warrior, the backstory launches into a weird lecture on the virtues of anarcho-libertarianism. Through the monster biographies of Crush Crumble and Chomp, he's eager to tell you what he thinks about constituted government, gay rights activists, and the Knicks.

Tax Dodge, then, makes its politics the entire theme of the game, but the metaphor is a silly bit of fluff as you navigate a maze of earnings, deductions, accountants, inflation, audits, and tax havens while chased by black-hatted IRS agents who will take your money if they catch you. Every fiscal year gives you an earnings quota, and if you don't bring enough gains to your tax shelter by April 15th, you lose. Supposedly this was meant to be a critique on overly complicated U.S. tax codes, but the metaphor doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. Merely paying taxes in this game is dead simple compared to real life - all you need to do is have money, and the IRS comes and takes it. It's tax avoidance that the game makes complicated, and contrary to its intentions, comes across more as a satire of convoluted, how-is-this-even-legal schemes available to moneyed individuals than it does of the tax code itself.

Tax Dodge features true 4-way scrolling, which wasn't even common in arcade games by 1982. Jr. Pac-Man, released the following year, only had horizontal scrolling. Running into offscreen taxmen is a seemingly unavoidable problem. Thankfully, they only take some of your money, and will not be able to take any more until they return to the IRS building on the maze, and you can bump into them a few times and still win the level.

Unfortunately, there's only one maze layout which repeats infinitely. Which isn't to say that every stage plays exactly the same - there are a variety of level gimmicks that rotate level for level. I couldn't find a manual, so I'm not sure what they all do, but ones that I saw include:

  • Deductions act as a buffer. They won't count toward your money quota, but if you have any, the IRS will take these from you before they take your earnings.
  • Inflation costs you money as you run across it.
  • Red tape slows down everyone crossing it.
  • The accountant costs you some money and turns you into a ghost for some reason. This state will protect you from a single taxman encounter.
  • Tax court costs you money whenever you run through it. I'm not really sure if it does anything else.
  • The lawyer charges you a one-time fee and then lights up, like the accountant. I don't know if it does anything good.
  • Audits pop-up around the IRS building from time to time, and stay there for a little while, costing you money if you pass through them.
  • The Constitution appears in some levels, but I have no idea what it does here or what it's supposed to mean in context. Freeman is familiar with Article I Section 8 and the Sixteenth Amendment, right?
  • COURT also appears sometimes in place of the Tax Court and like red tape, it slows you down.
  • Tax havens are safe spots where you can rest without any risk of being caught by the taxmen, but you can't stay there forever as the clock keeps ticking.

The game starts getting pretty difficult around level 4, which is where my video above starts. I made it to level 8 in my best attempt.

GAB rating: Average. It's okay, I guess, but there's no reason I'd want to play this over Pac-Man, which was competently ported to Atari computers the same year. The changes to the formula don't really make it better, and ultimately this just feels like a Pac-Man reskin despite Freeman's ambition to be more.

Tax Dodge didn't bring in quite as much taxable income as Freeman had hoped. He blamed Atari's younger crowd for not "getting" it, but I don't buy it. Tax Dodge isn't especially complex or deep, it's just got a lot of shallow but obscure little rules. I think so much more could have been done with the theme too - why not implement tax brackets, so that the higher your earnings, the more they take? How about preferential rates on capital gains? Where's my Roth IRA? Never mind tax havens, how about a spot on the map for Deutsche Bank? I'd like to see offshore investments, charitable donation credits, profit shifting, and maybe a two-player mode where you can partner with Ms. Tax Dodge and pursue split-income subsidies and those sweet, sweet dependency credits. If you're going to insist Tax Dodge is more than just a Pac-Man clone, at least try to make me think like a tax dodger!

Game 263: Archon: The Light and the Dark

Read the manual here:

It's a little hard to believe that this game, a hybrid of chess-inspired strategy and competitive arcade action, represents the culmination of experience behind the voluminous Dunjonquest series and its related titles. Examined as an Electronic Arts launch title, it fits right in, with its fair complexities, production values, and immediate accessibility, but viewed as a terminus on Jon Freeman's thread, how did we get from Crush, Crumble, and Chomp to this?

Archon plays a bit like a simplified chess variant - very simplified - with the twist that when one piece attacks, the board transitions to an arena, where they fight it out in a twitchy action minigame.

Victory goes to the first player to have pieces on all five "power points," indicated by the blinking eyes, though your main avenues of achieving this mostly involve eliminating pieces until it's clear who the winner will be.

Pieces don't have the complex rules of chess; you have flyers who can go anywhere on the board within their range, and walkers who can't go through other pieces but are otherwise only restricted by range. Chess-like strategy, which Freeman dismisses as "dull," doesn't work here. You can't really "control" the board when so many pieces can basically go anywhere they please.

The strategy comes from three factors.

First, and perhaps most importantly, light pieces have advantage on white spaces, and dark pieces have advantages on black spaces. The green spaces, on which three of the five power points are located, cycle between light and dark, shifting a shade every time both players move, and the closer the color is to pure white or black, the stronger the power differential. At full white, a light piece may be able to one-shot a dark piece, and sustain up to three hits in return.

Second, each piece has different combat abilities and attributes, and they're asymmetrical for the most part. Your tough, slow-moving, rock-throwing golem might be powerful against banshees, but moving it off a white square to attack one on a neutral power point might leave it vulnerable to counterattack from a fast and deadly basilisk.

Third, each side has a powerful spellcasting unit, which guards a power point on a friendly-colored square, who may in lieu of moving, cast one of seven game state-altering spells. Each may be cast only once per game, and these spells may not affect units on power points (not even "heal"), nor may the "teleport" spell teleport a unit onto one.

I played a few rounds with "R," with me as light and him as dark.


We had some fun, but didn't find a lot of lasting appeal. The strategy doesn't run quite as deep as it seems. For instance, we learned to never move your shapeshifter onto a non-powered square that changes color, and if your opponent does, cast Imprison and attack it with a knight once the color flips to white. Magic can only do so much, and for the most part is easily undone with more magic; one unit taken out with a cheap summon elemental spell? Revive it. Did they cast Shift Time in a gambit to keep the middle power points friendly? Cast Shift Time again and now the advantage is yours.

Ultimately, whoever can fight better is the one who wins the game. Three of the power points are in the middle and on shifting tiles, which makes them difficult to hold. Two of them are on opposite sides and and guarded by powerful spellcasters on squares with full affinity, which makes them difficult to take. You either win by eliminating so many units that you can't be stopped, or you win by occupying the middle power points and landing a sneak attack on the enemy spellcaster, which requires being the better fighter anyway as they'll have full color affinity on their side. Or you win if the other player doesn't know what they're doing and leaves their own power point unattended.

Gameplay against the computer is frustrating, as it's jittery and has impossibly fast reflexes, but also tends to degrade as the game goes on. Defensive play is extremely effective, because it plays dumb at the strategic level. Just buy your time, get your good units onto friendly spaces as quickly as possible, and weather out its initial barrage of magic-aided attacks. The computer will be drawn to the neutral power points like a moth to flame and crucially keep them there even after the luminosity shifts, and that's when you attack and retreat. The main risk is the possibility of losing your spellcaster and power point to a powerful unit while all of the other power points are occupied, resulting in an immediate game over for you, but the computer doesn't do that often, and when it does, you always have the full advantage of your color on that square.

GAB rating: Above average. I remember liking this game better, but on closer examination, the strategy portion is disappointingly thin. Victory really goes to whoever fights better. Defensive play, where you move as many pieces as possible onto friendly, stable-colored squares and keep them there until you can attack at an advantage, is so effective that aggression can only beat it if the aggressor is much more skilled, in which case they'd win anyway. Mutual aggression can be interesting, but again, strategy plays little role in determining who performs better, and whoever can take out their opponent's spellcaster first, or whoever eliminates more of their opponent's good pieces while they're on wrong color, will probably win the game.

It also seems like the dark side just has better pieces. The dragon is simply more powerful than the djinni, whose only comparative advantage is slightly shorter attack interval, barely significant compared to the dragon's far more damaging fire breath and bigger HP bar. The basilisk greatly out-damages the unicorn, making it a much more effective in its role as a glass cannon despite the lower HP. Banshees kind of suck, but the light counterpart's phoenix isn't a whole lot better, immobile in its attack and vulnerable for a split-second afterward, and the dark's shapeshifter has the incredibly useful and unique trait of healing itself after each fight, making it basically invulnerable on friendly colors.

I propose that Archon could have been improved with a victory points-like system where each player gains "mana" or some other idiosyncratic quantum for each unit on a power point each turn. A player who has captured four power points gains four times as much as a player with only one. Filling a mana bar would count as an alternate victory condition. I believe this tweak would prevent stalemate conditions by forcing defensive players to contend for the power points, encourage strategic play somewhat, and on top of that, the AI wouldn't even need to be changed since it already goes for them when it has no chance of capturing all five.


Archon remains Free Fall's most well-known game, and only whale, so this is an end point of a retrospective that I started nearly a year ago with Automated Simulations' Starfleet Orion. The same year as Archon, they would also release, through Electronic Arts, Murder on the Zinderneuf, a Clue-inspired murder mystery adventure game, and the following year, Archon II: Adept. Their final commercial games were Swords of Twilight, an Amiga action RPG, and a DOS remake of Archon. Freeman and Westfall's post DOS-era credits consist entirely of online card games played through the now defunct Prodigy GameTV service. Free Fall still appears to exist, but their website hasn't been updated since 2008.

Although Archon is an end point for the purposes of this blog, and the last time I'll look at anything involving Jon Freeman, co-designer Paul Reiche III went on to have a decades-long career, and currently works at Toys for Bob, taking up the reins of the Skylanders and Spyro the Dragon franchises. Notably, he would be the lead designer for Star Control, a game that might be described as Archon in space.


  1. I loved playing Archon Ultra on Amiga with my brother. It los the same game than the original with better graphics and maybe some improved balance between light and dark.

  2. Star Con is just Archon with a "st"!

  3. the strategy portion is disappointingly thin. Victory really goes to whoever fights better

    Well yeah. Of course. This is an arcade game with a thin strategy layer wrapped on top. Sure, there is some strategy in choosing which piece goes against which, but it all comes down to that sweet, sweet arcade action. A rook can attack a pawn and still lose, which is refreshing coming from games like chess which are completely determinative.

    That said, there's a ton of strategy that you apparently missed. The shapeshifter is powerful, but you just attack it with knights until it dies. Even if it's on a black square you just need a couple lucky hits, and you've got lots of knights. You don't need an imprison spell. I remember not wanting to leave it in range of a knight, which obviously limited its utility. Plus, trading imprison for revive is a poor trade, as revive is the best spell in the game. Obviously you don't move your wizards off their starting spaces, ever, until the very end of the game. You could if the opponent has already cast imprison, but why? It's like starting the game with the king already castled.

    I don't remember the phoenix being that crappy, but then I only ever played the DOS version. I think it moves faster. Yeah, and the sides *are* unbalanced, which just makes the game better. Screw chess' "everyone has the same starting conditions" crap. It all comes down to player skill anyway. A good player can win with the white or black, it doesn't matter. Just makes for a richer game and more possibilities.

    Also you didn't mention the endgame, in which crappy pieces like valkyrie and banshee come into their own. Provided you didn't throw them away in useless attacks, they become more powerful as the big-name pieces are all removed. It's a different game at that point. It's like the flip in chess when the king goes from hiding the whole game to being a good offensive piece.

    1. The shapeshifter is powerful, but you just attack it with knights until it dies.

      I can't see that working against an even slightly competent player, no matter how many times you try. The attack is instant, if you can hit them, they can hit you, and the cooldown is almost nothing, so the best possible outcome of knight-on-shapeshifter is that you trade hits. On a black square, this kills the knight and does nothing to the shapeshifter.

      For the most part, I didn't care what units were in range of other units so long as my own were on the right color. And that severely limited game strategy. My knight might me easy prey for your dragon, but you won't dare attack because he's on a white square and your dragon is likely to be killed in retaliation by my genie or unicorn. Even the valkyrie has a chance. Therefore I don't care what's in range of my knight.

      Plus, trading imprison for revive is a poor trade, as revive is the best spell in the game.

      Who said it's a trade? I can imprison your shapeshifter on a shifting tile, kill it with a knight once it shifts white, and then be rid of your shapeshifter and still have my revive spell.

      I don't remember the phoenix being that crappy, but then I only ever played the DOS version.

      The phoenix sucks because there's a delay before its attack, which lets your opponent move out of the way, and another delay after the attack, which lets them counterattack, albeit requiring some very strict timing. I've beaten a phoenix with a goblin on a white square.

  4. About Tax Dodge, you get the fiscally conservative vibes very strongly in the Starfleet Orion manual indeed : The Orion Confederacy settlers are a bunch of private entrepreneurs, idealists and other non-governmental organisations (the first ones apparently are the Mormon Church, though I could not determine if any of the founders of Automated Simulations was a Mormon). The government(s?) take(s) ages to reach where the Confederacy settled, and clearly they are the bad guys (they start the war, they use pirates and other suspicious types) and maybe less competent (they lose the war after all according to Invasion Orion canon)

    And then there is the scenario blurbs eg Scenario 2 description is actually a poem that says, among other "there's nothing in the Union // neither drink nor drugs nor plants // That the government won't tax it // if you give 'em the chance".

    1. Yup. And Prometheus-worthy writing it ain't.

    2. Im guessing he respects lgbt people nowadays.


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