1e. Computer Wargames

Panzer Commander by SSI

"The future, obviously, is computer wargames."

James Dunnigan, The Complete Wargames Handbook

The technology of board and miniature wargaming has not developed much over time.  In these genres, four-color printing and acrylic paints are perhaps the most important innovations of the century.  Computer wargames, on the other hand, have been almost entirely dependent on advances in technology for their form and progressive improvement.

1960 to 1980
The earliest computer games were wargames.  Space War, a game simulating spaceship battles, was invented in 1961.[1]  Though Pong, generally regarded as the first widely popular computer game, simulated tennis rather than war, a large portion of early computer games involved war themes.  Space Invaders, Missile Command, Tail Gunner, and Space Wars were all part of the first wave of arcade and home-computer games.  In these early days, however, the practical limitations on processing power and graphics led to games that concentrated more on reflexes than intelligence.  Some exceptions existed, like TANKTICS and other games authored by Chris Crawford and various wargaming companies. These games often offered opportunities for solo play, which was valuable for many gamers.  Still, many early games simply offered players an opportunity to play conventional board wargames on computer screens -- an exercise of dubious value.  Also, the artificial intelligence of computer opponents was, generally speaking, pathetic in comparison to a human opponent.

1980 to 1990Castle Wolfenstein (original version)
Popular computer wargames during the early 1980's generally looked to fantasy role-playing games rather traditional wargames for their inspiration.  Games such as Wizardry and Ultima might be nominally termed squad-level wargames, in that they largely involved series of combat simulations.  However, these games borrowed the fantasy and magic vocabulary of role-playing games, and kept the role-playing perspective of focusing on one character or at most a group of six characters.[2] While playing against a computer opponent obviously made cooperative "role-playing" impossible, the addition of graphics capabilities, solo play, and some arcade elements compensated for this.  Some popular games, like the original Castle Wolfenstein, utilized the Wizardry "kill and explore" formula in more historically recognizable settings.  In Wolfenstein, the player assumed the role of a captured American soldier during WWII.  The objective of the game was to escape from a vast castle full of roaming SS soldiers.

Another trend that began in the early 1980's was the increased emphasis on combat simulations which had started with the tank-simulation game Battle Zone.  With increased graphics capabilities and improvements in processor speeds, flight simulators ceased to be clunky pixilated line drawings and began to capture the look and feel of actual flight. Other simulation games emulated the experience of tanks and submarines.  Meanwhile, traditional war games, such as Strategic Conquest and Imperialism continued to improve their features and adapt their rules to better use the capabilities of computer technology.  Strategic Simulations Incorporated, which had established a solid reputation with traditional wargamers, continued to improve its board game crossover product line while often introducing products in the combat simulation market as well. 

The Present Day
Computer wargames today come in a dazzling variety of forms.  The adventure, simulation, and board crossover genres have been enhanced to take full advantage of the capabilities of the modern microcomputers.  Sid Meier, now affiliated with Firaxis Games, has been at the forefront of these advances, producing titles such as Gettysburg, Antietam, and Civilization. In addition, various new gaming genres have emerged.  Chief among these new forms have been: the first person shooter, the online world, and the real-time strategy game.Quake III Arena

First person shooters
It was only a matter of time (and technology) before someone combined the maze combat model of Wizardry with the three-dimensional graphics engines of flight simulators.  Castle Wolfenstein 3D which was distributed for free by id software was the first game to do this effectively.  The plot was essentially the same as the original Castle Wolfenstein -- the only difference being that the player's screen showed the castle (and bullet-ridden SS) from a first-person perspective.  Id built on the popularity of the game with their next title, Doom, which soon made the "first person shooter" genre, as it came to be called, the most popular type of computer game on the market.  Today's first person shooters typically include online multiplayer options which allow teams of players connected by a local area network or through the internet to fight against other teams in custom- designed photo-realistic settings.  Players can customize their own appearance through the use of "skins."  Often extended groups of players form associations (such as the Quake Clans) with their own hierarchies and cultures.  One extremely popular first-person shooter is Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six, in which a team of players act as a counter-terrorist group.  The game has received praise for its realistic treatment of tactics, technology, and combat (a single gunshot, or at most two, can kill any player or opponent).

Online Worlds
Online Worlds began with Ultima Online, which essentially allowed several thousand people to play a standard fantasy computer game at the same time.[3]  Current alternatives to Ultima Online introduced within the last year are Asheron's Call and Everquest, both of which offer fantasy worlds similar to Ultima Online, though presented in a first-person perspective.  Though these are currently the only serious offerings in online world games, there are rumors that the gaming industry plans to introduce several games within the next year or two that will offer expansive online wargaming worlds incorporating multiple combat simulators.  It is now technically possible to create games where vast teams of players participate in simultaneous worldwide combat campaigns on the land, air, and sea.

Real-Time Strategy GamesCommand and Conquer Real-Time Strategy Game
Real-time strategy games are now among the best selling games on the market.  Command and Conquer, Age of Empires, and Myth are perhaps the best known real-time strategy games today, though Warcraft was the game that popularized the genre.  In most of these games, players begin with only a few resources (perhaps a few civilians) in a corner of a map.  Their opponents are similarly situated.  By gathering resources, training fighting units and building factories and equipment, players gradually establish powerful armies and defenses which they then deploy against their opponents.  The label "real time" derives from the fact that all units operate continuously (there are no movement "turns") and will sit idle or continue in their current activity unless the player commands them to do otherwise.  Obviously, this can create time management problems when a player is attempting to control fifty pieces engaged in separate instances of combat at various points on a large map.

Computers today offer almost limitless possibilities for wargames, though creating a detailed and state-of-the-art computer wargame often involves investing over a million dollars in development.  Though computer games may have some shortcomings, their incredible capabilities do make them the future of wargaming.


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1(back).  See David Pescovitz, "Modern Art," Wired, November 1999, at 285.

2(back).  Actually, Ultima and Wizardry were also derivative of the original text-based Adventure games, such as Zork, which were extremely popular during the mid 1970's as an alternative to Pong.  These games generally involved exploring a fantastic world and solving problems.  Games like Ultima and Wizardry simply added graphics and role-playing combat models to this formula.  (Adventure games, by the way, led to the development into MUDs and MOOs, which are definitely not wargames, but are incredibly interesting .)

3(back).  Ultima Online was plagued by two problems.  The first problem was technical: the game's servers often did not work properly, resulting in crashes that could destroy hours of progress.  The second and more interesting problem was the fact that the game permitted players to kill each other -- which resulted in many more experienced and powerful players terrorizing and killing novices for small profits or the sheer fun of it.  Despite player protests, Lord British (the owner of the company and designer of the Ultima series) refused to disable this feature in the game.