THE HISTORY OF Strategy
The first part of our feature on the history of commanding and conquering on PC.
The history of computer strategy games begins on tables and boards, crammed inside cupboards alongside that knackered old box of Risk that every home seems to possess. The moment strategy made the leap to consoles and computers, it was already familiar. These weren’t just inspired by the games people were playing, in many cases they were direct copies that had been squeezed, sometimes awkwardly, onto a new platform.
In 1972, Invasion was released for the Magnavox Odyssey. It was Risk, essentially, but with Pong- like battles that were fought on top of overlays that had to be slapped on the front of the television. Aside from the battles, Invasion was mostly played on a physical board, so the actual strategy game didn’t really take place on the console at all. The Odyssey’s limited capabilities ended at displaying a few squares that could be moved by twiddling the knobs attached to the little boxes that served as controllers.
The success of microcomputers like the TRS-80 and Apple II inspired a new wave of tabletop adaptations, spearheaded by Strategic Simulations Inc.. So began a cavalcade of wargames, and more than a few RPGs, that would last for around 20 years. Founder Joe Billings had shopped around the idea of making adaptations of existing wargames to tabletop publishers like Avalon Hill, but had no takers. That didn’t deter him. SSI’s first game, Computer Bismarck, bore a striking resemblance to Avalon Hill’s Bismarck. The publisher noticed.
Quickly, Avalon Hill started releasing its own games on computers, competing with SSI. The pair churned out wargames with dizzying momentum, but SSI took the lead early, launching 12 games in 1981. Some of these games were tabletop wargames with a digital component – their boxes full of tokens, maps and thick manuals – but others, including Computer Bismarck, featured AI opponents and could be played entirely on a computer.
Eastern Front (1941), published by Atari in 1981, immediately made its contemporaries seem antiquated. It was one of the first great leaps forward in strategy gaming, presenting players with a single year of Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union, where everything from troop morale to the weather played a role. It was meaty, complex and took advantage of the platform instead of trying to work around it.
Atari had been dubious at first. Designer Chris Crawford had to go through the Atari Program Exchange,
which allowed anyone to submit games that, if approved by Atari, would be sold on its mail order catalogue. It became one of APX’s most successful games, making Atari immediately rethink its position on publishing wargames.
Wargames based on the Second World War didn’t have the battlefield to themselves. 1983’s Reach for the Stars tasked players with dominating the galaxy with a powerful economy and lots of fancy sci-fi technology, not just big fleets. It had most of the hallmarks of a 4X game – explore, expand, exploit and exterminate – a decade before the term was coined. Reach for the Stars was developed by Strategic Studies Group, an Australian wargame studio, but SSI and Avalon Hill were both playing around in space as well. SSI’s Cosmic Balance II and Avalon Hill’s Andromeda Conquest both contained 4X elements, but they were primarily focused on combat.
Strategy games still didn’t venture too far from their roots, but by the mid ’80s the landscape was almost as vibrant as it is today. At the same time Reach for the Stars unwittingly became the first 4X game, Nobunaga no Yabou launched in Japan, starting a grand strategy series that continues today. Two years later, the same developer, Koei, released Romance of the Three Kingdoms, another grand strategy affair, but this time set during a different historical period, beginning another long-running series that’s also still kicking. Koei took a
Strategy games still didn’t venture too far from their roots
holistic approach to empire-building, with harvests and peasant loyalty mattering just as much as armies.
Not every conflict involved clashing armies. M.U.L.E. pitted players against each other in a game of greed on an offworld colony. The eponymous M.U.L.E., a cute AT-AT-inspired hauler, harvested resources, which could then be used, sold or hoarded. There was room for cooperation, competition and plenty of backstabbing, making it a compelling multiplayer game for the few that bought it. In 2016, Civilization IV designer Soren Johnson developed a considerably more successful spiritual successor, Offworld Trading Colony.
Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Walter Bright was intermittently working on Empire, initially inspired by Risk. In 1983 he released it commercially. He sold two copies. Bright released a new version for PC the next year and Empire found its audience, along with a publisher in 1987. Like its inspiration, it was a game of conquest, but there were hints of management, with conquered cities being tasked with building various units, from infantry to
aircraft, and an exploration phase where players could push back the fog of war. The latter struck a chord with a pair of strategy designers, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley.
MicroProse, founded in 1982 by Sid Meier and Bill Stealey, wasn’t initially a strategy game developer. Its first three games, all designed by Meier, comprised a dogfighter, a platformer and a shooter. A year later, Meier released his first strategy game, NATO Commander. Like Eastern Front, armchair generals had to worry about morale and external factors, but NATO Commander had the additional wrinkle of playing out in real time.
After NATO Commander, Meier bounced between genres again, until, in 1985, he designed Crusade in Europe, his second wargame, and the first in the Command series. It was heavily based on NATO Commander, and so the legacy of Eastern Front continued. Then came Pirates! and Covert Action and even more flight sims, and along the way the games started to pick up Meier’s name. It wasn’t just Covert Action, it was Sid Meier’s Covert Action. By 1990, Meier’s name was plastered on a lot of boxes, spread across a lot of genres. He and Bruce Shelley had just finished the management titan, Railroad Tycoon. Meier was itching to do something bigger. Managing a train company or commanding an army wasn’t enough. The pair had its eyes set on something grander: the entirety of human history.
Civilization was a behemoth. It generated entire worlds on which various historical civilisations spread out and inevitably clashed. But it wasn’t always adversarial. Though
Civilization may have been inspired by wargames like Empire, Meier and Shelley also looked towards more peaceful games, like 1989’s SimCity. It was as much about improving a civilisation with wonders and buildings as it was tearing across the map, wiping everyone out. You could engage in diplomacy, research new technology or reform your government. It kept people playing for one more turn, and then another. And it was almost an RTS. Meier tested it out, but ultimately found that it wasn’t accessible. Civilization had so many systems that players needed to wrap their head around, and a turn-based game gave them more time to parse everything.
Across only a few years, MicroProse released a string of games that would go on to define strategy for decades. In the wake of
Civilization came games like
Master of Orion, the first game to receive the 4X moniker. It did for space what Civilization did for Earth, setting a high bar for future space outings. There was Master of Magic, too, which transposed the 4X formula to a fantasy setting where
Meier’s name was plastered on a lot of boxes, spread across a lot of genres
wizards built cities, researched spells and squabbled over magical worlds. The battles played out on isometric maps, while the wizards were like RPG characters; they were mutable and able to learn new traits.
In 1994, MicroProse published UFO: Enemy Unknown, or X-COM: UFO Defense in North America, an elaborate tactical game full of Cold War tension and alien invasions. It was just the latest in a long line of tactical games from Julian Gollop. Rebelstar, Laser Squad and Chaos: The Battle of the Wizards saw Gollop experiment with different settings and systems, but while their influence was visible in UFO, it proved to be much more ambitious than anything that had come before.
Players ran X-COM, a unit specialising in dealing with an extraterrestrial menace. There was a strategy layer, the Geoscape, where the day-to-day running of the organisation took place, and then a tactical layer that took over during missions. It required no small amount of mental agility. One minute you’d be worrying about funding, then next you’d be commanding a squad of soldiers investigating a UFO crash site. It was tough, soldiers got killed off or left behind, and a palpable sense of dread accompanied every mission.
The original concept was a sequel to Laser Squad, with two players duking it out in turn-based tactical firefights. But MicroProse was all about big games. Civilisations that lasted for thousands of years, sprawling space empires, wizards fighting over multiple worlds – Laser Squad II didn’t exactly fit the bill. The first change was the theme, at the suggestion of MicroProse. UFOs were very in. To match the scope of games like Civilization, Gollop and his brother Nick, UFO’s co-designer, introduced the Geoscape and more big-picture management wrinkles. That management element not only made UFO larger than Gollop’s earlier games, it became almost as integral to the series, and its imitators, as the dense tactical combat.
A Civilization sequel was inevitable. There was a hunger for strategy games, and other companies had already made successful iterative sequels. MicroProse gave it the green light. Civilization II, or Civilization 2000 as it was originally called, established the tradition of each game having a different lead designer. Brian Reynolds, who had previously designed Colonization, a Civ- style game of colonising the New World, became Civilization’s second lead designer. Reynolds made a new tech tree, expanded the diplomacy system and completely overhauled the interface. ( Ed: You can read the fascinating history of Civ’s lead designers at bit.ly/pcgciv.)
MicroProse was bought by Spectrum Holobyte, and the new bosses weren’t very interested in Civilization II. It may have been the sequel to a groundbreaking game, but it was marketed halfheartedly. Word of mouth came to the rescue, however. The second Civ was a huge success, paving the way for yet more sequels, spin-offs and, in a strange case of role reversal, board games.
Meier, along with Brian Reynolds and future
Civilization III designer Jeff Briggs, left MicroProse in 1996. Together they founded Firaxis. With its second game, after Gettysburg!, the fledgling studio charted the next step in civilisation. Briefly unable to work with the
Civilization licence, Firaxis looked to the stars for inspiration. Alpha Centauri took over from where
Civilization ended, or at least one of the places where it
AlphaCentauri took over from where Civilization ended
could end: people leaving Earth behind for a new life on a new world.
It was, and still is, a remarkable 4X game. Warring nations were replaced by complex factions that identified with ideologies, not flags. While Civilization’s leaders had the suggestion of personality, Alpha Centauri’s seven factions (14 with the expansion) and their chatty leaders oozed character. And it was blessed with unparalleled flexibility. You could build an isolationist science commune guarded by elite, enhanced soldiers and tachyon shields, or immediately set out to unite humanity, gathering support from the other factions and pushing your agenda in the Planetary Council.
The sci-fi conceit opened the doors to transhumanism, mind-control and ocean cities, but it was never gratuitous. Guided by a narrative that led to the game’s ultimate victory, Transcendance, Alpha Centauri was as cohesive as it was ambitious. It might not have been a Civ game, but it was more than a worthy successor to Civilization II, and the pinnacle of ’90s turn-based strategy.
To find the first strategy games that were truly distinct from their tabletop forebears, we have to rummage through the annals of real-time strategy. While turnbased games dominated strategy throughout the ’80s, the precursors to the RTS were appearing as early as 1982, with SSI’s Cytron Masters.
It was a simple real-time tactics game where players used energy created by generators to build robots and fight each other, clashing on a small grid full of bunkers and mines. In combination with games like Utopia, Modem
Wars and NATO Commander, it laid the groundwork for a new kind of strategy game.
Herzog Zwei is usually hailed as the first RTS. It’s certainly the earliest that still looks recognisable today, and it’s responsible for a multitude of mainstays. Released for SEGA’s Mega Drive in 1989, it featured a transforming mech that could flit around the battlefield as a jet, but also turn into a ground unit and batter enemies. It was through this mech that players interacted with the battlefield, using it to transport troops between bases and fights, with the ultimate goal being the destruction of the enemy base. Units could be given orders, sending them to patrol a specific area, occupy a base or attack an enemy, and when they took damage, it was up to the player to heal them. It had micromanagement, a resource economy, bases and every moment of it took place in real time – it was an RTS. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a very successful one.
Despite not setting the world on fire, Herzog Zwei’s impact was still significant. It influenced the designers of just about every important RTS of the ’90s, and more recently it’s been credited with being a precursor to the MOBA genre. There’s a shared philosophy that
prioritises speed and mobility, and of course there are the similarities between Herzog Zwei’s mech and future heroes and summoners. We’re still 14 years away from Defense of the Ancients.
Herzog Zwei may have kickstarted the RTS, but it was Westwood Studios’ Dune II, three years later, that popularised it. The conflict was framed as a war over resources, with houses Atreides, Harkonnen and Ordos fighting over spice, the drug around which the Dune series orbits. Scarcity drove the action, forcing the houses to compete over spice deposits that could be turned into credits, then buildings, then troops. It was constant
Despite not setting the world on fire, HerzogZwei’s impact was still significant
escalation, and any time spent faffing around was time your enemy was spending getting rich and strong.
Into this war, Westwood flung environmental threats like Dune’s infamous sandworms and shitty weather, powerful faction-specific units, a campaign map that let you pick missions – it wasn’t all brand new, but it was the first time all of these things had been put together in one real-time strategy game. The cycle of gathering and expansion that sat at its heart became the blueprint for almost every future RTS.
Dune II did not set off an avalanche of imitators, but in 1994 Blizzard released its first RTS, Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. As Silicon & Synapse (and briefly Chaos Studios), the developer was known for SNES games like The Lost Vikings and Rock n’ Roll Racing, but noticing a conspicuous dearth of RTS follow-ups to Dune II, it decided to fill in the gap. Warcraft took the base-building, resource-gathering and real-time scraps from Dune II, but set it amid a war between orcs and humans in the fantasy land of Azeroth.
The Warcraft universe can’t be contained to a single medium these days, and the story of its warring factions and demonic invasions is covered in books, comics, a movie and, of course, the world’s most popular MMO. Back in 1994, Blizzard was winging it. The story of
Warcraft was conjured up at the last minute, but even then there was a hint of the universe’s trademark tongue-in-cheek charm and occasional subversiveness.
Alongside its campaign, Warcraft had a secret weapon: online multiplayer. Skirmishes could be fought over LAN or online between two players. Behind the orcs and knights were devious humans, sneaky and tricky. Long before World of Warcraft enchanted millions of players, Azeroth was a multiplayer-friendly place. Orcs & Humans set a precedent, not just for Blizzard but most RTS developers. Blizzard would remain the master of this arena, however, building online worlds and esports and communities spread across half a dozen constantly updated games.
The nascent RTS genre might have seemed quiet when
Warcraft was released, but inside Westwood Studios designers were furiously working on their own follow-up
to Dune II. The result, appearing in 1995, was Command & Conquer. You’ve immediately started thinking about the FMV scenes, haven’t you? Even when Westwood had the budget for fancier cutscenes, the FMVs remained. It’s part of Command & Conquer’s DNA, but originally it was done out of financial necessity, using Westwood employees and a single professional actor.
The war between the GDI (the good guys) and the Brotherhood of Nod (the very, very bad guys) brought with it a whole host of wonderful new toys to play with. Stealth vehicles, explosive commandos, flamethrower tanks – both factions had their exotic units, though Nod more often ventured into the weird. The diverse roster of units and a faster pace ensured that, while Command & Conquer still stuck closely to Dune II’s gameplay loop, complete with a new alien resource waiting to be harvested, it wasn’t retreading too much old ground.
Blizzard responded with Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness. Since it was in development when Command & Conquer appeared on the scene, it was able to compete directly with all of the fancy improvements Westwood had introduced. A few ideas were pinched, as well. Command & Conquer let you click and drag the mouse to select multiple units, so did Warcraft II. Command & Conquer had four-player multiplayer, so Warcraft II expanded it to eight. Blizzard also developed a new fog of war system which differentiated between areas you hadn’t visited and area’s that simply weren’t in your line of sight. Unexplored parts of the map were completely covered by the fog of war, while areas that your faction had explored but were out of your line of sight were coated in a grey filter that hid units and buildings.
Warcraft II also saw Blizzard start taking story more seriously. Chris Metzen, later Warcraft III’s creative director, was brought on as a writer. He helped make sense of Blizzard’s fantasy universe, while also working on Warcraft II’s mission design. Westwood and Blizzard weren’t just building competing strategy games, they were nurturing worlds.
Command & Conquer may have shown Warcraft a thing or two, but Blizzard had learned its lessons well.
Warcraft II was another hit for the studio. Everyone expected Command & Conquer II to follow, but instead Westwood went back in time.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert dialed up the absurdity with a time-travelling Albert Einstein and an alternate history where Hitler never rose to power and the Soviet Union was poised to swallow up Europe. It embraced its ridiculous conceit with even greater gusto than its predecessor, resulting in the Allied and Soviet factions boasting even more unusual and varied units and fortifications. There was something especially reassuring about having a wall of Tesla Coils protecting your base. They were great bug zappers.
There were expansions and ports and more Warcraft and Command & Conquer games just around the corner, but RTS games were also flourishing outside of this rivalry, as well as because of it. There was the Command & Conquer- inspired Dark Reign and its complicated line of sight rules and terrain, while Z rather boldly did away with the gathering cycle, and even mediocre games like
KKnD were doing interesting things with automation.
The legacy of Dune II, even by 1997, was hard to avoid, but new games were sprouting from other evolutionary branches. Total Annihilation put its own spin on just about everything, from streaming resource generation to its powerful, multipurpose commander unit. Yes, it was still ultimately a game of acquiring resources and using them to fund a big ol’ army that you’d then march into a base and unleash, but no other game made managing all this infrastructure and the army that thrived on it so fraught with tension. It necessitated planning and hindsight and the willpower to avoid going all out and constructing a gargantuan and ultimately energy-draining force of murderbots. A nifty physics system and 3D terrain was just the icing on the cake. 1997 was generally a great year for more unconventional RTS games. Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper blended management, construction and real-time
1997 was generally a great year for more unconventional RT S games
scraps into a chimera where players wore the mantle of villain, nurturing a dungeon and murdering pesky heroes. The cursor was replaced by a hand that could slap lazy imps and pick up monsters, dropping them in rooms or near fights. To recruit these monsters, you had to seduce them into your dungeon by providing them with accommodation and food, and each needed to be paid from your treasure hoard. Management and RTS games already had plenty of shared DNA, and the different layers proved to be complementary. And thank goodness it was funny! Running an actual dungeon sounds pretty horrible, but when it’s filled with chickens, comic relief imps and dopey heroes, it’s a lot more palatable.
Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley had decided against making Civilization an RTS, but with Ensemble Studios’
Age of Empires, Shelley took a commendable crack at it. The scale was smaller and the timeline covered the Stone Age up to the Iron Age rather than all of human history, but the fundamentals were all present. There were 12 historical civilisations to choose from, technology to research, even wonders that functioned much in the same way as Civilization’s. But where Civilization was a sprawling, slow-burning game,
Age of the Empires was a race.
With a brisk pace and resource gathering being a priority, the
Civilization elements were ultimately overshadowed by systems inspired by the likes of Command & Conquer and
Warcraft – although not when it came to combat. It was all just a bit messy, not helped by poor pathfinding and AI niggles. There were plenty of different units, complete with plenty of upgrades and historical progression, but when armies actually collided there wasn’t
much room for tactics. The comparisons with popular games on both sides of the strategy aisle and the grand historical setting served it well, however, spawning a series and plenty of admirers.
Blizzard was taking its time with its next RTS. Azeroth had been swapped out for an also-pretty-familiar sci-fi setting, but it otherwise hewed too closely to Warcraft.
Feedback inspired Blizzard to do some serious remodelling, a process that took two more years and eventually gave the world StarCraft in 1998. It broke new ground everywhere, with its mission design, its story and especially in the way that it gripped players, to the point where the original still has a thriving community today and remains a phenomenon in South Korea. Its greatest achievement, however, was the magic it worked with asymmetry.
StarCraft set three extremely distinct factions against one another. The Terrans, Protoss and Zerg each built, gathered and fought differently, and each possessed an entirely unique roster of units. It was a monumental task to balance, but Blizzard kept on tweaking and fiddling even after launch, something the company continues with its games today, trying to get it just right. This asymmetry and fine-tuned balance spawned a competitive scene that persists even now.
People had been waiting for a sequel to the original Command & Conquer since 1995, but it was taking longer than Westwood, which had been acquired by Electronic Arts, anticipated. There were delays, content was cut and it wouldn’t be until 1999 that Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun reignited the conflict between GDI and Nod. It was a striking but familiar RTS, full of playful sci-fi units and a lighting system that made it look drop-dead gorgeous. The expansion, Firestorm,
was Westwood’s final RTS in the Tiberium series. One more Red Alert
followed, then a remake of a remake
of Dune II. The studio’s final games were a misguided shooter, Command & Conquer: Renegade, and an MMO, Earth & Beyond.
Westwood was a victim of the grim ’00s, and not the only one, but ’99 still had some tricks left, not least of which was Homeworld. Relic’s hauntingly beautiful space RTS was the first truly-3D strategy game. You weren’t stuck staring at a map from one perspective; you could hurtle through space, following your fighters as they weaved their way between enemies, or step back and just soak up the galaxy. The way the ships moved and fought turned battles into arresting ballet performances, accompanied by an exceptional soundtrack. It was a game of vast scale elevated by tiny details. Mining, building ships and fighting were still the top three priorities, but the space arena made even the familiar seem novel.
Throughout the late ’90s, designers had been scrambling to unseat the titans, promising that the next great Civilization or Age of Empires or Command & Conquer was just around the corner. That tactic had diminishing returns; the wars had already been won. The awkward march to 3D had commenced, and not able to rely on the old formulas, designers had started to look to other genres for inspiration. A tumultuous time was looming.
Westwood was a victim of the grim ’00s, and not the only one
LEFT: On microcomputers like the Apple II, strategy games found a new home.
BELOW: Reachfor theStars gave players a whole galaxy to conquer.
RIGHT: EasternFront brought innovations like troop morale.
ABOVE: Computer Bismarck kickstarted the wave of computer wargames in 1980.
Civilization aimed to capture the entire history of humanity.
BELOW RIGHT: Building was just as important as tearing things down in Civ.
BELOW LEFT: It was wealth, not conquest, that drove M.U.L.E..
BELOW: Even in pixellated form, Queen Elizabeth I is a bit intimidating.
ABOVE: X-COM soldiers loved two things: killing aliens and bold hairstyles.
You could take a closer look at CivilizationII’s cities
ABOVE LEFT: Alpha Centauri was more than just Civ in space.
ABOVE RIGHT: CivII established several traditions, including each game getting a new designer.
Sandworms don’t care how much armour your soldiers are wearing.
ABOVE: DuneII was great, but it was no David Lynch’s Dune.
ABOVE: HerzogZwei was the first recognisable RTS.
LEFT: This is what Azeroth looked like a decade before World ofWarcraft.
BOTTOM: Warcraft was really a conflict between beards and tusks.
RIGHT: With WarcraftII, Blizzard doubled down on the multiplayer.
BELOW: C&C was Westwood’s long-awaited follow-up to DuneII.
BOTTOM LEFT: Red Alert ditched the future for alt-history.
BOTTOM RIGHT:AgeofEmpires brought Civilization to real-time strategy.
Below : StarCraft’s Kerrigan remains one of strategy’s most memorable villains.
ABOVE: StarCraft was almost just a sci-fi Warcraft before Blizzard rebuilt it.
Wander the galaxy looking for a new home in space RTS Homeworld.