THE HIS­TORY OF Strat­egy

PART I

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Fraser Brown

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.

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