Friday, December 10, 2010

Classic Empire and Its Wargaming Legacy

Recently I rediscovered Classic Empire, a computer wargame from the '70s (apparently the earliest version was finished in 1971). Dubbed "the wargame of the century," Empire uses ridiculously simple graphics (letters designate terrain and units) in a game of world conquest. In the earliest versions, one player waged unrelenting war against the computer until one side was annihilated. The game included armies, fighters, and variety of naval units. The game was in many ways simple, but surprisingly sophisticated (especially given when it was programmed). For example, it includes a simple yet compelling economic engine at its core.

I first played Empire in roughly 1988, and immediately fell in love with it. It's an incredibly fun and addictive game. I go through phases where I play it extensively for a few weeks, then don't play it again for a year or two. Thankfully it is freely and readily available. If you haven't played it, you should.

If you play it, don't expect sophisticated graphics. Even the current version has very simple graphics. And the original didn't even have real graphics. But it's *fun* and addictive.

So how does this connect to wargaming? Well, the obvious answer is that it is a wargame, and one with staying power--it's been around for closing in on 40 years. But it also has a connection to board wargaming. It starts with a game that Empire exerted a huge influence on--Sid Meier's Civilization. In the early days of its publication, before the lawsuits started flying, Meier freely admitted that the two major influences on his game were Avalon Hill's Civilization and Empire. You can see this clearly in Meier's game--the economy is based on cities, each of which can produce something different. In fact, if you approach Empire after playing Civ, it would seem to be Civ focused solely on conquest, and with no technological advancement.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that Civ has been massively successful (the 5th edition recently came out, so it is still popular). Avalon Hill, trying to capitalize on computer gaming in general (and probably on the success of Civ in particular) created a computer version of Advanced Civilization in 1995. This led to lawsuits. In 1997, AH sued MicroProse, the makers of Civ, claiming that the computer game was a derivative of the board game. Then things got ugly. It turns out that AH didn't own the Civilization board game--instead, they had licensed it from Hartland Trefoil back in 1981. So MicroProse bought Hartland Trefoil, revoked AH's license, and promptly counter sued AH and its computer company partner. AH was forced to relinquish the computer version entirely and pay several hundred thousand dollars to MicroProse. Shortly after the settlement, AH was acquired by Hasbro, ending Avalon Hill as it had existed for decades. The largest wargame maker basically no longer made wargames.

So the battle between Civilization and Civ contributed to AH's downfall, a huge blow to the wargaming community. The lawsuit certainly wasn't the only factor in AH's demise, but it contributed to it significantly, and may have been the final straw. And Empire influenced Civ.

So what we clearly see, with impeccable logic, is that if Empire had never been written, AH would still be around today making wargames. QED.

No comments:

Post a Comment