I’m adding digital wargaming content. There…I said it.
While my first wargame was Avalon Hill’s 1988 release Gettysburg 125th Anniversary Edition, I was already a computer gamer. My first computer was purchased for me when I was about five years old. It was the Texas Instruments TI-99/4a released in 1981. It wasn’t the only computer we had in the house at the time even. I was just lucky to be born into a family where a love for technology, gadgets, and progress were simply part of our lives.
As a result, I remember the allure of video gaming on a computer from a very early age with games like “Hunt the Wumpus” and whatever passed for Space Invaders on the TI-99. It even went a step further with my father sitting hunched over the computer for days hunt-and-pecking out code so we could play a Centipede clone and a Frogger clone that we had picked up in printed format at the local computer enthusiast store.
My first wargame on the computer was probably a game on the Commodore-64 called Airborne Ranger. You dropped supplies along a vertical oriented battlefield and had to make your way through endless swaths of enemies, trenches, barbed wire, and pillboxes. It was, in a way, an early proof of concept for the power of tactical shooter games. This was, though, still an action game.
The first tactical wargame was SSI Goldbox games like Pools of Radiance. But wait…KEITH…tHosE aRE RpgS!
You’re right’ish. These were RPGs, but they were braindead as far as the roleplaying goes and brawny in the tactical fantasy combat aspect of the games. They had a pseudo realism in both the combat itself, which played out on a grid and in the things that the baddies dropped. If you fought a group of 5 knolls, you were going to find the weapons, armor, and whatever meager treasure they were carrying. There were no rats dropping silver goblets or swords like we find in today’s RPGs.
As a result, you were immersed in the risk/reward prospect of the battles. Battles had terrain. You needed line of sight. You had detailed AD&D combat rules baked right into the games. There were areas of effect, movement points, and the hallmarks of good tactical planning that played out right before your eyes like a great fantasy tactical combat game.
That soon gave way to a wave of simulators. The most beloved among them in my fiend group was Gunship by Microprose. Though it released in 1986, I don’t think I first played it until closer to 1988 or 89 and it was still cutting edge. It had an early attempt at 3d wireframe graphics, but much more impressive was the campaign and armament that you had to manage for your apache. It was, in short, love at first sight.
Around this time, we also had a Macintosh that could run an early version of Falcon and that got me hooked on a less arcade feeling flight sim. The Falcon was hard to fly, had an inscrutable manual for a kid, and I learned to make that game sing only because of countless hours and trial and error. The satisfaction found in that game, however, was never quite paralleled until…
I received my first PC for Christmas 1993 and I immediately picked up X-Wing CD-Rom Collector’s Edition and I loved it. I was again behind a much more powerful computer with a love of the campaign and storytelling going on in this classic LucasArts games. It was only prelude for the Jane’s series of flight sims that would come to dominate the mid to late 90s along with the emergence of games like Close Combat in 1995 and my all time favorite flight sim Jane’s Apache Longbow in 1996.
In college, I had my own “Virtual Airline” that I operated called Congressional Airlines. It was a nightmare…and though I enjoyed painting my own liveries and running senators and congressmen to and from Dulles to their constituencies, I longed for the thrill of combat. That’s when Microsoft surprised me and released their Combat Flight Simulator and Combat Flight Simulator 2 which both took powerful PCs for the era to run and delivered with some incredible gameplay that was missing from the waning Jane’s series which had released titles like the Fighter Anthology and began to lose steam.
So, the simulation side of my hobby life was well enjoyed and has picked back up with the Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) series of games. More on that in another post…
There was, however, still a side of me that loved hex & counter wargames. The first time I saw John Tiller’s Talonsoft series of games like East Front, West Front, and later East Front II…I knew I was hooked. These were incredible games and I was immediately drawn to the isometric model rather than the more familiar NATO symbology. I didn’t have to learn a bunch of rules, and I could jump right into the action and let my understanding of what worked (and mostly didn’t) grow alongside my time playing the game.
A more serious love grew for Norm Koger’s The Operational Art of War series. I picked up the first game as soon as I saw it because I KNEW it was something special. For the next 3 or 4 years, there was a second edition that expanded coverage to more modern warfare topics and the old Wargamer.com (back when it wasn’t just an advertising platform) used to host “The Scenario Archive” which had hundreds of scenarios for the game. There were campaigns you can play, full scale WW2 global scenarios, battles, hypothetical scenarios. It was an endless string of content and the editor was so easy to use, that even I could build out whatever I wanted. It was amazing.
I also got into the Sierra Games series of Civil War Generals and its sequel. Both games delivered fantastic simulations of Civil War gaming. Before that, I had been playing Age of Rifles which was truly a “Wargame Construction Kit” and it delivered combat from across the Victorian age to anyone who had it. There were Zulus, Mexican Federal troops, Union Soldiers and every conceivable other nation from the era. It was fun just to throw down random scenarios featuring indigenous people from across the world and seeing how they interacted with their weapons and imagined tactics.
These games were foundational to my creativity, love of history, and enjoyment of the hobby at a time when I didn’t have regular access to a hobby game store and I DID have access to computer gaming stores at my local mall. They kept the flame lit until I truly jumped back into tabletop gaming later in my college years.
The game that continued to span my love of computer wargaming was the Combat Mission series which I was a beta tester for in 1998 and later Command Modern Operations and its predecessor. These games offered the same sandbox for play that I loved and had matured what modern gamers could expect from wargames on the computer. There are of course a few dozen fantastic games now ranging from Gary Grigsby’s War in the East II to WarPlan and the Scourge of War tactical 3d series. There are games like Mius Front and some amazing iOS titles by Shenandoah Studios from the last decade.
I simply cannot deny the important role these games played in my development as a wargamer. As an omnivore..I’m going to return to covering these titles alongside my tabletop content on this blog as well. I wanted to give some background, though, on my journey from the early 80’s through today and why I’m making the shift so that there’s at least fair warning.