Monday, June 16, 2014

K is for Kabul Spy

a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

You are standing outside of an airport terminal building. Fields of tall grass surround the airport...

By modern standards, the graphics are terrible - but at the time it was groundbreaking, or at least it seemed so.

Even the premise is so far out of date many modern gamers would have trouble recognising the setting.

It was needlessly convoluted, and clearly written by people who knowledge of how "tradecraft" actually works. [1]

But something about this game calls to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that it was really the first game I ever had that both wasn't a home computer port of some arcade game and had graphics?  Maybe it was a melding of my enjoyment of Zork [2] with the flash [3] of what I got to see at the console in the corner store?

I don't know what it was, but I deeply regret the my teenage self was the lack of patience that I had for this and for other text adventure games [4]

The effort that went into these games was enormous, and the puzzles and plots built into them were often quite impressive.  But for me - well, for my 12-14 year old self - the sheer frustration of just getting past the first stages and into Afghanistan itself killed my spirit.

This is a shame - I loved some of the other games put out by Sirius Software (Gorgon, Sneakers) and although text adventure games were sort of a new thing for them everything I've read about this game since makes me think it was actually very sophisticated for the time.

To this day, I regret not staying the course and rescuing the professor...

The truth though, is that one of the reasons I regret not having played this and other text adventure games more is that to a large extent they informed my early gaming.  Not directly - as I already mentioned I actually didn't have the patience to play the game very much - but the interesting thing about some of the old text adventure games is that they bore a very close resemblance to choose your own adventure books.  In fact, there were manuals on the shelves of bookstores that explained how you could convert a self-written choose your own adventure book into a text adventure, and a few of them even included some snippets of code (in BASIC!) for you to start with, and gave instructions on how to build databases for managing equipment and other things.

So what has this to do with tabletop RPGs you ask?

Well, the fact of the matter is that with the enthusiasm for both the growing home computer market and the RPG market there was significant crossover - in fact if you look at some of the games first published in the early to mid 1980s, you can see this cross-pollenation.

Several print games have aspects that are clearly connected to computer gaming - some of these games even look unplayable without some kind of computer support, making me wonder if they were initially envisaged as some best-selling computer game that just never got the interest or the funding to get written, but for which the designer had hacked together mechanics and tables and such.

In the same way, some of the computer games of the era were quite consciously trying to shift tabletop gaming into the digital world, where computers could take over all the mechanics and let the players

In that sense, games like Kabul Spy are actually the spiritual ancestors of modern immersive console RPGs.

Or not.

But whatever they were, games like Kabul Spy are what I cut my teeth on, and I wish I'd given them the time they deserved.

1. Caveat: I'm no expert, but even a reading of the James Bond novels would have provided a primer.

2. This game still has staying power, even in this era of CGI!

3. In a relative sense - there were no animations that I recall.

4. Other than Zork II, which I spent hours on.

Friday, June 13, 2014

J is for Jorune

The latest in a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

One of the most inspiring images in gaming.[12]
In 1985, just before my family relocated from the UK to Canada, a friend of mine got his hands on the boxed set of an intriguing game we'd seen advertised in the pages of Dragon magazine [1] - Skyrealms of Jorune. 

This game seemed at first blush to somehow meld a 19th Century imagining of the Renaissance with science fiction and fantasy, and we were desperate to play it, but the publisher was quite a small one [2] and copies of the game were remarkably hard to find.  I've since learned that while Skyrealms of Jorune never really got any traction in the North American games market it was quite popular in the UK, so perhaps the problem was simply that such a small publisher could never keep up with demand.

In any case, get our hands on the boxed set we did [3] and we eagerly sat down to look through the books - and were immediately hungry to play.

The art, of course, was amazing. Back in the 90s, gaming art was just going through a renaissance, but even in that context it was beautiful - perhaps one of the most beautiful gaming books I have ever seen.[4]  But the universe...

There were no elves.[5]  Instead there was a many-layered history of waves of colonization on a far world.  Humans [6] were merely the latest, and society was already rich.  But then disaster struck, and the humans of Jorune were cut off from the wider civilization of humanity, and in true human form the reacted in the obvious fashion: by ignoring the treaties that had carefully established enclaves for them and instead carving out much larger realms with their superior technology. [7] High technology or no, the locals weren't to be so easily pushed around: using a kind of psionics deriving from the glorious vibrations of the crystal at Jorune's heart, the "natives" fought back, and the whole cast of sophonts on Jorune ended up back in the dark ages.

The game begins with a newly ascendant civilization in which the player characters are seeking citizenship - and in order to gain this boon, it's necessary to perform tasks and favours for an established citizen to curry favour and get sponsored.

The races presented, the rich history, the cultures described - they were like dreams to people who had been consuming Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard and all manner of Golden Age science fiction in the school library.  In the course of an afternoon we not only ploughed through the rulebooks, but brainstormed plotlines and adventures and backstories for characters and had grand visions of the campaigns we would play!

Then we started to really read the rules.

For a couple of kids who had previously played BXD&D almost exclusively the mechanics were nightmarishly complex.  When we first started to try to figure out how combat worked, we got so frustrated that my friend threw one of his miniatures [8] across the room and trashed it.  In the end, we never did even play through a short scenario that day, and it wasn't long after that that my family moved, and I never saw a copy of Skyreams of Jorune again - though I often looked at the ads in Dragon with a combination of wistfulness and bitter disappointment.

Many years have passed, and I have played a wider variety of games.[9] I sometimes wonder if the mechanics would make more sense to me now. Of course, if you poke around online no doubt you'll find the same comments and reviews that I see - all of which seem to agree that while the setting was luxurious, the rules themselves were horrifying.

But something else always comes across in online discussion of this game: Inevitably, someone steps forward to say that they played the game for some time with their friends, sometimes for a long time.

The setting was just that good.

Rumour has it that the rights to Skyrealms of Jorune are hopelessly tangled up [10] so it's not likely we'll see a reprint - or, considering the state of the mechanics, a reboot under one of the many excellent systems now being played. [11]

This is a shame, because it's one of the games I would dearly like to play.

1. Which we never bought, but flipped through at the bookstore - because we were die-hard fans of White Dwarf and were loathe to give "that yank rag" our money - so most of what I remember from that era of Dragon was the covers and the full page ads.

2. Surprising, considering the level of the artwork and the amount of advertising!

3. Second edition, I believe, published just a year after the release.  I'm told there was a third edition published in the 90s, but I never saw it - and it seems that there were printing quality issues that would have made that version alone unplayable.

4. It turns out that the main artist has since become a prominent concept artist for Hollywood - check out his achievements here. He started out as concept artist for Legend!

5. Gratuitous Talislanta reference, since we're talking fringe games.

6. Three species of us!

7. The other starfaring races had fallen on hard times after finding Jorune as well, apparently. An ill fated star indeed!

8. Lead - we were old school baby!

9. I also like to think that I'm smarter than I was at 15.

10. No doubt related to the computer game that was made.

11. Or could a film or TV series be considered? With modern CGI it would be fantastic to see the setting realised visually! Of course, we know that Hollywood would gut the concept and turn it into some kind of obscene parody of what it should have been.

12. The image from the cover of the 2nd Edition of the game, explained thus at this website: The caption reads "Death scene of Sho Copra-Tra, Sholari of Tashka" This is a complex and important scene to the setting.  The aged human is probably the muadra Gends, the first of the muadra trained in isho skills by Sho Copra-Tra himself.  A sholari is a priest, and Copra-Tra is another title meaning "master of Tra." The glowing orb between their hands is a naull orb; it is the simplest of isho manifestations, and reveals your personal essence.  It is used as a peaceful greeting among muadra.  Sho Copra-Tra's nuall is almost pure white, the visible portion of tra energy.  The huge figure in the back is a corastin.  These are simple beings of great strength, who frequently hire themselves out as guards. From their poses, it is likely that the human female and the corastin are servents of Gends.

Monday, June 2, 2014

I is for Imperium Galactum

The latest in a series on games I wish I'd played more of.

Today's entry is a short one for two reasons:

Reason the first is that I only vaguely remember playing Imperium Galactum at all.  I do remember it, but mainly because I felt ripped off by it.  I had a copy that had been ported to the Apple II that I traded for in 1984 - the demand was a copy of several ZX Spectrum games that I had acquired over time.

Not that either of us lost anything - in those days, copying your games was as simple as dubbing onto a fresh cassette tape. [1] Well, in my case a little more complicated since my Spectrum used cassette, but our Apple II+ used 5.25 floppies.

But the fact was that I copied several of my ZX Spectrum games onto a couple of cassette tapes and all I had to show for it was a poorly pirated copy of this strange game with inexplicable controls and no apparent purpose.

If only I'd known.

ISS games are well known for their strange obsession with odd conventions - like using the number keys for movement in an era when number pads were an unusual extra, not standard.  Seriously, who designs games they know their customers are going to have trouble using.

The other thing they're known for is having a rich selection of features, most of which are accessible via a not-necessarily-obvious set of hot keys.  I mean, the S key is already tied up with the "shoot" function, so obviously you need a different key to be the "save" key, right?  Sure, but why L? Particularly when this means the L key is now tied up and you need another key to be the "load" key so you can get at your saved games. Since this was a pirated copy of a copy, I obviously didn't have the instruction booklet that came with the game originally so playing the game was more like a cryptography test than a fun strategy game.[2]  The result? I mainly remember two or three attempts to play the game while getting progressively more frustrated and obsessing over how badly I'd been duped by the guy who claimed it was worth all three of the games I'd traded for it. [3]

Reason the second is that my memories of the game and what it was supposed to be like are completely obscured by memories of a later incarnation of the idea: Masters of Orion.

Masters of Orion was a slicker game written in a more sophisticated age.  If nothing else, it was written for computers that had already blown Bill Gates prediction that no-one would ever want more than 512kb of RAM out of the water. [4]  The game was point and click, and the graphics were attractive.  But ultimately it was the same game:

Imperium Galactum was the same kind of game, a game of galactic conquest in which you worked hard to manage the resources of your civilization to achieve technological advances and build up a fleet to be proud of. The shiny colours of Masters of Orion have faded my memory of IG, but what I do remember makes me wish my 14yo self had been a bit more patient in working out the controls[6] 

You see, like many games of the era - and remember, in this era there were even quite popular games that would only run on a UNIX station - what the game didn't have in glitzy features it made up for in sophisticated game play.  I remember learning a few things in those aborted sessions that MOO was never able to do for all its pretty pictures.  And I have learned since that it won awards and accolades in the PC magazines of the era for its sophistication in simulating a far future empire building exercise.

So I wish I had played it more, I wish I had learned more about how it worked - because as the years passed, my impatient 14yo self lost out on a neat strategy game that I now know would have been obsessive indeed.


1. Anyone else have fond memories of the coloured stripes waving back and forth on your TV as the program loaded?

2. I am making the actual keys up - I can't actually recall the controls, but it was pretty much like this.

3. Yes, neither of us actually gave anything up, and yet I was annoyed by the supposedly lost value.  If you feel the need to argue about this, take it up with my 14yo self.

4. I occasionally amuse myself by calculating how many times my old Apple II+ could fit inside an e-mail, or how quickly I would be able to download my entire collection of floppies onto my phone. [5]

5. Yes, I'm easily amused.

6. Or more resourceful in locating a copy of the instructions to crib from.