Early Computer War Game Simulations for the Consumer

The first serious computer war game for Apple II.
The first serious computer war game for Apple II.
The Avalon Hill 1982 war game (text only).
The Avalon Hill 1982 war game (text only).

The first real computer strategy war games (simulations that are based on historical battles) truly were the first video games. They began to first appear in the consumer market in 1981. The major company that first released many titles was Strategic Simulations Inc. (SSI) located 465 Fairchild Drive, Mountain View, CA. The first of them for the then struggling computer was Pursuit of the Graf Spree, 1939. Like all their games, they were only for the Apple II or Apple II+. It was a VERY narrow market. The games usually sold for $50 (very costly for 1981) and you had to own the Apple II, a computer costing thousands, that actually did little. There were very few Dos 3.2 or 3.3 software programs around, so games filled a void.

Most of their games required the Apple II with Pascal along with a Basic disk. If you had the more advanced Apple III, you had to enter into Apple II emulation mode first. Of course, Dos 3.2 or 3.3 was required. The games came on the 5.25" disks. The graphics were, for its time, advanced. Crude by today's standards, mostly colored lines or symbols.

Like all such war games at the time, the selling point that was appealing was that the computer would play against the human player. Players did not have joysticks but entered commands and used arrow keys to indicate the direction. The most appealing aspect of the SSI games were that they were sophisticated programming and posed a challenge to the human player many times. It usually took several minutes for the computer to "think" how to react. Made for a long game. Some games took five minutes to decide how to move. After several playings, a human player could guess what the computer might do.

The SSI games were ahead of their time. They truly were the cutting edge of consumer games for the Apple II or III. They seemed realistic and not just some random event. The computer would see what the human player did and analyze how to counter the move based on programming goals of a historical result of the battle.

The other company, Avalon Hill, renowned for their board war games on historical battles, also released early computer games. Their games were text only and came with a printed map board and playing pieces to keep track of human and computer movements. One such game was Dnieper River Line, 1943. A war game depicting Russian forces assaulting this key river defense system. The game was for many early computers in 1982: Atari 800, Apple II, Commodore and the TRS 80.

Like the SSI games, players had to input commands for their playing pieces, hit ENTER, then wait several minutes or more until the computer responded with its moves. One could wait up to 10 minutes depending on complexity. The AH games were equally complex for their time. The human player had to enter commands for each playing piece: move, static, assault or no change. If you moved, you used arrow keys to show where and how far or hex coordinates were entered.

Early computers strong selling points were recreation. Few business or word processing programs were available. Graphics were so crude, software like photoshop was a dream. You really could not do much with a computer then except play games.

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