Empire [1977/1984]

I played 4 versions of Walter Bright’s Empire [1977/1983/1983/1984/1987/2004] for this article, more than for any other game on the blog, so I’m going to give a quick tour of versions again. All of these save the 1987 and VAX/VMS versions can be downloaded from Walter Bright at http://www.classicempire.com/download.html. The original FORTRAN PDP-10 version from Caltech is available, but I don’t have the technological know-how to even try to run it from source code in a PDP emulator. Same with the PDP-11 version from 1983, which sold exactly 2 copies because the PDP-11 was an unpopular machine and there was also almost no evidence that the game existed for sale to anyone at all. The 1987 “Wargame Of The Century” version is probably the most famous, successful, and influential, but there were just enough improvements and refinements that it felt to me like it wasn’t fully the same game. The 2004 version runs natively in Windows, but the text is almost too small to read on a modern monitor, and unlike other versions it brutally punishes miskeys and I think the computer player is both faster and smarter, making it unsuitable for a beginner like me. There’s anoter 1983 VAX/VMS port by a guy Ray Shoop that is all ASCII graphics which is apparently pretty faithful, and then there’s the commercial port for IBM’s PC and PCjr (read: DOS) made by the author, and that’s the one I recommend. The color graphics make the game more legible, as does the turn counter for both you and the other player(s), and it always prompts you with an “are you sure” dialog if you accidentally input a self-destructive command, making it the friendliest way to get the authentic Empire experience, though be warned that in neither it nor the 2004 version did saving my game work.

An easy comparison is to “Wolfpack” Empire [1973-2021], a similarly-named and similarly-themed game of roughly the same vintage, but a massively multiplayer experience and thus outside of this blog’s remit. A runthrough of that game’s even more complicated release history can be found at https://www.empire.cx/historytimeline.html. In short, it got passed down from generation to generation, particularly on college campuses in the Northeast and Great Lakes region of the United States of America, with a bunch of disparate programmers making little tweaks on it, at times constituting a regional style of play like you might see in sports, shepherding it eventually onto the internet and right up to the modern day.

Both Empires were programmed at first for the mainframe terminal computers on college campuses, and again, as with Hamurabi [1968/1973] versus The Oregon Trail [1971/1975], we see two similar games with sharply divergent family trees. Wolfpack Empire stopped being original creator Peter Langston’s in any sense and became functionally public domain, maintained by its playerbase and mutated beyond recognizably. Walter Bright’s Empire might be free to download now, but it’s always remained Walter Bright’s, pretty stable, with most iterations handled by the man himself. It’s a distinct product you can put in a package on a shelf, attached to a particular developer. Empire would go on to be the direct inspiration for Sid Meier’s Civilization [1991]. This commodification of both code and latent “star power” of the developer on the personal computer defines the late 70s and early 80s — it’s exactly this scrappy hobbyist context that creates the future corporate behemoths EA, Sierra, Activision, and at the tail end of the 1980s, Epic and Ubisoft.

Another good reference point is Rogue [1980], which was also born on mainframes and kinda took both routes at once. There was a commercial port that was a failure, but there was an entire genre of games borne from tinkerers tweaking Rogue, which we’ll pick up on soon after I’m done catching up on strategy games. Rogue is more a good place for me to actually start talking about the game itself, though.

Fela Kuti & The Africa 70 – Colonial Mentality [1977]

Like Rogue, Empire takes place on a randomly-generated grid map, which is viewed from above, which the player is tasked with violently conquering through incredibly repetitive gameplay. Unlike Rogue, death is cheap because you’re commanding such a mass of units that any one is insignificant. Both games task the player with plunging into dark and uncharted regions to light them up and see what is there. Empire invents the “fog of war” mechanic familiar from basically every subsequent computer strategy game. The fog of war engenders an anxious hunger for information, key to imperial logic. You have to go out into the world and map it, and almost invariably to know is to destroy and consume.

Empire’s twist to underline this is that what you see on your screen is actually just frozen at the last thing you did see there when you were immediately adjacent to it. It’s your most current information, not necessarily the most current information. This means that you can see three planes on screen and not know if that’s three planes or the same plane three times. This was reportedly inspired by the asymmetrical information in Stratego [c. 1942], though in that game information revealed stays revealed. If anything it more resembles the “umpire” concept of more elaborate wargames, where a game master tabulates player positions so as to keep both players ignorant, though Walter Bright professes he didn’t know about the entire genre besides Stratego and Risk [1957] and he designed the original original Empire in 1971 when he was 14. I personally buy that this was simply convergent evolution. It’s an idea more naturally suited to the officiation of a computer than it ever was to the pen and paper game.

The only other directly cited inspiration is the movie The Battle Of Britain [1969] and Hamurabi. On first blush, the games seem to bear little relation, and the inspiration mainly seems to be the idea of coding a computer game. In both, you play as some nebulous ruler of an empire, but Hamurabi is a text and math game about peacetime economics, while Empire is a map game about a war of expansion. On closer inspection, though, Empire is equally a game about maximizing productive capacity by turning your state into a machine. They’re also both very simple games, despite how heavily-revised Empire is. And despite how simple and heavily-revised Empire is, it still, somehow, miraculously, has cruft.

The basic economic unit of Empire is the Turn, so instead of spending money to get things you spend time. This actually bleeds into real life too, where one run at the game will take between hours and days — like Rogue, this game is an endlessly replayable time-sponge, and famously addictive to certain brains because of it. The primary thing to do is march your Armies around the map conquering Cities. (Capitalizing game terminology for clarity and distance.) Only Armies can conquer Cities. Empire correctly recognizes the real-world logic that you can’t simply shell a City until it does what you want, you must instead direct the army into the City to quote-unquote “enforce iron control.” Once you control a City, you can make it produce more Armies, or a variety of other units that support your Armies: Troop Transports, Fighters (Jets), Submarines, Destroyers, Cruisers, and Aircraft Carriers. They all have special things they can do, but they’re all more expensive (take more Turns to build) than Armies. And besides the Troop Transports that allow your Armies to cross over bodies of water, they are all useless distractions in my amateur opinion.

For instance: Fighters, which only take twice as many turns to build as an Army, are ostensibly good scouts because they move 4 tiles every turn, but they have a sharply limited range that means you can’t actually get further than 10 tiles from any City which makes them lousy scouts, unless you’re willing to bring it 20 tiles away and crash it. Or you can land it on an Aircraft Carrier, which take 12 times as long as it takes to build an Army. In that same amount of time, you could from scratch build an Army, then a Troop Transport, and then moved each up to 58 tiles away from the City and kept moving in the time it would have taken you to get to even be able to move a Fighter more than 20 away.

There’s a lot of particular kinds of boats in proportion to other kinds of things, like Walter Bright was especially interested in making this a naval war game. Submarines deal 3 times as much damage as an Army and can’t be seen except by certain other units, but in the same amount of time it took you to make that you could make 5 Armies and get 5 extra chances to score a hit, potentially dealing 5 times the damage. You can even attack boats with your Armies if you’re willing to sacrifice them. Armies are the cheapest unit and they’re just so extremely useful. It’s like if in Chess [c. 600] Pawns moved like Queens and vice versa. The game is imbalanced, it doesn’t have that give-and-take it clearly wants to have. I don’t know, maybe the niche units are more useful in high-level play and my three weeks of gameplay experience against the computer simply isn’t enough?

Perhaps this is in part because the design completely eschews the opportunity to use percentage-chance-at-success as a way to differentiate things from one another. Every act of aggression in Empire, according to the documentation and as far as my experience tells me, has a 50/50 chance of going in the player’s favor. An Army on a Troop Transport out in the open sea has just as good a chance at damaging a Destroyer as it has of damaging them. This might cause problems in the big picture, but it actually matters surprisingly little to the moment-to-moment experience of gameplay. When everything is a coinflip, everything is a nailbiter, and your only way to increase your odds to a safe margin is to arrange more coins to flip, which neatly ties back in with maximizing your production capacity by conquering Cities, the core of the game.

All around you are peppered little “neutral” Cities that are little raviolis of untapped productive capacity waiting to be bit into. They remind me of how, in Hamurabi, the growing productive capacity of your not-inherently-stable proto-capitalist state likewise relies on endlessly feeding the machine with acquisition of laborers and land that’s external to your system. As if imperialism is the highest form of capitalism, or something. These neutral Cities don’t do anything, militarily, except defend themselves when you attack. Eventually you’ll wear them down, or steamroll them with superior numbers. Either way, your persistence ensures victory since they can’t effectively retaliate.

And what’s the point of all this military build-up? Well, you know that somewhere out there, there is another empire just as mean as you, forcing you through justified paranoia into an arms race not of technological sophistication but of manpower. If you didn’t subjugate other Cities and martial their productive capacities, you would be just like those neutral Cities, unable to effectively retaliate. Which is exactly why those neutral Cities seem unrealistic, because every political entity in the entire world has to face this same logic. They serve as an example for the player of what happens to those who do not adopt an aggressive expansionist posture. It’s a dog-eat-ravioli world.

The possibility of peaceful cooperation is entirely absent from the game, so the only way to coordinate logistics is at gunpoint. Instead of reaching some kind of tenuous equilibrium like real empires, Empire has an all-or-nothing winstate just shy of total world domination: when you’re so built up that there can be no plausible threat, the game ends. This is what it offers as an escape hatch from its vicious cycle. Eventually the war machine will be sated when it has consumed almost everything and left no room for any existence outside of itself. This strikes me as, if anything, optimistic.

For the most part, Empire actually does a pretty good job at capturing the basic brutal logic of imperialism for how simple it is. From above, Empire kinda looks like a cellular process such as fermenting yeast under a microscope, with formations emerging ala Conway’s Game Of Life [1970] even as your human intelligence directs every unit individually, or maybe like Harry Lyme’s ant farm, with the Cities in either case being the blots of sugar that fuel the biological process. It’s life as viewed from such an inhuman and inhumane scale that it looks tiny again.

I don’t think this is unintentional, either. It’s not exactly satire, but it’s got a tongue-in-cheek choice of language (“iron control,” “subjugate,” you can march your armies into the sea like you’re worse than the mythical Caligula attacking Poseidon,) which gestures at the game kinda knowing you’re playing the bad guy.


Thanks again to Matilda “Dalm” Dow. Further information on Empire can be found at Walter Bright’s Classic Empire site, The Data-Driven Gamer, The Wargaming Scribe, and this interview with The Mad Ned Memo.

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