Hello readers. Flattered by the response to my previous article, the favourable interpretation being that two people cancelled their subscriptions to buy an excellent book instead, I'm back and talking shop.
Games Workshop. Specifically, what resulted from their involvement in the early home computer games scene.
One classic, some interesting experiments, and a reminder of the time before tight control of their intellectual property was everything.
Games Workshop opened its first store in 1978, so was still a relatively small company during the home computing boom. Cribbing notes from this refreshingly candid interview, after an early failure to sell games for the Commodore PET, their second attempt began in 1984 with "The Warlock of Firetop Mountain."
This was supposed to complement the first choose-your-own-adventure Fighting Fantasy book of the same name, co-authored by principal founders Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. Unfortunately, conversion duties were trusted to a software house that lightly reskinned one of their earlier releases, resulting in a competent game that didn't quite fit the source material. Though not a disaster of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream Kart proportions.
Fortunately, being published by Puffin rather than Games Workshop themselves, Warlock came packaged with the original book that still stands reading today. The Fighting Fantasy series has a tough reputation, but typically features far less obtuse challenges than early text adventures.
With better illustrations. Back in the computer games market, rather more successful was the conversion of board game "Apocalypse" by Harlow-based software house Red Shift. Specialising in strategy, they attracted many like-minded designers and programmers, who would soon be involved in the flurry of Games Workshop releases that followed in 1985. These included both board game conversions and original ideas; I've chosen some originals for closer inspection.
This ambitious war game simulated scenarios from the Normandy landings onwards, giving each side dozens of units to control. Considering the host hardware had 48k of memory, or about enough space for seven copies of that screenshot, it's a fairly smart piece of design.
Terrain and units are easy to identify, there's a helpful auto-deployment option, and an interface that makes the best of keyboard controls.
Unfortunately the restricted map view, slow scrolling, and lack of computer opponent makes D-Day something that would work much better as a tabletop game. Still, recognition is due for this proof-of-concept that made efforts to be accessible, and the time when creators gave themselves excellent names like "Dagenham Design Cell."
Mere months later another turn-based strategy game was released, except this time even the full complement of eight players could be done in less than an hour. The controls remain simple and responsive, the primitive graphics clear and characterful, and even the malfunctioning/flatulent robot sound effects retain a certain charm. It helps that author Julian Gollop had previously developed his craft at Red Shift.
Each player is a wizard, casting spells in order to dominate the single-screen playing field. These include summoning monsters, which can then be commanded to attack other players or their own creations. Though the best monsters are hardest to summon, my favourite aspect is the option to create their illusionary equivalents with no risk of failure. They perform identically, except vanishing when hit by a "Disbelieve" spell, though someone must risk their turn calling your bluff. So even the novice player can have fun with a brief improbable dragon rampage.
Chaos is elegant. There are deeper strategy games, but they offer more decisions at the expense of pace. Should the concept appeal in the slightest, it's worth taking a few minutes to track down either a fan remake or the emulated ZX Spectrum original. If it clicks, also consider the upcoming Chaos Reborn, which I am scared to play having other plans for my evenings and weekends.
Now something for the patient solo strategy gamer who doesn't fancy bluffing the computer in Chaos. It has a rubbish opening and appears to be written entirely in Basic. I love it.
In the adventure proper, your party has to reach that castle over a river, but first must find the bridge. This can be done by a methodical search or asking the magic trees for directions. In a nod to realism trees aren't the most efficient navigators, so you might wish to take up their offers of fabulous item instead.
The trick is balancing fast progress, therefore minimising resource-sapping slightly-tactical random encounters, against arriving at the castle with swanky gear. Entertaining enough, but then the castle itself is a surreal mix of tiny arcade and logic challenges, steadily increasing in challenge and tension until a satisfying final encounter.
Fittingly, Journey's End was the last computer game published by Games Workshop before the management buyout in 1991. This saw Jackson and Livingstone leave to respectively start and continue independent careers in the computer games industry, another article in itself. The reviews had generally been good, but perhaps distribution was limited to their own stores, or board games and miniatures were simply more profitable.
Whatever the reasons, this experiment was over, though most titles survived as budget-priced reissues by other companies. Chaos lasted even longer, twice gracing the covertape of Your Sinclair magazine as the budget market declined in turn. Julian Gollop continued down his path of turn-based squad strategy, eventually arriving at X-COM, with Laser Squad probably being the most recognisable and accessible ancestor. Rebelstar fans may disagree.
However in 1989 Games Workshop had started another experiment: collaborating with Milton Bradley to design more accessible board games for wider distribution. Two of these were successful enough to eventually receive home computer versions, including the ageing 8 bit machines. Unlike the board games, these could be played solo as the computer handled light Dungeon Master duties.
When released in 1991 this was pitched perfectly at my level. Up to four players went exploring or escaping, gaining treasure on the way to buy equipment. It was a revelation that games could let me build up a character like this, without needing my reflexes to keep them alive, so I played it to bits.
HeroQuest is severely flawed. Rolling for character movement is frustrating, searching for hidden traps and doors tedious. Controlling through an isometric perspective was awkward, and some conversions added slow cursor movement. All suffered from restricting the main view to one room or section of corridor at a time, and not letting monsters leave their starting area.
Yet I was engrossed watching how the dice fell, considering my next purchase from the store, and comfortably not overwhelmed by decisions. So while HeroQuest is only recommended for those who don't want to pay silly prices for the board game and have a high tolerance for crushed nostalgia, remembering helps me to understand why people gladly spend money on Match Three games.
In 1992 came a much improved conversion of a better board game. HeroQuest gave players one character who could essentially hit monsters or run away. Space Crusade gave them a valuable Commander plus some disposable Marines in fairly simple squad-based combat, with a few twists coming from the range of scenarios, equipment options, and greater emphasis on semi-cooperative play.
It also had the Dreadnought, a barely-moving gun-platform antagonist with more guns attached, that seemed both comically overpowered and tantalisingly beatable.
Control was now done via plan view, with a silky-smooth cursor decoupled from other graphical updates. By default an isometric view only appeared as required to better illustrate things exploding. An ever-present mini-map of the entire board highlighted lines of sight when firing, possible destinations when moving, and could be used to refocus the main view.
Some icons were a little abstract, but all lit up or faded out as required to make it clear exactly what options remained. In short, this was probably the best interface you could make for the keyboard-bound computers. Even modern interface designers could take a break from refining the informal tone of their error messages to learn some lessons from Space Crusade.
Though the graphics necessarily lost the grittiness of the source material, the clinical look and minimalist sound effects provided an acceptably eerie "Alien with better housekeeping" alternative. The computer now moved the opposition all over the map, and certainly made up in aggression what it lacked in subtlety.
My only complaints are the opaque scoring system, and a flaw partly inherited from the board game: spending several mostly decision-free turns trekking back to the start point once the mission objectives are complete. Both can be overcome with house rules, so if you have fond memories of the board game and can stand relinquishing control of the aliens, this conversion is essential. If not, the light strategy might wear thin after a couple of missions, but it's worth the effort for your very own "Dreadnought Moment."
After Space Crusade, all computer games were based on properties which Games Workshop fully controlled. This was possibly good financial sense, along with an increased focus on the Warhammer lines, yet diversity and risk-taking hadn't prevented the company growing in the first place. With fond memories of those MB collaborations, their stores remain intriguing but I never quite want to browse, knowing there's little chance of leaving with something novel or affordably self-contained these days.
Maybe Games Workshop stands comparison with Nintendo. A strong influence in the early development of their industry, some impenetrable business practices, and even if much of what they do no longer appeals, it's good to have them around. Both seem to be doing quite well with miniatures, actually. If only Shigeru Miyamoto had stayed in his room listening to Black Sabbath rather than gone exploring.