The Spectrum top five, the best of the rest, and a brief history of the genre.
(Games Workshop - 1983)
Games Workshop founders Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson are best known as authors of the Fighting Fantasy books, but their company also released some memorable games for the Spectrum. Julian Gollop’s Chaos was based on the spell-casting elements of Dungeons & Dragons. Between 2 and 8 wizards can compete, taking turns to cast spells and move summoned creatures. The graphics are rudimentary and the gameplay simple, but the more you play Chaos, the more you appreciate its subtle brilliance. By latching onto the role-playing boom of the early Eighties, Chaos became a cult classic and a seminal strategy title.
(Firebird - 1986)
This squad-based wargame by Julian Gollop was a revamp of Rebelstar Raiders, released three years earlier. You take control of the Rebels as they attempt to break into a lunar base defended by the mechanoid Operatives, and destroy its reactor. Which doors do you enter by? Do you hold back part of the force while the rest acts as a diversion? Do you sacrifice individual members rather than risk the group? Sometimes, it ends up as a grim battle for survival, while you wait for reinforcements. Other times your squad is shot to pieces in minutes, with only a couple of survivors striving to reach the reactor before the pursuing droids catch them. Brilliant.
3. FOOTBALL MANAGER
(Addictive - 1982)
In 1982, Kevin Toms rewrote his ZX81 football management game for the Spectrum and, as one might expect in a World Cup year, scored an instant hit. You only have to play its modern equivalents to see that the underlying format hasn't changed much. Then, as now, you buy and sell players, juggle your squad and your finances, all the while trying to please the board and avoid the sack. Come match day, you watch the highlights - a simple line drawing of the penalty box, populated by stick men - with bated breath. It can be frustrating, demanding and a long slog to success, but true to the company's name, it was thoroughly addictive.
(CCS - 1985)
Wargames used to be criticised for their small playing areas, fiddly controls and feeble graphics. These complaints couldn't be levelled Arnhem, based on World War II's Operation Market Garden. It uses a straightforward control system that novices could easily master, giving the game a deceptive feel of simplicity. The graphics are clear, the units easily identifiable and the sound is terrific for a wargame, with the rattle of machinegun fire and the whistle of artillery shells particularly evocative. In RT Smith's own view, the sort of artificial intelligence he used compares favourably with today's wargames and playing Arnhem it's hard to argue.
(Beyond - 1985)
Denton Designs, formed by a group of ex-Imagine refugees, produced some superior titles for other software houses, such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Gift from the Gods. Shadowfire was a departure from their normal arcade-adventure fare and made effective use of what was then a novel cursor-and-icon control system. The game puts you in charge of the Enigma Force, a squad of alien misfits on a dangerous rescue mission. As well as the slick interface and attractive graphics, the game also featured some catchy opening music. The follow-up, Enigma Force, was equally good, but more of a graphical adventure.
With its number cruching capabilities, the computer is perfect for transferring board games to the small screen. Not only can it perform millions of dice rolls in the blink of an eye, but it can even act as an opponent. With the advent of the home computer, the days of needing the company of a friend to play a game of chess were over.
Computer strategy games were some of the first titles to appear on the Spectrum in any great number. They were relatively easy to produce and could be programmed in BASIC (as most were) without greatly affecting their playability. Companies like Cases Computer Simulations (CCS) churned out countless 'management' games in the early days, putting you in charge of anything from a farmstead to the British government. Undoubtedly the most successful of this type was Football Manager from Addictive Games. Such was its popularity that it spawned a sub-genre of football management games that is still around today.
The other side of the strategy coin was wargaming. The first company to make an impression was MC Lothlorien, with titles like Roman Empire and Johnny Reb. Around the same time, Red Shift released Apocalypse, a sprawling tactical warfare game, and Rebelstar Raiders, a squad-based combat strategy, by a young programmer called Julian Gollop. Four years later, Gollop revamped Rebelstar Raiders as the brilliant Rebelstar, which in turn led to a sequel and the superb Laser Squad in 1987. Gollop and his brother Nick went on to create the acclaimed X-Com series on the PC.
Although historical wars were the inspiration of many titles (see RT Smith's WWII classics, Arnhem, Vulcan and Desert Rats), some used futuristic settings and others, like CRL's Theatre Europe, featured hypothetical Cold War battlefields. A novel feature of the latter was the need to call a number to obtain the nuclear launch code, which first played a desperate plea for you to reconsider. Who knows, maybe that answerphone is still hooked up somewhere, ready to tell you that the code is 'Midnight Sun'.
Back in the world of management games, Addictive put you at the helm of your own games company in Software Star, Virgin's The Biz gave you a shot at pop stardom, and Incentive's 1984 let you run the entire country.
By the mid-Eighties, text-based management titles were becoming scarce, limited mainly to those with a football theme. Not that these were inherently poor. D&H's Football Director, for example, was superior to Addictive's seminal classic.
In strategy games, graphics are strictly symbolic. They represent a battalion, a chess piece or a football player. They aren't supposed to be believable - no more than a square on a Monopoly board is supposed to look like a London Street. Therefore, the aesthetics of these games are less important than what they intend to convey. Indeed, many such games have no graphics at all. For this reason, they have aged surprisingly well, and often provide as much entertainment now as they did then.
Alien (Mindgames - 1985)
Based on the Ridley Scott film, Alien is set aboard the spacecraft Nostromo. Your aim is to activate the ship's self-destruct mechanism and guide the crew to the escape shuttle, leaving the Alien to perish. Alternatively, you can lure it into the airlock and blow it into space. The Alien will appear in a room unexpectedly and attack crew members, who are doomed unless they are armed or can be rescued in time. As casualties mount, the survivors begin to panic, dropping objects and refusing to cooperate.
To make matters worse, the Alien starts fires in the engine room that need to be extinguished to avoid the ship exploding prematurely. Even if you get everyone aboard the shuttle, it won't launch unless you have captured Jones the cat. A tense, unsettling game.
The Evil Crown (Mindgames - 1985)
It's Medieval England and your goal is to become holder of the Evil Crown, marking you out as the most ruthless and powerful baron in the kingdom. Manage your land, your army and your people, keep your enemies at bay, partake in trading to fund your exploits, and drop in on the occasional jousting competition. Rollicking good fun and easy to play thanks to its icon-driven interface.
Minder (DK'tronics - 1985)
Essentially a buying and selling game based on the much-loved 1980s TV series. As Arthur Daley, you have to duck and dive about London, strike dodgy deals, and keep Sergeant Chisholm from feeling your collar. Interaction with other characters is fun, and they'll remember if you do the dirty on them. It can get a bit repetitive (but so can all games of this type) and the random elements prove frustrating at times, but there are worse ways of whiling away a few hours.
The Rats (Hodder & Stoughton - 1985)
A deft half strategy / half adventure curio based on the James Herbert book. You are tasked with defending London from a plague of giant killer rats. The strategy side of things involved positioning your thin blue line of policemen, firemen and pest controllers in danger hotspots, and keeping an eye on breaking news and scientific developments that will help you to fight the furry tide. At key moments, you are taken to a brief adventure sequence that puts you in the shoes of someone about to come under attack. How you cope with these situations affects the spread of the rats across London. There's good use of graphics and a neat multiple-choice system for the adventure sequences. The game creates a genuine atmosphere of terror, which makes up for any shortcomings it might possess.
Spectrum Safari (AJ Rushton/CDS - 1983)
You and your band of daring explorers are stranded on an island and must cross its dangerous interior to escape by boat. With each move, your supplies diminish and must be replenished at villages by bartering with the natives. Between these settlements lurk an assortment of cunning animals who set you brain- and reflex-testing challenges before letting you on your way. Failure results in the loss of a team member. Written in BASIC and probably aimed at kids, this cheery game is a test for players of all ages.
They Stole A Million (Ariolasoft - 1986)
I've heard this described as Rainbow Six with thieves, and it's an apt comparison. You begin by recruiting a team of criminals to undertake a series of daring robberies. Each criminal possesses different skills, so it’s vital to find the right balance. Once your squad is assembled, you move onto the raid itself, overseeing the operation, issuing orders to team members and staying in touch with developments via walkie-talkie. This is an excellent game: involving, intelligent and highly original. Stick with it and you'll hopefully achieve the coveted status of Public Enemy Number One.
War & Conquest
Apocalypse (Red Shift - 1982)
Based on an old Games Workshop board game, Apocalypse is a Risk-style strategy title set in a choice of global theatres. The graphics are blocky but colourful, and the game's dice-based roots are evident in its gameplay. The defend/attack options are limited, but the game's possibilities are huge and the two-player version is especially playable.
The Bulge (MC Lothlorien - 1985)
A historically-inspired title that sees Lothlorien at its best. The playing area is immense, representing the Ardennes region, where in 1944 the Germans launched a last-ditch effort to cut off Allied supply lines and win the war. Taking the role of either side, you must battle across the harsh winter landscape and decide the fate of Europe. The graphics are large and clear (for Lothlorien) and there are enough options and intricacies to keep the most hardened wargamer entertained for hours.
Johnny Reb (MC Lothlorien - 1983)
One of the first great wargames for the Spectrum, Johnny Reb is a traditional turn-based strategy set during the American Civil War. The graphics aren't much more than functional, and the game was soon superseded by superior titles, but that doesn't prevent it from being an intricate and involving wargame. Spawned a sequel three years later.
Nebula (Red Shift - 1983)
An impressive early effort from Chaos author Julian Gollop. Starting with a choice of galaxies, you assume the role of an emperor hellbent on conquering neighbouring star systems. Imperialism is a tricky business, though, so you can expect no end of aggravation from rival empires, revolutionaries, plagues and disasters. A highly playable romp.
Overlords (MC Lothlorien - 1985)
A two-player wargame played in real-time. No frills, but tense, manic action as both players simultaneously manoeuver their units about the battlefield. It's an innovative concept that works surprisingly well, although things can get a bit snug with you and a mate are playing side-by-side on the same keyboard.
Paras (MC Lothlorien - 1983)
An interesting squad-based wargame that puts you in charge of fifteen paratroopers on a mission to destroy an enemy bridge. Your plucky airborne troops can be equipped with five different weapons and an infinite number of hand grenades. The graphics are slightly confusing at first, but once you get to grips with the game's complexities, it's an exacting challenge.
Roman Empire (MC Lothlorien - 1982)
As the Emperor of Rome, your mission is to conquer ten rival countries. At your disposal is an army of 90,000 men, which breaks down into 18 legions commanded by 9 generals. Shape your army and appoint your generals, then embark on ruthless campaign to enslave Europe. Not overly complicated, but fun.
Theatre Europe (CSS - 1986)
This is a definite relic of the Cold War, pitting NATO and the Warsaw Pact against each other in a conflict across in continental Europe. As well as moving units and controlling air strikes, there is resupply and resource management to contend with, plus the option of resorting to nuclear weapons. Nukes can be used for tactical (limited to the battlefield) or strategic (taking out towns and cities) purposes, but the lesson learnt is that once the red button is pressed, the only thing you can be sure of is total mutual destruction.
Their Finest Hour (Century - 1986)
It is 1941 and the Battle of Britain is raging over south-east England. The survival of the nation and the outcome of the war rests with a few plucky Allied pilots in their Spitfires and Hurricanes. Choosing either a day-long mission or a full campaign, you must monitor your intelligence reports, scramble your aircraft in the right numbers, and use the right level of aggression to repel enemy attacks. Get it wrong and you end up with blasted airfields, damaged radars and a lot of dead pilots. The effectiveness of your squadrons is influenced by their experience and fatigue levels, so it’s worth keeping your best pilots fresh by sending them up to Scotland for the occasional spell of R-and-R. The game's artificial intelligence is impressive, making it difficult to predict what the enemy will do next. The presentation is good, using a user-friendly icon-driven system, and the game features a 'pulse-rate', enabling you to play it at whatever speed suits you. One of the greats.
Vulcan (CCS - 1986)
Improving on the format that worked so well for Arnhem and Desert Rats, RT Smith produced Vulcan, arguably the finest wargame for the Spectrum. Set in the Tunisian Campaign of World War II, the game offers you a large playing area rendered via neat, unfussy graphics. Unlike many wargames, the sound is excellent and conjures up images of artillery strikes and hammering machineguns. The offensive and defensive options are extensive, while its detail and accuracy are unrivalled in Spectrum computing. A masterpiece.
Football Director (D&H - 1986)
In the same way that 1982, a World Cup year, produced a classic management game in Football Manager, so did 1986. From the previously unknown D&H Games came Football Director, and unusually for the time, it was initially only available by mail order. You start in lowly Division 4 and must fight for silverware or against relegation, depending on how well things work out. As well as the usual transfer market dabblings and financial shenanigans, there are injuries and suspensions to cope with, crowd violence (it was the Eighties, after all), postponements, other managers poaching your players and, of course, the threat of the sack. You'll find no fancy match graphics or sound effects here, just a top-notch management game.
Footballer of the Year (Gremlin - 1986)
This an intriguing if ridiculous management/arcade game. You take the role of a star striker trying to lift your team to the top of the league and win the prestigious Footballer of the Year title. There are some strategy elements, including the playing of 'goal cards' which help you to score in matches. What these bizarre tokens are supposed to represent or how they relate to the real game of Association Football are never explained. Come match day you are presented with a simple arcade-style shoot out, where the goal cards influence how many times you hit the back of the onion bag. Despite its occasional lack of realism (your lowly 4th Division side thrashing teams at the top of the 1st), it's enjoyable enough and makes a pleasant change from the usual formula.
The Boss (Peaksoft - 1984)
This long-forgotten title was advertised in the black & white small ads, at a time when people only had eyes for Addictive's Football Manager. As such, it was easily overlooked, but it’s a competent management sim that captures the excitement of the game as well as its more prestigious rival. All your favourite features are here and a few more beside, making it an worthy addition to any management buff's collection. It was re-released in 1987 as Soccer Boss under the Alternative label.
Tracksuit Manager (Goliath - 1988)
This is a cracking management game, which deserves a mention despite falling outside of the Golden Years. The level of care taken in producing this game is evident the first time you play it. There are enough player stats to excite facts and figures fans, tactics to ponder, plus all the other features common to the genre. Come match day you are presented with a teletype which delivers a match report, while a graphic of the pitch shows where the action is being played out. A well-crafted and highly playable footie game.
1984 (Incentive - 1984)
In many ways the ultimate strategy management game, since it puts you in charge of the entire country. Taxes, interest rates, unemployment, budgets: it's all here and if you mess things up, you'll find yourself looking for a job come election night. The best of several government games made for the Spectrum.
Airline (CCS - 1982)
Can you turn £3 million into £30 million in the high flying world of international air travel? All the hijacks, strikes and crashes will probably make you wish you hadn't bothered. Standard CCS management fare, but decent enough.
Autochef (CCS - 1982)
The fast food industry is a harsh, competitive world, as Autochef teaches you. There's oodles of food-related wheeling and dealing to be done as you look to become the next McDonald's or KFC. Unless you keep the share price healthy, you're liable to find yourself flipping burgers in one of your own restaurants.
The Biz (Virgin - 1985)
Chris Sievey, former member of The Freshies and alter ego of papermaché-headed cult figure Frank Sidebottom, called on his experience of the music industry to create this novel strategy game, in which you start your own band and guide it (hopefully) to the top of the pops. There are gigs to organise, records to be recorded and promotion to be done, plus endless stats to keep tabs on, such as your bank balance, chart position and popularity rating. It's very much a text-only affair, and it's not the easiest on the eye, but there are options a-plenty and some nice touches of humour There were a few games with a similar theme, but this was undoubtedly the best.
British Lowland (CCS - 1983)
You are the boss of a small sports car company and your aim is to get £1.5 million in the bank. There’s a plenitude of graphs, charts and statistics to help you monitor production and margin, but you have to keep your staff happy, too, or face crippling strike action (1980s workers, eh?). Then, just when you think they're on your side, they start pilfering your stock.
Corn Cropper (CCS - 1983)
If you’ve always fancied chewing straw and chasing people off your land with a shotgun, this game could be for you. It's hard work managing your production and finances, though, and after a few hours sweating over the fate of your crops and fretting about the weather, you might decide a life in farming is not for you. Hardcore fans of management games, however, will enjoy getting their hands dirty.
Dallas (CCS - 1982)
The object of this TV tie-in is to take over the Ewing empire before it consumes you. You must do surveys, choose drilling areas, then set up rigs and lay pipelines. The game's solid strategy elements, like monitoring prices and cash flow, are let down by too many random elements.
Dictator (DK'tronics - 1982)
Before writing such classics as Popeye and Trapdoor, Don Priestley brought us this excellent strategy game. You are the president of the unstable banana republic of Ritimba, but it's tough at the top. Your army is always close to mutiny, there are guerrilla armies lurking in the hills, wealthy landowners are looking to manipulate you, the peasants are on the brink of revolution, and your political rivals are jostling to take your place. It’s a juggling act trying to keep your enemies at arm's length while making a success of the economy, but it's also what makes it a pleasure to play.
Gangsters! (CCS - 1983)
Rise to the top of the underworld in Spectral City. You are the head one of five gangs battling for control of the city's speakeasies, distilleries, casinos and brothels. You have the option of buying up new establishments, organising raids on your rivals or having them assassinated. It has its moments, but a little routine.
Millionaire (Incentive - 1984)
In a similar vein to Software Star, this entertaining management game puts you in charge of a games company, with the task of making a million. The type of software you produce and in what volume are just some of the choices you have to make on the long road to success. And a long road it is, too. So many random elements intrude that it is a tough slog at times. Don't let that put you off, though, because this is a jolly enough game to be worth the effort.
Plunder (CCS - 1984)
Hoist the mainbrace, you scurvy scum! If you've always wanted to be the salty sea captain of a British galleon in the 18th century, then I've just the game for you. You must head off the Spanish as they attempt to run gold back to Spain from the New World. There's a map of the North Atlantic for you to navigate, a ship to maintain and improve, a crew to keep happy, and an ocean full of enemy ships to sink or board. A large game with some interesting ideas.
Print Shop (CCS - 1983)
Dear oh dear, what next? Tobacconist? Chip shop? Despite the unpromising title, this isn't a bad little title. You need to turn your print shop business into a success before your pitiless bank manager shuts you down. The usual financial management beloved of CCS is involved and it should please fans of the genre.
Smuggler (CCS - 1983)
You are a crafty, no-good 19th Century bootlegger looking amass a fortune of £250,000 by sneaking contraband into the country from the Mediterranean. To achieve this you need to buy a boat, trade goods, manage your bills, negotiate the treacherous seas, and avoid the wrath of Royal Navy and bloodthirsty pirates. Hardly seems worth all the effort, does it? Good entertainment though.
Software Star (Addictive - 1985)
This game offers you the opportunity to emulate hairy industry icon Kevin Toms and run your own software firm. Enjoy the thrills and spills of creating a game, advertising it and watching it reach the top the charts. There's not an awful lot to it, but it's slicker than a lot of text-based management titles of the time, and it tapped into the fascination gamers had with the nascent software industry.
Board and Card Games
Backgammon (Psion - 1983)
Psion were producers of staid, well-made games, seemingly pitched at middle-aged blokes for whom home computers were more of a technical pursuit than a frivolous hobby. No surprise, then, that they wrote a backgammon simulator, nor that it's perfectly good.
Bridgemaster (Serin - 1983)
Ruinously expensive at the time (£24.95), but it did come with a book and an audio tape. If you want to learn how to play bridge on a computer, I doubt there are many modern equivalents to this thorough tutorial.
Chess (Psion - 1983)
Psion again with another efficient board game for lonely nerds and sweater-wearing dads. The graphics are adequate, but computer chess games are only as good as the artificial intelligence behind them - and this game is clever enough in that respect. The ability to change skill levels or even switch sides mid-game offer an interesting twist.
Chess Player (Quicksilva - 1982)
An early chess game, but one with more features than many later titles. There are six difficulty levels, recommended moves, customisable colours, and even taunts from your computer opponent.
Draughts (Oasis - 1984)
Not a well-served board game on the Spectrum, and not one likely to boast dazzling graphics and sound, but as draughts games go, this is as good as it gets. The alpha-numeric entry method for movement is a bit clunky, but par for the course in this kind of game. All that really matters is that your computer opponent is a wily competitor.
Go to Jail (Automata - 1983)
A blatant rip-off of Monopoly from Automata, and one that landed Mel Croucher in court, where he represented himself against the might of board games giant Waddingtons, and won. Why anyone would want to play that godforsaken game in the first place is beyond me, but for those who do, this is your best bet.
Scrabble (Psion - 1983)
It's a Spectrum version of a popular board game, so of course Psion were behind it. This is a respectable stab at Scrabble - easy on the eye, with plenty of common sense options - although there are predictable problems with playing against a computer. Chief among these is that, unlike a human opponent, it never struggles to think of suitable words from its 11,000-entry database. On the flip-side, you can see the Spectrum 'thinking' and it will let you lay and retract tiles until you're happy you have the highest-scoring word you can muster.