Star Web

One of the earliest space empire building games, it introduced the concept of character classes based on “drive” rather than physical characteristics.starweb1

History

Authors: Rick Loomis at Flying Buffalo
Released on: Raytheon 704 in 1976
Comments: Likely the first multiplayer space empire building game, it continues to run to this day and has won numerous awards.

Although Starweb isn’t the oldest computer space game it’s likely the first multiplayer strategic one, dating back to the mid 70’s. Actually it’s not really a computer game in the classic sense, it’s a play-by-mail game that’s run on a computer, and it’s likely the first of that breed too.

In the 1970’s a new genre of gaming became popular, the complex strategy board game. Many of these were hidden-movement wargames, which can take hours to days to play to completion. The most famous among these would be Avalon-Hill’s Diplomacy and Squad Leader series. These games are sort of the hard core of gaming, and finding people willing to sit down for the hours it takes to play the game can be difficult.

At the same time the nature of these games lends themselves nicely to playing the game via the mail, as the moves can easily take place once a week or so without it really effecting the flow of the game. Then the problem is finding people to play the game with – today you simply do a search on the internet, but in the 1970’s such technology wasn’t accessable.

Commercial play-by-mail gaming started in the 1970’s to address this very problem. They would list themselves in popular gaming magazines, and players would send in their names saying they were interested in playing a game. The companies would then introduce the players, and run the game for them. Having a company host the game means that, for a small fee, you get to play the games you like with players all over the world.

The other big problem with all of these games is that someone has to be the referee. The hidden moves are sent to one person who then figures out the outcomes and sends back the results. It’s a lot of work, and the referee can’t play the games. This might sound like small concern for a company being paid to run the games, but in reality these companies were typically just one person who really wanted to play as well.

Seeing the potential of using a computer to run the moves for him, Rick Loomis rented time on a CDC-3300 while stationed at Fort Shafter in Hawaii, and wrote programs to run some games he had written. Now not only could he participate in the games, but the moves themselves took almost no time and the results were printed automatically.

The Raytheon 704 minicomputer

A Raytheon 704, generally similar to the HP2000 or DG Nova

After leaving the ‘forces and moving back to the mainland US, he incorporated Flying Buffalo, and set about buying a computer. This was harder than you might guess, back then the banks balked at the concept of anyone actually owning a computer by themselves and the concept of using an expensive computer just to run games would have sounded crazy – it’s that vision thing. With a loan finally secured, the library of games was moved over their new Raytheon 704.

Starweb came about when Flying Buffalo sent out a questionnaire to their customers asking what sorts of games they would like to see in the future. The winner, hands down, was a space game.

Starweb continues to be run by Flying Buffalo today, and is one of their most popular games. Its won many awards in the game industry as well, some dating back to its early days and the most recent at Origins ’99. Its longitivity is a testimonial to the fine balance of simplicity, depth and gameplay that many modern games lack.

After this article was first posted I learned one interesting twist while looking up links to add to the end of the article. I found a link to a person’s resume, Dee ‘Kirra’ Dreslough, that worked on an abortive attempt to get the game running on Multi-Player Games Network (now iEntertainment Network, also formerly iMagic Online). She wrote back with some details:

A long time ago (1994?), MPGN hired Wounded Badger software (a loose affiliation of programmers headed up by Mark Manyon) to create the online version of StarWeb for about [deleted]. As I understood it, either Wounded Badger or MPGN licensed the game from Flying Buffalo.

I was friends with Mark Manyon at the time so my friend Ian Smith and I got hired as freelancers to put the front end (artwork and interface) of the game together. Well, as fate would have it, the back end guy who was supposed to write the game engine backed out of the project, and it was never completed. But, Ian and I did indeed create a game front end using the MPGN tools… just nobody ever got to play it. 🙂 I was very proud of that work so I still mention it on my resume.

Starweb is the classic space empire building game, and it’s the earliest example of the genre I can find. All the basic concepts are still found in almost the same fashion in modern versions of these games. Perhaps the only real addition, in the grand scheme of things, has been the addition of physical racial characteristics.

That said, no game today really includes the two important concepts of artifacts and character classes. These two ideas add a lot of flavor to the game for basically no cost. Of the two the character classes seem to be the important concept that no other space game seems to have hit upon to quite the same degree.

The Game

Type: Empire-building
Viewpoint: God-view
Time: Turn-based (play-by-mail)
Synopsis: Lead an empire on to victory against players from all over the world. Select a strategy for winning that may not mean blasting your way to victory.

The lead-in story tells of your race during its first steps into space, when a huge abandoned city is discovered on a nearby planet (in your solar system one is led to conclude). A portion of this city appears to be a starport, where a huge self-repairing computer is found. After some effort the computer’s language is deciphered and it is learned that the spaceport represents one node in a large transportation network, the map of which is conveniently missing. To use the network you need to use an indestructible ‘key’, and you find five of these keys about the spaceport.

The game universe is made up of 225 stars and each star has a single habitable planet in orbit around it. Thus ‘star’ and ‘planet’ become effectively interchangeable and are talked about as such. It’s easier to think about moving from star to star, and it’s easier to think about colonizing a planet, yet both are effectively the same in terms of the game’s interface. I prefer to talk about generic ‘systems’ instead.

The planets have characteristics related to population limits and production efficiency, and some of the neutral planets were pre-seeded with population, defenders, industry etc. On the other hand the planet’s characteristics were the same for all players, planets were equally good or bad for everyone, which is not the case for most games of this genre today.

The systems are interconnected by one or more ‘links’ to other systems, forming a web. Since the map of the web was missing, one of the important tasks of Starweb was to explore the local space around your home system in the early parts of the game. In order to make travel somewhat easier, you could list a number of jumps up to 3 long which would be completed in a single move, but this could be dangerous (see below) and is often used to move quickly among your own systems. For extra flavor, some of the links lead to black holes which destroy any ships sent there (the key, being indestructible, is sent to some random system).

In order to move from system to system, a ship needs to be ‘attached’ to a key. Multiple ships can be attached to a key, forming a fleet. It’s perhaps more clear if you consider the key to be attached to a fleet however . Thus in a similar fashion to the way planets, systems and stars are actually the same thing, here fleets and keys became largely similar as well. Basically keys are a construct to limit the number of mobile fleets in the game, so I refer to them as fleets. Each empire starts the game with five keys and there are 255 of them in the universe. Gathering and keeping keys is an important part of the gameplay, as the empires with more keys can expand their empires faster.

Playing the game consists of the user receiving a message describing the initial setup. This takes the form of a description of the player’s local system, a list of any keys in the system, and the links to other systems from this star. The player then enters a number of commands in a return message and submits them, and they are processed every two weeks. The format of both the commands and the reports are rather complex (and even unlike each other), and were designed more for the computer than the player.

Game progression typically consisted of building up the infrastructure on your owned planets while exploring the web with your startup fleets. After mapping the area the player would build additional ships, attach them to one of the existing fleets, and then send them off to capture planets. Ships were multipurpose, they served both for combat, transport, and in some cases raw materials.

Of course the other players were doing the same thing, so additional measures could be taken to protect your own planets. The main method of doing this was to build “planetary fleets”, fleets without a key, and assigning them the duty of protecting either the population or the industry of the planet, or both. A normal fleet was simply too important (a whole key!) to leave to blockade duty except in dire circumstances, so planetary fleets were introduced to allow for defense without adding a whole new concept like surface guns.

If you think about it this means that it’s very easy to be defensive in the game, because you can make any number of ships but are limited in the number of fleets. However the ships in defense fleets fired at half power, introduced as a way of incorporating some level of tactics as in reality the attacker could concentrate their forces whereas the defender had to protect the entire planet. This made it more advantageous to be on the attack rather than be overly defensive. Another defensive measure was to set the fleets in a particular system to ‘auto-ambush’. When ships were in ambush mode they would fire on any unknown player’s fleets that were moving through the system and not stopping, and hit with double power.

As you can see from this basic outline, the game in question is fairly simple. The smallish number of systems all contain exactly one planet, there’s only one type of ship in the game, etc.. Compared to today’s multiplayer games it seems almost trivial, yet there’s more… Starweb has one feature that I think is brilliant, yet has not been fully developed in any other game I know, this is the system of character classes based on their aims, as opposed to their physical characteristics.

Each player had a different set of goals, received points differently, and could win the game in a different way. The classes were:

Empire Builder: The classic player for the game, and the one the game seemed most suited to. Empire builders received points for the number of systems they controlled, specifically the overall population under your control, and the total infrastructure on your planets.

Merchant: Traders who gain points by creating and offloading “consumer goods” on planets, including other player’s planets. Consumer goods are a bit fake, they are metal simply “declared” to be consumer goods. Unlike metal they are used up after offloading regardless of whether or not the planet can use them (ie, regardless of the population level), but the value of offloading them decreases over time. Due to the existence of the Apostle (below), traders tend to be welcome at most systems.

Pirate: Pirates gain points by raiding planets for plunder. They get quite a few points the first time they do this to any particular planet, but less and less from then on. They also get points every turn for every key/fleet they own and have the additional ability to capture enemy fleets outright if they outnumber them by three to one or more in ships.

Artifact Collector: As the name implies the artifact collector gains points by controlling artifacts, other indestructible items left over by the ancient race who built the starweb. Most classes gain points for controlling artifacts when the game ends, but the artifact collector gains points every turn for controlling these items, and more points at the end as well if they have collected a bunch on one planet (constructing a museum).

Berserker: A robot race bent on the destruction of all life. Berserkers can build robots or ships, and convert then back and forth (two robots for one ship). Berserkers get points for control like the Empire Builder, but they also gain points for the amount of population they’ve destroyed. They might sound too powerful, but the berserker races are resource limited because you have to build the robots, whereas “bios” grew without the need of mines or factories.

Apostle: Apostles gain points for the number of people they control. Unlike other character types, apostles can control population on other people’s planets by converting them to their form of religion/politics. Once the entire population of a planet’s population has been converted, the Apostle controls the planet. Apostles are pacifists and lose points for any form of destruction or killing, excepting a one-time-per-game “jihad” in which they can declare war on any one player and lose no points while battling them. Converted population can be “turned back” to the original owner by buying them off with consumer goods, which is why traders are typically on good terms with everyone but apostles. Converted population can also be killed outright by shooting at them with your ships, but that reduces the output of your planet (converts still work in the factories!).

In my opinion the concept of character classes adds a lot to the game. It’s worth contrasting this with the system that most other games have put in place, where the ‘class’ of the character refers to their racial characteristics, and has an effect on various growth rates. For instance one common characteristic in space games is the type of atmosphere the race breathes, which will in turn be matched against any particular planet’s characteristics to decide how fast the race will populate the planet (or how much it costs, etc.). In Starweb the physical difference is ignored while the ‘drive’ of the race is important. Personally I find this to be more believable than physical differences – any race that can fly through space should be able to tailor their environment to some degree, but I find it hard to believe that all of these races would have exactly the same sorts of goals. In Starweb the player can choose what sort of game they are playing, although with the exception of trader and artifact collector, they still tend to be expansionist.

Artifacts were the other interesting feature in the game, these were other indestructible items left over by the race that built the web. The main selection of artifacts consisted of 90 items created by gridding two names, the form and the material. The material can be Platinum, Ancient, Vegan, Blessed, Arcturian, Silver, Titanium, Gold, Radiant, Plastic. The form can be Lodestar, Pyramid, Stardust, Shekel, Crown, Sword, Moonstone, Sepulcher, Sphinx. So one of the 90 items is the Gold Crown, another would be the Plastic Pyramid. In addition there are another 10 special items, some of which have odd side effects (sometimes bad). Each character wanted to collect a particular type of form and material to gain points. For instance the empire builder wanted anything made out of platinum, or in the form of a crown. Having the “key item”, in this case the Platinum Crown, gained you even more points.

The idea of artifact collecting is another aspect of Starweb I’ve seen in no other game. Their implementation seems to lend itself to a limited number of players, or some players would never get a chance to claim any. On the other hand maybe this makes them even more valuable, and the system certainly is easy to grasp.

Links

Starweb, Flying Buffalo’s home page for the game. The rules are also available. They also have a great history page that contains a lot of details about the early days of the company, and the hardware they were using at the time.

Starweb Analyzer, Flying Moose’s companion app for use with Starweb. This application keeps track of the information you receive during the game and presents it in a GUI based around an updating map. It also includes a system that helps write the orders for you, which is an otherwise potentially error-prone exercise. Flying Moose also hosts an e-mail list about the game.

The PBM List is an excellent general listing of PBM games, with every known game listed.

Thanks to

Rick Loomis, for making sure my article wasn’t too far off the mark.

Dee Dreslough

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