Starfleet Orion

The first microcomputer game set in space.


Authors: Jon Freeman and Jim Connelley at Automated Simulations
Released on: BASIC on the Commodore PET in 1978, followed by ports to the Apple II and TRS-80
Comments: Starfleet Orion is the first wargame created on a microcomputer. It launched the company which would later became Epyx.

Starfleet Orion was one of the first war games written for a microcomputer, specifically the 8K Commodore PET in 1978. This predates even mycomputer days, so again I had to turn to the original authors for help in creating an article that I thought could do the game justice. I got lucky and found Jon Freeman on the ‘net, and asked him for some details on the history of the game:

While working on a temporary typing job in 1977, I met Susan Lee-Merrow, who was part of a group of regular D&D players. She invited me to a game where I met Jim Connelley, who was one of the two regular Dungeon Masters for the group.

ORION came about because Jim bought a PET to help him with the bookkeeping chores required of a Dungeon Master. After a while he wanted to write off the purchase, and thought the best way to do so would be to create a computer game he could sell. When he got bogged down, he cast about for some help. I knew very little about computers but a lot about games, [and] learning I had written a book on board games and was contributing articles to GAMES magazine, Jim recruited me to take over game development in August or September of 1978.

Jim did all the programming and set up the basic system, while I took over all of the game design and development: I defined the ship types, names, and capabilities; created all the scenarios (designating for each side the ship types and numbers, objectives, and victory conditions); and wrote the manuals, including the stories behind the scenarios.

When – somewhat to our surprise – we ended up with a finished product, we had to start a company to sell the game. In 1978, just in time for Christmas, we formed Automated Simulations and I found myself established in a new career in computer games. My recollection is that we sent in our first ad – and formed the company so people would have a name to put on checks – around Thanksgiving and shipped our first game right before Christmas, but I could be off a week or two.

The game was then ported to the TRS-80 and Apple II, the other two popular platforms at the time. Porting BASIC was pretty straightforward because it was fairly standardized, but the machine’s systems for displaying graphics were different on each platform.

[The PET and…] The TRS-80 version was exactly the same, I think, except everything was flipped or mirrored because the 0,0 points on the two machines were in different corners. I think the Apple version might have had tiny little icons for ships instead of just dots, but otherwise was identical except for media.

The PET and some TRS-80 versions were on cassette, while the Apple version was only on disk; this allowed us to include the scenarios on the Apple version instead of requiring players to actually enter the data, which cassette-version users were required to do. (Ah, the good old days.)

The [part we were most proud of] is easy: doing it. Finishing it. Creating an actual computer game that someone else could buy and play. Obviously the graphics were utterly primitive (dots for ships, asterisks for explosions), but that was only to be expected.

Probably the thing we were least satisfied with was the fact that it required two players, who had to take turns sitting at the computer while the other one went into another room. That led directly to the idea of a computer opponent, so that a player never had to abandon the keyboard. That was the basis of the sequel, Invasion Orion.

Jim and Jon quickly followed up with Invasion Orion a year later, adding in the computer player and allowing for what they called “solo play”. After that they would use their D&D experience to produce one of the all-time classic games, Temple of Apshai.

Apshai was released in 1979, and was the first adventure games to include character creation and an active dungeon. It was based on a top down view of the world built out of character graphics on the PET, and the basic engine was then ported to a number of platforms (often adding graphics). Apshai won a number of awards and was a huge seller, later spawning a set of seven games based on the engine, including two direct sequels.

In 1980 Jon meets Anne Westfall, his future wife, at the West Coast Computer Faire. In 1981 he leaves Automated Simulations to form FreeFall Associates with her. FreeFall was primarily a design company, and helped out on a number of projects with other companies.

In 1982 Trip Hawkins, fresh from Apple, decides to form a “new model” games company. At the time game programmers were paid paltry amounts for games that would make millions, and Hawkins wanted to make a company who’s contracts would pass more of the money back to the developers. The result was Electronic Arts, and their contracts were based on the music industry’s – game authors as the rock stars they always wanted to be.

One of EA’s first acts after being created was to call up FreeFall. Thus starts a long collaboration between the two companies which would result in another all-time classic, Archon. Today FreeFall produces a card game called Thrall, with several online versions on Prodigy’s GameTV.

Meanwhile back at Automated Simulations, new management changes the company name to Epyx. They quickly release a slew of BASIC games, mostly tactical combat oriented like the original Starfleet. One of my favorites is Crush Crumble and Chomp, where you get to play the part of a movie monster and run around your choice of terrified city, stomping cop cars and gulping down people.

In 1983 Jim’s hand is seen in the release of the fascinating Dragonriders of Pern, based on the best-selling sci-fi series by Anne McCaffrey. The game revolves around setting up alliances between a number of quarreling states in an effort to raise dragons to fight the dreaded “thread” – microorganisms falling from a nearby planet. The tread battles were fun, but the strategy side of the game seemed baffling. Largely as a result the game had a following, but it certainly wasn’t a huge seller.

Meanwhile in ’83 Epyx also releases Jumpman, which instantly becomes a huge seller. The combination of the sales of Jumpman and the lack of sales of Dragonriders must have convinced the management to go all-action. Epyx would go on to release a number of action games that were all hits, the most famous being Impossible Mission and the Summer Games series.

With the company’s direction changed completely from what Jim was interested in, he too left the company later in 1983 and formed The Connelley Group with a few other Epyx programmers who went with him.

The Game

Type: Tactical space combat
Viewpoint: God view
Time: Turn based
Synopsis: Two players take on the roles of fleet captains in this game of tactical space combat.

Starfleet Orion’s lead-in story tells of the expansion of mankind into the area in and around Orion after the invention of the Tachyon Drive in the 21st century (one can only hope!). In the early days of the drive a number of disaffected groups take to the stars in order to avoid various problems on Earth, from religious persecution to high taxes. Upwards of 10 million people were involved in emigrating to the stars during this first diaspora, settling the area between Rigel and Bellatrix.

Meanwhile the Earth forms a unified government, and starts expanding into space on a more “orderly” basis. Within a hundred years a huge ball some 400 light years across is explored, and the newly named “Stellar Union” claims control over all of human space. In another five decades it grows to within 50 light years of the independent colonies’ closest star, Bellatrix.

The game starts when two destroyer escorts meet in space and start shooting. Once is the Union’s Leonidas, the other is the newly built Britomartis from the planet Spring, fifth out from Bellatrix. The game then follows the Orion group’s attempt to reject Union control, largely in response to the ham handed efforts of the Union to take over the area.

When direct military intervention leads to bad press back home, the Union attempts a blockade, but that fails because the markets are largely internal. Next they use the age-old tactic of funding piracy, which simply forces the Orion colonies to quickly upgrade their military forces, leading to the rough opposite of what the Union was hoping for.

In an effort to bring the war to a close, the Union captures an ancient planet-destroyer called the Dirge, and sets it on Spring which barely manages to beat it off. Almost wiped out in the assault, the main Union warfleet arrives and finishes the job. The final battle comes when the colonies band together to beat off the Union warfleet, fresh from its final pounding of Spring. Their five ships from independent planets form the “Starfleet Orion”.

The game is based around a series of twelve scenarios, each based on combat from a particular piece of fiction, or the general plotline outlined above. The first encounter story is the basis for mission one, and the missions slowly increase in complexity until sides are controlling several ships each, and in some cases the battlefield also contains a number of other objects like planets or asteroids.

In order to support a flexible engine capable of simulating the large variety of scenarios Jon was interested in, the game actually shipped as two programs. ORION was the basic engine where you played the scenarios, and BUILDER was used to type in the scenario and ship data and save it to tape. As a result the users could create their own missions, but with the limited communications of the time I doubt this was widely shared.

Each mission was described in the game’s “Battle Manual” and consisted of a series of ship names/types and the various weapons loads. Taking the first battle as an example, the user has to start by entering the scenario’s general setup:

Side 1: Missiles 10, 4, 15 Torpedoes 0, 0
1. Britomartis – DE(M): BQ-5, X, Y, -0, 0

Side 2: Missiles 0, 0, 0 Torpedoes 12, 40
2. Leonidas – DE(T): BQ-5, X, Y, -0, 0

The X and Y positions for both ships are 0,0, which sets them to a random position in the game’s 40 by 20 grid. There’s also a entry for “Hits”, which allows you to predefine some damage to the ships if that makes sense in the scenario, but that’s not used here.

Each side is assumed to be equipped with the same quality of weapons in the game, so in this case the Britomartis is equipped with missiles that have a ‘direct hit’ damage of 10, a ‘near miss’ damage of 4, and range of 15. The Leonidas is instead equipped with torpedoes that do 12 damage and a range of 40 (pretty much the whole screen). Any sister ships on either side would have to have the same sorts of missiles or torps, which is the only example of inflexibility I could find in the game’s engine.

Of course the user also had to enter the ship data itself, which required a trip to the back of the Battle Manual where each ship’s 10 vital statistics was found. In this case they’d have to enter the data for:

Type Enrgy Drive Beam Shld Armor Tubes Missls Torps Mass
DE(T) 10 5 5 2 1 2 0 6 .81
DE(M) 10 5 5 2 1 2 12 0 .81

Considering all the typing and page flipping, it’s amazing people actually moved onto the game itself! Seeing as the PET had the ability to save and load named files from the cassette, it’s not clear to me why all the scenarios weren’t saved onto the game tape (the Intro mission was). I suppose this made the Apple II’s disk based version all that more valuable, the disk included all of the missions.

The game includes no less than 22 pre-rolled ship designs from fighters to battleships so the basic system can be used to simulate pretty much anything from X-Wing vs. TIE fighter (which includes all the various ships of the Star Wars universe). Of course the user is free to design their own as well, just type in different values in the builder.

Gameplay consists of loading up the scenario and then having the two players take turns at the keyboard entering moves. Each player is asked a series of questions for each ship: movement, use of the tractor beam, beam energy and its target, how much to add to the shield, missiles and their target location and then torpedo tracks. Once both players have entered their commands, the game plays out all of the action simultaneously – there’s no movement involved, everything just happens.

Energy is the name of the game. Each system on the ship takes (basically) one point of energy to do one thing, a ship with a beam of 5 can use up to 5 points of energy firing it. Ships have more useable systems than they have energy to run them, so on most turns some of the systems go unused.

Movement is based on the basic power of the engine divided by the ship’s mass. The ships above can move to any point within a radius of 6.2 spaces, their drive of 5 divided by their mass of .81. A battleship with much more powerful engines of 12 points can only move within 4 spaces, because of its large mass.

One neat twist is that you can use your ship’s engines to move another ship, meaning that the game includes tractor beams. For a heavy ship this can be useful for launching smaller ships by pushing on them, a few points won’t be missed from your own movement, but it may be able to push a fighter right across the map.

Armor is a fixed amount of damage that can be absorbed per turn without doing damage to the ship itself – no energy required. Shields reduce damage received that turn by the amount of energy you give them that turn. For the ships above that means that once everything starts and the ships are using their shields, they’re already unable to use both their drive and their beam at full power. For the larger ships the shields are strong enough that they can suck up a significant portion of that turn’s energy, rendering the ship almost immobile. These ships are almost invulnerable though, the attackers have to hit it with a large number of weapons at once.

Each ship can carry a variety of up to three types of weapons, beams, missiles and torpedoes. The former requires energy to be fired, the later one need one point of energy per shot but can only be fired from tubes (thus limiting the size of the volley).

Torpedoes travel in a straight line along a heading where 1 is up and the numbers grow clockwise to 8 pointing “northwest”. While traveling they will seek out the first target that’s within two spaces of its path and attack it, or burn out at their max range if they don’t find anything. In the scenarios the torps are typically given long ranges and a lot of power.

Missiles are fired at a relative location in space, they travel to that location and explode even if there’s nothing here. Any target at that location is hit for the missile’s “primary” damage, and any target within one space of the explosion receives “secondary” damage, and in general both of these are smaller figures than for torps. Missiles can be also used as a defense against torpedoes by being aimed at a location near you so that the torp will attack the missile instead of the ship.

The relative movement is important, if you fire at 5,5 that means it will explode 5 spaces to the right and down, but that’s measured after you move. As a result of the timing of various actions in the game, you have to aim them where you think the enemy will be after moving, and you can defend against missile fire by using your tractor beam to push the opposing ship a few spaces, thus spoiling their aim.

The final weapon is the beam, beams drop in strength depending on range, and also drop in accuracy depending on the size of the target. The strength drops by 10 / (range + 5), so in the case above if the two ships are at point blank range they’ll do 5 * (10/5) = 10 points of damage, but at a range of 10 they’ll do only 3.3 damage. Accuracy is calculated by a complex formula that depends on “beam quality”, the BQ in the scenario listing above.

That means that beams are point attack weapons. In order for a small ship to be able to do any damage to a large one, they’ll have to get in close and use that range bonus. On the other hand the smaller ship does have the advantage in size, meaning they are less likely to be hit in standoff attacks by larger ships.

The combination of the speeds of the ships due to their mass, range issues with the beams, and the energy limitations of the ships, means that the game forces you to use a combination of ships and movement in your attacks. The big equalizer in the game is the torpedo. Since it can be carried by ships as small as the fighters, a movement based attack against even the largest ships is possible, notably when used in combination with tractor beams from a larger ship or planet.

As Jon mentioned in the historical section, the game was marred by its need for two players and this was addressed in Invasion Orion. Invasion Orion picks up some time after the action in the first game, but now the primary enemy is an invading alien force, the Klaatu.

The gameplay was largely identical (a few minor changes, missiles can’t be spoofed by tractors for instance) but the scenarios were adjusted to make the game work better with the limited IQ of the computer opponent. This turns out to be easy enough, the Klaatu ships are given considerably more power and better shields, so the strategy for their ships was to move into range and shoot. The human side has a tougher time of it, while their torpedoes are more powerful than those of the Klaatu, using them effectively requires planning and plenty of maneuvering.


When I first started writing this article I thought it would be primarily about the historical importance of the game, like Spacewar or Star Trek. Since then I’ve realized that the game has a balance that many lack, and it’s a fine model for newer games that have fleet combat elements.

I’ve always liked games where fleets of smaller ships have the advantage over larger single ships, but only when used carefully. The history of naval warfare here on Earth shows a number of such examples, the best known being the introduction of the Torpedo Boat.

Combine a number of cheap motorboats armed with torpedoes, with one ship-o-the-line and you have an interesting combination. If you choose to attack the other large ship, the TB’s run in and nail you. If you choose the shoot the TB’s instead, the other capital ship gets free shots while you plink the inexpensive boats. See the problem? As a result a whole new ship was introduced justS to fend off the TB’s: the Torpedo Boat Destroyer, which we now call the Destroyer.

The problem in game design is making the numerical advantage work for you in a way that doesn’t seem too artificial. In the real world this occurred because of specific technological advances (engines and torps) but how do you do this in the case where everyone is assumed to be playing by the same rules and have roughly the same level of technology?

Orion solves this problem in a convincing manner, by limiting the energy available to the ships. As soon as this happens a number of things “fall out” of the engine, lighter ships are more maneuverable for instance. The other big equalizer is the torpedo, notably when combined with the tractor beams. Since the only defense against the torp is to shoot missiles out in the directions you think the torps will be coming from, pushing a TB or fighter to the far side of a capitol ship gives you an opening.

I think that Orion’s balance comes from it’s basis in earlier board games and Jon’s experience in game design. The board game world has a long history of design behind it so the key elements of a successful game are well known and can be mix-n-matched to create the type of engine you’re looking for. The wide selection of standard ships helps the scenario building, and the intro stories and plotline help give the game a feeling of continuity even though there isn’t any in the game itself.

Orion is also an example of the designers knowing what was good and what wasn’t, similar to Ho! in that respect. Many games today are knock offs of the RTS category, and it seems that the designers rarely understand what it is about the game they’re copying that makes it good. I remember trying to play Dark Reign and being absolutely amazed at how bad, it was given that they had many other games to look at.

After reading the manuals I can’t help but think that the market is there for a new game like Orion. Games like Independence War come close in basic concept but the missing element is the background story to tie the game together and add flavour – you have to hand it to LucasArts, there’s nothing like having a whole movie series to fill in the blanks in your game graphics. Perhaps a worthy starting point would the CJ Cherryh’s Company Wars series, which spanned a longish time and should provide ample framework.


Someone PDF’ed the manuals, thanks!

Here’s a page with the manual for Temple of Apshai.

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