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Game #1 : Tanktics (1978)

Tanktics first screen on Apple II. The initial 1979 Commodore PET version is very hard to find

Leutnant, we have an urgent dispatch !

What is it ?

A dozen of Soviet tanks breached through. T-34-85. We must stop them before they reach their objective. We can only rely on what is left of our brigade – six tanks ! We have no support : no airplane, no artillery, not even infantry. But then neither do they !

What’s their objective exactly ?

Location M5. We have no idea why, we just know it is their target. It says it here on the dispatch.

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“Still a better briefing than just the scenario designer” (Atari Emulator)

Tanktics (1978) is the very first game I will cover, as it is often qualified as being, in 1978, the first single-player strategy game commercially sold. 

There are some games that could be construed as single-player wargames commercially sold before that. Arguably the first computer wargame could be Civil War first released on 1968 on mainframe computers, and which later received BASIC port. Even then, Civil War is closer to the logic of a tycoon game like The Sumerian Game (1964) than to a reactive wargame.

Some other competitors for the title of “first computer wargame” is a string of three totally different games all called “Empire” created in 1972, 1973 and 1977 but these were either not released commercially before 1978, or not single player games. I may eventually come back to these precursors in the future.

And so, in 1978, Chris Crawford self published Tanktics [on Commodore PET] as the first commercially released single-player wargame. In Tanktics, the player commands a platoon of 1 to 8 German tanks (or AT guns, if for some strange reason the player would appreciate that) against a Soviet force always exactly twice that size.

As far as computer wargames are concerned, Tanktics does surprise the modern player. The game box included, in addition to the game on a disk or cassette, a two-pieces board and a counter-sheet as the game was text-only. I will simulate the board using a VASSAL virtual board specifically for this game.

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The Tanktics VASSAL module by Brian Masson
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If you preferred me to show only in-game screens, it would look like this (from another game)

In this battle, I will try to destroy 12 Soviet T-34-85 with a small group of 6 Panzers : 4 Panzer IV-H and 2 Panthers. I know this, because that’s what I set up : there is no preset scenarios in the game : instead you select a scenario blueprint, you choose how many German tanks you will have (you can only play the Germans, and the Soviets always have twice your number of tanks), which tanks you will be using and which tanks the Soviets will be using and finally launch the battle.

My forces appeared grouped at the left of the map. The objective is in the North, which I can reach quickly by road. But I also expect the Soviets to arrive pretty quickly, either directly from the East or maybe using the road in the North East.

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Against superior number and quality (a Panther matches a T-34-85, a Panzer IV-H does not), my plan is to surround the objective in order to have opportunities to shoot the Soviets from the side. The powerful Panthers will take position in the two depressions (red tiles) where I know by experience that they will be hard to see and destroy, whereas three of the slower Panzer IV will take position in the West. The last Panzer IV-H will be in reserve next to the Southernmost Panther.

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The first Soviet tank arrives at the target before I even finished my deployment. One of my Panther has a perfect view of it from the depression though, and fires the first shot, missing.

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The situations turns worse the following turn, when no less than 6 Soviet T-34 are spotted. Any tanks that I consider in position shoots (the two Panthers and one of the Panzer IV), but I prefer to relocate the other tanks, that are still in open terrain. One of my Panther manages to destroy a T-34-85. Eleven to go !

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In Tanktics, tanks can either move, or shoot. When a tank is out of position but sees a target, there is a choice to make.

Their buddy’s destruction does not stop the Soviets from pouring more forces in the killing zone. It is not clear what the objective represents, but it seems important to the Russians !

I am worried for my most advanced Panther, which risks being overwhelmed, so I order two of my more expendable Panzer IV to move forward in the rough terrain. They may attract enemy fire, they will have a better angle on the enemy.

This proves unwise however : one of them is destroyed before even being able to shoot, as is the Panther they were trying to protect ! The only good news is that one of the T-34 showed its back to the southern Panzer IV, which did not miss it.

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The remaining tank that tried to clumsily “help” the now-gone Panther is exposed, and it goes down in flame the following turn, though not before removing yet another T-34.

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At this point, the situation is dire. I had started the battle outnumbered two-to-one, the ratio is now three-to-one. My tanks were fairly isolated, and the Soviets could just overrun them.

Except they did not. The Soviet primitive AI decided it really likes the objective hexagon, and did not to go look for my tanks which were well-hidden in either forests or depression. On the other hand, my two Southern tanks had a very good view on the T-34.

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At the beginning of turn 10, the Soviets were down to 7 tanks – and still no sign of them looking for mine :

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Tanks surrounded by asterisks have been destroyed. Three Soviet Tanks are in view, the last column indicates which of my tanks see them. My southern Panzer IV-G is tank E – it sees Soviet tanks A and H.

What happens now illustrates the limitation of Tanktics’ AI. Even after having lost two tanks from unseen hostiles, the Soviets show no sign of wanting to look for my tanks. Instead, they keep trying to reoccupy the tiles where their comrades have been destroyed, in particular tile N5 which is a clear tile without cover, and which happened to be in sight of all my tanks.

What had started as a tactical game became a turn-based turkey-shoot

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By the end of turn 12, there were only four tanks remaining. At this point, my tanks don’t see an enemy tank every turn, and when they do they don’t always destroy. But eventually the Soviets are down to 4 tanks turn 17…

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…and their last tank goes down turn 38… To be fair I could have stopped hiding and try to fight the last the battle “fairly”, tanko a tanko !

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This is a major victory for Germany (and for me) with 247 points, but there is nothing to be really proud of. The 12 Soviet wrecks occupy no more than 4 different tiles, as there are 5 wrecks on tile M6 and 5 wrecks on tile N5. 

This After Action Report is a good show of the ambition and limitations of Tanktics. As a player, you want to play a tactical game where you outsmart your opponent. Too often though, your witty initial plan fails and yet the game is won because some of your tanks found a position where they are semi-invisible by the enemy, and from there the AI never adjusted its tactic to get you.

Next Tanktics update, I will go under the hood as much as I can, and probably rate and conclude on this first single-player computer wargame.

Rating and review of the game here.

6 Comments

  1. I just wanted to give more context on the choice of scenario. The reasoning for my choice of final scenario was the following :

    – I wanted to limit the number of tanks to 6. 16 hostile tanks seemed too many for maneuvering. 12 is fine,

    – The game proposes five “blueprints” for scenario. Two of them are offensive scenarios but they are against boring anti-tank guns, and two of them are defensive scenarios but in those you can just about shooting at enemies as they come – and it did not feel very epic either. The only interesting scenario remaining is actually the first one : “meeting engagement”, where both forces have to move to the target.

    – Checking the enemy tank list, I wanted a tank type that was historically likely to be found in group of 12. This did not seem to be the case of the KV-2, KV-85 and to a lower extent IS-1. That left the IS-2 at the top of the range, but this would force me to field a wehraboo army of Tigers or at the minimum Panthers to have a chance. On the other hand, the T-34/85 seemed perfect, especially since it was a pretty maneuverable tank for the AI, and very iconic of WW2.

    – The AI having T-34-85, this means we were probably in late 1944 and it clarified what I would use. I would have some Panthers (let’s say 2 of them) but the workhorses would be the Panzer IV.

    Checking the manual, I was pretty satisfied with my choice :

    The Panther and T-34-85 are exact equivalents, whereas the Panzer IV is inferior in all aspect. This should have been a challenging battle – and it was for a time.

  2. Andnjord Andnjord

    Shame about the AI, it made the battle look like one of the more excessive battle reports from self-serving german officers from 1941-42. Although to be fair to Tanktics, many modern games don’t do much better in terms of AI.

    Fascinating to see one these examples of mankind’s first forray in computer strategy games, I look forward to seeing more!

    • Indeed. I would say that in the report, “we destroyed 12 enemy tanks but can only report back 4 wrecks” would be very suspicious too :).

      • Andnjord Andnjord

        Tsk, the report from the next day would just say “12 soviet tanks destroyed, unit can count on 5 operational tanks” (two were quickly repaired, only one total write off) because the germans only reported operational tanks at a given moment and not damaged/abandoned/field repaired/sent back to the rear like any other normal army.

        THEN, the later writer would point to the report and say “See? German Panzer superior! Can easily get 12-1 kill ratio!”

        (The 8 unacounted soviet wrecks were sent back to the rear for repairs, but every later writer would just file it under the “kill” column)

  3. Gubisson Gubisson

    Interesting stuff! Keep em coming!

  4. Alejo Alejo

    Very nice, I was hoping someone would cover
    computer wargames like Chet covers crpgs!

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