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Computer Ambush – Review & Rating

Box from the Commodore 64 version – found on the LaunchBox database

Computer Ambush by Ed Williger and John Lyon, published by Strategic Simulations, USA
First release : June 1980 on Apple II,
Tested on : Apple II Emulator
Total Hours Tested : 10
Average duration of a battle : 1-3 hours
Difficulty: Average (2/5)
Would recommend to a modern player : No
Would recommend to a designer : No – the game was trailblazing at the time, but it does nothing that later games would not do better.
Final Rating: 27/100 (Apple II 1983 reedition), 34/100 (later versions)

Computer Ambush is the second release by SSI, a game that aimed for the stars and reached, well, pretty high to be honest, especially with its second edition. There are indeed three significantly different versions for Computer Ambush :

  • The original June 1980 edition does not seem to exist online. In single player, it included only three scenarios
    • NCO training – a tutorial scenario with 2 Germans to kill just around a corner,
    • Raid – equivalent to the second one I played : the player must blow up the German HQ,
    • Ambush – the player must stop a German patrol trying to cross a village,

There was no character customization. Turn resolutions were also incredibly slow to the point of being unplayable. SSI was aware of course, but as a new company they needed cash and so they released the game. Their strategy to mitigate the speed problem of the game was to propose scenarios where the players would use very few soldiers.

  • The second edition of the game was released late 1982. It included character customization, a few minor rule or visual changes and the soldiers could now drop or pick-up equipment from their buddies or from fallen enemies. Turns would take less than 3 minutes to be resolved. It was also shipped with two more single player scenarios, and changes to “Raid” and “Ambush”:
    • Infiltration – the first one I played, the player must cross the village, or kill all the Germans,
    • Barn Defense – the player must stop the Germans from blowing up a barn in the bottom-right corner of the map,
Ambush and Raid as described in the first edition (left) and the second edition (right). Note that the first edition used fewer Germans and recommended fewer American soldiers,

  • The Atari ports (1984) and later versions (Commodore 64 – 1985, and Macintosh – 1987) are similar to the second edition except for one, crucial, detail that makes all the difference : the game has clear text and visual feedback during turn resolution, fixing what is I believe one of the most critical issues with the game. There is visual feedback in the Apple versions, but apart from grenade explosions it is impossible to know if they represent a “spot” or if they represent a “shoot”, and of course you have no idea what weapon is being used or if anyone was hit. The Commodore 64 version also makes good use of the available colors of the monitor. As for the Macintosh version, it is so rare that it is missing from almost all Macintosh game listings – but it definitely existed.
Those one-liners change everything !
The game even teases you as it calculates what happened.

The game manual was as detailed as a boardgame meant for two-players would be, though unlike Computer Bismarck the calculations are too complicated for a normal human mind. Here are for instances the rules for sighting :

The manual (and ruleset) can be hilariously detailed. For instance, rule 12.10 states : “If a soldier is hit, he will scream 50% of the time. Exception : a soldier who is hit as a result of hand-to-hand combat will always scream.”

Whatever the edition, the packaging of the game was high quality. Sold at the same price as Computer Bismark ($60), the box included, in addition to the rule book and a diskette/cassette of the game :

  • The soldier dossiers, actually a part of the manual, which I have given an example of in the After Action Report,
  • A map of the French village where all scenarios take place,
  • Large black pencils, to take notes on said map,
  • A squad chart, with the statistics of each soldier (Americans and Germans),
  • On the other side of the squad chart, an order summary chart listing all possible orders (I will come back to it),
  • For the first edition – a game selection chart, reminding the player of the rules and objectives of all scenarios,

Anyway, to the review !

A. Settings & Aesthetics

Let’s be honest, the game is not going to receive a lot of points on the graphics.

On the other hand, I appreciate the fluff in the soldier dossiers and the attention to detail given to the village – the buildings all have a function that is described in an annex – a really nice touch.

From my calculation, one tile is roughly 10m², making the village roughly 110mx160m. Most reviews claim the map is realistic but I have been to enough Normand villages to tell you they never looked like that.
“Our village has all conveniences at walking distance”

I also appreciate the realistic combat and outcomes – soldiers die FAST.

Score : 7/20

B. Systems

Obviously that’s where the game is very strong.

The way it works in a nutshell is that the game asks the player how many “time units” they want to simulate in the next turn, from 1 to 250. In a pretty hot combat you will choose a low number (let’s say 20 or 30, so 2-3 seconds), while when things are more calm you may choose a higher number (up to 250, 25 seconds).

A prompt I have not seen in any other game

Once you have chosen how long you want your turn to be, you give orders to your soldiers (run, start sneaking, take out a grenade, jump to the ground, …). The game has most of the options that the best games of the genre (aka Jagged Alliance 2 and X-COM) will later offer : inventory, sneaking, different postures, overwatch, soldiers performing (much) better when next to NCOs,… It even has options that almost no other game will have : bayonets, garotte, choice between focused directional watch or less efficient 360° surveillance,… Once you are satisfied with your orders, the game resolves them (at the same time as the other side orders, of course) for the number of time units you had chosen, and then you can watch the replay for the turn.

I showed earlier how the game calculates whether a soldier sees an enemy. The same sort of detail is used to to calculate how long it takes to cross a tile, how likely a soldier is to hit his target, etc. The soldiers also have an energy level, so too much running or crawling through difficult obstacles will exhaust them. In practice, I never ran out of energy with healthy characters, but energy will be an issue for your wounded soldiers as their energy regeneration will be slower.

In the final moments of my second AAR, Cheng, wounded, was out of energy as he was running away from the plastic explosives. Not the best moment to be out of breath.

Really solid and cohesive design, but I feel like I have to mention here an issue that really weakens what you can do with the ruleset and was never corrected : when you see an enemy, you don’t have any information about him. You don’t know which direction he is facing, what is his posture, what weapon he carries, … I understand sometimes a soldier does not have a good view of the enemy, and can’t tell. But in Computer Ambush your men can never tell. And it makes the game a lot less interesting : you cannot prioritize targets, you cannot sneak behind an enemy, and approaching an enemy sneaky-sneaky with the garotte is an act of faith.

Sadly, no campaign mode. Ed Williger wanted to add one mode but well, as he said :

It sounds like it is going to be a great game, except the part about c-rations management

Score : 9/20

C. UI , Clarity of rules and outcomes

The game is played fully with the keyboard , using a long list of possible commands :

If you want for instance to give a soldier the order to run North for 4 tiles, turn right and shoot at anything it has more than 10% chance of hitting for the next 50 time units, you will write the following order :

  • MR14R : Move in a Regular fashion toward the North [direction 1] for 4 tiles, Running
    • “Irregular” movement is when you want you character to move in a direction but without changing which direction he is facing.
  • MR30R : Move in a Regular fashion toward the East (direction 3] for 0 tiles, which is convoluted but the only way to tell the computer “turn in that direction”,
  • FA1050 : Fire in the Area at anything you are 10% likely to hit (or more) for 50 time units.

End result :

The character will try to do as much as possible from his order, and what he cannot do he will do in the following turn. You can, of course, change the orders at any moment, though if you do so you have to rewrite them all.

It works, though it lacks a bit of streamlining. For instance,

  • You cannot add an order to the list. (A)ttach only adds an order after the first one,
  • You cannot order a “crawl” movement immediately after a run or walk movement, you need to transition through a “0 distance” fall down movement in between, and no you cannot use “fall down” for any movement above 0″
  • Some commands are missing : you can shoot at a specific tile, but you cannot shoot at a specific enemy, so for any enemy that is moving you will have to use the less accurate “shoot at anything in sight” order
  • Shooting at a specific tile with the machine-gun forces you to retype the same order (eg FS1328 for “shoot at the tile column 13 row 28“) again and again and again – in a typical turn you have 30 to 50 time units and each machine-gun shot takes 2 or 3 time units,

Again, it works, and eventually you will know all the keyboard commands by heart – but there could have been a lot less typing.

The most problematic issue with the UI – and really with the game – is not that much in the order giving part of the game but in the turn resolution. As we have seen, until the Atari port, it was nigh impossible to understand what is happening except enemy movement and grenade explosions. At least this was largely improved, though there are still issues with turn resolution, for instance :

Enemies leave a “trail” of their icons like your own soldiers during resolution phase. Good luck understanding what is happening there and how many nazis you are facing.

There are a few other more minor UI irritants, eg : the game does not give you any “chance to hit”, including for grenades (except, frustratingly, in the tutorial scenario). A lot of my early losses were soldiers tossing a grenade at their own feet, and to this day I still have no idea whether it is worth using a rifle to shoot at a target I see through two hedges of trees, on the other side of a window..

Score : 1/20 for the Apple II version. 6/20 for Atari and later ports. Yes, turn resolution is that bad on the earlier versions.

D. Scenario design & Balancing

Excluding the tutorial there are only 4 scenarios, though they are all played quite differently, and the game allows for variation on where you start and who is in your team.

Infiltration” is the scenario with the most breadth but this scenario is too long to be played in one session, and with the lack of campaign mode there is not enough at stake to really want to play over several sessions, so I actually preferred the shorter scenarios.

The AI is not great, in 2 of the 4 scenarios, enemy soldiers don’t move a all. In the two other scenarios (Ambush and Barn Defense), they lack any subtlety : they don’t take cover and only stop to shoot at you (or at higher difficulty, throw grenades. The AI loves its grenades).

Irritatingly, enemy soldiers can spawn one tile away from your soldiers at the beginning, so I recommend your first turn to be 1 time unit long to manage such shenanigans.

“How come we are 11 in our squad ?”Ich weiß nicht, Feldwebel !” (Commodore 64 version)

Score : 5/20

E. Fun & Replayability

Unlike many other games, the game does not start “fun”. Most of the discovery phase I spent checking the game commands, understanding why my soldiers keep dying from their own grenades, and raging as I forgot to keep my less smart soldiers next to their NCOs or telling a soldier that he should stop sneaking [SE for “Sneaking Ends”] when he is under fire .

Eventually, the game grew on me, and there were moments of joy where I was able to give pretty complex orders and feel smart as my men coordinate perfectly to remove a German soldier from a strategic vantage point. But while the scenarios are different enough that I played each of them once as a competent player, I don’t feel playing them again would give me much of a fresh experience.

Score : 5/20 on Apple II, 7/20 on later versions

F. Final Rating

27/100 for the Apple 1983 versions, 34/100 for the later versions.

This feels harsh for a game that was as trailblazing as Computer Ambush. Its key fault, to an extent, is that while few other games tried to copy Computer Bismarck, keeping it unique, there were a lot of other squad tactics games that got released in the 40 years between Computer Ambush and now. For this reason, its strengths are dulled, its weaknesses more painful and more obvious – there is little reason to play this game now.

Contemporary Reviews

Computer Ambush initial release in 1980 received few reviews, those reviews always mentioning how slow that game is. Randy Heuer in Creative Computing (November 1980) testifies it can take up to half an hour to solve a 5 seconds turn (50 time units). This complaint will come back again and again, up until October 1983 in Video Games’s retrospective on wargames which cautioned its readers that the concept was very fun but “the original was unplayable because of the time to execute turns – sometimes up to one hour.

With the new edition, reviews were considerably better. Creative Computing (September 1983) explains that it elevates the game to its deserved status as a classic. David Long in Computer Gaming World (May-June 1983) explains that the worst turns take less than 3 minutes to be calculated, and due to this the second edition “has been well worth the wait. It is fast, smooth flowing and surprisingly realistic. This game could set the standard for tactical simulations for a long time to come.”

Subsequent ports of the game would consistently generate positive reviews. In the May 1987 Computer Gaming World edition, Jay Selover compares the three existing existing tactical infantry computer games – Computer Ambush, SSI’s Field of Fire (1984) and Avalon’s Hill Under Fire (1985), and the aging ancestor is still “an excellent game” and the game “[he] keeps coming back to“. The raving reviews would stop in the late 80ies, and in 1991 Computer Gaming World would give “only” two and half stars out of five to the game, which was 11 years old by then.

This game is the first among those I’ve covered so far to have had some success in France. The game arrived too early for French video game magazines to exist (the first French video game magazine, Tilt, starts late 1982 – and even then ignored Computer Ambush including in its wargame retrospective). But Computer Ambush received its first french review in the August 1981 issue of the game generalist Jeux & Strategies – in theory the article is about “computer wargames” but Computer Ambush impresses so much the reviewer that the game receives three and half columns of text out of five !

Later, François Marcela-Froideval reviewed the game in May 1982 in Casus Belli, then a wargame and RPG magazine that he founded. Marcela-Froideval (a giant of French roleplaying and wargaming on his own right) seemed to have played both solo and multiplayer, and notes the “interesting innovation” that “the [enemy] is displayed on the screen only when they are in the field of view of your soldiers or when they shoot”. When most wargamers were still playing fully tabletop (especially in France in 1982), it must have been quite innovative indeed. He warned about the fact that the game was long (“but a faster version in Assembler should be released soon, it will go 50 times faster“), but concludes that “computers will soon be the favorite partners of wargamers“.

Later, Jeux & Stratégie would come back to the game and put Computer Ambush in its (October 1984) “best 33 video games” list, calling it “a very great game”.

Nowadays, discussion about the game can still be found occasionally on gaming forums and even blogs, most notably Tim Stone in rockpapershotgun (2015). Stone did not have quite the same gameplay experience as I did (he played the later Atari version, with good feedback on what is happening). His conclusion : “flawed but breathtaking“. I would add “but really, flawed“.

4 Comments

  1. Harland Harland

    This really is a boardgamer’s dream. Exquisitely detailed and “realistic” rules, that would be impossible to implement on paper but uniquely suited for a computer. All of the maps and charts that come with the game are pure boardgame material as well.

    Yeah, in the designers notes the designer completely ran away with complexity. They just loved that back in the 70s, complexity for complexity’s sake. The designer was designing for himself and thinking about what a fantastic game he could make. It was more “realistic” and nobody bothered thinking about the poor players who had to memorize it all.

    There was a boardgame version of Ambush! but it was solitaire only and definitely included a campaign mode. It had several clever mechanics for controlling the Germans and was a great game from what I heard. Sounds like it’s what this game was trying to be.

    • I don’t believe Ambush! was the computer version of Computer Ambush, if only because the former was by Avalon Hill and the later by SSI. Ambush! does not happen in the same village, it includes vehicles including on Allied side… Inspired to an extent by Computer Ambush ? Possible.

      Something else to be noted is that the first version of Computer Ambush was I believe mostly about multiplayer. Out of the 3 solitaire scenarios available, one was tutorial, one was just “tower defense” (Ambush), only one was interesting, (Raid) but how many times can you blow up the enemy HQ before it stops being fun.

      Sadly I could not source the list of multiplayer scenarios for the first edition, but the French reviewer Marcela-Froideval praised the number & diversity of scenarios in his review of the first edition, so I assume he was talking about multiplayer, and there were a lot of them.

  2. Gubisson Gubisson

    A Normand village without a cheesemonger? And you call that “realistic”? 😛

    • baud baud

      I’ve been to camembert and I didn’t see any cheesemonger either…

      > “How come we are 11 in our squad ?” “Ich weiß nicht, Feldwebel !”

      😀

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