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Excalibur – Rating & Review

As an APX Program, Excalibur never received a cover, so here is the one from the movie Excalibur [1981] which deeply influenced Chris Crawford

Excalibur by Chris Crawford, Valerie Atkinson and Larry Summers, published by APX, USA
First release : September 1983 on Atari 8-bits
Tested on :
Atari 8-bits emulator (Altirra)
Total time tested :
I lost count ! Probably more than 15 hours.
AAR : Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4
Average duration of a campaign
: Varies a lot, but probably never less than 4 hours.
High (3/5)
Would recommend to a modern player :
Would recommend to a designer :
Yes, to anyone interested in the history of video games
Final Rating:
Ranking at the time of review : 34/93

Summary :

Excalibur featured an unparalleled scope and an array of groundbreaking concepts for 1983. However, due to a tumultuous development process, its individual features were underdeveloped and occasionally unfinished, resulting in an immersive yet disjointed experience. Still, had it not been an Atari-exclusive title launched on APX during the 1983 video game crash, Excalibur might have had a similar impact on the industry as Eastern Front 1941. Instead, its obscurity left it without any notable influence.

Chris Crawford, who had arguably become the most renowned American video game designer in the early 80s due to the tremendous success of Eastern Front 1941, was simultaneously establishing the foundation for the Atari ecosystem. As the supervisor of the Atari Software Development Support group since December 1980, Crawford collaborated on a series of technical articles in computer magazines, notably Byte, and ultimately published with others De Re Atari (1982) – the definitive guide to Atari development.

Crawford allegedly sent a copy of this magazine to his boss when he was fired like everyone else in his team in 1984 , asking “Are you sure you want to fire this person ?”

When Alan Key was recruited by Atari to form the Atari Research Unit in late 1981, he naturally sought to include in his team the prodigious designer with an impeccable technical background. Crawford was granted complete creative freedom and given a single directive : dream big, even at the risk of failure. Reflecting on the essence of games, he realized that prior games, whether arcade, adventure or wargames, had primarily focused on objects. Consequently, Crawford resolved that his next game would centre on people.

Although his upcoming project would still be a wargame, it would not emphasize battles. Instead, it would focus on the context surrounding the conflicts: diplomacy, culture, and most importantly, leadership – the elusive art of managing people. In this game, war would be “a viable option that must sometimes be exercised, but not frivolously. […] A game that warmongers would inevitably lose.” That was the plan, at least.

Initially, Crawford envisioned a post-apocalyptic America as the game’s setting. However, he soon replaced this idea with another post-apocalyptic era, one with a richer historical context: Sub-Roman Britain. From the perspective of the sub-Roman Britons, the 5th and 6th centuries were indeed “post-apocalyptic.” Roman authority had collapsed, cities reliant on trade with the Empire had been abandoned, and the Britons now had to survive in a new, hostile world. Alas, Crawford there were few charismatic leaders on the Briton side. This led him to explore Arthurian legends, which naturally centred around the iconic figure of King Arthur. In early 1982, watching the movie Excalibur left a profound impression on Crawford (“it shamed me with its excellence”). It locked the theme and gave the game its intro and its title.

The game starts with the iconic scene from the movie where the Lady of the Lake forms a system of government

By April 1982, Crawford had determined that his game would encompass 4 nested games, which he called “CAMELOT”, “BRITAIN”, “BATTLE”, and “JOUST”. The latter was supposed to occur when fighting an enemy king on the battlefield. After testing various designs for that mini-game (one of which was described as strikingly similar to the jousting mini-game of Defenders of the Crown), he decided it would never fit the rest of the game and abandoned it, leaving three parts to Excalibur.

With a solid general idea of his design, Crawford enlisted the assistance of two junior Atari employees – Larry Summers and Valerie Atkinson. Summers was assigned the BRITAIN portion, and Atkinson took on CAMELOT; Crawford would maintain the high-level vision while also implementing the BATTLE mini-game and designing the “Leadership” aspect of Excalibur: the relationship between Arthur and his knights.

Valerie Atkinson, Larry Summers and Chris Crawford after finishing Excalibur for Atari. Crawford, of course, had to be Merlin. Provided by Chris Crawford.

Crawford became preoccupied with the Leadership component of the game, creating a system in which the knights would have relationships not only with Arthur but also among themselves. This dynamic would subsequently influence their relationship with Arthur as they formed gossipy “echo chambers”. Eventually, the Leadership mini-game evolved to the point that it was adapted to a modern context and became a new game released on APX: Gossip. It was later re-incorporated, albe