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Category: Roger Keating

Game #10 : Computer Conflict (1980)

So Lieutenant Narwhal, are we facing the French or some rebels ?

Rebels ! They don’t have much (though still more than the French), since in addition to infantry they have an awful lot of World War 2-era anti-tank guns.

The usual then ? We should leverage clear terrain for our tanks, overrun their city, and isolate the militants in the woods until they negotiate ?

Well, I checked this war’s ruleset, and this time we’d better make sure our tanks and artillery go through the forest, and to delay taking their capital as much as possible as we don’t want to trigger their reinforcements too early !

But… I thought I was going to play Computer Conflict !

This article was edited on 03/10/2021 with integration of information I received from Roger Keating and update of the ratings to my new system.

Computer Conflict, released in November 1980, is actually a bundle of two games : Red Attack! and Rebel Force.

Red Attack! by Jim Yarbough – not known for anything else. Long story short, it is a simple two-player game where one player leads the Soviets, the other leads the resistance, and whoever holds 2 of the 3 cities by the end of turn 5 wins.

Red Attack – The Soviet flag is turned by 90┬░, so the flag on the left is the French flag. Obviously the war is not going well for NATO. For gravitas, I like to think that the French are defending the Plateau d’Albion and they need 5 turns to send their ICBMs.

As it lacks a single-player mode I will not cover it, though the Data Driven Gamer did, so check it there if you are curious.

Rebel Force, by Roger Keating – a name I will talk about a lot in the future. In Rebel Force, the player is actually NOT playing the rebel force, but the government. Using tanks, artillery and infantry, the player must take and hold the one city on the map against a force of militia and anti-tank guns.

Roger Keating, then a Mathematics Teacher in Australia, had programmed Rebel Force under the name Conflict in 1979 – it was his first game developed quickly using BASIC and 16K of memory. Initially, Keating distributed it under through the Sydney Apple User Group – which makes it arguably the oldest game that SSI published, if you like to win pointless debates on technicalities. One of Keating’s students told Keating he should publish it. Keating then contacted SSI amongst other publishers. Joel Billings was interested, but Conflict was not large enough to stand on its own, so Billings proposed to bundle it with Yarbough’s game – I believe Yarbourgh was a personal friend of Billings. Rebel Force was published as is.

Ahab (the data-driven gamer) has won at difficulty 4 out of 5 so of course I am going to play at 5 out of 5 : the enemy will have increased strength and movement speed, will receive reinforcements, and will actively counter-attack the city.

At high difficulty, the map is randomly generated, so my generals are discovering in real time where they will be fighting.

I know I am playing the Soviets. I need to take an hold the rebel city. I don’t have much context about why I’m fighting. But what I do have, is a powerful army:

  • 5 tank companies, powerful against enemy militias, but obviously very vulnerable to enemy anti-tank companies,
  • 2 heavy weapon companies, somewhat at a disadvantage against enemy militia but powerful against enemy anti-tank companies,
  • 3 infantry companies, at an advantage against both militias and anti-tanks,

The Soviets are overwhelmingly more powerful than the rebel makeshift force. What could go wrong?

Before reaching the stronghold, there were a couple obstacles – a large patch of clear (black) terrain in the middle of the map, and, further away, a line of forests in green with some “rough” terrain in grey. This was a problem according to Soviet military planners.

Why, you ask ?

Well, you see, the military planners had checked the history of warfare and produced a very useful and predictive combat result table :

So an infantry company of strength 15 attacking a militia company of strength 7 would start to check the 2:1 attack table, then consider that infantry has a +1 column shift advantage against militia, so move one row to the right and use the 3:1 table. After that, a die would give a final outcome of the engagement.

The problem here is that it’s not Belgium, and terrain plays a critical role. Should a Soviet unit attack from clear terrain a militia in the forest, then the combat result table would be shifted 3 columns to the left. Tanks in clear terrain attacking anti-tanks in a forest would be at -6 columns : even overwhelming forces are likely to lose in that case.

Note that it is not a question of forests being easy to defend. Units in a forest attacking a unit in clear terrain ? Column shifted by 3.

So to recap :

This explains why the Soviet strategy was first to occupy all the isolated patches of land before the large clear terrain, then scout with a tank, see what is defending the forest, and attack with counters en masse.

And so the first tank proceeds through the forest in the North :

Pffffff mines ! They inflict damage and stop units from using their “remaining movement” as a bonus to their strength in attack until they leave the minefield. The tank company decides that since it “found” mines, it can just as well spend the rest of the day mine-sweeping so units can pass through safely in the future..

The rest of the force proceeds, and prepares for the great crossing :

The enemy sends a counter-attack in the south, attacking infantry in forest. It is doomed to fail (+4 in Soviet‘s favor), on the other hand the rebels’ anti-tank movement in the North is spot on.

My forces react though, infantry is sent to destroy the attackers. Once done, my tanks are sent to scout the northern ridge.

There is a strong opposition, and the tank company decides to retreat for now. We will need heavy weapons, and given the rebel defensive advantage we’ll need heavy tolerance to losses as well. Oh well, the Soviet Union will provide plenty of fit young men (and also some small ones who can fit inside the tanks).

Suddenly, instead of holding their position, the rebel forces counter-attack !

It is hard to know where the counterattack comes from. The rebels know their land, and their movements are invisible. Furthermore, they are immune to the Soviet zones of control, and can try to sneak through the smallest openings.

The counter-attack is quickly pushed back, but the rebels send more troops to the meat-grinder, abandoning their very strong defensive position :

The rebels get victory points if they reach the left column. At 100 Rebel Victory Points, I receive a call from the Kremlin and a black Lada is waiting downstairs to escort me . But of course, the rebels are surrounded, and are quickly destroyed, so the red phone stays silent still.

The rebels having abandoned their positions, the forest line is occupied easily, though a damaged tank company is lost in the process – giving the rebels 10 points.

Also, the Soviet soldiers painfully discover that the forest had been quite thoroughly mined.

The rebels manage to regroup enough reinforcements to mount a counter-attack in the South, dislodging a depleted Soviet infantry company, which retreats to a more defensible position for Rest & Repair (units can repair to up to 70% of their starting strength ; tanks repair very slowly though). We cannot repair forever though, the rebels receive 2 points by turn spent. The Politburo wants results !

All retreats are voluntary in this game – there is no combat table results forcing them on you.

But this lasts only a moment, and the rebel city is surrounded :

And eventually occupied :

Now, it is only a matter of holding. Every turn occupying the rebel stronghold gives points (3 times the occupying unit strength) – at 100 I receive a call from Brezhnev to tell me I am now Most Favorite Son of the Soviet Union and that backwater assignments are over for me. Of course, the enemy is enraged at the occupation, and receives powerful reinforcements.

Those reinforcements appear in the North and the South, and immediately destroy another tank company :

Stop giving points to the rebels, guys! Jeez

Then, they are everywhere !

The forest line may be a good defensive position, but it does not help protecting the city, so the units are ordered to counter-attack. Too late, anti-tanks are pouring from all sides, and even an infantry company succumbs to their assault !

The depleted Soviet units are too weak to win battles anymore, and the city is lost …

Surprise end-game mine in the South. Mines only spawn at the beginning of the game, so I had forgotten to clear the tile.

… and retaken again :

Unfortunately, the Soviet companies are at this point too depleted, and two more are lost, which signals both the end of the campaign and that of my promising military career.

The Soviet Union had been humiliated by a makeshift militia, but it mattered not ! Any victory against the Soviet Union is temporary. There would be other campaigns, and the rebels will see what’s coming for them ! Hey, it’s not like the Soviet Union would collapse within the next decade, right?

Well, it is a draw. So I failed at “beating” the Data Driven Gamer‘s score at Computer Conflict. Better luck, or skill, next time.

Ratings & Review

Front box. For clarity, it is my tanks that are burning in the top image.
Back of the box. 100% of the context you will find for Rebel Force

Computer Conflict by Strategic Simulations, USA
First release : November 1980 on Apple II
Tested on : Apple II
Total Hours Tested : 3
Average duration of a battle : 20 minutes
Difficulty: Easy (1/5)
Would recommend to a modern player : No
Would recommend to a designer : No
Final Rating: Obsolete

Computer Conflict was never prime SSI material. Called a collection of two “fast paced wargames”, it was from day 1 priced way below the other SSI releases ($40 rather than the usual $60) and the game came only with a rulebook and no other extra. On the other hand, of all the SSI 1980 releases, it is the only one with some graphics beyond the title screen, allowing SSI to boast that “both games feature hi-res mapboard and unit silhouettes“.

Honestly, it requires a lot more than “a little imagination”

So now, the rating – for Rebel Force except if specified otherwise.

A. Settings & Aesthetics

Settings : For Rebel Force, the box has more context than the game + manual, which never mentions “Soviets” – only “friendly forces”. I suspect the mention of the Soviets was added during the transition from Roger Keating’s Conflict to SSI’s Computer Conflict.

The Red Attack! manual mentions the Soviets, and the tanks look kinda Soviety indeed.

As for the graphics, well, you have seen all of them for both games.

Don’t know about you, but it does not scream “Soviet tank” to me. More like M41 or M47 tank

Rating : Terrible

B. UI , Clarity of rules and outcomes

Due to a mix of ill-suited design decisions and lack of game feedback, the UI is quite frustrating for a game that simple.

On the dubious design decision front : you have only a few seconds to move a unit, and you need to move them in an order forced upon you. I don’t think those are good decisions, though I understand what the designer tried. In addition to this, you never know the strength of the enemy (only the ratio on which you fought then on the Combat Result Table), nor how much damage you caused them – which one can argue is more realistic, though in my opinion it does not go well with the “light-puzzle” nature of the game.

The unequivocally bad UI issue is that you don’t know your unit’s strength until it is their turn (including how much damage they received at the end of a combat or due to a mine !), and it is really hard to plan a strategy when you do not remember if the tank company you want to use for support is at full strength or almost totally depleted. In addition, the game does not remind you in which order your units will move, so it is quite hard to optimize movements on the fly to let your depleted units retreat while making sure not to leave a gap at the end of your turn.

The rules are not that clear – in particular after 7 or 8 matches I am still not clear on the “detection” rules. Sometimes, you see enemy forces adjacent to you, sometimes you do not see them until one of your unit activates.

Enemy units keep appearing, and disappearing when destroyed. Some were always there. “Resistance” indicates on which part of the Combat Result Table the battle occurred.

On the other hand, the relationship between units, terrain and relative strength is clear.

For the record, the UI of Red Attack! is not better, though at least you have as much time as you want to play your units.

Rating : Very bad

C. Systems

I have covered pretty much all of them as I played. The objective is to reach 100 points, the rebels get 2 points by turn, 10 points by destroyed unit and some more points for units they push to the left column, the Soviets receive points only for occupying the rebel city : 3 times the strength of the occupying army. If you manage to keep of your tank companies at max health (15) it can go very fast.

The rules are very “design for effect” but overall they work : moving in clear terrain is a recipe for disaster, but sometimes you do not have a choice, isolated patches of forest are real strongholds, and for non-isolated forests you will try to get a foothold and work from there.

Still, the rules feel a bit too simple to really get into the game. There are a few nods to realism or at least to wargame conventions here and there (tanks can overrun defeated enemies, tanks don’t have a defensive bonus in city) but most are missing. Too many things are lacking for the game to feel like a real wargame. I would call it an arcade wargame or, maybe, a puzzle-game with dice and fog-of-war.

As for Red Attack! the system is extremely simple. All units are the same in combat (tanks just move one tile faster) and there is no bonus due to terrain. There are no strength points for units either and destruction is a very rare result of combat – more commonly one side must retreat, so basically it plays like the combats in Diplomacy where you try to push the enemy around, except sometimes even though you are attacking 2 against 1 you are the one who is pushed around.

Rating : Very bad

D. Scenario design & Balancing

There are 5 scenarios from easiest to hardest, and a custom mode :

All the available options. You’d better not plan to change the sound setting in-game, it is tied to the scenario

I appreciate having randomized terrain, and different layouts can create really different tactical situations. The AI is not really smart (it easily abandons strategic positions for a hazardous attack) but it is certainly combative. Overall the game is challenging at max difficulty, though it can certainly be beaten :

Following my victory above (which happened immediately after my AAR), I was confident I had figured out how to win the game exploiting the AI’s weaknesses. I played two other games to prove my point. I was defeated soundly twice ; in one instance I did not even reach the city.

Red Attack! also randomizes its maps, and that’s all it has in its favor.

Rating : Mediocre

E. Fun and replayability

Honestly, the game is not great fun, I just persevered for the blog. It is unbearable either. I would compare a game of Rebel Force it to a sudoku grid : I don’t have much reason to start doing one, but once I do I’ll consider finishing it a personal challenge, and I guess it passes the time.

And just like sudoku, the rules are simple and the grids may all look the same, but each game (assuming you randomize the map) is pretty different. If you actually like the game (and of course in 1980 the standards were different), it probably had more replayability than, say, Computer Napoleonics.

As for Red Attack! : no.

Rating : Bad

F. Final rating

I give credit to Rebel Force for its staunch design-for-effect philosophy and having a system that works with limited moving pieces. I also give a lot of credit for short-battles where you get to take a some decisions. Back then I believe I would have enjoyed the game, but as a modern player it doesn’t have enough to draw me in.

Rating : Obsolete

I feel like Computer Conflict could have been a really fun game with a better UI, more units and a bit more variability, even if it could never be realistic. And lo and behold! the first SSI catalog (winter 1981) announced an “expanded version of Rebel Force“.

The expanded version of Rebel Force actually became Operation Apocalypse in 1981 – Roger Keating’s second game.

Contemporary Reviews

From my research, Computer Conflict did not receive any review (beyond short news articles announcing the release and rephrasing the sales pitch) ; though amusingly Conflict (Rebel Force when published by Roger Keating alone) received one in December 1980 in Creative Computing. David Lubar writes a short descriptive review, only stating his opinion in the conclusion : “For those who like wargames it is a great program. For those who don’t, the program might change their mind”.

Obviously, Computer Conflict was never a flagship, but unlike Computer Napoleonics (which disappeared already from the November 1981 catalog), its “better” version Operation Apocalypse did not replace it, and the game remained in the catalog in it until summer 1983 (under the category “introductory wargame”). Its status was only downgraded in the 1984 catalogue to “1/2 price ziplock bagged games while supply lasts” – the last time it was mentioned in SSI materials.

Summer 1982. Don’t ask me to explain their ratings