From the advent of the computer, enterprising programmers have spent considerable amounts of processing cycles and real-life time devoted to figuring out the best ways to destroy one another in a virtual form. Whether it’s dog-fighting space ships or heavy duty ground-based combat, gamers around the world have spent millions of hours locking swords, muskets, and rocket launchers in a variety of environments. The computer was tailor-made for the armchair general in all of us: capable of keeping hundreds of pages’ worth of rules in its memory, processing screen-loads of data, and executing dozens of random number generation tasks per turn without weeping bitter tears. It also was kind enough not to gloat when it invariably kicked your ass so hard it gave temporal boners to hundreds of dead Spartans. That said, a military sim was only as good as the programmers could make it. And today in gaming history, we remember the release of The War College, the third entry in the Universal Military Simulator series, released today in 1996. Ten-hut!
The War College had one hell of a reputation to live up to. Its siblings, Universal Military Simulator and Universal Military Simulator II, were the best-selling war games of all time. Small wonder, considering they allowed players to customize their own battle scenarios to re-create virtually any skirmish throughout history. Want to re-enact the Battle of Gettysburg right down to the last rifle? How about a minor conflict from Alexander’s conquest of the known world? The beleaguered Russians facing down the advancing German line on the Eastern Front of World War II? UMS was right there on land, sea and air. And if your military tastes lay more in the future than the past, the built-in unit constructor allowed you to make up your own pieces and rules which meant you could finally figure out who would win if a full-scale war erupted between the Romulan Star Empire and the Klingon Empire. Finally, assuming you had any friends left, you could challenge them in one-on-one confrontations and see if Ralph really would have been a better commander than Napoleon at Waterloo. Like the best Avalon Hill board games but without the mind-numbing tedium of cleaning up all the little cardboard chits after a four-hour session, Universal Military Simulator rocked the computer gaming world fast and hard.
And the good news was The War College managed to keep up the tradition set by its elders, but updated for the 90s. Out of the box, it offered four challenging scenarios: The Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, where Julius Caesar triumphed over Pompejus to claim the mantle of Emperor of Rome; Austerlitz in 1805, where Napoleon’s French troops ran roughshod over a combined force of Austrian and Russian soldiers; Antietam in 1862, one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the American Civil War where McClellan put a stop to Lee’s advances; and Tannenberg in 1914, a major victory for the massively outnumbered German forces against their Russian adversaries during World War I. But like before, if none of those scenarios appealed to you, you were free to design your own fights.
Unfortunately The War College lost an awful lot of points from reviewers of the day, who skewered it for looking too much like a game from the early days of DOS. In an age when strategy gamers had seen the release of Warcraft two years earlier, with it’s animated bitmap graphics, fog of war, and magical spells, The War College‘s small, un-detailed figures representing battlefield troops, bland topographic maps, and lack of sound effects or any noise beyond four short, five-minute looping pieces of audio streamed off the CD were bitter pills to swallow. Military enthusiasts who recognized it for the education in tactical warfare it offered ate it up, but few in the casual gaming market were swayed despite it’s ability to offer far more scenarios and options beyond the reach of its contemporaries. The War College marks the final, but no less important, entry in the Universal Military Simulator series from designer Ezra Sidran. And it all happened today…in retro gaming history!