Days Gone By: SSI Computer Ambush

Strategic Simulations Inc. was a great company and a great innovator in the area of computer gaming, starting in the early 80s and lasting until it was acquired by Mindscape in the 1990s.   They were also a very liberal borrower of ideas from existing boardgames.  Back in the days of Genie Online, I read a post by one exasperated ex-SPI employee referring  to SSI as something more actionable than “borrower”, but I don’t want to cause a ruckus by naming names.  One of their better tactical games was COMPUTER AMBUSH (1982 and 1984) aka CA.   CA was a game set in France late in World War 2, where an American squad meets a German squad somewhere in a French village.  There were some… critics.. that said this game was an unlicensed computer version of VG/AH’s AMBUSH! series, but that doesn’t hold water as this game was published before Ambush.  Still, I can see the resemblance.. A pre generated squad of canned Yanks and Germans from central casting moving through territory they don’t know and confronting the bad guys when they become detectable.


Computer Ambush was made in an era where graphics were, frankly, crap, computer speed and computational power sketchy and media fragile and difficult to work with. One should not look back on those days and equate “Old” with “bad”, however. Computer Ambush is a profoundly interesting game, using the best influences from Squad Leader and Sniper!, being a semi-RPG situation where you are managing a squad of soldiers on a mission and inserted in an element of variability and excitement by providing computer opponents that moved in total fog of war until detected.

Screen shot of game in progress.  Orders are being entered at the bottom of the screen.  More on that late.
Screen shot of game in progress. Orders are being entered at the bottom of the screen. More on that late.

The playing experience was long, involved and required concentration and commitment from the player.   Computer controls in the early 80s were very limited, and the mouse had yet to make a splash on computing.  So doing simple things with your units required a lot of typing.  The graphics being so rudimentary (basically text on an ASCII text grid), the player had to provide a lot of the visuals with his own imagination. In essence, we do the same thing when we play any boardgame, since we’re just manipulating a piece that represents something in our heads, just CA really required a leap of faith with the user to grasp what he was doing– the game doesn’t resemble street fighting in a French village unless you squinted.

SSI helped you visualize that village by including a durable, laminated chart of the village, with helpful grid notation on it for plotting moves.
SSI helped you visualize that village by including a durable, laminated chart of the village, with helpful grid notation on it for plotting moves.

Where computer graphics technology failed, print technology supplemented nicely. Computer Ambush was published in an era where lavish detail was spent on documentation, packaging and media. There was none of this “game docs provided as PDFs on the CD” stuff back then. You got a staple bound, fully printed manual with a color cover (usually), some charts, and the latest in media, replete with labels and sometimes even loading instructions printed on the sleeve.

I don’t believe the game was produced for anything but the C-64, Apple II, and possibly the IBM computers that were the progenitors of today’s Window systems.  I think a version might have been published for the early Macintosh, or so the rumor went.  I never saw it, and word is it was very buggy.

Most games shipped in media like this.. the familiar 5.25 floppy of yesteryear.
Most games shipped in media like this.. the familiar 5.25 floppy of yesteryear.

Computer Ambush really couldn’t be played without the documentation, unless the player possessed eidetic memory.  This wasn’t a copyright thing.. you really needed the documentation to enter in the somewhat complex movement and combat codes.  In CA, rounds were sliced into seconds and you gave strings of commands to your soldiers using the notation described in the rules booklet.  Usually they were a Move order or a Combat order of some sort, so “Run thirty feet to behind that fence” became “MR (move running) 1224 (grid reference on map).   Orders were issued in advance, then executed simultaneously with the enemy’s orders – and it shouldn’t be surprising that  things didn’t always go as planned.  This rule writing feature always reminded me strongly of SPI’s SNIPER more than Avalon Hill’s AMBUSH.  For all this micromanaging, it had some interesting features.. such as holding fire until an opponent broke cover.. performing overwatch of sorts.

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Just the charts that came with Computer Ambush
Just the charts that came with Computer Ambush

This is, in many ways, more sophisticated than many games we have today. I remember people making a huge fuss over X-Com when it came out, yet, this humble little text-only game had the same dynamic and tension and did simultaneous hidden movement much better.  The only historical wargame with a similar scale and feel that comes to mind is Squad Battles by HPS, though I’m sure there a lot more– I don’t play a lot of computer wargames any more.

This Youtube video demonstrates a game of Computer Ambush.

SUMMARY: Computer Ambush required a huge amount of micromanaging and data entry to play, which wouldn’t appeal to today’s point and click gamers, but it had some amazing elements that provided and early 80s gamer with a lot of excitement.  This game may have featured crude graphics, but the game behind the graphics was anything BUT crude.  Read the RULEBOOK sometime to get a feel for the complexity and skill that went into creating it.  You can even play the actual game, still, using a Flash based APPLE II emulator, here.  This may require a browser plugin and you WILL have to read the documentation or at least the charts I pictured above to move your soldiers around.  Fortunately, I have supplied the rules so you have all you need to play.

I’m not revisiting these games out of a sense of nostalgia.  I like modern computers and the Internet just fine.. I do think that there were elements of gaming design that were great for their day and the technology of the era, and Computer Ambush is a great example of what I mean by that.   Gone, but not forgotten!

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  1. I remember this being advertised (think it was in S&T) as “The $2,160 Wargame”: $2,100 for the Apple II, $60 for the game.

  2. I distinctly remember reading that! Do you remember the hybrid game that was an SL board with a computer program moving the pieces?

  3. I had it on an ATARI system. It was the same disk as the Apple one, which my friend had so I could borrow it. They made great games.

  4. Walt, if you have an old computer hidden away, I still have a bunch of unopened computer games from the 1980s.

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