ANCIENT GAME HAS VARIED SUCCESS ON THE SPECTRUM
Backgammon has long been a popular game which requires a mixture of luck and skill. John Lambert reports on three versions.
BACKGAMMON IS AN ancient game involving much more skill than draughts, yet dependent more on luck than chess. It is as old, or possibly older than any of them. The ancient civilisations of China, India and Greece all offer possible birthplaces. There are three versions of the game for the Spectrum by Psion, 16K; Hewson Consultants, 16K; and C P Software 48K; all priced at £5.95.
Each cassette has instructions for those new to the game. Those written for C P are good, clear and detailed. Backgammon is a complex game and the notes make play easy for a complete beginner. The Psion instructions are equally useful but those provided by Hewson are not nearly as well put together and might be confusing for the novice.
When playing Backgammon, the visual impact of the board and layout of the 'men' is vitally important - you need to be able to assess your position and your opponents at a glance, so the graphics are a prime consideration.
On loading, Hewson offers a choice of single game, points series, gambling series or a demonstration game. The latter is very helpful for the newcomer and compensates a little for the deficiency in written instructions. There is also a choice of static levels and you can choose who starts the game, although, strictly speaking, that is against the rules.
The board is swiftly presented hut unfortunately it is not easy to see, either in colour or black and white. The 'men' do not stand out from the board and the computer moves are made much too quickly for the experienced player to follow, let alone the novice. A record of the moves appears on screen below the table. The Hewson graphics are simple and not very effective compared to the others.
Load the C P version and you are presented with brief instructions for play, which neither of the others provides on-screen, but there is no choice of skill level. The graphics are much better than those of Hewson, though the board is drawn very slowly, that part of the program being in Basic. The definition is good, making the men easily visible in colour, and only a little less so in black and white, but since the points are not coloured alternately as they should be it is often difficult to calculate your moves. In this program the chosen pieces flash before a move is made so that it is easy to follow and a record is kept below of the moves, but it is SLOW and your moves have to be entered singly, which can be frustrating when a double is thrown.
In its normal fashion, Psion presents a screen display for you to look at while the game is loading, even though the screen takes almost as long as the game to load. Incidentally that was a black mark for Psion: whoever drew its screen should have realised that opposite faces on a dice add to seven rather than adjacent ones. That criticism, however, should not detract from the spectacular nature of board display. You select from four skill levels, with a demonstration game available, and then are given the opportunity to input your own dice throws. It is the only one of the three which allows this, a feature which other games programmers would be wise to copy since your faith in the randomness of the RND generator will be shaken by the dice thrown in all the programs.
The board is drawn quickly with the points coloured alternately in black and white and the pieces, large enough to see easily, four character squares, in red and cyan. The definition is not lost when using a black and white television. The dice 'roll' in 3D up the screen and the pieces move across the board from point to point, making it simple to follow the course of the game. On the points with more than five men, the pieces appear to stand on their edges to make space, whereas the other two games resort to using numbers in that situation. When blots are hit, they travel gracefully to the bar, where a maximum of two men of any one player are shown at a time.
In the middle of the bar is the doubling cube, which moves from player to player in use. Hewson is the only other game to offer doubles but only in its gambling series.
Moves can be changed after they have been made by use of the DELETE key, the men retracing their steps across the screen. EDIT elicits suggested moves to help the novice player throughout the game. The graphic display is well-designed and effective.
All the games use the conventional rules of play, as published by Hoyle, but for scoring C P has no doubling option, an integral part of the modern game. Hewson uses its own method of calculating points instead of the accepted one. Only Psion scores correctly.
Hewson plays erratically, sometimes being very conservative and at other times taking wild risks. Moreover, by moving about frequently within its own inner table it is unable to take full advantage of the dice. When playing a back game it does not persevere long enough and on one occasion when one of its men was on the bar and most of its opponent pieces had been borne off leaving a blot on the three, Hewson threw five/three and came in on the five, thus losing a gammon. Apart from that instance it usually 'hits' at almost every opportunity and so it can be trapped by a skilful opponent. On the whole the level of play, even at its highest, is moderate and does not provide a stimulating challenge to an experienced player.
It is interesting to note that M Male, the author, also wrote the excellent air traffic control simulation, Heathrow, for Hewson.
C P is another fanatical taker, but rarely takes the conventional precaution of building houses in its inner table. On the rest of the board its moves are generally conservative but its defeats of Hewson, as indeed when Hewson beat it, depended on some very lucky dice throws towards the end of the game. The two programs are well matched, their skill levels being about the same and their strategies very similar.
Psion plays a much more sensible game and provides more of a challenge. It makes better and more frequent use of the standard openings and its strategy throughout the game is more consistent. It protects its inner table and leaves few unnecessary blots but once again when playing a back game it tends to lack conviction and runs for home too soon.
To test the abilities of the games a 'tournament' was arranged. Each program played five games against each of the others. The results, shown in the table, were surprisingly even.
It was expected, on the basis of playing the game individually, that the result to be would Psion first, Hewson and then C P. None of those programs, however, can assess the play of its opponent, which is why they fail to take advantage of each other's faults. Human players would assess and eventually predict their opponent's moves, frustrating a back game by refusing to hit blots, or avoiding blots left as obvious traps.
Since the programs cannot do that, the Psion game, for example, fails to realise that its opponents play consistently badly, and cannot capitalise on that as a human player does. For the same reasons, Hewson and C P opposed each other three times with identical strategies and neither was able to realise that and alter its play accordingly. The results therefore depended often merely on the luck of the dice.
The Psion game is programmed entirely in machine code and so uses the comparatively small space available on a 16K machine efficiently, even using the spare space in the printer buffer for the table of the positions of the men on the boards. When the Microdrive becomes available it may be a problem to fit it in. On the other hand Hewson and CP are written, predominantly in Basic, Hewson about 70 percent and CP nearly 90 percent; that makes them somewhat cumbersome and would, particularly in the case of C P, welcome the use of a good compiler.
Psion vs Hewson
G W Hewson
Psion wins 5/3
Hewson vs CP
G GWW Hewson
CP wins 8/1
CP v Psion
G G CP
W= Win, G = Gammon, B = Backgammon
INTERFACE GAMES ARE FAST BUT NOT FURIOUS
John Gilbert reviews the ROM cartridge software currently available.
THE SINCLAIR Research Interface Two has had few kind words said about it and that it is not surprising. The add-on is supposed to give the Spectrum the ROM potential of the Atari games consoles and computers into which you can plug ROM cartridges which will load games into the machine directly on power-up. It should have been the ideal add-on for users who want a quick-load device and no messing with tape recorders or even Microdrives.
The main difficulties with the idea are that the software available consists of reproductions of arcade games which are already on the market and that many software companies have been deterred from producing software for the interface because of the conditions attached to ordering.
At the moment companies have to order batches of 1,000 cartridges in a sector of the market which is not fully-established. It is a risky business even for a company as established as Melbourne House or Psion. The situation could develop so that Sinclair is the only company producing the ROM cartridges. It certainly has the monopoly now.
The first ROM packages, together with their colourfully-styled display boxes, to arrive on the market were titles which already existed on the cassette format in the Sinclair software library. They included Planetoids, Backgammon and Space Raiders which are all from Psion.
The packages, one of which appeared originally on the ZX-81, are not particularly innovative or awe-inspiring and they are certainly not the kind of titles which would be expected to be produced when bunching a new peripheral for a prime-selling microcomputer. It is as if Sinclair could not wait to get Interface Two out of the way and so complete its obligations for peripherals for the Spectrum. One reason may well have been that the new QL machine was occupying its thoughts.
Backgammon featured as the only mind game in the first release, the others being held back because the Psion games were the quickest to produce. It is a pity that Backgammon was first instead of the chess package, which was left until later - chess has a far greater appeal to the majority of home computer users. Fortunately there was a gap of only two months before Chess was released and it has proved to be one of the better software packages in the launch.
Space Raiders is a painfully slow version of Space Invaders and could just as well be bought on cassette more cheaply. There are three spaceships with which you can fire at the aliens which amble across the screen.
Once you have finished one screen of the game, and that is not difficult, you will progress to the next level which is just as difficult or easy as the first. That makes the game a push-over and there is little challenge to tax even the newcomer to the arcade game scene.
Like most of the games in the range the price of the program on cassette is only £5 but the ROM version costs almost £10. Considering that the software does not show off either the graphics, colour or sound of the Spectrum to best effect it does not seem advantageous to buy the ROM version.
Planetoids is another arcade game with a familiar theme. Your spaceship first appears stationed at the centre of the screen and asteroids start to close in on it. You must try to destroy them and avoid the ones you miss. Alien spaceships make your task even more impossible.
The standard of the game is reasonable for the market, even though it was first produced in late 1982. The graphics are better than the original Atari version of Asteroids. The ship and the planetoids have been given a solid, almost three dimensional quality.
The program has a wrapround screen which allows your spaceship to go off one side and return on the other. That causes a strange effect when your ship fires across the screen, as the missiles will disappear off one edge and reappear somewhere else. The rogue missiles could even cause you to have some nasty accidents shooting at yourself.
Those packages comprised the ROMs available at the launch of Interface Two and there was a considerable wait until the other ROMs were launched in December.
The new packages include some old favourites from Melbourne House, already in the Sinclair software library, and some releases introduced by Ultimate Play the Game.
The Melbourne house offerings feature the clown of the software scene. The newest Horace adventure is not on ROM but it is pleasant to see Hungry Horace having a re-birth and Horace and the Spiders on ROM.
For those who know nothing of the Horace myth he is a little round, Pacman-type creature who has the habit of annoying everyone he meets.
Each of the games has a cute plot and Hungry Horace sees the round man taking the part of a Pac-man. He is, however, no ordinary powerpill eater. He has to eat the flowers in the park and avoid the keepers who will throw him out if he is discovered. If you go through one maze into another there will be more surprises and if you are adept enough you may start to think that there is no limit to the number of mazes in the game.
Horace and the Spiders is slightly different Horace has to dodge the spiders to gain points before he can reach the main part of the game which takes place in a cobwebbed house. You must destroy the spiders and their webs if you are to win the game.
The Horace adventures are a pleasure to play and it is good to see them in a format where they can be loaded immediately you feel like a quick game.
The range of Ultimate games is also worth having on cartridge, although they could be bought more cheaply on cassette from that company.
In chronological order, Jet Pac was the first game Ultimate produced for the Spectrum. In it you play a spaceman whose task is to deliver and assemble spaceship kits and to collect valuable treasures on the way. You will be faced with all kinds of odd creatures which you must avoid and destroy to complete your task.
The other games from Ultimate are Pssst, which involves a robot keeping away the bugs from a sunflower, and Cookie, which involves a chef bouncing ingredients for a cake, avoiding the nasties in the larder and keeping clear of the bins. Both games are arcade standard in quality and benefit from the ROM treatment.
The only mind game in the second release of ROM software is Chess. It is the original cassette version which has existed since the title was launched, with no changes. That is surprising since Mikro Gen, the original manufacturer of the game, has produced an upgraded version.
The game is standard so far as computer chess goes with options for playing or setting-up the board to play in particular situations. There are 10 levels and the highest, nine, takes several minutes to make a move. Each move for both you and your opponent is monitored in seconds, minutes and hours on a chess clock above the board on the screen.
The future of the ROM interface is still uncertain and many software houses are unsure what they will do in the way of supporting it. It seems unlikely that any large-scale production of programs on Sinclair standard ROMs is planned in the software industry and Sinclair could be in the unenviable position of having a monopoly of ROM software.
Sinclair Research hopes to produce some language and utility packages for Interface Two but the company still has no idea which language or utilities will be available, or when. It is likely that a ROM version of Micro-Prolog will be available soon but no firm date is being given even for that step forward.
The indications are that it will be the last interface for the Spectrum. The buffer at the back of the board will support only a ZX printer and Sinclair has given no intention of producing more peripherals for its home market machine. It would therefore seem logical to support the interfaces it already has as far as it can and to promote the use of those devices as much as possible. As far as Interface Two is concerned it has crept on to the market with more of a whisper than the bang which was expected.
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