Game Review: The Ancient Art of War (1984)

Game Review: The Ancient Art of War

  • Broderbund, 1984
  • Dave and Barry Murry

The year was 1984 and in the soul-less glass and concrete towers of Corporate America (and it would be safe to assume Corporate Britain as well) would-be Gordon Geckos were extolling the virtues contained in Sun Tzu’s treatise “The Art of War.” Never mind the fact that the text was thousands of years old and was specifically an instruction manual on tactics and strategies for violent conflict in a mostly anarchic and agrarian world, “The Art of War” became so ubiquitous as required reading among the pinstripes-and-suspenders set that it was already a punchline by 1990. However, one positive development from early-80s “Sun Tzu-mania” was that Dave and Barry Murry were inspired to develop a DOS (and later Macinstosh) game based on “The Art of War” – a game that might possibly be the first real-time strategy (or RTS) game, pre-dating “Command and Conquer” by a decade.


The one-player only game allows the player to move and otherwise manage units (called “squads”) across different types of terrain to ultimately engage enemy units with the object of either destroying the enemy’s army or capturing all of their flags (while avoiding destruction of the player’s units and protecting their flags).

Speaking of opponents, just like Bill and Ted you will have your pick of famous (and infamous) military leaders from the past with which to match strategic wits, including: Napoleon Bonaparte (Ziggy Piggy!), Genghis Kahn (the scourge of sporting goods stores), and Alexander the Great (Excellent! I wonder if he knows So-crates?..). Each opponent has different strengths, weaknesses, and playing styles – which gives each battle in the game some extra replayability potential.


Since the game itself is not pinned down to a specific historical era or place (perhaps in a nod to the “eternal truths” supposedly contained in “The Art of War”), the types of soldiers contained in the game are boiled down to three types: archers, barbarians, and knights. Archers are armed with bows and deadly as long as their targets remain some distance away, they are absolutely useless at defending themselves. Barbarians are unarmed and unarmored cannon fodder who can run into battle quickly and occupy opposing forces, while knights are heavily armed and armored fighters who are easy targets at a distance but are deadly once they are in close combat.


Squads can contain any mixture of archers, barbarians, and knights for up to 14 total soldiers, and can be arranged in various formations (including ones created by the player) to take advantage of their force composition. For example, if your squad contained 14 archers, having them all pressed up against the front of the formation would get them killed before they could fire a shot. Similarly, a row of knights in the back would mean they might never get to the enemy before being pelted with arrows. Once a combat sequence is started with an opponent’s squad, orders can be given to the different types of soldiers – or the entire squad – to attack, defend, or retreat. In theory this works, however in the heat of battle you usually only have enough time to select “Squad Attack” or “Squad Retreat” before all hell breaks loose.

The game also includes the use of special spy units which are helpful when discovering hidden enemy units when the “fog of war” option is employed, but otherwise useless when in combat (they surrender immediately).


Two interesting dynamics in this game (and rarely employed in RTS games even today) are the roles of supply and condition in the effectiveness of your squads. Once your squad out-marches their supply lines, they basically began to starve, which reduces their combat effectiveness. Similarly, if you keep them on the march for too long, they will become fatigued from simply marching, and will require rest if they are to be of any use in combat. Balancing these needs for food and rest is really at the heart of winning a campaign in “The Ancient Art of War.” It makes this author wonder if these lessons were also learned by the 1980’s middle-manager students regarding their overworked and underpaid staff.


Terrain is also critically important in “The Ancient Art of War.” March your troop across a river or into the mountains and expect to see them re-emerge sometime next year either exhausted or at half their strength. Staking out a spot on a hill and forcing the enemy to come to you will give you much better odds in combat than engaging them on a plain or charging up that hill yourself. The game also includes forts that will also boost the defensive efficacy of squads there, and can even be used to train replacement soldiers for squads under the 14 soldier maximum. This is an especially handy feature when combined with the ability to detach soldiers from squads – with patience you can start multiplying squads and even combining them to maximize offensive or defensive characteristics.

What made this game particularly addictive was the ability to create your own maps, units, and stories (each battle is prefaced by a scroll describing the scenario), as well as customizing the rules that apply to each battle (including the ability to use “the fog of war” to keep enemy units hidden on the map until seen by one of the player’s squads). Many a night was spent in my early teen years creating wild scenarios such as extreme topographical features or forcing the player and the opponent to create armies from scratch through fort-based training. This game really encouraged creativity by its players not seen before Sid Meier’s first series of Civilization games.


For its time the game looks great, especially regarding the background graphics accompanying each topographic type when zooming into battle. The game’s mechanics really challenge the player to think strategically in terms of movement, supply, and timing of attack and defense rather than on overwhelming with sheer numbers or the twitch-clicking of more “modern” games like Starcraft or Age of Empires. You will honestly find yourself saddled with anxiety about sending squads into combat – “are they rested or am I about to lose my all-knight squad to a single enemy archer?”


The play-in-browser version of “The Ancient Art of War” (in color!) can be found on (

Until next time, I leave you with this haiku-esque review found on the version of this game:

“I try for Krazy Ivan but not enough. Too much for hands.

Feel this gently long time. Then back press to victory.

Otherwise neutral. Interestingly cautious but step back to take the amount to mental break. Button controls will make here some number? you can! Dragoon intelligence will inflate to happiness. Thankfully soon!”

– Chris Frain (of Pattern Language) @lenn_cicada

The debut mini-album from Pattern Language is available on Happy Robots Records on June 16.

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