Standing in a sea of vintage radio tubes, time-worn oscilloscopes, and the occasional army surplus table, I am enjoying the Hamfest. This is my favorite part of the show, browsing these individual sale tables, where lifetime radio enthusiasts, computer nerds, and junk collectors try to unload the detritus of their hobbies. Of course I always peruse the respectable side of the floor as well, picking up my dollar copies of CQ Magazine from the vendors, but it is this side where I occasionally find a real gem. And today I am lucky, recognizing the oversized box and red and white SSI banner across the bottom from 10 feet away, because I have found a complete copy of one of my early computer games for a mere two dollars. Sold!

Rebel Charge at Chickamauga

Strategic Simulations, Inc.

1987

Available for the Apple, C-64/128, Atari, and IBM

The box is a joy to hold because it stands in such stark contrast to the packaging of videogames today. Oversized, it measures 8 1/2 inches wide by 11 inches tall and 1 inch deep. The cover image is a painting. This was before the use of computer graphics or high-end desktop publishing in the marketing of PC software, which is amusing, but can be explained if one remembers what the graphics were actually like. These were a much easier sell when a painting showed scantily clad barbarian women or nefarious wizards instead of the stick figures that actually represented those characters in the game. In this case, the painting shows a wave of Confederate soldiers charging over a wooden fence led by a cavalry officer brandishing a sword. Opening it, I find the following:

  • A 5 1/4 inch floppy disk
  • A 27 page, 8.5 x 11 instruction book
  • A laminated, double sided game map and reference card
  • A 1987 SSI summer catalog
  • A customer response card
  • And inexplicably, about 10 pages of photocopied maps of the game "Shiloh: Grant's Trial in the West"

Sorting through these materials brings back a lot of memories. At the time that I had this game, I lived in a rural area where I was the only person my age in any direction for about 5 miles. No TV, little radio, video games and books were my after-school entertainment once it got dark. My brother was living with my mom, so I had a lot of time to myself. And this game required a lot of time. These games were popular, however, just for that reason. In the 1960s and 70s, several gaming companies began producing bookcase games of highly detailed war strategy (think PanzerBlitz by Avalon Hill). Popular in their own right, these games required both players to be present from start to finish, and often included a lot of technical rules. The personal computer helped simplify this process, while also allowing players to save their progress and come back at a later time.

Rebel Charge at Chickamauga takes place in the days around September 19-20, 1863 as Union troops under Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans engaged Confederate troops under Gen. Braxton Bragg outside of Chattanooga.  The basic setup was as follows:

1. You choose to play as the Union or Confederacy. If Union, your units began the game placed on the western side of a creek (Chickamauga Creek) in a defensive line. If you choose Confederacy, you begin with fewer units on the eastern side but as time progresses in the game new units arrive.

2. The computer cycles through each of your units and allows you to move them using the keyboard numbers one through eight. After completing your turn, you save your game to a blank floppy disk, and then reinsert the game disk.

3. If you're in a two player game, you would leave the room at this point and the second player would have the chance to move his units, and then saving as before. Otherwise, the computer moves the opposing units.

4. Both players would then sit and watch as the computer resolved the turn, displaying casualty statistics of combat and routing movements if necessary.

5. Repeat steps one through four.

A single round for both players could take up to 30 to 45 minutes. A full game could last as long as eight or nine hours. But being alone, bored, and without something to read, I sometimes expedited this process in what now seems like a somewhat cruel manner. My father's family contained a long line of yeoman farmers devoted to "the South". My father and his friends had been active Civil War Reenactors during the 1960s and 70s, and I was raised on a pretty strong diet of stories and diatribes about this Civil War general or that particular battle or such and such great-great-grandfather and his unit's exploits. But secretly I grew to disagree with "The Cause", and the only ones to know were the poor, digitized stick men, stick cannons, and stick horses that represented the Confederacy in this game.

I would select the Union, who conveniently had a cluster of units on the southern edge of the board immediately to the east of a critical bridge. Many of the Confederate reinforcements would arrive on the western edge of the board using the road leading to the bridge. Here is where the perversity becomes apparent; I would choose a two player game and control both sides with the sole intent of inflicting the highest casualty rate on these poor, unsuspecting 128K units. Placing the Union forces in the woods around the bridge, I would meticulously move individual Confederate units onto the bridge without backup. As the computer resolved the turn (Step 4 above), I would sit back and watch as units took 60 to 70% casualty rates before auto routing backwards to the Confederate line. I suspect a third world dictator is buried deep in my psyche somewhere. Life probably would have been healthier if there had been a girl my age closer than the 6 to 7 miles away...

Despite promoting latent mental illness in bored 14-year-olds, Rebel Charge at Chickamauga proved to be an enjoyable computer version of the types of bookcase games I had previously played.