DGS Games

GrogHeads Interviews Dr Ezra Sidran

The master of artificial intelligence returns to hobby gaming after a sojourn into the professional gaming world ~

Jim Owczarski, 09 April 2016

I write about wargames because I love them and want to share them with others.  One of the added benefits is being able to meet some of the people who made the games that stole away entire years of my life as I imagined myself Alexander, Grant, or, most frequently, Berthier.  I’m very pleased to have now added Dr. D. Ezra Sidran, designer of the seminal Universal Military Simulator and Universal Military Simulator II.

He’s recently returned to commercial wargame production after a while away — some of the reasons for which he goes into in this interview — to begin work on a new game based on the classic Kriegsspiel.  Titled General Staff, it promises to take a typically Sidranian (neologism for “awfully damned different”) look at digital wargaming along with a level of A.I. that I myself had once described as chimerical.

He was kind enough to answer my questions, even those which were likely of interest only to myself, and along the way talk about his games old and new, digital wargames in the neolithic era (the 1980s), and what he’s been up to since companies like Firebird, Rainbird, and even Microprose closed their doors.


1. All right. I’ve waited just shy of 30 years to ask this: What was the deal with there being no Prussians at Waterloo in the UMS?

It was a gameplay issue; if you include the Prussians the French really have a very little chance of winning. Interestingly, I just read a fascinating book, Wellington’s Smallest Victory: The Duke, the Model Maker and the Secret of Waterloo by Peter Hofschröer. I got it mail-order from England…(t)he book tells the story of Lt. William Siborne who was commissioned to make a very large scale model of the battle of Waterloo. However, he ran afoul of the Duke of Wellington who put pressure on him to remove more and more of the Prussians and position the remaining ones further away from the battle!


2. I do not flatter when I say the UMS was revolutionary for its time. It dispensed with chits, hexes, squares, and really anything that looked like a “wargame” to those weaned on S.P.I. and Avalon Hill. What was the genesis of that project?

I, of course, played Avalon Hill wargames; loved them and experienced the same frustrations as others: nobody to play against, couldn’t leave the board set up without the pieces getting scattered, etc. One day (probably in the ‘70s) I saw a NOVA show (PBS) that showed wireframe 3D. I immediately thought that this technology could be used to represent 3D terrain for a wargame on a personal computer. I went back to college specifically to learn how to do this. By 1984 I had a proof of concept program running on an Apple //e. The problem that I kept running in to was memory. I wanted to add more and more features but I was constantly bumping up against the RAM limitations of the early machines.

This was ground-breaking at the time.  Trust me on this.

This was ground-breaking at the time.  Trust me on this.


3. Looking back, and using whatever measure you choose, was the UMS a success?

UMS was the number one selling 16-bit game in Europe in February 1987 (the chart is on my wall). It was also the number one selling game on various machines (Amiga, Macintosh, Atari, MS-DOS) about the same time in the U.S. (also have that chart in my office but it’s up too high on the wall and I can’t read the date). So, yes, it was certainly a commercial success. But, I also think that it proved an important point: ‘commercial computer wargames’ could be big sellers. They were worth doing. UMS sold over 125,000 units which was far more than any Avalon Hill game. And, most importantly, it convinced computer game publishers that there was a market for wargames (at least for a while).


4. The UMS II really snapped my head back. In four years you went from a very tactical, granular, “nap of the earth” game where one of the richest features was the ability to “draw” terrain on a very small scale to a game that encompassed entire continents. Leaving aside the absolutely bestial time I had getting it to run on my Amiga 500 — I recall getting a RAM upgrade exclusively for that purpose — was this trajectory one you had always had in mind?

Dr. Ed Bever (he did the game design for Sid Meier’s Crusade in Europe, NATO Commander, and Decision in the Desert) greatly influenced the UMS II design. Ed and I became good friends when he introduced me to the people at Firebird after Microprose passed on the original UMS. My plans for UMS II were more along the lines of a theater level or strategic version of the original UMS. I also wanted to be able to model modern conflict. It was Ed who suggested making it global and as detailed as it was. At the same time the grognards, the hardcore wargamers that loved UMS, were pushing for even more user controlled variables.

Of course it's Napoleonic.  My article!

Of course it’s Napoleonic.  My article!


5. In the days of UMS I & II, were you a one-man show? How many people worked on those projects over their life-spans? Also, and perhaps this is another one of those self-interested questions given the Atari ST vs. Amiga war, were you primarily coding on the former, the latter, or neither?

I wrote the original UMS on the Apple //e by myself (this version was never released). However, it did get me a contract with Firebird to do it on the then new Atari ST. I was a single parent and wrote UMS for the Atari ST with my year-old daughter literally in my lap. This was followed up by the MS-DOS, Macintosh, Amiga and Apple IIGS versions. My very good friend, Ed Isenberg, did the MS-DOS and Amiga ports (Ed had a real love/hate relationship with the Amiga) and my good friend, Andy Kanakares, did the Apple IIGS version. At the same time we also wrote the #1 game Designasaurus for Britannica Software. The three of us worked together in a townhouse in Davenport, Iowa.

I am very pleased to report that Ed, Andy and I (as well as Mike Morton and Mike Pash who worked on UMS II and The War College) remain very close friends. Both Ed and Andy have told me that these were the happiest days of their professional careers.


6. Were you disappointed with the reception of the “UMS II”?

I got a real education, in more ways than one, developing UMS II. First, my contract was with Firebird. Firebird was taken over by Rainbird (both were owned by TelecomSoft which was, in turn, owned by BT, the British phone company). Rainbird was taken over by Microprose UK which was owned by Microprose US. Microprose US really didn’t care much about their UK office (and eventually closed it down) and they had a contract with Dani Bunten for a big wargame called, Global Conquest, anyway. The bottom line was that Microprose shipped UMS II before we were happy with it. We continued to work on it after it shipped and, as you probably know, offered free upgrades (this was pre-Internet so we mailed out thousands of discs). We had lots of problems with Microprose including catching them selling unauthorized versions of UMS II (on three separate occasions) and not paying royalties. But, they went out of business, too.

I also got an education in advanced programming and A.I. techniques during the development of UMS II. I seriously learned more about programming working on this project than I did in graduate school.

The reception of UMS II was mixed. It won some awards (Strategy Plus named it the Wargame of the Year) and it was very well received by the U.S. military (we were modeling Desert Storm in real-time before the actual campaign). But I certainly wish we could have shipped the upgrade version that we produced later.


7. Trying not to be too glib, what have you been doing since that time?

We (the same team) did two more commercial games: The War College and Jack the Ripper for GameTek. GameTek also went out of business, our games didn’t get much distribution and we never got the royalties we were owed.

By now my wargames were getting a lot of attention from the U. S. military. They were buying our games COTS (Commercial, Off The Shelf) and were telling me that they would like me to do some wargames for them. However, for this to happen I would need to have a doctorate so I would be qualified as a Principal Investigator (PI) for research contracts. So, in 2003, I was accepted as a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Iowa. In 2005 I earned a Master of Computer Science degree. In 2009 I received a Ph.D. in computer science. My research, which was supported in part by DARPA, was directed towards creating a human-level tactical A.I.

After receiving my doctorate I was a P.I., or Senior Research Scientist, on a number of projects for DARPA, the US Army, the Department of Defense and the Office of Naval Research. This was an extremely happy and productive time for me.

Unfortunately, in 2013 my kidneys started to fail. I was diagnosed with an extremely rare and almost always fatal blood disease called AL Amyloidosis. I received a bone marrow transplant in 2014. A year of intense chemotherapy followed which ended last year. I had to resign my position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Iowa where I taught computer programming and computer game design (repeated bouts of pneumonia have damaged my lungs and I’m no longer able to lecture for long periods of time).

Thinking about what I wanted to do – and what I could do – I realized that this would be a great time to write a wargame using the tactical A.I. algorithms that I created for my doctoral research. And, more importantly, I wanted to write a wargame that I wanted to play; something not super involved (I didn’t want to worry about logistics, ammunition supplies, etc.). It should be easy to play, and a game should be reasonably quick (maybe an hour or so) and I also set myself the goal of producing the first wargame for the Xbox (let’s introduce a whole new generation to wargames!).

I could NEVER get this thing to run right.

I could NEVER get this thing to run right.


8. I peeked at your resume and publications on-line. You’ve a definite background in ConSim A.I. Tell me, how long before a commercially-available A.I. gives us a real fight in a wargame?

I think that time is now and General Staff will be the first wargame that will consistently make human-level tactical decisions. General Staff utilizes all of my doctoral research A.I. One of the many things that I learned pursuing a doctorate in computer science is that you can’t just say, “I’m going to write a series of algorithms that can beat a human playing wargames.” It doesn’t work like that. You have to say that Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) who are experts in tactical AI when presented with a tactical situation will all come to the same conclusions (i.e. there is a tactical doctrine that they will follow). And, here is a computer program that will predict what the SMEs’ decisions will be.

That is exactly what I did and you are welcome to download and read my PhD thesis, TIGER: An Unsupervised Machine Learning Tactical Inference Generator

Later, DARPA funded development of a version of TIGER (now called MATE because DARPA already had a TIGER program) that was capable of making tactical decisions in the field in less than 2 seconds. I’ve attached an essay that I wrote about this project entitled, “MATE, Marjah and Marines,” in PDF format. The bottom line: MATE could make better decisions than actual commanders but the military didn’t like the idea of consulting a computer.

(Writer’s note:  DAMN!)


9. To the present, you’ve described “General Staff” as an attempt to bring the Kriegsspiel to a digital environment. The old grog in me faints with delight. The interviewer wants to know if you mean a particular KS — 1824/26, Vermandois, &c. — or are speaking of it more generically as is often done?

What separates one version of Kriegsspiel from another (say 1824 Kriegsspiel versus 1882 American Kriegsspiel)* is primarily the methods of modeling conflict simulation. The basic gameplay is very similar (yes, I know one uses simultaneous movement and the other uses phased movement). Also, the fact that the games had to ship with pre-manufactured game pieces (very reminiscent of the original Gettysburg from Avalon Hill) units were either in columns or line formation and nothing in between. In the American Kriegsspiel arrows and sword markers were added to help address this and future movement intentions. But, these are all just game mechanics; both games are very similar.

So, General Staff will look and feel very similar to both of these versions of Kriegsspiel. There will be blocks of troops (I have no desire to uses hundreds of sprites) but the units will be able to assume multiple formations and positions (like following a road or the brow of a hill). The computer will be the umpire and supervise simultaneous movement and combat as well as 3D line of sight.

General Staff will also automatically handle flanking and concentrated firepower.

Ed note: we’ve got a whole series on these versions of Kriegspiel from Robert Mosher.

To some, the only true wargame.

To some, the only true wargame.


10. The original KS is rooted firmly in the later years of the Napoleonic Wars, but offers generic nations (Red versus Blue) and troop types more representative of the Prussian military of the time than, say, the French or, certainly, British. Will “General Staff” offer generic nations? Particular nations? Will it be “based” in a particular period? Will you go so far as to simulate particular battles? If so, can you hint as to which you’d like to include?

I would like General Staff to be able to model battles from ancient Egypt, Greece, Persia and Rome all the way up to the late 19th century. The system that I’m using does not handle air power, naval power and paratroopers well and, as I repeatedly remind myself, I want to keep this wargame fairly simple and very fun.

So, like the original UMS there will be many types of units that can be mixed and matched (I’m thinking probably 40-75 different unit types) plus a good number of pre-designed maps.

For now, and for simplicity’s sake, (remember, I’m the only programmer) we’re not going to have the option for the user to create new maps and new unit types. This will definitely come later, but I just don’t want to get bogged down in it now. I’m a stickler for an intuitive user interface. If you want to add user drawn elevation and topographical maps you’re basically creating a paint program and I can’t rewrite PhotoShop by myself this year.

(Writer’s note:  Knowing Dr. Sidran, at least by his record, I suspect he’d like to try.)


10. Back of the box question: continuous time, IGOUGO, WEGO, or something I might have missed?

General Staff will use continuous time. All units will follow their current orders until new orders are given. I haven’t decided yet if I want to make issuing orders via courier mandatory or just a game option.


11. Second back of the box question: Multi-player options? For how many?

Multi-player is going to have to be put off (like user created topographical and elevation maps) to a second edition. I want to create a very tight, fun game. As you add more bells and whistles you add more problems.


12. Third back of the box question: Likely platforms?

Xbox (yes, I know you’re surprised). I got one of the last, if not the very last, Microsoft Xbox Live license and I really want to introduce wargaming to the console community. Also General Staff will be available for Windows and Apple iOS with possible support for Apple and Android smartphones. It’s really a question of legibility. But, we’re developing with all these platforms in mind.

(Writer’s note:  “Surprised” doesn’t cover it.)


13. You’ve said you’re only getting started on this project so this might be premature but we always ask: when do you hope to release?

The Xbox version has to be done before the fall. This is dictated by Microsoft. I assume all the other versions will be released about the same time. Doing simultaneous ports is so much easier now than it was when we wrote games in the ‘80s.


14. Anything else you’d like to mention about this project (about which it would be difficult to imagine a true GrogHead being less than excited)?

A couple of things: please stop by General-Staff.com to not only check on our progress but to send me questions, comments and feedback. Working on a project by yourself gets lonely!

Also: it’s great to be working with old friend and partner, Ed Isenberg, again! Ed is a superb artist and, as usual, he has perfectly captured the style and look that I want for General Staff. And I need to thank Simon Boothroyd who will be doing the 3D port of General Staff. Simon is currently working on his doctorate in chemistry at Lancaster University in England. For convenience sake I’m first writing the 2D version of General Staff (which draws heavily upon my A.I. research). I hope to have this finished in about two months and then turn the project over to Simon who will create the 3D environment (General Staff will appear to be played on a table in an English study). There will also be an option to turn on/off 3D elevation display.

(Writer’s note:  Re: English study, I could cry.)



I want to thank Dr. Sidran for being so generous with his time and look forward to following General Staff as it develops.

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2 Responses to GrogHeads Interviews Dr Ezra Sidran

  1. […] for very serious wargamers, recently interviewed our Dr. Ezra Sidran. The interview can be found here. The term ‘grognard‘ (French for ‘grumbler’) came from Napoleon’s Old […]

  2. […] in the base game running at what feels to be the level of one unit being equal to a corps. Like The Universal Military Simulator a generation before, it inexplicably omits the Prussians.  I know that’s what the Duke of […]

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