SSI, Computer Bismarck and the tall box years, 1980-87

Strategic Simulations, Inc. the first developer of war-games for the home computer, founded by Joel Billings in 1980. Billings had grown up with strategic board games, a hobby many, primarily young men, in the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed.
The first modern tabletop wargame can be traced back to the early 1950s, conceived by a young Charles Swann Roberts. Roberts had been enlisted in the service for a few years when he decided to join a National Guard infantry regiment in 1952, where he applied for a tour of duty in Korea, and to “practice” for war he decided to try and supplement his military training with the strategic principles of combat by playing it out on a board, while there were no board games to fill the void, he decided to design his own.
Robert had always held a fascination for war-games, and during his younger years in school, he and his friends improvised their own military games, which involved moving pins and needles on a map of fictional countries. With his early experiments with improvised board games, he designed the map boards and rules for what would become Tactics, the first modern tabletop war game, a game that introduced features that would later on become industry standards, and many of these would, three decades later, be the building stones for the first computerized war-games.
The Avalon Game Company was born with Tactics, later it would be renamed to Avalon Hill.

Joel Billings had throughout his college years used computers to do mathematically modeling and forecasting, these experiences led him to believe that maybe the computer could be used to not only simulate war-games but also remove the need for tedious paperwork while playing.
Billings had just completed college in 1979 when he began posting flyers at hobby shops in the Santa Clara area to attract war-game enthusiasts with a background in programming. John Lyons was the first to reply and after some back and forth he joined Billings.
Billings and Lyons sat out developing their first title, Computer Bismarck, which was initially developed in BASIC for the TRS-80 but a few months into development, Trip Hawkins, at the time an Apple Computer executive, persuaded Billings to switch to the Apple II, praising the computer’s capability for producing color graphics, would make it the best platform for strategy games – A risky move, in a time when the TRS-80 outsold the Apple II by a factor of five.
In the first month of 1980 the Apple II version of Computer Bismarck was completed and Billings started looking for a publisher, he approached Tom Shaw from Avalon Hill, the same company Billings had admired since childhood and with products, he had spent hundreds of hours enjoying. Avalon Hill wasn’t interested and turned Billings down.

While we don’t know the exact reason for Avalon Hill declining Billings, The reason could be that Avalon Hill’s own computer division, Microcomputer Games, Inc, was being established or already in the process of developing their own computer war-games or the fact that Computer Bismarck was close to a clone of an earlier Avalon Hill board game, simply called Bismarck.
The first computer game titles from Avalon Hill were released later in 1980.

Billings being out of luck, decided to establish his own company, Strategic Simulations, Inc. (SSI), he found a graphic designer, Louis Saekow, to handle the packaging. Billings wanted the games to look professional and include maps, detailed manuals, and excellent box art, in other words, he wanted the packaging and content to look and feel the same as with classical board games. This was in a time when all games were being released in cheap ziplock bags, only a few games prior to the release of Computer Bismarck had been released in a boxed format – there was a substantial extra cost involved not only producing the boxes with professional artwork but also the increase in distribution cost with added weight and bigger sized items.

The second version of Computer Bismarck, from 1980.
The first version was released in a thicker box (Computer Ambush was released in the same way)
Both of these decided not to show up for today’s photoshoot, I’ll add them as I uncover them.

To create the artwork for Computer Bismarck, Saekow used a stationary camera; his roommate who worked at a magazine company, helped him sneak in after hours to use its camera. Saekow’s cousin then handled printing the packaging. Without any storage for the complete products, Billings stored the first 2,000 boxes in his bedroom. In February 1980, he distributed 30,000 flyers to Apple II owners and displayed the game at the Applefest exposition a month later. He also purchased a full-page advertisement for the Apple II version in the March 1980 issue of BYTE magazine, which mentioned the ability to save a game in progress as well as play against the computer or another person. The advertisement also promised future support for the TRS-80 and other computers.
The TRS-80 version was released later in 1980 but the promise of support for other computers wasn’t realized – no other ports of the game were made.
Computer Bismarck ended up being quite a success, selling between 7 and 8.000 copies, and with a price tag of $60, 4 times more than your typical computer game would sell for, the sale figures are quite impressive. The initial packaging that went into Computer Bismarck was used for their war-games for the next seven years and the next handful of titles would all bear “Computer” in their titles.
SSI went on to become an industry leader in the strategic wargame genre for years to come, competing, most of the ’80s, with Avalon Hill.

A few years back I did a very small write up on Avalon Hill, which can be found here.

Below most of my SSI tall box titles, most of these were the first items I started to collect in the late ’90s – many haven’t seen the light of day for 20 years.

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