The History of the Game Engine: Part 6 - From Pawn to Cho Ku Nu | Features | Ultimate Gaming Paradise
Age of Empires Game Screenshot

The History of the Game Engine: Part 6 – From Pawn to Cho Ku Nu

Strategy games have been around for so long that their origins are history. This alone makes for an article or two in itself. Chess, undoubtedly the most famous of all strategy games, dates back to the 7th Century. It is fair to say that strategy and wargaming has been about a lot longer than computer games.

With a huge number of enthusiasts, and an obvious crossover between the type of people who enjoy strategy gaming and those who have a flair for programming, some of the very first games that were developed for computers were strategy games. Versions of chess on computers date back to the 1950s, and card game lovers have tried developing versions of traditional card games for almost as long.

It’s a history that’s over half a century long.

Popular Products

  • Intel Core I7-10700K Box View

    Intel Core I7-10700K CPU - Socket LGA1200 10th Gen Comet Lake 8 Core Processor

    • Cores: 8
    • Threads: 16
    • Base Clock: 3.8GHz
    • Boost Clock: 5.1GHz
    • Cache: 16MB Intel Smart Cache
    • TDP: 125W

    In stock

    Shipped: Today

    152.5 Points

    £304.99

    Add to basket
  • AMD Ryzen 5 7600X Box View

    AMD Ryzen 5 7600X - Socket AM5 Zen 4 6 Core Processor

    • Cores: 6
    • Threads: 12
    • Base Clock: 4.7GHz
    • Boost Clock: 5.3GHz
    • L2 Cache: 6MB
    • L3 Cache: 32MB
    • Unlocked: YES

    Low stock

    Shipped: Today

    132 Points

    £263.99

    Add to basket
  • Intel Core I7-10700KF Box View

    Intel Core I7-10700KF CPU - Socket LGA1200 10th Gen Comet Lake 8 Core Processor

    • Cores: 8
    • Threads: 16
    • Base Clock: 3.8GHz
    • Boost Clock: 5.1GHz
    • Cache: 16MB Intel Smart Cache
    • TDP: 125W

    In stock

    Shipped: Today

    139 Points

    £277.99

    Add to basket

The Quest for Chess Supremacy

Chess devotees long desired to create computer code that would enable a machine to play a decent game. From the very early days of programming, it seemed obvious that given the right level of technology, a computer could solve chess–that is to say that it could play flawlessly, beating every opponent.

Of course, for that technology to be available seemed a long way away back in the 1960s and 1970s. Despite the programmers having the will to develop some sort of structure to a chess game, the calculations involved were utterly ridiculous.

The topic of chess computers is vast, so we won’t delve too deep. But there are more moves in chess than there are atoms in the universe. At one point, it was calculated that even if the software could even compute a million potential moves per second, it would still take it years to process through to the endgame and make a decision. Not exactly a fast-paced game—and at the time, the idea of a computer managing that million-move analysis in a single second was still out of grasp.

This led to a number of important developments centred around the idea that not every move is equal. Evaluating what moves can be simply brushed aside as irrelevant would cut down the number that needed to be followed through. So a point system was developed, whereby software could do more than simply crunch the number–it could also give priority to moves with a better tactical advantage.

This still wasn’t enough, but from there came a second understanding—what if the game were calculated backwards, and the right moves were permanently stored in a database? That way, the computer doesn’t have to scan and calculate the best move, it simply has to look up the answer in a table.

Early Chess Computer

Only, the storage required for such a thing is phenomenal.

Getting a computer to play chess to a master level required aspects of all of these things: brute force logical calculation, evaluation, and a database of known solutions–each working in tandem with the fastest technology available.

It was in 1997 when this was first achieved. Today, more than two decades later, you can squeeze all that impressive technology onto your phone.

The Chess Engine

Developing a system that could play chess would be impossible without the work of everyone who had come before. As we discussed last time, were you to sit down today and try to develop a viable chess program, that level of reinventing the wheel would feel infinitely impossible.

Chess games today rely entirely on one of a number of chess engines–game engines developed with one core task—to play a good game of chess.

It was the willingness to share ideas, code, and databases of painstakingly curated information that makes chess engines possible. Today, a developer doesn’t need to study the decades-worth of work to develop that level of artificial intelligence. To make a working chess game, a developer can use an existing engine to run calculations in the background, designing the look and feel of the interface for a unique player experience.

Left untethered, modern chess engines are ironically too good. After all, if these things can beat grandmasters, they’ll have little problem outsmarting your average (or even expert Xbox) players. Part of the customisable engine code, therefore, exists for you to handicap the game engine, bringing the level of chess it plays down to a more human level. This provides a challenging opponent, without simply demolishing you without a chance.

How nice of it!

Fresh In

  • Monster Energy Supercross 6 - The Official Videogame Box Art PS5

    Monster Energy Supercross 6 - The Official Videogame (PlayStation 5)

    Mud, sweat, fun and adrenaline: find the rider in you and jump into the action with Monster Energy Supercross 6! Live all the emotions of the Monster Energy Supercross 2022 Championship with the official bikes, riders, and tracks.

    Pre-order

    25 Points

    £49.99

    Pre-Order Now
  • God of Rock Box Art PS4

    God of Rock (PlayStation 4)

    The mysterious God of Rock has revived the souls of the universe’s greatest musicians to clash for his entertainment. Revitalised with new bodies and new powers, each musician will become a contestant in his game, battling it out with each other for musical supremacy on a global stage.

    Pre-order

    12 Points

    £23.99

    Pre-Order Now
  • TT Isle Of Man: Ride on the Edge 3 Box Art NSW

    TT Isle Of Man: Ride on the Edge 3 (Nintendo Switch)

    The Isle of Man Tourist Trophy is the most epic, most dangerous and most spectacular race in the world. It is a course of over 60km on the roads of the Isle of Man, includes 264 bends, and requires high-powered bikes specially prepared for the race. The riders who compete in it train their whole lives for the chance to win the ultimate accolade: being crowned champion of the TT Isle Of Man.

    Pre-order

    23.5 Points

    £46.99

    Pre-Order Now

One such chess engine is called Fritz, currently at version 17. Fritz has been in constant development since its inception in 1991 when German company ChessBase brought in Dutch programmer Frans Morsch to merge their chess database solutions with his impressive logic code. In 1995, Fritz Version 3 won the World Computer Chess Championship. This was the first time a consumer-level computer defeated the room-sized mainframe computers that had, until then, retained the crown.

Showing that the development of a game engine never rests, Fritz has been through a number of iterations where the core logic engine has been completely replaced. Version 14 (2013) ditched the original Frans Morsch engine to be replaced by Pandix, written by Gyula Horváth, and version 15 (2015) dropped Pandix to be superseded by Rybka, coded by Vasik Rajlich.

Today’s Fritz 17, released in November 2019, has yet another core engine—Ginkgo, by developer Frans Schneider.

Stretching Beyond the Board

One of the beautiful things about modern computer games is how imagination is the only limitation. For 1,500 years, chess stood at the top of the strategy game tower because everything that competed against it had to follow a similar structure—physical pieces tied to a board, cards, or similar. Even model-and-dice-based wargaming, popularised with games like Warhammer 40,000 has a limitation on how deep it can go before the weight of the rules outshine the enjoyment of the game.

Not true when a computer sits in the background, chunking through the calculations as it simultaneously presents the results in a friendly visual fashion.

With a strong strategy engine at the core, strategy games can stretch far beyond the turn-by-turn limitations of a representative game like chess. Why have only eight basic soldiers, when you can represent a full army of a thousand? Why restrict yourself to movement on an 8×8 grid, when you can simulate a landscape complete with hills, rivers and seas?

The imagination was always there. All that was needed was the combined intelligence of hundreds of developers sharing ideas so that years of iteration were possible, each new game building on what had gone before.

Fresh In

  • ASRock AMD Radeon RX 7900 XT Phantom Gaming 20GB OC Box View

    ASRock AMD Radeon RX 7900 XT Phantom Gaming 20GB OC GDDR6 Graphics Card

    • Game Clock: 2075MHz
    • Boost Clock: 2450MHz
    • Memory: 20GB 20000MHz GDDR6
    • Stream Processors: 5376

    In stock

    Shipped: Today

    526 Points

    £1,051.99

    Add to basket
  • Intel Core i9-13900F Box View

    Intel Core i9-13900F CPU – Socket LGA1700 13th Gen Raptor Lake 24 Core Processor

    • Cores: 24
    • Threads: 32
    • Single P-core Max/Base Clock Speed: 5.2/2.0GHz
    • Single E-core Max/Base Clock Speed: 4.2/1.5GHz
    • Cache: 36MB Intel Smart Cache
    • L2 Cache: 32MB
    • TDP: 65W

    In stock

    Shipped: Today

    306 Points

    £611.99

    Add to basket
  • Intel Core i9-13900 Box View

    Intel Core i9-13900 CPU – Socket LGA1700 13th Gen Raptor Lake 24 Core Processor

    • Cores: 24
    • Threads: 32
    • Single P-core Max/Base Clock Speed: 5.2/2.0GHz
    • Single E-core Max/Base Clock Speed: 4.2/1.5GHz
    • Cache: 36MB Intel Smart Cache
    • L2 Cache: 32MB
    • TDP: 65W

    In stock

    Shipped: Today

    328.5 Points

    £656.99

    Add to basket

From Turn-Based to Real-Time

Turn-based strategy games came first. These often simulate real-world board games or add extended functionality onto similar models, using the computer to do the rules and calculations. There’s a place for turn-based strategy systems, as the games provide different challenges to the more frenetic ideas of real-time strategy.

With turn-based games, the player has time to take a step back and think. Need a break? Leave the game there, get up, walk around. Think about it. Because of this, turn-based strategy games tend to veer towards mental acuity. Players who are very skilled in their logic and strategical thinking will enjoy having time to decide on the right moves.

They’re also easier to code. Like the player, the computer opponent is also given time to ‘think’. Calculations can take time, and they follow set structures. Much like the chess engines, the code crunching behind turn-based strategy games looks multiple moves ahead, determining the correct outcome through a trifecta of brute force logic, evaluation, and data.

1982 Utopia Game

But while a turn-based system provides the right tools for a game, it falls short of being a simulation, something which is an end goal for many strategy enthusiasts.

Enter the real-time strategy genre (RTS). From the early 80s, games began to develop beyond pure turn-based interfaces, with titles such as Utopia (a city-building game for the Intellivision, 1982), The Ancient Art of War (a troop battle simulation for Apple II and MS-DOS, 1984), and Stonkers (tank combat on the ZX Spectrum, 1983). Games like these pushed the boundaries of their turn-based roots, but it wasn’t until Herzog Zwei, a Sega MegaDrive/Genesis game, that the world was truly brought real-time strategy and tactics—in Mech form!

Dune II followed in 1989, setting the parameters for RTS for the next few years, which was superseded by the worldwide megahit, Command & Conquer in 1995.

Letting the Genie Out…

If Command & Conquer put the concept of RTS in the public eye, it was Microsoft and Ensemble Studio’s masterpiece that took it to the next level.

Now well over two decades old, Age of Empires remains one of the finest examples of RTS gaming ever. To thank for all this is the Genie engine.

Understanding that the development of a game like this required a robust engine, Ensemble created Genie, which became the central core to the Age of Empires series. Genie had all the code for the AI, dealt with the graphics, handled user input and multiplayer modes, and provided a framework. This left the designers with time to allow their imagination to run free.

Want a different type of building? Not a problem, put the data into Genie and it’ll work. Need a different type of troop? Easy, Genie’ll handle it.

With the core engine separate from the flavour and context of the game, one could be developed without impacting the other.

It wasn’t without its problems. Bugs in the engine would propagate throughout the system and were easily exploited by players worldwide, but it could as was patched and further developed. When the development team was asked for more, Genie provided them with the tools to produce an expansion pack for the game with extra nations, and new units to go with it. Then, when Age of Empires II was desired, Genie delivered.

Playing Draughts, Badly

Skip back a few years to the early 1980s and the Memotech MTX512. On a cassette tape lies Draughts. A simple title for a simpler age.

It should have been a simple idea to teach a computer to play draughts (Checkers for our US friends). It lacks the complexity of chess, and there’s only one type of piece.

Popular Products

  • Xbox Wireless Controller - Shock Blue Box View

    Xbox Wireless Controller - Shock Blue

    Experience the modernised design of the Xbox Wireless Controller in Shock Blue, featuring sculpted surfaces and refined geometry for enhanced comfort and effortless control during gameplay with battery usage up to 40 hours.

    In stock

    Shipped: 1st September

    30 Points

    £59.99

    Add to basket
  • Nacon Splatoon 3 Deluxe Travel Carry Case Box View

    Nacon Splatoon 3 Deluxe Travel Carry Case (Nintendo Switch, OLED & Lite)

    Take your Nintendo Switch - OLED Model, Nintendo Switch or Nintendo Switch Lite on the go with this sturdy Nacon Splatoon 3 Deluxe Travel Carry Case designed to fit the console in handheld mode. Inside you’ll find a felt lining, screen-protector flap with storage for game cards, logo tag and zippered mesh storage pocket.

    In stock

    Shipped: Today

    9.5 Points

    £18.99

    Add to basket
  • Amazon Basics Game Storage Case for Nintendo Switch Cartridge Holders View

    24 Cards Nintendo Switch Game Storage Case - Black

    Enjoy more time playing and less time searching with help from a Nintendo Switch game storage case. The compact Switch game storage case stores up to 24 Nintendo Switch game cards, making it easy to neatly contain your collection, sort them as you see fit, and find them fast.

    Low stock

    Shipped: Today

    2.5 Points

    £4.99

    Add to basket

Yet the Memotech version of Draughts had a serious flaw. The AI (if you could call it that) of the engine was pretty rubbish. It couldn’t even win a game.

What did the developers do? They made it cheat.

Every so often, the computer opponent would make an illegal move, or even get a piece appear on the board you swore was missing a moment ago. It was the only way that the game could provide any sort of challenge to the human player.

Why mention this now? Because Genie didn’t cheat.

And everything else did.

Resources, Resources, Resources

Modern strategy and tactic games revolve around resources. From the brilliant Sim City, where money is so tight it’s painful, to the sprawling world of Civilization, where everything from oil to bananas is counted–resources enable you to build homes, develop new technologies and arm armies. Without them, you’re stuffed.

So what’s a quick and easy way to make the computer stand a chance against your better brain? Without the decades of research and development that’s in a top-tier chess engine, the code behind strategy games had to do something a little dirtier.

It simply gave the computer opponents more resources.

Say what?

Age of Empires Game Screenshot

Yes, just like the Memotech Draughts game snagging a new piece, in the background of your favourite early 1990s wargame, some AI general somewhere was sneakily adding to his food supply. It’s a bit like stealing money from the bank in Monopoly while your sister is looking at something else.

Ensemble Studios, with their Genie engine, refused to have it cheat. Age of Empires plays fairly—just remember that when you’re being beaten!

This led to some criticism of the game–players felt it was too easy. Well, that’s what can happen if the playing field has been levelled, and the opponent is a first-era Pentium processor.

Some SAGE Thoughts

Back in Command & Conquer land, the developers at Westwood Studios and Electronic Arts were also making the core of the game into an engine they could utilise on other projects. This culminated in an engine entitled SAGE—the Strategy Action Game Engine.

SAGE meant that Electronic Arts was able to develop games quickly and efficiently with the background structure and tactical ability of their leading wargame franchise. One notable title that gained from this reuse of code was The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth and its sequels, proving that with some solid re-skinning and an abundance of flavour, the recyclability of a game engine is very lucrative indeed!

Wonderfully, for wannabe RTS developers, a group of dedicated enthusiasts has created an open-source version of SAGE called (somewhat unimaginatively) OpenSAGE.

Similarly, OpenAGE exists for those looking to recreate the feel of those first Age of Empires games.

These are free to use, putting tactical combat at everyone’s fingertips (if you’re the kind of person who wants to get down and dirty with some code).

Specialised Engines Only?

Are strategy games forced to use strategy game engines? No. There’s a strong community using Unity for RTS development, pushing on the AI developed inside that more generic engine, and enjoying the other benefits that Unity brings (such as a user-friendly interface, and superior graphical capabilities). Equally, should you want to, then Unreal Engine provides a lot of the core functionality that goes into a strategy game.

Popular Products

  • Like a Dragon: Ishin! Box Art PS5

    Like a Dragon: Ishin! (PlayStation 5)

    1860s Kyo is plagued by widespread inequality, and one samurai will change the course of history in his search for justice. Take up the sword of Sakamoto Ryoma and venture to Kyoto to find your father’s killer, clear yourself of a framed murder, and restore your honor.

    Pre-order

    26 Points

    £51.99

    Pre-Order Now
  • Frank and Drake Box Art PS4

    Frank and Drake (PlayStation 4)

    Two strangers, Frank and Drake, are brought together as roommates by unknown forces in a conspiracy that threatens them both. Frank is the super of a run-down apartment block, working by day and worried he’s losing his mind. Drake is allergic to sunlight and operates by night, forcing the roommates to communicate solely through sticky notes left for each other around the apartment.

    Pre-order

    16 Points

    £31.99

    Pre-Order Now
  • PGA Tour 2K23 Deluxe Edition Box Art PS4

    PGA Tour 2K23 Deluxe Edition (PlayStation 4)

    Hit the links with more swagger in PGA TOUR 2K23. Now featuring playable male and female pros, including Tiger Woods, new licensed courses, more control options, an authentic PGA TOUR MyCAREER, Course Designer, and new MyPLAYER Archetypes and Skills!

    Low stock

    Shipped: Today

    30 Points

    £59.99

    Add to basket

However, when it comes to battle games, unique rule sets and a desire for optimisation pushes genre developers to create their own engines rather than lead too heavily on existing archetypes.

Next Time…

Ever wondered what goes on behind the controls of a modern aircraft? The answer… an engine.

Join us next time when we look at how the simulation genre has embraced game engines.