Space Dynasty memories

They say first impressions are everything. That seems to have been true for teenage me when I tried Hollie Satterfield’s BBS door game Space Dynasty — and wrote it off.

But first impressions are often wrong.

(Also, don’t miss the follow-up interview with Space Dynasty creator Hollie Satterfield)

Before diving in, let’s back up a few years and look at the genealogy of BBS “space empire” games.

The grandaddy of them all seems to have been Space Empire Elite, released for Atari ST BBSes in 1987 by Jon Radoff. The game proved very popular. Clones and adaptations quickly proliferated. For instance, the next year saw the release of Bill Mountney and Bill Coffman’s Galactic Empire for the Atari ST, as well as Space Dynasty for the PC. There were more clones over the subsequent years, but the most important was certainly 1990’s Solar Realms Elite by Amit Patel, which was so popular on PC boards that it spawned its own sequels.

So, back to first impressions.

At the ripe old age of 13, I began calling BBSes. It was 1992, and BBSing was just about at its zenith. I used Atari computers, so naturally I began by calling Atari BBSes that I saw advertised in the local Atari club newsletter. On Flash BBS I encountered Space Empire Elite, five years after its initial release. Over those years, a succession of authors had added numerous features to SEE, the most significant being inter-BBS play.

It was love at first sight. I loved the strategy that SEE required, and I played faithfully day after day. Unfortunately, the number of folks playing it on Flash was declining because the Atari ST was going the way of the dinosaur. I kept calling Flash and playing SEE until the board went offline around 1996. But in the meantime I branched out and began calling PC BBSes.

That’s where I found Solar Realms Elite, which was also fairly mature several years after its initial release. Though SRE was inspired by SEE, its author had drawn heavily on other gaming influences to push his game in new directions. SRE offered new classes of planets, new ways to attack, a full-color interface, and loads of helpful shortcuts and tricks. As I have noted before, SRE was very popular at the time I encountered it, which made it a great social gaming experience, and gave me a great first impression. I remained hooked on SRE for the next decade.

Around this time I also came across Space Dynasty. It was one of the first SEE adaptations available for WWIV/PC sysops, and over the years since its release it had remained a very faithful port. Because there were so many WWIV boards in St. Louis, I came across Space Dynasty often and played it some. I think it didn’t grab me because it hadn’t evolved in its own direction. There wasn’t anything shiny and new.

That sounds like I was being unfair to Space Dynasty and … I was.

By the time I found it, Space Dynasty already was mature and had plenty of devoted fans. People loved space empire games. Space Dynasty stayed true to the core gameplay mechanic that was so successful for Space Empire Elite because it was a formula that worked. That’s why Space Dynasty eventually inspired a clone of its own: Space Dynasty Elite released in 2003 for Synchronet.

Maybe Space Dynasty didn’t push the boundaries of the genre. But Satterfield really sweated the gameplay details. He also developed unique features that I never noticed two decades ago.

Here’s a small example. Solar Realms Elite made extensive use of ANSI colors. Its bright interface was a marked contrast to Space Empire Elite’s plain ASCII interface. Space Dynasty fell somewhere in the middle. It used ANSI color, though not to the extent SRE did. But, unlike SRE, Space Dynasty allowed players to customize the interface’s color scheme.

More significant was a feature in the messaging system. All the space empire games had in-game messaging to foster social interactions in the game. You could send misinformation to your enemies, intimidate the weak, plot with your allies.

Besides the typical private and public message options, Space Dynasty offered anonymous messages.

As a player who reveled in psychological warfare, it’s too bad I never discovered this feature. It would have been very useful to send lies to my enemies anonymously.

But there was a catch: anonymity was not guaranteed. Satterfield cleverly made it possible for an empire’s messenger to be captured — thus revealing the sender’s identity to the recipient of the message.

This careful balance in gameplay can be seen in other places in the game, like its economics system. Space Dynasty didn’t allow players to sell military equipment or planets like SRE did. This always frustrated me. But I see now it made the game more fair: it wasn’t possible to exploit inflation to take over the game quickly.

And unlike SRE, Space Dynasty eventually followed Space Empire Elite’s lead by adding inter-BBS features. Space Dynasty allowed up to 26 BBSes to create a joint game over networks like WWIVnet or RelayNet, with extra “intergalactic” operations available. Something unique to Space Dynasty was that this “intergalactic” style of play could also be set up locally. A sysop could create two local games and connect them together, allowing Each game to serve as a self-contained “galaxy.”

Want to play?

I’ve been playing Space Dynasty for several weeks on a couple present-day BBSes to get re-acquainted with it. It’s a solid game, but it does take a while to get going if the sysop sticks to default settings. With a bunch of players and each new empire starting with a few hundred or thousand planets (instead of 3 or 4), games would probably get exciting very quickly.

Are you interested in trying Space Dynasty for yourself? Here are some places you can play (you will need a telnet client like SyncTerm):

What do you remember?

Did you ever play Space Dynasty? What were your favorite strategies? What made the game memorable to you?

Also, don’t miss my interview with Hollie Satterfield, creator of Space Dynasty.

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