Detailed History

Empire has a long his­tory, includ­ing an early ver­sion devel­oped in 1938 devel­oped by a group of col­lege friends from the University of California at Berkeley, which formed the basis for fur­ther devel­op­ment in the early 1960s by the son of one of the orig­i­nal inven­tors with his friends at Reed College, in Portland, Oregon. It then under­went ongo­ing devel­op­ment at Reed into the 1970s, but was played only occa­sion­ally after the mid-​​80s.

The orig­i­nal “Empire” game in 1938 was cre­ated by a group of bud­dies who had gone to col­lege together at UC Berkeley, and then formed a sort of study group sev­eral years later. The group included Stillman Drake (grad­u­ated Berkeley in 1932), Mark Wrede Eudey, Dan Belmont and Henry “Bip” Ralston. Eudey report­edly wrote up those rules, but the full rules have appar­ently been lost (Eudey died in 2009, and his daugh­ter Lynn reports that she has found noth­ing that old in his remain­ing papers).

Dan Drake tells us:

Yes, they were all in the Bay Area, work­ing at what­ever there was to work at in the 30s. Oddly, in those dis­mal times, finance seems to have been a bit of a growth indus­try for very bright young men. Eudey, a math­e­mati­cian, got into some finan­cial ana­lyst work and dis­cov­ered that there were no good sources for finan­cial infor­ma­tion on local gov­ern­ments in California, mak­ing it hard to pre­pare the offer­ing doc­u­ments that might con­vince Eastern bankers that there really was such a place with eco­nomic activ­ity that could even­tu­ally pay off bonds. (I recall from 1960, when I did a sum­mer stint at a muni bank­ing house, sto­ries of the ongo­ing dif­fi­cul­ties of the East Coast in believ­ing that California was good for its oblig­a­tions due to huge growth) So he started his own lit­tle com­pany to com­pile such data for sale to the busi­ness, and my father took a job there, which is how he got into the finance biz. I believe Belmont was in some finan­cial work for a long time. Ralston wound up in what’s now called bio­med­ical research.

So they were all con­ve­niently placed to go to weekly meet­ings at somebody’s house. And if one was on the wrong side of the Bay, one could always get there on the com­muter light rail sys­tem that occu­pied half the lower deck of the Bridge.

Empire players 1963 A

1963 Empire game in progress with (L to R) Peter Clark, Jim Trosper, Ron Hanks, J.D. Eveland and Lynne O’Connor. Image cour­tesy Reed College archives.

Empire was revived and meta­mor­phosed at Reed College in the fall of 1960, with main game devel­op­ment by Dan Drake (grad­u­ated 1964), J.D. Eveland (also 1964), Alan Arey and Jim Trosper. Eveland had brought with him to Reed a copy of the then-​​new game Diplomacy, and talked sev­eral peo­ple into play­ing it at his dorm. Dan Drake and Jim Borders (1963) hap­pened to wan­der by. Dan men­tioned that “his father [Stillman Drake] had played a game on a map some­thing like that that they called Empire back in the 1930s. He told us a lit­tle bit about this and we thought this sounded inter­est­ing enough that it might be worth exper­i­ment­ing with,” recalls Eveland. “So we agreed that I think it was the fol­low­ing week­end or some­thing we would sort of try to tackle a ver­sion of this, rec­og­niz­ing that we were going to sort of make up the rules as we went along. And Dan remem­bered some things about this that his father had told him and we made up some others.”

Dan’s rec­ol­lec­tion is sim­i­lar, but includes his father’s writ­ten sum­mary (which sur­vives today) of the 1938 rules:

So, in ’59–60, my fresh­man year, I encoun­tered Avalon Hill games, or rather Tactics II, which I think was the only one avail­able. That sum­mer I got a copy. (Try to imag­ine a time when one could go down­town to the city’s big depart­ment store and go to its books depart­ment, which also car­ried games, and pick up the lat­est (or only) Avalon Hill game, and that in a time when there was no inter­na­tional cult of war gamers, and this thing was pretty obscure. For $5, by the way, IIRC, but it was worth all that money.)

One evening, my father was vis­it­ing, and he saw a Risk posi­tion spread out on the card table, and remarked that it reminded him of Empire. Of what? So he described the game that he and his friends had invented in the 1930s some­time. A bit of an anti-​​military game, in which armies were expen­sive and slow and clumsy and com­pletely destruc­tive. A few days after that, he typed up the rules from memory.…

So, when I got back for fall semes­ter 1960, I was look­ing for Risk play­ers or what­ever, to try to set up an Empire game. Walking past Chittick one evening, I saw some peo­ple hud­dled around some­thing that turned out to be Diplomacy (which I’d never heard of). That was my intro­duc­tion to JD, Al Wood, and I for­get who else.

So, we put these rules to use one Sunday after­noon, and played a few games, a few hours each, over a num­ber of weeks, and things sort of [grew].

There were not a lot of other strat­egy and wargames for grown-​​ups avail­able at the time, but the stu­dents bor­rowed ideas from a num­ber of other sources. The ini­tial com­bat results table and much of the com­bat sys­tem was bor­rowed from Tactics II (mak­ing com­bat sig­nif­i­cantly less oblit­er­a­tive than the 1938 game, but still bloody enough that it was usu­ally avoided), while the nego­ti­a­tions and lack of for­mal rules on diplo­macy and agree­ments owed much to Diplomacy and Risk. A unique fea­ture of the game, lost in some later ver­sions, was that in addi­tion to the national gov­ern­ments that were more-​​or-​​less syn­ony­mous with the play­ers, there could be cor­po­ra­tions with inde­pen­dent exis­tence, and the players/​governments could own stock in those cor­po­ra­tions. This last con­cept was bor­rowed from a Monopoly vari­ant invented by Eveland, known as “Corporation Monopoly.”

Also unique to Empire was the free­wheel­ing nature of the game itself, and the fact that while com­bat was pos­si­ble and detailed, it was nei­ther nec­es­sary nor the focus of the game. Eveland comments:

I go out of my way to avoid being in com­pet­i­tive sit­u­a­tions. I don’t like win/​lose sit­u­a­tions and I have a vis­ceral aver­sion to that. And so I tend—when I tended to cre­ate games and to arrange games I tended to find games that didn’t lend them­selves to win­ning and losing.

The nice thing about Empire was it would go on long enough that you couldn’t fig­ure out who was win­ning or who’s lost (laughs) and I sort of always when I was think­ing of ways to expand the game I was always think­ing of ways to make it less likely that you could tell when any­one was win­ning or los­ing. Not that peo­ple didn’t go up or down or not that there weren’t plays that you scored off of other peo­ple, but that the game itself became an exer­cise in art rather than the outcome.

And it was the process of the game that—at the end of the term there was usu­ally a debate of a cou­ple hours as to who was in bet­ter posi­tion and who was going to do what, but sel­dom any— there was never any need to come to a par­tic­u­lar con­sen­sus. And I think this is one of the things that I—at least this lasted as phi­los­o­phy of the game as long as I was involved with it. I have no idea if that changed later on but I was able to impose in a sense I think my ethos of non-​​competition into this. It’s not non-​​competition pre­cisely.  It’s de-​​emphasis on win­ning if you will….

In a sense the game was about telling a story. It was about devel­op­ing a much—well, everything’s about sto­ries ulti­mately, but this was really a game in which the story was the impor­tant part. You devel­oped your story and every­body would cre­ate their own coun­try with its own iden­tity. And part of the plea­sure of the game was cre­at­ing the back story for your coun­tries and why they would be inter­est­ing and why they were doing the things that they were doing. And peo­ple spent a great deal of time try­ing to fig­ure out appro­pri­ate back sto­ries that would rein­force these.  And again points were awarded for cre­ativ­ity if you will.

It became a very engag­ing kind of thing. It became cer­tainly a major com­po­nent of iden­tity for myself and sev­eral other peo­ple for a cou­ple of years and it was regarded by the greater cam­pus as a phe­nom­e­non.

At first the game was only played syn­chro­nously, which is to say when every­one was present at once. But after a year and a half, they started hav­ing more extended games, in which the board would be left set up in the mid­dle of the Winch (dorm/​residence) social room, and they’d come back to play more. At this point it rapidly became an asyn­chro­nous game, in which peo­ple would indi­vid­u­ally come to play their turns one at a time. When some­body fin­ished their turn, they would take the dragon turn marker fig­ure and leave it on the map­board on the coun­try of the next player, to indi­cate it was their turn.

Reed College Empire play­ers of the early 1960s included Jim Kahan (’64), Ron Hanks (’64), T. Nicolaus “Nick” Tideman (’65), Tony Wannier (’66?), Peter Clark (’67), Lynne O’Connor (’67), Emerson Mitchell and Heather Rohde. Because the Winch social room was a major cen­ter of cam­pus activ­ity, and highly vis­i­ble (from a major cam­pus walk­way artery), dur­ing the year or two it was hosted there, the game itself became well known on cam­pus. “it was impos­si­ble not to know we existed,” writes Emerson Mitchell. Indeed, that same promi­nence helped draw him in:

The first few times I saw Empire I was fas­ci­nated by the view thru the win­dow into the end of the old dorm block as I walked to Elliot Hall from Foster/​Schultz.

I observed it when­ever I could, and hung around that dorm room when­ever I could. Since the game itself lasts at least a semes­ter, I had to wait and ask to get into a game as it started.

Empire even helped him meet his future wife, as he explains:

My wife learned my name watch­ing us play in Foster/​Scholz social hall.  I had noticed her watch­ing but when she said “Emerson, you are beau­ti­ful” I was strid­ing down the hill with my cape and long hair blow­ing in the wind, I decided I had to get a date with this girl!  I did, and by the next june we were recit­ing wed­ding vows.  40th anniver­sary is June 12! [2011—ed.]

Over the sum­mer of 1962, while work­ing a sum­mer job at the University of Michigan, J.D. Eveland built a set of sev­eral thou­sand cus­tom pieces for the game, cut from a soft wood, glued together, and painted in var­i­ous player col­ors. The cus­tom pieces included con­struc­tion machines, planes, mul­ti­ple ship types, and tanks. Eveland housed these in a sim­i­larly custom-​​built wooden shelf unit with small plas­tic draw­ers. Besides the cus­tom pieces, the game made use of stock cer­tifi­cates bor­rowed from some other game, 172 scale plas­tic sol­diers, small toy vehi­cles and other bits. The cus­tom box and some of the pieces still sur­vive in the Reed College archives, hav­ing recently been res­cued from the base­ment of one of the dorms.

Not all the home­made pieces were suc­cess­ful. Mitchell says “One of the types was small cubes from a kind of eraser that tended to stick together and even­tu­ally dis­solved the drawer they belonged in!”

Resource allo­ca­tions on the first map were done based on real-​​world resources at the time. Interestingly, this gave a huge edge to play­ers start­ing in North America. For the sec­ond game, play­ers were pro­hib­ited from start­ing in North America proper, but this just became a race to take over North America instead. This led to the cre­ation of the first game map­board to use a map of an imag­i­nary world.

The 1960 game map­board used a sim­ple square grid, like chess or Tactics II (or the 1938 ver­sion), but with more squares. This was replaced by a map using hexa­gons (“hexes”), but that was hard to draw. Further maps used rows of off­set squares, equiv­a­lent to hexes but much eas­ier to draw. This offset-​​squares approach, with 1″ squares and a 42″ x 72″ board, was in use by 1964 and remained the stan­dard thereafter.

Even by the end of Drake and Eveland’s time at Reed in the sum­mer of 1964, the rules had not yet been writ­ten up as a sin­gle coher­ent doc­u­ment, there were just the com­bat results table (bor­rowed from Tactics II) and a sin­gle page of revised eco­nomic rules they had come up with part-​​way through their time at Reed. “The rules were just sort of known,” says Jim Kahan, one of the orig­i­nal play­ers. “It wasn’t writ­ten down, it wasn’t dis­cussed. There was no arbi­tra­tor. There was no per­son. Any con­tentious deci­sion had to be nego­ti­ated. If there was a bat­tle, it had to be pub­licly wit­nessed because the tac­tics, the out­comes of bat­tles were deter­mined by the roll of [the] dice.”

Empire was actively devel­oped through the 1960s and 1970s, and the rules were fur­ther for­mal­ized. Andrew Nisbet (’73) was the long-​​time head of the “Empire Association,” even after he was no longer a stu­dent, and orga­nized the game for years. He played when he arrived at Reed in 1967, assem­bled the first real rule­book for the game almost from scratch in 1969, and went through sev­eral fur­ther rewrites and expan­sions of the writ­ten rules until his last com­pleted ver­sion in 1976 (with minor addi­tions thereafter).

[Note: This sec­tion needs a lot of work yet. Ideally cov­er­age of the ’67-​​80s period could have the same rich­ness as the early ’60s.]

My own (Thomas Phinney’s) reminiscences:

I never saw Empire being played while I was a stu­dent at Reed, in the fall of 1983, but some­body in the gam­ing club gave me a copy of Nisbet’s 1976 rules and record sheets. In par­tic­u­lar I never saw a board, which would have given me guid­ance on some impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tions such as den­sity and place­ment of resource spaces on the board.

Years later (1990−91) I retyped the rules and record sheets in Microsoft Word. I made minor changes to the game, mostly a few clar­i­fi­ca­tions and adding a glos­sary of terms, as well as a more ques­tion­able intro­duc­tory sec­tion. This ver­sion of the rules still exists in hard copy and as a rea­son­ably “clean” dig­i­tal ver­sion (an OCR’d scan to PDF). I also cre­ated one or two maps from scratch.

I played twice with friends in multi-​​month games. Even with­out know­ing the game’s lore, phi­los­o­phy and his­tory, some­thing about it, and per­haps us, pro­moted the story-​​telling aspect of the game. I still have sev­eral issues of the “national news­pa­per” I cre­ated for the coun­try I was play­ing in one of our games.

I later restruc­tured my vari­ant of the rules, and started adding a few optional rules. Since get­ting in touch with orig­i­nal Empire play­ers in 2011, and learn­ing more about the game, I have embarked on fur­ther revi­sion and tweak­ing, and am work­ing on incor­po­rat­ing all the sur­viv­ing rules change peti­tions, and bring­ing the rules back a bit closer to their origins.

Empire Artifacts

At one point the game maps, pieces and acces­sories were held at a Reed stu­dent house known as “The Consulate” (so named for its con­cen­tra­tion of Empire play­ers, we are told). After that house stopped being a cen­ter of Empire activism, Nisbet and friends res­cued the Empire mate­ri­als from the base­ment, and car­ried them, table and all, to the Foster-​​Scholz dor­mi­tory, where they remained for sev­eral years.

Over time, the usage of pieces ver­sus records in Empire changed sig­nif­i­cantly. In the late 1960s, there were pieces for every­thing in Empire, includ­ing even some immo­bile things such as fac­to­ries. Of course, a city held too many things to keep them all in one space on the board, so play­ers used a set of egg car­tons to con­tain the con­tents of all the cities. You could take them out as needed dur­ing the turn, and at the end of the turn you would dump all your city con­tents back into them.

Eventually records reduced the need for hav­ing quite so many pieces, and keep­ing so many on the board. City sheets tracked every­thing in a city at the end of the turn, and so did away with the egg car­tons. Had-​​Used-​​Produced (HUP) sheets allowed you to track what you built. That being said, there were still pieces being used all the way up to the end of the clas­sic Empire period (the mid-​​1980s), but by then play­ers just pulled pieces out of a box, used them dur­ing their turn to fig­ure out their moves, and then put them away after updat­ing their record sheets at the end of the turn.

One of the lim­it­ing fac­tors within the game was the avail­abil­ity of worker units (known as “coolies”) to move key resources from their pro­duc­tion sites to fac­to­ries and between fac­to­ries. The intri­cate move­ments with work­ers mov­ing things from one place to another and free work­ers com­ing back to replace them became known as “coolie shuf­fles.” Whether because of com­plex­ity or temp­ta­tion to cheat (in the face of lim­ited numbers/​locations of work­ers), some play­ers would end up doing shuf­fles that were not in fact pos­si­ble within the rules. “Checking people’s coolie shuf­fles became a rit­ual pas­time,” says Nisbet. If look­ing at another player’s records revealed a shuf­fle that seemed implau­si­ble, if you were not your­self a vet­eran player, doing such check­ing involved get­ting an expe­ri­enced player to see if they could come up with a way to repli­cate the same change from start­ing posi­tion to an end­ing posi­tion for the turn. If not, a chal­lenge might be made to the player’s records for them to demon­strate how they got from their start­ing point to their end­ing point for that turn.

Where are they now?

Cecilia Eng and Andrew Nisbet setting up a game of Tac 5

Cecilia Eng and Andrew Nisbet set­ting up a game of Tac 5

Setting up a game of Tac 5 (using Empire map and pieces)

Setting up a game of Tac 5 (using Empire map and pieces)

Andrew Nisbet surveys an Empire map and pieces being set up to play Tac 5 (March 2011 at the GameStorm convention in Vancouver, WA)

Andrew Nisbet sur­veys an Empire map and pieces being set up to play Tac 5 (March 2011 at the GameStorm con­ven­tion in Vancouver, WA)

Setting up Tac 5

Setting up Tac 5

Setting up Tac 5

Setting up Tac 5

Currently, the sur­viv­ing orig­i­nal maps (scans of most are avail­able) are held less than a block from the Reed cam­pus, at the home/​office of McCullough Research, by Empire player and Reedie Robert McCullough. He, Nisbet and oth­ers occa­sion­ally use the Empire maps to play a game they call Tac 5, which is based on the com­bat por­tion of the Empire rules. They usu­ally use reprinted ver­sions of the 1970s maps rather than the orig­i­nals, along with the 1970s pieces.

The tat­tered green binder is still held by Andrew Nisbet. What is left of the orig­i­nal 1960s pieces are held at the Reed College archives, in the base­ment of the library. The table from the Winch social room some­how got com­man­deered and stayed with the game, wher­ever it migrated, and is cur­rently held by the Association of Reed Gamers (ARG), in the Old Dorm Block base­ment “dungeon.”

Beside and below are pho­tos of Tac 5 being set up for a game at the GameStorm con­ven­tion, in March 2011, in Vancouver, Washington (which is essen­tially a large sub­urb of Portland, Oregon).

Stillman Drake (1910−93) quit his suc­cess­ful career in finance in favor of a sec­ond career as a sci­ence his­to­rian (start­ing in 1967), and was best known as the world’s great­est expert on Galileo, who won numer­ous awards.

Mark Wrede Eudey (1912−2009) got a PhD in math­e­mat­ics from UC Berkeley, and worked for Cal Municipal Statistics for many years. Serving with the US Air Force in World War 2, he took a spe­cial assign­ment that required some­one who could both para­chute and knew sta­tis­tics: he was dropped behind enemy lines and did sta­tis­ti­cal analy­sis of the effec­tive­ness of high alti­tude bomb­ing in Germany (not as effec­tive as the Allies had hoped). Eudey and Bip Ralson were avid chess play­ers, who co-​​founded (with Guthrie McClain) the California Chess Reporter pub­li­ca­tion in the sum­mer of 1951.

Henry James “Bip” Ralston was a research phys­i­ol­o­gist, whose “research on the phys­i­ol­ogy and the mechan­ics of human walk­ing led to major improve­ments in arti­fi­cial limbs for amputees.” He died at home in San Francisco in 1993.

J.D Eveland lives in Los Angeles, where he teaches busi­ness admin­is­tra­tion and infor­ma­tion sys­tems at TUI University.

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2 Responses to Detailed History

  1. johnwerneken says:

    What might you know about my dear friend Alan L Arey, for­mer room mate, whom I have not seen in 40 years…

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