Review crossposted from VGG.

The ideas for the 4X genre of games appear pretty early in computer history, with the early ‘70s computer-moderated play-by-mail game StarWeb. A number of games (that I don’t know much about, other than their existence) based on colonizing and conquering the stars appeared throughout the late ‘70s and the entire decade of the ‘80s in various small (often shareware) releases.

1980s powerhouse SSG released the first true commercial computer space 4X game in 1983 on a number of platforms, and with two further editions of the game. I first ran into RFTS on my family’s Apple II clone; I believe that was the second edition. Both me and my dad were deeply impressed by the game, and played it often, including a couple of hot-seat sessions against each other. When we finally went over to the PC platform with a 286, we quickly got a copy of the PC version of the new (1988) third edition.

It was the same game—and it wasn’t. The graphics were noticeably different, and had some odd quirks. At the same time, Third Edition added the Advanced Game as an option, and it was also quite different from the default game, with some very interesting ideas.

I would like to talk about the two versions in tandem, but my memories of the Apple II version have gotten exceedingly vague over time. So, I will just be talking about the PC-DOS version.


Opening Graphic (adjusted)

RTFS for DOS has one of the oddest control schemes I’ve ever seen. I know the Apple version was a lot better.

First of all, do remember that is from the age before mice.

At all times, there is a main menu of various functions across the bottom of the screen (which includes such important items as Next Turn, Save Game…, and Quit) is accessed with the Escape key. Once inside of a menu, it uses the expected arrow keys and Enter.

The interface uses various windows; you can tell what the active window is by the four-line bar across the top (as opposed to the two-line border). While inside of a window, the Escape key will take you its menu bar. If you want to get out of a window, you use the Delete key. To cycle through which window is active (and you can have zero active windows even while one is showing), you use the ‘-’ key.

Once you’re used to it, it works quite well, and the Status menu has some very handy reports.


The RFTS galaxy has a fixed number of 53 stars in a 23 by 34 hex grid that wraps around in both directions. There is a standard pattern for these (and a photocopyable map was included in the game with this setup), or you can choose to have a random setup for the stars (and a blank map was provided for that). Either way, the planets around the stars are random, although influenced by the star’s color. There can be from 0-3 usable worlds in a system, though zero is fairly rare.

Task force and world windows

Note that I said usable. The game doesn’t show any others, but it does give just what number in the system each world is, and it is not purely sequential. Not needed, or used for anything, but a nice little touch in a necessarily minimalist game.

Each world has a three pairs of numbers separated by a slash: population, industry, and environment. Each set is the current value followed by the maximum value. The amount of production at each planet depends on the population and social environment to a small extent, and multiplied by the available industry. Production capacity not used during a turn will be available at any planet in the next production phase, so saving up production at the home planet will help establish a colony much quicker, though there are some limits on how much can be produced at a time. Systems with enemy ships in them are interdicted, and cannot access the global bank.

The industrial limit is a hard limit, but the population limit can—and will—be exceeded, though the excess population will die off, self-limiting the growth.

The environment shows as one number over another, like with the other categories, but both can be improved. The first number, or social environment, will go up on its own, but it wise to raise it in the early days of a colony, because when it is under 40 the population of the planet will die off; this happens especially quickly under 20. When the number is over 60, the population will start to grow. The second number, or planetary environment is not a hard limit, but the social environment will want to fall back down to it. Improvements to the planetary environment are the only thing which will stay if a colony fails, so if you think that will happen, but you will be able to get more transports there, raise the planet environment as much as you can to make the second attempt easier.

Planets come in four types: Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Hostile. Generally speaking, as you go down the scale, the average industrial capacity goes up, but the planetary environment and population limits go down.


RFTS has an interesting turn structure. Production happens every other turn. So even numbered turns are just concerned with movement and colonization. (And since it will generally take a turn for the transports to get to their destination….)

Combat occurs whenever two or more players have ships at the same system. It proceeds in a number of rounds until only one player has ships left, whether through destruction, or withdrawing. Afterwards, you have the option of bombarding or invading any enemy-held planets whose system you have ships in.

Once all combats are done, a menu comes up with a list of all four players in the game. (Computer-controlled players are grayed out of course.) Selecting one and hitting Enter starts that player’s turn. On odd numbered turns, this goes straight to the production screen for one of that player’s worlds. Once that is done, it goes to the normal movement segment, where movement and colonization orders can be given.

Once all human players are done, the turn ends and there is a period of time where you can see each player’s ships showing up at systems in turn. (Since you cannot see the whole map at once, just where you focus the map at the end of your turn can be important.)


In RFTS there are six types of ships. There are scouts, which are fast, but have zero ability in combat. There are transports, which take one unit of population, and can colonize a planet, creating one unit of population there. Or, they can be used to invade a planet, and garrison it.

Invading and conquering other people’s planets, instead of just blasting away all the population and colonizing it yourself is something that’s not always seen today in 4X games. However, [i]RFTS[/i] handles it well. Transports become the garrison for the planet once the initial invasion is over. The game notes both the current and original owner, and it is possible that it will revert back to the original owner if anything happens to the garrison. And if the garrison is too small compared to the population, it will rise up and start eliminating the garrison. If the population of the planet is in trouble, all you can do is boost the social score, because all further transports landed on the planet will just add to the garrison. A further complication is that everything costs twice as much on a conquered planet. But it can be easier than eliminating the entire population, and a conquered planet can be a great source of VPs.

The other four ship types are the military ships. The game has no special abilities or anything for ships. There are merely the Mark 1, Mark 2, Mark 3, and Mark 4, and researching each improved type is all the technology there is in the game. Each one is about twice as powerful in combat and twice as expensive as the previous version, and moves faster.


Other than the opening screen, the DOS version of the game has no graphics.

Main Starfield

Now, it’s not all numbers and figures. There is a map display with twinkling stars and little ship icons. Stars with a friendly colony at them have a distinctive look, with a hollow diamond symbol. The hex grid is not explicitly shown, but the cursor wanders along the grain as you direct it with the arrow keys.

I always thought it was odd that the screen showed the full map from right to left, but only half of it up and down, especially since the cursor was oddly elongated. As a relatively simple game, I pondered exactly how it was done quite a bit as I took programming courses in college.

In the middle of my assembly language class it came clear. Assembly language is an extremely low-level programming language, one step removed from the actual 1s and 0s the computer actually operates in. This being a primitive language, and taking place before the advent of Windows 95, much of the class focused on text-mode operations, the most primitive, and easy to manipulate display mode of IBM computers. A lot of things were centering around how to block off portions of the screen, and manage text-mode ‘windows’ for display and input forms.

This was starting to seem awfully familiar. The window boxes were obviously text mode constructs. But what about the field of stars?

Then the instructor told us about how text mode saved video memory by using a shape table that held all the symbols in ROM, and was referenced by the graphics card to see how each character block should look. And that you could define a pointer to a shape table of your own, and override part of the symbol set for text mode.

The entire game was done in text mode. They had just defined a bunch of star shapes and some ship icons and displayed them, and made the stars twinkle by cycling through different characters really fast. The cursor was oddly shaped because each space on the map was a 2×2 area in text mode (so there was a position to show each side’s ship symbol in).

RFTS has no graphics. It has a font.

By the way, if you have the DOS version of RFTS and would like to see this in action, just start it up on a Windows 32-bit operating system, and force it out of full-screen mode. Windows will warn you that the program may not operate correctly in this mode. Indeed, it will become unable to redefine the shape table, and you can see the extended ASCII characters flickering by in place of the stars.

Artificial Intelligence

I got a chance to talk to one of the two main guys at SSG (I forget if it was Keating or Trout) at a con in the early ‘90s, and asked quite a few questions about RFTS in particular. The AI in many early SSG games was celebrated in the industry as very good, and RFTS in particular has a very nasty AI. Even at my best, the Veteran level AI can grind me into the dust if it is too close to me at the beginning of the game.

One of the things that makes SSG AIs nice is that the computer players do not all have a mysterious truce amongst themselves so they can pick on the human (a common AI behavior at the time). The RFTS AI players will happily fight amongst themselves, much to my relief on occasion.

According to SSG, the AI does not cheat. It’s just that good at maximizing the efficiency of all its actions. Actually, they did say that the tutorial mode AI cheats. It was the only way they could drag the AI down to the level of a first-time player. I’m not entirely sure whether the ‘no cheat’ provision applies to the Enhanced Veteran option, however.

Advanced Game

In the Third Edition, or version 3.0, SSG introduced a new mode: the Advanced Game. This was an amazing rewrite of the basic game engine.

Overall, everything got a bit more expensive. However, a planet with a high Social Environment will see it’s industrial maximum start rising, up to an eventual limit of 200. This tends to slow down some of the initial stages of the game, as a bunch of the homeworld’s budget will get eaten up by building industry up to the new maximum. Also, the population limit will also slowly rise to an eventual 100. Another early problem is that population maintenance starts costing more as the social environment gets close to 100 now.

Planetary defenses consist of two parts now. Armies, which fight invading transports, and defensive satellites which fight enemy fleets before they can bombard or invade a planet. Satellites are limited to two times the current number of garrison armies. Constructing armies comes out of the population, and can therefore limit the construction of transports.

Scouts are gone. Exploration must be done with regular ships. Instead, there is now a range limit on how far ship can go from a colony. In this case the AI does cheat, as they have a one-hex range advantage until final level of range technology, where the human range goes up by two, to catch up to the AI version.

And yes, there are now multiple technologies to research. Three in fact: Ship technology, navigation technology, and industrial technology. The last improves the industrial multiplier to production, causing large boosts to production when reached.

The fact that all planets will eventually reach the same population and industrial levels takes a certain uniqueness out of planets, but the rest of the game is a much richer experience, and I have mostly stuck with the Advanced Game ever since getting version 3 of the game.


This is the foundation upon which Master of Orion was built. This game was the standard that defined the 4X genre for over a decade. It represents an earlier model of how to do things, leaving out the tactical combat that is practically part of the definition of a 4X game today. It was at the height of its particular form, and within its realm, it does not have any particular weaknesses, and continues to be an old, well-worn, favorite of mine to this day. Something none of the modern breed of 4X games has been able to pull off.

What it lacks in features, it makes up for in simple elegance and replayability. Speed is also very good, and a complete game takes a fraction of the time that a modern 4X game takes. This is helped by the fact that the game can be set to end on a particular turn, with a winner based off of a victory point score. In fact, that is how RFTS tournaments were done at conventions back in the day. Everyone would play a 150-turn game (it would take less than an afternoon) against the AI and the highest score would win that round. I don’t play it very often these days, but I do still come back to it, decades later, and I give it a 9.0 (Excellent).