D. Ezra Sidran grew up playing Avalon Hill’s tabletop board wargames. Like a lot of ‘grognards’ (slang for wargamer, derived from the French word for ‘grumbler’ which is how Napoleon’s Old Guard referred to themselves), Ezra found himself with the constant problem of finding fellow local wargamers to play against. When the first home computers came out in the 1980’s, he knew they would be the solution.
Ezra first got the idea that 3D terrain could be generated on a home computer when he saw a science show on TV, called NOVA. This particular edition featured computers plotting 3D mathematical functions.
Ezra returned to college and received a degree in computer animation in 1985. By the time he had graduated, he had already spent six months creating what would these days be called a “proof of concept” program on the 48k Apple //e computer. This program demonstrated a 3D terrain with simple unit movement and some Artificial Intelligence (AI).
Ezra sent out dozens of UMS demo disks to a wide variety of different publishers. The only company that didn’t reject UMS outright was MicroProse, owned by “Wild Bill” Stealey. On the strength of the UMS demo disk, he called Ezra at home and offered him a programmer’s job. Unfortunately, the terms of employment required that Ezra give up all rights to any games that he developed in return for an annual salary, so Ezra turned the opportunity down. However, this episode led to Ezra meeting Dr. Ed Bever who designed many of MicroProse’s strategy games (including NATO Commander, Decision in the Desert, and Crusade in Europe to name just a few). The two of them arranged to meet a few months later at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) and it was at this trade show that Ezra was introduced to Marten Davies at the Firebird booth.
Ed Bever introduced himself to Marten Davies, but Marten already knew Ed by reputation as one of the main game designers working for MicroProse. Ed then introduced Ezra as a ‘kid’ who had a hit game that ‘Wild’ Bill wouldn’t buy. Ezra gave Marten Davies a copy of the UMS demo disk, and a few days later he received a phone call from Dan Horn (a Games Producer at Firebird US). About a week later Ezra had a signed development contract.
Firebird wanted the first version of UMS to be for the Atari ST, a machine that was successful in Europe but practically unheard of in the U.S. A few days later an Atari ST arrived at Ezra’s home, along with thousands of pages of technical manuals. He had to teach himself the ‘new’ programming language C, as well as GEM (the Graphics Environment Manager that the ST used) and TOS (the Atari operating system). The ST original took about 9 months to write from start to finish.
UMS was also ported to the Commodore Amiga, the IBM PC (both by Ed Isenberg), the Apple IIGS (by Andy Kanakares) and the Apple Macintosh by Ezra himself. Slight improvements and modifications were made to each subsequent conversion. For example, the PC version had a menu of commands always available on the battlefield display, whilst the ST original used GEM style pop up windows initiated by the player. The Amiga version also had music on the loading screen, battle sound effects during the simulation and a Demonstration mode. In comparison, the ST version was silent. Basically, the later versions were a little more polished than the ST original.
Two sets of data disks were later released, covering the American Civil War (#1) and Vietnam (#2). Rainbird also eventually published the sequel, UMS II: Nations at War, but only after MicroProse had bought the label from British Telecom.
Many thanks to D. Ezra Sidran for most of the above memories!
UMS was released in the UK during the week of February 13th, 1987. It entered the sales charts straight in at number one and was later released in the U.S. and also went to number one.