On Stranger Tides: An Interview with Dr. Peter Turcan

As long as the Mediterranean was the center of the Western Civilization, the oar-powered galley was the dominant warship. The trireme was the major fixture in Greco-Roman time although the Romans expanded on the model. Computer gaming has overlooked this part of naval warfare until recently. Matrix Games and Turnopia are developing Mare Nostrvm, a turn-based tactical game of the period. At the same time, Dr. Peter Turcan is developing a trireme simulator, Trireme Commander, covering the same topic but from a different prospective. We contacted Dr. Turcan to find out more about his project.

Wargamer: Dr. Turcan, Tell us a bit about yourself. I noticed, for instance, you have a Commonwealth accent.

Turcan: Historically my family is from Scotland, fishermen and boat builders. Though I was born in London, I was actually brought up back in Scotland. I was sucked back into the economic engine of London after graduating, and spent some pretty fun 10 years there working on my first computer games in between occasional other employment. 10 years was enough though, and I emigrated to the USA in 1995, family in tow. At the time the geography of the Pacific Northwest appealed to me more than the history that Europe has to offer.

Wargamer: How did you get into gaming?

Turcan: Military history was one of my passions as a kid, though the first computer games I wrote were Word Mastermind and Scrabble. I don’t play a lot of games though; programming and artificial intelligence in particular are what caught my imagination.

Wargamer: I remember playing your World War I naval game in the 1990s. What was your take away from that?

Turcan: The game was Dreadnoughts – based primarily on the battles of the First World War but taking in a few surface battles of the Second World War, and earlier wars such as the Russo-Japanese war of 1904. This game caught the gaming public’s imagination – so despite its flaws was popular and talked about for years. I did feel that I managed to convey my own excitement in warships to the game itself. Following Dreadnoughts, I tried to expand it into the world of carriers – partly to engage with US history – with a game called Midway, but carrier battles from a commander’s perspective did not excite.

Wargamer: What have been doing since?

Turcan: After this period I emigrated from the UK to the USA, and took a job in Seattle. I soon took up a job offer from Microsoft. One of the high points was working on the SDK (software development kit) that expanded Flight Simulator. The “flightsim” team as they were called were a motivated development team, were great to work with. I taught myself to fly, including instrument flying, without ever setting foot anywhere near a cockpit. I documented how to expand the simulation with new gauges, aircraft, airports and other things aeronautical. I did gain some respect for commercial air traffic control, which has air traffic around the world much better thought out than I had imagined.

Another high point at Microsoft was working in the research group on an astronomy project called WorldWide Telescope, a freebie viewer of the cosmos. Here I got to work with NASA on a special release highlighting the imagery of Mars, in preparation partly for the landing of the Curiosity rover. I currently have a fun job at Amazon, saving the world through advertising and shopping.

Wargamer: You’re now developing ancient Greek galley simulator, Trireme Commander. Why did you pick that topic?

Turcan: I started tinkering with a trireme simulator many years ago, following the publishing of an Anglo-Greek project to rebuild an Athenian trireme from a good quality set of plans that were found intact. The project resulted in the trireme “Olympias” being rowed and tested by enthusiastic British and Greek crews. I felt my knowledge of the behaviour of small boats would help a lot when trying to simulate a small vessel at sea. Also we can only guess at the tactics and sequence and pace of ancient galley battles, with an accurate simulation we can have some fun testing our assumptions.

This shot from the bow shows the ship’s steering interface.

Wargamer: What will Trireme Commander cover?

Turcan: Historically, Trireme Commander covers only the period around the Battle of Salamis. The idea is that the player starts with the insulting rank of Landlubber, and has to pass a single tutorial on trireme handling. This promotes them to Cadet. A cadet has two challenges to pass: a trireme race through the training area, and a trial ram against an empty enemy vessel. Pass these two and you reach the rank of Helmsman. The first conflict is against a single damaged enemy vessel. And so on up the ranks: one on one battles, single squadron battles, then multiple squadrons, and finally multiple fleets on both sides (with the Battle of Salamis being one of these final scenarios- requiring the top rank of Admiral). Tactical complexity isn’t really in the picture till you reach the rank of Commander, and can organize your fleet into a left wing, center, and right wing, and signal each separately. For blow by blow details of all the scenarios, refer to my website.

In other words, Trireme Commander is highly educational – no compromises have been made to make it more gamesy and less historical. If you put the time in on this simulation you should really understand the handling and performance of triremes, the tactics that work and those that don’t.

Signals handle the flee.

Wargamer: In your opinion, what are the salient aspects of Trireme Commander?

Turcan: The components of the game I am most proud of are the physical simulation of a single trireme, the artificial intelligence (AI) control of the ships captains, and the AI of the fleet commanders. You should get to feel the drama, and indeed the inactivity and patience required when forming up a fleet. Drama builds up slowly, but when it comes, it is harsh.

Another aspect of the game players might enjoy is the audio – all of it original – reflecting ramming, capsizing, archery, rowing, wind, and so on. Trireme Commander was not built on top of a game engine, leaving lots of processing power for the AI and simulation, so the graphics are what they are.

Wargamer: When do you think this product will hit the market?

Turcan: In its first version it is available now, through the link from www.peterturcan.com.

Wargamer: Do you plan any add-ons for it?

Turcan: The simulation was designed to be expandable – terrain, ships, scenarios and so on. But, there is nothing currently in the works. It could be expanded easily back in time to the age of biremes and lighter vessels like penteconters, or, with more effort, forwards to the Rome/Carthage era – though this includes adding the corvus, and much more focus on grappling and boarding. There were also galley battles of sorts as far away from the Mediterranean as Scotland (local kings verses Vikings, for example, with fleets of around 16 ships or so). In theory, it could be updated all the way to the time of the Battle of Lepanto – with a heavy focus on the noise and smoke of early naval cannon. I think the answer to this, and several of your questions James is simply that it depends on the overlap of the feedback on this first version and my own abilities and curiosity.

A trireme is literally on the sharp end of another.

Wargamer: I’ve seen YouTube videos for this. Do you plan to enhance the graphics?

Turcan: I have taken this program about as far as I can, without a rewrite. For the graphics, I focused on getting accurate animation of the boats on the sea, the oars, and the rudders – so the triremes would really look like they were on the sea. With perhaps 100 triremes in view in a big battle, this would mean 100 triremes x 170 oars (17,000) would have to be animating simultaneously and smoothly. Also, there is the problem of so many combatants in view – potentially around 20,000 – and how to animate all of them. This would give a great feel for being part of a big event, but would also turn the “game” into a blunt force trauma and drowning simulator, a direction I was not interested in going. Suffice to say though I think players who like boats and are intrigued by naval history will enjoy the game, and those whose interests are elsewhere will not have the patience for it.

Wargamer: After Trireme Commander is finished, what comes next?

Turcan: What next is an open question. Whereas I love programming and logic and artificial intelligence, computer games have become intimidating projects to take on. I expect I will be swayed by the feedback on Trireme Commander, any current or future historical projects that pique my interest, and whatever direction the trade winds are blowing at the time.

Thank for your time.