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Three Moves Ahead Episode 42 – Epic Fails of Strategy Gaming

December 8th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 34 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Rob Zacny comes to the plate as a pinch hitter, but we still manage to get three original panelists together for a long discussion about strategy games gone wrong. Ascendancy, MOO3, Road to Moscow, and other favorites.

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Road to Moscow preview at IGN
Bruce’s Review of Squad Leader
Tom’s MOO3 review and Bruce’s thoughts
Tom’s review of Axis and Allies
Troy’s Diplomacy Review
Rob’s love of the old Total War games
Troy’s review of SupCom for the 360
Chris Remo’s Top 5 PC Games of 2009
Jim Rossignol on ArmA
Tom’s Review of Empire: Total War


34 Comments so far ↓

  • Aetius

    I played Ascendancy. It had a really great system of simple planetary development, and a *really* good 3D combat system based on energy budgets – what you spent your energy on determined victory.

    The AI was TERRIBLE. It didn’t even assign development slots on planets correctly, which was a very basic build-the-thing-that-matches-the-color-of-the-slot kind of thing. It was terrible at expansion.

    What really killed the game, though, was the lack of multiplayer. If it had had multiplayer it would have worked and been a minor success. I was deeply saddened by this, because so much of it was so well done, especially the combat.

  • Richard J

    I appreciate that the legal status is, to say the least, ambiguous, but is there any way of taking a look at the Road to Moscow preview version?

  • Rob Zacny

    Glad to see someone else remembers “Ascendancy”. That combat system was really cool, although mostly meaningless due to indifferent AI and the way combat was structured. I don’t remember the energy budget thing particularly well, but I do remember that maneuvers were kind of meaningless.

    Still, and I wish I’d expanded a bit more about this during the podcast, it was a rather forward-looking game. Visually and the way it handled movement and combat reminds me a lot of “Sins of a Solar Empire” while the planet management reminds me a lot of GalCiv.

    But even if there had been multiplayer (at which point you’re basically playing a turn-based “Sins”, the game was still cursed by its underdevelopment. You can’t have that short a tech tree in a 4X, and you can’t make empire management that simplistic. As you say, your only real job was to build the appropriate type of structure on the appropriate type of square. So if you found a good industrial planet, you just industrialized the hell out of it. There were no interesting options. So it would have been completely about combat which, while pretty, still didn’t amount to that much beyond blasting away.

  • Bryan Peterson

    Nice podcast guys. Really enjoyed Rob getting thrown into the mix. Good discussion.

  • Patrick

    Master of Orion 3 was a weird one.

    I do agree that it was one of those strange titles where you just sat in confusion, hoping that it would make sense and become fun. After enough playing around, you’d realize you knew what you were doing but just weren’t amused; the problem was indeed you. Not because you weren’t understanding what was happening, but rather just because each element of the game was so broken that it didn’t actually add anything to the overall picture.

    A lot of it comes down to the excuse that the developers had to scratch the “attention” points which were supposed to make it all come together. In the theory, you were only supposed to run two or three aspects of your empire a turn somewhat like Solium Infernum (move one fleet, or build a structure, or do some diplomacy while the AI handled the rest). The reason why they scrapped it was because the AI couldn’t do any of those things on its own even poorly. It would have been a buggier mess since none of the parts worked as described.

    Just a disaster and it enrages me to this day, what with having paid $80 CDN for it on release.


  • Ian Bowes (spelk)

    Enjoyed the podcast, I thought Rob made a sterling effort as stand in (I don’t know what a pinch hitter is!), and sounded like a natural part of the team.

    I was wracking my old wizened brain trying to think of strategy titles I’d played that were epic fails, and to be honest it was a struggle, because as opposed to Tom’s if he doesn’t “get a game” he thinks its down to his failings and then pursues it even more, if I hit a brick wall with a game, theres usually a whole stack of other games vying for my spare time, that I often just move on. So perhaps I don’t stay around long enough with some games to see the epic failure reveal itself?

    One recent game that does stick in my mind as being the prime example of epic failure is Stormrise. The Creative Assembly Australia’s SCIFI RTS effort that included the unique ‘verticality’ feature, whereby units could scale tall buildings or go and fight inside 3d buildings with multiple floors, or tunnels etc. The game also adopted a selection mechanic known as Whip Select(tm), which meant using your analogue thumbstick to select and jump to units, from another units perspective, rather than attempt to use the standard top down commanders view. Whip Select worked fine with just a handful of units, but later on with many many unit icons swirling around the periphery of the screen, and some overlapping, you had to master deft control of the stick to peel apart the icons and get to the unit you wanted, which just didn’t happen very well in the heat of real time combat. There were shortcuts you could use however, which made it more manageable, and it wasn’t really the Whip Select that failed the game for me.

    What nailed Stormrise into its coffin was a plethora of broken features, and glaring bugs. If I remember, you couldn’t send a unit using a move command and have them respond to enemy fire, unless you stopped them so that the enemy triggered their aggression range. A moving unit seemed to ignore enemy fire, unless you managed them. Unit representations were broken, so you had a full squad of heavy gunners (9 men, 3 batches of 3 units), and the game would only actually display 3 of them! So your visual clues for troop strength were being undermined. It was apparently code they’d left in whilst testing that when too many units were on the screen, they would consolidate the display! There were a number of other issues which hampered the game, which I can’t quite remember, but I was very involved with over at Stormrisers.com. After release, there was a promised patch by the devs, and after a long wait, they announced there would be no patch coming and the game was in its final state. Some rumours going around that Sega (I think) pulled the plug on continued development for the game because they could see it was going to be a monetary loser, and they wanted it out (even in it’s unfinished state) before the current financial year, so that it would chalk up in the previous books, and not affect the next years projections. There was some hushed about skullduggery going on anyway.

    Basically the game was rushed out unfinished, bugged, and in a shaky state – it was stacked up against Halo Wars, and then the post sales tweaking and support was dropped. Subsequently the Stormrise community died an abrupt death and the game hit the bargain shelves pronto. The real shame is that the game had a lot of potential there, even in its roughened state it was a good unit level RTS and taking units inside of buildings and using floor to floor cover was remarkable. It was pushing the boundaries of RTS games (unlike Halo Wars), and I enjoyed playing it, especially co-op against the AI with my brother. It was just let down badly by a rushed release, and loss of faith. I am still bitter about it, because I could see the greatness peeking out, but it was thoroughly stomped on. I’m afraid, the Storm wasn’t allowed to rise.

    One of my biggest regrets of a failed to release game was Stars! Supernova Genesis, the sequel to the brilliant Stars! 4X game.

  • Michael A.

    MoO3 and Diplomacy probbably top my list.

    I think Rob’s assessment of the Total War series is spot-on (sorry Troy).

  • Angry Gamer

    Oh man this was the greatest episode ever because I too played a majority of those games AND being a BIG MMO player I can identify with the segment on the Diplomacy game (played the Avalon Hill version with my buddy on his IBM 286 many times to the weeeee hours of the morning) as well as the mini game in Vanguard. Vanguard has been patched and reworked to where it is acceptable but it will never make it thanks to more polished games that do not include Brad’s name on them

    Im still on the fence with Empire Total War, but I will agree I cannot stand that 3D map crap, much the same reason I prefer to this day Diablo 2 over games like Torchlight.

    keep it simple stupid, gameplay > flashy looks

  • One Move Behind | RobZacny.com

    […] Monday night I got a message from Troy Goodfellow that he was going to be short 2 panelists for the Three Moves Ahead podcast, and he would like me to step in if possible. The topic was epic failures in strategy gaming. I […]

  • Morkilus

    I know you weren’t really focusing on vaporware, but Jagged Alliance has got to be one of the most mismanaged IPs in strategy gaming history. After Master of Orion, of course.

  • R Simmon

    Sid Meier’s Railroads!

    It fits all the criteria: excellent developer, hyped, and a great pedigree. I was anticipating Railroads! because RT 2 and 3 had finicky track layout with no undo, and I always ended up with an 8% grade somewhere. Unfortunately in Railroads! (does it really need an exclamation point?) the maps were *tiny* and the AI was dreadful: I built a circular track which should have paid off big time, but the train kept reversing direction halfway around the track. Ugh.

  • mutait

    Yeah, Morkilus. I remember getting so excited about all these screenshots and gameplay clips of Jagged Alliance 3D, made with an updated Silent Storm Engine and with a story by Shawn Ling. Then nada. A definite epic failure to release. I’ve always been disappointed that no one’s been able to make a decent updated X-Com or Jagged Alliance aside from a few dodgy copycats. There’s no viable market for such games these days, I suppose.

    And I have to side with Troy on Empire: TW. Flaws and CA’s idiocy aside, that game’s given me a lot more enjoyable hours than many other “flawless” releases I could mention. Same with Arma 2. Frustrating but crazy, crazy, crazy fun when everything goes right.

  • Nikolaj

    MoO3 is definitely one of the biggest gaming disappointments I’ve experienced. I looked forward to that game for years and bought it on release. I remember asking a reviewer from a Danish magazine whether it could really be true that the game was crap, or if I was overlooking something. He answered that he wasn’t sure, but suspected that it might in fact be a bad game. IIRC, he didn’t totally crucify it in his review, though.

    I don’t remember Ascendancy as a bad game, though, and certainly wouldn’t call it an epic fail. I just never found it particularly enjoyable, but not really disappointing either. There are plenty of mediocre 4x space games out there, and as far as I’m concerned, Ascendancy is just another one of those.

    As for really poor 4x space games, I think Spaceward Ho! deserves a mention, although I know several people who disagree with me. Maybe they never paid full price for it…

    Anyway, to really fail epically I think a game has to fail to live up to people’s expectations in a big way. I guess this usually only happens when a franchise is being re-invented in a disastrous way, like MoO3, or if the publisher hypes the game and then fail to live up to it’s own hype, like Republic. I remember reading an interview with a developer/publisher guy once, where he said that hype has to be handled carefully, because there’s a point at which the company may lose control over it, and where it can actually end up hurting the sales. I don’t recall where I read it, though.

    Anyway, great show, as usual. :)

  • Skyrider68

    Three comments:

    1) I was impressed by Zacny’s debut on TMA. He carried himself well as a guest panelist. Assuming that he really isn’t 12 years old and actually knows a thing or three about strategy games on the PC, I think he’d make a nice addition to your group of panelists, in view of the fact you often can’t have the same 4 guys every week.

    2) Zacny hit the nail on the head with his contribution of Star Wars Rebellion to the buffet table. I got burned on that game myself–such expectation with the SW nostalgia, plus the fact that it was actually going to be a strategy game as opposed to another space sim/shoot-em-up. What a MASSIVE disappointment it was. I cannot say I experienced even a smidgen of satisfaction from that game, despite the SW theme.

    3) Troy: I *so* wanted to hear some commentary about Sid Meier’s Railroads when I heard you mention it at show’s end. This game game is another rare instance of my getting burned in PC gaming. Wasn’t it a bit of shocker, given the attachment of the prestigious “Sid Meier” name to it? Although there was no shortage of reviews that called out its oversimplified gameplay (in view of its heritage) and the annoyances inherent in something as basic as track laying, it seems like Firaxis swiftly swept this one under the carpet! I think we the gaming populace have been very spoiled by the talent of Sid Meier and the many excellent games he has created, but when an “oops” like SMRR comes along, we almost can’t believe what has happened. If you get a chance to toss in a comment on the show or the blog, I’d be interested to hear the panelists’ thoughts on that game.

  • Jerry

    I imagine Atari obtained the IP for Master of Orion 3 through the labyrinth of acquisitions that Microprose went through.

    Alan Emrich, and some of the other people involved in the design at Quicksilver had been involved in the some of the earlier iterations of the series.

    From what I can tell at some point Atari put a halt to development and forced Quicksilver to yank a bunch of things out because it wasn’t working and they didn’t like where it was going. Then they ended up pulling funding for development, and Quicksilver tried to fund the rest of development themselves, but they must have run out of $ and released it in the state it was in. There are patches and mods available, and people are still playing it after all of these years. I’ve seen a few people mention they still play it in the Armada 2526 forums over at matrixgames.com. It was doomed to failure with the way it was released in, but the fact it was so different than what people were expecting from a MOO game didn’t help it.

    Sid Meier’s Railroads is another game that didn’t live up to the expectations made for it. They repeatedly marketed it as the Railroad Tycoon series returning home, and it was nothing like what the fans of the Railroad Tycoon series were expecting.

  • Jerry

    Wargaming vaporware:

    World in Flames from Matrix Games
    Combined Arms from Matrix Games
    Combat Leader – Cross of Iron from Matrix Games

    Do you guys think if Master of Orion was a game released today with adequate graphics, but the exact same game design mechanics that it would still be a Hall of Fame game? People keep clamoring for a new version of Master of Orion, X-COM, and Master of Magic. I wonder if it is just nostalgia for times past, or if they would really be happy if the same game came out with updated graphics. What was it about the mid-90s that allowed those 3 games to flourish, but no one has been able to successfully remake them since. Was it just a sweet spot for technology and game design where you could start to do interesting things and the technology stopped you from trying to go overboard with complexity?

  • Kingdaddy

    Great episode. I

  • Kingdaddy

    [Whoops, hit submit too fast.]

    I don’t think Empire Total War deserves any mercy. There’s nothing to recommend about a game that won’t run. I got suckered into buying it after hearing about the “technical issues,” only to discover that the “issues” render the game unplayable. Crashes, crashes, crashes, with no end in sight, since the developer isn’t going to issue any further patches. They’ve given up so that they can move on to their next game.

    I’m willing to have an open mind about a game, especially if it’s from a series like TW that, overall, has done a pretty good job. But there is absolutely nothing to recommend about a game that a substantial number of buyers will not be able to run, period. After some research, after my much-regretted purchase, it seems that Creative Assembly cannot even tell its customers which system configurations won’t work. And no, I don’t normally expect to spend the hours researching the actual scale of problems a game might have.

    Meanwhile, games that have the same or greater complexity, code-wise, run just fine. I can’t imagine the little men marching around the 3D map for ETW pose greater coding challenges than the hyper-detailed, stunningly animated Arkham Asylum. Yet, while I’m just moving an army from point A to point B on the ETW campaign map, the software has a stroke and dies. Repeatedly.

    I don’t recall being as angry about a game–or, to be more accurate, its developer, Creative Assembly, and its mass-market publisher, Sega. I work in the technology industry, so I’m understanding about unexpected bugs and platform issues that surface after release. However, if you haven’t caught them before the release–arguably still your fault, depending on how rigorous you were about testing–you still fix the problems after the release. Especially if retailers are still carrying the game, no idea which configurations don’t work (something they should know by now), and no warnings to the consumer.

    Incidentally, bug/issue tracking is now mastered to the point that many software companies are willing to make their known bugs visible to the general public. And they are able to tell their customers which of these known issues has been fixed, and will be fixed. It boggles the mind that any company, especially one in the business as long as Creative Assembly, can’t or won’t identify the complete list of known issues, and then explain how it’s working through the showstoppers.

    No reviewer should say that there’s something worthwhile in the game, if the game fundamentally will not work on many customers’ PCs. This level of problem erases any value the game might have had. No one says, “Yeah, this car gets fantastic mileage, but 15% of the time, it bursts into flames and the engine falls out while you’re driving at normal speeds.”

  • James Allen

    I can only review how a game works on my computer, so I am hesitant to drop down a score because of technical issues unless I see scores of reports on a forum, or receive some feedback from the developer about it.

  • Kingdaddy

    James, you can see the complaints about the continued crashes here:


  • Rob Zacny

    Kingdaddy, you have had more technical problems with this game than anyone I know. I doubt most reviewers would have encountered anything like these problems, and since there are few dedicated PC mags that have a wide variety of system configs lying around the office, their chances of reproducing your errors are slimmer still.

    Judging by my experience, ETW had fewer glitches and was more stable out of the box than either Rome or Medieval II. Without knowing the percentage of total users who have been unable to run the game, I’m tempted to say you’re an outlier.

    Which sucks. I’ve been there. I went through things with WoW at release that frankly astonish me. A bunch of people on the support forums had the exact same problem, but as far as I know Blizzard never resolved the problem. Instead, everyone was forced to use a really horrible, cumbersome workaround that a user discovered.

    But should reviewers have said, “This game is complete crap because a few hundred users have experienced a showstopping bug, and Blizzard has ignored them?” That seems extreme. Reviewers should highlight the issue if they know about it, but few ever will, since the number of affected users is so small.

  • Don

    Very enjoyable podcast. The last part where E:TW and Arma 2 were discussed was the part where I had some personal experience as I never got into Master of Orion and the other games discussed. Those two make an interesting comparison. E:TW I bought on release as I’d enjoyed it’s predecessors and, although Med2 had many flaws at the strategic/diplomatic level, I had hoped that in Empire CA would have moved on. Instead they’d made little effort and as the battlefield experience was less fun – due to the greater unformity of troops within and between nations – the end result was they aimed for mediocrity and failed to achieve it.

    Arma 2, on the other hand, I bought some while after it’s release. I knew it would still be buggy and it was, but the most of the game destroying bugs had been resolved. I found it hugely enjoyable, bugs and all, they aimed very high and missed but still produced an interesting game. Which is why if an Arma 3 rolls into view I’ll be looking out for it whilst it seems unlikely that Napoleon:TW will grab my attention.

  • Warren

    Another great episode.

    MOO3. I mourn the loss of the imaginary masterpiece your previews conjured. Sigh.

    Outpost. I mourn the loss that your promised feature lists ignited in my hopes, only to be cruelly and coldly dashed when reading the delivered feature list. Sigh.

    Ascendancy. Oh the glory of the presentation. Oh the embarrassment as the Wizard behind the cloak was revealed to be oh so brain-dead. RIP.

    E:TW. I had such hopes for you. A fine pedigree. A time period both influential and glorious. A visage so graceful and endearing. You seemed to care, adding in features we’d so ardently asked for! Naval Combat! You had the strategy gaming world at you feet. Then we saw it. Those feet were made of clay. That once noble visage now sneered at us. The problem wasn’t your mud-caked feet, you told us, it was us for not loving you enough to have bought you golden slippers before you even got here. Just buy some DLC you said. You would be back in a jiffy, with all the promises fulfilled, even Multiplayer! Sure we saw you with Napoleon over there and wondered. But you promised us we were imaging things. It was just an head start on the next great thing. You were only doing for us, you cried. But your ways were exposed for the loving dribs and drabs of a DLC gold-digger in the end. Sigh.

  • cheeba

    Excellent podcast this week, and a theme that could have easily filled another hour.

    I’m actually a little amazed that no-one so far has mentioned Combat Mission: Shock Force. Maybe I feel a bit stronger about it than most because it was one of the few times I actually went ahead and pre-ordered something at full price, but maaaan. Even after all the patches, I still find it too fundamentally flawed to hold my attention at all.

  • James Allen

    Can you believe those websites that gave CMSF a high score? Man, what morons!

  • Kingdaddy

    “But should reviewers have said, “This game is complete crap because a few hundred users have experienced a showstopping bug, and Blizzard has ignored them?” That seems extreme. Reviewers should highlight the issue if they know about it, but few ever will, since the number of affected users is so small.”

    Where then do you draw the line? Or is it OK for a game to get a good review, even if some substantial number of buyers–25%? 50%? 75%–have horrible technical issues with it?

    And again, let me emphasize, I’m pretty patient with technical issues. I’ve been in the software industry for many years, so I know the challenges with platform compatibility, weird system configurations, etc.

  • Railick

    I actually enjoyed MOO3 when it came out (having been a fan of MOO but not MOO2) Though to be honest I played it while watching the live news broadcast of the opening days of the Iraq War whilst I played it. Maybe having something horrible constantly going on in the back ground distracted me from how bad MOO3 was? I have no idea though I have to admit the AI was very passive and did not offer me a challenge but I hardly noticed as most of the time I was glued to the TV watching Iraq explodes O.o (thats right. MOO3 released Feb 25 2003, Iraq War started March 20th right about when I picked up the game ;P)

  • Sliver

    E:TW’s faceplant may have been the highest-profile faceplant of the year. Though I suppose you have to admire Mike Simpson’s candor in addressing some of the primary problems with the game at the Total War blog
    it doesn’t make me feel any better for having invested in the game.
    But for me, the epic fail of the year in strategy gaming was Hearts of Iron III. I suppose one should just expect a flawed initial product (which gets better, eventually, after multiple patches and a couple of expansion packs) from Paradox, but some of the game’s flaws are so egregious (incorrect geography, for a start) that one wonders how they spent those months after they opened the game up for playtesting before they released it. Check the Paradox forums for a look at how pleased Paradox grognards are with the product, three patches in, no less. And the matter wasn’t helped by the mostly positive reviews which seemed to somehow miss the many gameplay snafus. I spent the bigger part of the last 5 years over various flawed but enjoyably playable versions of HoI II and its revisions. HoI III has quite a way to go before I waste any more time with it, and this is one Paradox fan who won’t get fooled into buying an initial release again. Wake me when the expansion comes out, or maybe when I can pick it up at Big Lots for $6.

  • Railick

    Agreed with Silver I was surprised no one mentioned Hearts of Iron 3 in the podcast, but you can only fit so much in an hour.

    Actually enjoy Hearts of Iron 3 but I’m not a Paradox grognard so I can make the case that I’m ignorant of what I’m missing out on. I don’t know geography very well nor do I know off the top of my head historically correct orders of battle down to the month. I enjoy the game, it is fun to play and works as far as I can tell, but there has been a large number of fans who are not so ignorant are not so happy.
    Also I wanted to say thanks for the Podcast I got lucky finding this I had no idea such a high quality podcast about strategy games existed!

  • dbaumgart

    Haven’t commented before, just have to say that I love these podcasts and have been following them from the start.

    I enjoyed this show in particular.
    I remember being so excited about MOO3 after being a huge fan of 1 and 2, going out to the store with a friend on the day it came out, buying two copies, and coming home to play it multiplayer. The rest of the evening was a filled with a creeping sense of disappointment and embarrassment as we struggled to engage with the game.
    We packed up at the end of the night and never talked about MOO3 again.

    And with the talk of Paradox’s games, how about Europa Universalis: Rome? I think I played it for a week before I was overcome by the sense that there was barely anything at all to the game. It looks like with an expansion they turned it more toward Crusader Kings with expanded character shenanigans, but by that point I was lost on the idea of spending more money on the game. I suppose EU:Rome was too small and is being too quickly forgotten to be considered an ‘epic’ fail. Maybe it’s just a regular-style fail.

  • Railick

    EU:Rome with the expansion pack offers a lot more (it is more about managing your own country and less about taking over the entire world with more info about your characters and their lives) EU:Rome is like a combo of Crusader Kings and EU:3. For me it totally works but I can also see your point there isn’t really much there if you don’t enjoy the Crusader King aspects.

  • Hal

    Oh no! Star Wars Rebellion is one of my all time favorite games. I still pull it out once a year and have a play through. I love the SW theme, I love reading up on the new characters once they get recruited, look at the stats on new ships coming out of R&D, love invading Coruscant. Rebel troops have taken the palace!

    There are so many things that I enjoy. The space race. Expanding, exploring new systems on the rim, finding the good planets with large production capacities. Battling with the Empire (if playing Rebels) for control of the core systems. Building shipyards and construction yards as fast as I can, pumping out X-wings and capital ships.

    Sending my characters on missions to abduct, sabotage, recruit and the all important diplomacy missions. The dread and frustration of hearing that Han Solo has been captured while performing a daring mission on a heavily fortified planet, never gets old.

    And lackluster tactical space battles wasn’t a let down for me since I’m much more comfortable on the Galactic overview map.

    Of course it is flawed. The biggest issues for me would be: 1. The immense amount of mouse clicking needed to play the game is a sure way of getting a hand cramp. 2. The AI isn’t smart enough. 3. It’s too easy. Even playing on max difficulty and letting the game run uninterrupted for 500 days before starting myself, I still manage to win without problems.

    And it was developed by Coolhand Interactive.

  • Jorune

    (I know, a little late).

    At the end of the podcast, you mention that you didn’t have time to talk about Sid Meier’s Railroads as an epic fail. I love this game. I bought a second copy for my son so we could play over the internet.

    I tried to figure out what was bad about it and realized that, having never played any of the other ‘railroad’ games but knowing their complexity, this was probably a simplified version of them (some may say dumbed down). this game appeared to me to be a PC boardgame. And not one of those boardgame ports to the pc, but more in line of how to make a pc game play more like a boardgame. Simple rules with good decision making.

    It was mentioned by Tom I believe, that some games are Epic Fails because they just suck, but others are simply because the game isn’t what the player wants it to be.

    What, Troy, did you dislike about it?

  • Jorune

    Also, don’t think it was mentioned, but at the time MOO3’s nickname was ‘spreadsheets in space.’