Sea Duel


  1. Slide ON/OFF switch to “ON” position. Listen to a few bars of the song “Anchors Away [sic]” and see a computer graphic of the American flag appear on the screen.

Such begins the instruction booklet for the Microvision game, Sea Duel. A few days back, I wrote about the Microvision, and reviewed the handful of games I had at the time. I figured I’d acquire the handful of remaining games, and in several months or whenever, I’d sum them all up in one more post. But then Sea Duel came in the mail. This game is such a prime example of depth in a limited system, that I feel compelled to discuss it on its own. Putting aside the hilarity of describing listening to a song and looking at a flag as one of the steps you must take to start playing, it highlights one of the immediate standout features of this game – despite having 256 pixels, a piezo buzzer, and ridiculously limited processing power and storage space, the game actually has an intro screen that shows something resembling an American flag and plays something that resembles “Anchors Aweigh”.

The game is a battle between a submarine and a destroyer. While it is not the game of Battleship (also a Milton Bradley property), I can’t help but imagine that was the inspiration – two different-sized ships operating in secret from each other on a grid. The destroyer is a 3×1 pixel vessel that dumps a 3×3 depth charge immediately adjacent to itself as its attack; the sub is a single pixel that fires a single-pixel torpedo in any direction that attacks until the edge of the screen. The game can be played two-player, or as either boat vs. the computer.

Here’s what makes the game interesting – both players secretly input up to eight commands for their boat (a command is either moving a space in any direction, or firing in any direction), and when the second player is done, the actions all play out. Actions have to be input in a certain order (for instance, your first two actions have to be movement – if you want to fire immediately, you forfeit two moves for that turn), and they’re played out in a certain order. The manual describes it as a simultaneous playback system, which isn’t entirely true, but given the limitations of the Microvision it’s still impressive.

I’ve only played against the computer thus far, and I can’t really tell what its ‘strategy’ is, though I assume it involves cheating. I imagine playing it against another human would be far more similar to playing a board game than a typical multiplayer video game. Indeed, this idea of ‘we take actions secretly and independently, and then reveal and play them out’ mechanism is present in a lot of modern board games. Programming piece movements in board games dates back at least to Richard Garfield’s 1985 RoboRally1. It would be easy to imagine Sea Duel as a board game: tokens to keep track of ammo and fuel, eight action tokens per player placed on an ordered track behind a shield, plays revealed and boats moved around on something like a Battleship board. It’s also the sort of thing that could easily be implemented as a little web puzzle, possibly even as a very naïve machine-learning playground.

Sea Duel is very involved compared to the other Microvision games I own. It’s the only one that requires more than two pages of instructions, it’s the only one with anything resembling an intro screen, and given the 16 bytes of RAM it’s just all around pretty impressive. 256 pixels put to good use.

  1. Richard Garfield is largely known for Magic: The Gathering, which I played the hell out of in middle and high school. Nowadays I rather look upon it in disdain as a cash grab, and while Wizards of the Coast is to blame for this capitalist wet dream, I unfortunately tend to have a tainted view of Garfield as well. He has designed some great games, however (and, to be fair, M:tG was at least a very clean game in the early days) including RoboRally and King of Tokyo. Garfield did succinctly defend the collectible card game genre in this very old interview with Tom Vasel, while conveniently ignoring how exploitative it is. 🤷 ↩︎