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Echo Cluster
The Official VGA Planets Newsletter
Volume 4. / Issue Number 1.
July – September 2006


Table of Contents

Editors Note: ][avok
Tidbits: Various Announcements & Sources
Site of the Quarter: ][avok
Developer Profile: ][avok Interviews…
Den of the Fox: Desert-Fox
From the Cave: Merlyn
Fan Fiction: Desert-Fox

Editors Note


Wow. Since last February I’ve been saying to myself that I was going to get this VGA Planets newsletter re-launched. The year is now more than half over and for more reasons than I care to bring up, it just hasn’t happened until now.

This is the first VGA Planets Newsletter for 2006. There hasn’t been an issue since this time last year, the 3rd Quarter of 2005. I suppose the newsletter falling through the cracks is similar to the state of VGA Planets in general. It seems more and more that the game’s hosts and players are fading away. Sites are going offline regularly. This year we’ve lost major long term hosts Battlestar Command and High Command. In August, Merlyn at thelastdomain.com had a devastating hardware failure and lost approximately 10 years worth of data including backups. As of this writing he’s probably not returning to active hosting. These aren’t the only ones.

What are the reasons for this? There are several. For starters, VGA Planets 3.0 is now 15 years old. Tim Wissman still sells it, but doesn’t really support it anymore. Tim’s wrapped up in version 4.0 these days, which we all know is a tremendous departure from the version the readers of this newsletter prefer. Third party software authors are now almost nonexistent. There are a few out there still plugging away with some utilities doing the occasional update or bug fix, but over all, there just isn’t the infusion of new idea’s and content out there to keep players interested and bring potential new people into our gaming realm. Last, and I think probably most important is that the remaining VGA Planets community in general is way to scattered and fragmented by different message forums used, languages spoken/written and continents we live on.

Do I think all is lost? No I don’t. I do however believe that a strong grass roots effort will be needed to keep the game community around for another 15 years. When a site goes down, one needs to replace it. Third party support and promotion needs to bounce back. It doesn’t have to return to the levels of its peak in the 90’s, but certainly some new host add-on’s and utilities could breathe some fresh life and zest into our games. I’ve heard people talk about them, it would be nice to see if they could be implemented. Finally, we should all take advantage of the one place we can all meet and get to know one another, the VGA Planets IRC channel on Efnet.org.

Until next time.


PHost 4.0k and 3.4m Released
New updates to PHost 4.0k and 3.4m respectively, are now available. It has been a while since the last one, and according to Stefan the new version is worth the wait. It brings new features, fixes and improvements in both the 3.x and 4.x lines.

Downloads are available at: http://phost.de/phost40k/ and http://phost.de/phost34m/

2006 Scenario Design Contest

Have you ever wanted to see what would happen if a galactic civil war erupted between different factions of the Solar Federation? Have you ever wanted to play the Mimbari from Babylon 5 or the Kilrathi from Wing Commander?  Have you ever just wanted to mix things up and play God? Then now is your chance to make it happen!

From now until September 30th, 2006 Circus-Maximus.com will be hosting its 2nd Annual Scenario Design Contest for VGA Planets. We're looking for the best custom made scenario for VGA Planets version 3.0 DOS / version 3.5 WinPlan.

For more details and the rules, visit Circus-Maximus.com

PCC 1.1.14 Released
The major new feature this time is the ability to export data into machine-readable formats. You can load these into database or spreadsheet programs to do interesting evaluations. PCC can write DBF, CSV, and tab-separated files, as well as a simple plain-text table format. You find this function on the Global Actions screen. As a by-product of this feature, PCC now also has Tab completion for field names on the console.

In addition, PCC 1.1.14 includes some fixes. One of the now fixed problems could cause PCC to lock up in movement prediction in hairy intercept situations, so everyone is recommended to upgrade.

You can get PCC 1.1.14 from the usual place: http://phost.de/~stefan/pcc.html

PDV 4.54 Phoenix Released
Fixed bugs:
! When reset planet (cancel all commands to planet) in Planet window "Player data change" flag not sets.
! New base not build in host-simulation. (found by Alex Gavriloff).
! In distr. pdv 4.53 missing pdv.dat file.
! Some minor bugs with wraparound map.
! Bug with phost-run aborting when it runs from host-sim mode with starmap zoomed. Thanks Stefan Reuther for consultation.
! Some bugs with drawing ships in zooming mode when switch to other turn.
! VCR result bug - wrong result when there is VCR from ally.

~ Optimized star connection line drawing.
~ Help system change. Navigate by: ctrl-up, ctrl-down or mouse.
~ Now ccbsim is default vcr-viewer.

New features:
+ New option (in Options window) - "Draw wormhole trace". While on - wormhole trace will always shown. By default it's off.
+ Auto apply changes draw map options (you change it, and in same time you can see how to change map view).
+ Using wormhole data for phost-turn simulation. If one of the end's of wormhole unknown, when it's set to the center of the map.

Site of the Quarter

Every quarter we give a VGA Planets website special recognition for their contribution to the community. This quarter we’ve set our eyes on Star-Port.org.

Many of you may or may not know that the VGAP Community suffered a loss last year when hurricane Katrina knocked Star-Port.org offline. Over these last few months Steve has been hard at work securing a new host, redesigning the site from scratch, and incorporating the AutoTroll system for hosting. So whether you're an old member or have never been there before, stop by and say hello, sign-up and let's welcome Steve back to the scene.

Developer Profile

This quarter we have interview Brad Doucette. Brad is the author of Overlord, a host utility for making custom scenarios. Thanks to Brad for taking the time to talk with us.

Tell us a little about yourself, and what you have been up to since last updating Overlord.

Wow, it's been a long time since I played VGAP until you contacted me for a developer's interview. I grew up in central Vermont and went to a vocational high school in Massachusetts. Now I’m retired from the military, have finished my BS degree and am now living & working down south. I worked in just about every part of the computer career field over the past 30 years.

What are your favorite computer / board games and how have they affected the development of your projects?

I grew up playing mostly role playing games. Chess, D&D, Might and Magic, etc. I learned how to tweak game stats on a Commodore 128.

Which race do you prefer to play in VGAP & why?

The Borg. My favorite tactic is to expand out in every direction. Drop a few Borg. Assimilate, then tax and mine the planet completely.

Do you have a favorite add-on when playing a game? Something that’s caught your attention and made you think, “I wish I had thought of that!

Anything by Dan and Dave.

What's your favorite Planets game memory?

Not a favorite one but a memorable one. The game lasted about 6 months with 3 or 4 turns a week. It was played by myself and 10 other co-workers. It started out as everyone against everyone until alliances started forming without the knowledge of other players. A group of them even printed a large five foot by five foot map to plot out their strategy. It really got serious for awhile. It really was a great game until players started accusing other players of cheating, yelling at each other, saying they would quit. I really don't remember who won, it got ugly during the last few turns and the game just stopped.

What specifically inspired you? What were the biggest influences?

I got tired of the standard game setups. Overlord allowed the game host to create just about any kind of scenario.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome due to VGAP's mechanics / limitations while working on your projects?

The hardest part was breaking apart the VGAP and Add-ons data files to determine what bits and bytes went to. I would make a few changes using a hex-editor, run planets, then see what the change did (build an engine, move a ship, tax the colonists, etc).

Were there things that you wished you had added to Overlord?

I never really finished the star map part of Overlord the way I wanted it to work.

What do you think are your most important accomplishments to VGAP and why?

That my utility improved game play for everyone.

In this time of graphically intense PC games, what do you think it is about VGAP that has people still playing a PBEM game that came out in 1991?

Simple concept, playing against other people, can be played many times with each game being completely different

In your opinion, what are the key ingredients that a game of this type should have?

VGAP is like multiple chess games going on at the same time.

How has the internet affected the expansion of your programs internationally?

It was really great having people in many countries contact me about Overlord. I was really surprised at how well it went.

Can you tell us, in layman's terms, how you came up with the idea of the Overlord and then how you implemented it?

The idea came to me after playing my first game with a group of players. We were discussing what race to play and which settings to set to run master and complaining about how the game doesn't get interesting until after the first 10 to 12 moves.

The name of the program came from Led Zeppelin's song lyrics "We are your overlords". I'll let you guess the song name and album. It was created in 1995 and the first copy was sold in September 1995 over the internet.

What would your ideal computer game be like if you could have anything you wanted given the limitations of today's technology?

I really enjoy playing multi-play on-line games like World of Warcraft. Getting thousands of players together in one gaming environment is really cool

What’s the status of your product development and do you intend to continue to develop them or new utilities for Planets v4.0 in the future?

Sorry to but at the present time it's gathering dust.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Living on a boat in the Florida keys.

Any last words to the Planets fan base?

Keep playing!

Den of the Fox: By Desert-Fox

Player Etiquette

There are times when participating in a game of VGA Planets that I’m inclined to throw my hands in the air and just quit. It’s not from a mauling at the hands of another player or the fact that I have a bad position on the map or even a lack of minerals. I and other players are frustrated by the lack of player etiquette displayed by certain players in the VGAP community.

There are three issues that concern me enough that I devoted my article to it this issue. They are:

Getting your turn back to the host in a timely fashion
I sign up to play a game because I WANT to play. We all know that games are set to run on MWF or TT or MTWTF etc. No matter what the time schedule, the first turns should be quick to get the game jumpstarted. From turn 1 thru 15 or 20, turns don’t take more than five minutes to complete. Yet, we have people who will sit on the turn until the last minute to get them in. Why? What purpose do you have for waiting? It doesn’t gain you anything (it never does). It’s a lack of etiquette plain and simple. Players need to understand that there are in most cases 10 other people playing in the same game waiting for their next turn. It is extremely frustrating constantly checking to see if your new RST file has come in to find everyone waiting on ONE person. The bottom line is: “If you signed up to play the game then have the courtesy to monitor the progress of the game and get your turn in a timely fashion. Let me add the caveat: There are times when you are unable to get your turn in quickly or miss your turn altogether. I think most of us work and have families…we can all sympathize with that. If something comes up, please be kind enough to post a message in the forum for your game stating what’s going on so the other players have an idea of what to expect.

Unnecessary crudeness to other players
There is no call for cussing someone out or making disparaging remarks another player.

It’s undignified, hurtful and causes animosity. There is no place for it in the games or in the forums. Usually, people found doing it are troublemakers and are removed from the forum or website.

This is not to say that there can’t be some heated discussions. There always are and it can be enjoyable to read some of the clever and colorful posts made by the players in the forum. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying not to defend yourself, by all means jump in and give a rebuttal but a wise man or woman can deliver a retort without having to resort to cursing or talking about someone’s mamma. He or she who can’t needs to find another hobby.

There is no place for it in the game. As a player in the VGAP community, you acquire a reputation as you play. It is all that you have, that and your honor. The VGAP community is so spread out that rarely do players get an opportunity to actually meet other players and so IMO your reputation suffers greatly if you are known to be a liar. People will bypass games that have people they know are crooked. That doesn’t mean you can’t be vague and creative in your treaties and deals but don’t lie.

When I play, my word is my bond. If I make a deal with another player, I stand by it, good or bad. NAPs are honored. If I am going to have to break it I will notify the player in advance. If I deal for ships, then whatever was brokered is given. I try not to have any ‘hidden’ agendas but I don’t tolerate a liar. Most regular players I’ve spoken to over the years feel the same way. In the past, I have changed my whole game, and used every resource to hunt down and destroy someone who has lied or betrayed me in a game. Reputation and honor are what you bring to the game along with your skill. There is no room in the Echo Cluster for liars. Certainly not in a game I’m playing in.

Thoughts from the Cave: By Merlyn

It is the end of a great run for The Last Domain. It's time to say goodbye!

The story unfolds like this. The Last Domain hosted VGA Planets for over 10 years and due to a string of unfortunate events it will no longer exist. We used to mirror our hosting computer to a separate hard drive in the event we lost the main drive. Back in the end of July the drive we mirrored to crashed. We were ready to go on vacation and I thought it would be safe to fix it when we returned in August. We returned from vacation and I also started a new job and life was very busy. I put off placing a new backup drive in the system for a couple of weeks. As chance would have it the main drive crashed it will not even power up. Because of this I lost 10 years of hosting data, all the programs I had purchased and all player and game data.

I have thought about restarting from scratch but it would never be the same. I had many home written programs that would take way too much time to rewrite.

I must say goodbye to hosting and thank everyone for their support over the years. It was a lot of fun. But just because I am not hosting doesn't mean I won't be playing! You can start looking for me to be playing for many years to come.

See you in the Echo Cluster and look forward to playing with many of the players I used to host.

Fan Fiction: By Desert Fox

The Gorn Gambit
By: Desert-Fox
Chapter 1

My name? Bestu, Jorge Bestu. Stardate: damned if I know. In fact I don’t know much right else right now. From the swelling on my face and the lump on my head I can only assume it came from a savage kick from the Gorn interrogator after we were boarded. I’m sitting here, leaning against the bulkhead of a Lizard Class Cruiser trying to remember how this happened.

We had picked up the LCC on the scanners moving uncloaked, at Warp 6 and appearing light in cargo. My thoughts had been that she might have suffered damage and was limping back to a star base for repairs. She certainly ‘appeared’ to be a damaged ship and a perfect target for someone like me and my boys in the Ardine ,a Blockade Runner, working this remote sector snatching fat cargos from isolated freighters as they plied their trade between remote colonies.

Plotting her course and speed, we set an intercept point and prepared to unmask and rob the fuel from the ship. After dumping excess fuel, we de-cloaked at the point and drained their tank. My navigator, Flan, commented, “This is just too easy, sir, I don’t like it.” Jrabo, the science officer, engaged the tractor beam and increased our speed. The ship didn’t budge. He increased to warp and that too had no effect. With our engines overheating and I signaled him to them shut down.

“Mr. Flan, give me a visual on the cruiser”
“Visual online, sir!”
“You’d better look at this…Holy crap! We’re in deep shit!” exclaimed Flan.
As I watched the image on the screen, with the LLC framed in the center, there was a shimmering directly behind it that was slowly taking shape. We were definitely in trouble.

“Jrabo, scan that ship and verify for me that what I’m seeing is true.”
“Scan complete sir. It’s a T-Rex Battleship that has been modified to use a cloaking device.”
“Sir, evidently the T-Rex has transferred fuel to the Cruiser.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Sir, they’re BOTH bringing their weapons online and their shields have just gone up.”
“Captain, incoming visual communication from the T-Rex”
“Show it!”

On the screen appeared the face (and a damn ugly face it was) of Admiral Nakar.
Nakar was famous and his mug well known for his exploits in dealing a crushing defeat to the Fascists last year near Orionis II. They had been caught completely off guard and suffered mightily, losing many ships. The Admiral garnered much praise from the Gorn High Command for his capture of a Sabre and D-19b…a terrible weapon…and now in the hands of the Gorn.

“You will lower your shields Captain, or I will instruct my troops to destroy your ship where it sits.” There was no bravado in his voice. It was cold and menacing. I asked Mr. Jrabo, how many torpedoes we had in inventory? “Twelve MK7s sir, he replied.”
“Hmmm…doesn’t seem enough to go on the offensive with a T-Rex and a LCC.”
“I don’t believe our blockade runner would survive the encounter. We have no choice but to acquiesce to their demands.” “Very well, Open a channel to the ship’s crew.” Mr. Flan replied, “Channel open sir.”

“This is the Captain, We have been captured and are about to be boarded by the Gorn. The situation is grave and I ask that each of you to refrain from resisting as we are severely outnumbered. We will work on a way of getting out of this but for now do nothing. The Gorn are not known for their –shall we say- sensitivity. That is all.”

“I knew that message would not stop some of my crew for they were all tough men. Men, who for whatever reason, had left their societies for something else, perhaps another life style, where the law of the ship and their shipmates was all that mattered, all other laws were made to be broken.”

“Mr. Flan, lower the shields and prepare for our visitors.”

With that, one hundred Gorn troopers were beamed to various parts of the ship and took control of the vessel. Those who did not submit were rounded up, beaten unconscious and dumped out of the airlock to suffer a horrible death. The Gorn were deadly serious. It seemed as though we had stumbled onto to something the Gorn were trying to hide from all prying eyes. It was bad enough that their ships could take up to 150% damage before exploding but to add the specter of cloaking a battleship was something that had to be shared with the other races.

I was seized by two Gorn troopers and shoved into the transporter and beamed across to the LCC for interrogation. I was taken to a small room that was dimly lit. In that room were a chair with arm and leg straps and a big ugly Gorn interrogator wearing gloves with metal studs covering the knuckles and holding a painstick. Having been strapped into the chair, I sat waiting for the inevitable, pain and torture. The Gorn thrived on it. While sitting I came to realize that it was damn hot in here, not just hot but humid, very humid. Of course that’s the way the Gorn liked their environment. Sweat dripped in my eyes making me all the more uncomfortable. After what felt like hours I heard the sound of boots coming down the hall outside of my door.

Admiral Nakar entered the room and nodded to the guard who promptly backhanded me and punched me with the painstick. One made me feel as if my head had exploded and the other let me gasping for air as if someone had stomped on my chest.

“Well Captain, I just wanted to set the tone for our little meeting, to let you know what to expect if my questions are not answered to MY satisfaction.” “Are we clear Captain” he asked?

“Brutally clear Admiral” I replied, “brutally clear!”

Next time: “The Interrogation”

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