“4X is a genre of strategy-based video and board games in which players control an empire and “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”. The term was coined by Alan Emrich in his September 1993 preview of Master of Orion for Computer Gaming World. Since then, others have adopted the term to describe games of similar scope and design.” Wikipedia
I had dropped out of college at Texas A&M in the Fall of 1984. I moved back home, that is to say in with my Mom and Dad. I got a job at an Italian restaurant. When I realized how much I hated my life out of college, I made a plan to get back to it.
The Army had a plan for guys like me. If I gave them two years of service, they would give me $20,000 in college funds. I thought I could milk that for four more years.
Plus I wanted to explore and expand. The Army and I agreed to mutually exploit each other. If shit went south, someone might get exterminated.
After two months of pushups, sit-ups, and 2 mile runs every day, I signed up. I would finish my degree, and the Army would help. Their money for my body.
When I got to my duty station in Bamberg, West Germany, I realized I was the odd duck. I did not drink, toke, or go to brothels and never have.
So I bought an Apple IIe for my mind in that boring, boring place. Everyone else blew their money on those other things. I bought a computer. I really did not fit in there.
I had met Ken Burd from Seguin at A&M. We met in Phred (The Serpentine Lounge) playing Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) in the Memorial Student Center. The serpent had been named Phred long before I got there. Ken was the new kid. A brainiac with an Apple IIe.
When I got my first care package from my Aggie D&D friends, it was a bunch of floppy disks. There were so many games on those disks. They sent my D&D books too.
Ken had sent the computer games. Good ones. My mind was finally at ease in that place.
I taught other soldiers in my unit to play D&D. It is the perfect game for tired soldiers who wanted to be anywhere else, even a dungeon filled with monsters.
When I got out of the Army, Ken needed a roommate and I needed a place to live. I was back in school at A&M with all that Army college money but not until the Fall Semester of 1987. The trade was complete but the money would not start until classes started.
I needed money until then. While I waited, I took up odd jobs with a temp agency. Admin work was plentiful for a guy with two years of Army Office work. (I got Radar O’Reilly’s job in the Army.)
So during the summer of ’87 I was collecting cable boxes from the kids moving away from A&M during the summer. I do well talking with strangers. So I chatted everyone up. I did the job, but I was nice and enjoyed it.
A young man came up and I did my routine. I read his paperwork.
Me: “My roommate is from Seguin too. His name is Ken Burd. Do you know him?”
Seguin Boy: “Ken Burd?! THE KEN BURD?!”
Seguin Boy: “Captain of the Seguin High School Football Team! Valedictorian! National Merit Scholar! That Ken Burd?”
Me: “No, my roommate, Ken Burd?”
Ken was bored at A&M. He read ALL the books for class before the semester even started and then would get so pissed when the professors would start on chapter one and do nothing but regurgitate the books.
He was SO smart. And he wanted to get his degree, but this was not Oxford where they would have understood him and let him run at his own pace. This was a school of 40,000 people who needed to be churned out like so much sausage. (Central Texas is known for their sausage!)
I was always amazed by how fast he could read and retain things. His sense of humor was subtle, sneaky, and usually two steps ahead of the conversation. He was loyal and patriotic in a conservative small town Texas way. I never understood why he liked me.
He was quiet, introverted, and huge. I was skinny, silly, and sly. I could talk people into coming over to the house without any effort. And if they were women, I could talk them into my bedroom far too easily. If they were men, I would talk them into playing board games or D&D even if they were not into those things. Ken would just smile.
He would smile when these new friends would do the dishes, clean the house. or make dinner. He would smile because I would do those things but it would take me three times longer than anyone else. Even when all I had to do was order pizza, I took forever getting everyone’s buy-in first.
When we moved out of our place because I had pissed off the landlord over some silly display on our porch, Ken was pissed off as much as he ever got at me. But in preparation of moving out, I cleaned the house from top to bottom. Just like I had the last time we had moved. And just like the time before, he kept telling me it was good enough. And I could not stop once I started. If I did, I would have had to talk to him about getting us kicked out, again.
In my room, that I did not share with anyone else, I was scrubbing the baseboards and walls. He came in and asked what that red stuff was. I did not answer. He reached out and pulled some of it off with his finger nail. He looked at me. “Wax?” I started to explain and he smiled. He smiled as if to say it was okay. That all my idiocy was worth it because he knew why there was wax on the walls and baseboards of my room without me having to explain.
We moved into a big house in a nice subdivision far from school in a neighborhood of mostly faculty and staff, few students lived out there. I was in the master bedroom again with my own bathroom.
The house had a yard, big kitchen, and a sunken living room. It had lots of room for board games and roleplaying games. In those days, we played a lot of RPGs. That is to say, I would be the Dungeon Master for Dungeons & Dragons, Earthdawn, and my favorite, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.
When I finished my undergraduate degree and got into Graduate school at A&M, Ken and I were still roommates. I got a job at a financial institution doing IT work while I waited for grad school.
Ken had started working the night shift at a quickie mart. I convinced him to interview with the company I was with and he got the gig.
After two weeks in Graduate school I told Ken it was were he should be. I talked about how we read so many books for the each class, I could barely keep up. And in class we talked about everything in all the books. This did not make him feel better nor did it make me happy to see his response. He did not say anything, it was just on his face.
We did not talk about my graduate studies after that, except when I got three hours of graduate school credit for studying gender in online role playing games. That just seemed to simultaneously piss him off and make him smile, he always wore that smile when he liked what I had done. This time I had pulled off something impossible; playing computer games for graduate school credit.
While I went back and forth to graduate classes, Ken, our other roommates, and friends played games in the house. I never had time to join them during the week.
I was heading to class one evening, most of my classes were at night. Teaching in the day, take classes at night. The group was playing Revolt on Antares an old TSR crappy board game from the early eighties.
As I walked by, they wiped the game to the floor. They just pushed it off the table and onto the floor. They let the pieces fall where they did. No one was shouting as was the case sometimes when this would occur.
Usually Harold, pissed Ken or Vince had beat him again, would lose his cool. But they were all just frustrated with the game. I heard one of them say, “We could do better than this.” Then they all started to talk about what that would look like.
As I entered the garage and closed the door, I thought, I am just a few months into graduate school. I could drop out and we could all work on this. And then I laughed to myself. This would never happen.
A week later, really just one week, they had built the board game and were playing it. They had designed it, printed it all out at a copy and print store, and were playing it. I was on my way to class again when I heard one of them say, “We could port this to the PC.”
In the garage again, standing still, thinking should I? I liked graduate school and at the end I would have a degree and be allowed to teach High School (those were the rules back then.) But these guys were smarter than anyone I knew in grad school. More than that, they were my friends and Ken was the best.
I was always the weakest link on the team. (Harold used to accuse me of memorizing the Trivial Pursuit cards and justified me winning in this way.) I had doubts I could even help or that they would let me.
In their eyes, or at least Harolds, I was a conman. I worried that the others, and especially Ken, thought that too. I stuck with grad school while my friends made a game.
SimTex Software was created at my kitchen table in 1991. Master of Orion was their first game.
I followed my girlfriend Vicki to Austin in 1992. She had moved in with Harold for a time when he was not invited to stay with SimTex.
In the process, the crew moved to Austin from College Station. SimTex had followed us. And Ken moved in with us for a while. We were all together again. We all played games and I had learned disc golf then taught Vicki and Ken.
Ken and I became disc golf doubles partners. I could drive and Ken could putt. We were a good pair. We played for years. Every year he was in Austin, we would play National Doubles. My love for frisbee had been passed on to my friend.
They were rolling in money from MOO then Master of Magic (MOM), then 1830, then MOO2. They sold their company for some $20 million a few short years later. I was so very jealous.
Over all that time, Ken had very gently shared his newfound wealth. He had moved out and gotten a big house, but he came over for every Aggie and Cowboys football game on TV. And to play a lot of other role playing games and eat Vicki’s cooking.
One Sunday during the playoffs when our big TV (32 inch CRT console) went out, he bought us a new one. A huge one, that was so expensive. So big!
When a royalty check would come in, he would take us all out to Carrabba’s for a nice meal. We did this even when the checks shrunk in size and frequency.
When I started teaching Sunday School, we played games Sunday afternoons. We would play in Ken’s big game room: our family, our college friends, and some of the kids from Sunday school.
When we couldn’t all be together, we played Computer role playing games together. Ken, the game designer, got a job in Boston to work on the Lord of the Rings Online – LOTRO for those in the know.
He was gone, but we played together online. We played new games, old games, and Ken’s game: LOTRO. Not seeing each other, but talking to each other online.
In 2009, Vicki and I went to New Zealand to celebrate our twentieth year together. When we rolled up to Tongariro National Park on New Zealand’s North Island, I saw Ngauruhoe for the first time.
When Peter Jackson first saw Ngauruhoe, he knew it was Mount Doom. I stopped the car on the side of the road and called Ken. We had talked about seeing Mount Doom. It was a big reason Vicki and I went. But without Ken, it was not what it could be.
Life had pulled me away from the gaming world. It was gradual, then it was gone. I didn’t see Ken IRL or online. But there I was on the opposite side of the world wishing he was there. I remember him crying too. I wanted back all of the time we had missed together.
People change. People move away. People regret that. I regret that.
Ken passed January 10th. It was expected. He got very ill in April.
We would drive up to see him in Plano some weekends. We would play games and watch Aggie Football. We would be present even when he could no longer talk. Even when that genius brain had no outlet to share his thoughts. We would just be together.
But never enough. Never as often as I wished. Always the four hour drive looming as part of the post hang out. Always the sadness and regret on the drive home. In April, Vicki and I sold our house. It was Ken’s big Austin home we moved into.
Ken was close. Ken was safe. Ken was comfortable.
When I was sick with a heart problem, I asked Ken to be my back up plan. If I died, I had asked him to look after Vicki and Cindy.
Acquiescence to a sick man more than any formal agreement. Ken would be there in their grief, a friend, and a comfort to them and me in my fear.
But now I got no more plan. And I am sitting in this grief, angry and hurt, asking over and over in my head, “How do I honor this man?”
This is all I could think to do. This is all I got.