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For the Babylonian king, see Hammurabi.
Hamurabi Screenshot.png
Screenshot of gameplay
Designer(s) Doug Dyment
Platform(s) PDP-8, BASIC
Release date(s) 1968
Genre(s) Strategy game, Text-based game
Mode(s) Single-player

Hamurabi is a text-based strategy video game of land and resource management first developed by Doug Dyment in 1968. The early computer game was developed by Dyment at Digital Equipment Corporation as The Sumer Game before the rise of the commercial video game industry in the early history of video games as a piece of early software for fellow employee Richard Merrill's newly invented FOCAL programming language. The game consists of ten rounds wherein the player, as the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi, manages how much of their grain to spend on crops for the next round, feeding their people, and purchasing additional land, while dealing with random variations in crop yields and plagues.

Multiple versions of the game were created for the FOCAL and FOCAL-69 languages, but in 1973 David H. Ahl released BASIC Computer Games, a book of games written in the BASIC programming language and the first best-selling computer book, which included his version of The Sumer Game. The expanded version of the game, titled Hamurabi, quickly became the more prominent version due to the popularity of the book and programming language. Hamurabi influenced many later strategy and simulation games and is an antecedent to the city-building genre as well as an early strategy game.


Hamurabi is a text-based strategy video game centered on resource management in which the player, identified in the text as the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi, enters numbers in response to questions posed by the game. The resources that the player must manage are people, acres of land, and bushels of grain, over the course of ten rounds of decisions, each termed a year. Each person can farm a set amount of land, which produces grain. Grain, in turn, can be used to feed people, who otherwise die the following round, or planted for the following year's crop. The player may also buy or sell land to their neighbors each turn in exchange for grain. Each round consists of an adviser stating that "Hamurabi: I beg to report to you" the current status of the city, including the prior year's harvest and change in population, followed by a series of questions as to how many bushels of grain to spend on land, seeds, and feeding the people.[1]

The game's variations are driven by random numbers: the price of land is randomly decided each round from between 17 and 26 bushels per acre, the amount of bushels generated each round is randomly decided, random amounts of bushels are eaten by rats, and new people come to the city each year in random amounts. Each year also presents the possibility of a plague reducing the population by half. The game ends after ten rounds, or earlier if all of your population dies or too many people starve in a single round.[1] The end-game appraisal, not present in the original version of the game, compares the player to historical rulers—such as "Your heavy-handed performance smacks of Nero and Ivan IV."[1]

Scott Rosenberg, in Dreaming in Code, wrote of his encounter with the game:[2]

I was fifteen years old and in love with a game called Sumer, which put me in charge of an ancient city-state in the Fertile Crescent. Today's computer gamers might snicker at its crudity: its progress consisted of all-capital type pecked out line by line on a paper scroll. You'd make decisions, allocating bushels of grain for feeding and planting, and then the program would tell you how your city was doing year by year. "Hamurabi," it would announce, like an obsequious prime minister who feared beheading, "I beg to report..."

Within a couple of days of play I'd exhausted the game's possibilities. But unlike most of the games that captivate teenagers today, Sumer invited tinkering. Anyone could inspect its insides: the game was a set of simple instructions to the computer, stored on a paper tape coded with little rows of eight holes.


An original DEC PDP-8 minicomputer

In 1968, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) employee Richard Merrill invented the FOCAL programming language. As an early program for the language, fellow employee Doug Dyment developed The Sumer Game, programming it for a DEC PDP-8 minicomputer.[3] The game is sometimes erroneously attributed to Merrill in 1969, but a 1973 program catalog by the Digital Equipment Computer Users Society (DECUS) lists Dyment as the original developer.[3][4] The game was originally described as: "This is a simulation program/game which will run on a minimal PDP-8 system. The economy of a Sumerian city in the year 3000 B. C. is simulated in the fashion of a modern-day 'business game.'"[3] "Business games" were text-based business management simulation games, such as The Management Game, which was used in business schools such as at Carnegie Mellon University since at least 1958.[5] By 1961, there were over 89 different business and economic simulation games in use, with various graphical capabilities.[6] A 1966 economic simulation game was The Sumerian Game, developed by IBM employee William McKay for the Board of Cooperative Educational Services in Northern Westchester County, New York. It is not known whether The Sumer Game was inspired by the prior Sumerian game, which was a much more in-depth text-based economic simulation intended for children, developed in consultation with ancient Middle East history experts.[7]

Multiple versions of the The Sumer Game were created; the 1973 DECUS catalog additionally lists a French-language version by Belgians J. F. Champarnaud and F. H. Bostem for the FOCAL-69 version of the language,[8] and a 1978 catalog adds Ruben by James R. B. Howard II and Jimmie B. Fletcher, "a modification of the "King of Sumeria" game" with additional features.[9] The French version of the game, however, despite being listed as as "Sumer (French)", described itself not as a translation of the original game, but as a translation of "Hamurabi (The Sumer Game)", due to another version of the game which was already released by then.[8]

By 1973, DEC employee David H. Ahl had written a version of The Sumer Game in the BASIC programming language. Unlike FOCAL, BASIC was run not just on mainframe computers and minicomputers, but also on personal computers, then termed microcomputers, making it a much more popular language. In 1973, Ahl published BASIC Computer Games, a book of games written in BASIC and the first million-selling computer book, which included his version of The Sumer Game.[10] The expanded version was renamed Hamurabi and added an end-of-game performance appraisal.[1] The popularity of the book and the programming language itself meant that Ahl's version of the game became the more widely known version over the relatively-obscure original, as evidenced by the 1973 French FOCAL version considering "Hamurabi" to be the more prominent name.[8] BASIC Computer Games noted that the game was a modification of a game "written in FOCAL at DEC", but listed the author as "unknown." The 1978 edition of the book noted that the game's name was intended to be "Hammurabi", the correct spelling of the Babylonian king, but not only was one "m" dropped in the file name to fit in an eight-character limit, but Ahl consistently misspelled the name inside of the game, leading to the generally accepted name of the game to be Hamurabi.[1]


In addition to the multiple versions of Hamurabi, several simulation games have been created as expansions of the core game. These include Kingdom (1974) by Lee Schneider and Todd Voros, which was then expanded to Dukedom (1976).[11] Other derivations include King (1978) by James A. Storer,[12] and Santa Paravia en Fiumaccio (1978) by George Blank; Santa Paravia added the concept of city building management to the basic structure of Hamurabi, making it an antecedent to the city-building genre as well as an early strategy game.[13] Hamurabi held the status as the forerunner of economic simulation games even after the creation of its more complicated descendants; as late as 1983's M.U.L.E., critics described games with similar systems in terms of being similar to Hamurabi.[14]


  1. ^ a b c d e Ahl, David (November 1978). BASIC Computer Games (2nd ed.). Workman Publishing. pp. 78–79. ISBN 978-0-89480-052-8.  (archive)
  2. ^ Rosenberg, Scott. Dreaming in Code. Crown Publishing Group. pp. 1–2. ISBN 978-1-4000-8246-9.  (archive)
  3. ^ a b c "DECUS Program Library Catalog for PDP-8, FOCAL8" (PDF). Digital Equipment Computer Users Society. July 1973. p. F-1. Archived from the original on 2016-02-06. Retrieved 2016-02-04. 
  4. ^ Winterhalter, Ryan (2010-12-15). "Game Mechanics That Are Older Than You Think". 1UP.com. Ziff Davis. Archived from the original on 2016-02-06. Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  5. ^ Smith, Alexander (2014-01-22). "The Priesthood At Play: Computer Games in the 1950s". They Create Worlds. Archived from the original on 2015-12-22. Retrieved 2015-12-18. 
  6. ^ Greenlaw, Paul S.; Herron, Lowell W.; Rawdon, Richard H. (1962). Business simulation in industrial and university education. Prentice Hall. 
  7. ^ Wing, Richard L. (1966). "Two Computer-Based Economics Games for Sixth Graders". American Behavioral Scientist 10 (3): 31–35. ISSN 0002-7642. 
  8. ^ a b c "DECUS Program Library Catalog for PDP-8, FOCAL8" (PDF). Digital Equipment Computer Users Society. July 1973. p. F-28. Archived from the original on 2016-02-06. Retrieved 2016-02-04. 
  9. ^ Program Library PDP-8 Catalog, Digital Equipment Computer Users Society, August 1978, p. 83, retrieved 2016-02-04 
  10. ^ Ahl, David. "David H. Ahl biography from Who's Who in America". Swapmeetdave. Archived from the original on 2015-09-24. Retrieved 2016-02-06. 
  11. ^ Ahl, David (1984). Big Computer Games. Creative Computing Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-916688-40-0. 
  12. ^ Ahl, David (1984). Big Computer Games. Creative Computing Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-916688-40-0. 
  13. ^ Moss, Richard (2015-10-11). "From SimCity to, well, SimCity: The history of city-building games". Ars Technica. Archived from the original on 2016-02-03. Retrieved 2016-02-04. 
  14. ^ Pournelle, Jerry (November 1984). "NCC Reflections". Byte (McGraw-Hill) 9 (12): 361–379. Retrieved 2016-02-06. 

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