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Hamurabi is a text-based strategy video game of land and resource management. It was first developed under the name The Sumer Game by Doug Dyment in 1968 at Digital Equipment Corporation as a computer game for fellow employee Richard Merrill's newly invented FOCAL programming language.

Hamurabi Screenshot.png
Screenshot of gameplay
Designer(s)Doug Dyment
Platform(s)PDP-8, personal computer
  • 1968 (FOCAL)
  • 1973 (BASIC)
Genre(s)Strategy game, text-based game

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. The Sumer Game was possibly inspired by the 1966 The Sumerian Game, a much more in-depth text-based economic simulation intended for children.

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 million-selling computer book, which included his version of The Sumer Game. This expanded version of the game, titled Hamurabi, quickly became the more prominent version due to the popularity of both the book and the programming language. Hamurabi influenced many later strategy and simulation games and is also an antecedent to the city-building genre.



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. These are managed over the course of ten rounds, each of which represents 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 begins with an adviser stating "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][2]

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 the entire population of the city dies or at least 45 percent of the people starve in a single round.[1] The end-game appraisal, added in the 1973 version of the game, compares the player to historical rulers—such as "Your heavy-handed performance smacks of Nero and Ivan IV."[1]


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] In 1966, IBM employee William McKay developed a business simulation called The Sumerian Game 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 Sumer Game were created. Jerry Pournelle recalled in 1989 that "half the people I know wrote a Hammurabi program back in the 1970s; for many, it was the first program they'd ever written in their lives".[8] 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,[9] 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.[10] The French version of the game, however, despite being listed 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.[9]

Around 1971, DEC employee David H. Ahl had written a version of The Sumer Game in the BASIC programming language.[11] 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 best-selling book of games written in BASIC, which included his version of The Sumer Game.[11][12] The expanded version was renamed Hamurabi and added an end-of-game performance appraisal.[1] The popularity of both 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.[9] 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, which was the first million-selling computer 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).[13] Other derivations include King (1978) by James A. Storer,[14] 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.[15] Hamurabi inspired more complicated economic simulation games; M.U.L.E. (1983) and Anacreon (1987) are two games that critics mentioned as being similar to Hamurabi.[16][8]


  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". 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 Pournelle, Jerry (January 1989). "To the Stars". Byte. Vol. 14 no. 1. McGraw-Hill. p. 109–124.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ Program Library PDP-8 Catalog, Digital Equipment Computer Users Society, August 1978, p. 83, retrieved 2016-02-04
  11. ^ a b McCracken, Harry (2014-04-29). "Fifty Years of BASIC, the Programming Language That Made Computers Personal". Time. Archived from the original on 2016-02-05. Retrieved 2016-02-12.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ Ahl, David (1984). Big Computer Games. Creative Computing Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-0-916688-40-0.
  14. ^ Ahl, David (1984). Big Computer Games. Creative Computing Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0-916688-40-0.
  15. ^ 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.
  16. ^ Pournelle, Jerry (November 1984). "NCC Reflections". Byte. Vol. 9 no. 12. McGraw-Hill. pp. 361–379.

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