Tuesday 27 July 2021

Missed Classic 98: Adventure Alpha (1984)

Written by Joe Pranevich

In 1984, Dr. William H. Kraus was a rare breed: one part game designer, one part Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics Education. Up to this point, the games he had designed were simple, one-trick teaching tools for students in K-5. That was related in part to his academic bent: unlike most designers, he was concerned about quantifying and documenting the improvements his students saw while playing educational games. As he was sitting down to write what would be the first of three adventure games to break that mold, he made a prediction:

“In the not too distant future, it is likely that at least one microcomputer will be found in most elementary school classrooms and that teachers will wonder how they ever got along without them.” - “The Computer as a Learning Center.” Computers in Mathematics Education: 1984 Yearbook, edited by the National Council of the Teachers of Mathematics. 

Kraus never became a famous game designer. Perhaps his games were too stuffy and academic. Perhaps his evidence-based approach to teaching fun didn’t quite translate for enough students. Or perhaps, he just enjoyed doing the research that would benefit future teachers and educational game designers. Whatever the reason, his short design history has left us with only three adventure games: 1984’s Adventure Alpha and The Islands of Beta, and 1985’s The Lantern of D’Gamma. I looked at the second of these games five years ago, but now that archivists have discovered the missing original, I wanted to revisit these happy memories of my childhood again. 

You may have been expecting a Space Quest V post this week. Unfortunately, due to a computer emergency (and the discovery that I cannot write a blog post without the use of the letter “R”), my laptop has been shipped away for repairs. My write-up of Adventure Alpha has been sitting in the “draft” bin since the start of the COVID epidemic. With a borrowed computer and browser-based emulation, I was able to put in the time to finish the write-up. I hope you enjoy this diversion from our regularly scheduled content.

The less said about this, the better.

The story of Kraus’s math-based adventure trilogy starts as the story of Milliken Publishing and its founder, Thomas Milliken Moore. Mr. Moore came from a wealthy Missouri family; his middle name was in honor of his grandfather, John Milliken, a successful gold miner. After serving in World War II, Moore came home and found work as a printing salesman. Leveraging that experience, he founded Milliken Publishing in 1960. From the beginning, Milliken would be an educational publisher, specializing in materials and workbooks for K-12 education in the United States and Canada. Milliken did not limit itself to print works and by the 1970s had expanded into educational films. It is perhaps unsurprising that by the 1980s, his company investigated the growing market for computer-based educational tools. While their initial efforts were little more than study guides on disk, it was only a short time before they began to publish educational games. Moore’s day-to-day involvement in the publishing company that bore his middle name is unclear. Moore is best known today for his philanthropic efforts including work for the St. Louis Zoo, the Milliken Hand Rehabilitation Center, and the Audubon Society. He passed away just a few months ago. I have made a small memorial donation in his name at the St. Louis Zoo. 

Dr. Kraus in 2008. (From the Wittenberg University magazine article announcing his retirement.)

The story of Adventure Alpha and its siblings begins with the work of Dr. William H. Kraus. Kraus was an early believer in the power of computing as a teaching tool. His doctoral studies, completed with a grant from the National Science Foundation, looked at how students solved problems while playing mathematical games-- not just computer games, but the gamification of mathematical drills and challenges. For his work, he obtained a Doctor of Philosophy in Mathematics Education from the University of Wisconsin before starting a teaching and research position at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In 1981, he received another grant from the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Education for a multi-year study into the use of computers for education. 

Unfortunately, I lack both the JSTOR access and the background to fully appreciate Dr. Kraus’s work, but it’s clear that Kraus approached mathematics education and game design from a unique perspective. His first game, developed on the Commodore PET, was Fish Chase. His papers suggest that this game was developed solely for his research and played by his student research subjects. I am unclear what brought him to Milliken-- whether he approached them or whether working with a commercial publisher was always the intent-- but they published a version of this initial game in 1982 as Frenzy. It has a great manual, written by Kraus, that provides activities for parents and teachers to do even after the game is over. It’s clear that from beginning to end, Kraus was interested in making the learning process fun. 

A screenshot from Fish Chase.

Dr. Kraus continued to work with Milliken for several years on a variety of math-related games for the home and educational market. I am unsure what inspired Milliken or Dr. Kraus in 1984 to take the leap from single-task games into narrative adventures. These three games personally inspired me as a kid. While his games were not as long-lasting as Lemonade (1973) or The Oregon Trail (1971)-- both supported by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium-- his contributions to the field as an academic trying to gamify education should not be undersold. As previously stated, Kraus’s collaboration with Milliken would lead to numerous smaller games as well as the adventure trilogy. This collaboration ended in 1985, potentially due to a change of focus at Milliken. Kraus published at least one further game (for Mindscape in 1988), but otherwise appears to have returned full-time to teaching and research. His university biography credits him with twenty commercially published games. At one point, he was appointed President of the Ohio Mathematics Education Leadership Council. He retired in 2008. I was able to track down a possible email address for him this week, but he has not responded by publication time. Milliken Publishing was acquired by Lorenz Educational Press in 1998 and continues to be operated as a separate brand. 

Slightly more fun than Eureka, Nunavut.

While researching this post, I stumbled onto a short article that Dr. Kraus wrote for The Ohio Journal about “incubation”, which he calls “Hatching Answers”. It’s wonderfully expressed, but let me just allow Dr. Kraus to do the talking:

​​We have all had the experience of working unsuccessfully on a problem (mathematical or otherwise), leaving the problem for a while to do something else, and then having a sudden insight into how the problem might be solved. This process is known as incubation, and it generally includes the following steps: 

  1. You make a serious attempt to solve the problem. The more fully you are initially involved in the problem, the more likely incubation is to be successful. 
  2. You temporarily stop working on the problem and do other things for a substantial period of time (often a day or more). During this incubation period, your mind continues to work subconsciously on the problem or on ideas related to the problem.
  3. Sometimes a complete solution comes to you suddenly. More often you think of a new approach that you might be able to use to solve the problem. Sometimes there is no recognizable insight, but when you again work on the problem you are able to solve it. 

This “delayed eureka” is something we have all experienced as players of adventure games but perhaps never had a word for it. How many times have I solved a challenging puzzle in the shower? More than I can count. To demonstrate this concept, Kraus provided a series of challenging word puzzles, “word equations” written by himself and others that would be just tricky enough to require this delayed thinking. 

He provides the example equation “26 = L of the A”. We can fairly quickly get the solution that it stands for “26 = Letters of the Alphabet”. With apologies to The Ohio Journal and Dr. Kraus, I would like to offer 22 of those puzzles that he published in 1990. I wasn’t able to find the answers, but I trust that our commenters are more than up to the task. I hope you will work them out and provide solutions (in rot13) in the comments.

 I hope you had fun with those! I’m still working out a couple. Onward to Adventure Alpha!

Interplanetary long distance was likely quite expensive.

The game begins with a terse introduction: we are explorers and have recently landed on the Planet Alpha. We have no idea what we are doing or what our goal will be, but we will “use our wits and the keyboard” to discover and complete our mission. We also learn that the Alphans loved mathematics so many of the puzzles that we may encounter will require math. Since this is an educational game, that’s not a surprise. Our first location is an empty plain on the planet’s surface, disturbed only by the presence of an old phone booth. My first thought is that this is a Bill and Ted reference, but the game predates that film by five years. There are plenty of other phone booths in pop culture ranging from Superman to Doctor Who, but if this is supposed to be a reference to something, I am missing it. 

The interior of the booth is covered in graffiti, including the very helpful phrase, “In a fix? Call MIX.” My first thought is to look up MIX on an old phone keypad to get the number 649, but that doesn’t seem to do anything. My next observation is that it could be Roman numerals! In that system, “MIX” is 1009. I try that and am greeted with a recorded message: the Alphans have all died in a plague. They hid their greatest treasure behind traps and puzzles to ensure that only someone worthy will be able to find it. That sounds like an adventure to me!

A very boring video arcade?

When the call completes, we are teleported into a stainless steel room containing an arcade game cabinet. A note on the wall (held in place with a magnet)  says that “the only way there is through a perfect square”, while another nearby sign says “if a key is a must, there’s one in the dust”. The first suggests square numbers, while the second gives us something to do with the magnet we just discovered. Picking up the magnet doesn’t change the art in any way. Is that green blob supposed to be the sign or the note? The art isn’t terrific. 

With nothing else to do, I play the game. A part of me really wants to believe that the arcade cabinet is a The Last Starfighter (1984) reference, but the timing doesn’t quite work out. 

I did not know at the time, but this is based on Kraus’s game Flip from 1982.

The game starts by drawing a seemingly random collection of colored boxes on the screen and then prompting us to press either “A”, “S”, “R”, or “Q”. I hope this is in the manual because there is no indication what any of those letters mean. I try “A” and “S” at random and both times I get a message that I am wrong. Each keypress also causes the screen to refresh with a different collection of dots. “R” brings up a message that I need to get seven answers correctly to win. “Q” quits the game. Trial and error suggests that I need to select between “A” and “S” on each screen and that I need to do so correctly seven times. There must be a trick and it must be simple enough that middle-school kids could get it.

A few wrong guesses later and I work it out: the “A” stands for “asymmetric” and the “S” stands for “symmetric”. We select whether the collection of colored boxes is a mirror image (symmetric) or tiled (asymmetric). It’s easy to do once we see the trick and getting seven is no problem at all. As soon as we win the game, we are back in the stainless steel room, but it has changed: there are now two different doors, the sign/note is on the right of the game instead of the left, and there is a hole in the floor. Is this the same room as before? Is it supposed to be a mirrored image (hence the sign moving)? Or just inconsistent art?

Consistency is not a virtue.

Heading north through the door leads to a hallway with numbered doors: 2, 4, 6, 8, and 10. The obvious choice is door #4, the first perfect square. That leads to a small room with two exits and a 300-ml flask. Progressing further east leads to a storage room. A nearby filing cabinet says “Tests of Worthiness”, but it’s empty. We sense danger in the air. There are doors to the north and south. I head north and die immediately. The room in that direction is filled with poison gas. I scored 29% (out of 100%, naturally) and have to start over again.

I play back to the same point and head south instead. That room is another supply closet, this time containing a bottle of “Super Serum”. The dosage is 200-ml, but there is 800-ml in the bottle. There are no nearby measuring spoons. (For our less academic American readers, we’re aiming for about 4/5ths of a cup of serum.) If we drink too much, we die of an overdose. This is a case where I identify the solution immediately, but screw up the parser. We have a 300-ml flask that we collected earlier; if we remove 600-ml (two times the flask) from the bottle, we are left with the 200-ml dosage. We also waste a lot of serum, but that’s a small price to pay. Unfortunately, when I did so I kept spilling out the full bottle instead of filling the flask with it. The trick is that I need to “fill flask” to migrate to it, rather than use “pour” which the game interprets as to pour out (or empty). I make the correct dose and drink it but nothing obvious happens. It’s at this point that I realize that the storage room only has one exit and the door is locked. Even if I am “super”, I am unable to break down the door. Eventually, I give up and have to start over again. In just a few minutes however, my score leaped to 49%.

Black coffee’s not enough for me, I need a better friend. I swear I’ve done this caption before.

I take stock: North from the filing cabinet room is certain death of poisoned gas. South from the same is certain death due to a locked door. That’s all the exits so I have to backtrack further, back to the original stainless steel room. That also had a hole in the floor that I now descend. Doing so triggers a transporter (or just doesn’t make sense) since I find myself back on the planet’s surface in front of the phone booth. This time, I opt to explore the planet but I find what I am looking for almost immediately: just one room away from the booth, a key leaps out of the dirt and secures itself on the magnet I still carry. 

I re-enter the complex through the booth and check my key on the storage door. It opens! Now, I have a plan to get the super serum and escape. Does taking that carefully measured serum allow me to travel through the poisoned gas? Yes!

Maybe Raiders of the Lost Ark? Maybe not.

Beyond the poison gas is a room covered with 10,000 carefully numbered diamonds, plus a safe and a skeleton. The skeleton is holding a “Worthiness Test”, but time has been unkind to the paper and it is now smudged. If we want to get the combination, we’re going to have to work out the smudges.

So, like all Apple II text in graphics mode?

This gives us a fun little logic problem to work out from only four digits out of thirteen. Fortunately, this is written for middle schoolers so it’s not too difficult to solve. 

  • We can start with the top line. We know that 3 times something equals a number that ends in 2. The only number that works for is 4, revealing that the first line must be 24.
  • The second line has a smudged digit in the tens place and we know that multiplied by the newly-discovered 4 must end with a 6. Unlike above, we have two options that could be: 4 (as 4 x 4 = 16) and 9 (9 x 4 = 36). 
  • The fourth row would be the product of the second-line smudged digit and 24, but we can see clearly that it has three digits. That means that the second line can only be 9 because 24 times 4 is only a two-digit number.

That gives us enough to go on: 24 x 93 = 2232. That is the answer!

Gaining that isn’t quite enough because we are then prompted to supply the next three items in a sequence of numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, xx, xx, xx

Naturally these are Fibonacci numbers, every middle school math whiz’s favorite numerical sequence. First written about in Europe by Leonardo Bonacci in 1202 (he was given the name “Fibonacci” hundreds of years later), the next number in the sequence may be constructed by adding the two previous numbers (1+1=2, 2+1=3, 3+2=5, etc.) Mathematicians in India had known of the sequence for a thousand years, but Fibonacci brought the sequence to a European audience. (Fibonacci, perhaps more importantly, also advocated and wrote about the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals as a replacement for Roman numerals. This may be partly an inspiration for the “MIX” puzzle earlier in the game, especially if that history had been included in a lesson plan.) 

In any event, the next three numbers in the sequence are 21, 34, and 55. I enter the numbers and open the safe to reveal a book. We win!

Naturally, their greatest treasure would be a math textbook. What did you expect?

Vaguely biblical.

Time Played: 1 hr 10 min
Score: 100% (“Adventurer”)

This was a fun, if brief, adventure game. Naturally a 40-something guy is going to do better than a 5th grader, but its charm shows through. Unfortunately, it’s not quite as good of a game as its sequel: The Islands of Beta has a fantastic overlapping structure where you solve the game’s meta-puzzle (graph traversal) while solving individual adventure game-style puzzles. Alpha is a simpler and more linear game, but also shows Kraus’s newness to the format due to the graphical quirks, the strange dead ends, and a few parser challenges. 

I’m glad that I was able to play and research this game. Even if we give it a low score, it’s been more than worth my time.

Let’s break it down:

Puzzles and Solvability: The game is nearly all puzzles, but they don’t fit together well. Why would people from Alpha use Roman numerals? How did we get into a locked storage room with no way out? How does going down a hole land us in a telephone booth? The final logic puzzle was my favorite to solve, but several of the puzzles solved along the way may have been joyful for young students. Let’s go with 2 points.

Interface and Inventory: As best I can tell Kraus (or Milliken) produced their own engine for this game and that may explain the rough parser. It features none of the usual abbreviations (we must type “go south”, for example), plus doesn’t work well with synonyms such as “pour” and “fill”. Let’s go with 2 points again.

Like any good math game, Alpha uses metric!

Story and Setting: There is the core of a good story here, a sort of Indiana Jones exploration of a long-forgotten tribe in search of a treasure. Unfortunately, we needed a bit more flavor text and graphics to get there. I have been waffling over this score, but I’m going to give it a 3.

Sound and Graphics: We have basic (and optional) sounds and the graphics aren’t terrible for their time. There honestly isn’t that much to go on here. We’ve given 1s to games with almost no graphics or sound so the presence of both more or less requires a 2. 

Environment and Atmosphere: Although the story sounds like a mathematical Indiana Jones, the atmosphere never quite gets there. There is some tension, especially with the poisoned gas room, but it doesn’t hang together well enough to make more than a fleeting impression. My score: 1.

Dialog and Acting: The text in the game is serviceable with a nice introduction and help. Let’s score this a 2 as well.

That makes our final score ((2+2+3+2+1+2)/.6) = 20 points. I’m tempted to keep it like that, but I’ve had the image of the lonely telephone booth on a dusty planet stuck in my head for three decades. That must count for something. +1 bonus point!

Not surprisingly, Adventure Alpha scores lower than its sequel. I’m half tempted to play Lantern next to see if they continue to improve. These were games designed to be played in 40-minute chunks in a classroom and play that part very well, but it’s likely Kraus and Milliken would have needed to invest further to make games for wider distribution. 

I am off to work on Space Quest V again, just as soon as my laptop arrives. I hope you enjoyed this side trip. It’s been a while since I was able to research and write properly (rather than just do play-by-plays) and I will be glad to get back to shorter “Missed Classics” with more research soon. Please comment below as you solve Kraus’s puzzles. I am eager to see whether our community can solve them. (You can also find his original “Hatching Answers” from the Ohio Journal of School Mathematics, Winter 1991 issue, on their website.)


  1. I'll start with the easiest ones:
    7 jbaqref bs gur jbeyq
    88 cvnab xrlf
    52 jrrxf va n lrne
    9 cynargf bs gur fbyne flfgrz (abg nalzber)
    12 fvtaf bs gur mbqvnp
    24 ubhef va n qnl
    29 qnlf va Sroehnel va n yrnc lrne

    But I have to ask: are many of these related to American culture? Because I suspect that if they are they will be much more difficult (at least for me) to solve. E.g. the 40 seems to be
    40 qnlf naq avtugf bs gur ???
    but I have no idea what.
    I suspect it is something like the 12 days of Christmas, that is not very common knowledge in Europe.

    1. There might be some American-centric ones, but not 40. That is "40 qnlf naq avtugf bs gur terng sybbq." The only tricky part (other than the whole point being tricky) is that "Terng Sybbq" is a cultural reference that might translate differently into other languages, though I am certain you know the reference.

      The only one that I am certain is an American reference is also in some ways the most obvious: "9 = qvtvgf va n fbpvny frphevgl ahzore". (Because "FFA" is the abbreviation of that number and so an American that sees it doesn't even need to know the words...)

      Then again, I have solved them all. (Yet?)

    2. Ah, okay, I completely missed that one (and probably because of the fact that, like you said, "Terng Sybbq" is a little different in Italian, so it is not as obvious.

  2. Black coffee’s not enough for me, I need a better friend.
    Always nice to see some TMBG references.

  3. 1 = jurry ba n havplpyr
    50 = jnlf gb yrnir lbhe ybire
    7 = pbybhef bs gur envaobj
    8 = fvqrf ba n gbc fvta
    13 = qbahgf va n onxref qbmra

    Also, 9 = D in a S S N would be S I N in Canada (vafhenapr)

    50, 8 and 13 might be somewhat American/Canadian centric.

    1. 50, 9 and 13 could be North American, but not the others (7 in particular I don't know how I could have missed it!)

      and talking of SSN, I suspect that another American-centric one is:
      5 qvtvgf va n mvc pbqr

      while another more "international":
      8 abgrf va na bpgnir

    2. You're right about 5. The Canadian equivalent has 6.

      Don't know why I didn't get 8 since my few non-computer talents lies in that area.

  4. I'll jump in with two more.

    18 jurryf ba n frzv
    2 nyy orrs cnggvrf ba n frfnzr frrq oha

  5. I have been delayed again thanks to the end of semester blues. I will resume posting as soon as I can. With luck, I'll have a post out next week.