Monday, October 25, 2021

Game 438: Burntime (1993)

For a game so ecologically woke, you'd think they'd realize that post-apocalyptic desertification wouldn't necessarily mean the copious growth of cacti.
Max Design (developer and publisher)
Released in 1993 for DOS and Amiga
Date Started: 17 October 2021
Date Ended: 13 November 2021
Total Hours: 8 (unfinished)
Difficulty: Moderate (3.0/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 180/444 (41%)   
We've often talked about how when we were kids, our parents would drive us to the computer store, where we'd drop $40 on a new game and excitedly read the manual on the car ride home. I'm glad I was no longer a kid by 1993, or on the way home, I probably would have wrenched the steering wheel out of my mother's hands and steered into oncoming traffic. Burntime is set in a post-apocalyptic society, and the hefty 129-page manual spends literally the first 77 pages educating the player on all the ways such a society could come about in his lifetime. There are section headings like "Computer Causes Nuclear War," "The Chernobyl Catastrophe," "When the Temperature Rises," and "Oil--the Black Death." There are diagrams quantifying the sensitivity of each human organ towards radiation. There are photographs of starving children. I mean, all this stuff is important to know, but damn, I was just looking for a game.
I feel like for the second part to be true, the first part has to be false.
It would be one thing if the content of the game itself continued the theme and tried to raise awareness of climate change and other environmental issues, but so far it hasn't. While set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it isn't even recognizably Earth. The same material would have made the same amount of sense at the beginning of Dark Sun
There will still be nice sunsets after Armageddon.
Burntime is the fourth game from Max Design, which published strategy and simulation games throughout the 1990s. The company was a partnership between designers Wilfried Reiter, Albert Lasser, and Martin Lasser, all credited here, and Burntime uses an updated version of an interface that the trio wrote for 1869, a sea trading simulator, the previous year.
As the game begins, you choose a portrait and difficulty level and then play against either another human player or a computer-controlled player. Each player's turn lasts five minutes. You enlist followers, amass supplies, and capture cities, all with the ultimate goal of taking over the wasteland. You've got to carefully monitor food and water level, scrounge for sundries, and avoid high-radiation areas. A single "experience" statistic, used in combat and improvable during the game, keeps me from rejecting it as an RPG.

This character portrait looks like he's spent too much time in the wasteland already.
The available character portraits. Twenty years before the character debuted on television, they managed to come up with an exact likeness of Tormund Giantsbane.
The player's initial heroes start outside cities on a map of cities with names like Sherwood, Acid Town, Snake Hills, and One Man's Heaven. The character icons look the same no matter what portrait you chose, only one is green and the other is red. In the CRPG Addict's new glossary entry, this is known as an "FYC" color scheme. All actions in the game are made with the mouse, which is about as welcome to me as the color scheme.
Starting out in the wasteland.
The character sheet shows experience (I started at 37%), condition, the number of days you can go without food and water, and your inventory. Characters can carry only six items, and mine started with four slots already taken, including the knife, which you equip and unequip with the right mouse button.
On the main map, there's not much you can do except travel from place to place, look at your inventory, and check out information for each city. The information screen tells you what sorts of people live in the city, what special items are there, and how much food and water it has available.
Information on the starting town.
Inside each city, there are a few dynamics. NPCs and enemies scurry about the city map, which so far has scrolled to about four screens per city. NPCs come in four types: doctors, technicians, fighters, and traders. Traders bring up a trading interface. With everyone else, you get some limited dialogue options. Everyone can be asked "What's up?" to hear his basic story. You can also ask NPCs to join you, but most of them want something. In the first town I explored, I met a fighter named Pete who wanted some meat, which I had. In the second town, I met a bunch of NPCs who all wanted snakes.
Occasionally, an NPC gives you part of the recipe for some contraption. For instance, I can apparently make a rat trap (for food) with screws, wood, and some third "ingredient." I found some wire in the same city, and I'm guessing that's it. A hand pump (which I think helps with a city's water) requires a hose as one of its ingredients. You find these items with traders and just lying around cities or in buildings, randomized for each new game. This approach reminds me a bit of Scavengers of the Mutant World (1988).
You can travel with NPC companions or assign them to stay put in a particular city. As long as you've killed all the enemies in that city, assigning an NPC there causes you to "take it over." This has logistical implications that I haven't yet really mastered.
That leaves combat. I hate it so much. The only enemies that have shown up in the first few cities are wild dogs. To fight them, you have to right-click to change the cursor to a combat cursor (meaning you can no longer talk to anyone) and then click on the enemies when they're in range. The problem is first that the enemies don't stay in range; they wander all over the place while you're trying to fight them. Second, the enemies move too fast to really click "on" them, so you end up clicking furiously near them, hoping that some of your clicks manage to hit them. Meanwhile, they're also hitting you and reducing your "condition." Enemies drop goods when they die; for instance, the dogs drop meat.
Trying to click on a dog.
After a couple of trial starts, I settled into the game with a female protagonist (Irene) who began on the far west side of the map, near Sherwood. Here's here travelogue so far:

Day 1:
  • Entered Sherwood.
  • Killed the wild dogs.
  • Enlisted Pete (mercenary) in exchange for meat, assigned him to the city (took it over).
  • Enlisted Ken (mercenary)) for meat and kept him with me.
  • Found wire in town.

Day 2:
  • Traveled south to Acid Town (a main city, which you cannot take over).
  • Enlisted Babe (medic) and Chang (technician), both for meat.
  • Talked to a lot of other NPCs, mostly mercenaries, but didn't get any info.

Day 3:
  • Moved south to Dogshit City.
  • Killed all the dogs, collected meat.
  • Searched houses.
  • Found woodpile, dead rat, bones, snake.
  • Left Ken to hold the town.

Combat goes faster with multiple party members, so I guess they're all participating. Enemy hits cause your condition to drop, but it regenerates slowly as long as it doesn't fall below 70%. If it does, you need a doctor in the party to regenerate. If it falls below 50%, you have to pay one of the doctors in a capital city to help.

"Experience" goes up slowly with your victories. Irene, who started at 37%, ended her second day of dog-slaughtering at around 43%. The other characters started at over 50%.
Taverns have interesting scenes, but I can't figure out what to do there.
Day 4:
  • Moved south to Left End.
  • Killed a couple of mutants.
  • Enlisted warrior named Axle, immediately left him to hold town.
  • Found iron bars, knife.
Visiting a "water house."
Some of the towns have services in their buildings, but I can't figure out how to interact with some of them, like taverns. They just show a splash screen where any click causes you to leave. Perhaps there is no way to interact with them. Other buildings have traders or restaurants. Particularly prized are houses with water, where you automatically replenish yourself with a few days' worth of water. (I can't seem to figure out how to fill up canteens there, however.) You have to keep a constant eye on your and your companions' food and water values, lest they die or leave you.
I'm not entirely sure what it gets me to "take over" cities except that I can somehow call upon their resources at some future event.
Day 5:
  • Moved back north to Dogshit City.

You don't actually move across the map; you click on a destination, the screen goes dark, and then the screen comes back on with the party at the new location. At each location, you can see what paths are available to other locations. Left End, as the name suggests, was at the end of its path, so there was nothing to do but to move back to the previous location. Any movement ends the current day and starts the next one.

Day 6:
  • Moved east to a monastery.
  • Visited a water house.
  • Killed a couple of dogs. 
  • Enlisted a mercenary named Jeff in exchange for some rats, left him to hold the location.
The monastery had a cut scene with a priest but nothing else I could figure out what to do.
It's good to know that Catholicism survived the apocalypse.
I hate this interface. I hate it so much that after every couple of paragraphs, I'm checking my word count to see if it's high enough that I can post this entry and get a reprieve from this game for a few days. There is no excuse for an interface that forces you to use the same device (clicking on the screen) for moving as it does for action commands. The mouse should have been required for targeting specific enemies and NPCs only. That's exactly why you'd want a mouse--there's no good way to do that with a keyboard. Everything else--switching to inventory, switching from the local map to the main map, toggling between "talk" and "fight" modes--should have been a simple stroke of a key.
Day 7:
Moved east to Numea, but the "Info" box warned me that the city was full of toxic gas. Lacking any protection, I moved on.
A warning not to enter a town. I probably find a gas mask somewhere.
Day 8:
  • Southeast to the town of Muarab.
  • Killed three dogs and a mutant.
  • Found an empty water bottle.
  • Enlisted a mercenary named Peter and left him to hold the town.
The towns to my south and west are held by another faction, so now I have to decide if I want to attack them an explore that part of the game.

Day 9:
Southwest to the town of Sana, occupied by some faction with a blue or purple flag. Only one NPC in town didn't give me the option to say "Do you want to work for me?," so I figured that was the other faction's agent. I killed him, enlisted a doctor to join me, and was able to assign him to the town. That's all it took to take it over. Does that mean that my enemies will have an equally easy time?
You should bargain a bit harder.
NPCs all have the same message: everything sucks, everyone is on the brink of starvation. A single rat or snake carcass is enough to buy someone's loyalty. The "recipes" I'm getting are for things like rat traps and hand pumps, both of which might marginally increase a town's food and water supply. Fallout isn't a tenth as hopeless.
"How many maggots do you have in storage?"--a question not asked by any other game.
That's about all I can take, even though it will make for a short entry. It's been a while since I recorded an "N" in the "Won?" column, but I'm thinking I might do it for Burntime. I'm getting nothing from this game. If the authors wanted me to ponder their social message, they should have put it in the context of a more interesting title. 
Later addendum:
I kept playing for several more hours, but I found Burntime aggressively unpleasant in a way that goes beyond any of its individual elements. I'm having a hard time describing exactly why. Every time I started the game, I felt the energy drain from my body and mind, and more likely than not, I'd simply dither around for a few minutes and shut it off. I suspect it isn't even that difficult to win, but I can't bring myself to do it. I'm having a tough time forcing myself to even write about it. Given all of this, there was no chance I was going to jump right back into it after an unexpected hiatus of several weeks.
I don't even want to go over the GIMLET. I gave it a 23. It does best in its use of NPCs (4) and its tight economy (4), worst in character development (1) and in a horrible mouse-only interface that subtracts from anything good it dos in graphics and sound (1). Maybe I'll try again when I things aren't so busy. 


  1. A game where you have to *kill dogs*? And then strip their carcasses for meat? Jesus.

    1. I'm playing Assassin's Creed: Valhalla on the console right now. To fulfill all the hunting quests, you need to collect about a dozen dogs' fangs, but I've never been attacked by a hostile dog even once in the game. Is the game really expecting me to just kill random dogs in the settlements? It's a pretty evil game, so I suppose so.

    2. Killing wild dogs/wolves/etc. is fairly common in RPGs? and getting meat from them is at least better than finding gold coins or whatever. Overly aggressive wildlife is a staple of gaming in general tbh.

    3. True, but in this game you have to specifically chase them down to kill them. They'll definitely attack you, but only if you run right up to them. This is definitely a case where you're killing the dogs FOR food, not killing them and then just happening to use the resulting food.

    4. Think of it as the Chernobyl miniseries...

    5. Rolling any character in World of Warcraft has you murdering nonlethal creatures for the first few quests.

      Druid guide: "The grove is overpopulated, you must cull the panthers"

      You: "Um, cull them, like, with this club? Like, walk up to a panther and just start pounding its head in?"

      Druid guide: "Yes, that is nature's way."

    6. Chet, I know you said "in exchange for" the first time, but whenever you said you hired an NPC "for meat" I thought what was happening was even darker than with the dogs.

    7. Same. I started scrolling up, looking for the passage I missed where he talked about butchering people, before I realized my mistake.

    8. Given how bleak this game is, I wouldn't be surprised if that was a possibility.

  2. This is not really an rpg so maybe just ad brief to the title and go on

    1. Trust me, I tried to justify that, but it does fit my definitions.

    2. Strategy/simulation games are going to include RPG mechanics more and more, as will other genres. You'll need to make deeper judgements at some point, and 1993 seems as good a place to start as any.

    3. I think you should stick to your current definition. It does define the basics of a CRPG well. Just give this one the minimum if it is so unenjoyable.

    4. I think at least for the 90s era on, you can easily amend your definition to require the game to differentiate between at least two character builds, expressed either as classes or as numerical stats. Because a lot of the games from now one will have simple levelling mechanics but aren't anywhere near being RPGs.

    5. It seems like the time to complete the number of games in 1994 and going forward with their length that choices will need to be made about what and how long to play in the future.

    6. I think every time Chet plays a game that could be conceivably described as a strategy game, we should have this discussion until he makes a rule about "not having that %$&@ing discussion any more."

    7. Our blogger is an obsessive type and I was trying to provide the emotional support for him to change. He seemed genuinely unhappy here. I thought the "It's 1993!" was a new enough angle that it was worth a shot. :)

    8. My curiosity has me really wondering what is going to happen when RPGmaker created games hit the scene, and the number per year goes up exponentially

    9. That specifically is unlikely to be a big issue. The vast majority of games started in RPG Maker are never finished or are of obviously low quality and thus easily dismissed even without applying any "non-commercial games don't count for the list" filter.

      Not to mention that it wasn't until XP that the RPG Maker series was officially available in English, and even pirate copies didn't show up until 2000. Meaning that most of the games made with the engine until the early 00s are in Japanese only.

    10. I thought our intrepid author had a time limit rule for games he was having a hard time with playing or am I mistaken? If you've played a long enough period of time to get a sense of how CRPG the games is and can't stand it, by all means wrap it up.

  3. "Hi There! I'm Troy McClure, you might remember me from such apocalyptic educational films as, "The Chernobyl Catastrophe," "When the Temperature Rises," and "Oil--the Black Death.""

    1. Right, they all do sound like some '70s disaster movies, good call!

  4. Burntime is one of those games that I always kind of liked "in concept" but which falls apart really quickly when you actually start playing it.

    It does really stick out in Max Designs ludography. Seems to have been a bit of an experiment. They otherwise made a bunch of games basically tailor-made for the German DOS gaming market before hitting the real big leagues with Anno 1602, which really was a sublime game in its genre. And then they development hell'd all that away again with Anno 1503. Alas.

  5. I remember seeing this game on an abandonware site, and thinking it looked pretty cool in a Fallout-y way, but I never actually played it. Looks like I made the right choice, will be interested to see how far you stick with it.

    1. It’s basically a strategy board game with lite RPG elements. However it’s key badly thought out; hardly anything is explained, and it’s pretty buggy to boot. Great idea for a game but really badly done

  6. What does the 'Keep Out' image from the manual even depict?!

    It's not a mushroom cloud, or is it? I see like five different things in there, from a ferret and fireworks to a xeroxed Goya painting...

    Suggestions are welcome ;)

    1. Now I see it, it is indeed Earth from space...

      ...which still doesn't explain who should keep out and why? Questions over questions.

    2. Right, the planet Earth, as seen from space, complete with cloud cover.

    3. I guess, but it doesn't look like any part of the Earth, outside of being a ball with what looks like cloud cover. I don't think there's going to be much of a game if the entire planet is just pure black, that sounds slightly more unsafe than your usual post-apocalyptic game.

    4. I see Africa, the Arabian peninsula, part of South America (but I don't see Europe). It's very cloudy.

    5. Anyone who is not already on Earth should keep out, because it's radioactive and that can't be good.

  7. I bought that game when I was a teenager and was actually quite happy with the manual (and playing the game). Compared to what other games offered, the Burntime manual gave me the feeling that the devs/publisher had put in some effort by even providing some scientific information on the topic of the game. That probably also had something to do with the timing - I remember those years as a time when ecologial concerns were on the rise in Germany (or maybe I was getting more aware of the topic).

    But the game is clearly a strategy game and not an RPG in my mind. I don't think there any story/quests involved but it's all about controlling the access to the big cities while acquiring enough resources to avoid starvation.

    On the topic of water houses: I think that you can leave empty bottles in there and they fill up over time. And leaving traps/knifes in other places should generate food. But might not remember that correctly, it was a long time ago.

    1. It works like that indeed. You can leave water bottles etc in a room with water and they fill up automatically over time. If there is sufficient water while you are there, you can also right click on the bottle and it will fill up immediately.

      Traps/knifes etc produce food, but only if you leave the waystation crewed and only it is of the type indicated on the info screen.

  8. Well, at least it delivers on its name by burning away some of your free time.

    Its themes of a slow ecological collapse reminds me that Transarctica was released this same year by Silmarils. That's a pure strategy-sim though so I don't imagine it will show up here. You'll be getting your Silmarils fill after Ishar 2 anyway, I suspect.

  9. The title screen looks like a closeup of a wheat field TBH
    ...not that that makes any sense

    1. Ecological catastrophe caused by monocultures. :P

    2. "It's time to burn all that wheat!"
      "Oh no! You can't put our entire farming output to the flame!"


      a post apocalypse caused by arsonists

    3. I'd guess it's a language pun. A term for plants turning yellow and ready for harvest has something to do with fire in many languages. In Finnish it's for example "tuleentuminen", loosely translated as something like "flamening". Any German speakers here?

    4. Nope, it's not like that in German at all. I think it's more like that wheat is pretty flammable, and if an entire wheat field burns down it leaves nothing but scorched earth, which happens immediately after that starting screen. Other than that, the developers pretty much only picked the band because they felt the name evoked a post apocalyptic atmosphere.

    5. That theory went up in flames faster than I expected!

    6. Here's the intro. It shows a picturesque town and a wheatfield, then cutting to post-apocalyptical images. The cornfield is there to show the fertile land/unspoiled countyside (never mind the monocultures) before the apocalypse.

    7. By the time I wrote about the game and was looking through the screenshots, I had forgotten that the "wheat" field (which I took for cacti) was the beginning of a cinematic. I thought it was just the main title screen. My caption was thus a bit unfair and misleading.

  10. I'm pretty sure Max Design is Austrian, not German. Apart from their big hit Anno 1602, they had a series of business simulations called "history relived" (featuring trade in the 19th century, early automobile construction, ...). These also had manuals with extensive sections about the historical background.

    I've played Burntime back in the day, never got nearly as far as you did. I either got killed or ran out of food quickly. It looked like a great game, but just wasn't any fun. Your coverage of the game is long enough and probably more than it deserves.

    1. They were, from Schladming: I only knew them for Anno. Austrians sure did some unusual and experimental games. I'm thinking about Whale's Voyage, too.

    2. Thanks for the correction. That makes this slightly more notable, then, as it's the first Austrian RPG we've seen.

  11. Day 3:
    Moved south to Dogshit City.
    Killed all the dogs.
    Renamed the city.

    1. Chet's soul is being tormented by this game. How does he soothe it? By sharing his pain. He takes Irene to Dogshit City, not once but twice!! The torment is real. (it's all tongue in cheek people)

      When Chet expresses his angst about a game might be the posts I laugh at the most. Not because I enjoy him suffering, but because we have all been there and can relate. And I think he does a great job in expressing his disgust.

    2. Take me down to the Dogshit City
      Where I kill all dogs
      And rename that city

      Take me home!

    3. @Krtek That actually made me laugh out loud! Well played sir!

    4. Thirded, audible laughter was produced.

  12. Wow, they mangled that quote. "I don't know what weapons WW3 will be fought with" doesn't imply that it doesn't make a difference.

    The Fallout manual had a bunch of flavor text about how nuclear weapons work, how radioactive fallout will affect people, etc. But it worked because the manual is diegetic. It's presented as a book that would have actually existed in-universe to help people survive an apocalypse. It only spends about 8 of the 100+ pages on it, and hints at a larger universe by teasing similar books for surviving different types of disasters

    It's interesting, because it's clearly inspired by Wasteland, but it feels like Interplay had to have taken some cues from Burntime too. The manual flavor text, UI design, isometric view, and overall tone gives the impression that someone at Interplay played Burntime, saw a unique take on Wasteland with shoddy execution but some good ideas, and used it as a jumping-off point

    Then again, maybe these tropes were super common in the early-mid 90s and I'm reading too much into it, but it seems like potentially contributing to Fallout's DNA is the only interesting thing going for it

    1. I've read a couple of post apoc pen and paper RPGs such as Aftermath! (gloriously complex simulationist game), and of course watched Mad Max and all the 80s and 90s B-movie clones. It was a pretty popular genre around the turn of the decade. Fallout arrived at the tail end of it so it could gobble up quite a few diverse influences.

  13. It's a shame how almost no one does educational games well. At least this one is an actual game and not 20 minutes of interactive nagging.

  14. I actually liked this game quite a bit. Maybe the concept that you could combine various items to build new contraptions did grip my imagination a bit too much, there are not really all that many items you can create after all.

    Also I thought it was kind of fun to explore the map. Sure, the game is small and that enjoyment will not last very long, but the game isn't a big game anyway.

    And of course they could have tried to make a much bigger game out of this, but to me it was mostly fine the way it was. The one thing that I really hated was the "endgame", though. Exploring and building up production was perfectly serviceable for me but getting rid of your competitors is just extremely tedious.

  15. It actually got good reviews back in the day. I tried playing it but always failed pretty quickly. By all accounts, it should be something I like, but isn't.
    The idea of a really ressource-strapped world with RPG elements, making do with what you have, and building an empire, has lots of potential. The later fallout games that have base-building, the world is actually too rich. Too much useful stuff. Another game like this should focus more on the survival aspects.

  16. This is my collected wisdom from the game, but no guarantees!
    You have to leave items in the building top be used by the owner of the spot. Knifes create some maggots per day, the different traps leave dead rats/meat/snakes. Each location has a number of rations of water created per day as well as a number of rations of water that can be stored. When you leave containers they get filled - as long as the water production is higher than one. Because the person living there is drinking and eating.
    If you don't kill all the dogs they will replicate - providing food.
    You can assemble two types of pumps, which increase water production.
    In the cities you can just drop an item on the head of the person to pay for the services. You can find some gold bars in the game - the people in the cities give you maximum service for a gold bar.
    What else ... You have to make sure that food and water production is higher than 1, so owning the location is earning you something over time.
    Fighting against anything but dogs is not always something worth your health.
    I never found the recipe for the radiation suit - but I found one. Same for the gasmask.
    ... You really need to slow down emulator speed, the enemies should be skittering around, but not impossible to hit.

    All in all: this is a trading simulation, and barely an RPG. I have no clue, what the experience score does. But at least different weapons kill things fast or slower...


    1. It's a cliche ... German games are often partially a trading simulation. Even our RPGs...

    2. Oh one thing: different foods provide a different amount of satisfaction.
      Maggots for one day, Rats 3, snakes 4, meat (from dogs) 6 days. At least that's what I remember.
      As I wrote the person guarding the location will eat and drink, but the additional product will be stored in the "shelter" ... there is always one shelter building in a location. There the tools, containers and produced food is stored.
      By the way I never played the game alone - it has hot-seat multiplayer. I'd say if you play cautious and don't risk to many fights you can win this without much effort in 8-10 hours.

  17. Oh, this game!

    When I was a kidhad it as shareware, never came far because of the time/turn(?) limitation of that version. Recently thought on it because Fallout 4 and its base mechanics.

    Too bad you haven't much fun with it.

  18. I wonder if Chet has played Disco Elysium before, and if he has.. please not have turned off the music..

  19. BTW: I suggest some obscure European/German CRPGs for the C64 I didn't find in the master game list
    - Shadows of the Evil from Hungary
    - Tygus Horx (German language)
    - Magische Steine

    I hope this comment doesn't get me kicked. If there is a better to suggest games, please Chet, let me know. Thanks.

    1. In general, I haven't found GB64's genre classifications to be consistent or accurate enough to trust their catalog. But if you have personal experience with these games and think they're RPGs by my definitions, I'll check them out.

    2. As you've since played the first two of these three (and I assume you recall the experience...), it's maybe worth mentioning that the last, 'Magische Steine', a diskmag game written by a 15 year old, is already quite extensely documented (in German) on

      Based on that coverage, it fails element 3 of your CRPG definition (PC only gains max. HP). You could probably also decide to reject it as amateur effort with no innovation or accolades. No character creation, no attributes, combat based on rolls only. Or make it a BRIEF, whatever works best for you.


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