Trade Wars is the title, with some variations in spelling and capitalization, of a series of computer games dating back to the early days of personal computing. Based on influences from Star Trek, Star Wars, and early strategy door games for bulletin board systems, Trade Wars was an early example of the appeal of online games. During the height of its popularity in the early 1990s, Trade Wars was the preeminent BBS door game, played by tens of thousands of computer enthusiasts around the world.
The first game with the title, "Trade Wars" by Chris Sherrick, was developed in BASIC for the TRS-80, and immediately ported to the IBM PC for the Nochange BBS system in 1984. Though other space trading games appeared earlier, including "DECWAR" 1974 and "MegaWars" 1983, Sherrick states that he was unfamiliar with either game, and conceived his game as a cross between Dave Kaufman's BASIC program "Star Trader" 1974, the board game "Risk", and Gregory Yob's "Hunt the Wumpus" 1972.
Because Sherrick released his earliest versions with a free license, variations of the game proliferated. By 1993, Computer Gaming World remarked "Many versions are circulating ... Except for the core concepts and basic mechanics, no two boards seem to carry the same exact game."  Some of these variants include TWV - Galactic Armageddon, Yankee Trader, and TW2 (a development of the original by John Morris who took over from Chris Sherrick).
The most definitive version was the TradeWars 2002 series (Gary Martin, John Pritchett, 1986). TW2002 was designed originally as a WWIV chain (a way of calling external programs which was a part of Turbo Pascal 3 - and one that often required the source code to work, which is why so many people were able to get copies) in September 1986 by a sysop with the handle "Lord Darkseid" (his BBS was called Apokolips, and he was apparently a DC Comics fan). Its original name was TW2 for WWIV - and it shared no source code with the Sherrick version, which was written in Basic. Another WWIV sysop - B0b "OM" Mosley - made additional modifications, including porting the code to Turbo Pascal 4.x specifications, numerous bug fixes, a series of cosmetic changes to allow the game to reflect a Star Trek theme, and development of a map editor that allowed for both larger maps and the ability to randomly generate new maps as well as reinitialize the game's databases to reflect the new map data. After two years of development, Mosley released the source code for the game and editor, which allowed fellow WWIV sysop Gary Martin to make his own changes to the included source code. Gary's first version was Trade Wars 2001, and it contained many of the base features. It also used exactly the same TWSECT.DAT file (the file with contains the information on all of the warp points in the game) as Trade Wars 2002.
While TW2001 was well received, Gary (who was a Traveller game master) decided to expand the game further. In addition to the port in Sector 1 where you could buy fighters/shields/holds, another port was added called the Stardock where you could buy new types of ships. Over a period of time, feature after feature was added, so that Trade Wars 2002 V0.96 was a very different game than Trade Wars 2002 V1.00. TW2002 V1.00 was released in June 1991. One of the major design choices made was influenced by changes in the BBS software — WWIV author Wayne Bell had rewritten the WWIV BBS System using Turbo C instead of Turbo Pascal. This meant that classic Chain programs would no longer work, and Trade Wars 2002 V2 used a general purpose door library which allowed the game to be run under other brands of BBS software for the first time.
TW2002 V1, V2, & V3 were BBS mainstays throughout the 1990s. In 1998, Gary Martin sold the Trade Wars license to John Pritchett. John and his company, EIS, developed a stand-alone game server, TWGS, which has allowed Trade Wars to survive beyond the BBS era.
Though specifics vary from one version to another, in general the player is a trader in a galaxy with a fixed set of other players (either human or computer). The players seek to gain control of resources: usually fuel, ore, food, and equipment, and travel through sectors of the galaxy trading them for money or undervalued resources. Players use their wealth to upgrade their spaceship with better weapons and defenses, and fight for control of planets and starbases.
Since the basics of the game structure are numerical, these games are not reliant on high resolution graphics or rapid processing, which makes them ideally suited to low-resource computing platforms.
Today, classic Trade Wars is primarily hosted by Windows NT/2000/XP computers running the Trade Wars Game Server (TWGS), which accepts incoming telnet connections and launches the Trade Wars ASCII game. Trade Wars is also run by many of the surviving BBSs, and variations have been ported to the web, cell phones, and the Palm OS. A major on-line game based on Trade Wars 2002 was under development in the early 2000s under the name "TW: Dark Millennium", later renamed "Exarch". When the developer, Realm Interactive, was acquired by their publisher, NCsoft Austin (Richard Garriott/Destination Games), development of "Exarch" was discontinued. What started as TW: DM was eventually released by NCsoft as "Dungeon Runners".
On July 15, 2007, Sylien Games, in partnership with EIS, announced an open beta on TradeWars Rising, which is a web based replica of the classic text-based game with 2D and 3D graphics. The galaxy is divided into Cluster maps, which are groups of a few dozen solar systems. Through random linking between star Clusters, this construction allows universes of 5,000 star systems or more to be generated. Players can now see where they are, where they are going, and visualize everything and interact by mouse with everything that is in the system. The game play is meant to be the same. TradeWars Rising games are hosted on Sylien's servers and accessed, played, and created through a web interface
In its May 1993 "Telegaming" issue, Computer Gaming World gave Trade Wars two points out of three, stating that for many players "there is no other on-liner than Trade Wars ... This game will be around for a while, in one form or another".
- Jeon Rezvani (2008). Guild Leadership. Lulu.com. p. 175.
- History of Trade Wars Variants
- William J., Shefski (May 1993). "Mining the BBS On-line Games". Computer Gaming World. Golden Empire Publications. p. 68. ISSN 0744-6667. Retrieved 2 March 2018.
- Trade Wars: Dark Millennium Q&A - PC News at GameSpot