Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Retrospective: The Awful Green Things from Outer Space


If boardgame designers had their own religion, surely Tom Wham would be their god of mischief. Over the course of the last 30+ years, he's designed some of the most delightfully offbeat but playable games I've ever owned, including my personal favorite, 1980's The Awful Green Things from Outer Space.

TAGTFOS, like many Tom Wham efforts, appeared first in the pages of Dragon magazine, but, when TSR was looking to expand its product lines into the realm of family boardgames, it was one of several games chosen for this purpose. Since I never owned issue 28 of Dragon, the boxed version was my first encounter with the game and I loved it from the first. Much like Dungeon!, it very quickly became a staple of my gaming group, something we'd play when we were waiting for our friends to arrive for the RPG session or when we didn't have the time to run an adventure module or whatever.

I think what we liked about the game was that it wasn't just playable but re-playable. Much of the game play was pretty random, from the placement of starting positions to the effectiveness of various tactics, and that ensured that every game was different. A strategy that might work in one game wasn't guaranteed to work in another, because each game had its own unique starting conditions. Success in TAGTFOS was dependent on being a quick thinker who could roll with the random punches the dice threw at you.

Sometimes that was frustrating, I'll admit, and it wasn't uncommon to have victory snatched from your grasp because the canister of Zgwortz didn't work the "right" way this time around, but that was also part of the game's fun. Its loony unpredictability guaranteed that, even if you did find yourself overwhelmed by the Green Things, you had fun nonetheless. Indeed, sometimes it was more fun to lose the game spectacularly than it was to eke out a narrow victory against the odds. Perhaps there's a lesson here for us in the old school movement, as we try to convince our wayward brethren of the joys of random mayhem and death.

18 comments:

  1. The random nature of the game certainly added replay value and I must admit I even "borrowed" the game and used it for a Star Trek scenario by substituting a few doodads from the trek game and not showing the players the map of the ship.

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  2. I've still got my version from Dragon 28! I need to dust it off and play with my kids...

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  3. Never played them, but always thought they looked interesting.

    Happy Canada Day, James.

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  4. I played the recent Steve Jackson reprint and had a lot of fun. Sadly that too is out of print now, but it might be relatively easy to find second hand.

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  5. Never actually played the game, although I've played a bunch of other Wham games over the years.

    Happy Canada Day.

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  6. I hereby call dibs on using Random Mayhem & Death as a game title... maybe I shoulda put little "TM" next to that... hmmm...

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  7. It's surprising that no one's applied the 'retro-clone' idea to board games. Perhaps it's because there's no one dominant game, as there is in role-playing.

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  8. I loved Dungeon! back in the day.

    I had, what I think was, the 2nd edition. The one where the cards did not fit over the rooms and you had all the "RIP" tokens to place over the room.

    I lost it, like I did a lot of my pre-1989 stock of games, but I picked up a 1st ed version (the one the size of the old Basic sets) and later a 3rd Ed version at our local game auction. It has been a family favorite ever since.

    I am so glad you reminded me of TAGTFOP. I might have to keep and out for that one too.

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  9. I still have the SJG mini-game version of TAGTFOS (along with Illuminati 1-3) sitting on a shelf in my closet.

    It is a simple game, but fun and with a good amount of replayability.

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  10. This game is a classic beer and pretzels game. Great to play when time is limited or the beer is beginning to take its toll. I've got the original game and always enjoyed it. This is my favorite Tom Wham game.

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  11. Yeah, one of my favorite games. I have owned the green clamshell case version from SJG for what, 20 years? I recently broke it out of storage and taught it to one of my friends, and we had a lot of fun with it.

    But you failed to mention the included minigame of seeing what happened to the crew if they lose the ship but can escape in the saucer or shuttle! I'm pretty sure I spent a few hours in high school just rolling on those tables over and over again to see the worst possible fate I could get. I love it when games include little "sub games" like this.

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  12. Back in the day at Aero in Santa Monica we played this a lot. At one point more than anything else. It was so damn funny. Nobody ever got mad at losing.

    >and it wasn't uncommon to have victory snatched from your grasp<

    Just like somebody suddenly getting the f*cking warhorse in Talisman.

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  13. "But you failed to mention the included minigame of seeing what happened to the crew if they lose the ship but can escape in the saucer or shuttle! I'm pretty sure I spent a few hours in high school just rolling on those tables over and over again to see the worst possible fate I could get. I love it when games include little "sub games" like this."

    I agree! :)

    http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2009/06/games-within-games.html

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  14. This was one of my favorite games of all time, together with Divine Right, Warrior Knights, Illuminati, and Wooden Ships and Iron Men. It's a masterpiece.

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  15. I must admit I even "borrowed" the game and used it for a Star Trek scenario by substituting a few doodads from the trek game and not showing the players the map of the ship.

    That's simply awesome -- and very appropriate, I think.

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  16. I hereby call dibs on using Random Mayhem & Death as a game title... maybe I shoulda put little "TM" next to that... hmmm...

    As long as I get my cut, you're welcome to it.

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  17. I loved this game and played it over and over, solo and with others. I think it's broken, though: if you take the entire Znutar crew to the escape ships on turn one and run the endgame for all of them, it's practically a mathematical certainty that you'll get enough points to win, without any conflict.

    The crew also has the edge if they stay and fight by testing out as many weapons as possible as fast as possible. In spite of all that it's still a fun game if you play it in the spirit in which it's intended. Time to dust it off...

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