Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Retrospective: TSR Mini-Games

I'm not a wargamer and have never claimed to be otherwise. I've known many wargamers throughout my life and some, like my friend's father and brother, were among those who first introduced me to the hobby of roleplaying. I've played wargames, of course, and even enjoyed the experience from time to time, but, on the whole, I don't have the patience or attention to detail necessary to be a proper wargamer. Likewise, while I have an interest in military history, my interest is insufficiently obsessive to want to recreate famous battles on my dining room table.

I like the idea of wargaming and I often feel like I ought to be kicked out of the old school clubhouse for not having played a lot of ASL or Third Reich back in the day. This applies equally to miniatures wargaming, which I find even more attractive than hex and chit wargaming, but, despite my best efforts to muster some enthusiasm for these foundations of our hobby, I just can't do it. Something about the reality of wargaming is at odds with my expectations about it, which is why I've never managed to get into anything more wargame-like than Axis & Allies and even that pushed the limits of my mental endurance.

On the other hand, I was a huge fan of the mini-games produced by a number of companies in the early 80s. Not all of these little games could be described as wargames, but some of them were and I found them to be just the right level of complexity for my feeble mind to grasp. TSR published a number of these and I devoured them as a kid. My favorite was Revolt on Antares, which was a science fiction game designed by Tom Moldvay. Two to four players took on the roles of various factions to take control of the planet Imhirrhos in the Antares system. It was a very simple game but not so simple that it didn't provide plenty of replay value and replay it I did. Other games in the series included Vampyre, a horror survival game based on Dracula, Saga, based on Norse mythology, and They've Invaded Pleasantville, about an alien invasion of Middle America.

What I most enjoyed about all these games was that their rules were short and easy to learn and thus easy to modify through house rules. I remember that my friends and I created additional chits for use in some of the games, as well as expansions to the tables of random events. These games weren't intimidating to us the way that "real" wargames were and so we allowed our imaginations free rein when it came to altering them. They were great "time filler" games for when we were waiting to start roleplaying or when we didn't have enough time to run an RPG adventure, since most of the games lasted 45 minutes to an hour, which is about the right length for me then and now.

I think I gave away my copies of these games long ago and I regret that now. I'd love to re-acquire them without spending ridiculous amounts of money, especially Revolt on Antares. These may not have been classics of game design, but I enjoyed playing them. In my book, that's the true measure of a game's goodness and these were some good games indeed.

15 comments:

  1. The TSR minigames never really grabbed me ("Attack Force" left a bad taste in my mouth), but microgames are what brought me into the hobby (the kaiju lover in me still thinks SPI's "The Creature That Ate Sheboygan" was second only to "Ogre"). I had some of the big games from AH and SPI, but I could never put as many hours into a session of wargaming as I could roleplaying.

    These days, with the exception of the occasional starship wargame, I barely have enough patience for even a micro. But I can still easily lose myself for a day in a good RPG session. And the social dynamic, of course, is completely different.

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  2. Some other mini games by TSR included Icebergs by Tom Wham (I recently played a day of games with him!!), Remember the Alamo (a more true-to-form historical wargame), and Viking Gods. Mini games (or micro games as many were often called) were a big deal in the 80s and many, many were published by a slew of game companies. Dwarfstar Games published a number of mini games that have since become sought-after classics, some of which are now available free online (though nothing beats having the orginal maps and counters to play with).

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  3. Hate to be so self-promoting like this, but you might want to check out The Massive Vs. The Masses some time. Fairly quick, self-contained deal where one player has a fairly standard war gaming setup, and the other has, essentially, Godzilla.

    The official page for it is here-
    http://tinyurl.com/2bom5h
    and come to think of it, you might also have some interest in the bad cover art spoof/sword and sorcery homage RPG also found on there.

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  4. I played the heck out of Viking Gods, back in the day.

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  5. Those minigames were awesome! Rules and games were really innovative without being overbearing (as in Squad Leader) to make for some great play. Vampyre and They have invaded pleasantville were my favorites. Also, Escape From New York. Wow! That one captured the spirit of that my favorite movie!!!

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  6. I have a copy of all three of those games. :)

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  7. One interesting thing about the wargames community is the fact that there are some parallels with the RPG community in that the experienced hands often want games with increasing levels of complexity, while the higher and higher levels of complexity in games keeps new players from entering the hobby due to a perceived high "cost of entry" in learning all of these complex rules. For example, Starfleet Battles is perhaps the greatest starship combat game ever created, but you have to be really motivated to learn to play a game with a rulebook approaching the size of an average phone book. As another example, I have played wargames for 25 years now, and even I am too intimadated to try to pick up Advanced Squad Leader.

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  8. I loved mini-games when I was a kid. I had Saga and Revolt on Antares. Don't remember a single thing about them.

    Chitin by Metagaming (who I generally thing did the best of the microgame) was my favorite. It was a war game between two rival factions of bugs. The tragedy is that I lost the game at some point and haven't seen it in years. I'd love to get another copy of it.

    Verification word: seque... The transition between the original movie and its follow up.

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  9. I had a copy of Saga as a kid. It had some solitaire options, which was of no small value to me.

    That said, when you're talking about mini-games, Metagaming was definitely the top dog. While everyone mainly remembers Ogre, Melee and Wizard, their other mini-games were quite enjoyable, as well.

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  10. Oh man...I LOVED Melee and Wizard! Ogre was awesome as well. But I remember playing Melee and Wizard with the neighbor boys when we couldn't get a game of D&D going. For some reason I just adored the idea that you could take a portable "snapshot" of the essence of D&D battle with you in your back pocket...anywhere you went. Those two games were my constant companions for years.

    And I still have them! I should introduce my daughters to them. But I haven't looked at them in well over 25 years...I wonder if the magic is still there.

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  11. Played the heck out of Antares and Saga.

    I frequently thought of trying to amp Saga up just a bit into "real" rpg territory. The best thing that I recall was that your Norse Hero could learn magic runes from defeating witches or dark elves. I so wanted to do that in D&D.

    Antares really stuck out because of personalities. The leaders of each house had a special, psychic ability. Simon Fitzgerald (Red) emitted "ion waves" IIRC that boosted his personal troops effectiveness, while Mad Catherine Brangaza (Purple) could call down lightning bolts but with shaky accuracy. The Yellow Guy made illusions so that whenever his units were destroyed, you rolled to see if only an image had been hit, while the Blue Guy could teleport.

    Then there were the various mercenaries you could try and hire, with my favourite being Andros (?)--a rogue android who led the Phantom Regiment (or something like that).

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  12. I never had the TSR mini-games but I still own a bunch of the Metagame boxes, like GEV, Chitin, Rivets, and more.

    As a kid, I taught myself division trying to work out how the combat ratios in those games worked. Who says gaming doesn't make you smarter?!

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  13. Still got a whole bunch of Metagames as well - noone has mentioned Sticks and Stones yet which was neolithic combat. had a lot of fun with Melee and Wizard (and even the "advanced versions and ITL) as well... But the afore mentioned Chitin was brilliant.

    I used Ram Speed as my default naval warfare rules for the various FRPs I was DMing - though the hexes on the maps were a size too small. I ended up using the maps from Air War, so at least they got used for something!

    SPI's Creature That Ate Sheboygan was a bona fide classic. Had a great time with Death Maze as well which was a great "Build the Dungeon as you go" type game. The games that appeared in Ares magazine could be a bit variable but DID include Albion which is one of the great Fantasy Wargames IMHO.

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  14. I sadly missed out on the microgame genre, but I have tried to get similar games of that ilk that come out these days. Ogre/GEV (mid 90s rerelease) is a treasured game of mine and I consider it a continuing crime against gamerdom that SJGames seems unwilling to bring it out yet keeps pumping endless Munchkin boxes.

    I have a couple of those Firey Dragon tin games that are pretty rad, and even a couple of the SJGames pocket box titles. (Car Wars and Battlesuit) I have 2 Cheap@@# games titles I got for a buck a pop and they look pretty cool too, but I am not quite sure they are microgame titles.

    I kind of like the smaller, cheaper, cuter, and more portable games of this nature.

    They hit the sweet spot in price and rules detail. More complex than your average kiddie or adult party boardgame, but not the spergy megadetail of your ASL either.

    Apparently these sorts of games just don't make cash and the companies say there is no market.

    Yet stuff like Battleground Fantasy Warfare seems to at least be such a thing in spirit. Cheap, portable, and scratching an itch the big games think needs to be expensive, and full of rules and bits.

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  15. Melee and Wizard were my introduction to role-playing. We used them as the combat rules, and winged the rest.

    Micro-games are the Flash equivalents of computer games. Why doesn't somebody make a website where we can play on-line against other people? That would be a lot more fun than 9,000 variations on Tower Defense...

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