Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Retrospective: Freedom in the Galaxy

I've spoken many times of the fact that wargames and I have had a very tempestuous relationship over the years. I've always wanted to enjoy them, but, with very few exceptions, that desire has never been realized. I consider this a great failing on my part and a telling gap in my own attempts to understand our hobby and its complex web of connections to its older sibling. Despite this, several wargames have had an impact on me, even when I never got the chance to play them. An example of such a game is Freedom in the Galaxy.

Originally published in 1979 by SPI, Freedom in the Galaxy (subtitled "The Star Rebellions, 5764 AD"), it was later picked up by Avalon Hill and re-released in 1981, which is the edition I saw. If there are any changes between the two releases, I have no idea; someone more knowledgeable than I can specify them in the comments below. Its designers were Howard Barasch and John H. Butterfield, the latter of whom was known to me as the creator the starship combat system used in Universe.

If you look at the cover of the game's box, it's not hard to see why this game held such an interest to me. Freedom in the Galaxy quite clearly riffed off of themes and situations from Star Wars and its imitators. The idea of a two-player simulation of a rebellion against an evil galactic empire is actually quite compelling, even though I thought then, as I do now, that the game would have been even cooler if the game had included more factions than just the rebels and imperials. Of course, the actual coolness of Freedom in the Galaxy in play something at which I can only guess, as it had a hefty rulebook and very complex rules -- certainly not what my 12 year-old self was expecting based on the cover illustration!

And that's a shame, because, having looked at the game again in recent years, there are actually some very interesting ideas in it. For example, the rebel player's goal is to foment unrest throughout the Empire, in the process shifting the loyalty of worlds and races to his cause. If he plans his strategy properly, he can initiate a "domino effect" whereby not just one world but many will follow his flag, providing him with the military units he lacks earlier in the game. On the contrary, the imperial player needs to find ways to make shows of strength in order to keep planets in line, including well-timed atrocities (like blowing up entire planets), but not tightening his grip so tightly that star systems slip through his fingers, so to speak. Both sides thus require different approaches to succeed and there are enough random factors in the game that playing it sounds like it might be a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, an average game is supposed to take 20 hours to complete and I can believe it. As I noted above, the rulebook is complex, with combat (both ground and space), movement, resources, loyalty, missions, and other topics all demanding a great deal of attention, or at least more attention than I could ever muster. Instead, I found myself staring at its fascinating map of the empire and its provinces and the many "characters" the game includes. These characters are noteworthy rebels and imperials with special abilities that might help their side in significant ways. Think Darth Vader or Han Solo and you've got the general idea.

That was the real shame about Freedom in the Galaxy from my point of view. The game has such delightfully suggestive chrome that it pained me mightily that it was pressed into the service of such a terribly complicated military simulation that I'd never play, even if I ever did manage to wrap my mind around its rules (which I never did). Even now, I think about how wonderful it would be either to simplify Freedom in the Galaxy or to simply create my own pulpy, space operatic wargame manqué, because I honestly think either approach would be more worthwhile than trying to play this monstrosity as it was intended to be played.

Lest anyone think I'm being too harsh, I should point out that I nevertheless did derive a lot of enjoyment out of Freedom in the Galaxy. I often lifted some of its setting details for my various Traveller campaigns and I'd do it again. Heck, I seem to recall someone round these parts (Jeff Rients perhaps?) suggesting that someone ought to do to Freedom in the Galaxy what Arneson and Gygax did to Chainmail by creating a new RPG out of it. I think that's a superb idea and had I the time -- and a copy of the game, my own having disappeared years ago -- I might take up that gauntlet. Wouldn't that be awesome?

15 comments:

  1. I would recommend West End Games Star Wars Assault on Hoth as a relief for the pangs that Freedom in the Galaxy can bring. Heavy on the Chrome, simple on the rules, but still a definite wargame. It is the Star Wars thing in itself rather than Star Warsish. It can be uber-chromed to various levels especially with the Star Wars pre-painted plastic miniatures line that came out a few years ago.

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  2. Ah, Freedom in the Galaxy. That's a blast from the past.

    Played a few games of this and it can be great fun towards the end as the balance of the sided gets close to tipping point.

    The daft characters were a nice bit of colour - Suki Suntag and his ever more insane plans. and the emperor's daughter Thysa kymbo.

    Happy days. Happy, somewhat hazy distant days.

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  3. I never understood how the Rebels could win that game. But I am an awful tactician.

    The French Heroic Fantasy RPG Bloodlust (1991) used the names of some accidents and creatures from Freedom in the Galaxy (Alwegs, Batranobans, Derigions, Ghadars, Hysnatons, Piorads, Sekekers, Thunks, Vorozions) for its peoples.

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  4. A college buddy and I played this a few times, too, and always had a blast with it. I don't recall the rebels ever winning, either, but the game was so much fun to play that it didn't matter. The rebels could run all sorts of covert missions like sabotaging Imperial installations and assassinating their generals, and the Empire would then crack crack down on whole planets for the sake of finding a handful of troublemakers. As I recall, most of the games ended when a captured rebel revealed the location of the secret base under torture, and the Empire destabilized the planet into rubble for the win. It was quite complex, but we were totally into complexity for its own sake back then.

    Steve

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  5. I got my copy of this at Origins '79. Never have played a full game of it either. But I did use it for the basis of my first West End Star Wars campaign. It solved some problems I had with Star Wars as an RPG. First is the lack of a map. Second the problem of canon. Third was the feeling of being a sideshow to the exploits of Luke and Han. Freedom in the Galaxy is close enough to Star Wars to capture the feel of it and provides useful NPC's, gadgets and ships while side stepping the above issues.

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  6. "Heck, I seem to recall someone round these parts (Jeff Rients perhaps?) suggesting that someone ought to do to Freedom in the Galaxy what Arneson and Gygax did to Chainmail by creating a new RPG out of it."

    It was Will Douglas, on Jeff Rients's blog.

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  7. Nagora: "and the emperor's daughter Thysa kymbo."

    Ha! :D

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  8. I was happy just to sit on the floor and pore through the awesome quantity of material in this game. Wonder what happened to my copy?

    I only played it twice: once the "right" way, which took about two weeks, and once "our" way, which involved ditching everything but the military units and waging massive interstellar war. That took about three hours. :)

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  9. I literally just won a copy of this in an auction this weekend. I've been looking through, trying to figure out if it would be possible to rebuild this as a smoother and shorter game.

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  10. I think I finished a game of Freedom in the Galaxy once and only once in under 12 hours but that's when I was heavily into cardboard armies. I know I used the map, characters, equipment, starships and other bits in traveler and star frontiers games. It had flavor and was playable.

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  11. Loved the game! My brother and I spent months playing this game multiple times. I don't recall that the Rebels won; but, possibly they did. It was so many years ago...

    Thanks for the memories! I've been looking to start up a Traveller campaign of late and reminiscing about Freedom in the Galaxy may just spark some good ideas.

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  12. I can think of two versions of a 'simplified' Freedom in the Galaxy might work:

    First, a set-up like Twilight Struggle where the Imperial and Rebellion players draw from a deck of cards in order to influence various star systems.

    Second, a co-operative game like Shadows Over Camelot where each player controls a Rebellion Personality (with a unique special ability) working against the Empire. This could also allow for a 'traitor' player.

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  13. Keep in mind also that characters were "statted out" on little cards. That's the first step towards a proto-RPG already! :-D

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  14. The best part of this game was the stories that naturally arose from play as the characters flew around going on (generally unsuccessful, in my experience) missions, leading armies, and so forth. Unfortunately, the game is so long and repetitive that it always ends up getting tedious.

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  15. I also love Freedom in the Galaxy, and play occasionally via Cyberboard, where 20 hours can be spread out over 20 days, or even 20 weeks.

    In regards to reprints, nobody has yet mentioned http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/27367/down-with-the-empire

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