Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #10

I readily concede that I'm neither a wargamer nor particularly well suited to SPI's style and presentation of their products (despite my decades-long fascination with DragonQuest and Universe). Consequently, my reviews of Ares magazine are undeniably skewed in their perspective, as I was not the target audience for this periodical. Still, I've been enjoying looking back on these issues and watching Ares evolve over time. I am told that was one of SPI's great strengths -- responding to the feedback data they assiduously collected in all of their products. That may explain why issue #10 (September 1981) is the first issue that actually feels like a gaming periodical rather than whatever it is that previous issues felt like.

The most immediately interesting thing about issue #10 is its cover, whose artist I recognized without having to look in the credits. That's because it's done by Timothy Truman, who, in 1981, wasn't yet known for anything other than RPG art and, even then, his credits were few. I mention this because, prior to this point, Ares had been illustrated primarily by "big name" sci-fi, fantasy, and comics artists rather than artists known solely from gaming products. Perhaps it's not as big a deal as I make it out to be, but it does represent a visible shift, esthetically, if nowhere else, in the direction of the magazine.

Issue #10 kicks off its renewed emphasis on science fiction gaming, first with a collection of designer's notes to Universe and other sci-fi gaming products, such as Star Trader. There's also a short story by Harry Harrison, "The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat," which ties into the issue's integral wargame. John Boardman and Susan Schwartz both reappear with their regular "Science for Science Fiction" and "Facts for Fantasy" features. Christopher John reviews several science fiction movies (positively, no less), including Outland -- a favorite of mine -- Escape from New York, and Dragonslayer. I've noted in previous installments that the reviews in Ares became generally more upbeat and less snarky as the issues wore on and that I applauded this shift. Amusingly, David J. Schow's "Media" column remained every bit as curmudgeonly. In issue #10, he writes about this newfangled thing, "home-subscription movie channels," which are delivered via "cable." While Schow sees potential in such channels, he nevertheless dismisses them as showing second rate movies and that the experience of watching films at home will never be as good as that in theaters except to the "indiscriminate." Greg Costikyan's book reviews are mostly of books I've never heard of, let alone read. Meanwhile, Eric Goldberg reviews Griffin Mountain, which he praises effusively, and The Lords of Underearth, which he also enjoyed.

Gerry Klug's DragonQuest adventure, "The Camp of Alla-Akabar," appears in this issue. I have a certain fondness for this adventure, as it was included in the Ballantine softcover version of DQ that I regularly checked out of the library in the '80s. Klug also pens this issue's "DragonNotes" feature, as well as "There's Only One Universe," which is yet another designer's notes article about Universe. Justin Leites offers expansions and variants for use with last issue's DeltaVee. Taken together, these sections constitute a significant amount of support for SPI's RPGs and I was glad to see it. As I said at the beginning of this post, issue #10 is the first time that Ares starts to feel like a gaming magazine rather than a strange mishmash of stuff thrown together "because that's what the kids like these days."

Concluding this excellent issue is Greg Costikyan and Redmond Simonsen's The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat wargame -- or "simulation," as it's called. The game ties into the Harrison short story included with the issue and details a space station whose computer has "gone berserk," placing its occupants at risk. The player takes the role of James "Slippery Jim" diGriz (aka The Stainless Steel Rat), who's been tasked to enter the station and deal with the problem. The game is intended for solo play, since it includes 225 "event paragraphs" that are read upon certain conditions, like a choose-your-own-adventure book. A second player can be added, taking the role of Jim's wife, Angelina, but the station's computer and robots remain "programmed" by the game itself rather than being controlled by another player. Like most SPI "simulations," The Return of the Stainless Steel Rat is complex, but, unlike so many others, it also looks like fun. I'm sorely tempted to try and play the thing, which is not a feeling I regularly get from SPI games.

All in all, I really liked issue #10. It feels like Ares is finally on solid ground and knows what it's about. That makes it all the more tragic that only a few more issues remain before the magazine ceases production entirely.

1 comment:

  1. I actually subscribed to Ares back in the day, adding it to my ongoing S&T subscription. I think my situation back then was fairly "normal" - I came into the hobby in the mid-late 70's via hex-based wargames, picked up the blue box Beginner's set and suddenly was spending all my time playing D&D. But didn't give up my interest in the old wargames.

    So Ares was a smart move on SPI's part. I probably liked it a little more than you have, but I agree that the Dragon was much more fun and entertaining than Ares. And that said even though Ares had a game inside.

    I will never forget the day I found out SPI was dead and its assets transferred to TSR. I loved both companies at this point, so no issues with stuff going to TSR. But it was just an incredible wake-up call that these were businesses - they didn't exist simply to entertain me!