Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Retrospective: Space Marines

I've talked about Space Opera and its kitchen sink setting in several posts previously, but what I don't think I've ever talked about (much) is the game that laid the groundwork for both, 1977's Space Marines by A. Mark Ratner. To be honest, I've never seen the 1977 edition of Space Marines, which was self-published by Ratner under the FanTac Games label. Sometime after its publication, the game was sold to Fantasy Games Unlimited, which led to a second edition, published in 1980. That's the only edition I've ever seen, so I cannot comment on whatever differences there might be between the two versions, but I welcome details in the comments by anyone who has seen both.

Space Marines is a science fiction miniatures wargame that uses a scale of 25 meters to the inch and twenty-second turns.  The rules are quite comprehensive, covering wide range of topics -- unit integrity, suppression fire, bombing from air and orbit, electronic warfare, morale, and so on. However, the rules aren't particularly lengthy, especially when compared to other SF miniatures games with which I'm familiar, such as Striker. The relative shortness of the rules is at least partially a consequence of the fact that some topics are treated only sketchily. Orbital and sub-orbital bombardment and combat, for example, are largely left up to the referee to adjudicate, with only some very basic guidelines provided in the text. That's not to say that Space Marines is a simple game. It is, however, a lot more clearly written and intelligible than the game it spawned, Space Opera, which, despite my fondness for it, is far from a paragon of clarity.

About a third of Space Marines is devoted to background material. It was this material that Ed Simbalist drew on when creating Space Opera's setting. Indeed, I don't think I ever really understood the full scope of Space Opera's setting, until I'd actually seen a copy of Space Marines. Races and governments to which the RPG only alludes are given write-ups in the wargame. Granted, those write-ups mostly focus on military matters, such as organization, tactics, even uniforms, but at least they exist. Without the benefit of Space Marines, I'd never really know who the Mekpurrs were, let alone even more obscure races like the Rauwoofs or the Whistlers. Ultimately, that's the main reason I still find Space Marines interesting. It works very well as a supplement to Space Opera, filling in some blanks that the RPG's author didn't think needed to be filled lest precious page space be taken away from more important topics like ranged combat status modifiers.


  1. Space Marines also fills in some of the rules that are never explained in Space Opera. I never knew how autofire really worked in Space Opera until I read a rules explanation in Space Marine (which I found in the used game section of my FLGS about 10 years after I first bought Space Opera).

  2. There is a sometimes amusing, somewhat enlightening interview with Ratner about SM and SO from 2001, at . I've never seen the '77 rules either.

  3. Slightly off topic, but I bought a .pdf copy of Space Opera for old time's sake recently. It was one of my favorite games back then. This was a time when I was enamored of rule-heavy games because I equated "inscrutable" with "serious." But it has some of the worst cover art that I have ever seen.

    Never delved into Space Marines though....

  4. I've never read either version, but I know the 1977 Fantac version (which has a cover by David Sutherland) has extra rules for using Space Marines in D&D and Metamorphosis Alpha.

    More info here:
    Space Marines by A. Mark Ratner

  5. I had a copy of the 1977 version and no longer have it, but I kept the last few pages that Zenopus mentions. I kept them because I was an OD&D and MA fan, but I think in re-reading them now that the pages I kept don't make much sense without the rest of the rules. :(

  6. I'd be tempted to dig up a copy just for the setting information.

  7. I have the FGU version, and yes, it did make more sense than Space Opera did, and the background info it had really added something to the setting. I no longer have SO, but I still have my copy of SM.

  8. I had (probably still do, somewhere, but I've moved twice in the last 2 years after 50+ years at the one address ... so who knows?) copies of both the original Fantac and FGU versions, in fact, I had I copy of the Fantac rules well before Space Opera itself came out.

    The main differences, from memory, were that the Fantac original was basically printed from a photoset of a typewritten master with inked illustrations all mechanicaled (this was *way* before DTP software, remember) ... or that's the way it looked. Folded Letter size, I think.

    The contents? LESS would summarise it well. Less of everything. Rather like UK SF Miniature rules of the same period - Laserburn etc. - or like TSR's original Modern Miniatures rules (darn, forget the name now!), but not as professionally done.

    I did ask Mark several years ago on the one occasion when I actually had contact with him whether he was likely to do an update ... and his response was, more or less, no, he'd grown out of it ;-)

    Phil McGregor (yes, one of the SO three)

  9. So this is basically the Chainmail to Space Opera's D&D... Fascinating.