Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #2

Issue #2 of Ares appeared in May 1980, kicking off its content with a piece of fiction. Entitled "The Inn at World's End," this short story is by Richard Lyon and Andrew Offutt, the latter well-known for his work as editor of the Swords Against Darkness anthology series, the third volume of which appears in Appendix N. This is followed by a second piece of fiction, "Child of the Wandering Sea," by Jayge Carr. I personally consider it fascinating that a gaming magazine from 1980 included not one but two pieces of fiction in its pages. Even Dragon, where fantasy fiction was a staple for many years, rarely included more than one story per issue.

Killjoy scientist John Boardman returns, along with a colleague, James Smolen, to offer up two articles on extraterrestrial life. The first, "An Exozoological Sampler," offers up six creatures from other worlds. Accompanying the article is another "Alien Life Forms," which is an overview of scientific speculation at the time regarding the likelihood of life elsewhere in the universe. Boardman and Smolen suggests that life may be quite common among the stars but intelligent life exceedingly rare. Likewise, they suggest that any such life may be so unlike human beings as to be difficult to come to any understanding with -- not exactly the stuff of good gaming!

This issue's complete game is The Wreck of the B.S. M. Pandora by James Dunnigan, Redmond Simonsen, and David Ritchie. The game concerns a crashed survey ship, the Pandora, which is transporting alien life forms to human space for study. The game, for one to five players, simulates the efforts of surviving crew members to recapture the escape life forms, repair their ship, and get it back into space so that it can reach its intended destination. It's actually a neat little game, both for its schematized representation of the ship and its clever system for determining the reactions of alien life forms to different crew members, based on their behavior.

There's a lengthy article by L. Sprague de Camp, "Conan: Illusion and Reality," about which I've written before. To call it next to worthless is an understatement. However, it is a reminder of the state of Howard studies prior to the renaissance that occurred in the later '80s and especially in the 1990s. But for a handful of stalwarts, I don't think too many people take De Camp very seriously as a scholar or interpreter of REH, thank goodness.

As in the premier issue, a significant portion of issue #2 is taken over by reviews of all kinds: books, movies, and games. The reviews this time around are less snarky but generally no more positive. On the other hand, they're longer and more detailed. So, when Eric Goldberg deems Magic Realm to have "fall[en] flat on its face" in trying to its lofty design goals, he at least explains why he feels it has failed. Still, after re-reading this issue, it's hard to shake the feeling that the crew at SPI were difficult to please -- either that or they just liked to complain ...


  1.  I've played Wreck of the Pandora quite a few times, most recently with my own sons.  It's a great little game that doesn't play the same way twice and has excellent replayability.

    As for Magic Realm, It was really Avalon Hill's first fantasy board game title.  It had some interesting mechanics, most notably a tile laying system well before anybody had thought of Settlers of Catan, or Carcassone.  Still, I always felt like the design was missing any kind of real coherent theme.  It wasn't the best game Avalon Hill put out.  Still, it was AH's first real tiptoe into fantasy, and deserves credit for that, even if Avalon Hill's own readership was actually harsher on it than SPI was.

  2. Charles C. Albritton IIIMay 15, 2012 at 1:10 AM

    "Andrew Offutt...well-known for his work as editor of the Flashing Blades anthology series..."

    I think you meant the Swords Against Darkness anthology series.  You might have been thinking about Lin Carter's Flashing Swords anthologies as well.
    (or am I off the beam, Chief?

  3. You are quite correct. Thanks for pointing that out.

  4. Greyhawk GrognardMay 15, 2012 at 7:43 AM

    I remember Wreck of the Pandora well. Another great little game. As I recall, they did a follow-up game in a later issue, called "Voyage of the BSM Pandora", which had the ship visiting various worlds and collecting the beasties that later escape when the ship is wrecked.

  5. The_Shadow_KnowsMay 15, 2012 at 10:46 AM

    "There's a lengthy article by L. Sprague de Camp... To call it next to worthless is an understatement."
    The second half of that statement is more or less implied by the first.

  6. I had the boxed version of Wreck of the Pandora where you weren't trying to lift off but to shut down the self destruct. You also had EVA suits to move outside the ship. As it was a solitaire game, I played it quite a bit.

    It's funny that they trash Magic Realm. That was an awesome game and still has a large following. 

  7. I always thought of Ares' snarkiness to be an intentional New York City thing. SPI gave off a distinct "we're New Yorkers" vibe, or so it seemed back in the day.

  8. Shame about Magic Realm, I think I remember that taking a hefty mental toll on the designer.

  9. Ares didn't really come into its own until SPI started to publish SciFi and Fantasy RPGs, IMO.  Much like Avalon Hill's short-lived Heroes magazine, both SPI and AH went a long-time without even recognizing that the hobby game market was shifting from board wargames to RPGs even though it should have been apparent to them years before Ares #2 saw publication.

    As if RPGs weren't enough of a red-headed stepchild in their eyes to begin with, both companies (and to their credit, their audiences) were pretty dismissive of sci-fi and fantasy (i.e. non-historical) boardgames in general, and neither AH or SPI had published an RPG when this magazine came out, IIRC.  It's not a coincidence that the reader ratings of fantasy and SF board games by their readers tended to be lower than all but the worst of historical wargames.

    I actually think Ares (and Heroes) were created more to placate their wargame audiences by not including articles on their sci-fi and fantasy titles in the limited page counts of SPI's Strategy and Tactics (and AH's The General) than out of any great love of their subject matters, at least in the beginning.

    All of this is reflected to some extent by the general editorial tone towards the subject (the said Conan article is as you say, worse than useless), and a column in a sci-fi oriented magazine that debunks sci-fi seems like nothing so much as failing to understand the magazine's audience.

    Ares became better later, as SPI's stable of Fantasy and Sci-Fi titles grew, as their own RPG titles, DragonQuest and Universe, were launched, and as they jettisoned the sneering, dismissive attitude towards the two genres.  In the early issues?  Yeah, it was pretty grim.

  10. Ares panned Magic Realm?  Well, now I don't know what to think.

  11. To be fair, the review doesn't "pan" it exactly, but it's very critical of it. The review expresses admiration for the game's scope, even if it feels that it didn't live up to its potential.

  12. Like DnD, the theme of Magic Realm emerges from the gameplay itself.

  13. I suppose it doesn't help that the first edition rules are well-nigh incomprehensible.

  14.  Good point, Aaron.  The errata for the First Edition took up several pages of The General a month or two after release, IIRC.

  15.  I guess my experience was colored by the First Edition rules, which were an errata-filled mess.

  16.  MR is an amazing game with deep gameplay and tremendous replayability, but before the MR General issue came out my crew and I were playing it completely wrong due to the sheer incomprehensible nature of the rules (our game was actually pretty fun too).  AH rules were often rough going, and the first edition of MR was especially poorly written.  The fact that AH so quickly released a second edition with little change other than a thorough revision of the rulebook (I'd have to double check to be sure, but I don't think there were any real additions to the game) shows that this was realized at AH early on. 

    I think the SPI rules of the day were much better written.