Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Retrospective: Star Empires

Star Empires, subtitled "The Game of Galactic Conquest," is the 1977 sequel to Star Probe. Like its predecessor, John M. Snider is credited as the designer, though it's my understanding that several others, most notably Brian Blume, contributed to the published version of the game. Also like it's predecessor, Star Empires "is an open-ended game that, in the words of Mike Carr's foreword, is not a game which is simply set up and played in a single setting. It is, above all, a game campaign system which can be most effectively run by a referee and numerous players who may be exploring and acting independently of each other. Depending upon the referee and his methods of moderating the game, the play can unfold in many ways and along many avenues."

As I regularly mention on this blog, I have only very limited experience with wargames (though I've begun to correct this). Consequently, I have no experience whatsoever with a refereed wargame, though it's a form in which I have come to have a great deal of interest. In fact, I've been toying with a design of my own that takes this form (for those interested, it's an adjunct to my Thousand Suns RPG). Reading Star Empires then was an eye-opening, even thrilling, experience for me and, while there's no question that, as a game, its reach exceeds its grasp, it's nevertheless an inspiring design. 

Star Empires differs from Star Probe in that it actually presents a setting of its own. The game begins with a timeline that stretches all the way back to 10,000 BC and into the future almost as far. This setting references several historical empires that rose and fell, the last of which collapsed, ushering in an interstellar dark age. This re-contextualizes the game play of Star Probe, which serves as the "basic" version of Star Empires. That is, Star Empires isn't merely a sequel to Star Probe but more or less requires that you have played it and will be building upon the results of that game play. (It's true you can play Star Empires alone – there are simple rules that cover most of what is elaborated upon in Star Probe – but that's clearly not the intention)

I don't think I can do justice to the scope and complexity of Star Empires without having the chance to play it. There are rules (and tables) for adjudicating colonization, mining, relations between empires (including NPC empires), income, and, of course, combat. There are even rules for social and historical events, which is something in which I'm very interested. It's an impressive rules set, since it covers nearly everything one might wish in a game like this. Nearly. That's why a referee is recommended, since there will necessarily be many instances when the rules do not cover every possible contingency. Further, even in the case of instances for which there are rules, determining how to apply them might require some judgment calls. Take a look, for example, at this chart:
That's simultaneously wondrous and ridiculous. It's a Gamma World-style flow chart, with random roll results and arrows to aid in determining the flow of social development. I adore the ambition of it, but I wonder how well it actually works in play. Star Empires abounds in these things, packing quite a lot of options into a 72-page rulebook. My feeling is that, despite all the charts and tables, it's still more of a sketch toward a game rather than a complete conflict simulation in its own right. Of course, that was very much in keeping with the ethos of the era, the one out of which roleplaying games grew. I think that's why reading Star Empires was so revelatory to me: it exemplifies even more clearly the nimble, flexible, and downright unbounded nature of "experimental" wargaming. This is where our hobby was born and why I plan to spend more time with Star Empires in the week's to come.

Let me end with an indulgent aside. Star Empires includes numerous pieces of art by David C. Sutherland III, many of which are really good. Take this one, for example:

Clearly, this appeals to my spacesuit fetish. More than that, though, it's further evidence that Sutherland could do more than fantasy artwork. I absolutely love this particular piece and wish DCS had been given the chance to do more SF illustrations during his time at TSR.


  1. These styles of flowcharts are called state machines♥

  2. I think that art may have been reused in a mid-80s Ares section of Dragon.