Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Retrospective: Fifth Frontier War

In keeping with this week's vaguely Traveller theme, I thought I might turn my attention in this post to GDW's Fifth Frontier War. Originally published in 1981, Fifth Frontier War (hereafter FFW) is a board wargame released as part of the company's promotion of a major "event" in the official Traveller setting, namely the war of the game's title. For those of you unfamiliar, here's a brief précis: the Spinward Marches are a region of space between the Third Imperium and the Zhodani Consulate, two human-dominated interstellar empires. For centuries, the two powers have jockeyed for control of several subsectors of the Marches, such efforts often boiling over into conflicts known as the Frontier Wars. After a generation of cold war, the Fifth Frontier War erupted and this game is intended to simulate it.

The game focuses on eight subsectors of the Spinward Marches, presented either in whole or in part. Together, the map board includes close to 150 worlds over which the Imperial and Zhodani players can compete. As a wargame, FFW has two notable features. The first (and less interesting of the two) is the variability of its combat. Though the game as a whole is a "big picture," strategic affair, combat runs the gamut from starship versus starship battles to orbital bombardment to planetary assault. This is an approach it shares with another Traveller wargame, Invasion: Earth (also published in 1981) and one that's rooted in the military doctrine of the Third Imperium setting of Traveller itself.

The second notable feature is its handling of movement. Traveller famously does not include any type of instantaneous interstellar communication. This means that long-range military planning is a "best guess" affair, since there's no reliable way to ensure that the information available to admirals behind the lines is accurate. Furthermore, jumping between star systems takes a week of real time regardless of a starship's drive rating (which, at any rate, is capped at 6 parsecs), thereby creating an additional limit to available information. FFW simulates this by making each player plot his units' movement several turns in advance of executing them. In play, this means that units may jump into a star system expecting very different conditions than are the case when they actually arrive there. As an evocation of the setting, it's wonderful, but, as an element of game play, it can be frustrating, especially if, like me, you're not very good at predictive thinking.

I never had the chance to play many games of FFW, so my judgment of it may be limited. From my experience, it's a solid wargame that does a good job of simulating the nature of interstellar warfare in the Third Imperium setting. Similarly, it shows just how comparatively futile this is and why most of the Frontier Wars have ended in stalemates or very limited victories for one side or the other. The setting's technological limitations prevent even large empires like the Third Imperium from being able to easily conquer worlds and expand their territories. The process of doing is slow, careful, and often tedious, with no guarantee of success, even if one has superior forces. Whether one considers this a good thing or a bad thing, I can't say, though I would imagine anyone expecting a more "space operatic" approach to interstellar warfare might be disappointed.

As an aside, it's worth mentioning that the Fifth Frontier War – the in-setting conflict, not the wargame simulating it – is an early example of an attempt by a game company to "shake up" a setting by introducing a major change to it. Previously, GDW had used Traveller News Service reports in the pages of The Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society to plant the seeds for scenarios a referee might choose to develop in his own campaign. In the case of the war, GDW was presenting a large-scale event that could have far-reaching consequences for campaigns set in and around the Spinward Marches sector. GDW promoted the war heavily at the time; I imagine the company hoped it would attract a lot of attention to Traveller and fire up its fan base. In the end, like the war itself, it was something of a wet squib, in part, I think, because it had the potential to undermine many existing campaigns. GDW didn't attempt anything so far reaching for Traveller's development again until the so-called Rebellion in 1986 and its fate (and that of Traveller itself) was even worse.


  1. As someone commented on your last post, Twilight’s Peak integrates with FFW. I always thought a Traveller campaign that incorporated or was based around FFW would be interesting, but have never tried it.

  2. In terms of plotting moves in a advance, one of the key features of FFW was the availability of admirals of varying skill. Placing an appropriate admiral in charge of a fleet could reduce the advanced plotting requirement to zero.

    The problem was that admirals had different ranks, and the most senior admiral present had to command each fleet.

    In an entertaining display of cynicism, or perhaps realism, the admirals' rank had no relation to their command ability.

    The Imperial player could mitigate this problem through the use of an Imperial Warrant -- a document from the Emperor that placed the bearer above all other admirals.

    But there was only one of these and it could only be transferred between admirals in the same system (presumably the physical document needed to be handed over in a short ceremony).

    1. Ironically (or maybe not so) the reason the Imperials eventually "won" the war, the local subsector Duke manufacturing a fake Imperial Warrant and taking personal charge of the war in lieu of contact with Capital/Core.

  3. I don't remember GDW doing much follow through with the FFW events slopping over into the RPG, certainly nothing like the level of effort they put into the Rebellion story through Challenge articles and Megatraveller adventures. The game itself was, as you said, pretty frustrating and often wound up in a tie or pyrrhic victory at best. Very hard for either side to gain much ground and hold it against counterattacks, although the poor Sword Worlds always got it in the neck IME. Then again, I only played the full game twice, and don't feel any inclination to repeat the experience.

    By comparison, I've played the big Sathar War boardgame in the Knight Hawks box set for Star Frontiers six times over the years, and I'd happily play again if given the chance. My records show a 3-3 split for the two sides, so it would be nice to settle the darned tie. :) That was another "big event in timeline" thing that didn't really see much support/mention in the RPG itself. Maybe TSR was concerned about dictating events in RP campaigns based on a boardgame?

  4. Good retrospective. I only played FFW once; it was an impressive design, but I didn't enjoy it as much as faster-playing Imperium, which also had more strategic options; there were some issues with the victory conditions that created some counter-intuitive strategic options (e.g., it wasn't sufficiently worthwhile to target the big high-population worlds).

    GDW's marketing in the lead up was pretty good - one of my playes even bought one of the Imperial military unit patches they were also selling; I liked the Journal of Travellers Aid Society entries that led up to it and the integration of Twilight's Peak and Broadsword.

    The big trouble was that FFW was such a high level strategic game it was irrelevant to actual play. You could use Striker, the minis rules, to play engagements at a tactical level, but few referees had 15mm sci-fi vehicles and miniatures at the time and the large tables etc. needed for that (some decent figures were rolled out eventually, but came a bit late for the FFW event).

    What I never understood is why GDW kept trying to push miniatures for Traveller tactical play. If they'd come up with an advanced version of Mayday that incorporated High Guard warship designs and guidance to let players be squadron leaders, that would have been cool. If they'd come out with a tactical boardgame at company/platoon/squad level that led players lead their mercenary forces without huge investments in lead figures, that would been cool. (GDW proved capable of producing excellent tactical boardgames at just that scale in the Assault series, released a few years later, for modern military.)

    So as you say, a bit of a damp squib, as, aside from Twilight's Peak, Broadsword, and a few decent efforts from the Keiths, there wasn't too much the PCs could do, and most of them were spread all over the place! What was really needed was something like The Traveller Adventure but with a Fifth Frontier War theme, but I think GDW were just too overstretched at the time to do it.

  5. Thanks for the look at this wargame. While I was a sci-fi fan as a kid and was interested in Traveller, I had no idea till reading your retrospective that the Fifth Frontier War was supposed to be an Event.

    I've played the game once with a friend; if anyone's interested in how it went, I wrote about the experience in three blog posts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

    As I noted at the end of my writeup, I'd like to have a map big enough to fit all the system information inside each hex, and giving us more room for counters. But I want to play it again someday.