Monday, August 10, 2009

Hidden Treasures Of Science Fiction: 80s Microgames!

Ogre. Car Wars. Starfleet Battles. Warp War. Invasion of the Air Eaters.

If you were a strategy gamer in the 80s, you probably have fond memories of these and other microgames (also called pocket games.) They were first introduced in the late 70s, and lingered through the 90s in an ever shrinking niche market, but in the 1980s they hit the peak of their popularity.

At the time, videogames were primarily groups of colorful dots bouncing around on a CRT, and dodging gorilla-thrown barrels was about as complicated as gameplay got. If you wanted something more challenging and complex, you turned to tabletop strategy games like Advanced Squad Leader or Starship Troopers (yes, there was once a board game of it), but those could get pricey. Microgames emerged as an accessible and cheap alternative--often costing just $2 or $3, they could be learned fairly quickly, were fast paced and complex enough to allow a lot of different kinds of gameplay, and were small enough (often coming in a 4 x 7 inch package) to literally be carried around in one's pocket. What more could a scifi nerd want?

The games came with a rules booklet, a fold-out map often with a hex-grid on it to manage movement, and a cardboard sheet precut with unit counters. Dice were usually needed for play, but were only sometimes included, depending on the game. Some came in small boxes, others in clear mylar bags.

In middle school, me and my best friend at the time discovered these just as they were becoming popular, and played them regularly over the next few years. We eventually moved on to other distractions, like role-playing games, cars, and girls, but these games always left me with fond, fun memories.

The first, and arguably the best and most popular, of the microgames was OGRE, the last fully-expanded edition of which came out in 2000 from Steve Jackson Games. Heavily influenced by Keith Laumer's Bolo novels, the game centered around sentient AI super-tanks and the ragtag collection of military units, including hovercraft, missile tanks, and glassy-eyed suicidal infantry, that tried to stop them. Basically land-going battleships on treads, Ogres were the primary weapons in a 21st century dominated by warfare.

CAR WARS was another microgame that eventually went on to greater fame and fortune; the last major edition of the game was printed in 2002, but is still played by dedicated players. With a nod to the Mad Max film series, players take the role of a kitbashed armed vehicles in a post-apocalyptic world where 'autodueling' is society's most popular and dangerous sport. Half the fun of the game is tricking out your imaginary vehicle--which can include any type of car, motorcycle, truck, etc.--with machine guns, grenade launchers, armor, radar, and a huge laundry list of other neat combat options.

Also of significant note is STAR FLEET BATTLES, which simulated starship combat in the Star Trek universe, and which started out as a series of microgames from publisher Task Force Games. The game went through many editions and expansions, reaching its peak of popularity in the late 80s and mid 90s, spawning a few videogames as well.

But not every game had to be a monster success (at least in microgame terms) to be enjoyable. In fact, there were many lesser known titles that could provide hours of fun. I unfortunately did not have the opportunity to try all of them out, but of the ones I played personally, I can recommend:

WARP WAR: Inspired by the science fiction novels The Forever War by Joe Hadleman and The Mote In God's Eye by Niven and Pournelle, this game simulated a war between two interstellar cultures that spans centuries of time. To my knowledge, its was the first SF game of any type to incorporate technology upgrades into its game play, something that became integrated into almost every SF strategy videogame afterward, from Master of Orion to Starcraft to many others.

INVASION OF THE AIR EATERS: Aliens attack Earth, and they're trying to convert our atmosphere into one more suitable for themselves--one that is very poisonous to us poor homo sapiens. This game is fought over a hex-gridded map of Earth, and there's a 'ticking clock' of sorts, with an atmosphere gauge that shows how close to gasping, wheezing armageddon the human race is turn by turn. The Air Eaters start out with a very clear tactical advantage. However, those darned clever humans can learn from the aliens and advance their technology pretty quickly. Yet can they do it fast enough to turn the tide against the invaders?

HOT SPOT: Anyone who as a kid played 'the floor is molten lava!' would get a kick out of this game's premise. An oppressive government is extracting valuable minerals from a planet whose surface is mostly molten. You play rebels who try to seize these valuable mining platforms by moving in your military units on--get this--barely-controlled rafts of naked rock that float on the lava. And you have a ticking clock, as the 'rafts' melt down over time, squeezing your units onto an ever-smaller surface. Very unusual and fun concept.

Finally, don't let the title ATTACK OF THE MUTANTS fool you; its probably the very first Zombie Apocalypse game ever created. After a horrible nuclear attack, everyone in the area not vaporized has been transformed by all the radioactive goodness into green-skinned shambling horrors who hunger for human flesh. However, a trio of humans survive, along with a couple of cobbled together gunbots. Can they make it to safety before they're munched on?

And of course, there were a bunch of others. Many were simply good, and many others I never really got a chance to sample. Unfortunately, getting hold of these games nowadays can be difficult, as many of the original publishers are long since out of business, and those that do survive no longer actively support or print their microgames. Still, if you trawl hobby stores, online auctions sites, game cons, and other such outlets, you're bound to run into them occasionally. If so, snatch them up. They can give you a fun way to scratch your gaming itch for a few hours without having to stare endlessly at a glowing rectangle.

In closing, two sites with much more information on microgames are linked to below:

The Maverick's Classic Microgames Museum

The Microgame HQ

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