Tuesday, December 31, 2013

TSR's "Attack Force" Minigame

I've recently covered TSR's Minigame "Revolt on Antares", one of TSR's chances at dipping into the microgame / pocket game market first realized by Austin, TX based company "Metagaming".  I'll make a personal confession here ... for me, games in my life, in my wee years (1969 to 1977) consisted of card games like "Go Fish" and "War" as well as stuff like Milton Bradley's offerings.  Most of my "games" were the mass market, childhood staples ... fun kids stuff like Parker Brothers "The Six Million Dollar Man".

Finding "OGRE", my first Microgame from Metagaming in 1977 not only turned my world upside down (gaming wise) but it blew my mind.  This is easy to do for a 7 year old avid sci-fi quasi nerd ... here was a game that picqued my imagination and it fit in my pocket (or my 3 ring binder when I snuck it to school).  Small format, with only a few illustrations and a dump truck load of imagination.

For years Metagaming had the monopoly on "microgames" but the blood was in the water and other big fish began circling the cloudy waters ... big fish like SPI and TSR.  TSR's entries were limited but bore TSR's high quality (at least to me).  Sometimes manufacturers have a "tell", a certain "feel" to their games and TSR's minigames generally had that TSR "feel" to them.  As a kid I was drawn to this "feel", at least for two of TSR's offerings; "Revolt on Antares" and ... "Attack Force".

Designed by David James Ritchie, the main two things that can be said about TSR's 1982 offering "Attack Force" is that not only is it part of a family of "copy-cat" games that tried to cash in on the amazing runaway financial success of "Star Wars" but it is amazing to me why George Lucas didn't sue the ever living hell out of TSR for this game.  

In the time following the release of "Star Wars" on the silver screen, George Lucas was a sue happy zealot, going after the likes of Ideal for their "Star Force" line of action figures (which predated "Star Wars" and bore a remarkable resemblence to C3PO and R2D2 long before there actually was a C3PO or R2D2) and going after "Battlestar Galactica" because, you know, if you were to watch "Star Wars" and watch "Battlestar Galactica" the similarities really just jump out at you ... not.

"Attack Force" is, in a few short words, the final epic starfighter battle of 1977's super sucessful "Star Wars" played out on paper with die cut counters and a pair of six sided dice to determine the outcome.  If you have any doubt to that, the catch phrase on the front of the game, "Starfighters stalk planet killer" should remove all doubt but if there are any further doubts, let me try to remove that as well.  Just read the back of the instruction manual ...

Game play revolves around four flights of star fighters, divided into two types; Falcon and Eagle (which could be X-wing and Y-wing).  Four flights of Arcturan starfighters, four different colors of flights, facing a round, planet killing Nova Ship which not only has surface mounted launch bays for Imperial fighters but also a vast network of surface mounted defence turrets.  The defense turrets, which consist of lasers, blasters and pom-poms, can move along a track type of network giving the Nova Ship not only a variable defense but one that can be modified or arranged according to the desires of the Nova Ship player.  Each type of surface battery has a different type (or volume) of firepower giving each a unique strategy in setting up the defense as well as playing the game.

Imperial fighters come in two varieties; standard and custom.  The standard Imperial fighters are called "Cobras" while the custom fighter is a super fighter owned by the Imperial hero Vaj Korsen, evil tyrant of the Empire of the First Born.  The similarities between the Nova Ship and the Death Star, as well as Vaj Korsen and Darth Vader, right down to each having their own "next gen" starfighter.

Even as a 12 year old kid, the name "Vaj" caused more than a few pre-pubescent giggles and laughs at our games.

As for the weak point, the Achille's Heel of the Nova Ship, there are several exhaust ports which the Arcturan starfighters must attack in order to destroy the Nova Ship.  Only an attack against the correct exhaust port will set up a chain reaction that will destroy the Death Star ... sorry, the Nova Ship.  The actual exhaust port is randomly placed each game making each game different from that point of view.  I wonder if the exhaust port was only two meters wide ... the only thing missing from this game was a trench run.

Playing this game was a lot of fun back then.  The game itself was simple and didn't take a lot of time to set up or play (one of the great things about the small format games) but the real attractiveness of the game was the counters ... 

The counters for the Imperial Cobra starfighters, the Arcturan Eagle and Falcon starfighters were easy to use with TSR's other (then) contemporary science fiction offering "Star Frontiers" and its spaceship supplement "Knight Hawks".

Like I said, it amazes me that George Lucas never sued the hell out of TSR for such a blatant "Star Wars" ripoff as this game was.  Once an inexpensive offering from TSR, "Attack Force" is the second and last minigame offering from TSR that I bought and it still remains a guilty pleasure to play every few years.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

"The Last American" - Post Apocalyptic goodness from Marvel Comics

"Are you there, God? Come on out! I got a bone to pick with you! A bone -- hah! That's a good one! I got a million bones to pick with you, pal! All the bones in the world! This is all your fault! That's right! You coulda stopped it -- why didn't you? Eh? You're so all-damn powerful, why didn't you do something? Have you seen what it's like out there? Have you? Well, I'll tell you, pal! If there is a God then you gotta be one twisted, evil son of a bitch! Damn you! Come on! I'm not afraid of you! Strike me down! Gimme the big zap! What are you waiting for? Had enough death? Sickened even yourself? Don't worry! You'll be doing me a favor! I don't any part of this. I don't want to be the last American..."  -- Ulysses S. Pilgrim

"The Last American" (hereby abbreviated TLA for brevity’s sake) was a four issue comic written by John Wagner and Alan Grant with two issues being done by each author supposedly at the end of their professional relationship (a relationship that was rapidly sinking against the jagged rocks of artistic differences).   

Mike McMahon was the artist for all four issues.  

 Published by Epic Comics from December of 1990 to March of 1991, TLA was a four issue limited run that left off with a slightly open-ending.  I became interested in this particular work for the primary reason that it fulfilled two of my strongest fascinations … waking up from long term suspended animation in a strange, new world (ala Rip Van Winkle) and the post apocalypse.  I've always been fascinated with stories about ordinary people thrust into environments beyond their control and often times beyond their understanding.

The story of TLA centers on Ulysses S. Pilgrim, a disgraced US Army soldier in military prison for some unknown but obviously severe crime.  Pilgrim is chosen to be the last American, a project which will put him in suspended animation for 20 years deep inside a hardened bunker in order to (hopefully) survive World War III.  At the time of Pilgrim being chosen for the project, for whatever reasons, global nuclear war is imminent and unavoidable and time is running out.  Pilgrim is whisked away from his family, put into the bunker with enough supplies to weather the coming war, and given the task of waking up in 20 years to begin the rebuilding the United States of America.

The story begins on July 4, 2019, at twelve noon, twenty years after the nuclear war.   Pilgrim wakes up in a bunker, attended to by a likable robot valet / Man-Friday named “Charlie” who is obsessed with pop culture (the robot has had twenty years to absorb all the substantial archive of recorded pop media that the bunker has to offer) as well as two large, gruff, all business-like, no-nonsense combat robots named “Able” and “Baker” (A, B, and C for you non-military types).  Charlie serves as Pilgrim’s personal valet and as a go-between for Pilgrim and the two combat robots.

Pilgrim’s first questions when he wakes up is “Who won?”  Before he can receive an answer from Charlie he admonishes himself that what he just asked was a pretty stupid question, in hind sight.

Waking up and leaving the bunker, Pilgrim and his three robot companions travel the devastated America in a large, squat, armored ATV.  They find nothing but destruction and desolation.  Along the way, Pilgrim has flashbacks and memories of his life before he went into suspended animation.  We learn of the life he left behind, his wife, his young son.  He pines for them during his travels, even almost visiting the place where he and his wife first met by accident (he ran over her bicycle with his VW bug).  Along the way, the destruction and devastation are so great that Pilgrim has trouble dealing with the immensity of the fate of the human race.   

When offered a bottle of whiskey he proceeds to get drunk and curse God.  His fourth travelling companion, a hallucination, a figment of his imagination, is Bert the Turtle from the old Civil Defense films of the 1950’s.  Bert becomes his best friend and talks to him all the time, often serving as a filter to help Pilgrim understand the situation that he is in and the situations that he finds himself in.  This seems to upset the two combat robots and concerns Charlie who sees Pilgrim’s continual backwards mental slide as some kind of failure on Charlie’s part to take care of Pilgrim during his 20 year long hibernation.

Able: "It ain't my job to be worried about his state of health but if it was my job to be worried I'd BE worried."

Charlie: "Oh, Doctor Kildare!  You're so handsome when you diagnose!"

Able:  "Come to that.  I'd be worried about YOUR state of health."

With only four issues to tell a story I won’t ruin it by giving a complete summary of the story, suffice to say that if you like post-apocalyptic stories then TLA is a little bundle of pure PA candy.

TLA is a great post-apocalyptic treasure and at just four issues it doesn’t take a deep wallet to add it to your collection or a lot of time to add it to your memories.  The designs of the robots and the ATV are solid if a bit whimsical but Pilgrim’s uniform looks more for show than actual use.  He is a caricature of America, even more so than Uncle Sam ever was.

All in all, TLA is solid and is one of those lost gems that would make a great movie, even if it only made it as a low budget, CGI heavy movie in the same league as most Sci-Fi channel movies.  Hell, you could make this movie with only a handful of people and I'd suggest the more less well-known the better.  The robots would be simple to build or even easier to just CGI together, ditto for the ATV and the PA backdrops.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

TSR Minigame – “Revolt on Antares”

Being a particularly smart but wholly unchallenged kid growing up left me to fill in the gaps and one of those gaps that entertained my spinning mind was wargaming.  There came a golden age of gaming and that age was the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s. Bookshelf games like Avalon Hill’s “Tactics II” and SPI’s “Invasion America” were the large format games, full of heavy stock folding maps, exhaustively numbered yet scantily illustrated rules and a metric ton of die-cut counters.  Those games dominated the early to mid 1970’s but gave way to the likes of TSR's role playing games in the late '70's and early '80's.  Mid-level games were the boxed sets, with individual scenarios or game modules, richly illustrated and making use of multiple polyhedron dice.  The mid-level games mostly belonged to the RPG role playing games genre like TSR’s “Dungeons and Dragons” and other such ilk.  Below that were the small scale format games made extremely popular in the late 1970’s with Austin, TX's own Metagaming’s line of “Microgames”.

Microgames were big sellers … at $2.95 each, a microgame came with an attractively illustrated and compact rule book about the size of a quick reference guide, a fold out map limited to a handful of colors (at best) and a single sheet of counters that you had to cut out yourself (the more fancy games had die-cut counters that you just punched out from the “sprue”).  These games often used a six sided die to determine game results though very few of these games actually included the dice and if they did they were incredibly small, the size that you could fit on a fingernail with plenty of space to spare.  All of this tiny gaming goodness came to you in either a simple plastic closure bag or a “Ziploc” type bag.  Later offerings from Steve Jackson Games actually came in plastic clamshell boxes but no Metagaming offerings were ever offered in these types of cases.

Some of the more successful small format games were, of course, “OGRE”, “GEV”, “Car Wars” and the various “Car Wars” supplements like “Sunday Drivers” and “Truck Stop”.  Metagaming made a name for itself and the “microgame” early on so it was no wonder that a gaming giant like TSR would see the microgame format (and market) as something that they could enter and hopefully make a profit in.  One of the first TSR offerings in the newly cointed “minigame” market (because “microgame” was, I think, was an actual copyrighted term) was “Revolt on Antares” hereafter referred to, for brevity’s sake, simply as “ROA.”

“ROA” remains one of my favorite small format game offerings from that time.

I picked up my copy of “ROA” in Bookland at Cloverleaf Mall back in 1981 late one Friday afternoon after school.  It was a quick purchase, I knew exactly what I wanted and exactly where it was, about a third of the way inside the store in its own special standup cardboard TSR display rack.  I was headed on a Boy Scout hike to one of the military parks, Vicksburg or Shiloh, I can’t remember.  It was going to be cold, wet and an overnight trip.  Being in the Boy Scouts, we played a lot of D&D and Gamma World … two favorites which usually were taken on overnight trips or week long camping trips to Camp Tiak.  Microgames were another popular thing to pack among the wargaming scouts and stuff like “Melee”, “Wizard”, “OGRE” and “GEV” were often played late at night in the hallways of the National Guard armories where we spent the night in our sleeping bags.  Flashlights, notebooks and the sounds of pencils on paper and dice rolling were common for hours, accompanied by the low playing cassette tapes of Rush “Tom Sawyer”, the Gap Band’s “You dropped a bomb on me”, and AC-DC’s “Dirty deeds done dirt cheap” on our “boom boxes”, all before lights out was called by the Scoutmaster.

This particular trip, be it Vicksburg or Shiloh, I picked up TSR’s “ROA”.  It cost me $9.99 (which was three times what an average “Microgame” cost then) but it was worth it.  “ROA” was, perhaps, the greatest and best of the TSR small format offerings.  It came in a blisterpack that was unfortunately disposable and included a richly illustrated rule book, two standard sized six sided dice, a die-cut counter sheet and a lavishly colored map (so different than the simple two and three color Metagaming offerings at the time).  The counters were richly illustrated as well, very detailed as opposed to the typical symbols of infantry and armor given in the more traditional wargames.

“ROA” told the story of political intrigue and war on the planet Imirrhos, ninth planet in the Antares star system so technically the game should have been called “Revolt on Imirrhos” rather than “Revolt on Antares” since no revolt was actually occurring on the surface of the star.  Imirrhos was a planet divided between seven powerful houses or kingdoms, each house had its own individual leader each with a special power and their own army.  Whether the powers that each leader had were some kind of mutant power or due to some kind of technology advantage it wasn’t really clear though some of the powers did seem to be more mutations (long range telepathy) than anything that could be explained away with science (like the ability to teleport units or cast unpredictable lightning).  

And, speaking of science … each house had in their possession a single ancient artifact, a bit of super advanced, barely (if at all) understood science from a long dead race that had inhabited Imirrhos long before humans ever colonized it.  Artifacts included the Devastator (a super bomb, single use only), a force field generator, an energy drainer, a dimensional plane, two types of powerful self-propelled artillery and even a mysterious UFO that was by itself the match of an entire airjet squadron.  These artifacts offered each house an additional power or benefit in addition to the power that the leader already had and since artifact possession changed at the start of each game, no house had the same artifact every game session.

House forces consisted of five types of combat units; laser tanks, hovercraft, jump troops, power infantry and airjet squadrons.  Not all houses had all types of units.  The map was a “peeled fruit skin” type of map where units could exit off the left or right (reentering directly on the opposite side that they exited) but could not exit off the top or bottom of the map (not very realistic but …).  A single starport existed in Terran or neutral controlled territory.


Combat was simple … each counter had two stats; combat strength and movement allowance.  Combat was resolved by adding up all the combat strength of all the units engaged in the battle and rolling a single die for each player, adding that to the sum of the combat strength.  The winner of the die roll got to subtract the difference of the two die rolls from the combat strength of the defender, eliminating units directly.

There were three other factions involved in the seething turmoil on Imirrhos; the Terran Empire (which in its weakened state had allowed the turmoil to ferment on Imirrhos), the natives of Imirrhos itself (spear carrying, floppy eared, elephant footed, low-tech bipedal tribals under a charismatic leader named “Mirrhos” (which was the planet name minus the “I” in front of it) and a mysterious alien race known as the “Silakka” that was waiting to invade.  If that wasn’t enough, players could attempt to recruit intergalactic mercenaries, powerful individuals each with a unique ability, to fight for their houses.  These mercenaries ranged from an intergalactic assassin to a chubby free trader, several jump troop, power infantry, laser tank and hovercraft group leaders, a pair of hot shot airjet squadron leaders and even an android of mysterious alien origin that could travel through dimensions.  One of the more interesting mercenaries was “Dr. Death” who could raise the recent dead to fight again, ala zombie fashion.

Overall, the game played well and offered a variety of background story to enrich the science fiction that supported the game.  “ROA” wasn’t a particularly deep game and the simplification of its rules set and subsequent game play made it just that much more attractive.  “ROA” isn’t meant to be “Battle of the Bulge”, it’s meant to be an easy to learn, easy to play fun little game with little or no paperwork or record keeping.  A lot of the game is dependent on the roll of the die and many situations are resolved through die rolls.  My own copy of “ROH” is well worn from untold gaming sessions though I haven’t played “ROA” in over 30 years now.  Maybe it’s time to pull out “ROA” and teach my oldest daughter how to play.

As a side note, the counters for “ROH” also lent their selves well to another TSR offering, “Star Frontiers” and the later “Knight Hawks” expansion.  Many of the celebrities of “ROH” eventually found their selves in the “Star Frontiers” game settings.  In fact, both “ROH” and TSR’s other minigame offering of note, “Attack Force”, (which I’ll discuss soon) had counters that were often cross-borrowed for our “Star Frontiers” games, especially the starfighter counters in the “Attack Force” game. 

Good memories.