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.