Normally this blog focuses on active Kickstarters. But today I want to kick off a series that documents my own thoughts and experiences with a piece of wargaming history. A legacy so rich and deep that it practically founded the microgames concept, made wargaming accessible to a wide audience, acted as the prototype for the well known Star Trek game Star Fleet Battles (SFB), practically founded the 4x genre, spawned numerous books, and inspired Honor Harrington – one of the top selling science fiction franchises in existence today!
I am, of course, referring to:
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
My first forays into serious board gaming were… interesting. I was young, I had a family, and thus I didn’t have much money. What’s a inquisitive young individual to do? Print’n’Play, of course!
Except, we didn’t call it Print’n’Play back then. We just looked for “printable” games. I remember running across a blog post that pointed me to a couple of really cool games that I could print out and play. I became infatuated with Battle for Moscow. More than the game itself, I just loved the idea. Here I could play a complete historical simulation without a computer or graphics or any of the trappings I’d gotten used to with computer simulations. All I needed was some printouts and some scissors!
(Probably my favorite memory was when I convinced my wife to play Ghoulash with me. We had a lot of fun with those printouts!)
At the same time I was getting my first introduction to adult board gaming, I was tearing through book after book from my new favorite author: David Weber.
For those of you not familiar with Mr. Weber, he is the author of a New York Times best selling series known as Honor Harrington. The series focuses on interstellar conflict and the minutia of space naval conflict. It’s a lot of fun to read, especially if a combination of Naval Warfare and Space Opera is your thing.
As I ran out of HH books, I found that he had previously written for a similar yet slightly different book series. This series eschewed much of the political backdrop in favor of even more space battles!
And why shouldn’t it? Turns out that the series was based on a board game. More specifically, a wargame with a space setting. Hex maps, cardboard chits, D-10 and all. And it turns out that Mr. Weber was the guy who developed the Starfire III: Empires expansion that brought galaxy-spanning 4x strategy to a simple 1 on 1 tactical game! As I’m reading about all these cool interstellar conflicts in the books, all I can think about is how cool it would be to play these out on a board game!
So I started saving my money and headed over to Starfire Design Studios to pick up a copy. Only, things were a bit interesting at SDS.
Turns out that David Weber had stopped developing Starfire years ago. The company that owned it, Task Force Games, had gone out of business and sold the rights to a gentleman named Marvin Lamb.
Mr. Lamb was on a quest to pull all the crazy expansions, various editions, house rules, and other wide and varied aspects of the universe together into a single, unified edition that reduced confusion and conflict between the various rule sets. A worthy goal for sure!
His first major attempt was the release of Galactic Starfire. This was a boxed release containing multiple hex maps, 2 separate rule books (!), more punch out counters than you could shake a stick at, and one lonely D-10 die.
It’s worth noting that the components of the game hadn’t changed much over the years. Marvin quickly realized that the constant rule updates were the real problem and was working on electronic rules known as Ultra Starfire.
Coming into this I had no idea what was going on. There was too much history and not enough context for a newb like myself. Figuring that the older products would be simpler than newer products, I ordered the Galactic Starfire package.
When the box arrived, I was so excited! There were tons of components and no less than two rule books! Wait… Two rule books? Huh? These things weren’t thin, either!
And thus began a long adventure in learning rules.
You see, Starfire consists of two games molded into one. There’s the original tactical game that pits fleets of ships against each other in pitched battles. Then there’s the strategic game that’s all about empire building and 4x expansion. In effect, the empire game provides context for the battles that occur. How evenly those battles are played is highly dependent on the resources and ships built in the strategic game.
Being completely new to wargaming, I struggled to understand what all these rules were for and how to execute them as a cohesive game. Eventually I managed to figure out the tactical game (basically the Quick Start Rules that exist today), designed my first ship, and convinced my wife to try it with me.
At this point I made two critical mistakes. The first was starting with only one ship. Even though we were just beginning, a single ship doesn’t offer much tactical flexibility. Which leads to my second mistake: thinking that the forces should be even. Being used to playing games like Chess, I assumed that the best place to start would be with the exact same pieces. And since we were playing our first game with only one piece, why shouldn’t they be the same type of ship?
Obviously the game turned into a slugging match with the winner determined by a dice roll. With all the record keeping going on (which we were not used to!) it didn’t feel very fun. It was obvious to me that the problem was that we weren’t playing enough of the game to make it work well, but I didn’t see a good path to learning the rest of the game.
Later on I would learn that the pure tactical game was missing something that was core to the original Starfire: Scenarios. Scenarios are tactical layouts (usually with some background story) that set the stage for the battle. They specify how many ships, of what types, how the ships are configured, and where they start on the map. In typical wargaming these scenarios would be asymmetrical with each side having certain advantages over the other.
Unfortunately, this is something I wouldn’t learn for another few years. Join me in my next article when I talk about rediscovering the original Starfire rules.
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