One of the Best, Two of the Worst
I’m just a slave to the truth, here. To be fair, Howard Thompson’s commercial judgement was not always in top form. In the last year of Metagaming’s life, he either selected some real turkeys (and there’s a pun there, but we’ll get to that) or simply games that just didn’t fit the audience or publishing niche created by microgames. Some of those choices were good games, just not good microgames. Some, however, were just turkeys. Today, we’ll pay tribute to two of them, and also to one of his best and oddly creative designs.
I’m discussing “the worst” first, not JUST to get it out of the way, but also to paint a complete picture of Metagaming’s micro oeuvre.
I trust I’m not doing a disservice to the worthy gentlemen who designed these games (Howard Thompson and Fred Askew, respectively) by combining them together, but for the sake of brevity, we must press on.
Dimension Demons is a game of teleporting aliens that start in their own dimension (on a flat 2D map, they are starting on a narrow strip of volcanic scenery at the bottom and crossing the “dimensional barrier” (a strip of hexes decorated with a pattern vaguely like a “Hypno-Coin” from the Johnson and Smith novelty corporation).
My one game of DD convinced me I didn’t like it. The dimensional aliens have one advantage: they can cross between universes via teleport so they can appear in areas you can’t predict. In a straight up fight with humans, especially the human tank, the aliens are wimpy. It’s unbalanced an thoroughy undeveloped, showing signs of a rush-to-market mentality. There’s some good ideas here, but they are too buried in the slipshod “everything else” of the game to shine through.
Production Standards were getting pretty bad by this point, although the cover art was still good in a funky, 70s/early 80s fashion. The counters were blobby silhouettes in muddy colors, and the manual had gone from the slick productions (relatively speaking) of the early games to a rulebook typed out on an IBM selectric typewriter. No, that’s not an exaggeration.
The counters are … acceptable (for what it is, but the map was truly hideous.
Starleader Assault is reputed to have been Howard Thompson’s own notion of a new Roleplaying Game to counter the success of Steve Jackson’s design of The Fantasy Trip. Steve had, by this time, decamped from any relationship with Metagaming and had started his very own game company (Steve Jackson Games, duh), which had already published a game (Kung Fu 2100) and was working on several others, including Steve’s own version of OGRE and GEV. From what I’ve read, Steve tried buying back the rights to The Fantasy Trip, but Howard’s asking price was too high for Steve to afford (which probably led to the creation of GURPs). Howard must have felt the need to diversify the product line a tad, and science fiction must have looked like an attractive and logical venue. It had worked for Traveller, right?
Alas, what ended up being published was the bare bones start for a SF game and in retrospect it looks more like a knee-jerk reaction to Steve Jackson’s efforts (there are rumors of a vendetta at the time) than a well-developed new system.
Is it Melee in Space, as some have alleged? Nope. Starleader shared some concepts with TFT games, but there were major differences.
The biggest difference was eliminating movement allowance and going to an action point (AP) system (similar to the TSR/SPI version of SNIPER). Unfortunately it really didn’t pan out as an idea– and it might have, with a longer development cycle. Like many Howard designs, Starleader was conceived as part of a larger canvas– The Assault module was just supposed to be tactical game of the greater SF universe of Howard’s imaginings. Alas, the writing was on the wall for Metagaming at this point, as this was the last of the microgame series.
Artistically, the production values were far below those demonstrated on Dimension Demons, if at all possible. The counters are poorly drawn silhouettes that are hard to read. The map is a real treat… just a giant series of varieted and differently shaded hexagons that are supposed to represent a starship. Pretty awful work.
At the point in time Starleader was being published, as I mention above, there may or may not have been a grudge being held by Howard Thompson towards Steve Jackson. I’ve only read Steve’s P.O.V. on this subject, and he makes it clear that he wasn’t “a Metagaming employee” who ran off to set up his own company, but a freelance game designer who sold a couple of (great) designs to Howard’s company, and continued to support them for Metagaming during that company’s existence. Steve’s account (I can’t remember where I read it) definitely makes it all seem fairly one-sided. Howard’s publication of certain parodies (we will get to them in time) supports this. Certainly if there was some sort of internecine struggle going on, it might have affected the production quality of later microgames.
That was the worst… (well, the point could be debated, but it’s my blog, and that’s my opinion).
A rather humorous (and totally unrealistic) recent Ebay listing for Metagaming games
Here’s one of the best:
“On a far planet, summer is ending. It is the time of harvest. And across the fields pour the Hymenoptera – intelligent insects with only one goal…more food for the hive.
Chitin I is a tactical abstract from Metagaming’s Hymenoptera game system. It simulates a battle between two hive cities struggling for greater shares of food – the harvest, or bodies of the enemy! Workers, fliers, basics, and the different types of warriors they command make Chitin I a detailed yet easy to learn game in a setting that may really exist…somewhere…
I put CHITIN in with STARLEADER: ASSAULT because, frankly, I wanted to do justice to Howard Thompson as a designer. I think Chitin’s cleverness is a nice counterpoint to Starleader’s mundanity.
The game is set in an imagined universe created by Howard called Hymenoptera, a world of intelligent insects living in giant, rival hives. If you read the old Metagaming House ‘zine (Space Gamer), you will find a lot of material about Hymenoptera in it… tantalizing blurbs about a larger RPG and a bigger game and game modules to CHITIN:1 (I guess, CHITIN:2, 3, 4, etc.) that were all just down the road. Alas, this is all we got out of Metagaming, but it’s a great game for all the hype and promise.
The scenarios (and there are a bunch of them) are all fairly repetitive, with two great hives going to war. The soldiers are giant insects. There are four units used in the game to represent the four types of insectoid fighters. The CRT and combat mechanics are fairly straightforward, with a few exceptions (airborne units measure their distance in MEGA-hexes, and there’s a rock-scissor-paper style bonus to combat)
Advanced rules allow for command control issues with insect leaders called Basics and other combat options. Lots of force customization is possible.
The first version of CHITIN is pretty crude, being a manila colored map with bland color contrast, small, densely printed counters in colors not very convivial with the map colors. The second version blows the first one away: lavish color and a general cleaning up of the map and counters made it much more legible.
In summary, a great little game in an imaginative universe, all wrapped up in a small package. Exactly what a microgame should be.
Next… Two lights hid under a bushel.
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