Metagaming Microgame Nostalgia, Part 7

Jumping back in

I know, it’s been a while. Some of these games were, at best, one-shots, one-plays and easily forgettable. Particularly the ones up for review tonight.

Microgame #16: Artifact

Fantastic premise. A sort of near future tactical match up between astronauts on the moon… Soviets versus Americans. The big fight is over a deux est machina device called the Dingus, an Alien “artifact” of immense technological consequence. I would have preferred to have the graphics a little cleaner and I would have been willing to do away with the alien crap totally.

The mechanics were pretty danged simple for the concept, and didn’t focus entirely on combat, which I liked. However, they were hardly what I considered a reasonable simulation of combat in low-gee. There’s a lot you can do with this premise; they just went for the simplest of interpertations with it.

Microgame #12: Invasion of the Air Eaters

This is a game of invasion of Earth by mysterious alien invaders bent of sucking out all the atmosphere to replace it with some alien environment (that bit is pretty vague)… the game is played out on a global stage; aliens versus all the nations of Earth (represented by some lame silhouettes and NATO counters). The Aliens can pretty much kill anything the earthlings throw at them in a straight up fight but there are ways to combine to make a decent fight

The rules were pretty horrendous, which was too bad; the designer (Keith Gross) was not without talent. One thing I liked was that he did manage was to craft a situation where the aliens and humans were very, very different from each other.

Air Eaters has its fans and it has its detractors; I played it a few times (more than Artifact, that’s for sure). I recall the game having some character and an interesting setting, but kind of a hard slog to get through and not very exciting.


An Archive page on the Wayback machine of Mark Johnson’s Air Eaters AAR (from 1996)

Metagaming Nostalgia Project Posting Index

1 OGRE and Melee

2 WarpWar and Olympica

3 Starleader: Assault, Chitin:I and Dimension Demons

4 Rivets and Black Hole

5 G.E.V. and Holy War

6 Ice War, Annihilator/One World, and Hot Spot

7 Invasion of the Air Eaters and Artifact

8 Trailblazer, Helltank/Helltank Destroyer, and Lords of the Underearth


  1. Otto:

    If you think being called a grouchy bastard is an attack, then your’e thinner skinned than I took you for, please accept my apologies!

    The title of the series is “Microgame Nostalgia” and in that respect I’ve succeeded in the reason I posted it in the first place– to invoke a time and place long gone by. I can’t recreate that time nor would I particularly want to anymore. But it’s nice to remember. For me. And that’s why I write in blogs– it’s a personal statement at the end of the day.

    So let’s remember that it was not I who in ultimately unambiguous terms pronounced that they sucked, but the public who did not buy, or continue to play them. The true test of believeing in market forces is when that which one likes goes under, not just when that which one likes survives.

    I’m well aware that the business model that generated micros had a brief flurry in the sunlight, then beat a hasty retreat. However, that can’t be the only test of a game’s ‘suckiness’ or ‘unsuckiness’, Otto. You, yourself, have often derided the opinion of the masses, in particular when it comes to items of popular culture. To state that commercial success is the yardstick by which we judge a game’s success or failure seems like a reverse for you. Sure, I know OGRE and to some extent The Fantasy Trip (as GURPS) “graduated” from this group but that doesn’t mean that some of the other games in the line weren’t capable of delivering a good time. Does a game have to earn a certain profit to be “good”? Is that our sole yardstick for judgement? I don’t think so. What about the good times, the beers drank and the lies told, pushing counters around and jokin’ and smokin… that has far more value to me than what the game did in the marketplace. Several of my favorites are “duds” by your analysis.. and I keep them around with the hope that maybe, someday… I’ll play them again.

    Cheap-Ass Games is an excellent example of a min-game company that is around, does well, produces games of longevity, and they are simply great and astounding games. Games like “Killing Dr. Lucky” and “Captain Park’s Imaginary Polar Adventure” as well as one about making B Westerns (which sounds suspiciously incestuous with Howards games) are excellent and likely to be around for a while.

    Deadwood (that last one you mention). I reviewed it a long while back for

    To some extent the concept still exists in Cheapass and the products of some other poverty row publishers (though, you should note, even Cheapass seems to be getting out of the “disposable game” line– see the James Ernest line). And Avalanche is going full-bore on the publication of low cost, entry level historicals. So there definitely are some companies who recognize that you have to cater to both ends of the spectrum.

    I am far more comfortable (financially) than I was when these things were new, but I still blink twice when I reach for the wallet to buy a wargame these days. The average price point has gone up to 65 bucks or so for a boxed game. What if the expensive game with all the bells and whistles “sucks”? It certainly happens often enough. Catering to the lower price point and the lower end encouraged customers to experiment more, instead of relying on a sure thing.

    There are many examples of companies that tried to take the poverty row approach to recruit more gamers on the low end– SPI with its “Quad series” (including SHEBOYGAN), TFG with Pocket Games, Cheapass, even the giant TSR had a line of these things (mostly regretable). Some were worth keeping and they definitely delivered up some good times, despite being flops commercially.

    I haven’t quite given up on board games yet, as they still are still charming to me. However, I have dumped a lot of the oldies that never appealed to me, so I can’t say I disagree with your assesment of games lacking “comedia”. You could never, for example, get me to sit down to another game of Advance Squad Leader or Third Reich… both of which I was avid about at some point, and now just bore the hell out of me. I recently liquidated my entire holding of ASL stuff and A3R. More are following as we speak. I guess that’s why I want to capture my reminiscences about this stuff while I still have it.

  2. Dear Walt & Otto:

    One point that ought to be kept in mind is that Metagaming’s failure was mostly due to factors entirely unrelated with the “Micro” business model or any of the games themselves. After all, Steve Jackson started his business with a number of “Micro” style releases and he did not go out of business at that time (far from it…)

    A big problem was simply the national economic situation at that time, which was generally poor. It did not allow much margin for error in terms of running a business. Unfortunately for Metagaming, they did make errors. A few designs were turkeys; a number of others, while good or even great, just never made it big. Guy McLimore mentioned in a post on a The Fantasy Trip related forum that Metagaming made a number of (regrettably, unspecified) marketing blunders. Since he was working there at the time, I’ll take his word for it.

    But perhaps the greatest problem was Metagaming’s president, Howard Thompson, who was a few cans short of a six pack in terms of emotional stability. I’ve been doing some research into this, and it is rather interesting what transpired when Steve Jackson left to form his own game company. Initially, the split was amicable, but for some reason that I haven’t quite figured out (perhaps Thompson felt threatened by this new competition from Steve Jackson) Thompson started filing lawsuits to prevent SJ from releasing some of his early stuff, including OGRE/GEV and One Page Bulge. The lawsuits were baseless, and got thrown out of court, but obviously took wasted time and resource to file in the first place. When this legal attempt failed, Thompson then diverted Metagaming resources to heavy handed “flaming” (to use the modern term) of SJ, up to and including the publication of a vicious parody called “Fistful of Turkeys” (a take off on the “No Turkeys” logo of SJG). Talk about a waste of time and money!!!

    Bottom line: I think statements like “There’s a reason games die, Walt– THEY SUCK!” are off base and display ignorance of the realities involving this situation. Yes, a sucky design is *A* reason for games to die, but it is far from being the only one. And as I’ve outlined, there are many reasons (particularly involving Metagaming) that a game can die. No matter how brilliant and fun the design, if your company happens to be headed by an emotional whack-job who makes poor business decisions, diverts company resources into personal vendettas, and then with no warning at all decides to shut the company down and crawl under a rock and hide for the next 30+ years, chances are your brilliant and fun game will die through absolutely no fault of its own…

    As a point of fact, to this day there is *still* interest in some of the Metagaming titles, especially TFT, in spite of how obscure this stuff is. From a strict standpoint of design, TFT was much superior to D&D, though it did not have a lot of material (modules, supplements, etc.) as compared with the latter. Still, with some detail tweaking and additional material, it might well have given D&D a serious run for its money (at one point TFT was rated second only to D&D) – again, a victim of poor company leadership, not any inherent flaw in the game itself. Similar could be said for games like Chitin and Warpwar – had they been expanded to their full potential as intended, they would probably still be mainstream titles.

    Don’t really want to start a fight with either of you, but before we condemn the Micros as being truly inferior, we may want to consider other facts that, I believe, were far more critical in bringing about their demise.

    Charles G.

Comments are closed.