Monday, October 17, 2005

Shadows of the Gaming Past

Part 1, The Far Side of the Galaxy

In restrospect the early to middle nineties, the period correlating largely to my time at the University of Illinois, could be called my Crunchy Years. Role-playing wise I gamed the crap out of the HERO System, mostly in its Champions guise but also with an espionage, sci-fi, and fantasy outings. On the boardgaming front I did my level best to play Star Fleet Battles with at least basic proficiency. Heck, I even played in at least one SFB tournament at Winter War. (I remember being knocked out the running by my good friend Ray St. John. Later during the con we realized that Ray had been unintentionally allocating more energy than his engines produced.) I think it would be fair to say that HERO and SFB are among the crunchiest games in their respective fields. Although well-designed systems, I don't really have time any more for the level of tinkering those two games required. But I don't consider myself completely finished with either of these games. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the new Star Hero is supposed to be a great generic sci-fi campaign aid. The other genre sourcebooks in the fifth edition HERO line are also drawing praise, particularly Pulp Hero and the new Champions. In many ways people are talking up these books the same way that GURPS sourcebooks were hot in the 90s.

I still have a bit of a shine for SFB. The game may be too slow and crunchy for me, but I still love a lot of the ship designs and expanded setting material. I'd love to play out the desparate everyone vs. the Andromedans campaign, even if I would use Starmada instead of the SFB system. The appearance in the SFB universe of the Kzinti warms my heart. (And they share a border with the Klingons, allowing for the two warrior races to duke it out.) The emigration of the Tholian refugee fleet to our galaxy and the subsequent pursuit by the Seltorians are truly the stuff of grand space epics. The early Klingon and Starfleet ship designs directly inspire my on-again off-again Four Years War project.

But all this nifty SFB stuff is part and parcel of the mainstream SFB universe. What I really want to talk about here is something further off the beaten track. Turn the wayback machine to 1994, the only year I have attended Gencon. Although the gaming was sour (Several events filled or canceled and my first opponent at the Divine Right tournament was an ass. And worse yet, he was an ass who beat me.) I managed to have a lot of fun at the live auction, even if Frank Mentzer was full of himself. I also enjoyed viewing the wares in the exhibition hall. I remember two vendors in particular making a deep impression on me. The first one was a representative of Precendence Publishing, who tried really hard to convince me that Immortal: The Invisible War did not suck. I feel pretty confident that they were wrong(think Vampire heartbreaker plus Highlander ripoff minus anything cool about being a vampire or sword-swinging immortal), but if I find a copy in a dollar bin somewhere maybe I'll take another look at it. The other memorable vendor was a chap from Companion Games. Heck, that guy might have been the entire staff of Companion Games.

Back in '94 Companion Games had just published a batch of third party material for Star Fleet Battles, mostly taking the form of ship books for new races. Like the official SFB races, each book outlined one or more pieces of new technology that the species used in its ship designs. Although Companion designed their ships to be useable against standard SFB vessels, they also established their own setting for their creations. This setting was unfortunately named The Far Side. Had these guys never heard of the Gary Larson comic? Sheesh. To the right is what normal right-thinking Americans imagine when you mention The Far Side. Below is the Companion Games version.


This region of space is called The Far Side because it is on the opposite side of the galaxy from Federation/Klingon/etc space. In modern SFB parlance the Far Side might lie inside Lambda Octant. (Alpha Octant is the region of the Feds, et al. The lettering system goes clockwise around the galactic disk, so Alpha Octant is adjacent to Beta and Omega Octants.) One of the newer official SFB factions, the Xorkaelian Empire, could lurk just coreward of the Scorpeads. Here's a brief rundown of what I know about the elements from the Far Side map.

Argonian First Republic: The Argonians occupy a nebula on the Far Side and a nebula near the Romulan/Gorn/ISC border. The two nebulae were once linked via a wormhole, which has since collapsed, cutting the Argonian civilization in half. Argonian ships are radially symmetrical (Their cruisers look like flying Stars of David, just like the "Jews in Space" sequence at the end of Mel Brooks's History of the World, Part I.) and are equipped with a Strobe Device that can blind enemy sensors.

Vektrea: The only thing I know about this race is that some of them are space mercenaries.

Indirigan Space: I think the first Indirigan book is the one that I bought that day back in '94. Some of the Inidirigans abandoned their planets to take up life as roving space gypsies. They are organized into kinship groups that travel together in up to a dozen ships. One of their more interesting cultural facets is that they still practice marriage by capture. When two kinship groups meet they fight. The goal is to beam boarding parties to the enemy ships to kidnap brides. The Indirigans are basically humanoid, so you could inflict this scenario on Romulan or Federation ships if you like. Imagine trying to carry off an unwilling Klingon bride! The Indirigan section fo the Far Side is also called the Free Trade Zone because life back on the planets life is controlled by big business. The megacorps took over the Indirigan planets during the disruptions caused by the space migrations.

Plasma Occupied Territory: This is a mystery. What does "Plasma Occupied" mean? Thanks to the appearance of the Doomsday Machine and the giant space amoeba in original series Star Trek, SFB has a long tradition of giant space monsters. Maybe this region is full of ionic monsters or enigmatic energy beings.

Krebiz Capitalist Alliance: These guys are crab people with claw-shaped spaceships. The are behind the curve in defense technologies, so their ships use armor plating rather than shield generators. The Krebiz had a small colony in the Alpha Octant, but it was conquered by the Klingons and the colonial fleet was utterly destroyed. I think the Krebiz/Klingon conflict could be a great little wargame campaign.

Mechad Holdfast: I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords.

Tuforeous Dead Zone: I seem to recall that warp drive doesn't work in this region of space, but the little purple 'X' in the Zone indicates the presence of a pirate stronghold. Maybe they have access to some non-warp based FTL technology. (Like the apocryphal Romulan "star drive".)

All-in-all, the Far Side looks like an interesting place for adventure. Companion Games put out maybe a dozen or so SFB products detailing their Far Side creations. They then turned their attentions to the then-burgeoning collectible card game market. The Far Side setting material became the backbone of the Galactic Empires CCG. When the CCG market crashed Companion Games sold out or else transitioned into Component Game Systems, which has subsequently folded. Nowadays the Far Side SFB material is barely a fleeting memory. I can't help but think that the print runs on the books were pretty small. And who knows, maybe legal action from Task Force Games/Amarillo Design Bureau resulted in a large quantity of the stock being destroyed. I've heard rumours to the effect that the official SFB people weren't exactly pleased as punch to have competition. But then again, simple market forces and the realities of the hobby would dictate that you aren't going to get rich making unofficial supplements to a niche game like SFB. Especially when you consider that, in addition to lacking the blessing of the game's publisher, none of these races ever appeared on the TV show. Add in the fact that in the mid-nineties publishing a CCG looked like a license to print money and maybe Companion Games just switched their business model over to a more profitable venture.

I think my Indirigans book was among my SFB material that I sold as a lot many years ago. It would be cool to track down some of this stuff, but it's all deucedly hard to find on the internet. John H. Kim's Companion Games page provides a nice overview of the product line and a few SSDs. Maniacal SSD designer Donald "SmileyLich" Miller has some homebrew Far Side ships in his vast SFB fansite. But the only thing I've found for sale is from Noble Knight Games, which has the first Mechad book for fifteen bucks. That's more than I'm willing to spend, so I continue to scan eBay. Maybe someday I'll break down and buy some Galactic Empires cards just so I can see what some of these aliens look like. Until I can lay my hands on some of this stuff, the Far Side will linger in the back of my mind as one of those half-forgotten campaign settings that maybe deserved a better fate that it received. Or maybe nostalgia's rosy tints have put a false shine on the Far Side. I won't know until I see for myself.

Coming soon in Part 2: The Quest for Icarus