Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Fun times in the Ethel System

So I've been having some Traveller thoughts again. Good ol' Trav comes with a clearly defined method of insterstellar transport, the jump drive, and some pretty good parameters for whether or not you'd like to live on any given planet, the Universal World Profile.

Imperial Starfire dares ask the question,
"What if Dejah Thoris was
a birdwoman from Ophiuchi?
But what if these things, method of FTL travel and suitability of worlds for habitation, weren't fixed? There are examples of games where they are variables that impact play. If I recall correctly, Imperial Starfire (Task Force Games, 1993) assigns each player's starfaring race a number to represent their species' biology and you spend a good portion of a campaign look for worlds with a similar designation. My Class M world may not be the same as your Class M world, so to speak. So players may compete fiercely for some worlds but sometimes you may not care if a planet near your empire is poached. You were never going to colonize that methane-soaked dump anyway.

Imperial Starfire was the campagn system for Starfire, the spaceship combat game made by Task Force that wasn't Star Fleet Battles. I played both Star Fleet Battles and Starfire a bit back in the day. For my taste SFB was too cumbersome and Starfire too light. Call me the Goldilocks of spaceships blasting each other to pieces, I guess.

Web and Starship (West End Games, 1984) deals with a scenario where two alien empires vie for control of interstellar space around the Sol system. One player has an FTL drive that allows them to move across the board much as you do any other boardgame, zooming from one space to the next. The other player has a teleportation drive that allows them to bamf across the board, but only to spaces reached by their transit web. I've never played this one, but I assume much of the interest of the game hangs on the asymmetric nature of the movement rules. Web and Starship, by the way, was designed by Greg Costikyan, who deserves more credit for all the amazing game design work he has done. One of his many, many other designs is Bug-Eyed Monsters. To the best of my knowledge it is the only wargame where one of the scenarios involves aliens kidnapping Dwight D. Eisenhower. It also the only wargame I know that needs a bunch of counters that say this:
Nowadays no one should probably make a game where the monsters from outer space kidnap Earth women to take them back to their home planet. Back then, it seemed like a harmless homage to 1950's sci-fi movies where the monster would carry off the leading lady for reasons that never made much sense.

Anyhoo, the thing I've been thinking about is this: what if a Traveller universe had more than one method of FTL transport? We'll call the canonical jump drive method A and posit 5 other methods, B, C, D, and E. Maybe these are all jump drives but they are calibrated to a diver dimension of hyperspace, so that each of A-F can only go to worlds that intersect their respective dimension. Or maybe the six methods use different physics entirely, like Web and Starship mentioned above. Either way, out of any selected patch of the galaxy, some worlds can be reached by each FTL method and others cannot.

Add to this the complication that different starfaring societies crave different things. Call the default human set of priorities class 1 and assume the existence of class 2-6. Maybe the bigger the number the more members of that society differ from humans biologically or culturally. Class 2 entities could be silicon based lifeforms, class 4 could be machine intelligences, etc.

A humble beginning for a
galaxy-spanning empire.
Now you can have up to 36 different kinds of starspanning empires, each with a two digit alphanumeric code. Like this:

Remloth Combine, E3
7th Interregnum, F5
Nation of Joe F1
Ooblaxo Entities D5
The Metalliance, A6
Thorvacian Qualiocracy, C3

I rolled a couple of d6 to get the stats for each faction, then gave them a stupid name. The Remlothi and Thorvacians want the same kind of worlds, but use totally different methods to get there. Meanwhile, the same drive technology is used by both the Nation of Joe and the 7th Interregnum (whatever that is), but they are interested in wildly different planets.

Now, each solar system on your map needs to be assigned a code of one ot more numbers and one or more letters, to indicate which kinds of technology can reach the system and what kinds of desirable planets it possesses. You can then look at your map and easily figure out who wants to go where and if/how they can get there. Here's an example:

Each system is a box with a code in it. So the Eoh System, near the middle of the map, has code CE345. That means there's at least one world desirable to the Remlothi and one world enticing to the Metalliance. Fortunately for both of them, their drive technologies can get them there, so I drew more boxes around the system to mark settlement here (I'm assuming for this subsector that every system that can be settled has been settled). Here are the color codes:

Remloth Combine, brown
7th Interregnum, green
Nation of Joe, red
Ooblaxo Entities, blue
The Metalliance, black
Thorvacian Qualiocracy, yellow

I seeded numbers and letters randomly around the map. I also decided that F-type drives use naturally occuring wormholes and some were present in the subsector with no stars or worlds near them. Thus, although most factions have routes leading offmap to right edge, the Interregnum and Joe have settlement patterns emerging from the 'naked' wormholes Futhorc 01 through 03.

Here's what I learned about the Futhorc Subsector once I mapped out who settled where:

The Thorvacian Qualiocracy has settlements in four systems, Thorn, Eoh, Eolhx, and Ethel. Using Thorvacian technology, Thorn can not be reached from the other three without leaving the subsector and taking a circutous route through off-map Thorvacian systems. Although they don't like the world of the Beorc system, it is an important transit point between Eoh-Ethel and Eolhx-Ethel.

The Remloth Combine has colonies in the same four systems, but since they differ biologically, they probably inhabit different planets. They also have a colony on Rad.The Combine uses a different drive technology than the Qualiocracy, so you can travel from Thorn to Ethel (via multiple routes) on a Thorvacian vessel.

The 7th Interregnum uses the wormhole technology I mentioned. They have 3 settlements, two that reach the rest of the Interregnum via wormhole Futhorc 01 and one via Futhorc 02. I also drew a line from Futhorc 03 to Ing. I had this idea in my head that maybe the Interregnum wants to terraform the class 4 world at Ing to class 5, since no one else is paying attention to that world.

Similarly, I drew lines from Futhorc 02 and Futhorc 03 to indicate travel routes for the Nation of Joe. There are no worlds on Nyd or Ethel that are suitable for habitation, but I had it in my head that maybe the Nation uses the class 2 worlds there as penal colonies or for some other nefarious purpose.

The Ooblaxo Entities hold Peorth, Beorc (the corssroads of the subsector), Lagu, and Daeg. Clearly, keeping the Ooblaxo friendly is important to strategic subsector relations for both the Remlothi and Thorvacians.

The Metalliance have two systems settled, Ior and Ethel.

Speaking of Ethel, three factions have full settlements there, the Metalliance, the Thorvac Qualiocracy, and the Remloth Combine. Plus whatever sneakery the Nation of Joe is up to. Sounds like a place for some adventures!

One of the neat things about this experiment is that I didn't end up with a bunch of blobby nation-states like a typical Traveller map, but rather with a messy set of intersecting networks. I kinda like that.

Old Gameblog posts of meager relevance: two sci-fi fragments, fun with jumpspace


  1. FWIW, having played quite a bit of Web & Starship, the main standout was not just the asymmetry but the "balanced for 3 players" aspect of the rules, something you didn't see much in board wargames back then (and only slightly more so today). The "web" side had to get their gates to new systems via STL probes, which could use the gate they were hauling to keep in supply from the homeworlds so they were built small and stealthy and didn't need to be giant generation ships or anything. The "starship" side could go anywhere much faster than the STL gate-probes, but it's hard to pile enough ships in a system to interdict a probe sneaking past to set up a gate somehwere, and starships can't carry enough troops to win a ground war once a gate starts 'porting troops in en masse. The humans start behind the curve but could eventually get both tech types going at once, or concentrate more on one that the other. Great game, and as you said, many of Costikyan's designs are underappreciated gems.

    There was some other 80s (or maybe late 70s) boardgame that had multiple races with different FTL approaches, but the name's eluding me.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Dick! I was trying to remember if Cosmic Encounter had different travel modes or not. I played that once in 91 or 92 and can't remember a darn thing about it.

    1. No, CE has lots of races but it's very abstract, more of a social/deal-making game than a wargame, no real movement system as such.

      FWIW, I think the game I'm not quite remembering was Dark Stars from Simulations Canada, but I'm not positive. Whatever it was, I recall one race (maybe the Terrans, even) used some sort of "dive into a singularity" FTL drive, while another used more Traveller-like hypersapce jumping and there might have been others - maybe some kind of big warp gate tech, that was a pretty popular trope back in the early 80s.

      Also, boy howdy, does Boardgame Geek have a lot of scifi games listed for the 70s and 80s. :)

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