Friday, 18 November 2016

Science Fiction Wargaming: The Three Rs


Over on Neil Shucks Meeples & Miniatures podcast Henry talked about his decision to resign as editor of Miniature Wargames, and mentions what he sees as a problem with SF wargaming: namely it's not a unified community in any shape or form, being driven by ranges from manufacturers.  An obvious example being Warhammer 40K from Games Workshop.  The implication being that SF wargamers tend towards one system and setting, though I would add that most of my friends tend to mix it up and play in more than one manufacturers universe.

So, for example I tend to be thought of as a BattleTech grognard, at one time it would've been Battletech for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a late night snack of BattleTech before going to bed.  However, as readers of this blog know I also have an extensive collection of Steve Jackson Games Ogre and GEV game miniatures, which have also graced this blog, and I've been know to wibble on about the game at great length.  And then there's Dream Pod 9s Heavy Gear range that I've gotten into over the last few years.

I should also add that I'm also into StarWars: X-Wing from Fantasy Flight Games, and have in the past played the odd game of Star Trek Star Fleet Battles from Amarillo Design Bureau.

However, perhaps I'm not necessarily a typical SF wargamer?

There is an element of truth that SF wargames are compartmentalized by brand/universe setting.  In fact one could argue that all the successful SF wargames have a strong brand/universe setting, because without the setting what is one actually playing?  And furthermore, without a setting, how does one come to an agreement about how to play a game set in a hypothetical future?

Fantasy gaming also has a similar problem with, for example, Lord of the Rings versus Warhammer Fantasy Battles, but the one thing they do have in common is the extensive mythology from historical cultures.  Even if the trolls from Norse mythology are not the same as say the trolls from Runequest, one doesn't have to explain that a troll is a monster, only the nature of the beast.

There again there are the common SF tropes, which I will boil down to the three Rs of science fiction: Rockets, Robots, and Rayguns.

But, once you get past the basics what is actually the common denominator?  I'm into robots – BattleTech and Heavy Gear – but my friend John Treadaway is into Hammer's Slammers and Silent Death, and we disagree on the relative realism of walking tanks versus hover tanks.  Whereas in Fantasy no one I know is arguing that trolls are less realistic than goblins.  The root of this is the difference between science fiction and fantasy: one is rooted in historical based reality the other in mythology and beliefs about forces outside of human understanding.

Is there an answer to this?

Probably not, and does there need to be one because what we're talking about is playing games.  However, it does seem to explain Henry's assertion about the lack of a central community for SF wargames.  Personally, one of the reasons I play SF games is because I free of community group thinking about what is right or wrong in the games I want to play.


  1. I think market power is a big part of it. WH40K is big enough that it can support its own community: if you live near a city you can probably get a 40K game every night of the week. So it's perfectly possible to be an SF wargamer who only plays 40K. You can buy your standard tournament-legal army, take it with you, and get a game. On the other hand, if I want to play Stargrunt, well, I do at least have a local wargames club; but I'm going to have to provide everything for both sides, including minis, scenarios, and rules teaching, and I'll certainly end up playing other games rather than nothing at all some weeks. Nobody's "just" a Stargrunt player.

    The bigger the hobby gets, the more room there is for individual game communities to provide all of people's wargaming needs. Battletech was probably like that in the glory days, but I think it's shrunk. There are probably people now who only play X-Wing.

    The real question is whether the "only" players will ever break out and join the wider world of SF wargaming. And I think that if the wider world is out there and visible to them, they probably will.

    But all of this applies just as well to fantasy and historical wargaming.

    1. Nicely put, taking my abstract thoughts and making them concrete. But, assuming one is rules tolerant (as in not invested in one system before all others) a fantasy elven army is a fantasy elven army, and things are then more focused on the basing requirements for a game. Though I admit I may be simplifying the position here.

      I suppose what I would like is a set of SF rules that allow for people to play with their choice of miniatures with a slight tendency to the smaller scale, rather than heroic 28mm or whatever, because the latter is skirmish and I want platoon level games like 'Chain of Command' or a company game like 'I Ain't Been Shot Mum' (with the caveat that I want both to be science fictional i.e.: they feel like the future – as in play the period – not just rehashed WW2 games).

    2. Have you tried Robert Avery's Q13? (I haven't - I'm curious.)

      If I were looking for a rules set like this I'd want it to be fiercely modular: maybe Force A has laser sniper rifles and Big Dogs, Force B has microdrones and real-time satellite imagery, but they can still have a fight that isn't a walkover for one side or the other.

      This is one of the reasons I'm interested in Fighting Season, if/when that comes out - not just that it's designed from the start to represent modern warfare, but that it brings in the PR element in a way that most tactical simulations don't.

    3. I reviewed Q13 for MW&BG. It's IABSM on other planets.

      I agree with you about the goal of modular and asymmetrical force equivalence.

  2. Having just listened to the segment of the podcast episode mentioned, I'm actually not sure if Henry simply underestimates the scale. The term "SF" encompasses a lot more than history and fantasy combined.

    History (as it pertains to gaming) is a known quantity. Same goes for Fantasy, which usually is some Tolkien-esque pastiche with more or less window dressing. Like you, Ashley, wrote, 'things are then more focused on the basing requirements'.

    SF can mean everything from near-future to transhumanism, from playing some grunt with some gadgets to playing a living starship. Add in personal preferences of the authors and without a clear frame of reference and/or focus, you'd get lost. The Fantasy... IN SPAAACE stuff like Star Wars and 40K uses older tropes from all three categories exactly for this reason to make it more accessible.

    No wonder the community is more fragmented, compared to the other genres. And no wonder companies produce less generic products, even without the added impetus of generating and keeping a customer base.

  3. I like Gruntz - some of my 15mm figures are old Traveller minis now something like 35 years old - so no worries about fluff lock in. However, I would prefer a rules set that was just as modular but a littler harder. The current game is a little too FoW like especially when it comes to ranges.

    1. I enjoyed playing Gruntz, but didn't love it.

      The dilemma for me is the sizzle factor, which both Ogre, BattleTech and Heavy Gear, Star Wars have, which games like Gruntz don't.

      Maybe this is like trying to square the circle, an impossible task.

  4. I heartily agree with your sentiment Ashley - SF needs to have its universe more defined by its nature of being the future unknown, and the many different SF tropes. Fantasy also enjoys greater historical parallels which are it easier to switch between Lion Rampant and Dragon Rampant styles for example. The most important part though, is that NOBODY is wrong and everybody can have fun. I'd rather play a game with friends that doesn't fully accord with my tastes, than play my favourite game solo (though I'm happy to do that too when required, and definitely do some modelling projects. OGRE would be a good example of that for me). I guess there is a certain undefinable limit to that though: I'm not going to play 40k anytime in the coming century.

    BTW As a Mech grognard, you will likely enjoy this book if you haven't already read it;

    1. Cheers for the link, I shall check that out.

  5. Speaking as someone whose last three hobby efforts (Heavy Gear/Robotech/Halo Fleet Battles) resulted in a grand total of zero actual full games (despite providing minis/rules/supplies for both sides), I'd definitely agree that the community is very fragmented. I used to have 40k as my go-to game that I'd bring to make sure the 25 mile each way trip to the store wasn't wasted but the current edition's rules changes turned me off to playing. Even X-wing got too bloated for my tastes with the overly competitive pokemon style encouraged by FFG (gotta catch'em all! re: upgrade cards) that was reinforced by the only paid official league play for prizes local scene(no free casual or themed scenario games). That however isn't new though so I'm not sure what the editor was thinking when he signed on. There have always been a few games that you can reliably play in a week (the exact games changing over the decades) and plenty more that you have to put in alot of effort for just a chance at a game occasionally.

    1. Feel your pain, really do. It mirrors my own experiences.