Saturday 28 February 2015

Game Design #29: Vietnam in Space (Hard Sci-fi Overdose)

To be frank, I'm becoming sick of hard sci-fi.  It seems every game designer has realised that hard sci fi is just modern combat with a few cool new toys, and thus a single set of rules can serve for WW2, modern and hard sci fi.  Maybe post-apoc if you're feeling adventurous.  For me, Vietnam/Afghanistan in space is rapidly becoming as tired and repetitive as most spaceship games (which are 90% WW2 wet-navy-in-space).

It's a sad day when I find myself pining for a certain grim dark future, where chainsaw swords and electrified claws are viable weapons, and psychic powers can trump rocket launchers.

I feel most of these rules lack an "x factor" that make me want to play them. I'm finding it hard to be enthusiastic about new rules - some have better or cleverer mechanics than others, but basically they all do the same job. 

Not convinced? Do a quick google for sci fi war-game rules. 

Platoon level? Check.
Hacking/"Net"? Check.
Renamed modern weapons? Check.
Power armour?  Check.
Drones? Maybe.
Mecha? Check.
AI Robots which are barely different than normal troops? Check.

Most of the rules are designed for humanoid forces and have very little differentiation (i.e. little to no stats - maybe Troop Quality and Morale) with a bunch of tacked-on special rules which makes the slime monsters from Uranus and Arachnidians act very similar to human troops, with maybe a special ability for flavour.

Admittedly it's probably the mini manufacturers to blame; e.g. 90% of the sci fi stuff being churned out in 15mm is just humans with helmets, body armour, and exotic assault rifles.  The aliens tend to be simply humans with different shaped helmets and weapons.  Heck, I lost enthusiasm for painting my extensive 15mm collection when I realised all my armies were essentially duplicates of each other. The availability of minis doubtless influences indie designers without a dedicated miniature line.

So what areas are under-represented?

Weird Modern
We have an overdose of Weird War III/pulp (and wargaming seems to attract Cthulhu devotees for some reason) but why not more weird modern rules?

Here's some examples that are reasonably popular in other mediums (books, videogames, movies) that seem rare on the war-game table.

*X-COM/Aliens. MIB-style alien hunting would make a fun war band skirmish game.  You could have competing aliens (greys, reptilians, etc) and governments/agencies (CIA, MJ12, MI6, Chinese) as well as private multinationals all wanting to get their hands on alien tech.  You'd have to mix-and-match minis from a variety of ranges though. 

*Modern Psychic/Horror.  A set of rules to do STALKER (mutants/psychics + exploring a 'forbidden zone') or F.E.A.R. (commando team fighting paranormal entities). Basically modern combat + horror + psychics + mutants.This could be done as a skirmish or platoon/fire-team level game. Think modern-day "pulp" with a bit of a darker vibe.   Using "recognised" psychic powers would give a believable, structured "magic" system. (I notice Lead Adventure forum sells some very cool "not-STALKER" minis).

*Modern Fantasy. In the vein of Shadowrun, but set in the modern day.  Competing mystical races/factions  (the inevitable Underworld-style werewolf -vs- vampire) or elves or whatever.  Sadly, vampires/elves etc in suits etc are a bit rare.  The fiction shelves are full of this stuff - I'm sure it could be made into a popular war-game. Or it could borrow from Day Watch (light and dark sorcerers duelling).  There's plenty of inspiration here, but admittedly miniatures are a bit thin on the ground.

*Modern Troops vs Alien/Monster Invasion.  There's always heaps of movies about this. This genre lends itself well to bigger scales, Independence Day-style stuff.  There can be asymmetrical games with powerful monsters capable of single-handedly taking out vehicles. This could borrow elements from Alien vs Predator, Starship Troopers, District 9 and similar movies/sources.  There's plenty of fantasy monsters/aliens and the many excellent modern troops available in 15mm and 28mm.  Mixing 28mm aliens/monsters and 15mm humans could create bigger monsters as well.

EDIT: A spin-off of this is Stargate - i.e. regular soldiers go through portal to fight aliens.  Of all the ideas suggested, this topic (and the one below) has the most widely available minis. 

*The Matrix/Tron.  A war-game that takes place in side a virtual/dream world. This could be an excuse for cool paint schemes (a la Tron) and allow ridiculous mis-mash of cool vehicles and units (Sucker Punch).  You could use Matrix "magic" to give depth and interest to the game.  This would be easy to do as it allows almost any miniatures to be used, and great flexibility in gameplay.

Space Fantasy
OK, Mantic ARE kinda doing something here but we all know they are simply ripping off GW. Space Skaven anyone?    This genre seems to  cower in the shadow of 40K.  Blasters & Bulkheads are the only indie rules I can think of offhand with a definite fantasy slant.    The free ruleset In the Emperor's Name provides a fun outlet for repurposing old 40K minis.

I'd like to see a game that revives the fun of early 40K (Rogue Trader era) where creativity, build-your-own-units, and a certain tongue-in-cheek fun were combined with familiar, recognisable mechanics (updated to take into account modern war-game trends - i.e. reactions, and activation that is not IGOUGO).  

Whilst I enjoy realistic games, sometimes I don't want my sci-fi to be simply a modern game where guns, suppression and good use of cover reign supreme.  Lightsabres, space magic, lots of melee, weird and wonderful monsters and creatures that defy physics.  Where have they gone?

I'm not going to give examples here as space fantasy can encompass a pretty wide scope. As an aside, there are plenty of universes that could be "borrowed" from - after all GW pretty much stole all their ideas TerminatorsNecrons  Alien Tyrannids OrksOrcs  ElvesEldar  space marineSpace Marines (tm).  Hey, where's my not-Dune rules?

What we don't need in sci fi:

More zombies.  It seems 90% of all miniature/boardgame Kickstarters are focussed on undead.   Please, exercise your imaginations, people!  The folk in the 50s and 60s at least got some variety.  What happened to giant insects and body-snatching plants?

More "cookie cutter" Mad Max-ripoff Post-Apocalyptic stuff.  Why does every post apocalyptic movie or game involve (a) extensive body piercing/tattooing (b) extensive grime (c) crossbows & machetes > assault rifles (d) cannibals/mental illness (e) more spiky bits and leather than 40K has skulls.  The TV show Revolution (with its near-future world without electricity) whilst terribly acted, at least showed some imagination in its post apocalyptic approach. 


  1. Good points, I myself am working on a two part Fred Saberhagen Berserker game
    where part is conducted with small scale space ships followed by a 15mm scaled
    landing of human forces on the Berserker it self. I'm amassing the various bits now.

  2. I do somewhat sympathize with you point, but just because something is labelled hard SF doesn't mean it's good, and a lot of things labelled as such aren't. I also agree that WW2 or modern combat in space often lack the WoW factor, I won't name names, but agree with observation of search results.

    BTW: I can wholeheartedly recommend reading Peter Watts' novels Blindsight and Echopraxia, which are grimdark hard SF, though not military stories per se, they comment on military developments in an interesting manner.

    I'm an old BattleTech grognard and when it first came out it did have a WoW factor, riding on the wave of Japanese anime shows that inspired it. Today I still enjoy playing, but it no longer has the wow it used to have. Saying that SJG Ogre still scratches an itch, and while limited by it's assumptions and game mechanics there's not much out there to challenge the theme of the cybertank/skynet last war.

  3. BTW: Just added you to my blog list on my front page..

  4. Definitely non-human races with different gaming approaches are missing. You still have the zombies and the regular Alien kind, but no ET with a different shape (head somewhere else than on top, arms? why?).
    Gaming psychology also is key. GW is ending up with all armies having the same categories (hero, independent, infantry, heavy inf, flyer, walkers,...). Tyranide shooting took out the potential of endless waves of melee only enemies (remind me that there was Starship trooper which was cool).
    Look at David Brin Evolution serie, it was good sci-fi with true Alien psychology.
    Finally, what is missing in Sci Fi games are the missile, range (come on, 24 inch range for a rifle in sci fi or modern games?), drones, nano-robots, screamers, virus/chemical and asymetric warfare.

  5. I part wrote a Mordhiem come X-Com game some years ago. Perhaps I'll fish it out and finish it off some time.

    1. Finish it up, and post a link up on your blog so we can test it out!

  6. An XCOM style game needs to happen :-)

    I actually ran into this exact thing when writing No Stars in Sight (which is very much Vietnam in Space):
    The miniatures available are "dudes with assault rifles", "humanoid aliens with assault rifles" and "tank with legs".
    I dig that style but well, there's a reason the rules turn out the way they do, because the miniatures DO come first for most people.

    A factor too is that there's a very small list of scifi novels that are "approved" reading in the gaming culture and things must then emulate those. (Hammers Slammers, Starship Troopers, maaaaybe Honor Harrington and that's mostly as far as people get).
    I sometimes wonder if that's because of political sensibilities but that's probably a discussion for elsewhere.

    It doesn't help that absolutely the first thing you will get is "does it have xenomorphs? Does it have terminators?".
    I mean, look up 15mm dropships and count how many times you can recreate "Aliens" :-)

    1. Also, no more damn zombies. I'm done.
      Tabletop games, video games, tv, movies. I'm done. No more zombies.

    2. Sorry for spamming, there doesn't seem to be an edit post option (or maybe I am a dunce and can't find it).

      The problem with post-apocalyptic is that, like hard scifi, it draws from basically one or two sources (Fallout and Mad Max) that became fan approved and everything else is ignored.
      There's a lot of problematic assumptions in that too (How long would society really remain as tiny tribal bands before some sort of order began reasserting itself? Evidence suggests not terribly long at all, but the whole genre is also caught up in a lot of survivalist sentiment)

    3. Amongst the many other half written games I've worked on over the years is one I really do want to come back to. I wanted to do a Sci-Fi game that was near future and reasonably probable given the development of warfare over the last few centuries.

      The trends in warfare seem to be... fewer boots on the ground, dominance of air power, the slaughter of open terrain would lead to urban confrontations with relatively short fire lanes, and close terrain to frustrate air power.

      Add to this the increase in computing power, and the development of AI that can fire and destroy anything it can detect even before it comes over the horizon. I recall reading that the new rail guns developed for the US nave can accurately destroy target at a range of 110km (with a good visibility horizon being approximately 30km) thats impressive. Extrapolate this with AI targeting and you she the death of air power, and a return to the focus on Infantry (likely mech-Infantry, or drone-infantry).

      What we get is a small unit skirmish game, with little back up (each side can easily eliminate enemy air power, cruse missiles or other deployable weapons before they come within range of the warzone.

      Communications becomes a key feature of the game, as does stealth. Infantry weapons are capable of accurately destroying armour, moving the emphasis to light vehicles, most of which would have been used to move a force in to mission area anyway... its a long walk if you have to land your transport plane 100 odd klicks from the target for fear of it being destroyed.

      You see where I'm going with this?

      Anyone else like the ideas?

    4. Sounds a little like Infinity to be honest - no vehicles/light vehicles only, stealth, small squads.

      It's interesting that of so many possible futures, we've gone in one specific direction in our hard sci fi.

    5. I'm also aware it's unfair to blame game designers when the minis dictate the rules.

      I was recently looking for some angels/vampires/modern guys in business suits for an Infinity adaption. I tried Heresy, Hasselfree, Reaper, Copplestone and Artizan - and came up with 5-6 minis between them. Certainly not enough to support a game with more than 2 sides, and the hassle (and postage) of ordering from 5 different manufacturers was prohibitive.

    6. I wonder how much of this is due to Ground Zero Games to be honest. For a long time, they were the face of 15mm scifi and they had picked the "vietnam in space" route for Stargrunt back when there were very few games of that style.

      So when 15mm scifi exploded, people mostly followed along that line, because that's what people had already been playing and it was a way to differentiate from the 28mm space fantasy types.

    7. I also think the shadow of GW looms large, blocking some space fantasy. All the 15mm developers are careful to avoid any (even potentially) IP-infringing stuff as they are usually small operations.

      And GW have covered a lot of ground - terminators, space elves, space orcs etc, even space ogres - that would tend to be a natural path of space fantasy. I bet 15mm "not spacemarines" would sell like hotcakes.

      I also think a line of "not-Mass Effect" minis (although that is more hard sci fi) would sell well in 15mm. That's a well-made universe people would enjoy gaming in.

      That said, some established mini manufacturers are working with indie devs now - North Star and to a lesser extent GZG spring to mind. I reckon Eureka would be pretty flexible.

      Actually, you've been pretty successful with your 5Core series - have you considered "reaching out" to smaller mini producers?

    8. THere's been a few shots at "not Mass Effect". I'd buy a LOT of Geth and Turians. Heck, half the races in No Stars in Sight are from Mass Effect :-)
      (I was devastated when I put "Hacking Goo" as an artifact in Five Parsecs and noone picked up on it :) )

      I've done a few things with Armies Army (with more coming up) but I haven't spent a whole lot of time on it. I probably should though.

  7. Very good points! We ran into the same thing when I started my 15mm sci fi project. After a first game using Tomorrow's War, we realized we don't want to play a game that simulates modern warfare… we don't want our games to feel like Afghanistan in space but rather like an episode of Star Wars. So I wrote my own very simple rules which gives a more light-hearted gameplay.
    Also, some very good ideas in your list - I especially like the idea of a XCOM/MIB game… and I've thinking about a Star Trek game for some time, albeit without hitting an inspiring idea or mechanic that would make it feel like old school Trek. Probably would need some sort of 'philosophical discussion' card mechanics :-)

    1. For classic Trek, you'd need a mechanic for "Kirk and the bad guy wildly swings their arms and rolls on the floor for 3 minutes while the rest of the crew watches" :-)

    2. "Probably would need some sort of 'philosophical discussion' card mechanics :-)"

      "Kirk and the bad guy wildly swings their arms and rolls on the floor for 3 minutes while the rest of the crew watches" :-)

      +1 to both these responses

  8. The rules for Strange aeons would make a good x com or stalker game
    its based around a band of about 3 to 5 'good guys' and has a large bestiary of monsters/ bad guys easily adaptable to mutants or aliens
    in one of the expansions it has a capture the specimen mission

    1. Pulp is well represented with models - I wanted to make a alien vs humans game but ended up using pulp minis due to lack of moderns.

      Maybe X-COM 1949?

    2. I'd kill for that. The Xenonauts guys did an XCOM remake on the pc set in the cold war but they never actually did anything with the setting.

    3. You could adapt as you see fit they do have a nice set of sci fi ish weapons too
      under the experimental weapons

  9. Good post- there is a sameness to a lot of the new gritty rules. I saw the emergence of hard-scifi as a backlash against space opera and grimdark. Further, it allows you to proxy modern conflicts without the emotional hangups.

    It seems as though you're looking for asymmetrical battles where one side has monsters/ super weapons/ psychic powers etc. and the other is more traditional. Superhero genres, with a bit of tweaking, could be useful in representing these fights.

    1. Yeah - 15mm was the "cool emo crowd" - kinda like the kids who discovered the hip new band before everyone else. Hard sci fi was a 'hip' rebellion to gothic grimdark space fantasy.

      Then - about 5 years ago - 15mm exploded - there are now so many manufacturers offering fantastic minis at great prices. At the same time, we got dozens of new rules to go with these minis. Don't get me wrong - all the rules are streets ahead of 40K and its ilk and there are some amazing creative rules designers coming up with cool mechanics.

      It's just I've come to realise they're all (through choice or necessity) making THE SAME GAME. And I've now got four unpainted 15mm armies which I have little enthusiasm to complete, as they'll play exactly like the other four I have.

    2. I did a test a while back where I played through roughly the same scenario with different sets of WW2 rules and saw how different the results were.

      In the end, the results weren't terribly different and if I had written AAR's, I doubt anyone could have figured out which system was which.

      I have a feeling if you did the same with Grunts, 5150, Stargrunt and NSIS (to hang myself out there a bit), it probably wouldn't end up looking that different either :-)

    3. I feel many have Stargrunt as a common ancestor/inspiration. Gruntz is different though - it's a straight copy of Warmahordes. I did think NSiS (which I've only briefly fiddled with) reminded me of Tomorrow's War - not the same, but a similar vibe.

    4. Yeah, for a game that doesn't get played that much anymore, Stargrunt has been extremely influential.

      I never actually played Tomorrow's War, but a lot of players have told me NSIS is very similar. Given that TW is more popular than grilled cheese, that's probably not a bad thing :)

  10. An X-Com game has already been released by Fantasy Flight. Actually, I started to work on an X-Com game using 5150 mechanics and races from its universe when that happened and then I abandoned it.
    I think THW mechanics are perfect for an X-Com game with their specific reaction charts for every alien race and the Possible Enemy Force (PEF) system, playing solo the side of humans against aliens.

    1. Isn't it a board game? And one that deals with the strategic level (i.e. research, UFO interceptions, etc) at that?

      I think there's still plenty of room for a tactical, semi-RPG skirmish war-game with tactical combat like the PC games. 2HW are so different I can hardly see it being an IP issue unless it was unwisely named.

    2. The game also has miniatures of the soldiers and there is some skirmish resolution I think.
      I asked Ed and he said we better forget it, so I did. Not for the IP issue but because there was going to be an official game so who was going to play a non-offcial?

    3. Who'd play?

      Wargamers (who aren't into boardgames? or prefer wargames to boardgames)

      The 15mm sci fi crowd?

      I'd have to agree to disagree on that one - I still reckon it would be very popular and would fill a completely different niche (and a different audience).

      I dunno about hard copy, but as pdf I reckon it'd be #1 on wargames vault within a week or your money back.

    4. It is a boardgame. no skirmish. just tactical and geoscape.

  11. I think the problem is that while 40k has captured the "Generic Space Opera" feeling of so many of its sources, nobody really has an idea about what sort of game they want to play besides Not-Moderns.

    I think the thing is that people haven't really given much thought as to what might happen to make a future conflict happen, and how it could be resolved. Heavy Gear and Infinity both make gestures at electronic warfare, but nobody's gone through the hard sci-fi to say "What if everyone had Holdtzmann Fields?" in the wargaming sense.

    1. I'd argue that's because the rules are derived from the miniatures, not the other way around.
      "generic scifi" gaming is very much driven by the toys we have available, I think.

      So nobody is writing settings.

  12. "Whilst I enjoy realistic games, sometimes I don't want my sci-fi to be simply a modern game where guns, suppression and good use of cover reign supreme. Lightsabres, space magic, lots of melee, weird and wonderful monsters and creatures that defy physics."

    So, Warmachine/Hordes?

    1. Nah - Warmahordes, while it has interesting fluff, is still fantasy. Or steampunk fantasy.

  13. I am wondering why no one "modded" Warmahordes for a Sci-Fi Setting.
    The basic rules are great and Focus and Fury are ideal mechanics for Psiionics, Big (alien) creatures and maybe mechs/vehicles.

    Warmahordes has very! low ranges on the missile weapons. About 8"(Pistol) to 20"(heavy mortar). This could be easily fixed by extending the range but making cover much better. Lets say a Space Marine can shoot his bolter at an enemy 48" away but wont do much against an enemy in cover (range modifier?, maybe even "dug in" and "gone to ground"). So he has to get close and use his chainsword.

    1. "I am wondering why no one "modded" Warmahordes for a Sci-Fi Setting.
      The basic rules are great and Focus and Fury are ideal mechanics for Psiionics, Big (alien) creatures and maybe mechs/vehicles."

      Wonder no more. Someone thought of it already -a few years back actually. May I direct you to Gruntz.