Kickstopper: What a Long Fantasy Trip It’s Been

This is the story of a Kickstarter which many in the RPG community had thought would never be possible, or at least wouldn’t be possible until at least one stubborn rights-holder had ended up in the grave. The departure of Steve Jackson (the US one who does GURPS and Munchkin, not the UK one who started Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy) from Howard Thompson’s Metagaming was, as I’ve discussed previously, a bitter breakup involving no small amount of acrimony, largely from Thompson’s direction (at least in terms of public behaviour and incidents).

One of the ways in which Thompson tried to get back at Jackson concerned The Fantasy Trip, an RPG which Jackson had written whilst at Metagaming (and, indeed, the subject of some of the ill feeling between them, with Jackson and Thompson having very different tastes in RPGs and ideas about what form the product should take). After Metagaming went bust, it was only natural that Jackson should ask after the rights to The Fantasy Trip, but Thompson demanded a quarter of a million dollars for the rights.

This was an absolutely absurd amount of money, even during the early 1980s RPG boom, and Thompson’s reasons for asking for it have been the matter of lasting speculation. Was he absolutely kidding himself about how much the rights were actually worth? That would be consistent with a caricature of Thompson as a clueless businessman who didn’t know his own industry, but the dude had kept the lights on at Metagaming for nearly a decade, so if he were that clueless it’d be surprising. Did he have half a mind to get back into the industry? If so, after three-and-a-half decades he hasn’t made any apparent effort to do so.

To me, the explanation which is most consistent with the facts is good old-fashioned spite: Thompson still bore a grudge against Jackson for leaving (and taking some hot IP like the OGRE boardgame with him), Thompson therefore demanded an absurd amount of money from Jackson for the Fantasy Trip rights, working on the basis that it was more insulting than simply refusing to negotiate at all – and that if Jackson were actually fool enough to pay him the money, he’d be gambling with the stability of Steve Jackson Games itself.

Thompson, however, didn’t figure on the arcane operation of 17 U.S. Code § 203, a legal clause allowing authors to claim back the rights to works they’d signed away after 35 years. A little known and even more infrequently used clause, invoking it allowed Jackson to reclaim all the rights he had in The Fantasy Trip. Whilst that didn’t include the artwork, or the range of products that Metagaming had made written by other hands, that did include the text to all the products that Jackson himself had written – and since that included all the core rules to The Fantasy Trip, the stage was set for the game’s return after decades in the wilderness. And what better platform to fund the big comeback than Kickstarter?

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The Cost of Sincerity

How to explain West End Games’ oddity The Price of Freedom? Well, put it this way: had it come out in the mid-1990s, when West End Games were absolutely cuckoo for licensing movie properties to adapt them into tabletop RPGs without giving any consideration for a) whether there was a market for these properties as RPGs or b) whether it was even possible to adapt them into RPGs, then The Price of Freedom wouldn’t be called The Price of Freedom: it’d be the official Red Dawn RPG.

Yep, turns out that all that glasnost business was the sham that the John Birchers thought it was. After a “gutless” President signs misguided weapon control treaties with the Soviet Union – treaties the USSR’s tyrannical regime sees nothing wrong in breaching themselves – the Soviets are able to perfect a nigh-perfect missile defence system for the motherland whilst gaining an overwhelming strategic advantage against the USA. The President capitulates to USSR demands, and soon enough Soviet forces begin landing in the US (along with their Cuban and Nicaraguan buddies) to act as a peacekeeping force in support of a puppet government.

The PCs in The Price of Freedom are, much like the Wolverines in Red Dawn, an unlikely rabble of freedom fighters – ordinary Americans having to face up to extraordinary times, fighting against a regime near-indistinguishable from the Stalinist version of the Soviet Union. On the face of it, this is undeniably a fantasy scenario derived in a large part from the fears of the extreme right of the 1980s; the very concept that the Soviets would mount an invasion of the USA, and attempt to occupy it in the long term, was considered absurd by most even at the time. (After the Cold War ended, declassified Soviet-era documents revealed that not even the Soviets thought that an invasion of the US was a good idea – primarily because of there being way too many guns floating around.)

On the other hand, the game was released by West End Games – known in RPG circles at the time mainly for Paranoia and Ghostbusters – and designed by Greg Costikyan, known both for his work on those games and on Toon. All comedic games – with Paranoia, in particular, incorporating a fat dose of Cold War satire. Was the game supposed to be taken seriously, or was it a really dry satire? Opinion at the time was sharply divided, with some convinced that the game couldn’t possibly be intended to be taken seriously, whilst others believing that West End had gone full Reaganite on its audience.

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Taking On Hitler Solo

I’ve had a fancy for a while to go old-school and check out some hex-and-counter wargames, and one of the most convenient ways to get a feel for them seems to be through the auspices of Strategy & Tactics and its sister magazines World At War and Modern War. These magazines all come in two editions: a magazine-only version for those who only really care about the military history articles they pad out their page count with, and a version which comes with a free hex-and-counter wargame – a tradition that Strategy & Tactics has maintained since the 1960s.

In order to test the waters, then, I decided to pick up issues of each of these magazines to test-drive the games in question. As it happened, the 40th issue of World At War happened to include not just one but two games, both of them solitaire affairs, allowing me to jump right into it.

Before I get into reviewing the specific games, I thought I’d give some consideration to what hex-and-counter games seem to aim to accomplish compared with other varieties of wargames:

  • They are easier to modify than videogames. Not only are all the rules of a hex-and-counter tabletop game directly known to all the players (whereas in a computer wargame some of the rules aspects might be obscure), they’re also able to be changed at a moment’s notice. If you find a particular rule isn’t working or enjoyable, you can stop using it or change it immediately. Conversely, if some aspect of a computer wargame bugs you, removing it is not so straightforward (and may be effectively impossible if the game isn’t particularly modder-friendly) if the game designers didn’t think to include the option to change or remove it.
  • They lend themselves to higher-level decision-making. Let’s face it, although an individual miniature in a miniatures wargame doesn’t necessarily have to represent a single person, there’s a tremendous tendency to think of it that way anyway, particularly if it’s a more detailed miniature – and if you like miniatures at all, you probably dig the fine details of them. Sure, Epic-scale Warhammer 40,000 games have minis representing large numbers of people, but let’s face it – those tiny little things just don’t look as good as 28mm or even 15mm scale miniatures, and the 6mm scale used in Epic is about as small as miniatures can get. Conversely, a single counter in a hex-and-counter wargame can represent a whole army without a shred of cognitive dissonance whatsoever.
  • The publishing model lends itself to fine simulation of very specific scenarios. Part of this may be down to the magazine format – if you’re editing World At War and you know you need to provide a new World War II-themed game every issue, then it makes sense to greenlight more games modelling specific battles or events of the war rather than running World War II: The Game every issue. But on top of that, looking at the games advertised in the magazines and available out there on the market, the trend does seem to definitely favour games in which predrawn maps and predetermined troop setups are provided and the action is based either on a specific historical incident or a particular “what-if” scenario. Conversely, miniatures wargames seem much more open to setting up terrain on an ad hoc basis and running a wide variety of different scenarios with your minis, which kind of makes sense: nobody’s going to pay money for a bunch of miniatures they can only play one very specific scenario, and likewise nobody’s going to pay money for a hex-and-counter game where you have to draw your own map and customise your own counters. Effectively, in a minis wargame you are paying primarily for the minis and secondarily for the associated rules system, whereas in a hex-and-counter game you are often paying for the research and creativity which went into designing the scenario and then secondarily for the associated rules system.

That being in mind, let’s see how these solo scenarios panned out.

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