Playing Dice with the Universe
“Never tell me the odds!”
The Empire Strikes Back
Board games have a history stretching back to Senet, a game dating from around 3100 BC. No written rules have ever been discovered, though modern rules for playing have been conjectured based on other games from later times. The earliest playable board games is the Royal Game of Ur, with boards dating back to between 2500-2400 BC. The rules were discovered on a cuneiform tablet written in approximately 177 BC. Which means the game had already been around for nearly two and a half thousand years. Chess was developed from an Indian game called chaturanga around AD 600. It was spread throughout Asia and Europe, eventually developing into the modern version in the sixteenth century.
These games were not based on speculative fiction per se, but were a variation of modeling battles, a proto form of alternate history. Though speculative fiction, mainly fantasy, has existed for centuries, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that the genre found a foothold in household games. The popular Dan Dare character from the British comic Eagle (Hulton Press, 1950-1969) was featured in almost a dozen games published between 1950 and 1956. These games were, like many board games of the time, marketed for children.
One of the earliest successful science fiction games, Rock’em Sock’em Robots (Marx Toys, 1966), introduced a pair of extra-solar robots, the Blue Bomber from Umgluck and the Red Rocker from Soltarus III. The game revolved around each player controlling one of the plastic boxing robots and attacking until they defeated their opponent by knocking the opponent’s robot’s head out of its body.
For a more fantasy twist, there was Talk to Cecil (Mattel Inc., 1961) where players built the board as they played the game. This game introduced Cecil the Seasick Sea-Serpent, who was a pull-string operated puppet which gave hints as the players moved along the board. Another first was the glow-in-the-dark game Green Ghost (Ideal, 1965). The board game was more horror leaning, with the spinner being designed to look like a giant ghost, pit traps on the board, and tiny boxes filled with icky feeling cutouts.
By the beginning of the 1970s, science fiction, from shows like Star Trek and Lost in Space as well as the culmination of the space race with the Apollo landings on the moon, had gained popularity. This led to several games being released for adults based on various science fiction properties. One of the first games to adapt science fiction books was Starship Troopers (Avalon Hill, 1976). Like most of Avalon Hill’s games of the time, the board was covered in hexagons with cardboard counters. These counters, like the ones from earlier war games, had a silhouette of the unit and numbers representing movement points, armor, and firepower. Starfleet Command (self-published, 1973) was produced and sold at a single Star Trek convention but would be followed up later by the very popular Star Fleet Battles (Task Force Games, 1979). Others, like Triplanetary (Steve Jackson Games, 1973), The Creature That Ate Sheboygan (SPI, 1979), and StarForce ‘Alpha Centauri’ (SPI, 1974) were games created whole cloth as science fiction gaming.
Fantasy gaming would come into its own in the 1970s as well. Guidon Games published a little-known game called Chainmail (1971). The medieval wargame included a fourteen-page set of rules written by Gary Gygax for playing fantasy combat influenced by the works of authors like J. R. R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and Poul Anderson. In 1975, Gygax and fellow gamer Dave Arneson published the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons, the first tabletop role playing game (TTRPG) to gain widespread appeal. D&D would grow over the next four decades into the largest and most well-known TTRPG.
TTRPGs weren’t limited to just fantasy though. In 1975, Empire of the Petal Throne (self-published, 1974), probably the first science fiction fantasy RPG was released. It was set on the alien world of Tékumel, where the cultures and societies had a very oriental design and style. A lost spaceship, mutations, and the loss of technological know-how was the setting for Metamorphosis Alpha (TSR, 1976), followed two years later by the post-apocalyptic zaniness of Gamma World (TSR, 1978). At the turn of the decade though, the TTRPG market would explode, adding several new publishers and games. Fantasy Games Unlimited released Aftermath! (1981), Chaosium published the first version of Call of Cthulhu (1981), and Steve Jackson Games released The Fantasy Trip (1980). The market would continue to grow steadily to the modern day, seeing the rise and fall of several companies and multiple versions of favorite games and game systems.
Board games weren’t left behind either. Science fiction war games continued to be developed. From piloting gigantic, mechanized walking robots in BattleTech (FASA, 1984) to racing weaponized vehicles in a post-gasoline divided America of Car Wars (Steve Jackson Games, 1981) to the war-ravaged post-nuclear forests of Poland in Last Battle: Twilight 2000 (Game Designers’ Workshop, 1989), there was no lack of tactical playing fields. The market continued to grow with games building on the success of their earlier editions.
David Weber published Imperial Starfire (Task Force Games, 1992), an expansion for the third edition rules of Starfire (Task Force Games, 1992), adding campaign rules for universe generation, research, economics, alien races, and more to the original tactical game, giving players a massive strategic version to play. The game world became the setting for his and Steve White’s novels Insurrection (Baen Books, 1990) and Crusade (Baen Books, 1992).
By the turn of the century, science fiction and fantasy games were a normal part of the landscape, no longer the odd man out. 3E (Wizards of the Coast, 2000), the third major revision to the Dungeons & Dragons game, was released in the summer of 2000 to great fanfare. The popularity of the game would continue to rise into the 2020s, with people watching the game on YouTube and the influence of shows like Stranger Things (Netflix, 20 2016).
Physical games aren’t the only area where speculative fiction has been used. But that’s a topic for another post. What are some of the speculative fiction games you’ve got great memories of or still enjoy playing? Give them a shout-out in the comments below or on Facebook.