Thursday, April 19, 2012

Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator, the Falklands, BBQ

Howdy! It’s been a busy week for me, as I’m churning away at a couple of projects with the goal of trying to write 3,000 words a day between the two of them. Unfortunately, that’s a tough goal to meet day in and day out, at least for me; I know some writers who routinely bang out 5,000 or more words a day, and I have to tell you, I wonder how they pull it off.

Anyway, things on my mind this week (other than, Good God, can the Phillies please find some *hitters*???) are: The best ship combat game ever; the “Maldives” (by which President Obama means, the Malvinas, or the Falkland Islands); and barbeque.

Gaming: One of my favorite games ever was FASA’s Star Trek Starship Tactical Combat Simulator. This was a boxed set supplement for the Star Trek roleplaying game, published all the way back in the mid-80s. FASA produced several additional sourcebooks called Ship Recognition Manuals tied to the starship combat system, so if you had the box and the sourcebooks you had stats for a couple hundred Federation, Klingon, Romulan, Gorn, and Orion starships. Based on the name alone (a candidate for Worst Game Name Ever) you might expect that this game was as exciting as watching paint dry, but you would be wrong: This game was great. It was the best tabletop capital ship combat system ever put together for any genre, and I spent whole semesters of my college career playing the STSTCS instead of going to class.

So what made this game so good? I think it comes down to three key decisions: Faithfulness to the source material, good complexity level, and the exact right amount of hard decisions.

Faithfulness: Many gamers regard Star Fleet Battles as the final word in Star Trek ship battles, but Star Fleet Battles introduces many things you never see in the TV show or movies—whole new races, tactics such as drones and missiles, etc., etc. FASA did a much better job of working within the Star Trek universe. The only lateral content (stuff FASA made up) for their ship combat game was a pile of starship designs. But the new ones they made up *fit* in the universe very nicely. A lot of the credit for this goes to Dana Knutson, the artist who created the line drawings for all the new starships in the Ship Recognition guides. They were fantastic.

Correct Complexity: The game offered a very nice balance between simulating what you saw in Star Trek ship battles, and remaining playable and fast-moving (another place where Star Fleet Battles fell down, in my opinion). Attacks were resolved with an attack roll and a hit location roll. Effects were generally clean and easy to implement. Movement was phased, but it was broken into three steps so that it wasn’t any real burden. You used face-down “Fire” and “No Fire” chits to declare when you wanted to shoot.

Hard Decisions: Finally, the thing that FASA’s Starship Tactical Combat Simulator did exactly right was to give you an excellent set of hard decisions each turn. Bruce Nesmith, my onetime colleague at TSR, told me that “every game needs hard decisions.” It was great advice that has helped me throughout my career as a game designer. The FASA game offered two excellent decision points. First, you allocated power each turn between shields, movement, and weapons. Naturally, you didn’t have enough power to maximize all three; each turn you needed to decide which element to short. Second, movement was divided into three phases, and after each movement phase you made a Fire/No Fire decision. If you shot up an enemy at the end of the first phase, that damage would hose him for the second and third phase… so each turn you had to ask yourself if you wanted to get a little closer and do more damage, or fire early before you got torn up yourself. It was a ton of fun!

We never bothered to play with the RPG rules, which forced us to houserule a couple of effects in the game. For example, in the ship combat system, a Bridge hit was important because you’d check to see how the characters on the bridge were affected, and that would in turn affect what the ship could do next. If you’re not playing with specific characters on the bridge, you need Bridge hits to do something else. (We said that your ship took -2 to attacks and enemy ships got +2 to hit until the end of the next turn.) There were one or two other houserules we had for applying damage.

Anyway, this was one of my favorite games ever. And over the years I’ve gone back to the mechanics and concepts in the Starship Tactical Combat Simulator several times, thinking about the lessons they held for whatever game system I was working on at the time. If you can find one of these old games around, pick it up and try it out—it is simply one of the best.

Politics/Current Events: Most people probably don’t realize that we are now observing the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. The war began on 2 April 1982 when Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. It took the United Kingdom 74 days to force the Argentine garrison to surrender and liberate the islands. It was the largest naval war since World War II, resulting in the loss of several British ships to Exocets and old-fashioned dumb bombs, plus the controversial sinking of the cruiser Belgrano (to this day, the only warship sunk by a nuclear submarine).

The question of who actually has the best claim to the Falklands (or the Malvinas, as the Argentines call the islands) is a long-standing dispute. Britain never relinquished its claim, but there was a period of time in the early 19th century when no people were living there, which is when the Argentines established a small colony of their own, later seized by the British when they returned to establish a permanent post in 1833.  I think the British claim is pretty conclusive at this point: The 3,000 or so people living there are descended from British settlers, regard themselves as British subjects, and overwhelmingly want to remain British. Besides, Britain paid in blood and treasure to repel an unprovoked Argentine attack. You lose claim points for attacking and losing.

So why is this important now? In the first place, the Argentine government is once again asserting its claim to the islands, which is something they do every now and then when they want to distract the folks at home from the way they’re running the show. Second, recent oil exploration in the area has turned up reserves that might be as large as 8 billion barrels; by comparison, the UK’s current proven reserves are about 3 billion barrels. Argentina is making a lot of threatening noise about Britain taking “their” oil. Finally, it is far from clear that the UK could launch another expedition to retake the islands like it did in 1982; the Brits just don’t have the fleet or resources anymore. They have to defend the islands with the garrison now in place.

Unfortunately, our current administration has gone out of its way to assure Argentina that we don’t take sides in this dispute. That may be the exact wrong message to send. It would seem much wiser to me to spell out our unqualified support for our closest ally, or failing that, the right of self-determination for the Falklanders. That would be a good way to discourage a new round of Argentine adventurism. Instead the Obama administration seems anxious to curry favor with Argentina’s feckless Kirschner government (one of the Latin American wave of “Third Way” populist governments currently in power these days). There’s a theory floating around the Obama hates Britain because anticolonialism is the foundation of his political philosophy. I couldn’t say if that’s true, but boy, he doesn’t ever seem to pass up a chance to slap Britain in the face.

The Finer Things: Dickie’s Barbeque. The chain finally began opening stores here in Washington state. The pulled pork is OK, but the chopped brisket is great, and the barbeque sauce is awesome. They use a vinegar-based sauce, which as all right-thinking people know the best and most appropriate dressing for BBQ. We used to call it Uncle Joe’s sauce in my family; I haven’t had the real stuff in years, but now I’ve got a place 10 minutes away that sells something pretty close.

2 comments:

  1. Good take on the Falklands situation - and yeah it's tough not to feel that the 'special relationship' has been pretty one-way since the end of WW2 XD.

    Not to worry though, if the worst does happen and Argentina decides on military action, I'm sure we can ask them to pospone for a decade or so while the MoD unf*cks itself over the carriers ... :-/

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  2. If you get a chance check out the Star Trek Online game they have running now. It's full of content from all of the 'real' Star Trek Franchises. And it also takes place in the Sisko/Picard universe, well, about 30 years past that Nemisis movie. And they take the time to explain why that universe still exists. Any ways, fun game mechanics, you get to name your own ship, and you can even raise the difficulty levels to get more of a challenge on missions (and earn better rewards). You even get to time travel in one of the major story archs via the Guardian of Forever.

    Wont be the same as your role-playing game, but it should be entertaining to say the least. Oh yeah, if you try it out, don't keep food/drink and tribbles together in your inventory... and beware of Tribble of Borg...

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