Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Microgames and Microworlds

One of the attractions of microgames, as I noted in my entry on Ogre, was their creation of internally-consistent little worlds for the players. Ogre and its sequel, GEV (Microgame 8), created a future in which tanks (and infantry, and armored hovercraft) still dominated land warfare, giving way only to a bigger and better armored vehicle, the cybertank. Invasion of the Air Eaters (Microgame 12), and its deluxe sequel, Air Eaters Strike Back, imagined a near-future Earth united against an exterminatory alien menace, and a victorious human civilization fighting a second invasion 100 years hence. Something in this speculative world spoke to me: I've written an essay on Invasion, as well as a write-up on one of the scenarios from its sequel. Further from home, Chitin (#2) envisioned an alien world where giant, semi-intelligent insects battled one another for food. Rivets (#5) created a similar conflict with a more tongue-in-cheek premise: unintelligent, cartoonish robots fought one another on behalf of automated factories in a future without humans.* And One World, a micro-mini-game included in a two-for-one pack (#14), featured two immobile, Buddha-like gods flinging their children at one another, in the form of blades and clouds and stones. It was the first time my brother and I had encountered something like a modern Euro-game, with an abstract fantasy setting joined to a simple rules system.

In a few cases, a microgame's setting or design proved more interesting than the associated game. This was particularly true of Holy War (#13), designed by Lyn Willis, which took place in a pocket universe created by an intelligent cloud-being named Amtik. Amtik's universe evolved faster than he** could control it, developing stars, planets, life, intelligence, and an interstellar civilization, the Eltani, within a few days. Just as Amtik began deciding to switch off the experiment, the Eltani discovered his sensor ducts, and thus the existence of “God.” This divided them into two warring factions. One, the Holy Band, wanted to ask Amtik not to turn off the universe; the other, the Sunthrowers, wanted to attack him by flinging a star into his ducts. The game simulated the two factions' interstellar war, in which they used fleets of starships to fight one another and shepherd their specialty craft – Pressorships and Emissaries of Prayer – to Amtik's sensor ducts. The universe and its star systems appeared on an innovative map that simulated three dimensions: a grid of large hexes showed the X and Y axes, and a “stack” of smaller hexagons within each larger hex represented the vertical. The rule book also included several pages of notes listing the many types of ships in the game's universe – some created the warp lines that allowed FTL travel, some gave “luck” on die roles, etc. – along with their Eltani names. In gaming terms, Holy War had a lot of appealing “chrome” for its size and price. I never got around to playing the thing, however, and I have read only mixed reviews of actual game play. Perhaps I will give it a try anyway, one of these days.***

Some of the microgames' worlds lacked appeal, and some of the games seemed thrown-together. Olympica (#7) featured a future battle on Mars between U.N. Space marines and slaves of a self-aware computer network, the “Webbies,” who could tunnel under the battlefield. Perhaps the premise appealed to some, but the game didn't do much with it. Those who actually played Olympica (this was part of my “owned-but-never-played” pile) note it was imbalanced in favor of the U.N. Black Hole (#10) pitted two mining companies against one another for control of an asteroid with an embedded black hole, which mainly provided an excuse for a wrap-around battlefield feature. Hot Spot (#15) had two armies of light infantry dueling on the surface of a molten planet, seeking control of large, floating stone platforms called “crustals” - a gimmick that didn't add much to the game's rather generic rules and dynamics. Annihilator (part of #14) was a low-quality rip-off of Fred Saberhagen's Berserker. Dimension Demons (#17) I never purchased or played, but reviewers said it was pretty bad.

Most of the Microgames had a science-fictional or science-fantasy theme, but several of the classics were pure fantasy, notably Melee (#3), Wizard (#6), and Lords of Underearth (#18). At least two of these led to bigger and better things, and all deserve a separate blog entry of their own.

* My brother and I owned Rivets but never played it, and I suspect we would have found it boring. One had to “program” the robots to attack specific enemies, which in practice meant they often failed to find the right target and had to go back to the factory for reprogramming.

** Or she. Amtik's gender was never clearly established.

*** There was apparently an episode of Futurama with a vaguely similar theme, though a smaller scale.

(Above images via and, respectively.)

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