Thursday, February 25, 2016

In the Realm of the Three-Dollar Cybertank: Metagaming's OGRE

For sci-fi fans of a certain age (middle age), the word “ogre” conjures at least one very specific memory: a pocket-sized game containing a two-color folding map, a sheet of flimsy playing counters, and a thin rulebook on whose cover a giant war machine prepared to crush four tanks and hovercraft. Ogre, the first of a series of small, light wargames manufactured by now-defunct Metagaming Concepts, had a price tag ($2.95) low enough to appeal to geeky kids with small allowances.* These microgames had three distinct features: crude, cheap components, a sci-fi or fantasy theme, and a gimmick or special feature adorning their otherwise straightforward move-and-fight rules. Ogre's gimmick was the giant machine featured on the cover: an artificially-intelligent giant tank, the "Ogre" of the title. Each of these cybertanks had, instead of two or three numbers indicating its capabilities, an entire “character sheet” listing the missiles, nuclear cannons, and anti-personnel weapons it carried and how much damage its massive treads had taken. In the game's basic scenario, one player took the role of one of these behemoths, and the other deployed a multi-unit force of ordinary tanks, artillery, armored hovercraft (or GEVs), and infantry, all trying to stop the Ogre from destroying their command center.

Compared to the conventional units in the game, Ogres were nearly indestructible. Every successful “hit” in combat destroyed or at least disabled a regular tank or GEV, but only knocked off one of the Ogre's weapons or injured its treads. Players formed many different strategies to stop the Ogre before it stomped their command center: sweeping the battlefield with immobile but powerful howitzers, swarming the Ogre with fast and fragile GEVs, targeting the cybertank's treads. No method was foolproof, if only because the Ogre player had the advantage of force concentration – having only one unit to protect and maneuver. This wasn't an obvious advantage to my brother and I when we started playing Ogre in 1981; we just thought a giant robot tank with its own character sheet was cool.

Ogre not only launched the Microgames series, it also jump-started the career of its designer, Steve Jackson, who took Ogre with him when he left Metagaming to start his own company. Steve Jackson Games also assumed the rights to GEV, the inevitable sequel game, which added new units (like light tanks and mobile howitzers), more complex terrain, and more scenarios. Some players, myself among them, considered GEV the superior game, though both remain playable. Thereafter, alas, SJG began layering complexities upon a good, simple idea: creating another sequel, Battlesuit, that provided overly-complex rules for infantry-level combat; licensing Ogre miniatures and miniatures rules; and bringing out a Deluxe edition in the late '90s that retailed for about $100. Your Humble Narrator had bailed on the franchise by then. But Ogre had done its job: persuading young sci-fi geeks that a simple game could have strategic depth, and that it could create an imaginative little world of its own.

*My brother and I each got $2.50 a week in the early '80s, which if we pooled it together would pay for a microgame or a D&D module.