Tuesday, September 6, 2016

WEG Memoirs: Star Wars Fleet Game

The Little Guy and I attended a wargaming convention in Williamsburg this past weekend, where he won a copy of Star Wars: Armada in the charity teacup raffle. We weren’t home long before the box was open, he was checking out the pre-painted ships, I was reading rules, and we both started popping out and organizing perforated cardstock game components. We gave it a try on my old three-foot-square felt starfield I painted years ago for West End Games demos and had a blast. It’s the kind of game West End could never have produced, though it did consider publishing a Star Wars tactical fleet-level game.

West End got its start publishing traditional “chit-and-board” wargames, apparently because owner Daniel Scott Palter wanted to produce wargames he wanted to play. The company branched out and developed roleplaying games – most notably Paranoia and Ghostbusters – before it landed the rights to produce game materials based on the then-dormant Star Wars franchise. In the early years the game line included both roleplaying game books and wargame-influenced boxed games. Among the most popular was Star Warriors, a starfighter combat game played out on a starfield hex map. Other boxed game titles included Escape from the Death Star, Assault on Hoth, and Battle for Endor, though Star Warriors was perhaps the closest to a traditional wargame. (I own copies of each of these other games, including one in German, Angriff auf Hoth. Alas, I never owned Star Warriors, but hope to acquire it someday now that I’m more interested wargames than I was at West End.) The Star Wars Roleplaying Game line began to take off in the early 1990s as interest in the Timothy Zahn novels fueled new life into the license; West End focused more on roleplaying game supplements gobbled up by gamers and fans...and left boxed wargames behind.

West End Games' Honesdale, PA,
offices and warehouse around 1993.
Until Dan Verssen proposed a Star Wars tactical fleet game. I’m digging way back into my foggy memory here, so the details are fuzzy. I’m not quite sure when this was proposed, probably in the latter half of my time at West End, around 1996 or 1997. But a packet of material ended up on my desk for review: some printed rules, a starfield hex map probably borrowed from Star Warriors, and a few hex-shaped counters in a plastic counter tray like the ones West End used to package with its old wargames, the envy of many gamers at the time. I vaguely recall it was complex enough that it would have gone right over the heads of the many non-wargaming Star Wars fans who bought West End’s similarly themed roleplaying game products. I did not know Verssen’s game-designer reputation back then – while I dabbled in wargames, I wasn’t as experienced in them as I am today (and that’s still not saying much) – but he came recommended by Palter and seemed to know his way around wargame rules. Alas, the staff gave the game a cursory look before the project took the course of many innovative ideas...it just faded away and was ultimately rejected. By that time no editorial staffers had much experience with or interest in traditional chit-and-board wargames beyond Palter himself. I’m not even sure a proposal made its way to Lucasfilm.

No doubt had it ever reached production West End’s Star Wars fleet game would have released as a traditional wargame with starfield hex map, six- or ten-sided dice, die-cut ship counters, maybe some perforated cards, and that extremely useful counter tray. Perhaps it would have seen some success in its day. But West End – and arguably few game companies back in the 1990s – could never have afforded to produce a game like Star Wars: Armada with its pre-painted miniatures, custom dice, dials and movement tools, and sheets of heavy cardstock tokens; nor could the market, even one filled with avid Star Wars fans, have absorbed a $100 game back then. The company stuck to traditional wargame publishing formats of the time: rule booklets, full-color boards or, more economically, map posters; die-cut counters and chits; sheets of perforated cards; and a few standard dice. I don’t ever recall staffers discussing putting actual models into games beyond the unpainted metal miniatures manufactured for the roleplaying game line in the Mos Eisley Adventure Set and the Star Wars Miniatures Battles Starter Set. Reaching out to include other manufacturing formats – such as the pre-painted, plastic Galoob MicroMachines of the time – would have been an expensive risk had the company even considered it. Add to this the limitations in the minutiae of the company’s license with Lucasfilm and the list of restrictions on exactly what kinds of games it could produce without infringing on other companies’ licensed rights.

While the staff worked hard every month producing two or three Star Wars Roleplaying Game books each month (in addition to books for other game lines), staffers also reviewed and developed ideas for other Star Wars-related work within and outside the scope of the company’s license with Lucasfilm. Some pushed the bounds of Star Wars gaming at the time, including The Darkstryder Campaign and Lords of the Expanse boxed sets, the Star Wars Live-Action Adventures LARP supplement, Pirates and Privateers, and Rules of Engagement: The Rebel SpecForce Handbook. Many fell into the pile of other proposals that never made it even out to Lucasfilm for review and approval. I proposed a full-color, hardcover relaunch of the Indiana Jones game using the D6 System in the style of the revised and expanded version of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game. I designed very streamlined, kid-friendly dogfight rules to include with die-cast starship toys; I can’t recall if it just didn’t go anywhere or if the manufacturer didn’t care to include it in packaging. Production manager Rich Hawran and I actually traveled to Hasbro headquarters to pitch prototypes for non-electronic versions of holochess and the sabacc gambling card game. Unfortunately licensees were very jealous of their fiefdoms and sometimes resented having to work with other Lucasfilm licensees, particularly West End Games. Many projects reached the proposal stage but never went much farther.

Dan Verssen went on to create numerous wargames. His award-winning game designs include Modern Naval Battles and Hornet Leader (Charles S. Roberts Award winners) and Rise of the Luftwaffe (Origins Award winner). His company, Dan Verssen Games, has continued publishing his designs, expensive, high-production-value endeavors covering a host of historical subjects, and some not-so-historical genres, like Cards of Cthulhu. Many of his games are either suitable for solitaire play or designed specifically as solo game experiences. The company even makes “deep dish” counter trays.... West End might not have developed his Star Wars fleet battles game, but he’s at least found a good deal of success publishing his own game designs; Star Wars fans ultimately got an amazing-looking fleet action game nearly 20 years later.

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