Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey – A Review

Science Fiction Hobby Games by Neal Tringham
Science Fiction Hobby Games by Neal Tringham

I do love me some board games. I’ve been playing ’em since I was below the recommended age and never gave up. Over the last few years, I’ve become a more frequent player, having made a series of friends who love games and even sometimes attend the Essen Game show, bringing back suitcases tight-packed with game boxes within game boxes. So, when the opportunity arose to review Neal Tringham’s book on SF Hobby Games, my hand immediately shot up.

And I’m glad I did, though not quite as much as I had hoped.

The opening explanation of how to read the text worried me quite a lot. If you’ve got to provide a text to explain how to interact with a text, then I’m often pretty sure that the text is not at all for me. In this case, I think they were just being a bit over-cautious as I had no problem with reading the regular text about the various games listed. In particular, I enjoyed the focus on individual games, one at a time, within a set context.

Actually, the introduction to the games, and a look at the history of gaming, formed a very interesting entry into the work. Somehow, unlike every other text I’e read about games and gaming in the last year, the phrase ‘Homo Ludens’ does not appear! The description of the evolution and kinks of gaming is solid, and the concise presentation of what video games meant to the field is impressive. As a Video Game historian (it’s my field at the Computer History Museum), I can tell that the author just flat gets the meaning of video games within the narrative of all gaming, which is so rare as to be almost unheard of!

The following section on Game Worlds is nearly as good, though I admit that it felt a bit over-noted. I get it, it’s a more-or-less academic work, but the flow stalls at a couple of points. It does serve to demonstrate the depth of the research and of the application of a critical eye to the ideas that the rest of the work is based on. The following section on Game Stories is even better, though I found that it labored a bit over matters of illumination of terms where such wasn’t really necessary. Again, it’s the prose that suffered, and that might mean a lot less to anyone other than to me.

Then comes the section that excited me most: Role Playing Games. The look at the history of RPGs, as well as the origins of many specific forms of role playing. While I’ve never been a big RPG guy, the concepts fascinate me and the explanations of the formation and growth of Role Playing concepts are all well covered, and initially seemed to be less specifically oriented to individual games and creators than the previous sections. In this, I found the reading much easier, faster, and honestly more enlightening. Of course, that changed by the end and it becomes dense with names and notation of publishers and years published, but there are long stretches that are more concerned with providing a history, and perhaps even a philosophy, of RPGs and that meat is the tenderest and most delicious. I found the explorations of Dungeons & Dragons to be a highlight, and covering things like the SCA and the more general look at the idea of the Storytelling Game to be the highlights. The list of Further Reading is also very good, with many pieces that I’ve used over the years in trying to get across what it is folks are actually playing at when they’re involved with World of Warcraft.

Big Eyes, Small Mouth - An Exceptionally Interesting RPG!
Big Eyes, Small Mouth – An Exceptionally Interesting RPG!

Then, it becomes the sections on the individual games, which is  the greatest strength is found, starting with those RPGs. While no list of games, even on a narrowed topic such as SF Hobby Games, can be complete, there are several that I would have expected that didn’t appear. Most specifically, both the DC and Marvel role-playing games of the 1980s and 90s, both of which had large followings and were certainly heavy on the science fiction. Perhaps it was a specific choice as Paladium’s Heroes Unlimited was only briefly mentioned in the section on Rifts, though Villains and Vigilantes rates a mention, though a far too-short one. That’s a shame, but completely understandable as these are supposed to be works set in original science fiction milieux. Still, there are many pieces that seem to be cross-overs, which makes their absense curious. The analysis and history of each game that is listed is wonderful, and deep enough for the serious researcher while light enough for the casual reader. The section on Aftermath! alone is worth the price of admission to the reading. It’s thorough, intelligent, intertextual, and most of all, well-written. The look at the games run up to a few pages in the case of the most interesting games, and I found some of them had more information than I would ever need, but certainly enjoyed. Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Call of Cthuhlu and Castle Falkenstein are all very well-covered, though I felt a few of the entries, such as the one for Cyberpunk, got a bit of a short shrift, sadly. Deadlands (which could easily be used as a complete dissertation on the concept of Game Story) and Traveler (which I consider to be one of the most brilliantly engineered games of all time) are covered with great and deserved detail, as I would expect. Gems like Hollow Earth Expedition and My Life with Master which I had never heard of are covered in such a way as to clearly gain the interest of folks like me.

I’m not nearly as well-versed on the history (or appeal of…) Wargames, but there are certainly a lot of them and the coverage is strong. I found the introduction excellent, as it did give me a sense of what goes on and how Wargaming became what it is today. The write-ups seem a bit shorter (save for the Big Names, like BattleTech), though no less pointed. Car Wars, one of the most significant games of the 1980s among West Coast gamers (you literally couldn’t go to any con of any type without a major Car Wars tourney), didn’t get the write-up I was hoping for. Heroclix also got almost no write-up.

Edward Packard's Supercomputer: the Best of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books
Edward Packard’s Supercomputer: the Best of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books

The inclusion of Game Books is an interesting one, and the section on Choose Your Own Adventure has a lot of good stuff, but I found there were many missing books of that type, most notably the Pick-A-Path and Quest books. Still, it’s an interesting thing to see listed in this sort of work, though I didn’t see any mention specifically of what would turn out to be their greatest, now deceased, progenitor, the Infocom game.

The Board Games listings are perhaps the most difficult to fully cover. Again, an excellent introduction essay gives way to a long list of exceptionally strong write-ups, but at the same time, I couldn’t find so many of the games I would have loved to have seen a write-up of. Cosmic Encounter gets a short write-up, which I find very strange not only because of its popularity, but because the game mechanics were so vital to the evolution of that sort of board game. The lack of any of the Cheapass Games (and US Patent #1 and One False Step for Man being the two I’d have loved to have seen a full write-up on) and some other, very well-known games irked me, but I get it; this is a work based on what’s presented in another work and is thus limited. Still, a bit of expansion would have been very nice indeed. Sadly, I didn’t see any mention of Interplanetary, the first SF board game designed by Art Widner.

Card Games gets another very strong introduction, but then nips and cuts to the bone far too much. Telling any sort of compelling history or analysis of SF Card Games requires entries on so many more things than those listed. In fact, it would be impossible to list them all in any reasonable amount of space.

The section that closes the listing is on Postal Games, which have a rich and varied history and pretty much evolved into first eMail games and later net-based games. This is, to me at least, the least interesting section.

The glossary and references at the end are important, and an impressive list as well. I will certainly be referring to it frequently, largely because I’m never sure what the right word for anything actually is.

So, if you’re a gamer who also enjoys the meta conversation as to what games mean, but aren’t a completist, this is the book for you. For the completist, it’s a valuable tool giving insights that aren’t exactly obvious and have a bent towards the more general fan. Once you understand that general curation has to happen to make any work of a manageable size, you’ll find that SF Hobby Games is very strong contender indeed.

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