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Three Moves Ahead Episode 91: Licensed Behavior

November 16th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 15 Comments · Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Troy almost fires Rob and Julian on this episode as a conversation about licensed strategy games. Bruce Geryk holds forth on why War of the Rings is like Stratomatic Baseball, Julian sings of Starfleet Battles and Rob talks about his experiences in another board game. What makes a license succeed or fail? Can either Star Wars or Star Trek really work as a licensed strategy game? Martin vs Erikson – who wins? Is Troy the only person who likes Babylon 5?

It is a loud and fun show. Listen to it.

Also, info on the upcoming 3MA/FOS meetup.

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War of the Ring
War of the Ring article (Bruce is the final two comments)
Starfleet Battles


15 Comments so far ↓

  • Jon Gad

    You are not, Troy. Babylon 5 is one of the greatest television shows ever produced. Indeed, I’ve been re-watching the show again recently, and I still find things that I’d missed in earlier viewings. Even the much maligned pilot isn’t as bad as I remembered, while some of the high points of the series may be even better.

    Truly it was an excellent show, and if Julian and Rob can’t appreciate that, I pity them.

    As far as B5 strategy games, while its true that no such game ever made it into the PC or console spaces, there have been a couple of board and miniatures games versions.

    The first, Babylon 5 Wars, was published by the now defunct Agents of Gaming. It was very reminiscent of Star Fleet Battles, with every ship given a detailed control sheets. Indeed, the game was so granular as to track damage to individual fighters! The game was quite good at simulating skirmishes with no more than five or six ships on a side, but was so detailed oriented that it rapidly bogged down with more than that. Still, it was an excellent simulation of what you saw on the show, and a fine game in its own right.

    Right before Agents of Gaming went under, they also produced a fleet scale game called Fleet Action and a ground warfare game called GROPOS, both set in the Babylon 5 universe. Neither were very well received, and when they lost the B5 license in 2002, that spelled doom for the company.

    A couple of years later, Mongoose Publishing picked up the license and created Babylon 5: A Call to Arms miniatures game. This game owed itself more to Fleet Action than it did Babylon 5 Wars, and allowed for much bigger battles at the expense of the details that had made B5Wars so enjoyable. CtA was, nevertheless, a decent game that was reasonably popular for a few years before Mongoose ceased publication of it in 2008.

    There was also some kind of collectible card game and a very odd board game, neither of which I played and therefore can’t really comment on.

    For myself, I’ve always thought that the Babylon 5 universe would make great fodder for a 4X MOO style game. Besides the normal 4X concerns, you could also have to worry about being drawn in to the Shadow War either on the Shadow or Vorlon sides. Quantium 40 would make an excellent resource to fight over, as the amount of it would limit the number of jump capable ships you could build….

    Well, I could go on and on, but as the game will likely never exist, I suppose there isn’t much point. Suffice it to say that while there remains much untapped potential in the B5 universe vis a vis gaming, a few people have at least poked their toes into the pool.

  • Nathan Hoobler

    I was excited for a moment when I thought you were actually going to talk about the Avalon Hill Dune game from the 70’s, as it’s both one of my favorites, and an excellent example of how a game makes use of theme.

    I don’t know how you all feel about Dune, but in my mind it’s a great game both mechanically, and because of how its mechanics suit the source content. It’s a classic game of exception, where each faction is capable of breaking the rules in one very specific and very interesting way. In general, I think such games suit themselves well to literary licenses, as they provide a mechanism to translate interesting literary characters and factions into equally compelling and unique mechanic elements; however, the brilliance of Dune in my mind is how these exceptions so perfectly suit their inspirations. Obviously the Atreides have their clairvoyance ability which makes them seem overwhelmingly powerful at first glance; soon, however, you find that the best way to defeat them is to either lure them into a trap, or gang up on them so that even their talent is outmatched. And just like the source material, the Harkonnen are specialists in treason and subterfuge, the guild is rich with money they gain by spurring conflict, and the fremen are undefeatable should they choose to mass in numbers.

    And yet, the game is not bound in the least by the literature. I played a game once where the Harkonnen and Atreides made land grabs early on, and then stunned everyone who was plotting to take advantage of the inevitable conflict by declaring an alliance no one was able to shake the very next turn. I’ve seen Arakeen fall as a self-satisfied Emperor unwittingly annihilated legions of Sardukar when a lone fremen soldier strode into the city armed with nothing but a Lasgun — which he promptly fired into his hero’s Shield. In fact, while the game goes out of its way to provide motivations and capabilities that are faithful to its inspiration, the chances of the actual events of the novel playing out are very much in the minority.

    And yet, Dune could have easily been just another skin on a “Risk”-type rules set. Or even worse, it could have been a re-skin on some other Avalon Hill games, full of moving army chits around hex boards and managing byzantine nobles with sheets of powers and rules that bury the source under rules cruft. But instead, I think they did a really good job of getting to the essence of what the world was — or could be, from a game perspective.

  • Tom Chick

    Good podcast, but I can’t stand idly by without correcting some serious misstatements about Battle for Middle Earth II. One of the great things about that game is the balance between heroes and armies, so I’m glad Julian was set straight. And Troy was wrong about how the Ring is modeled in that game. Once you capture the Ring, you don’t start a victory timer. Instead, you unlock the Light or Dark uber-hero, which again illustrates the game’s fantastic balance between heroes and armies. As the Official Defender of BFME2, I had to speak up.

    Also, ha ha, Bruce Geryk is such a Star Trek nerd.

  • Chris King

    I totally agree with Bruce on the Stephen Eriksson being good material for a Strategy game. The world Eriksson created had lots of sides that spend a lot of time fighting each other. Plus if you run out of reasons for people to fight each other the books have the trusty standby of the Gods interfering in the world stirring up conflict. What strategy games need is conflict and ways to resolve them.

  • Troy

    Gah. Can’t believe I got that wrong. You are of course, correct. I had no idea why I thought it was a victory timer, because I loved bringing our Galadriel and laying waste.

  • Tony K

    Good podcast.

    I thought you guys were referring to the War of the Ring game from SPI from 1977. Link here http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2228/war-of-the-ring

    This War of the Ring is much more a classic chit based wargame than the more modern War of the Ring game.

    Also, agree with Tom Chick, BFME2 is one of the best RTS games that no one has ever played.

  • Chris Richardson

    I’d hoped you might touch on Battles of Westeros. A new twist on the Battlelore system in the world of A Game of Thrones. All of those off-screen battles are being placed front and center for gaming. Why a computer version of the card, board or war games of this series hasn’t come out is a mystery.

    W0w. Is that Bruce guy cranky or what? He’s exactly the kind of voice that gets shut down as a flame baiter on forums. He’s rude, hyper-opinionated, and does a poor job slamming Martin’s works by just saying they are overrated and dumb. Then he takes a huge amount of time poorly pitching something he likes and gives up when nobody knows what he is talking about. My guess is he’s there to keep things lively. I prefer discussion over ranting.

  • Josh Hall

    If Rob really wants a Battlestar Galactica game, all he should do is download Homeworld – even without the BSG mods (which reskin things), it basically hits all of the major points I can think would be required.

  • Tony K

    I love Bruce! He’s the best. He’s not rude, he speaks the truth!

  • Plankton

    Just wanted to drop a couple of thoughts.

    There are BSG and B5 (it really is a great show, even these days) mods for Freespace 2. Some of the FS2 mods look amazing. I don’t have a joystick anymore so I havent bothered installing it even though I really want to.

    I was a pretty hardcore Trekkie in my youth (never dressed up, but I did draw ST spaceships) so it was hard to listen to the conversation without shouting Klingon pejoratives at my MP3 player. You guys kept talking about TOS … like that series even matters. Only at one point was there a mention of the Dominion Wars which is exactly the kind of conflict that you would look for to base a game on. DS9 does a pretty good job at establishing a certain depth to the characters and races involved, so that they do become less incidental. (DS9 also featured little fighter ships in the battles and not just capital ships … just sayin’)
    Anyway, I do not want to blame you for not being as hardcore Trekkie as I used to be.
    I wanna to point out that there were 3 decent Star Trek strategy games: Armada 1 & 2, and Birth of the Federation (there’s also Conquest and New Worlds, but I never played those).

    Armada was a pretty good RTS. I think it used the license pretty well. It obviously tweaked and twisted things from the ST universe to make it work in the RTS. I had good fun with it.
    It had many of the Next Generation ships and more and had some interesting features like the ability to kill an enemy vessel’s crew. Once that ship had no crew left it would drift in space and you could beam your people on board to take it. That made “crew” quite an important resource in the game. The Borg and Klingons were particularly good at capturing ships. Many Klingon and Romulan vessels could cloak.
    Some ships had special abilities like Warping across the map, deactivating enemy’s shields or weapons or engines or life support etc.
    The maps were 2d planes that had nebulas spread across them that would have various effects on your ships’ systems, such as limiting sensor range, killing your crew (especially dangerous if the enemy deactivated your engines and you drift into them) etc.
    The campaign let you play as Klingons, Federation, Romulan, and Borg.It was a pretty crazy story but good fun. Even involved the Omega Molecule (not a Trekkie if you don’t know what that is)!

    Armada 2 just had more stuff, more ships, and more factions and just got way more crazy. I don’t know if Armada 1 was a good multiplayer game, in terms of balancing, but Armada 2 can’t have been.

    Really surprised Birth of the Federation didn’t get mentioned. BotF is basically Galactic Civilization. After having played BotF, I didn’t need a tutorial or manual at all for GalCiv2 … that’s how similar these 2 are. BotF came before GalCiv btw.
    Again, a pretty perfect use of the license. A lot of the series’ ships and aliens make an appearance in the game. Obviously there are the big factions like Federation, Klingons, Romulans, Cardassians, etc but also the minor ones that only inhabit one planet, like Betazoids, Breen or whatever. And in a GalCiv manner you could conquer them, ally with them or exterminate them.
    There would also be anomalies all over the map and on occasion you would get random events like the appearance of the Crystalline entity or the Borg (really quite dreadful, cause they would wipe the floor with your fleets :(

    Anyway. Enough geek talk.
    Thanks for doing the show and having an interesting discussion.

  • Hell-Mikey

    Is the license for Three Moves Ahead still available for videogame development? Or was it included as a minigame in SimTroy?

  • Paul

    “Martin vs Erikson – who wins?”

    I disagree with Bruce about GRRM and a Song of Ice and Fire (though I think the fourth book was horrible), but wholeheartedly agree with him about Erikson and the Malazan books. What Bruce was trying to get across is that the world Erikson created is so dense and well planned that seemingly everything that happens has repercussions elsewhere and those repercussions have already been taken into consideration. It’s almost like he’s created a giant and somewhat overwhelming maze and we the reader are merely along for the ride.

    Erikson has training as an anthropologist and archaeologist and it clearly shows in the way he’s developed cultures, locales and so on. It seems that the farther you dig back in his time line for the books there is even more to uncover. It’s dark and grim, but rife with good material to make games out of. It would be a huge undertaking to make a Malazan game, but lord knows I’d preorder the damn things as soon as humanly possible.

  • Tom Grant

    Normally, I love this podcast. However, this episode was not your best. In the history of licensed games, you overlooked quite a few significant events in the history of the franchises (Star Trek, Star Wars, etc.) that you mentioned. Plus, I just plain disagree with some of your conclusions.

    Star Wars has a richer background than Star Trek? Regardless of whether you’re a Star Trek fan or not, just count up the number of hours of televised content. When the Next Generation, DS9, and Voyager series were running, Paramount hired people (Michael Okuda, most notably) to create canonical historical and technical references to maintain some consistency across a huge amount of new content. (Not to mention the novels, movies, comic books, and yes, games.)

    With that much background material — the politics of the Klingon Empire, the important scientific breakthroughs, the extent of the galaxy yet to be explored — a whole sub-genre of reference guides cropped up. Here are a few examples:


    However fun the Star Wars franchise has been, it has a lot less source material. If you wanted to do a strategy game just about the Klingons, you’d have plenty to work with.

    And how the heck can you overlook Birth of the Federation, a Master of Orion-ish strategy game? Sheesh. Great game, very addictive, based on Star Trek.

    Or the RTS games, like Armada, based on the Star Trek license? Not so great games, but still Star Trek-based. Plus, it shows how the changes in the franchise, such as the more military SF bent of Deep Space 9, makes it relatively easy to create a ST strategy game. And, incidentally, a lot of these games not only invent their own starship classes, but let you design your own. (ST Online, anyone?)

    Again, I’m not arguing that the ST games are better than the SW games. But, geez, there’s a lot more to work with. You might argue that it makes it harder to do a good ST game, but I suspect that the real problem lies elsewhere. For example, Paramount has policed its license carefully, sometimes to an extreme where it makes it hard for creative people to write good books, or develop interesting games. The relationship between Paramount and these third party content creators is different than between LucasArts and, er, LucasArts. If you get my drift.

    My pet theory about the problem with licensed games: franchises don’t sell themselves automatically, but people pretend that they do. A bad Star Wars or Tolkien game is a bad game, period. The license doesn’t redeem its failings. However, some game developers have been sloppy, in part because of this false assumption about the power of the license.

    To be fair, the license holders are often to blame. Deadlines are a bitch, particularly when someone else (the license holders) set them for you. Under the pressures of time, it’s tempting to gamble that the license will obscure some of a game’s failings, if it’s not everything it could have been by the pre-arranged release date.

    I wish you’d enlarged your aperture a little bit, during this podcast, to include other licenses. For example, Games Workshop has, on average, a spotty record of licensed games. For every great game (for example, the original Space Hulk PC game), there was also a significant turd (the Warhammer Fantasy battles game of a few years ago). However, lately they seem to be having a much greater success rate with outsourced material, including boardgames (Chaos In The Old World) and computer games (Dawn of War II tops the list). What’s going on here, that GW is suddenly enjoying a much better track record with its tightly-controlled licenses?

  • Rob Zacny

    I’m pretty sure I specifically addressed this point re: SW vs. ST in the episode.

    It’s not a question of richer backstory. It’s a question of which is more fertile ground for gaming. The way we see Star Destroyers and Mon Cal cruisers slugging it out suggests the relative weight and fighting styles of these ships. Starfighters are present for interception, bombing, and dogfighting. Most additions to the expanded universe serve explicit military purposes, and again give some insight into the kinds of tactics and battles that exist in this universe.

    Now I have watched a lot of Star Trek. The only one where I even begin to have a sense for Trek fleet combat is probably DS9. Tech manuals are just mumbo jumbo unless we see tactics in practice. In Star Trek, we hardly ever do. Even in DS9. when the coalition fleet attacks the Dominion at the station, ships just seem to be exploding out of nowhere. Hundreds of ships clash, and the Defiance is pretty much the only one left standing after a few minutes? Stuff like that makes it hard to find footholds if you’re constructing a credible wargame / strategy game. Races like the Borg pose a similar problem.

    A TV series like Star Trek might have a lot more canon, but it also suffers mightily from its format. Writers have to keep inventing new stuff to drive the plot forward, and every deus ex machina has to somehow be squared with everything else we know about this world. But the more complications and contradictions there are, the harder it is to create a game that feels both balanced and authentic.

  • Tom Grant

    Rob, you could take everything you just said and apply it to Star Wars. The Millennium Falcon survives an enormous battle just as explicably as the Defiant. The writers keep making stuff up that seems to contradict previous indications about the relative capabilities of ship classes. And so on.

    And why should having a wide range of capabilities in ship classes be an issue at all? Starship combat could be just as symmetric as WWI naval combat (how big are your guns?), or just as asymmetric as its WWII equivalent (air or surface attack?). And what’s the big deal with starfighters in Star Wars anyway? Did we ever see them do more than knock out gun turrets on the big ships?