I played a lot of the Knight Hawks game, probably at least as much actual gameplay as any other RPG that I ever owned. One of the delightful aspects of the game is that it comes with two separate rulebooks: one, a 16-page "Tactical Operations Manual" which details a self-contained hex-based boardgame; and two, a 64-page "Campaign Book" on how spaceships integrate with the Star Frontiers RPG, designing and purchasing spaceships, useful campaign background, and a grand campaign of all-out war throughout the Frontier. It's a very nice package, and I used it both for RPG play and actually playing out the full "Second Sathar War" with a friend staying at my house for a week's time one summer. The boardgame is also very well suited for solitaire play and experimentation (except in rare circumstances, there's no hidden information), and so I used to do that quite a lot as teenager growing up in the backwoods of Maine.
Among my most indelible gaming memories is the day I got the Knight Hawks game and brought it back from the store, back when I was 12 years old. I'd excitedly been looking for such a product since the release of Star Frontiers -- it seemed like forever (at one point I almost picked up Traveller's Trillion Credit Squadron to fill the gap) -- but of course it was but a single year. I think I ripped off the box's shrink-wrapping in the back of my parents' car, and started eagerly reading. I got as far as the 3rd page of the boardgame rules, discussing movement, acceleration, and deceleration, when I read this:
TOP SPEED. Ships do not have a top speed. They can accelerate to any speed, but players may find that ships traveling very fast will be forced to leave the map.
Well, this just immediately blew my mind. I was accustomed to several different RPG vehicle combat systems, and of course the principal characteristic of vehicles in those system is their top speed, which I was expecting to see explained here. But here was something completely different, a brief rule inspired by actual physical phenomena, which completely upended how I saw the greater universe itself. I can vividly recall the moment that I can only describe as real, cosmic insight. I realized that not only would I have to play this particular game in an altogether different tactical fashion, but I also knew something more about the limitless space around me, and that it also made sense on a level deeper than I'd appreciated before.
Now, this fact (that a ship in space won't have any limit on how much it can accelerate, short of light-speed) may seem like a trivial observation when I make it today. I'd like to say that my 12-year-old self should have known that, or been able to deduce it. But: (a) clearly, I didn't, (b) some other adults that I explain this to today are still initially stumped by it, and (c) it took an embarrassingly long time afterward before I also figured out that turning the nose of one's spaceship wouldn't have any effect on the direction that it was traveling (something that the Knight Hawks game does not correctly simulate).
Thus, I can't emphasize enough what a transformative moment that was for me, in that short little Knights Hawks boardgame book -- on the first day that I ripped it open, smelled the fresh printer's ink, and started reading it. I'd say the fact that it was a fun game was a minor, almost negligibly important virtue -- it also taught me real, usable facts about the world, and indeed, changed how I looked at the universe. In my view, that is the gold-standard for game design, and the best justification for gaming in the first place.
So: For the near future of 2013 I'll plan to write a regular "SciFi Saturday" post about some aspect or addition to the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game. I hope you'll climb into your spacesuit, strap on a pearl-handled laser pistol, and join me at the master control panel for at least part of it. Happy new year!
[Photo courtesy boardgamegeek.com]