SciFi Saturday – 30 Years of Star Frontiers

Last January I started posting about the 30th anniversary of the space-combat game by Doug Niles, published by TSR, Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks. At the time, I figured I'd have enough material to maybe last three or four months. But here it turns out (somewhat assisted by my getting into assembling, casting, and sculpting spaceship miniatures for the first time) that I've managed to make a post about the game every single Saturday for the entire year. That's certainly the most consistent that I've ever managed to be about any art/gaming project.

I've heard it said that one should be careful about what a boy gets into at age 13, because he'll be stuck with it as an interest for the rest of his life. For me, I turned that age in 1983, which was a pretty important year for the gaming hobby, as the D&D boom was still going strong, if tipping into the downslide at that time. Among the important releases that key year:
  1. The D&D Red Box Set by Frank Mentzer. It's not "my" version of Basic D&D, but I know that it escorted many new players into the game, so for that I have to be thankful.
  2. The Greyhawk boxed set, expanding the earlier folio with more game-able information, which I had on my wall, and set almost all of my adventures in, for many years.
  3. D&D modules X4 and X5, the Master of the Desert Nomads series, which for all its playability flaws, has among the most epic set-flavor of any wilderness modules ever. I can still remember reading it on Christmas afternoon 30 years ago this week, on the couch at my grandmother's during the big family gathering, feeling like I had been hit by a thunderbolt.
  4. Walt Simonson's legendary run on the Mighty Thor comic began, with its arcane mix of mythology, Nordic adventure, superheroism, and Kirby-esque cosmic space opera. (Some argue that this was simply the best comic series of all time.)
  5. Somewhere at TSR, the Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game was working its way through production channels, to be released the next year.
  6. Doug Niles' Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game was released, completing the Star Frontiers set and allowing us to roam and fight for the stars themselves. (And had sufficient legs as to be cross-referenced by other TSR games like MSH for spacefaring rules.)
All in all, an intoxicating and inter-connected brew of adventure, mythology, science, and wargaming which I was never able to shake off. I think that was also the summer that I spent almost the entirety in the basement with the TSR-80 Color Computer I'd gotten that year, working through the two books of BASIC programming projects from beginning to end on the little chicklet keyboard, and saving programs on the squawky audio tape recording system. And writing programs to let me play things like Bismark and Knight Hawks solo, for example. So that's basically the life-arc that I've been on ever since.

I think that in the mid-80's, Doug Niles may have been about the strongest actual game designer that TSR had producing work for them. His Knight Hawks game really hit all the right notes, I think, and it's taken about three decades years of tinkering with it to really see any flaws, and they still don't bother me very much. (That's high praise.) Likewise, his Battlesystem mass warfare rules were almost-but-not-quite-incredibly-good, a much-needed improvement over the Swords & Spells and Chainmail games that didn't really synch up with D&D anymore, the way it had evolved. It made a big splash, and you can tell that the guy cared deeply about the work with the revisions he made in the follow-up edition. (If not 1983, then the runner-up for most important year in gaming for me would be 1985, with the release of Battlesystem, supplements for Marvel Super Heroes, publication of Unearthed Arcana, and the departure of Gygax from TSR.)

So anyway, these 52 Saturdays are almost-but-not-quite everything that I have to say about the game at the moment. I don't plan to be posting every Saturday anymore, although there may be occasional game reports, and perhaps one last project that I didn't get to complete by the end of the calendar year. You'll see a shift back to more actual D&D-related posts (as per the name of the blog, after all) that I somewhat got away from in recent months.

In a rather beautiful piece of serendipity, just yesterday I received in the mail the limited-edition Star Frontiers 30th Anniversary Commemorative Patch from TerlObar, which is a rather beautiful piece, featuring the Assault Scout design in which all of our PCs would fly around to adventures (and hopefully not instantly blow up in a fight). I'm immediately going to put it on my backpack that I carry to school and class every day, sweet. (There are still some available for ordering at the link above.)

And one last thing:  The 13-year old me would stand in the hobby store at the mall across the state line and stare rather longingly at the brightly-colored boxes of spaceship miniatures for the game, wishing that he had the money to purchase them. Maybe two decades after that I got those boxes on EBay, but still didn't have the gumption to actually tear them open and assemble and paint them. So when I started this year I had zero actual Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks miniatures on my shelf to play the game with. Now I'm happy to say that's been greatly rectified; below you'll see a photo of my overall combined fleet. Both the 13-year old me and the current actual me stand in agreement in saying "pretty cool"!

Thanks for reading this stuff and your thoughtful comments are always appreciated. Hope you and your loved ones are safe, happy, fulfilled, and get even better in the new year. Have some good holidays and we can plan to read each other again in 2014.


SciFi Saturday – Miniature House Rules

Since I've gotten into assembling & playtesting the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks miniatures in only the past year, I've developed a small set of house rules that I find it conducive to play by. Some of the normal SFKH rules don't work so well on an open (hexless) play space, or become too fiddly, especially for non-hardcore wargamers (i.e., casual friends and acquaintances). Therefore at the end of a year of testing this is how I run the game these days:
  1. Generally my basic boardgame rules are in effect, in regards to speeds, orbital movement, docking at stations and carriers, and assault scouts having 25 hull points.
  2. Fleets are chosen by my simple point-based method. Each side gets index cards for each ship. Protractors should have the 60° marks highlighted for turning.
  3. Defender chooses a board edge or sets up planets & satellites, as appropriate. Attacker then sets up ships on a board edge, documenting initial speed. Defender then sets up ships, on opposite edge or near planet if any. (This is rationalized by defender sensors informing them of incoming fleet configuration, and allowing them to respond intelligently.) Maximum starting speed is 10 for any ship. Attacker moves first. Roll dice if attacker/defender is not obvious.
  4. Pre-measuring is allowed before any move or fire designation. (Again, this is rationalized by advanced sensors giving full information on distances, and maintains continuity with the hex-based boardgame.)
  5. Measurement is specifically made from front-post to front-post of all ship miniatures. Round to the nearest inch for all measurements (esp. range diffusion: down if under 1/2", up if 1/2" or more). When used, line protractors up on top of ships; usually there's a key bulge that fits into the pen-hole on the protractor.
  6. On movement, player must document (write down) all current speeds first, then make actual movements on the table. No take-backs of the maneuvering are allowed once the ship has moved from its initial position. (Unlike in the hex-based game, unwinding movement to change a decision is simply too difficult.)
  7. Turning is made via my alternate movement rule: divide current speed by the MR and round down; this is the minimum number of inches the ship must travel before each 60°rotation. (This seems more realistic and makes it easier to move ships otherwise in close proximity.) Note that frequently the protractor edge is the only thing needed to measure these short steps (tape measure rarely necessary.)
  8. Defensive fire is taken only against opponent ships' final location in a move. The book rule that permits firing at any closest point on a move is not used. (Trying to mark the closest point in any move versus all opponent ships in open space is much too difficult; and this acceptably simulates constant motion throughout the turn.)
  9. Forward-firing cannons can hit targets within 30° left or right of the nose (as noted in the Conversion Booklet). The Head-On Shot rule is ignored (because it is too fiddly and prone to argumentation on the open tabletop).
  10. No ramming or collisions are allowed. Place ship miniatures as near to each other as space allows on any close movement.
So that's what works pretty well for me at the moment.  Do you have any boardgame house rules that you think are critical that I've overlooked?


SciFi Saturday – Forgotten Photos

The other day I came across some hi-res photos that I took with my girlfriend's better camera while I was constructing custom Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks miniatures (mostly the fighter minis), but forgot to use in my prior posts as I was casting them. Since they give some nice detail to what I accomplished as an amateur sculptor, here they are today.

First, a close-up of a metal pour as it starts to cool:

The UPF Fighter trio figure:

The Sathar Fighter sculpture as it gets finished:

Sathar Fighter close-up:

Three Sathar Fighter casts next to a quarter for scale:


SciFi Saturday – Ping Pong Planets

Here's the latest addition to my set of miniatures for playing the Star Frontiers: Knight Hawks game -- whereas action around planets and space station is an integral part of the tactical game (and essential to the one-and-only Sathar victory condition in the Campaign game), the official miniatures don't come with any representation of these features. So I thought for a while how I could make my own.

It finally dawned on me that at the game scale of 1" = 10K km, a ping-pong ball is actually very close to the size of an Earth-like planet (like all the inhabited planets in Frontier space). In particular, the current ping-pong ball is 40mm * 1 in/(25.4 mm) * 10K km/(scale in) ~ 16K km, whereas the diameter of the Earth is close to 13K km. So I bought some ping-pong balls and started painting them, as well as assembling standard SFKH stands and bases for them. Below you can see my best take on planets in the fashion of Earth, Mars, and Venus. (The Earth planet is actually the result of a simulation in Maxis' SimEarth game; the Mars one was my best freehand recreation of the real Mars).

The only problem with this, having completed the project, is that of course the SFKH ship miniatures are not at the same scale (they're at a scale of about 200,000 times larger). While this is also true for the counters that come in the boxed set, the visual effect is limited when playing on the hexmap, because the hexes themselves box the figures in to a known, limited space. When playing on the open tabletop the effect is a little more wonky:

I also made a black hole. There's a whole prior post from when I was planning this about what scale to interpret the black hole at, and how the resulting gravitational force would affect the game.

Finally, I purchased what seems to be the only small-scale space station miniature that exists on the open market and set that up on a similar stand and base. Now I think I finally have everything necessary for the very first scenario in the Knight Hawks tactical game book. :-)