Friday, September 13, 2013

Thinking Back on Steve Jackson Games

I used to be a huge fan of Steve Jackson Games, and while I don't have anything against them they just haven't been on my radar much in the last 5 years. I thought I might work through why on this post.

Like a lot of gaming stuff for me, it starts in the 80's. I saw Car Wars on the shelf at the local mall hobby shop that was my main place for that kind of thing. It pushed three of my buttons (cars and games and blowing things up) and it was not very expensive in pocket-box form so I picked it up and had a blast. I ramble on some more about it here. Keep in mind that this was pre-Battletech, an era when the goal of most wargames was "realism" and the resulting complexity was embraced by all. Star Fleet Battles and Squad Leader were the big dogs here. The idea of a smaller game that didn't try to cover everything with a full page of rules and where "fun" was the main goal was definitely marching to a different drummer. We played it quite a bit and there was new material every year and I picked up a lot of it.

Not long after Car Wars I picked up another pocket-box game called "Ogre" about a force of conventional military units trying to stop a giant robot tank. I was already a fan of Keith Laumer's Bolo stories by this time and having a game that effectively fettered them was extra cool. The expansion game G.E.V. soon followed and now I was a fan of two SJG games.

Pretty soon I also picked up Illuminati, the conspiracy card game and though we never played it a ton it was a blast whenever we did and I loved the whole concept. That's three SJG games that were in our rotation by the early to mid 80's.

Then, as I was going through college GURPS 3rd Edition came out and was a big player in our RPG sessions for several years. A comprehensive system that provided a solid non-class-and-level approach and was as well supported as D&D was a great thing to have as AD&D petered out after 10 years for some of us. From pure historical campaigns to crazy time-travel shenanigans to standing in for Rifts and Mechwarrior we got our money's worth from GURPS.

Somewhere in the late 90's (looking back now) things started to drop off. Car Wars sputtered and died except for a few regional tournaments kept alive by dedicated gaming groups. Illuminati went through a couple of editions and a CCG version that didn't really last past the first few years and then that game went silent. Ogre had a very cool miniatures focus for a while but that pretty much dies out by the early 2000's.

GURPS kept going for a few more years but seemed to mostly be caught up in licensing stuff like Deadlands, Vampire, and Castle Falkenstein - popular 90's games. Also, GURPS Traveller, which seemed to make up a significant part of the line in the 90's - we preferred original/mega flavor ourselves. If it wasn't that then it was second editions of books we already had, from Greece to Rome to Magic to Old West to Martial Arts - it was fine and all but there was not a big incentive to go spend another $20 on a book that was a slightly cleaned up and perhaps moderately expanded version of a book I already had. Also, we were still playing third edition - there wasn't a new edition of the game. Then in 2004 they went to a new edition and that pretty much killed GURPS for my group. We were in full on D&D 3E mode and there was not room for much else. I ended up getting most of the very nicely done GURPS 4E books but I've never read half of them and never run or played the game at all.

Somewhere along in the early 2000's is also when SJG first published Munchkin, which exploded and has in some sense consumed the company. Don;t get me wrong, I'm glad they found a way to survive the d20 wave, the CCG collapse and the general tough economic times for game companies of the last ten years, and I like Munchkin as a game, but I wish that they had been able to keep more life in their other game lines while they kept feeding the beast. I'm glad the best-known Texas game company is still rolling but their games today don't interest me as much as they once did. They were a pretty innovative bunch too, running their own BBS and later their own local internet service for years. Warehouse 23 was one of the first online retailers and PDF providers too. They're still dabbling in online games and mobile apps. I wonder what their next cool thing will be - something besides Munchkin Discworld, I hope.

There is hope - they had that big Ogre Kickstarter last year ... that has not yet been delivered. They do seem to be making progress but it is clearly consuming the majority of their non-Munchkin resources and is taking far longer to deliver than they had planned but I'm sure it will happen. There has also been talk about a Car Wars Kickstarter too but that is on hold until Ogre is completely finished and they've said we won't see Car Wars before 2015.

So what took their place?

I think Mongoose was the English SJG for a while, with a wide range of RPG's and miniatures games though there was a lot of churn from 2000 to about 2010 or so.

I thought Kenzer was going there too with KODT and Kalamar and Hackmaster and some boardgames but they quieted down too in the last few years.

For me I think Pinnacle took over as the "smaller American game company doing interesting stuff." Between Deadlands, Hell on Earth, and Lost Colony they had a solid line and they had their Brave New World supers game for a while too. They then shifted over into Savage Worlds which is looking like GURPS in some ways when it comes to the product line - a nice mix of historical, fantasy, and generic support books that don't require a separate version of the core rules every time you start a new campaign. They don't really have boardgames but they do have miniatures and have had card games and seem to have some interest in expanding into other types of games as well. I like almost everything they do, and I can be pretty picky (and cheap)so that's saying something.

So to wrap up - I hope SJG continues on strong for as long as they desire. It's a little like an old girlfriend where things ended without big drama - people grow apart sometimes and while the interest isn't what  it once was I have no ill feelings toward them and generally wish them well. Maybe someday (like when they get back around to Car Wars) our interests will align again and we will see where things go. Some of us do remember them before they were the Munchkin company and hope to see them reclaim some of that status again.

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