Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Good Old Star Fleet Universe - The Future

The Future
The game had been on a downward spiral as far as my level of interest was concerned. A year or two back I introduced Apprentice Blaster by playing a game of Fed Commander with him and he was interested but it got swallowed up in 40K/Pathfinder/D&D time. Recently I was going through my box of SFB miniatures and decided to get them out and see what I could do with them and we both got interested again. We've played a short game now and he mentioned wanting to play more just this week (without being prompted by me) so that's a good sign.

There is a dark cloud though. He had really only seen the SSD's and some of the reference sheets. I picked up the reference rulebook when it looked like we were going to be playing some more. He looked at the cover and said "How old is this game?" - that's the cover up above. To me, it looks like a Star Fleet Universe cover, and that's the problem - it looks old. Most of their art looks pretty old or amateurish. It doesn't bother me that much, but it has to have an impact when people see it on the shelf next to other stuff.

When it comes to other Trek games, look at the packaging for Attack Wing up above.  If I didn't introduce the teenager to Fed Commander myself (to both actually) then I can tell you which one he would have picked up. Also, for the price of the Klingon Border starter set - which is rules, ship displays, counters, and mounted hex maps - you can get the AW starter plus another ship and have a couple of bucks left over. If you aren't already interested in FC for its own sake, the pre-painted mini's will win that one every time.

This makes me think there are really two issues here. 

1) The whole presentation looks dated. I know ADB is a small outfit and I know they made a lot of updates to the look with Federation Commander, but it still looks dated next to other current games.

Illustrations in the Fed Com big rulebook

2) They are stuck with a game line where their most recognizable iconic figures are from the 60's TV show, and there's no easy way to fix that. Sure, I think the original Constitution is a great-looking ship but there have been multiple Enterprises since then and a whole lot of Star Trek since then too, in addition to 50 years of changes in design in general. ADB's original creations (like the Lyrans or Hydrans) could be updated and revised and given a whole new look if they wanted to do so but no one outside the game knows anything about them. The "bring 'em in" shots are going to have the TOS Enterprise CA, the TOS Klingon D7, and the TOS Warbird and the TOS Tholians because legally that's all they can use from canon. How many teenagers today are going to a)recognize those and b) get excited about those like we did in the 80's?

I don;t know what the long-term outlook for the game is, but it feels like it's aimed at a shrinking group of people who think TOS is the main thing for Trek, and people who want a really detailed hex and counters board wargame  built around that. I don't know how you expand that group but one thing that might help would be a starter set for the game that included miniatures. Take another look at that Attack Wing set up there and picture it with a Fed CA, a D7, and a Kzinti Strike Cruiser, with red and white old school lettering and a Constitution-class CA as the main illustration. No, I can't see them going pre-painted, but it still might help aim people at the miniatures aspect of the game right from the start. Also, a rulebook built around gridless miniature play, in full-color, with some illustrations/diagrams would also help.

Again, I don't know for sure what the answer is - Federation Commander was definitely a step in the right direction. Miniatures are popular and cards are popular. Find a way to use those and I could see things expanding. Maybe a simplified game that uses cards for the ship information, something between Battleforce and the STAW cards (above) but still rolling on a chart for damage and manuvering over 8 "impulses" could work as an introduction.

Going beyond just Star Trek starship combat games there is a whole universe of competition out there, from Warhammer 40,000 type games to Fantasy Flight's big boxes to other niche board wargames like Command and Colors. Note that none of those are really pushing hex and counter games with complex rules that take six hours to play. There is a huge emphasis on simple rules, faster play, and tactile components of some kind, from wooden blocks to full-on miniatures.

Beyond even those, if I just want to "fly an Enterprise and shoot some Klingons", there is Star Trek Online, where I don't need to buy anything, I can be playing in minutes, and it looks amazing.

So there's a ton of competition for people's time and money and there are other ways to scratch the itch for Trek space combat there did not exist in the 80's when this all started. If I ask "why should my kid and I spend time playing this instead of one of those other options", the only answers I have are "familiarity" and "the universe". Let's leave familiarity/nostalgia aside as "my thing". The setting is tremendously well-developed - cultures, planets, ships, empires, technology - all have been explored in various sub-games of the SFU and it makes for a very interesting alternate universe for Star Trek. Anything you can do to promote that as a strength is a good move I think. There is the large-scale game of Federation and Empire, the tactical games of FC and SFB, the card game of SFBF, and the RPG of Prime Directive - which has some problems. Get the RPG and a ground combat miniatures game going, and you have an awesome array of options to explore this universe. Expanding .. .

RPG: The original Prime Directive was mechanically terrible though interesting in concept, and it's a great name for a game. There was a d20 version also which did not last long and looked pretty bad to me. A GURPS version was developed as well but GURPS has almost gone dormant in the last ten years, which is not helping things. They have been talking about a Traveller version for a few years now, and supposedly it's now a priority with ADB, and that could be a really good game. With no other Trek RPG on the shelves right now, coming out with a Trek game tied to the Traveller name could be a real win. A good RPG will help people discover your setting and fall in love with it, people that have no interest in SFB. Write it, support it, and aim it at people who don't know the universe and there's a venue for some real growth.

Again with the cartoon art but I think there is potential here for something

Ground Combat: ADB talks about Star Fleet Marines as a game on it's own but I don't think they see it as a miniatures game necessarily. A 40K-style man-to-man scifi combat game with miniatures would open up some new options and draw in some new people as well, bringing even more life to the setting. Keep the rules on the simple/fast-play side, support it, talk to  40K/warmahordes players and you could have a real winner out there. I think an emphasis on ship boarding actions would help differentiate from the other games too, and that would keep it tied to the core of the setting as well.

So despite my pessimism on some areas of the setting, I see some real future potential for the Star Fleet Universe. I've been rediscovering it myself over the past month and have worked my way through things to this point. I am cautiously optimistic, and will be trying to restore my own little pocket of SFU-awareness with the Apprentices and maybe some friends as well.


Adam Dickstein said...

I've held my tongue on this one...but no more!

The problem I see is it's hard to get excited over a knock-off.

The Star Fleet Battles games, and universe, have always bugged me. It's a wannabe Star Trek universe that was able to exist purely because of a hole in the copyright laws of the time.

How is it that this game is still allowed to exist? The rebel in me looks at it and says, "Good for you! Sock it to the man!" The Star Trek fan in me looks around, sees no official Star Trek RPG game right now, and wonders how the heck this cheap copy gets to be on the game shelves.

Also, the fact that it is, and isn't Star Trek, is very confusing to newbies and veterans alike. When one group wants to use Lyrans and another goes, "What the devil are Lyrans?", it just further muddies and already muddy continuity (Thanks Paramount. Thanks JJ. Jerks).

Bottom line, it may have potential, but should it? I guess there's room for everything, and if people like it it's not for me to say it shouldn't exist, but I never liked it and don't see myself ever playing it again. If I want to play Star Trek, I will play Star Trek, not 60's-Show-You-Know-With-The-Numbers-Filed-Off.

Besides, the Attack Wing pieces look awesome!

HoldFast said...

Hello all! Long time SFB player here. It should be noted that many of the hardcore players have moved to the online version of the game. It can be played as play-by-email or in real time with a virtual tabletop. Certainly, makes it easier to find players.

I got out of the game in the late 1990's. I tried to sell my extensive collection but couldn't find a buyer. At that point, I was certain the game was gone for good or close to it. So, I bequeathed the entire lot to a fellow gamer who proceeded to find a buyer who bought it all for $400. Bad call on my part!

So here we are mid-2010's and still talking and playing the game. I think you are correct in your analysis of the current status. And I really don't think the ADB understands how dated their newest products appear on a shelf in a FLGS. Nevertheless, there is still a heartbeat and loyal players. I ran a Prime Directive game a few years back at it was alot of fun! Obsidian Portal page here

Attack Wing looks interesting and I haven't played it yet. But, the figure for the TOS Enterprise is embarrassingly small! I realize the publisher is attempting to keep the ship in correct proportions to the Enterprise-D, but seriously, who buys that choking hazard of a ship!