Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Solving The Problems of Science Fiction Skirmish Games

 The problem of Space Skirmish games

There are solutions!

Most games of man-to-man space combat are part of larger game systems. Some are within the realm of one science fiction story or series. Others are so-called “universal” systems like GURPS that are part of complex and nerdy role playing games.  A simple battle game which used characters from a variety of sci-fi might seem impossible.

Let us look at characters from popula r science fiction series who engage in battle. They all have several things in common. They can engage the enemy by weapons that shoot, various bombs and boobytraps, or weapons that are used in hand-to-hand combat.  A character may confront an enemy by shooting him, blowing him up, or fighting with hand-held striking weapons.

Aside from a few weird weapons that might appear occasionally, it was really quite standard. There was not much difference in performance from the early pistol-sized Federation Phasers, Klingon Pistol, Han Solo’s Blaster and the pistols favored by Farscape’s John Crichton. The same goes for larger man-carried weapons. Larger blasters shaped like rifles or submachine guns can fire longer, further, and do more damage. Fire a blaster pistol in a hallway and there is not much damage to structures. Fire some of the larger weapons and you get a big hole in the wall. That applied whether it was an Imperial Stormtrooper’s big blaster or a Marine’s heavy rifle in “Space: Above and Beyond.”

Most of the adversaries in science fiction, especially the stories that make it to movies and television, are hominid in shape. Two arms, two legs, a head on the torso, etc. Height is within the 4 to 7 foot range, with a few extremes either way. There are not many special abilities between these science fiction species. They may have special talents, such as the Mind Meld, but such are not germane to space battle games. Those talents are best relegated to role playing games. One would be hard put to use a Mind Meld in the middle of a phaser fight. So it is that most SciFi species are pretty evenly matched. Because of greater strength, a Vulcan may get a bonus in hand-to-hand combat. A Nebari like Farscape’s Chiana may get a bonus for speed and agility, but would get a deficit when it came to absorbing damage. Dargo of the same series might get a bonus for close combat because of his size and warrior status. These are small and very specialized differences. They could easily be accounted for in a set of battle-game rules.

So far as I have seen, most of the characters from science fiction live within certain limits. They have physical bounds that are on a par with humans. A few differences may seem more telling, such as the Chigs of “Space: Above and Beyond” needing a different atmosphere than us. Most differences are in customs, appearance and temperament. If we look at our favorite SciFi series, we see that the aliens are just weird people with strange customs and bizarre physical features. Compare the Peacekeepers of Farscape with Star Wars’ Rebels and Stormtroopers or Star Trek’s Klingons, Cardassians and Ferengi.

While the usual ray pistols and rifles exist, what of other munitions? I suspect there will be grenades of various types, both hand thrown and launched. These may be propelled by some sort of bazooka or other launcher. There may even be a grenade that, when thrown, sets off a rocket and propels itself. Grenades will explode conventionally, be they fragmentary, concussion or incendiary. Other types may emit radioactive waves or other energy.

Hand-held weapons still require folks to get close and swing or thrust or slash away. Combat spacemen may do the equivalent of fix bayonets or swing an entrenching tool.  The fancy light sabers look wild and exotic, but in the end they still rely on good, old fashioned swordsmanship. A fighter with a solid weapon may have to duck rather than block a light saber. He is still in the fight and his light-wielding adversary is in as much danger of getting hit as he is.

The way to handle the similarities and differences varies. Lazerblade, a small skirmish game for science fiction miniatures, uses its own point system. There are a standard number of points per figure. A player can use additional points to add abilities, armor, weapons, etc. The system is versatile enough to accommodate most science fiction characters. Recently, on the Lazerblade blog, Neil announced two new rules: Hive Mind and Acid Splash. These were inspired by the Alien series of movies. He figured the appropriate points for an Alien of that type. Acid Splash is drawn from the way they explode into a splash of caustic stuff when killed with sufficient force. That is a pretty versatile system that can cover most characters and adapt to new ones.

Another way is to adapt the character-making system of a pair of old board games, Melee and Wizard. The original game was for ancient, medieval and fantasy characters. We can use a similar system for space weapons and gear. Melee merely covered physical attributes. Wizard added Intelligence. The game gave a player 32 points to spread between Strength, Dexterity and Intelligence, with the caveat that each had to be a minimum of 8 points. Strength determined what weapons could be wielded and how much armor could be worn, plus the amount of damage a character could withstand. Dexterity was agility, his speed and ability to maneuver and make changes. In Wizard, Intelligence determined what spells a character could learn and how much he could resist certain ploys by his opponents. In a space game, intelligence might reflect on what equipment a man could use and how well he could figure out problems.

Melee and Wizard focused on individual characters. The system could be extended to cover character types, say a human Starship Trooper squad composed of regular soldiers, an officer and a heavy weapons team. Thus, using points, a player could construct a squad using troops with certain already-known point values. Points would not be for individual characters, but character types in one’s force.

I am currently working on several OMOG supplements, among them one for Space games. That has been an off-and-on project for about a year now.(Others in the works are Ancient and Samurai supplements to OMOK and a Colonial supplement for OMOG 19C) Using the OMOG movement system with additions for space, it will be a squad-level game for 9 to 15 soldiers per side, I am also considering a space game based on the Melee / Wizard type point systems. The problem with the OMOG supplement would be trying to devise a point system.

The OMOG space supplement is intended to work with Star Trek (Original Series, Next Generation, DS9 and Enterprise), Star Wars, Space 1999, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Starship Troopers, Space Above and Beyond, Alien, Firefly, Farscape and others. The challenge is to be inclusive without over-complicating things.


One way of dealing with abilities and such is a numbering system. This is based on various abilities a specific character may have. The system can be adjusted to account for the many different characters one may find in science fiction stories. There are things like agility, speed, strength, hand-to-hand combat skill, aimed weapons skill, etc.

The first coherent system like that was something I encountered almost 40 years ago. Back then, a small company called Metagaming had released small board-type games. The games fit in a small, clear plastic pouch and usually included a rule book, small dice, cardboard punch-out game counters and a printed heavy paper playing field. The whole package could fit in a #10 envelope. I tried a game of theirs entitled “Melee”. It was a simple, fast and easy game where players created characters. Metagaming created a few games that a person could use Melee to play alone. One was “Death Test.” It had a rule book and playing field plus extra counters. Another was a “search for the Grail” game. You needed Melee or Wizard to play either.

Melee started with developing your character. You started with 24 points and had to allot them to Dexterity and Strength. Neither aspect could be less than 8 points. Strength determined what weapon your player could yield and how much armor your character had. Armor protected, but it also impeded Dexterity. With Melee, you could create fantastic or historical characters. The other related game, Wizard, used the same system with an extra item.  A player of Wizard started with 32 points to be allotted between Dexterity, Strength and Intelligence.  The aspect of Intelligence determined which spells a player could learn.

One might suppose that according to Melee, the average human would be 12 and 12. A Nebari may have a Dexterity of 14 and a strength of 10, whereas A Luxan might have just the opposite: Strength 14, Dexterity 10.



Point systems dealing with each individual’s characteristics work best in games with nine or fewer characters per side. Four to six is a happy medium. This is because the player has to remember all of his character’s abilities in order to devise a winning strategy. While it is good to have a minimum number of points per character, the rest of the point allotment can be doled out as desired. Points can also assure a fair game. For instance, a game could be determined to have 100 points and five players per side. If the rules demanded that the minimum points per character were five, then there would be forty free points to allot as one desired. The excellent Space skirmish game Laserblade uses this type system.

All of this is speculation. The actual development of the OMOG Space supplement is still in the works. Unlike Laserblade, the emphasis is on a squad type action with 8 to 15 figures. Rather than a team composed of individuals with various abilities, OMOG will be geared to a type of soldier / warrior fighting a small-unit action.


Why would the size of futuristic personal weapons affect the potential damage they can do? It is really a matter of physics. A hand-held weapon, be it a palm-sized pocket phaser like the original Star Trek to a heavy blaster rifle, is limited. The amount of energy it can carry, contain and withstand varies with size. A small phaser would be able to carry a much smaller power supply than a large rifle. Also, a weapon has to be able to contain the power and expend it with minimal wear on itself. A pocket phaser would not be able to handle much without burning itself out and possibly injuring the operator. A heavy rifle could dissipate heat, contain the power and focus a stronger beam.

Anyone who has handled a machine gun knows how hot the barrel can get, especially with sustained fire. This is why machine guns, from light to heavy, have thicker barrels. Various methods were used to keep barrels cool. Even handguns can get hot. Pistols heat up quickly when fired rapidly. The barrels of rifles get warm after enough shots are fired in rapid succession.  Therefore, it stands to reason that energy weapons would have the same problem. The bigger the weapon and the stronger its blast, the more heat it would generate. A smaller, weaker weapon would generate less heat. So it is that the more powerful the weapon, the more heat it must contain.

Of course, large energy weapons would need to have cooling / power managing systems built into them. Energy weapons generate more heat than conventional firearms. Again, the larger the device, the larger the system. A rifle-sized ray gun could handle a blast that would put a hole through a metal door. A pistol sized gun could not carry nor handle that much energy.

Even with the more compact power supplies, miniaturized energy-handling systems plus superior heat-resisting and heat-dissipating materials, size will still matter.

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