I had an unusual exchange on Twitter the other day. Unusual because I (frankly) was a bit of a jerk to @beltalowda_ and unusual because I let popular sci-fi get under my skin.
First, the exchange:
I cut off my response because I was a bit of a jerk and talked down to @beltalowda_ (hey, if you’re reading this, sorry!).
The main point I was trying to make (on Twitter? I must be crazy!) is that science fiction and science fact don’t mix well, especially in the realm of gaming. Star Wars is nominally science fiction (I would argue it is more science fantasy but that is another, fruitless, discussion) and the games related to the franchise reflect that origin. Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game today is ranked as the #63 game overall on BoardGameGeek as well as the #7 Customizable Game (interestingly, Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures – The Force Awakens Core Set is ranked #4 in the Customizable Game category). These games use what gamers often refer to as “cinematic movement,” i.e. they fly about in space like airplanes. This is far different from what space combat will likely look like. Atomic Rockets, IMNSHO one of the best sites on the internet, devotes a whole section to Space War and what is closer to reality. For me, one of the hallmarks of a hard sci-fi game is the use of vector movement, ala (loosely) The Expanse.
Overall, The Expanse is better at hard sci-fi than many shows but even here there is a good deal of “handwavium” involved. Scott Manley on YouTube has made one of the better explanations so far:
My personal gaming experience has shown the same conflict between hard and popular sci-fi. I have bounced between hard (realistic?) sci-fi and more cinematic portrayals. Here is a list of a few games in my collection and how they looked at space combat:
- Star Fleet Battles (1979) – Based on the Joseph Franz Star Fleet Technical Manual this game is pure cinematic movement with barely a nod to reality
- Mayday (1980) – Two dimensional vector movement for Adventure Class Ships in the (Classic) Traveller RPG setting
- Book 5: High Guard (1980) – A supplement for (Classic) Traveller RPG it featured a highly abstracted game of starship combat suitable for Battle Class Ships
- Star Wars: Star Warriors (1987) – Full cinematic
- Star Cruiser (1987) – Hard sci-fi basis with vector movement
- Full Thrust (1992) – Choice of cinematic or vector movement; setting-less with a robust ship design rules
- Battle Rider (1994) – Vector movement for Traveller: The New Era RPG
- Babylon 5 Wars (1997) – Though the show featured “realistic” vector movement, the game was more akin to Star Fleet Battles (obvious parentage)
- Power Projection: Fleet (2003) – Vector movement given its basis on the Traveller RPG setting and Full Thrust
- Federation Commander (2006+) – Streamlined Star Fleet Battles but the same “in-universe” cinematic movement foundation
- Starmada: The Admiralty Edition (2008) – Choice of cinematic or vector movement; setting-less and robust ship design rules
- Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game (2012) – Pure cinematic
- Squadron Strike (2015) – Very realistic 3D portrayal; I am in the Kickstarter for very much delayed Squadron Strike: Traveller
- Triplanetary (2018) – Kickstarter delivery expected in July 2018 (a month ahead of schedule); vector movement around the Solar System
Finding the right balance between popular sci-fi and hard sci-fi gaming is tricky. For myself, games like Star Fleet Battles and its derivatives are fun because of the theme since when playing these games I am choosing theme over mechanics. Some of the more hard sci-fi games are fun with a bit or realism thrown in (like Mayday) but some go too far (Squadron Strike: Traveller) where the fun has a hard time overcoming the difficulty of rules and play.
The upside of all this is that the gaming scene is broad enough that either preference, cinematic or vector, can be accommodated. It’s a matter of choice, and the game industry is healthy enough to give us that choice. Even if I am choosing not to play.
Hattip to @TableTopBill who commented on my tweet with the title of this post.