Transcript of our podcast from 30 May 2009

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Boardgame/Computer Game Hybrid "Star Saga"

by Moritz Eggert

A few weeks ago I surprised Tom with an email that described in colourful prose in a probably very embarrassing flowery style the sexiness of a certain female scientist on a far, far away planet and how interesting it was to visit a theatre piece on one of this planet's moons together with her.

No, I have not become mad, as Tom probably thought, but I was playing a game called "Star Saga" with my friend Raphael Tehan via email, and one of these mails went to Tom accidentally. So what drove me into rambling like this? What is this game?

Some of the older listeners might remember the beginning of the computer game age, when games basically consisted of some lines of text and not much more. But even then there was an ambition of computer game designers to overcome the limitations of the genre, and thus the truly unique game called "Star Saga" came into existence.

"Star Saga" is what you would call a boardgame/computer game hybrid; this is why it is absolutely feasible to talk about it on this show. It came in a box with a large star map, pawns and several books containing endless adventure descriptions very similar in style to "choose your own adventure" books. Still, the heart of the game was the program itself, called the "Computer generated moderator", or short, CGM.

The game was developed by Masterplay and a group of designers around Andrew Greenberg, the inventor of "Wizardry" in 1988 and enjoyed some modest success so that a second part, "Star Saga II" was made. I had long heard about this game, which can still be found on abandonware websites if one looks really hard, and was always intrigued about trying it out, as it continues to be described by fans as one of the best science fiction games ever made.

A couple of months ago I decided to give it a try - Raphael and me waded through page after page of ancient instructions, and tried to install all the subprograms that were made by fans and make it possible to play the game via internet. Even starting the game turned out to be quite an effort, as one needs the freeware program Dosbox, otherwise it's not possible to run the program on modern computers. And the game asks you if you actually have a colour monitor as its first question!

But it was absolutely worth the effort, and right now we are in the middle of an epic game in which each of us plays an intrepid star farer and trader, exploring a vast galaxy of stars while trying to escape the evil pirate Silverbeard and trying to unravel an ancient cosmic mystery that has something to do with legendary star explorer Vanessa Chang, who mysteriously vanished centuries ago.

Intrigued? My short segment doesn't allow me to describe the game in all its detail and glory, but let me assure you that this game comes close to a work of art and is as well designed as a game as most contemporary board games. It also makes the most of the limited computer capabilities of the time.

Originally designed for 1-6 players gathering around a board and a computer and taking up to 80 hours if you try to play it live (which is only possible if you treat as a series of sessions of course) the game tries to create a working space simulation that includes trading, combat and adventure. Each of the players is equipped with a unique set of goals and a secret background, but all strive to be the winner, the first person who successfully ends the game. But the way there is fraught with peril and sweat.

Basically the game is played in turns - in live play each player would go to the computer and give up to 7 orders. These orders are mostly movement orders that use a simple colour code: The star map is made up of coloured triangles that never have the same colour adjacent so it is possible to give an exact route simply by typing in the first numbers of the colours, for example R Y G V for Red, Yellow, Green, Violet. Even though it is possible to have encounters in space (did I mention the pirate already?) most of the action takes place on the planets, each of which offers a range of actions that can also expand to more actions, just like in an adventure book. The feeling is very Star Trek like - each planet has its own vast history and background, and there are actually many hints at greater mysteries throughout the game. After each player has selected his or her actions, the CGM asks each player in turn to the screen - of course not literally, as computers didn't have any sound back then - and shows the results of these actions. These could be paragraphs, combat resolutions and also trading opportunities.

Each player races against the other players, so having a good balance of exploration, trading and equipping your ship against increasingly stronger foes is the key to winning. An interesting design feature is the total absence of any luck. To win a combat or a decisive situation a skill result of 100 is needed, and each skill has a success number between 0 and 50, depending not only on the skill or weapon but also on the situation in which it is used. So a plasma blaster might be useful against an alien lizard and have a strength of 50, but could have a strength of only 0 against a plasma energy creature. So one always needs more than one skill or weapon to succeed, but you have to learn which ones work in a given situation. As the players don't know these calculations there remains an aura of uncertainty.

The heart of the game is the paragraph descriptions detailing the various adventures and encounters. These come mostly in the books, but very often the CGM will offer additional options. Imagine a game book with 10000 paragraphs and you have a feeling for the vastness of this game. The prose is extremely vivid and well written, funny and poignant at the same time, just like the best science fiction novels, from which it takes many ideas. The text is so well written, that it actually puts to shame most prose writing in contemporary board- or computer games, that's how good it is. And there are absolutely no typos to be encountered anywhere!

As you can already guess I am really in love with this game - it is really worthwhile to seek out this old gem from times not so long past, and of course also it's sequel, the second part in a never finished trilogy. Making it work for play by email is a bit awkward but possible, and best of all: the game is basically free if you can find it, as the rights have long expired.

Please feel free to write to me as Eggo on Boardgamegeek if you have any questions regarding this fantastic and wonderful game. Until next time: Live Long and Prosper!

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2009, Westpark Gamers