In my real life I work for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company that’s increasingly becoming an online entertainment company. Our newest site, which I launched last week, is Xenagia, a community site all about fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Thus far we’ve got a forum and a book index, with plans to add reviews in a couple of weeks.
(And, if you’re interested in the topics, please stop on by, as we’re working hard to create a community, particularly on the forums.)
Because of my work on Xenagia, I’ve been largely immersed in these three genres over the last couple of weeks, and that’s what led to this article, talking about science-fiction and fantasy (and to a lesser extent, horror) in gaming.
A Brief History
Fantasy and science-fiction have, of course, been around for quite some time. Frankenstein (1818) is often referenced as one of the earliest entrants to the genre, but it took until the 20th century for more regular publication to occur. H.P. Lovecraft was writing great pulp science-fiction/horror stories in the 1920s and 1930s, then Robert E. Howard’s Conan appeared in 1932 and Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and Gray Mouser appeared in 1940.
However it wasn’t until the 1960s that genre fiction burst into the mass market, and that was thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien. His famous Lord of the Rings first appeared in Britain in 1954 and 1955 and received some slight attention. Then in the 1960s it appeared in the United States, first in an illegal edition from Ace Books, then in an authorized Ballantine Books edition.
It was that later Ballantine edition that was discovered en masse by the Baby Boomers. Suddenly “Frodo Lives!” pins popped up at anti-war demonstrations and at love-ins. Tolkien’s books became a touchstone for the generation, and they were just a part of a burgeoning flock of science-fiction and fantasy publications that achieved wider success than their niche predecessors. Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and the Lancer/Ace Conan books (1966-1977) were others that thus escaped into the mainstream.
The gaming field reacted to this in the 1970s when young designers brought up on these post-war science fiction and fantasy stories started creating games in their image. To that date all hobbyist game design in the United States had been centered on wargames. Now, however, a new game appeared that was more focused on individual characters and continuing games. That was Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons (1973).
Gygax and Arneson weren’t the only wargame publishers that had been moving toward fantasy and science-fiction publication. Newcomers like Metagaming Concepts and GDW, all influenced by the new cultural landscape of the 1960s, were edging into this area as well. Even older stalwart SPI was trying out genre games. However it was the success of D&D that would turn the whole hobbyist gaming industry on its ear, leading everyone to start publishing genre games in increasing numbers.
And that is what ultimately leads us today’s gaming landscape, and its peculiar relationship to fantasy and science-fiction.
The Genres Today
In today’s hobbyist gaming market there are broadly two types of games.
The Anglo-American designs ultimately derive from those wargaming and roleplaying origins. Today most Anglo-American board game publishers — including names such as Steve Jackson Games, Atlas Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and Wizards of the Coast (through Hasbro’s Avalon Hill imprint) — were originally RPG publishers. The designers’ ideas about game design are thus usually based on decades of American hobbyist publications. Because of those origins, they also tend toward the science-fiction and fantasy themes. As I’ve written elsewhere Anglo-America games are usually theme-heavy and mechanics-light. The games often lean toward the simulationistic, giving up simplicity for realism.
The German designs, meanwhile, derive ultimately (I think) from the SdJ, Germany’s game of the year award. Thanks to powerful economic incentives the SdJ has encouraged a very specific type of game design which is generally lighter and more casual — and which typically has better designed and more carefully considered mechanics but less theming. And, the German games have typically avoided science-fiction and fantasy themes, partially because of their orientation toward the mass (German) market and partially because they don’t have the historical origins in those genres than the Anglo-American hobbyist market does.
And from those two core types of games spawn a third: the hybrids. These are games published in countries other than the United States, Britain, or Germany. Without the institutional rules set by historical precedent, they’re more able to pick and choose among the two major design schools. Thus games coming out of France and Italy in particular have been more free to use fantasy and science-fiction themes, but with abstract and polished Germanic mechanics. Increasingly American companies are also moving in this direction, with games from Atlas and Fantasy Flight in particular showing German design influence matched with more American themes.
And with that overview out of the way, let me briefly mention my top ten fantasy, science-fiction, and horror games, with some attention paid to where they came from.
I expected to have troubles coming up with top-rate fantasy games, but as it turns out there are a number that I was able to name without regrets. Fantasy Flight’s superb wargame A Game of Thrones probably belongs here too, but I’ve instead given the space over to the more fantastical offerings. Fairy Tale and Dragon’s Gold are two games that just barely missed my cut off for this list.
Descent. Anglo-American design, Fantasy Flight Games. A member of the adventure game genre, which has traditionally presented board games that are very similar to roleplaying games, thanks to the play of individual characters. Descent is quite simply the best of class. Each game you push your characters through a dungeon while the gamemaster throws monsters at you. If you can accomplish the goals, you win. It’s a bit on the long-side, but has superb mechanics and ever better theming.
Dungeon Twister. Hybrid French design, Asmodee Editions. My favorite game from its year of publication, and one I’d play a lot more if I had more 2-player game opportunities. An excellent tactical game that’s based on the careful allocation of resources as you try and kill your opponents’ characters and get your own through the dungeon. Also wonderfully themed, thanks to the colorful characters and great art that you can expect from Asmodee. Really shows off the benefits of hybridized game design. [ Reviews ]
Grand Tribunal. Hybrid Anglo-American design, Atlas Games. I include this game primarily because you probably haven’t heard of it, and it’s worth some attention. Based on Atlas’ superb Ars Magica RPG, Grand Tribunal is a Princes of Florence-like resource-management game where you’re constantly trying to create the best magic items. It’s got some American take-that play, but also some solid core mechanics. [ Review ]
Lord of the Rings. German design, Fantasy Flight. The smartest move Sophisticated Games made after getting the Lord of the Rings license was signing up Reiner Knizia to design some of their games. I’m talking here primarily about Knizia’s superb cooperative board game which is probably the best game of its sort on the market, and which is always tight, tough, and heartbreaking. Every one of its three supplements is good too. [ Reviews ]
Wiz-War. Anglo-American design, Chessex. This is an entirely old school design which is fun because it’s chaotic and surprising, not because the mechanics are particularly good. You’re a wizard in a dungeon. You have two treasures. So does every other player/wizard. If you can get two other treasures to your home base, you win. The game can last for hours or minutes, which is another deficit, but there’s still nothing like playing a double-double-strength sudden death on an opponent without defenses. Long, long out of print but Chessex swears they’re going to have their full-color new edition out any day now; they’ve been saying that for about a decade, however. (Perhaps stupidly, I’m pretty sure they’re really close this time.) [ Since released by FFG in a new edition -SA ]
Though high-quality fantasy games are well-represented, I can’t say the same of science-fiction. The following games are all good, but none of them reach the heights of Descent, Dungeon Twister, and Lord of the Rings, which are all superb exemplars of the fantasy genre. I know some people would include Starship Catan and Spacefarers of Catan in this listing, but they’ve generally struck me as too long and some of the weaker members of the Catan franchise, and don’t rate as high for me as anything included below.
Blue Moon & Blue Moon City. German design, Fantasy Flight Games. Are they really science fiction? Probably not, but given the good science-fiction games are pretty slim pickings, I’ve included them here. At the least they’re science fantasy, that amorphous blend of genre that lies somewhere between the one and the other. Though distinct games, Blue Moon and Blue Moon City share a setting, and Reiner Knizia did a great job on both designs, really highlighting the alien races and making them unique and interesting. Blue Moon is a good 2-player CCG-like game, while Blue Moon City is a great resource-management game. [ Reviews ]
Diceland. Anglo-American design, Cheapass Games. Here’s another one that I’m betting not many people have seen. This is a game played with huge 12-sided cardboard dice that you toss around the table in an effort to destroy your opponents’ pieces. It’s largely dexterity based and has some very clever mechanisms. [ Reviews ]
Light Speed. Anglo-American design, Cheapass Games. There’s almost nothing to this 5-10 minute game of rapid card placement. You try and play your cards in such a way as to blow up enemy ships and keep yourself protected. However, it’s fast and original, and it has spaceships on the cards. [ Review ]
Mission: Red Planet. Hybrid French design, Asmodee Editions. Another good design from Asmodee, clearly showing that they’re willing to put out lots of genre games, where German companies haven’t been. This is majority-control with a few twists and goes into my “one-hour El Grande” category. Terrific design, and fun steampunk theming. [ Review ]
Just as there was a step-down from fantasy to science-fiction in number and quality of games, I think the same is true from science-fiction to horror. I almost left this category blank entirely. I know some people would include Betrayal at House on the Hill (which I find entirely random and poorly produced) and Fury of Dracula (which I’ve never played due to length) [ I’ve since played it and would add it to the list -SA ]. Beyond that, there isn’t a lot exciting in horror, though I’ve played some cute themed card games, and any number of amusing (but not well-designed) Lovecraftian games.
Arkham Horror. Anglo-American design, Fantasy Flight Games. And my sole entrant in horror is actually Lovecraftian too, specifically Fantasy Flight’s second edition of Richard Launius’ Call of Cthulhu board game. Kevin Wilson did a great job in this new edition of making the game more evocative and colorful and generally improved the design as well. Though the game is loooong my RPG group has always enjoyed playing it. [ Reviews, including some other Cthulhu games ]
If you disagree or think I missed the best f/sf/h game ever, the comment link should be right below …
Author’s Note: I added a few notes to the article proper, above. Beyond that, I’d say my history of science-fiction and fantasy board gaming is a bit simplistic here. There were indeed very few fantasy games before D&D, but there was a larger smattering of mostly amateur science-fiction board games. I write about it more in my history of Metagaming Concepts in my upcoming second edition of Designers & Dragons. —SA, 1/10/13