Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

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Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby Graywulffe on Sun 29 May 2016 00:19

Hi All,

I am new to the list, and do not know how active I will be as I am quite busy, but right now I feel compelled to post a few thoughts.

What brings me here currently is that I have been learning the Python programming language. I have been picking various projects for practice and I remembered a project I began a long time ago--the 1980s--to write a ship-building program in BASIC. I only got partway done on that project before moving on to other things. So, decades later, I wrote it in Python, using the original Starfire-I rules, and added fleet construction on top of single ship creation. Some extra gray hairs later, the program works better than I had hoped, and I have had fun making ships with the final product being neatly organized and printed control sheets. I am aware that there are other such programs--my goal was not to make something new, but mainly to practice Python (learn something new) programming while working with topic that interested me.

As I poured over the old well-worn Starfire rulebook, my curiosity brought me to look into the game online to see what had happened over the many years that had passed. I had no idea that Task Force Games had folded--maybe I heard about it at the time, but that memory had faded. I looked into Starfire online a few years ago and knew there were websites, and so I pulled them up again and found this forum.

My older brother bought the game I have way back in 1980. This was when I first played Starfire. In the beginning I was not super interested in the game. My brother had to coax me and even after playing Scenario 1, I was still not convinced. It took a few more tries before I became hooked. We played all the scenarios, though I think we never did complete the final big battle but had fun during play nevertheless, and then with challenges of our own. Eventually we bought Starfire-II and discovered the devastating power of fighters. The beautiful simplicity of the ship construction and the streamlined combat rules made for lots of fun play.

What the old rulebook brings to mind is an era of board gaming that seems to have largely disappeared. Where I lived, I would find Starfire at a local bookstore among a whole host of unique and rather inexpensive games displayed on a magazine rack. I encountered many of the first versions (or near-first) of various games there, including Car Wars, Star Fleet Battles (I still have this one) and Attack of the Mutants. We also purchased other games whose titles I cannot remember, including a simulation of WW-II fleet battles, a martial arts game and a spaceship racing game. There seemed to be a huge amount of experimentation with game designs back then, with much variety. These games were all generally packaged in plastic zip-lock bags and you usually had to buy the dice separately--no problem as we had so many dice. I cannot recall what the games cost, but it certainly was not as much as I regularly spent at the video arcade next door. Currently, I have three copies of Starfire-II and two of I, plus a copy of III (Empires), nearly all kept from those early days. We bought multiple copies to get more maps and counters. Plus it was always handy to have multiple rulebooks while playing.

Today, when I enter a game store it seems like so many games (not all as there are exceptions) are now in much bigger packaging--boxes--and they routinely cost ~$40-60. There were boxed sets in 1980, I am thinking Avalon Hill as one example and certain role-playing games, but the variety of the more modest lower-cost games was huge. I doubt that when I was a child I would have bought three copies of the same game at today's prices, even allowing for the devaluation of currency over time. Something has been lost, probably largely due to marketing strategies.

The last time I played Starfire was in 2000 where I would occasionally bring it to a small games group where I tested out different ship designs and fleet configurations with one other player. Now that I have written the Python program, I hope to play again, probably with some family over the summer. Thus my program will be play tested as other people who are not as familiar with the rules create some ships. I intend to keep the game largely true to the first rulebook, as this is where it all began.

Thanks for reading this rather long post.

-best
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby southwestforests on Mon 30 May 2016 15:34

Graywulffe wrote:Today, when I enter a game store it seems like so many games (not all as there are exceptions) are now in much bigger packaging--boxes--and they routinely cost ~$40-60. There were boxed sets in 1980,
Yes, will have to say the 1980s were a unique and fun time for games where you can touch and smell the actual game pieces.
Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator web page says that 2016 forty dollars is the equivalent of 1980's thirteen dollars and change.
http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby aramis on Mon 30 May 2016 18:33

The boxed set was around $15... when I got it in 1984. 1" thick 9x12" box.
The shrinkwrapped digest-sized games were $8 or $9. (I got them around the same time.)
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby Cralis on Tue 31 May 2016 11:35

Another thing to consider is that most modern games have plastic models, fancy game boards, and quite often cards. Most of the games I bought in the '80s and '90s had paper maps and cardboard counters. Ostensibly this is to make them appeal to the newer, younger folk who can't believe we don't have holographic (aka computer driven) board games yet.

Even those old time games are updating this way; for example, Ogre Designer's Edition. It's a beautiful game. But it would never have sold 20+ years ago.
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby aramis on Tue 31 May 2016 22:29

Cralis wrote:Another thing to consider is that most modern games have plastic models, fancy game boards, and quite often cards. Most of the games I bought in the '80s and '90s had paper maps and cardboard counters. Ostensibly this is to make them appeal to the newer, younger folk who can't believe we don't have holographic (aka computer driven) board games yet.

Even those old time games are updating this way; for example, Ogre Designer's Edition. It's a beautiful game. But it would never have sold 20+ years ago.

Yes, it would have. It wouldn't have sold to the old players, but it's quite likely it would have sold anyway.

First, it would have been about half the cost - about $50, maybe $60 - because the cost of paper (and wood) more than doubled since 1995. (and the chipboard is still, essentially paper.)

Secondly, the mid 90's are the height of the plastic minis craze. Games Workshop was selling plastic minis for (in 1990) $10 a squad of 10, in 1995 for about $25 per squad of 10.

Third, a number of other games did just fine with fold-up-box faux-minis and with cardboard standups directly comparable to ODE's Ogres during the 1985-1995 window - Battletech, Mekton, Renegade Legion, Blood Bowl, Talisman.... SFB had just released the Megahex line of way-oversized (1") counters and maps in 1996. Finally matching the quality of the 1980's STIII Tactical Operations Simulator board game from FASA.

Fourth, the dollar was fairly strong, but not too strong. And a number of board games in the $50 range sold quite well... Supremacy, for one. Space Hulk. Blood Bowl. In the $35-$40 range we had a bunch of boxed wargames. And the Warhammer Army boxes were coming out in the $100 range - paint-n-play.

Fifth, computer gaming was not yet the prime industry it is now. It was just startign to really compete. The first generation of adults who grew up with home video games was just getting into the buying public.

It's the method by which it sold that wasn't available then... Kickstarter. And SJG wouldn't have made it back then because they were nearly out of business from the FBI raid.

A large portion of the games I played a lot in the 80's had hard maps; Supremacy, Axis and Allies, Shogun, Invasion:America, Space Hulk, Dune, Advanced Civilization, Diplomacy (hate the game, love the components), several of the AH titles (the rest of the AH had heavy coverstock). The cardstock maps were SFB and Starfire - and TFG was notoriously low-budget; it was their niche. But it wasn't the only thing going.
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby LordKron on Wed 01 Jun 2016 05:13

Battletech had the card stock maps. They went to paper later. As far as hard maps go, don't forget ASL. Many players would buy extra maps boards just to recreate massive battles (the largest I did was close to a full battalion of US infantry vs Germans).
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby Cralis on Wed 01 Jun 2016 10:45

aramis wrote:
Cralis wrote:Even those old time games are updating this way; for example, Ogre Designer's Edition. It's a beautiful game. But it would never have sold 20+ years ago.

Yes, it would have. It wouldn't have sold to the old players, but it's quite likely it would have sold anyway.


I'm not saying that a game like ODE would have had no sales, but it would not be as successful or would there be as many like that as they are now. Find a new, widely popular game today that has _counters_. It's completely relegated to war gaming, and most of them (including the SDS) have either moved to miniatures or are trying to move to miniatures.

First, it would have been about half the cost - about $50, maybe $60 - because the cost of paper (and wood) more than doubled since 1995. (and the chipboard is still, essentially paper.)


And real incomes have changed as well. You don't get one without the other. More importantly, more people are spending a larger portion of their incomes on entertainment and less on things like savings, assets, and retirement. At least, in the "under 40" group.

Secondly, the mid 90's are the height of the plastic minis craze. Games Workshop was selling plastic minis for (in 1990) $10 a squad of 10, in 1995 for about $25 per squad of 10.


Here you are talking about miniature games. Most miniatures were pewter back then, plastic was only just replacing pewter in the early '90s and primarily because of the furor over lead in the environment (which has apparently been a big, if not majority reason, for crime rates to have started plummeting back then... and still are)

Third, a number of other games did just fine with fold-up-box faux-minis and with cardboard standups directly comparable to ODE's Ogres during the 1985-1995 window - Battletech, Mekton, Renegade Legion, Blood Bowl, Talisman.... SFB had just released the Megahex line of way-oversized (1") counters and maps in 1996. Finally matching the quality of the 1980's STIII Tactical Operations Simulator board game from FASA.


This makes my point for me. Back then hardcore gamers like us preferred function over form and only had a little free income to spend on it. Now-a-days, just try and get an under 30 gamer to play with... with... what the heck are those cardboard squares? And is this game so cheap and pathetic that it can't even make cheap plastic pieces or at least wooden shapes?

It's a much different environment with the younglings. I read an article a few years ago that they estimated the average war gamer's age was around 40. Miniatures was low thirties. But with card games it was low 20's. Unless you meant games using a standard 52-card bicycle cards, then it was back into the 40's again. Computer games start in the single digits and run into the elderly, so in that respect you're right about computer games. This was an article about why board game companies were moving to computer games btw.

And don't just take my word for it. I am an original kickstarter for Ogre Designer's Edition. Steve Jackson straight-up said in his intro video to the kickstarter that ODE would have sunk his company in it's prime back then. For a number of reasons.

Fourth, the dollar was fairly strong, but not too strong. And a number of board games in the $50 range sold quite well... Supremacy, for one. Space Hulk. Blood Bowl. In the $35-$40 range we had a bunch of boxed wargames. And the Warhammer Army boxes were coming out in the $100 range - paint-n-play.


You really need to separate the board game and miniature markets for that time period. Miniatures (and especially Games Workshop miniatures) were so expensive to get into that few miniature gamers played anything else.

Fifth, computer gaming was not yet the prime industry it is now. It was just startign to really compete. The first generation of adults who grew up with home video games was just getting into the buying public.


As I mentioned above. IMHO computer games are the reason for the decline of board games and war games specifically.

It's the method by which it sold that wasn't available then... Kickstarter.


* method by which it was funded. It is selling in game stores just fine next to Twilight Imperium, Power Grid, The WOW board game, and all the other modern board games I've been talking about.

And SJG wouldn't have made it back then because they were nearly out of business from the FBI raid.


Totally different issue that has nothing to do with the board gaming market.

A large portion of the games I played a lot in the 80's had hard maps; Supremacy, Axis and Allies, Shogun, Invasion:America, Space Hulk, Dune, Advanced Civilization, Diplomacy (hate the game, love the components), several of the AH titles (the rest of the AH had heavy coverstock). The cardstock maps were SFB and Starfire - and TFG was notoriously low-budget; it was their niche. But it wasn't the only thing going.


I've either own(ed) or have played almost every game on that list.

But funny you mention Avalon Hill. Where are they at these days? For that matter, what about Task Force Games? Victory Games?

Few of those companies still exist today.
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby aramis on Thu 02 Jun 2016 04:50

Everyone I know is spending a higher portion of their income on rents than they were in the 1990's. In the 90's, my rents were 50% of my income; if I held the same level job now, the same apartment would be 120% of my income - and I'm already accounting for the fact that I split the costs in half by having a roommate.

Most gamers I know buy fewer products per month now than in the 90's.

And most of my gaming friends have gone to fewer hours a week gaming; even the college kids I game with have a lower proportion of of their income available for spending that my friends and I - again, due to rents and food costs having gone up more than incomes.

Ogre Minis came out in the early 90's, too. They sold well enough - but SJG didn't have the capital to capitalize on it. Still, from about 1992-1998, Ogre Minis was the default Ogre ruleset. Chipboard counters and nice cardstock maps would have done rather well. Megahex for SFB did. And it sold in parallel to SFB minis.
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby Cralis on Thu 02 Jun 2016 14:56

aramis wrote:Everyone I know is spending a higher portion of their income on rents than they were in the 1990's. In the 90's, my rents were 50% of my income; if I held the same level job now, the same apartment would be 120% of my income - and I'm already accounting for the fact that I split the costs in half by having a roommate.

Most gamers I know buy fewer products per month now than in the 90's.


Interesting. It could be a number of reasons (average age, location, economic conditions, etc.) but most people I know are either home owners or moving towards it because it costs less than renting (and you gain equity). This is obviously going to be subjective based on the same factors I mentioned above.

And most of my gaming friends have gone to fewer hours a week gaming; even the college kids I game with have a lower proportion of of their income available for spending that my friends and I - again, due to rents and food costs having gone up more than incomes.


Wow. I went back to school from 2007-2011 and the kids there spent far more money than I did on entertainment: movies, parties, hobbies, computer games... very few on board games. Yes rents are larger, but the younglings seem to be spender a far higher percentage of their income on entertainment than I did during the same time period.

Really all of this is subjective. Very easy to fall into the confirmation bias, which I fully admit may be the case for where I'm at. Bottom line: no matter how much anyone is spending on entertainment, the industry seems to agree that less are spending them on board games, and even less on war games.

So you'll have to forgive that I'm working on a number of different projects at the same time. I'm hoping that at least one of these may be something that appeals to more players :)

Ogre Minis came out in the early 90's, too. They sold well enough - but SJG didn't have the capital to capitalize on it. Still, from about 1992-1998, Ogre Minis was the default Ogre ruleset. Chipboard counters and nice cardstock maps would have done rather well. Megahex for SFB did. And it sold in parallel to SFB minis.


And both are considered miniatures games at that point. SFB never broke out of it. ODE kind of changed the mix, although it did rejuvenate their Ogre miniature sales.

I think that miniatures are more popular because they are more tangible, at least, that what my own younglings tell me. The downside is that getting them fully into the market is extremely costly.
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Re: Some Thoughts on Starfire and Gaming in the 1980s

Postby LordKron on Thu 02 Jun 2016 17:40

SFB hasn't been a true miniatures game in decades. At best it's been a hybrid (similar to Battletech) where you have miniatures on a conventional hex grid. OTOH, when I started in 1982, there were true miniatures rules including differing turn modes that were usable on a tabletop. With the complexity of SFB currently, a hex based system is mandatory.
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