Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Featured game: Starforce Alpha Centauri

One game I've always liked and admired but never had much success in getting friends to play is Redmond Simonsen's 1974 game Starforce Alpha Centauri.
I'm not entirely sure why this is. It was one of SPI's best-selling games and even earned a little bit of popular culture fame when the rock band Human League took it's name from one of the factions in the game.
Perhaps it's because it's a very intellectual game, in both premise and execution. While Star Wars and Star Trek captured the public's imagination with their "Space Opera" approach, they rest on very shaky foundation in physics.
Simonsen, on the other hand, created an extremely clever and unique game that treated the question of interstellar war and travel in a way that treated Einstein with respect while still allowing for it to occur.
To do this he had to invent a lot of science, but this is defensible in a game set five centuries in the future. Clearly a wargame designer in 1474, had any existed, could never have imagined what the world of 1974 would look like. let alone what war would have been like. Indeed, no one in 1474 had any notion that the future could or would be different from the present in any notable way. The very notion of science fiction would even occur until the nineteenth century. Given the accelerating pace of scientific progress over the past couple hundred years it's even reasonable to think that the world of the 25th Century will be much more different from today than today is from the fifteenth century.
Dealing with faster-than-light travel is the first chore of a sci fi writer hoping to craft a story dealing with interstellar travel. Ignoring the problem is not an option. The general limits imposed by Einstein are widely known, at least among the audience that might be expected to read science fiction literature or go to the movies.
There have been a lot of approaches and this web site does a good job of running down the list: http://www.projectrho.com/rocket/rocket3v.html
A section of the Web site deals with Starforce Alpha Centauri, which turns out out have one of the best-thought out and plausible solutions to the FTL problem. Simonsen's solution creates an internally self-consistent world where wars make political sense and at the same time imagines a really futuristic style of warfare that does not involve anachronistic space "fleets" with "star battleships" , spaceship analogs of aircraft carriers or other unlikely developments. One imagines that if Aristotle could have imagined space battles he would have had them occur between "star triremes" that would have rammed each other.
In Starforce interstellar travel is achieved by special design spaceships that can "shift" in an instant from one point in space to another through the physic efforts of psionic-capable women assisted by sentient machines called Gnostechs. There are many limits on the process in distance, time and location. The telekinetics must be familiar with the space they are shifting from and to. Shifting past certain distances involves risk that include ending up someplace other than where you were headed. Combat involves groups of teleships attempting to involuntarily shifting their opponents.
The science fiction back story also creates a political and economic rationale for the wars because the number of telekinetics turns out to be a function of population size. About 1 out of every 1 million women is a potential telekinetic, a figure that cannot be increased. Politicalpower flows from the number of people under control, creating the basis for conflict. Human nature takes care of the rest. Actually, not just human nature, as the game includes some non-human races as well. The nature of teleships, however, doesn't vary and all the spacefaring races end up with very similar designs.
The game explicitly states that the telekinetics never try to kill their opponents and so the wars are relatively bloodless, with fatalities mostly happening by accident.
It's a stunningly original story line.
Despite the fact the game seems to have fallen off the radar among gamers, I think it's still worthy of notice and hope I'll get to play it someday.


  1. I have two copies of this game but no players. It looks very bloodless and chess-like.

  2. long ago I lost my copy of this brilliant game. I too had few folk to play with but as a professional astrophycist I loved the real star maps and imaginative constructs including bloodless battle concept. Are there copies of this available anywhere these days?

  3. Copies show up on eBay from time to time.
    I hear that Decision Games is considering a new edition as well.

  4. Strangly, I have two copies of this game. One that I bought back in the 70's when I was a kid and one that was part of a set that included Outreach and StarSoldiers that I bought off the internet a few years ago. Same problem, no players...but I almost have my teenage daughters convinced to try their hands at Outreach.

  5. My bother and I used to play, but it was hard to manage more than 2 spacecraft and 1 station. Fascinating game, though.

  6. same story here hard to get friends to play, is there an play by email option?