Monday, 21 July 2014

Babylon 5 & Gaming: a retrospective.

I'm on a bit of a B5 kick at the moment, and this, in conjunction with my renewed interest in wargaming in general got me thinking about the various attempts to bring the B5 universe to the tabletop.

The universe of Babylon 5 is, like Star Wars and Star Trek, a vast and quite detailed one, with various races all sending ships of various sizes and types zooming around the big black until invariably at some point they will meet up and start shooting at each other for some reason. Hell, the TV show did this a lot, so therefore it should have been a fairly simple task to transfer the on screen action to the tabletop with a minimum of fuss and make it enjoyable enough and popular enough for it to be a decent seller.
Unfortunately though this didn't seem to happen, for many and various reasons...

...and so it begins....

Babylon 5 Wars

The first "official" stab at making a playable B5 miniatures game came courtesy of Agents of Gaming (AoG). Launched in 1997, B5 Wars (as it became known) is considered to be part of B5s official "canon", being as much of its development was overseen by J. Michael Straczynski himself, who took a fair bit of interest in it.
The game itself follows the usual wargaming formula of players building fleets to a set number of points (usually making a fleet of between 3 and 15 ships, depending on size, point cost and/or scenario requirements if being used), and then having a space battle using the games somewhat complex rules.

This was one of the things that proved to be the games undoing, as its first edition was deemed by the gaming public at large to be much to difficult to be able to play with any level of enjoyment, instead of epic battles in the B5 universe, play ended up being a series of book keeping tasks, tedious dice rolling activities and arguments over vagaries within the games core rule set and expansions.
Within a year of the games debut, a "Second edition" was released, which dispensed with some of the more tedious rules and streamlined or clarified the remainder, however, even with these changes, game play was still difficult and somewhat unrewarding.
Another problem with the game was availability of miniatures. While the game recommended that for the "best" experience you should be playing with official AoG miniatures, AoG were happy for players to use tokens in lieu of actual models, which for some ships and/or factions within the games source books was the only way to play them as miniatures were either not available for quite some time, or were never released, leading to much frustration amongst fans of the game.
On the subject of miniatures, B5 wars miniatures that had been released were somewhat difficult to obtain, this, added to AoGs problems in finding miniatures sculptors, as well as a somewhat disorganised release schedule, meant that even though the game was nominated for an Origins award in 1999 (It lost to Diskwars, another game which has since faded into relative obscurity) , it still wasn't a big hit, and production of miniatures and source books was discontinued in 2001.

I personally owned a couple of B5 Wars miniatures, although I didn't pick these up until the early 2000s, at what I can only describe as a significant markdown from their original asking price, and they were still sealed in their boxes, never opened or assembled.
Although the pictures on the boxes made the promise that the miniatures contained within would look awesome once assembled and painted, the reality couldn't have been further from the truth.
Made from some kind of white metal, the miniatures themselves were covered in so much flashing that it was in some cases, difficult to tell what was and wasn't supposed to be there, added to this problem was that for some unknown reason, I could not get the parts to stick together properly, regardless of what glue I used, and I tried a hell of a lot of different ways to get them to stick together, up to and including using solder and a blowtorch, which did nothing but melt the miniature and render it completely unusable, but by then I didn't care about it anymore, and the whole lot went in the bin.
As for the games rules, I laid hands on a copy of the 2nd edition rulebook at one point and tried to read through it and understand the game, but it was a rather boring and tedious process, and I just gave up on it.

Babylon 5: Fleet Action!

AoGs next stab at a B5 Miniatures game came towards the end of B5 Wars' life in the form of B5:Fleet action!.
Appearing in mid 2000, B5:FA was intended to compliment B5W insofar as it allowed for larger fleets to be used for battles than B5Ws "small skirmish" type action.
The miniatures for B5:FA were much smaller scale and more often than not single piece miniatures that used "standard" (ie, Battletech sized) hex bases.
The rules for B5:FA were fairly different to B5W, emphasising fleet level tactics over individual ship tactics, however again AoG fumbled the ball, as on paper the FA rules were simpler, in practice, especially so after source books started coming out, they became rather difficult to understand and once again, required a lot of tedious book keeping exercises, head scratching over rules problems and lots and lots of tedious and, more often than not, unnecessary dice rolling. The problem of rules vagaries became more prominent once the source book containing the Shadow fleet came out, who, due to the way their rules worked, made it difficult, if not impossible for them to be defeated.

Again, like B5W, miniatures for this game were difficult to come by, with many promised miniatures never appearing, although unlike B5W miniatures, FA miniatures seemed to have better quality control and the few that did require assembly glued together quite well with just normal super glue.

Unfortunately, before B5:FA could have the creases in its game play ironed out, the Babylon 5 TV series was cancelled and AoG lost its rights to produce B5 material, and it ceased production in 2002, with AoG declaring bankrupt soon after.

I had a small Earthforce fleet for B5:FA however i found it difficult to actually play any games due to the limited availability of miniatures, and the limited number of players here in the UK. The game wasn't bad per se, but it wasn't terribly user friendly either.

Both the AoG B5 miniatures games still enjoy a cult following online, with many home brew source texts and rules addendum's being published by fans.

Babylon 5 Collectable Card Game

Although not a miniatures wargame, the B5 CCG was probably the most successful B5 Game to be released.
Like other CCGs before and since, the B5 CCG required players to purchase packs of cards to build gaming decks with, and offered a variety of strategies by which to win. One noteworthy thing about this game was that it actively encouraged games to be multiplayer matches, that is, more than the "standard" CCG trope of being just 2 players, it also encouraged players to work together in some fashion in order to win.
The game itself turned up in 1997, and over the course of its life had 8 full sets released at retail, with various promo cards being released as tournament prizes for organised play.
It was also noteworthy for incorperating elements of RPG type play into its mechanic, as well as for quite closely following the storyline of the TV series.
Quite rightly, the B5 CCG is regarded as being one of the best CCGs ever released, as its fairly simple rules coupled with complex strategies make it an interesting game to play, even for the casual gamer.
However, the CCGs fate was sealed in 2001 when Warner Brothers, the owners of the B5 franchise, pulled the rights for Precedence Entertainment, the games publisher, to produce any further B5 related materials, and also ordered them to destroy any remaining stock they had.

I started playing the B5 CCG in about 2001, it wasn't a bad game but it did take some getting used to, especially if you were used to playing games such as Magic: The Gathering and/or Pokemon TCG. At one point following the games discontinuation you could buy whole boxes of starter decks for as little as £2, with booster boxes going for as little as £5 as games retailers sold off their remaining B5 CCG stocks cheap in order to offload stocks of a game that had been abandoned.

Oddly enough though, Precedence Entertainment closed it doors at roughly the same time as AoG did after losing their B5 licence, as none of their other products enjoyed the popularity as the B5 CCG.

Babylon 5: A Call To Arms

ACtA, as it came to be called, turned up in 2004 as a "compliment" to Mongoose Publishing's Babylon 5 RPG.
Fan reaction to the game overwhelmed Mongoose somewhat and they were very surprised at how quickly the games popularity soared, to the point at which the game won the 2004 Gamers Choice award at Origins.
This was because, unlike B5W and B5:FA, ACtA was actually a good, user friendly game, with a fairly reliable miniatures supply containing miniatures that were of good quality and were easily obtainable via games shops or purchased from Mongoose directly.
A "second edition" version of the game was published in 2007, representing updates in game rules and actually incorporating feedback from players (!!!) , as well as expanding available source materials.
However, the good times were not to be long term, as in early 2008 Mongoose announced that they were no longer going to produce miniatures or rules updates for the game, citing that the cost of miniatures production coupled with the amount of stuff needing to be produced was no longer cost effective for them, and, as such, they were disposing of their entire stock of ACtA miniatures at a discount via their website.
This decision affected all of Mongooses miniatures games at that point, so as well as the ACtA miniatures ceasing production, miniatures for other lines such as their Starship Troopers game were also sold off and abandoned, with Mongoose deciding to concentrate on their pencil & paper RPG systems instead.

I never played or physically held an ACtA miniature or book, as it was released and vanished during the time when I wasn't interested much in wargaming, but from what I understand the game was much better than the previous efforts and still enjoys something of a cult following to this day.

Its a shame really that despite the rich history contained within the B5 universe and so much enthusiasm for it amongst fans that it has been difficult to produce and sustain a B5 wargame of any description, but I can understand why larger games companies are hesitant to take the task on as B5 hasnt enjoyed the mass popularity that similar things such as Star Wars and Star Trek have, plus with no plans to relaunch the series, and the lackluster reception of spin off series' it seems that gaming in the B5 universe will be limited to dusty old legacy games, RPG books and home brew rules for quite some time to come.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent read. Check out my B5 CCG AARs here...