Astra Titanus and the Terrible Thing from the Void

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Sci-fi? Sure, I like it, but only the trashy stuff. Not so much trashy as phony. The kind I can dip into between shifts, read a few pages at a time, and then drop. Oh, I read good books, too, but only Earthside. Why that is, I don’t really know. Never stopped to analyze it. Good books tell the truth, even when they’re about things that never have been and never will be. They’re truthful in a different way. When they talk about outer space, they make you feel the silence, so unlike the Earthly kind — and the lifelessness. Whatever the adventures, the message is always the same: humans will never feel at home out there. Earth has something random, fickle about it — here a tree, there a wall or garden, over the horizon another horizon, beyond the mountain a valley … but not out there.
–Stanisław Lem, “Tales of Pirx the Pilot”

I have always thought that science fiction, despite being forever linked with fantasy in the “fantasy/sci fi” section of bookstores and libraries, was actually best appreciated by adults. Unlike traditional* fantasy, which is wrapped up in quests and knowledge acquisition which are essentially coming-of-age concerns that resonate best with adolescents and young adults, science fiction at its best challenges our notions of what is possible by stripping away all the things we find familiar, and thus letting us examine fundamental beliefs and assumptions we have spent a lifetime constructing. It also taps our fascination with the unknown, specifically, that of distance.

After the jump, how far is far?

When I was a kid, we used to ride our bikes a lot. Because of who we were, a lot of those rides were to the game store. Because of when we were kids, there were a lot of game stores. One was particularly far away, and that meant an all-day expedition. Even though we sometimes had our parents drive us there, when we were twelve-year-old kids on bikes, it seemed like it was on Mars. I just checked Google Maps and it turns out the distance was about ten miles. When the game store is that far away, who needs to actually go to Mars?

But it’s hard to maintain the wonder of a trip to a ten-miles-distant game store, even if they did sell every game you could think of and had open Dungeons & Dragons on Saturdays. As the world shrinks into a series of points reachable by parents’ cars, then by airplane, and finally by Internet, science fiction preserves the spaces that are still unattainable except in partnership with our imagination. And where better to combine science fiction and imagination than in gaming.

I wrote a piece last year about the exploration urge in games. Imagination is fundamental to that need to uncover the unknown, and games make it much easier to do this than if you had to commission an actual expedition to travel to Antarctica to dig up Cthulhu. Sorry, that might be a spoiler for something. But this wouldn’t work if there weren’t a part of this that could very well end badly. Because part of the fascination with the unknown is fear.

I started re-reading some science fiction stories I used to like a lot, about a menace from space. I had last read them maybe twenty years ago. It immediately struck me how they developed the idea of distance and the void turning from promise to dread.

Even on worlds not touched by the physical fighting, there were people who felt themselves breathing darkness, and sickened inwardly. Few men on any world chose to look for long out into the nighttime sky.

When you imagine an infinite space, eventually something has to come out of it. There’s a reason that horror and suspense stories are set in the ocean. The uniformity of menace conveyed by an impenetrable depth of water leaves these somethings to our imagination. Films like Jaws and The Abyss use this kind of visual imagery to establish just how powerfully awful those somethings are. Games are great at creating potential spaces, and what better potential, infinite space is there than, well, space? Chris Taylor’s Astra Titanus, published by Victory Point Games, is a solitaire game about just this kind of menace coming out of the void.

astra_counters

Entitled “Starfleets vs. Planetbusters,” the game pits a single immense star dreadnought against your fleet of tiny-by-comparison warships. Michael Barnes of Gameshark (and many others, including designer Chris Taylor in our recent podcast) likened the game to Ogre, Steve Jackson’s iconic game about another monstrous enemy: an enormous, solitary cybernetic tank. But I have to admit the first thing I though of when I played it was Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series.

Saberhagen wrote the first Berserker story in 1963, and continued writing them until 2006. (He died in 2007.) The quote above about looking out into the nighttime sky is from one of his stories. While not as good a stylist as some or as good a storyteller as others, Saberhagen’s basic idea lent itself to so many variations on the theme that it really never got old. Plus, it’s just a terrifying concept: a giant robotic starship programmed to eradicate all life.

The machine was a vast fortress, containing no life, set by its long-dead masters to destroy anything that lived. It and a hundred like it were the inheritance of Earth from some war fought between unknown interstellar empires, in some time that could hardly be connected with any Earthly calendar.

One such machine could hang over a planet colonized by men and in two days pound the surface into a lifeless cloud of dust and steam, a hundred miles deep. This particular machine had already done just that.

Before you think this is going down the lit-crit rabbit hole, I don’t have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure, or aesthetics, or formalism. Literary analysis fails us when it serves a system better than it serves our understanding. But it’s impossible for me to play games and read books without thinking about why these things keep resonating with me over years and years, unlike, say, Judy Blume or the Sword of Shannara.

Still, something has driven me to pull out Astra Titanus and start playing the “Colonial Troubles” scenario, which seems to have a lot to do with berserking. The scenario text sets it all up:

A Titan penetrated the frontier defenses far enough to threaten a major colony world. Millions of colonists were at risk, the colony had minimal defenses due to an ill-timed maintenance rotation and the TDF sent the closest available task force as reinforcements.

Ah, those ill-timed maintenance rotations. I’m imagining the time that Scotty sabotaged the USS Excelsior. “Good Morning, Captain!” It’s funny that when that came out, it immediately evoked Captain Kangaroo to most of the people who saw it. Now I’m dragging it into a discussion about a solitaire boardgame that has nothing to do with Star Trek, and most people reading this have to Google for Captain Kangaroo to find out what that is.

In practical terms, it means I have a battlecruiser and a few cruisers, some destroyers, and a lot of frigates. And one battleship. My opponent is a Rhea-class Titan, neither the strongest nor the weakest of the enemy ships in the game. Call it a Space Ogre Mark IV.

astratitan_rhea

One of the problems with designing a “system” to play a single unit like the Titan is that you have to have sensible rules governing that one unit without making its moves predictable. All good solitaire games use some form of randomization to get around this. Even actual berserkers do, apparently. Saberhagen establishes this in the very first story:

It used no predictable tactics in its dedicated, unconscious war against life. The ancient, unknown gamesmen had built it as a random factor, to be loosed in the enemy’s territory to do what damage it might. Men thought its plan of battle was chosen by the random disintegrations of atoms in a block of some long-lived isotope buried deep inside it, and so was not even in theory predictable by opposing brains, human or electronic.

Men called it a berserker.

Victory Point Games can’t ship you a radioactive isotope to tell you how to move the Titan counter, so Chris Taylor settled for a deck of cards. There are twenty cards, and each one dictates movement, combat, and repair. The cards make it impossible to predict where the Titan is going to be at the end of any turn, although you know it is probably headed for your colony planet.

This reminded me of that first Berserker story, “Without a Thought (Fortress Ship)” about a berserker that tries to deduce the effectiveness of its mind weapon by how it affects a ship captain with whom it has contrived to play a game of checkers. The ship’s captain instructs his pet, a semi-intelligent dog-ape, to mimic a human learning from his mistakes by creating an elaborate system of index cards in boxes illustrating a series of branching moves, some good and some not. The dog-ape throws out the used moves after a loss, making it more likely it will pick the good moves next time. The berserker thinks the captain is still able to function despite the mind weapon, and thus delays its attack until it is too late. It’s the kind of complicated system of index cards in boxes that you can imagine humans using to communicate with their semi-intelligent starship pilots in the far future when we have found a way to make technology so advanced that everything is based on index cards and filing cabinets.

Chris Taylor’s method of communicating with us just consists of an eight-page rulebook. It’s a simple design, with all the usual things: combat strength, range, defense, whatever. To score a hit, the combat strength plus a d6 has to be equal to or higher than the opposing defense factor.

I’ve long since stopped looking for clever mechanics in games, and instead appreciate those with clever effects. By now, everyone has worked out ways to use cards, or tokens, or auctions, or match-three mechanics to make a game seem slightly different from the last one to do that. But unless you’ve found a way to incorporate radioactive isotopes into your game, I’m more interested in the way a game forces me to make choices, and you can do that in a lot of ways, whether with a deck or a die or a spinner.

Astra Titanus is essentially built on the calculation of where the Titan is going to be when it moves, and how many of your ships are going to get blown up because they’re in range of its weapons. Because movement essentially takes pieces off the board until the end of the turn, you only have to deal with a fraction of the pieces on the board during the combat phase.

But Taylor tosses a twist into this, which is that when ships move, they have to move at least half of their movement allowance. For faster ships, this means they have a minimum move as well. This makes it just a little more difficult to plan the “perfect turn” by moving every unit exactly the number of spaces it needs to go. I like it.

My defense fleet is basically split in two, with an asteroid field directly between the Titan and the colony. Here are the rules for setting up an asteroid field:

Randomly drop the asteroid counters from about 12 inches to 24 inches over the center of the map. Flip all counters so the asteroid side is visible and place in the nearest hex.

So awesome.

astra_setup

There’s the initial setup. My plan was initially based on the tried-and-true Ogre strategy of taking out the treads first (in this case, the drive) and then swarming the heavier weapons.

Until I read the rules carefully. It turns out that unlike Ogres, Titans can’t just destroy their target by overrunning it. I guess a colony world is a lot bigger than a command post. Furthermore, Chris Taylor knows all about Steve Jackson’s game and built a mechanic into his which carefully simulates the known ability of berserkers to repair their own battle damage. Any Titan which is “dead in the water” has a chance of repairing some drive boxes by drawing the right card.

So I’m going to start out by targeting the defensive lasers, of which the Titan has six, and once those are whittled down, bring in the missiles. This is my first game of Astra Titanus. We’ll see how this goes.

Tomorrow: The Titan cometh

*Before you start posting angry comments, I know fantasy literature has become much more sophisticated since I used to read Elric of Melnibone and Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. I stand by my comment.
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