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Vol 1 No 1 (July 2019)
Keywords
wargames, space empires, 4X, Lensman, Star Trek, Xeno, Galaxy

Per Aspera Ad Astra

The Material Culture of Early Space Empire Games

Jon Peterson Independent Scholar

Introduction

Classic space-empire titles like Master of Orion (1993) familiarized a myriad of computer gamers with a genre that Alan Emrich famously labeled 4X: games based on exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination.1 Many of these games emulated the 1983 classic Reach for the Stars—but that game freely admitted in its rulebook that it was inspired by the 1974 board game Stellar Conquest. While it has thus never been a secret that computer space-empire games drew on analog precedents, the space-empire board games of the 1970s in turn marked the culmination of a tradition of underground games that reached for the stars—even if they perhaps fell a bit short.

The roots of space-empire game systems can only be found by studying game fanzines (fig. 1). Fredric Wertham’s The World of Fanzines defined fanzines as “uncommercial, nonprofessional, small-circulation magazines which their editors produce, publish, and distribute.”2 Throughout the twentieth century, fanzines allowed marginal and far-flung communities to share ideas through the postal system, in the process generating a potential archival record of fan activities. Early fans of science fiction popularized the use of fanzines, and hobby game players embraced this technology following the pioneering efforts of Jack Scruby’s 1957 War Game Digest. But no community took to fanzines more readily than the players of Alan Calhamer’s board game Diplomacy (1959).

Figure 1

Fanzines and materials from postal Diplomacy and science-fiction games, including Xeno and Galaxy . Image courtesy author.

Diplomacy reimagined the outbreak of the First World War as a seven-player coalition-building game of European conquest, an exercise in terrestrial empire management. Each great power in Diplomacy starts with a balanced military force within its territorial boundaries, just three or four armies and fleets, each of which are supported by a supply center representing a major European city like London, Paris, or Berlin. To grow their forces, the warring states had to expand by capturing other supply centers which they could then exploit for the resources needed to field more troops. In the basic Diplomacy game, there are thirty-four supply centers that can support units, twelve of which are initially uncontrolled. By defeating opposing armies and conquering foreign supply centers, players can exterminate rivals and ultimately win the game.

In 1963, a science-fiction fan versed in zine culture named John Boardman developed postal rules for Diplomacy. Whereas in tabletop Diplomacy, players committed their moves to a piece of paper that they all revealed simultaneously, in postal Diplomacy players sent their moves through the mail to a gamesmaster. The gamesmaster collected all of the actions for a turn and then shared the results with the group; rather than mailing each player individually, Boardman distributed the compiled moves for each turn in a biweekly fanzine called Graustark. His zine also provided a forum for various other commentary about the game and over time became notorious for its letter column and side conversations on far-ranging topics. The legion of Diplomacy fanzines that followed the model of Graustark thus recorded for posterity invaluable insights into how gaming culture evolved throughout the 1960s—provided they survived. Some work has been done to collect and digitize Diplomacy fanzines, but it is a vast literature that remains challenging to study today.3

Although postal Diplomacy allowed gamers scattered around the world to share a sort of virtual tabletop, it had its limitations. There were strict deadlines for moves, but games often advanced at a glacial pace as gamesmasters waited for tardy players. Errors that might be resolved in seconds face-to-face could take weeks to sort out. Players might drop out of games with or without formal notice, leaving gamesmasters at some pains to replace them with someone willing to take over a work in progress—and similarly, gamesmasters might abandon games, which typically would resume only if an adoptive gamesmaster folded them into a foster zine. It was hardly an ideal medium, but for gamers of the time, it was the best technology available.

Through their zines, postal Diplomacy players shared endless variants on the basic game, adapting it for more or fewer players, and to different areas or eras—even imaginary settings like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. As many of the early adopters were science-fiction fans, inevitably they applied the principles of Diplomacy to futuristic settings familiar from that literature. By 1967, the Foundation game variant had recast Diplomacy in the image of Isaac Asimov’s science-fiction series of the same name.

This study looks at two titles in the space-empire tradition that spun off from the postal Diplomacy community: Xeno (1967) and Galaxy (1968). Both were administered by experienced Diplomacy gamesmasters and found their audience through the social networks that Diplomacy fans had already established. Although their system principles influenced digital and analog games, most notably those of the 4X variety, in the 1960s these games remained an underground phenomenon, reaching at best a few hundred players. Science fiction was not yet mainstream enough to attract commercial publishers like Avalon Hill, the largest purveyor of adult conflict-simulation games, who instead focused on historical battle simulations that were themselves often played by mail.4 At a handful of elite universities, computer engineers could play through the tactical duel of Spacewar (1962), but that was a rarefied experience inaccessible to the general public of the time. Computers would ultimately prove key to the adoption of space-empire games: staging these games with fanzines and postal correspondence inflicted significant hardships on pioneers in the 1960s. But in the paperwork these games left behind, we can dimly perceive the origins of 4X space-empire games. Below, these often-overlooked fanzines illuminate that darkness, decisively connecting these crude analog games to a significant tradition of computer games—and along the way, these fanzines demonstrate their own immense value as documentation to game historians.

Xeno (1967)

Dan Brannan circulated the first notice for Xeno in his Diplomacy fanzine Wild ʼn Wooly in December 1966. Like many Diplomacy gamesmasters, Brannan was a science-fiction fan: he borrowed the name Xeno from the beverage consumed by Sgt. Saturn, the fictional editor of the letters column of 1940s science-fiction magazines like Startling Stories. Incidentally, the Sgt. Saturn column went a long way toward popularizing the abbreviation zine for fanzine.5 Brannan offered in his initial notice a brief overview of the rules but planned to develop them up until he started the game in mid-1967. It was however clear from the start that Xeno would be more than just a Diplomacy variant—it would be a new sort of game entirely.

Postal Diplomacy had acclimated Brannan to maintaining a periodical fanzine for his games, and Xeno comes down to us largely through its self-titled zine—though issues of it are scarce even by the lamentable standards of the medium. A surviving compendium amply demonstrates the difficulties of working with these materials: issues have been stapled together out of order, and in some cases even with pages backward, leaving us to puzzle out where they belong. Many are practically illegible (fig. 2). Not all issues are explicitly dated, and postmarks on mailing labels are often too worn and smeared to be read. This haphazard anthology does however preserve enough material from issues #1, #2, #3, #7, and #9, spanning from January 1, 1967, to June 1, 1969, to show us how the game worked. If there is one object that can reveal to us the genesis of space-empire games, it is the Xeno fanzine.

Figure 2

The first page of Xeno , number 1, showing the limitations of ditto reproduction. Image courtesy author.

Xeno departed from the basic working of Diplomacy in a few key respects. First, it blasted off from the continent of Europe in favor of stellar cartography. Instead of a flat board, Brannan situated Xeno in an imaginary three-dimensional cube. “The playing area consists of 3375 Sectors, each supposedly one cubic light year in size (and cubical in shape, of course), and 4096 Co-ordinate points at the corners of these 3375 sectors.”6 The coordinate points were denoted by three letters of the alphabet signifying positions on the x, y, and z axis of the cube, such as AAA or FQX (fig. 3). In order to help players visualize the whole space of the game, in Xeno #1 Brannan supplied a charming flat map with spirals serving as its third dimension (fig. 4).

Figure 3

To uniquely identify a cubical sector, Brannan’s Xeno zine suggests naming the corner points, in the form Sector AAA—BBB, as we see on the cover of the second issue. Image courtesy author.

Figure 4

Section of the three-dimensional map of Xeno . Image courtesy author.

In Diplomacy, players start out controlling a handful of supply centers that support armies; similarly, in Xeno, every player has five starting home worlds that launch starcraft. But where traditional Diplomacy players set their pieces on a public map everyone can see, Xeno players secretly chose sectors for their home worlds, informing just the gamesmaster of their location. Only when unit movement resulted in contact with other players would the gamesmaster share it, and then exclusively with the affected parties. Diplomacy variants had already repurposed the gamesmaster to manage hidden movement when the setting demanded it—the Mordor vs. the World family of variants had the gamesmaster keep track of invisible ringbearers—but Brannan’s space-empire setting required something more extreme. “The vastness of the playing space, the secrecy of the identity of the other players, the secrecy of the locations of ships and planets, the total lack of vital information without efforts of investigation, all these factors are meant to create the real problems of a race trying to expand to other planets.”7 Keeping the location and extent of space empires hidden in such a vast space provided a very different experience from the typical Diplomacy game: it made Xeno a game of exploration.

The goal of each Xeno player was to expand through known space while retaining his own five original home worlds. Each home world will produce either one warship or three scout ships every turn: scout ships are faster but carry less weaponry. Exactly how quickly ships travel, and how many missiles they can shoot, depends on another factor in the game that strayed far from the precedents of Diplomacy: a technology level. Each player starts at technology level 1, but after eight turns, players may apply to the gamesmaster for a scientific advance to the next level. Discovering enemy planets requires moving ships into sectors and performing a search that could take several turns to complete; with increases in technology level, search duration decreases and reveals progressively more information. To reach other sectors, ships must pass through coordinate points, which manifested as narrow passageways: two rival ships trying to pass through the same point in a turn would collide, destroying one another. Worse, ships lingering in coordinate points exposed themselves to missiles blindly launched by foes; lists of collisions and missile hits appeared in issues of the Xeno zine. When warships of rival empires meet, they exterminate one another based on simple numerical superiority. Once an enemy planet is discovered, landing a warship on it establishes control—but Xeno has no way for the conqueror of a planet to exploit its resources to build new ships. Xeno was, Brannan stressed, not an economic game.

Interest in Xeno far outstripped Brannan’s ability to deliver: around three hundred people joined his mailing list, but the practical copy limit for Brannan’s dittograph machine was just 150 copies. “We started with a mere idea, and tried to find someone else to publish the game so that we could play,” Brannan wrote in a letter to early adopters. “No such luck.” Brannan kept quiet about exactly how many people were participating: “under 100” is the only guidance he would offer.

Orders for the first turn were due by mail on September 25, 1967, but Xeno had trouble keeping to a strict schedule. The next turn’s orders were expected October 15of that year, but the third turn of the game had not wrapped up until September 1968. The ninth issue of the Xeno fanzine, which is dated June 1969, has to start with a confession from Brannan that “eight months have gone by since the last issue. Six months have gone by since I started typing this issue.” This owed largely to the intensive responsibilities of the gamesmaster; Brannan projected that, with rule changes that shifted more tasks to the players, he could likely run ten turns a year. Brannan conceded that “the game could be divided up into several separate games but I don’t have any intention of handling it that way.”

By 1969, a number of similar experiments in space-empire games had begun among game fans. Brannan was aware that his fellow Diplomacy veteran Dan Alderson was working on a game called Space War in early 1967, and among Avalon Hill’s postal wargaming community, the War of the Empires began at around the same time.8 But the basic system of exploration and expansion pioneered by Xeno would become the most enduring, after a few key modifications.

Galaxy (1968)

H. David Montgomery’s Galaxy returned space-empire management to a format more familiar to postal Diplomacy players. Rather than requiring that every player in the world correspond with the same harried referee, Galaxy instead delegated to individual gamesmasters the administration of smaller scenarios where two to seven players would compete over a star system represented on a two-dimensional stellar map. This made his experiment more successful than Xeno, although the medium still imposed significant limitations on its play.

Because Brannan kept the list of players in Xeno a secret, it is difficult to prove that Montgomery himself played—but other early adopters of Galaxy surely did. Montgomery conceived the game while stationed by Fort Benning in 1968, but he kept a certain distance from its administration: he did not run games himself and jealously guarded the gamesmaster rules, only sharing them with people he knew personally. After he relocated to Oklahoma City in 1969, he recruited local Diplomacy fans like Eric Just and Jeff Key to run games of Galaxy; Montgomery had already subscribed to Just’s Diplomacy fanzine The Diplomat before he moved. Just would serve as gamesmaster for the first Galaxy game, and Key the second. Then Conrad von Metzke—a Diplomacy veteran listed in 1966 among the original invitees to Brannan’s Xeno—audaciously attempted to start eight or nine simultaneous Galaxy games; a report in the March 1969 issue of Costaguana promises he will make progress on them, though apparently none of the games managed to get far.9

Brenton Ver Ploeg announced in the November 1969 Graustark his own plans to run Galaxy games; surviving documentation of his efforts, beginning with Galaxy game number 16, provides us with a valuable window into how this early game was played. Ver Ploeg initially distributed a five-page overview of the rules to his players. Postal Diplomacy gamesmasters often operated with house rules or variants, and Ver Ploeg circulated his own Galaxy modifications to players through a periodic Addendum newsletter; effectively, his Addendum served as a fanzine for Galaxy. After running Galaxy for a year and experimenting with various systems, Ver Ploeg synthesized his own experiences of the game with those of Sid Cochran Jr. to create a ten-page version dated December 28, 1970 (fig. 5).10 Ver Ploeg’s Galaxy rules represent the way the game was run at the height of its popularity; a more complete sixteen-page version, dated to 1972, would be published by Montgomery and Just in advance of Galaxy game number 38. No less than four versions of the rules survive today that exhibit minor variations, but these are only the player rules, not the secret gamesmaster rules that Montgomery shielded from prying eyes.

Figure 5

First page of Brendon Ver Ploeg’s iteration of the Galaxy rules. Image courtesy author.

In Galaxy, exploration and expansion play out on a Search Board, an eight-by-eleven grid of hexagons (fig. 6). At the start of the game, each player is assigned a single home world somewhere on the Search Board map—Galaxy depicts interstellar empires in their infancy, as they take their first steps into space starting in the year 3500 AD. Ships built on the home world explore systems on the Search Board through a hidden movement system; only when arriving at a new star will players learn from the gamesmaster what sort of planets, and potential adversaries, they have discovered there. When ships run across enemy vessels, the game transposes onto a smaller-scale Battle Board (fig. 7) where combatants can exterminate one another; at this point, the mode of the game shifts to a player-versus-player format conducted by direct postal exchange between the two opponents. This concept of having a large-scale map for maneuvering forces at a campaign level, and then switching to a smaller-scale map for tactical battles was familiar from various miniature and board war games since the 1950s, the most influential of which was the Avalon Hill title Bismarck (1962), though probably the more recent Jutland (1967) inspired the two-map structure of Galaxy more directly.11 As strategic play for all players would be suspended until each two-player conflict on the Battle Board resolved, this system could introduce considerable delays, sometimes requiring months of bilateral postal exchanges before the game moved on to a new turn.

Figure 6

A Search Board from Galaxy , for a player whose home star is A1. Image courtesy author.

Figure 7

When a tactical battle breaks out in a sector, the action in Galaxy transitions to a Battle Board like this one. Image courtesy author.

Brannan had stressed that his Xeno was not an economic game, but Galaxy very decidedly is one. In this respect, it followed a succession of mid-1960s “economic” Diplomacy variants that had gradually incorporated budgets and costs into the maintenance of earthbound empires. Rather than treating home worlds as factories that churn out ships, Galaxy players start with a budget, in a currency called Kosmuns, which they may spend as they see fit on ships, including scouts, warships, and defensive space fortresses. In order to expand their empire, and increase their income, players must build colonization ships that can occupy a virgin planet after spending three full turns on its surface. The gamesmaster describes to explorers any habitable planets, including their moons, and their expected yields per turn in Kosmuns before and after industrialization. By exploiting the resources of these planets, empires can amass Kosmuns to pay for larger fleets, subjugate foes, and then dominate the galaxy.

The system of scientific discovery in Galaxy is not one of monolithic advancement in levels like Xeno, but is instead broken into separate categories, a sort of technology tree, on which players advance independently.12 Each turn, a player can expect some small boosts to the speed or range of ships, or discounts to the cost of manufacturing them. Rarely, the gamesmaster will instead grant a player scientific breakthroughs, which “may alter one of the playing rules in favor of the player who gets them,” like a new technology that “might provide a new weapon or tactic that only that player can use.” Over time, other empires in contact with this radical discovery will learn it themselves. Late versions of the rules, like the 1972 edition of Montgomery and Just, allow players to determine how much they want to invest in steady technological increments versus radical scientific breakthroughs.

Lew Pulsipher, in his zine Supernova, reported that Galaxy was “by far the most popular postal SF&F game,” but to put that in perspective, he meant “over 100 people were playing Galaxy.”13 By the end of the 1960s, it was a genre with nearly as many titles as players; designers relentlessly published variants and fresh designs, of which the most notable is probably Phil Pritchard’s Lensman (1969). Lensman is the first game of this tradition to survive as a commercial product in the board wargame tradition: it was a tabletop product packaged for sale, to be played in person rather than relying on a postal gamesmaster.14

Conclusion

By 1970, the defining characteristics of this emerging tradition of space-empire games had become evident. Sid Cochran wrote an article called “Galaxy: The World’s Greatest Space Game” for the fanzine the Interplanetary Communicator which judged, “Galaxy is a variant of the Search-board and Battle-board variety of wargame. Like Lensman, it is a combination of the exploration of the Galaxy, development of its resources, and occasional combat between representatives of burgeoning empires.”15 Cochran saw a threefold combination of activities: exploring the vastness of space, expanding to new stars to exploit their resources, and then exterminating rivals.

The sheer hardship of reaching the stars with these analog games limited their adoption considerably. Pritchard confessed in a 1971 article that a Lensman referee “probably could not (without the aid of a computer) handle the great number individual ships present” in some Lensman situations.16 Computers offered a way to make these games manageable, though access to them remained pricey before the advent of personal computers later in the decade. Rick Loomis introduced computer administration for multiplayer postal games with his Nuclear Destruction (1970). The possibility of letting a computer adjudicate complex rule systems, especially with many players engaged in a campaign, provided relief to the gamesmasters who previously took responsibility for so much computation between turns. These analog computed games then began to transition into digital computer games.

When Howard Thompson inaugurated his new company Metagaming with the release of the space-empire game Stellar Conquest late in 1974, that game eclipsed the memory of earlier efforts for many—the tradition that preceded it simply reached too small an audience. Civilization (1980) would similarly loom large over future games based on colonization, economics, and technological advancement. But the roots of this tradition of exploring, expanding, exploiting and exterminating, as Emrich would put it, can still be found in the fanzines and materials that Xeno and Galaxy left behind.

Acknowledgements

The author would like to acknowledge Lewis Pulsipher and George Phillies for their assistance on this research. Many of the Diplomacy zines mentioned in this article are available online at http://www.whiningkentpigs.com/DW/zines.htm.

Footnotes

1. ^ Alan Emrich, “MicroProse’s Strategic Space Opera is Rated XXXX,” Computer Gaming World,no. 110 (September 1993), http://www.cgwmuseum.org/galleries/index.php?year=1993&pub=2&id=110.

2. ^ Fredric Wertham, The World of Fanzines (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973), 33.

3. ^ Projects that are currently indexing Diplomacyzines include the Postal Diplomacy Zine Archive, at http://www.whiningkentpigs.com/DW/zines.htm, and the UK Postal Diplomacy archive, at http://www.diplomacyzines.org.uk/. Both provide scans of original Diplomacymagazines that are useful to students of gaming history, though no complete repository of these resources yet exists.

4. ^ Henry Lowood, “Putting a Stamp on Games—Wargames, Players, & PBM,” Journey Planet, no. 26 (December 2015): 14–22, https://issuu.com/officesupplypictures/docs/letters_in_absentia.

5. ^ Sergeant Saturn [Sam Merwin Jr.], “Review of Science Fiction Fan Publications,” Startling Stories 14, no. 1 (Summer 1946), https://archive.org/details/Startling_Stories_v14n01_1946-Summer.

6. ^ Charles Brannan and Dan Brannan, advertisement for Xeno, Wild ’n Wooly,no. 77 (December 15, 1966), http://www.whiningkentpigs.com/DW/oldzines/wildw77.pdf.

7. ^ Dan Brannan, “The Xeno Lecture I Planned to Give at the WesterCon and Didn’t,” Wild ’nWooly,no. 98 (July 6, 1967), http://www.whiningkentpigs.com/DW/oldzines/wildw98.pdf.

8. ^ Jon Peterson, “War of the Empires(1969), Gygax’s Space Conquest Game,” Playing at the World (blog), January 25, 2018, https://playingattheworld.blogspot.com/2018/01/war-of-empires-1969-gygaxs-space.html.

9. ^ Conrad von Metzke, “Crazy Costa,” Costaguana 3, no. 15 (March 17, 1969), http://www.whiningkentpigs.com/DW/oldzines/costa3-15.pdf.

10. ^ Brenton Ver Ploeg, “Galaxy,” Vortex 1 nos. 5 and 6 (1971). The actual text of the rules was dated December 28, 1970, but Vortex volume 1 number 5 was published on Jan 31, 1971.

11. ^ On miniatures strategy-tactical games, see Jon Peterson, Playing at the World (San Diego, CA: Unreason Press, 2012), 321.

12. ^ See Tuur Ghys, “Technology Tree: Freedom and Determinism in Historical Strategy Games,” Game Studies 12, no. 1 (September 2012), http://gamestudies.org/1201/articles/tuur_ghys.

13. ^ Lewis Pulsipher, “Galaxy,” Supernova,no. 9 (February 24, 1972). See also Supernova,no. 14.

14. ^ Philip N. Pritchard, Lensman(self-pub., 1969), https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/18144/lensman.

15. ^ Sid Cochran Jr., “Galaxy: The World’s Greatest Space Empire Game,” Interplanetary Communicator,June 1970, 12.

16. ^ Philip N. Pritchard, “The ‘Simple’ Lensman FTF Variant,” Spartan International Monthly 3, no. 10 (1971): 5.