World in a Box

Following is a bit of my rambling from about 2002, salvaged from my old site.

World in a Box

The Classic Microgames Museum

I just discovered a reliable means of travelling backwards in time. That is, as long as your destination of choice is a cramped and cluttered hobby shop circa 1982. My temporal conveyance — the Maverick’s Classic Microgames Museum — is an online homage to long-forgotten game format: the bagged or boxed microgame.

Subtitled “A visual perspective of a decade of small box and ziplock games from 1977 to 1987,” the Museum is a minimalist affair, comprising scanned images of the game covers accompanied by a few explanatory jottings. All your favorites are here, from Metagaming’s Microgame #1, Ogre, Car Wars from Steve Jackson Games, the TSR offerings such as Revolt on Antares and They Invaded Pleasantville, and many more. Some I vividly recall holding, some were advertised in Dragon magazine, and a few were completely new to me.

Clicking through the Museum catapulted me backward twenty years into my adolescent Adidas, when I stood standing enraptured before the originals that hung in neat rows on pegboard. Discretionary income in those days was hard won and competition from the latest D&D module was fierce, so each purchase required careful deliberation. I became a careful critic of cover art, a serious scholar of the back blurb. Graphic presentation was crucial as the games were shrink-wrapped or otherwise hermetically secured against pre-purchased consumption. The Museum shows about as much as I ever saw of most of them.

I’ll disclose straightaway that these little gems did not often win the competition. The only one I ever bought was Car Wars and its supplements, though I read and played others belonging to friends. For this reason, perhaps, pocket games retain an allure more profound than that I feel for contemporaneous games I played and still possess.

Microgames promised a whole world in a box. They resembled a paperback novel — proscribed and yet infinite. They fit in your pocket (unlike the ponderous AD&D tomes that required a double brown shopping bag for transport). And those little plastic bags and boxes contained more than just rules. Most of the games were transitional, hybrid descendants of wargames, utilizing folded game boards, cutout pieces, and other exciting accoutrements. The twenty-year-old claps and hinges of my Car Wars box strain to accommodate the rulebook, supplemental addenda, maps, and innumerable car counters I have stuffed inside.

Microgames represent an early stage in the evolution of roleplaying games, or perhaps a dead-end branch of the family tree. As such, their fossilized remains make an interesting study. In light of modern RPGs, I suppose they seem primitive, possibly comical. The hobby has come a long way, adding layers of complexity as it has matured. Game books are now divided into substantial sections for player and game master; ambitious games devote a separate volume to each. Character creation and the setting are described with encyclopedic detail. None of this is wrong or a bad thing, of course. Many gamers expect prolix rulebooks in order to justify the rising cost of games. But verbosity does not necessarily equal vision. One can agree that the force of imagination was just as potent in microgame writers, and perhaps more concentrated.

Best of all, pocket games and even the old 64-page saddle stapled RPGs required active creative participation from players. Unpolished presentation and spare rules engaged a gamer’s imagination, inviting him to fill in the gaps. The cabala of house rules and gentlemen’s agreements that arose through play did not indicate deficiency in the games; rather, it confirmed the crystallization of a small community, a cell of companionship that had the personalized fit of faded jeans. When you are forced to rely upon your own wits instead of a canonical rules codex, you can’t help but know a bit of the alchemy of the game developer.

Microgames will never make a comeback New technologies such the internet, desktop publishing, and affordable book printing have changed the look of the roleplaying hobby. Plaid Rabbit Productions (now known as Microtactix Games) offered the Pocket Fantasy series in 1997, packaged in a CD jewel box. It was a neat idea, but the tiny text was difficult to read and they was easily confused with computer RPGs on CD. On a deeper level, however, it seems that retailers and consumers like 8×11 pegs in 8×11 holes; even digest sized books are less popular. By 2002, Microtactix has evolved into a premier retailer of today’s most popular means of inexpensive publishing: the downloadable pdf. Companies such as Jared Sorensen’s, Invisible City Productions, and Darn Fun Games now fill the microgame niche, providing fast and fun entertainment for little or no cost.

I don’t wish for the return of pocket games and I acknowledge that much of their charm is most likely attributable to nostalgia. It is refreshing, however, in this day of multi-volume, 256 page hardback RPG tomes, to look back those little games that beckoned you to the table but didn’tt dictate how you should play.

Scott Larson

Sometime in 2002

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