Monday, July 03, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ The best game you never played

Today I've decided to do something that I am not very comfortable with.

I'm going to discuss an actual game.

No cheap shots at Gamer Girth Syndrome. No picking on the Liberal Weenies. No laser-sharp and insightful commentary on why EuroSnoots are really only pretend-gamers. In short, I'm going to tell you about a game you might have actually liked if it hadn't been for one man's fascination with the devil.

Since the majority of Gone Gaming's 17 readers are probably board gamers exclusively... well, except for MWChapel who used to play real games and now has become a EuroSnoot... and then MisterJohnson, who I know to be a manly gamer... the rest of you are pretty much babes-in-the-woods when it comes to the more hardcore offerings... anyway, where was I? Oh yeah. I was talking about how most of you probably don't have a clue about games that aren't played on a finite board. Or perhaps CCG's or RPGs. Well, hopefully I can give you a little insight into a genre of board gaming and one game in particular that you probably missed, but that had you been exposed to it when it was around, it might have made you a more better gamer. Yeah, that's it... a more better gamer.

Way back in about 1993 there was this guy from Toronto, Canada who apparently had some money and some degree of common sense. His name was Marco, and along with a guy named Derek and another guy named Clark he published a boxed game that included miniatures that was aimed squarely at Games Workshop's domination of the table-top and big-box miniature game market. Before you start ho-humming that aspect of the market you ought to realize that Games Workshop eventually became a publically held corporation and it was revealed that they were making and selling several hundred million dollars worth of metal and cardboard every year.

Compare that, if you will, to the current combined sales of the entiriety of what we lovingly call "EuroGames" and you might see why Marco and his buddies went with miniatures. Why eat sawdust when you can feast on steaks?

Marco's company, Global Games, published a boxed game named LEGIONS OF STEEL in 1993 that compared very, very favorably with anything Games Workshop had ever produced. It was a similar size. It had miniatures. It had great rules. It also had more real value for the price point, which was about 15% less than Games Workshop's boxed sets. Legions Of Steel (LOS) also had metal miniatures. And it had geomorphic boards that fit together like jigsaw pieces similar to the much revered Space Hulk board game.

And, for my money, it was an all-around better game than anything from Games Workshop.

The problem with pretty much anything GW has ever published has always been the fuzzy rules. The multiplicity of potential permutations of what does, or does not, happen in any given combat situation. In order to play 40K, GW's biggest seller, you really have to steep yourself in the hazy logic of the 40K universe and you have to come to the table prepared to argue your point. In fact, you have to be prepared to clash with not only your opponent's army, but also his interpretaion of his army, your army, the rules, the special rules that aren't in the rulebooks but do exist in back issues of the White Dwarf magazine... which you don't have.

LOS, on the other hand, is as straighforward a combat game as I've ever played. Part of what makes it that way is it's played on a mapboard that you build and weapon ranges and movement are counted in map squares rather than measured in inches. Line of Sight, a huge sticking point in 40K is simply center-of-square to center-of-square. 40K is not a staged game, meaning there aren't provisions for playing a simplified version and then adding in levels of complexity as you become comfortable. LOS has basic rules and advanced rules. In fact, LOS's additional expansions added various races and rules that allowed you to tailor-make your complexity level to the relative skills of the players.

Another selling point of LOS was the miniatures. Most people who saw them or played LOS really liked the miniatures. They really, really, really liked the fact that the cost of a blister pack, relative to 40K, was about 30% less.

These two miniatures retailed for about $19 total in 1995. The equivalent GW 40K models, which would be a Terminator and a Dreadnaught would have cost about $35 back then.

And the LOS universe was compelling. Not that GW's 40K isn't. But hey, we all have wondered from time to time about Orcs and Elves in space. And the weirdness that is Chaos in 40K stretches the sensibilities after 25 years of reading about how powerful and all-encompassing Chaos is. LOS offers a science fiction setting that borrows heavily from Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series of novels. In it's basic form, LOS pits a future human culture against a machine-based invading force. The goal of the machines is identical to the Berserker's goal - extinguish all life. Machines rule. To add richness and diversity to the LOS setting Global Games issued expansions that brought other sentients into the game and allowed players to pick and choose what force would fight what.

You can see why I liked Legions of Steel. The sheer variety of interesting miniatures made most players desire to buy and paint new units to get on the table. I was just as addicted as anyone.

Finally, and here is what I LOVE about Legions of Steel, the actual movement and shooting mechanics of the game are gloriously simple. What Marco and company did was generate the perfect D6 combat system. Rather than build complexity into the specific unit, it's armor, it's latent powers or even it's level, LOS adapted the tried and true "kills" system. Meaning, every specific unit needs to be killed a specific number of times and then it's dead. Most war games use it. In LOS 90% of the untis die with one kill. Rather than using the convoluted system that GW uses, the LOS system for determining hits is ingenious and at the same time, simple. What complexity exists in LOS is reduced to a simple line chart for each weapon. The design of the game allowed for a vast array of weapons, each having diffferent capabilities and at the same time reduced the need for referencing to the simple one-line for that weapon.

Here's a scan of a 40K weapons player aid. Look it over and you'll get a feel for how many different locations in the rulebook you'll possibly need to access to use it properly.

Here's a scan of the ADVANCED rules LOS player aid. There are two references to the main rules and both those weapons are specialized and unique enough that after one or two uses you will get it. Some of the data on this player aid is not used at all in the basic rules.

So if this game is so great and if Marco and his partners so brilliant, what happened? Why didn't Legions of Steel and Global Games make it?

That's the big question, and sort of the reason I trotted you through this whole love-fest I have with Legions of Steel. Here's what I think happened -

I met Marco several times at Origins and also at the GAMA trade show. What a great guy. Smart, personable and a fine marketeer. My store became a hotbed of LOS activity and I had a whole LOS section, tournaments and special combo deals promoting the game. Global Games shipped me demo's and prizes and for almost a year I really thought Global Games had a shot at challenging Games Workshop domination of the miniatures gaming segment.

For the uninitiated, selling miniatures for war games is as profitable as CCG's. More so really. Except for the initial two years of MTG, most CCG's have to be sold at huge discounts or the players will merely log on and buy at wholesale from online vendors. Loyalty is close to non-existant in CCG's. Loyalty is everything in table top games because it's the store that finances the array of minaitures, the expansions, the tables and terrain that all allow you to play, sample and enjoy your investment. Think of CCG's as dotcoms that may allow you a quick profit and think of miniature games as solid blue chip stocks that give you healthy returns year after year.

But, it was not to be. Back in about 1996 I sat at the hotel bar in Columbus and listened to Marco extoll the virtues of his new game. The one that would really put Global Games on the map. The game was called Inferno. Essentially, it dealt with battling demons and their minions in the Seven Levels of Hell.

What a crap idea.

I went to his booth the next day and played the game. It sucked. It was similar in many ways to BattleTech. It had big models, about 54mm and it had little tiny ones, the minions, at about 6mm. The art sucked. The concept was boring. The rules confusing. In short, it was Marco's baby, but almost nobody else cared. And I told him exactly what I thought. I explained that, to me, Global Games already had a profitable franchise and my store was in the first two years of what I predicted to be the run-up to a decade of profitablility with Legions of Steel. Marco and company had even published a rule book adapting the LOS rules to 40K-style table top gaming and had begun selling vehicles for the system. It was called Planetfall and it was easily as good as 40K.

But to listen to Marco, to see the fire in his eyes, it was easy for me to see that he was taking the money from LOS's success and sinking it into this new game... which was a stinker. Being a good and supportive retailer I ordered a case of the Inferno, a 6-pack of each miniature pack, several of the additional cardboard terrain "towers" and I told him I'd give it a shot. For your information, a case of the game was 6 copies. Sitting next to me right now, in 2006, 10 years later, is one of the sealed copies of Inferno. The other 4 and the demo copy I already sold on eBay, along with the remaining packs of miniatures. If you followed that, you'll understand I sold exactly one of the boxed Inferno game. One.

Within 2 years, actually a bit less, Global Games passed away.

I may be wrong, there may have been other factors at work behind the scenes, but I still tie the death of a great company and the removal from the market of one of the best games ever to one guy's passion for demons and Dante's visions of Hell.

On Saturday evening my buddy Shaun came over and we played Legions of Steel. I taught him the game in about 15 minutes. I helped him a bit with the concepts of leadership, movement and the few little twists that LOS has that make it great. He pummeled my marines with his machine troops... as is normally the case in the basic learning scenarios. He loved the game. The beauty of the weapons tables. The simple combat resolution. The multitude of choices that a player can make, the tactics, the understanding that every action has subtle effects on future actions... LOS is like Shrek the Ogre... it has layers. Simple to look at. Simple to learn. You don't get bogged down with minutia and constant back and forth rules searches. Arguments never happen because the rules are clear.

And, you can't walk into a store and buy the damned thing.

If anything I have shown you today or said is interesting to you then I suggest you hit eBay and start by buying a basic boxed set. There ought to be miniatures out there as well and there were several of the expansions that came shrinkwrapped with tons of extra tiles to expand the combinations for scenarios. I have designed and played scenarios that covered a 4x4 table and for my money, this is probably the best miniature game I ever played.

If you know Marco or have any information on what really happened to Global Games and the ownership of Legions of Steel I'd be interested. I'm easy to find via, so shoot me an email.

In the meantime, why not see if you can locate a copy of this gem? You may be suprised, and you may even become less snooty. Have a terrific 4th of July. And if you're not American, have a terrific 4th of July!


MaksimSmelchak said...


I also liked LOS.

I have no idea what happened to it, but...

I can say that Inferno is still around, alive and kicking... Yahoo support group, miniatures and much more.


MWChapel said...

Well if you looked at my only trade on BGG, you'l notice that I traded away all my Legion Of Steel material on 2/21/2005 for a copy of Mississippi Queen.

OH, I know that must hurt just a little aye DW?. ;)

I actually have played quite a bit of LOS. I actaully own a rare copy of the beta rules for Planetstorm that came in a yellow binder. I was working at War Games West when it came out in the mid 90's and was the one employee that bought most of the mini's, including the 2 lbs of lead that made up the UNE assault platform(try finding that puppy).

It was actually a great mini close quarters rule set.

Mike C. --

Anonymous said...

Huge fan here...served as a Strike Force member(Demo Team)

Saw the popularity of the game plummet when Inferno was released..then the Abyss RPG was the final nail. All that time and money sunk into a poor game design

Players were screaming for LOS things army expansions and they were getting "Inferno"

I still teach my friends new and old the system and hope one day SOMEONE comes back with LOS

Anonymous said...

Amazon Miniatures UK has the molds as far as I know, and stocks both the game and the miniatures.

Anonymous said...

Global Games went under mainly because the poor investment they made on Star War miniatures with ?West End Games, in addition to other poor management problems. LoS actually had quite a number of supplement. Unfortunately, when the designer decided to convert this board game into a full table top miniature game as a last attempt to save the company, the gamble failed. Planetstorm is no comparison to LoS.

Anonymous said...

I could go on ad naseum about the game development, and in particular on how the game mechanics ended up as they did. The short answer is that Dereck, Marco and I thought Space Hulk presented an interesting game format, but that it could be done better in terms of mechanics and materials. I was a sergeant with the Canadian military engineers, and my training had a great deal of influence on the mechanics and unit designs.

In late 1994 or early 1995, there was a falling out with Dereck and he left Global Games. In early 1996, I was accepted to UBC Law School, and Marco and I parted on good terms that summer. Our agreement included provisions for the intellectual property for Legions of Steel to return to me. As far as I am concerned, I own the copyrights in LOS, but have not had the time, money or inclination to chase after an overseas company who aquired moulds and other assets after Global Games Europe closed down.

Prior to my departure, Marco and I worked on a promotional plan we call the "Rack Deal". It involved getting a significant assortment of product, along with a custom made rack for in-store display, into the hands of the retailers at a reasonable cost. The idea was to finance the deal on generous terms so that the retailer could sell some of the product, pay their outstanding balance, and then turn their profit on the on-going sales. We gave a 100% money back guarantee to the retailers so they could return it, and pay only for what they sold, if it didn't work out.

There was a massive response, which was good, but it meant that we had to finance it for several months as we waited to get paid. And did I mention we gave a 100% money back guarantee.

In the end, most of the retailers returned the Rack Deal, which stuck us with thousands of dollars of inventory. The unit/miniture changes for the Second (Blue) Edition were partly a practical matter given the miniatures we had on hand.

Global Games collapsed after West End Games filed for bankruptcy, terminating their Star Wars license with Lucasfilm. Global had invested tens-of thousands of dollars into development costs of a Star Wars miniature game that, it's my understanding, would have been loosely based on the LOS system. I saw the prototypes for Imperial Stormtroopers and they looked excellent. The game was supposed to be released at the same time as Episode I. Potential sales were estimated at $2 million dollars.

The European distributors of Inferno and LOS, smelling blood in the water I guess, didn't pay. Overseas distributors were on 60 day credit terms and they had purchased thousands of copies of Inferno, including translations into various languages.

Another venture turned sour was "The X Game", a sort of paranormal Trivial Pursuit.

Around that time, I was graduating from law school with $40,000 in student loans, and Marco had found success with Rue Morgue Magazine, so neither of us was really interested in kick-starting LOS again as a business venture.

We have had a few discussions about licensing LOS to other companies, but nothing has come to fruition.

Currently, I have an application pending with JAG. If accepted, I will be going crazy for about six months as I do basic training all over again with people half my age, but thereafter it will add an element of stability to my life. More importantly, it will get me back in that military mindset from which much of LOS flowed. If there are no other licensing discussion on the table by next year, don't be surprised if I try to resurrect the franchise.

Any questions or comments appreciated.

Clark Browning

Anonymous said...

Legions of Steel is being brought back in the form of a PC/IOS/and android game.

Egyptoid said...

what were the six-legged robotic hounds called ?

Egyptoid said...

found it, they are the Runaways

Warren Loewen said...

Hi, Anonymous. I bought into LOS when it first arrived in the game stores. I am also in the military and loved the game mechanic and that entire universe you guys created. I still love the game after 24 years. In fact, I have at least two complete game sets with lots of extra tiles and hundreds of minis mainly from the UNE and LOS. Even my wife likes the game who was introduced to it when it came out.

Currently, I am working on my own strategy wargame, which is due for Kickstarter in early 2017. If you ever got back into LOS I would love to get involved with that, even as a playtester.

Although they made the electronic version of LOS, and my grandson likes it, we enjoy the miniature version a lot more. Having hands on with the minis and interacting with other players is much more appealing to me than a video game version. I am a still an old school gamer at heart. Although it has been 7 years since your big comment here, I hope things were successful with your JAG position.