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SFU Influence on Games

The influence the Star Fleet Universe has had on today's games.

Marc Michalik, Blogger

April 29, 2016

14 Min Read

The Star Fleet Universe is second only to Dungeons & Dragons in the influence it has had on the games that came after it.  A tiny few of the more prominent, and more obvious, examples include Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, and Faster Than Light.  There is no exaggeration here.  A good rough estimate is that around 1/3 of the computer games ever made were influenced by Stephen V. Cole's work in some way, shape, or form.  Probably 15% or so contain some major element of his work.  It was a dominant game in the hobbiest game industry for nearly 20 years, it's influence is broad and far reaching... staggeringly so.  Practically nobody in the modern game industry has ever heard of SFB or Steve Cole, even though they take their history and evolution of where game concepts originated very, very seriously.  There were several major factors in how this happened.  For one, most game industry professionals today, if they have heard of it, would probably describe SFB as something like... "wasn't that one of those rulers & strings games".  Another is that it was played by such a small but loyal audience by today's standards, it was too complicated for most to care about, and most of it's players are from the generation before computer games and have never played a computer game in their life.  So there were relatively few people to remember it in any event.  But, because of the kind of game that it is, and it's rulebook being something of a "game design bible", many of it's players went on to become involved in making computer games in some capacity, and put ideas from the SFU into those games and, of course, individual ideas don't get put in the credits of the game or anything.  And then there are the two really big reasons that you have never heard of the Star Fleet Universe in spite of the staggering influence it has had the modern game industry.  Paramount wouldn't let TFG/ADB make a computer game when it needed to to be remembered and, in conjunction with this, the thinly disguised Star Fleet Universe computer game that you know as Master of Orion stole the reputation of the Star Fleet Universe.  Everything that you think is Master of Orion is actually the reputation it stole from the Star Fleet Universe.  Master of Orion *WAS* that SFU computer game that was made at the right time for it to be remembered as "Dungeons & Dragons little brother"... it's rightful place in the history of games.  This is an accident of history that the author is attempting to correct by updating this wiki.

The Star Fleet Universe is also the original major game universe to consist of interlocking games.  Although there are other, "side-games" of the SFU, the three primary components of the interlocking Star Fleet Universe are Star Fleet Battles (the tactical combat "flagship game" of the SFU), Federation & Empire (a strategic level game portraying the "General War" which is the 20-year-long primary story arc of a history spanning a period of about 200 years), and Prime Directive (the SFU RPG game) which can be used to portray boarding party and landing ("Away Teams" in Star Trek terminology) actions, and "shipboard life" when not on either of these missions.  All three of these games are designed to interlock with each other.  Even standing alone, Star Fleet Battles is by far the largest, most massive, and most complex game ever made by a large margin, it's little brother Advanced Squad Leader being the only possible other candidate in that regard.  It took about 250 designers about 30 years just to finalize Star Fleet Battles alone, and the process of finalizing Federation & Empire is still ongoing today.  The entire 3-way interlinked Star Fleet Universe game system is so massive that I doubt that modern gamers are even able to imagine just how massive the complete Star Fleet Universe actually is.  They simply have no conceivable frame of reference from which to do this.  No computer game, made in 3 years at most by 20-30 people, comes anywhere near their "great grandfather".  This is a conservative estimate, it really is, playing the full campaign of the entire 3-way interlocked Star Fleet Universe, resolving all Federation & Empire battles using SFB, and all boarding and landing party actions using Prime Directive... any reasonable play time estimate would be counted in decades.  By the way... Are you beginning to feel that Master of Orion vibe yet?

This is what Master of Orion actually is.  It is a blending of 2 of the 3 components of the Star Fleet Universe linked together (F&E strategic and SFB tactical), and Civilization.  The strategy game side of MOO is 95% Civilization with just a few minor elements of F&E, like the "Command Rating" system of F&E applied nation wide instead of per ship as it is in F&E.  Everything else is pure Star Fleet Universe.  The square grid was a huge mistake and ruins it at a fundamental level (back then computer game makers wanted to avoid hexes at all costs, they didn't want to look like "an Avalon Hill game") but the tactical combat side is the Star Fleet Battles side of the F&E/SFB-linked equation and this is were it becomes all SFU other than just the overall concept.  No matter how you create a "custom ship" in Master of Orion, it will inevitably wind up looking like it's class from SFB.  For example, a DD class will generally have 2 heavy weapons and 4-6 secondaries, a CA will have 4 heavy weapons and 8 secondaries, and so on.  All the technology is straight out of the SFU, so you wind up making ships straight out of the SFU no matter what decisions you make.  This whole system is even an old rule from the previous Commander's Edition that we removed in the Captain's Edition as being inherently out of balance, section S8.0 "Ship Modifications".  That element of it wasn't even a part of disguising it, those rules were still in the game at the time MOO was made.  Although the Captain's Edition was first released in 1991, the previous Commander's Edition was more prevalant until the end of the 1990's and is even still in use today by some, it is an expensive game to replace,  MOO is instantly recognizable to anyone who knows the SFU.

There is no better example of the astounding influence that the silent hand of Stephen V. Cole and his Star Fleet Universe have had on the history of computer games than Faster Than Light.  It is a great game, and there is a reason for that.  It is the most Star Fleet Battles-like game ever made.  Even more so than Master of Orion, which is actually a Star Fleet Universe game (a blending of Star Fleet Battles, Federation & Empire, and Civilization), or Star Fleet Command.  If you read the wiki entry for Faster Than Light you will find a section on the games that the incomplete history of the modern game industry believe influenced Faster Than Light (a list of games that were ultimately influenced by SFB), and a picture of its creators receiving an award for what a great idea they had.  Here is what Faster Than Light *actually* is, broken down by a world class SFB expert... 

The most recent heavily SFB-inspired game is Faster Than Light.  This is *exactly* what it is about Faster Than Light that makes it such a popular game.  The design of Faster Than Light is actually sheer-genius, and is almost certainly not fully appreciated.  Star Fleet Battles rests on a foundation of 4 fundamental concepts that were the initial basis of the entire game system and have remained unchanged through nearly 40 years of expansion.

1) The Energy Allocation Form
2) The Ship System Display
3) The Damage Allocation System
4) Mass-Based Proportional Movement

Faster Than Light uses the first two of these, and eliminates the 3rd and 4th.  Why is this such an act of genius?  

The Damage Allocation System is the primary generator of play time within the game, the thing that most adds to how long it takes to resolve a turn.  This is replaced by what is a little-used optional rule within Star Fleet Battles called "Directed Damage" which means that the firing player chooses what system he is shooting at and therefore no "damage allocation" is needed.  This removes the lengthy time it can take to resolve damage within this system.

The Mass-Based Proportional Movement System is the primary source of complexity within Star Fleet Battles.  Part of what this system does is create what many believe is not possible, even though it has actually existed for over 40 years now, a "real-time board game".  The fact that SFB is a real-time board game is precisely what makes it so complex.  The design of Faster Than Light removes the primary source of SFB's complexity with this single act, and replaces it in the most simple of ways possible... the more power you put to engines, the higher your "evasion rating" is.  There isn't even any movement at all.  This single thing removes 90% or more of the complexity of the SFB game system.

This leaves ONLY the heart-and-soul, the two primary things, of what made SFB a dominant game in the hobbiest game market for nearly 20 years.  It is absolute, sheer genius and a great lesson for any aspiring game designer to understand.

BTW, if you want to do better at FTL, the single best piece of advice would be to not think of the energy you provide to engines as "fully powered", that misses the point.  In FTL power to engines is an abstract representation of movement and speed, as you already know if you understand the above.  Never feel obligated to fully power it, and never be reluctant to take power out of it to use something else at the right moment.  You aren't supposed to always have the engines fully powered, it isn't power... it is movement and speed.

The list of games that the FTL wiki lists as it's inspirations clearly show that it's designers had never heard of SFB before.  This is not meant to be insulting, but it is hard to escape the thought that this may actually be the only example we have in our history of the human race that there might actually be some truth in that old saying...  "Why does this situation seem to remind me about that old saying about a million monkeys with a million typewriters eventually writing the collective works of William Shakespeare?"

Faster Than Light is, literally, a Ship System Display using Module M: Marines and the optional Directed Damage rule, and an energy allocation form, flying through a rogue-like game.  The first two pillars of the foundation of Star Fleet Battles... the fun ones, with all the time consumption, complexity, and record keeping of the 3rd and 4th simply removed.  This is *exactly* what Faster Than Light is.  EXACTLY.  And people wonder why it is so popular?  SFB's own staggering influence has actually come full circle to re-invent itself, purely out of its own permeating influence of the modern game industry, over 30 years after it began laying its seeds throughout the history of modern games.  *THAT* is *exactly* what Faster Than Light is.

Again.  There is no exaggeration here.  A decent rough estimate would be that nearly 1/3 of the computer games ever made were influenced by Steve Cole's work in some way, shape or form.  Probably 15% or so contain some major element of his work.  Almost nobody in the modern game industry has ever heard of SFB or Steve Cole, even though they take their history and evolution of where game concepts originated very, very seriously.  Only Dungeons & Dragons has had more influence on the games that are made today, and that is true by a large margin.  Other than D&D, no other game comes anywhere near this great grandfather of so many things that you know and love so well but have no idea where they originated.  But in the case of the Star Fleet Universe another point remains... the staggering influence that it's designer and his "SFB Staff" have had on the *way* that modern games are made.  The silent hand of the Star Fleet Universe has been ever-present within the computer game industry since it's inception, on several levels, and has gone unrecognized for all of these years.  Even, and this is nearly unimaginable but true, eventually making it half-way to completely re-inventing itself through its own influence.  Again, no offense is intended by this, honestly, I think I understand how this happened, it's just the 800-lbs gorilla in the room here... those million monkeys actually did it!

Take a look at the Star Fleet Universe and see for yourself.  It speaks for itself, I really don't have to say much here.  I wrote all of this in less than 2 days.  All I really have to do is tell it's story and point in the general direction of Stephen V. Cole's unspeakably impressive masterpiece.  It really does say it all better than I ever could, it really does just speak for itself... once you are aware of it.  Any game industry professional will be absolutely shocked at just how familiar so much of this game that they have never heard of before is too them.  Absolutely shocked.  The Star Fleet Universe is, quite literally, 1/3 of your history.

There are many YouTube videos about SFB.  This is a very well edited 15-minute video featuring only the highlights of what was a 4-hour long game.  These are 3 world class SFB players including Josh Spencer, the former SFB Committee member who created the Interstellar Concordium, one of the most popular races in the game, and by extension the Zindi of the Star Trek: Enterprise TV show.  Pay very close attention to the procedure of a ship cloaking that begins at 4:10.  It's attacker attempting to retain a lock-on, that lock-on being retained, and the end result of what happens when those weapons reach the cloaked ship.  Pay very close attention to what is being said and everything that you are seeing.  Turn the volume up so that you can make it all out.  Due largely to the staggering influence that SFB has had on modern games... modern gamers should be able to almost fully understand what is actually a very complicated process within SFB.


I bet you understood that cloaking procedure and the result of the weapons reaching their target very well, didn't you?  Consider how that could possibly be... you just watched three 30+ year world class veterans need to consult the rulebook in a fairly comprehensive way to work it all out, it is not a simple process, and yet you have a near complete understanding of what took place.  How?  How do you understand this so well?  Considering the history you now know of where games more complex than Risk actually came from, what do you think the ultimate source of this knowledge that you clearly do possess is?  Advanced Squad Leader, Star Fleet Battles, or Dungeons & Dragons?  Which main branch of the Tree of Life would you think that particular "DNA strand" of modern day game knowledge ultimately came to you from?  See... you know the Star Fleet Universe better than you thought you did, don't you?

These "Big Three" games are from a bygone era that will never return.  Their staggering size and scope is an impossibility by today's standards, and these three "great grandparents" of the history of all of modern gaming are likely to remain sitting on their respective thrones until the end of time.  Together, "The Big Three" represent the ultimate source material for almost everything you have ever seen in any game more complex than Risk.  They will never be rivaled again.  The days of 250 designers spending 30 years to make a game are over, and they aren't coming back.  The modern game industry doesn't even know who their great grandparents are... Advanced Squad Leader, Star Fleet Battles, and Dungeons & Dragons.  It's time they met their oldest relatives, and finally learn where so much of what they do today actually came from.


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