Reflections on STRIKE TEAM ALPHA, 30-Odd Years Later
Staying over at my grandparents' house when I was a child in the early 1990s, I found my uncle's trove of 1970s and 1980s geekdom. We're talking Doctor Who novels (I specifically remember Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion), Dragon magazine, etc. And in particular a lot of tabletop war games, including Strike Team Alpha from 1978. That one was my personal favorite, largely because they had a dinosaur-like antagonist race called the T'Rana. Uncle John eventually let me take it home, but I misplaced it somewhere in my parents' house.
Well, after years of sporadically looking for a new copy (including finding and calling up the original creator, who sent me some pictures of game-manual artwork), I found one on eBay and ordered it (as part of a two-pack with Full Thrust, a British space-fleet tabletop game that's still in production today). Although I don't really like playing tabletop wargames, I do really enjoy the lore and I do remember liking Strike Team Alpha's storyline.
So on this merry Thanksgiving, I got the manual out of the plastic sleeve they sent it in and re-read it for the first time in close to 30 years. How did it hold up? Well here goes...
*The backstory predates Warhammer 40,000's "every faction is evil" darkness by nine years. Earth demands a 95% tax rate from asteroid colonists due to the massive self-importance of the people, or at least their leadership ("Earth being the self-acknowledged center of the Universe decided that its asteroid colonies were not paying the proper respect to the birthplace of humanity"). Colonies that cannot or will not pay are wiped out, prompting the surviving colonists to convert their habitats into generation ships and bug out for another solar system. Earth's population, rather than realizing their own greed and tyranny provoked this and failing to acknowledge the sheer courage this took, call this "the Exodus of Cowards." And when the belters foolishly reveal where they've set up their new homes, the result is the founding of a united Earth government that launches an incredibly destructive war of conquest. Like seriously, three-quarters of the colonists on Tau Ceti are killed in the opening nuclear attack and the subsequent "War of Reclamation" is specifically described in the manual as "a war of terror." One gaming scenario involves miners being used for forced labor rebelling and offering the metals they'd mined to mercenaries to help them re-establish self-government. And that's before the wars with the cat-like Sha'anthra (who wage wars almost for fun with other species or with each other) and the T'Rana (who are genocidal Explosive Breeders) kick off. And the outlying colonists, though they're clearly higher on the moral food chain than the Terran Federation, will often fight each other.
(The more I think about it, the more this sounds like Joss Whedon's space Western Firefly and its film adaptation Serenity.)
*Per the above, although the back-story isn't preachy and annoying, you can tell the politics involved. Not only is the initial exodus from Sol driven by a greedy centralized government that taxes people literally to death, but the Terran colonial occupation regime explicitly forbids ownership of energy weapons by private citizens or even local governments. As a result, colonial militias are equipped with broadly late 20th or early 21st Century assault rifles, machine guns, etc. despite the presence of literally predatory alien races, human pirates, etc. And many of the scenarios the game-book provides include colonial rebels and their hired mercenaries fighting collaborators and the Terran Federation years afterward. Live free or die, indeed. The game came out not long before Ronald Reagan became the U.S. President and reflects some of the zeitgeist of that era.
*There's an apocryphal quote out there that says amateurs talk about tactics and dilettantes talk about strategy, but professionals talk about logistics. And the logistics make sense. The game emphasizes small-unit combat because supporting a large army across interstellar space would be a nightmare. The frontier colonies are underdeveloped (likely intentionally, to keep them from rebelling) and the core industrial worlds are so far away. The supplies and gear for super-advanced weaponry used by the Terran Federation's Marines would have be carried across light-years. So campaigns would need to be short and sharp.
*Speaking as someone who is now vastly more knowledgeable about history than when he was eight, the war with the T'Rana looks a lot like WWII, particularly the last madness of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. We're talking an overly-aggressive enemy that fights to the death, literally eats their enemies, picks unnecessary fights that ultimately doom them, will destroy conquered territory rather than allow it to be liberated, etc. The end of the war looks like what would have happened if the U.S. had rejected both the atomic bomb and invading the Home Islands and decided to continue the conventional bombing/blockade...something that wouldn't work against something as large and self-sufficient as an entire star system. The T'Rana are (mostly) contained, but there are still raids.
*The game features tactical nuclear weapons, not just small nukes delivered by missile or aircraft that one might expect, but nuclear weapons deployed by individual soldiers. We're not just talking something like the infantry-operated Davy Crockett recoilless rifle that seems like something that would actually be useable (albeit unbelievably risky to due the fact a single infantryman or combat team could start a nuclear war), but nuclear hand grenades. The game was clearly devised in a time before precision-guided weapons that would allow more-accurate conventional weapons to be used in place of battlefield nukes. There are also fusion-beam weapons called "sunguns" that are sort of like flamethrowers, except one needs to wear anti-radiation protective gear.
*However, the game does feature something called a "battlerob," which is essentially a semiautonomous robotic light tank. Groups like Amnesty International have already spoken out against "killer robots," so this is something that's going to be a political issue in the future.
*The game also features rocket-propelled explosive ammunition, much like Warhammer 40,000's bolters.
*One of the play-testers was George Alec Effinger, a noted science fiction writer and winner of both Hugo and Nebula Awards.
*There are quite a number of typos in the manual.
Verdict: Still a fun world to blow things up in (and it was interesting that many concepts were used in later, more successful games), but finding a copy (and especially finding the Ral Partha figures designed for the game) is going to be a real pain. It'd be nice if there was licensed fiction set in this world (that's one reason I reached out to the original creator), but that seems a bit...unlikely at this point.