Okay, so I just received¹ a copy of the old Star Trek III game that was produced by West End Games. I opened it up and was stunned to see three totally different games that have absolutely nothing to do with the movie title that is so brazenly plastered across the cover. I was just completely gobsmacked. I mean… what were they thinking…? And their style and production are just painfully dated. I was just plain blown away until I realized… this thing came out in 1985. Steve Jackson was still trying to get GURPS’s design nailed down. He was still putting out Space Gamer. Car Wars had just graduated from the pocket box into the big set box. Though the Macintosh was released in the previous year, eight-bits like the Commodore 64 still ruled the home computer scene. If you consider all of that, it sort of makes sense that West End Games would still be putting out the equivalent of a Metagaming Microgame or an SPI magazine game even at such a late date. But three of them… in a box big enough to get some shelf space at the game store… maybe right next to the recently released Basic D&D Companion Set? Okay. This thing is understandable… bit it’s still unbelievable!
I always liked economic games like M.U.L.E., so Free Enterpri$e was the first one I played from this package. The striking thing about the introductory John M. Ford story is that its style of dialog and jokes completely anticipate the tongue-in-cheek nature of the fourth and fifth Star Trek movies. (I doubt this was intentional– as far as I can tell, the West End Games designers and freelancers were just naturally demented.) There was quite a learning curve on this even though the rules took up a mere six pages or so. Here’s a breakdown of the sequence of play:
- Federation Movement: Move your six shuttle craft and the enterprise around the seven worlds on the map. (Yeah, it’s sort of a Firefly style beaucoup-worlds system, man. Deal with it.) The Enterprise can go anywhere it needs to be if you need to repair a shuttle in a hurry or else dump a bunch of warehoused goods onto the market.
- Klingon Movement: This is a rather ingenious system. Each path on the board is numbers so that a die roll can tell you where the Klingon shuttles will go. If these guys land on the same “buoy” location as one of your shuttles are on, they will attack. If they land on the same world as you, they will try to stop you from selling there that turn.
- Federation Trade: Usually this will mean buying goods if your ship is on a world. To sell something, you have to have the exact type of good that the world wants– and this can change every turn! (There are six types… each in six colors.)
- Klingon Trade: If the Klingon shuttles ended up landing on a world, they get points. If they get to 100 before you do, you lose!
- Fad Change: Check each world to see if either the color, the good, or both change. The main world is particularly influential on the others.
- End of Day: Pay for warehoused goods and then tick the day marker. You’ve only got two weeks to win.
The Klingon Movement and the Fad Changes are straightforward enough, but wow does it seem tedious in this current age of ubiquitous computing. If I was really going to play this, I’d write a Perl script to track the Fads at the very least. The zany colors and weird good types only make this process more exasperating for my old-man eyes. The die that came with this set– presumably the original one– was an unreadable early eighties twenty sided percentile die. (No crayon was mentioned as being included for the purposes of filling in the numbers….)
After one false start, I decided to avoid trouble wherever possible. Rolling on the “Risky Transit Table” and/or getting overrun by Klingon shuttles was even more of a bother than keeping track of the Fad changes. But it could be that playing it safe takes time you don’t have, so that might not be a winning strategy.
One thing I thought to do after trying a few turns: it seems like putting all of your ships together at the start might be the way to go. Buy up some goods, then go camp out on a world. Pay for advertising and hope for the best. Use a couple of shuttles to block the entrances to keep the Klingons from meddling. The good has to match for them to want it and the closer the color is, the better they pay. As soon as you can unload, do it… but trade instead of sell. (Do the Klingons meddle with trading, too, or just selling? I’m not sure….) This should load up your shuttles with stuff. From there… you can try this stunt again… and it looks like the main world is easier to predict than the others. If you have something that is liable to roll around and be in demand there in a few turns, send a shuttle there and try to cash in.
Just thinking that through and not being sure that it would work or not… it’s clear to me that this is a relatively complex game. It’s a toy economic system, sure… but there’s a lot here to play with. I think there is far more to think about here than what I’ve seen in the other solitaire games that I’ve played: Ogre’s “AI”, Star Fleet Battles “monster” scenarios, and the doomsday machine game in Space Empires: 4X. While the tedium required to keep it going doesn’t exactly hold up all that well, it is certainly is interesting. The way it creates patterns of chaos from a very small number of rules is fascinating. I’m really glad I got the chance to see this one.
¹ I got it in a care package from longtime reader Chris Mata. Thanks a lot for this, Chris!!