Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

WarpWar: A classic design-a-thing game…

This game is uber cool. The fourth of Metagaming Microgame series, it’s got the Deluxe Car Wars font for its title, neato Winchell Chung illustrations in the rule book, and an easy-to-use ship design system. Created by Howard Thompson and released in 1977… this game illustrates what science fiction used to be like before a certain blockbuster film franchise hit the theaters. It’s so danged awesome, it hurts… but what hurts even more is that it’d take a rare bird indeed to stomach sitting down with me to put this one through its paces. Decades of “cult of the new” game churn and relentless gamer-darwinism ensure that this thing will remain in the dustier corners of a very few people’s collections….

Which is sad, because there’s a lot of nifty stuff going on with this game. Like the Holmes Basic D&D set, this old school game was designed with the new gamer in mind. The victory conditions mirror those of the abstract strategy game Octi by Donald Green: do you want a quick sudden-death type game with occupying one enemy base for the win…? Or do you want a deeper, richer game where you are required to take all three enemy bases at once? Finally, there are the unique factors of the game that make it stand out: all of the ships in the games are designed by the players on the fly and the combat system is an unusual diceless system. If you feel that you never quite got the play out of BattleTech’s dropships and jumpships that they deserved… this game lets you focus entirely on those sorts of units for a while.

Unlike “monster” space games like Federation and Empire or Space Empires: 4x, the economic system is abstracted out so that the ships themselves take center stage. Everyone starts with a budget of build points with an additional number of them coming in each turn. The worlds and star systems on the map are merely battlegrounds, choke-points in the web of warplinks that spider across the map. The march of technology is the same for both players as well: ships made later on get bonuses to their damage output and shield rating. This forces the player to choose between having more force right now or better units later on. Ships that push deep into enemy territory are liable to encounter more advanced opponents that are fresh out of the space docks.

Here are the various factors that can be determined in the ship design system:

  • Power/Drive — This determines how many moves the ship can make at the strategic level. In combat, it determines how much power you have for the energy allocation system. (The cost is one build point each.)
  • Warp Generator — For five build points, your ship can travel on the warplines of the strategic map. Without it, your unit is a mere systemship that will have to hitch a ride with a warpship in order to get anywhere.
  • Beams — This is the maximum power of your unit’s beam weapons. Note that they will still need to be powered in order to fire. (The cost is one build point each.)
  • Screens — This is the maximum power of your unit’s  screen systems and subtract from beam damage done on your ship. Like beams, they also have to be powered. (The cost is one build point each.)
  • Tubes — This is the number of launch tubes your ship has for firing missiles. Note that you cannot power beams or screens at all if you choose to fire a missile! (The cost is one build point each.)
  • Missiles — One build point gets you three missiles. Track that ammo!
  • System Racks — One build point allows your ship to carry one systemship along piggyback style.

This is a brilliant game… and yet, the it strikes me more as a design study than anything else. It certainly pales in comparison to the other Microgames of its day. It doesn’t seem to “want” for an inter-compatible sequel in the tradition of Ogre/G.E.V. and Melee/Wizard. And while it is wide open for tinkering and player-developed variants, it doesn’t seem to be the sort of game that could handle a series of ten expansion sets the way that Car Wars eventually spawned. I blame the combat system: it’s just a bit too gimmicky for the game to be a serious contender for table time.

(I still would like to play it, though. If you are going to be at any of my usual conventions and want to try this one, talk to me! I plan on making it to Gamers of Winter, Madicon, and Prezcon next year….)

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9 responses to “WarpWar: A classic design-a-thing game…

  1. Robert Eaglestone August 19, 2013 at 7:51 am

    The thing that struck me the most about WarpWar is its LEGO-like build approach: that is the gem of the system. In fact, that’s the only *system* element of the game. Your comment about “gimmickiness” in the rules is simply because there was one concept on which to hang everything else.

    To get back to my point, I think the one thing done right here (aside from a reasonable production quality, apparently) was the way ships were put together — simple and effects-based. I think with a little appropriate setting development this could have been a stronger game.

    • Robert Eaglestone August 19, 2013 at 7:54 am

      Oooh, I’d also like to note that there seems a passing resemblance between the WarpWar ships and the ship design concepts in Spheres, a non-published RPG out there on the ‘web. Most likely no relationship, except I think these sorts of gantry-and-rocket designs tap into a collective idea of classic sci-fi.

    • Robert Eaglestone August 19, 2013 at 7:58 am

      The “ASCII Ship Design” version of WarpWar: http://www.contrib.andrew.cmu.edu/usr/gc00/reviews/warpwar.html

    • jeffro August 19, 2013 at 8:01 am

      Though I criticize the paper-rocks-scissors style combat resolution, I have to admit that even Space Empires: 4X has effectively the same thing, though it’s worked into the the fleet design and tech tree. (Point defense counters fighters, mine sweepers counter mines, scanners counter raiders….)

      Even assuming that the combat system is the Achilles heel of the game, it’s not clear how to replace it while still leveraging all the other facets of the design. This is all speculation without having played the game, of course, and therefore not worth all that much. Which is why I’d want to play Howard Thompson’s solution to the design issues before trying to hack it.

      As to the setting, though…. It is way too obviously rigged for a game and not believable enough to merit the development of the role playing side. I can at least see that without having played it…!

  2. Alex August 20, 2013 at 8:48 am

    It reminds me of a smaller scale version of Imperium with more crunch to the combat.

  3. David Wessman September 1, 2014 at 7:26 pm

    There’s an interesting PC game being developed right now that is based on similar concepts. It is called Kinetic Void. Check it out on Steam.

  4. jlv61560 August 18, 2015 at 2:19 am

    As usual, seeing this one late. But here’s some thoughts and some info you might find interesting. First the info. If you go to and join the Yahoo user group for WarpWar, you will not only find some rather extensive development of the game in the form of Advanced WarpWar 2.0 and the 35th Anniversary Edition of WarpWar. In addition, Winch is a regular contributor there, and you’ll see lots of new art work and ideas there. Interestingly there was some info out in either the Spacegamer or maybe even Interplay, that indicated that Howard was actually working on a sequel to the game to allow empire building type activity to go on. No details were ever given and, of course, the whole concept died when Howard quit the business in a snit, so nothing ever came of it, but clearly the thought was there that it might be a good base for a more complex game. Given that HT also designed Stellar Conquest (still one of the great paper 4X games in my opinion), there was enough in the way of creativity and design experience that it’s a real shame he never went forward with it.

    Second, thoughts. I and my friends played this one extensively back in High School and College (that was from about 1977 to 1984 or so, with a two year break for the Army in there), and it is EXTREMELY fun. Of course, with the diceless combat system it effectively has zero solitaire playability, though I believe that there may be a dice-combat system in the Yahoo group files that would overcome that. Within its design parameters, the game is one of the most fun games I’ve ever played — right up there with Ogre and Melee and Wizard.

    The game experienced the usual difficulty of most Howard Thompson designs however; that is, it was clearly designed for a limited environment, and anything approaching an actual space empire would quickly drive the players into spreadsheets and accounting classes as they tried to keep up with their designs and tech levels. So, much like The Fantasy Trip, it worked better within the paradigm it was designed for and failed at the bleeding edge of the game envelope. To clarify that, that means that as long as you were running about as many ships as there were counters provided in the game box, all was well. But if you tried to expand the universe too much and then tried to build more ships, the book-keeping aspects of the game soon took over. The various expansions on the Yahoo group website, all seem to fail at that same point (including the couple that I designed and put there), and unless the players are willing to figure out a generic (probably dice based) combat system that permits them to fight most of the space battles abstractly, then the game will quickly become bogged down as the various empires fight dozens of tactical battles, frequently with dozens of ships, in what become hours- and/or days-long slugfests and player endurance tests (“Can I take his star before I have to go to the potty? Or will we be forced to postpone our fight until next time? Tune in, same time, same place to find out!”).

    One interesting thing we DID do though, back around 1983 or 84 was to combine WarpWar with Trailblazer (which may have been the last or nearly the last Microgame ever published by Metagaming) and used WarpWar rules and ship design to design our merchant ships used to haul cargo around. Since you couldn’t afford too many ships in the game (profits from trade supported not only the fleet, but also ground installations in the form of “Factors,” plus taxes and fines when you were caught smuggling), that effectively limited the number of ships in use and made WarpWar very viable. Needless to say, one of us promptly went rogue and took up piracy and selling his ill-gotten gains all around the known space volume, another was doing the mercantilist thing an trying to skim the cream of the market share on rare and luxury goods, while a couple of the rest of us were doing the industrialist thing and shipping lots and lots of low value, but bulk sale type items (raw materials and machinery, for the most part) around the known space volume, all the while sniping at each other whenever we thought we could get away with it! We definitely had a blast with it though! (I still occasionally hear from those guys, and the “remember whens” often involve our “Space Robber Barons” or “WarpBlazer” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it game along with a standing request to do it again if we ever physically meet up again in this life….)

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