space opera star empires

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

17.1 (Winter 2017)


Pop Culture


Examining the Space Opera/Star Empires Subgenre
Mark Wegierski

The author looks at space opera/star empires in literature, film, television, and gaming.

The origins of the space-opera/star-empires subgenre in science fiction can probably be traced to the late-Victorian combination of speculations about the possibilities of scientific achievement, and the ever-present reality (at the time) of empire. Indeed, a number of late-Victorian authors wrote works based on the then-novel idea of a British-descended “empire of the stars”. One of the most important aspects of this subgenre is that travel between the stars must be assumed to be almost as easy as jet travel between the continents on Earth today. Without a relatively reliable form of faster-than-light travel that can allow for very quick bridging of the interstellar distances, the concept of both the interstellar empire and the space-opera (where, e.g., the hero must reach the heroine before she withers to old age) collapses. The political, social, and cultural dynamics of hypothesized interstellar societies are much different without the possibility of faster-than-light travel.

The paradigmatic example of space-opera in film is, of course, George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy (subsequently expanded to three “prequel” movies, and now a sequel movie). It is also sometimes called a “space fantasy”. The Star Wars franchise has had an incredible attraction in popular culture. For example, tens of thousands of persons (for example, in Britain) have in recent surveys declared their religious affiliation as “Jedi Knight”.

Among the better cinematic imitations of Star Wars was The Last Starfighter, although it actually began on current-day Earth. Television shows in this subgenre included Battlestar: Galactica and Galactica ‘80.

The sort of new-old world typically seen in space-opera could be characterized as one with “feudal values plus high-technology”. The prominent left-wing science fiction writer Judith Merril complained ruefully in 1985 that virtually the whole genre of science fiction, especially in its more popular manifestations typified by the Star Wars movies, was heavily pervaded by this kind of typology.

The early paradigmatic example of space-opera within science fiction writing is E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series. Also very popular were the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials. There was a Buck Rogers TV series in the late 1970s, and a rather campy Flash Gordon movie in the early 1980s, as well as the overtly parodic Flesh Gordon.

Space-opera is a subgenre which borders on and overlaps with other sf and fantasy subgenres, notably “sword-and-planet”: Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom (Mars) series, military sf (Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers), and so forth. (Frank Herbert’s Dune, a highly complex work – and the so-called “Duniverse”—will be looked at in greater detail in a future article.)


Piers Anthony has written the Bio of a Space Tyrant series (with the garish covers). Set in a relatively near-future timespan, it chronicles the rise of Hope Rodriguez as the dictator of the moons of Jupiter. When he is young, his family is attacked. He becomes a mercenary captain, then overthrows the system, instituting personal dictatorship, and finally becomes an extravagant despot in old age. The works’ interesting subtext is the mirroring of the history of modern Mexico, and partly also of the Hispanic experience in America (at least as some might see it).

F.M. Busby has written the Rissa and Tregare series, which has been characterized as “intelligent space opera”. Rissa is a genetically perfect female rebel leader fighting against the U.E.T. (United Energy and Transport), an evil corporate solar empire. This is a near‑future, Solar System-centered scenario. Tregare is her lover and fellow rebel, once a U.E.T. mercenary commander.

Gordon R. Dickson is renowned for the Dorsai series. The humanity of the future has compartmentalized on different planets into several “races” focussed on different functions—war and politics, art and aesthetics, philosophy, business, etc. A precarious balance exists between them, but the Dorsai, as the warrior part of the race, seek to re‑unite and re‑integrate humankind.

The older author, H. Beam Piper, has written the Imperium series, with a great deal of verve. This is the basic political‑military empires with star‑drives in conflict scenario.

The Galactic Empires anthology is a particularly good example of this subgenre, which most often combines “feudal values plus high‑technology”. Some might say it is really a transposed historical romance. “The Rebel of Valkyr” (Alfred Coppel)–“horses in the starship hold”—should be noted in particular. The premise is that our galactic imperial civilization attacks Andromeda. The even more advanced Andromedan counter‑attack destroys all sophisticated technology—except for star‑ships. Advanced technology is therefore considered cursed, and its exploration is confined to “warlocks” and “witches”: i.e., scientists working in secret. Society is thus almost entirely medieval (with the exception that interstellar travel is possible on the hulk‑type starships, which are manned by a highly prestigious guild of navigators: quasi‑priests). Through established rituals and memorization, they are somehow able to guide the starships to their destinations. Although the premise may seem ridiculous, the story is nevertheless a celebration of valor, heroism, loyalty, etc.—all those traits that seem to be increasingly disappearing today.

Arthur C. Clarke, one of the best-known science-fiction authors, has made the provocative statement that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” There are many interpretations one could put on this phrase, ranging from something like the fact of the putative enslavement of most human beings to technologies of which they have no ken; to something like a suggestion that humankind’s powers can be almost infinitely extended through technology. Perhaps these two are not even entirely contradictory interpretations.

There may be an argument to be made that a return to older forms of human organization in the future may not be as unlikely as some might think. During the debate over the nuclear winter theory, the respected popular scientist Carl Sagan suggested that the reason that the universe is not teeming with intelligent life (as some astronomical theories had proposed to be the case) is that as every intelligent species develops technology, it is faced by a developmental crisis, which in most cases results in its extinction. Sagan had suggested that it was nuclear war that was probably the vehicle for this extinction. This is an interesting argument; however, it can also be turned in a quasi-traditionalist direction. If we do not deal with the hypertechnology overwhelming our planet in an orderly fashion, an order that only some form of neo-traditionalism and/or neo-authoritarianism can provide, our human societies are doomed to fly apart and into oblivion from the disintegrating force of too-rapid technological advancement. So “feudal values plus high-technology” may indeed be one possible future for humankind (or for other intelligent species who have to surmount a similar developmental crisis).

Two major space opera/star empires board wargames:

Freedom in the Galaxy: The Star Rebellions, 5764 A.D. Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), 257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010, 1979.

Howard Barasch, John H. Butterfield

400 die-cut counters (double-sided); 22” x 34” map (25 star-systems with 51 planets); 32-page rules; 12-page Galactic Guide; 2 sets of charts and tables (4 pages each); 140 cards (32 Character Cards, 20 Possession Cards, 15 Mission Cards, 30 Action Cards, 29 Galactic Event Cards, 14 Strategic Assignment Cards); 2 six-sided dice.

Bookcase box with attractive cover-art, plastic tray.

2 players

This is a very physically lavish game, but also very rules-heavy. The background closely parallels that of George Lucas’ Star Wars. It can be seen as a pastiche of the space-opera genre—also with elements of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. Since Star Wars was itself largely a pastiche, the SPI background emerges as too derivative and cliché-ridden. The mechanics of the game—for a supposedly mass-market oriented effort—are far too heavy. It can thus only appeal to rather committed gamers; the average Star Wars fan is likely to be daunted by the massive rules—and, of course, it’s not “the real thing”. Freedom in the Galaxy was probably a signpost along SPI’s decline, with its rules-heaviness sinking any chance of a broader appeal. However, if SPI had obtained the license to use the actual Star Wars background, the difficult rules might have been more forgivable, and the game would today be a real classic.

Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century Game. TSR, Inc., POB 756, Lake Geneva, WI 53147, 1988.

Jeff Grubb

362 Plastic Playing Pieces (Plastic Figurines in Several Colors)–6 Leaders; 120 Troopers; 48 Gennies (genetically-engineered humans); 90 Fighters; 36 Battlers (Battleships); 24 Transports; 24 Factories; 14 Killer Satellites

54 Playing Cards–42 Territorial Zone cards (used for initial allocation of territories); 6 Leader cards (describe special abilities of leaders); 6 Turn Cards

1 21-1/4” x 35-5/8” mounted map, divided into a Solar System Display (inner planets), and Planetary Displays of 4 major planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth/Moon, Mars) and major asteroids

2 rulebooks–16-page Basic Game rules; 8-page Advanced Game plus optional rules

200 die-cut circular counters; 50 plastic chips; 5 10-sided dice

Huge box with attractive art, large plastic tray inside.

2-6 players

This is one of the most colorful and physically lavish boardgames I have ever seen. It is full of attractive components. And, with the Solar System Display allowing the simulation of the inner planet orbits, it is more reasonably scientific than one would expect from the Buck Rogers theme.

The main complaint to be made is that more leader counters could have been introduced, so that players could play more in tune with the background (i.e., it is scarcely conceivable that Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, and Doc Huer could be leaders of powerful factions locked in savage conflict with each other).

Traveller/Imperium Future-History:

Imperium, Empires in Conflict: Worlds in the Balance (1st ed.). Conflict Game Company (Game Designers Workshop – GDW), 201 Broadway, Normal, IL 61761, 1977.

Marc W. Miller, Frank Chadwick, John Harshman

352 ¾” die-cut counters, 24” x 18.5” (approx.) mounted board, 12-page rules, 2 sheets of charts, 1 six-sided die, boxed.

2 players

This is among the most popular space-empire games ever. One of its highly inspired elements is to set the conflict (which is said to begin in 2113 A.D.) in terms of an upstart Terran Confederation, and an Imperial Province of a much larger Imperium. The Imperial Player takes the role of the Provincial Governor, not of the Emperor. The Imperium is committed to many other, far-flung sectors, and the Governor has to contain the expanding Terrans with an economy of force, though he may appeal to the Emperor for various types of support and/or emergency reinforcements. The Glory index, based on control of systems, either allows the Governor to achieve a glorious victory (which means a reduced but not fully destroyed Terran Confederation), or suffer ignominious defeat (which means the loss of a few systems from a large Imperial province). The game can then end, or resume after a certain number of “peace” turns, used for rearmament and consolidation. The series of ensuing wars can continue until one side or the other wins a total victory.

The premise for interstellar travel in this game is along pre-established hyperspace “jump routes” (which is near-instantaneous), as well as sub-lightspeed movement at a painfully slow rate of one hex a turn. There are a wide variety of units: 15 types of spaceships, regular and jump troops, planetary defenses, as well as world and outpost markers. The wide variety of ship types gives combat resolution at contested systems a distinctly tactical flavor. (Ships have beam, missile, and screen factors.) Units are purchased and maintained through expenditures of Resource Units derived from control of systems.

This Imperium game was cleverly integrated into the extended GDW Traveller future-history. The Imperium is the First Imperium of the parahuman Vilani. The First Imperium, underestimating the aggressiveness of the Terrans, will eventually crumble before their onslaught, with the eventual establishment of the Second Imperium, the so-called Rule of Man.

There at least two major Traveller “alternative-histories”. One of these is based on premise of a highly destructive “World War III” between the Western powers and the Eastern Bloc, in the late 1980s. GDW published a series of board wargames depicting that hypothetical war. The main role-playing game derived from that setting is Twilight: 2000–depicting a shattered world. Realizing that that had quickly become an “alternative history”, GDW published Merc: 2000, a more plausible depiction of brush-fire conflicts where the cataclysmic war between the major powers had never taken place.

2300 A.D. is a role-playing game based on an extension of this “alternative history”. It is a more optimistic extension from the destructive post-World War III situation in Twilight: 2000. Most of the powers of Earth have rebuilt and are moving into space. The game includes an interesting star-map of Sol’s stellar vicinity.

The Traveller/Imperium future-history was mostly based on a series of role-playing products centered on the original Traveller role-playing game (now called Classic Traveller, originally published in 1977). The RPG went through several iterations. The second main divergence or “alternative history” in Traveller was Traveller: The New Era, where a massive, highly destructive nanotech plague was posited, that plunged most of the interstellar civilizations into chaos. This amounted to a “re-booting” of the setting, with new factions emerging. In some of the more recent iterations of Traveller, being brought out under the Steve Jackson Games umbrella, this nanotech plague idea has been cancelled, in favor of the more pacific development of the relatively benevolent Third Imperium. Steve Jackson Games has also published role-playing material set in the much earlier time period which had been depicted in the Imperium boardgame, called “Interstellar Wars”.

After the fall of the Second Imperium, Earth-descended humans came to call themselves “Solomani”—and they established a rather particularistic civilization in that part of the galaxy which they had most heavily settled. Wars between the Third Imperium and the Solomani were quite frequent, and, finally, the Third Imperium carried out a massive invasion of Earth itself. This invasion is depicted in the GDW board wargame Invasion: Earth (published in 1981).

GDW certainly carried out rather clever “cross-marketing” efforts, trying to tie many of their role-playing and boardgame products into a unified “future-history”. While the effort may not have completely succeeded at arriving at a fully coherent timeline, it was certainly highly imaginative, and could be seen as quite worthwhile.

SPI “mini” board wargames:

WorldKiller: The Game of Planetary Assault. Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), 257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010, 1980.

Redmond A. Simonsen

100 die-cut counters (double-sided); 11” x 16” mapsheet; 4-page rules (1 six-sided die and game box only in boxed version).

2 players

WorldKiller first appeared in Ares no. 1, which was the beginning of SPI’s brave attempt to have a science-fiction/fantasy magazine “with a game in it.”

The game is a relatively simple articulation of a common sci-fi scenario of intruders vs. planetary defenders, played in three dimensions (with a total height of six “cubes”, a width of eight cubes, and a length of 12 cubes). Because of the comparatively small number of “cubes”, three-dimensionality is easily handled by the True Distance Table. Movement in space is in short, point-to-point jumps. Combat is at the ship to ship level, with incremental damage (which can be repaired). Players are encouraged to experiment with different starting forces.

The game is said to be set in the year 3021 (though not necessarily A.D.) It could be suggested that the invading E’kenn are supercilious parahumans with an extreme sense of hierarchy, or perhaps even human-descended themselves, and that the game should be seen as a “schematic” of a far larger conflict. If it is accepted that this is 3021 A.D., the forces involved should of course be far larger, where the conflict represented in WorldKiller would be only one skirmish. The space propulsion technology for the battle is of “mini-jumps” within a gravity field.

StarGate: The Final Space Battle for Galactic Freedom (Space Capsule # 2). Simulations Publications, Inc. (SPI), 257 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10010, 1979.

John H. Butterfield, Redmond A. Simonsen

100 die-cut counters; 11” x 17” map; 4-page rules; 1 sheet of charts (1 six-sided die needed for play).

2 players

With the popularity of the “Microgame” concept pioneered by the Metagaming company, SPI began to come out with its own line of “minigames” or “capsule games”. The four small games it released were very popular in terms of sales, but apparently failed to be profitable for SPI.

StarGate represents a common sci-fi scenario of a galactic coalition (here including humanity) fighting against tyrannical forces bent on galactic domination (here called the Virunians). For such a small game, a large number of innovative game-mechanics were introduced, based on the relative freedom afforded by the science-fictional concept. For example, there were distinctly different types of movement, different types of combat, and so forth.

The premise setting up the battle is a pell-mell retreat of the Virunians back to their stargates, from some distant corner of the galaxy, where they have met defeat. Their Tri-Ships, consisting of command, battle, and transport sections, pour out in a randomized jumble from the stargates, and the Coalition player has to pick off the disparate sections before they are able to reassemble. The Virunians have six distinct Tri-Ships, A to F, whose respective sections can only enhance sections of the same designation (letter-code). They also have three regular separate ships, the Monads. However, if the Virunians reassemble even one full Tri-Ship, the Coalition Player has effectively lost the game.

The date for this battle was said to be 2519 A.D. This date does not fit in with the main “future-history” of SPI, centered on the StarForce, StarSoldier, and Outreach games. In order to keep the coherence of the general SPI “future-history”, it could be suggested that the “canonical” date of this conflict could be shifted by a thousand years, to 3519 A.D.

The other races in the Coalition, the Igugui, can be extrapolated as having unusually high telepathic abilities (teleportation) – they have the ability to “lend” their teleportation ability to human units in StarGate. The Duonoips could be conceived of as tall, highly-muscular, but rather unintellectual aliens, based on the extremely high attack factor and low defense strength of their ships in StarGate. The Meta-Mex could be considered to be relatively benevolent machine intelligences with highly sophisticated “warp” drives (“Wobble” movement in StarGate). The humans’ usual propulsion method of mini-jumps within a gravity field is assumed to be unable to function in the wild energy fields of the NullGate.

As far as the Virunians, these can perhaps be conceived of as a coalition of three races—supercilious parahumans (or even breakaway descendants of Earth humans of ultrahierarchical outlooks) (command section); saurian warriors (combat section); and short, stocky “techies/workers” (transport section).

As far as the race that initially defeated the Virunians, these could be hypothesized as the relatively benevolent Hidden Guardians of the Galactic Core (hinted at in SPI’s Outreach game)–extremely psionically and technologically advanced parahumans.

As in the case of WorldKiller, the game should be interpreted as only a “schematic” of a battle that could have involved hundreds or even thousands of ships.

Other minigames:

Cerberus: The Proxima Centauri Campaign, Task Force Game # 3. Task Force Games, 405 South Crockett, Amarillo, TX 79106, 1979.

Stephen V. Cole

108 die-cut counters; 16” x 20” map; 25-page rules (half-size booklet) in a pouch (two six-sided dice needed for play).

2 players

With the obvious inspiration of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Cerberus portrays a gung-ho human civilization reaching for the stars in an attempt to conquer the main planet of the closest system, unfortunately occupied by the Cetians—a semi-reptilian-looking but not monstrous race. Cerberus is the main planet of the Proxima Centauri system. The technology of interstellar travel is “warp point to warp point”.

In the interesting designer’s notes, Stephen Cole pointed out that the game was conceptualized within some realistic limits—i.e., that no more than 50,000 personnel could be transported to participate directly in the assault, and that most of these would not have so-called power-armor. The date of the conflict is set at 2096 A.D.

The mechanics of the game are rather similar to that of a World War II paratroop assault. The Human player has to overwhelm one of the continents with his initial surge of forces, build up his reinforcements, and then fend off possible Cetian counterattacks (as the Cetians try to rush their own reinforcements to the planet.)

This is a very fine small-game, with many clever aspects.

FASA’s Battletech Future-History:

The Succession Wars: The BattleTech Grand Strategic Game

Main Designer: L. Ross Babcock III

(Chicago, IL: FASA Corporation, 1987)

ISBN 0-931787-72-6

1 24-page rulebook

1 22” x 34” playing map

4 sheets of die-cut counters: one sheet of 80 1” counters (double-sided); two sheets of 140 ¾” counters each (double-sided); one sheet of 260 ½” counters (single-sided)

1 deck of 48 event cards

1 bundle of credit notes (70 bills)

6 small plastic bags

2 10-sided dice

box (portraits of the five House leaders on the front, with the backdrop of a war-scene; crests of the Houses on the back)

2-5 players

Although the mechanics of this (preferably) multiplayer game are fairly simple, much of the appeal of the game is provided by its extremely colorful components, as well as by the fact that it is (as far as I know) the only grand-strategic rendering of the BattleTech universe. The map is said to represent an area about a 1,000 light-years across, and each turn is said to represent about three months. Pages 3-4 provide one of the earlier iterations of the BattleTech future-history.

Two main scenarios are provided: the Third Succession War, beginning in 3026 A.D.; and the First Succession War, which begins in 2786 A.D. There are (of course) different leaders in the two scenarios, as well as some differences in combat forces, and in some of the rules.

The five main powers in both scenarios are the same: House Davion (The Federated Suns); House Liao (The Capellan Confederacy); House Marik (The Free Worlds League); House Steiner (The Lyran Commonwealth); and House Kurita (The Draconis Combine). Like many sf projections, this is a somewhat Eurocentric future, with considerable Oriental input (if the leader counters and ‘Mech regiment names can be taken as a guide).

Although not represented by an actual player, ComStar, the posited mystical “secret society” which controls interstellar “radio” communications (through its “hyperpulse generator stations”), can in some circumstances serve as an “equalizer” or a “spoiler”. ComStar is an interesting addition to the BattleTech universe, and it is not difficult to see that a power that controls the flow of information between the stars, might eventually become the dominant power.

There are six main types of playing pieces. There are the leaders who can enhance combat and resource collection (and are subject to bribery/blackmail by other players, except for the House Leaders). The leaders are well-illustrated, with definite character visible in their portraiture. There are the Jump Ships, which ferry leaders and troops to battle. There are the ‘Mech regiments, who do most of the fighting, and whose crests and regimental names have been very imaginatively rendered on the counters. ‘Mech regiments are divided into the core, House regiments, and (of course) mercenary regiments, that may desert and/or switch sides (probably at the most inopportune time!). There are generic regular troops. There are also markers for manufacturing-centers, which are critical in building up one’s armies and Jump Ships. Finally, there are markers for indicating control of regions, in the five colors particular to the Houses.

On the main map, the territory of each House is subdivided into about twenty regions. (House Liao is markedly smaller in the Third Succession War scenario.) The delineation of the Houses, it must be said, is rather abstract, and there is no attempt to coordinate it to any existing astronomical data. Given the “sci-fi” genre which BattleTech represents, that’s not a problem. The names of the regions seem mostly Scottish, Russian, or Oriental-derived. However, some Tolkienian-sounding names (a tendency also seen in some of the ‘Mech regiment names) may be a little jarring.

Another important part of the map is the Technology Track. Among the players’ objectives is to increase their technological level, which allows for various enhanced combat, movement, and build abilities.

Also on the map is the box from which Event Cards are drawn, and a Discard Pile for them.

There are a broad variety of possible Events, from mercenary desertion, to rises in Tech Level, to increased chances of turning enemy leaders, to combat bonuses or penalties.

Although there is the need for some revenue-collection and calculation tasks, it is kept within reasonable limits, as a typical turn revenue would be about 20 points, and they can be consumed very quickly.

All-in-all, this is a highly colorful game, offering much of the flavor of the military sf genre of which BattleTech is a part. One could perhaps hope for add-on kits representing further installments of the future-history, notably, “the Invasion of the Clans”, and ComStar’s eventual bid for hegemony. The Succession Wars also seems like a game that might eventually appear in an electronic version. However, one notices a marked tendency towards tactical renderings in FASA’s elaboration of the BattleTech universe, especially in terms of combat between single ‘Mechs. The latter can more readily be translated into “super-arcade” games of either the personal computer, game console, or “virtual-reality”-cubicle type, which, it must be admitted, is probably what most gamers are looking for today.

Mark Wegierski, a frequent and loyal contributor to these pages for years, is a Canadian freelance journalist based in Toronto. His publishing interests range from political theory and practice to science fiction and popular culture to–most recently–the culture of Poland, his ancestral homeland.