Vintage Treasures: The Pocket Games of Task Force Games, Part One
Task Force Games, based in Amarillo, Texas, was one of the very best board game companies in the business in the 80s, especially for science fiction fans. They published the majestic Federation & Empire (and its follow-up, Federation Commander), Kings Bounty, Godsfire, Battlewagon, Armor at Kursk, Musketeers, and the RPGs Crime Fighter, Prime Directive (based on Star Trek), and the glorious Heroes of Olympus — among many, many others — before the company was sold to Might & Magic developer New World Computing in 1988, and then went out of business.
Of course, who could afford big games like that? Not me, that’s for sure. But that’s okay, because Task Force Games was also a pioneer in the microgame market, with a line of truly stellar Pocket Games, starting with Starfire in 1979. Starfire was one of the most successful microgames ever released. It sold a zillion copies, went through six different editions, and is still being sold today by Starfire Design Studio. It was so popular it eventually inspired a series of novels by David Weber and Steve White, including the New York Times bestseller The Shiva Option.
Starfire wasn’t even the most popular Task Force pocket game. That honor belongs to the ubiquitous Star Fleet Battles. Everybody owned a copy of Star Fleet Battles in the 80s. I think it was required by law. I’d tell you how many editions of Star Fleet Battles exist, but no one truly knows. Academics around the world have gone insane, just trying to figure out how many editions of Star Fleet Battles there are. It’s like writiing your Ph.D. thesis on the Necronomicon.
Anyway, Task Force Games had a huge hit with their Pocket games line. Shipped in zip locks bags (eventually shrinkwrap), and priced at $3.95, the games were designed to be easy to learn and quick to play. All told they released twenty-two, all but three with science fiction or fantasy themes, including many that are still highly regarded today. The most successful, like Starfire, Star Fleet Battles, Armor at Kursk, and Swordquest, eventually graduated to full-fledged boxed editions, but the zip-lock versions were fully playable (and a lot more portable).
The first three Pocket games to be released were Starfire, Asteroid Zero-Four, and Valkenburg Castle (which, unlike the first two, wasn’t numbered). Here’s a scan of the backs of all three:
[Click on the images for bigger versions.]
Apologies for the plastic distorting the image a little on Valkenburg Castle. My copies have all been in the shrinkwrap for over 30 years, and I’m not taking them out now.
Task Force Games is generally acknowledged as the second major player to jump into the microgame industry, following Metagaming, who released Ogre in in 1977. They were followed by SPI, TSR, Steve Jackson Games, and FASA, before microgames eventually died out at the end of the 80s. There’s a nice survey of the entire microgame genre at The Maverick’s Classic Microgames Museum here.
One of the great things about Task Force’s pocket games was that they were sort of a testing room for innovative game designs. Designers could try out all kinds of things, without the heavier pressures that came with a $20 boxed game. When these simple games were a hit, as they were with Starfire and Star Fleet Battles, the designers expanded the rules with sequels — also pocket games, naturally. Starfire had two Pocket Games sequels before being released as a boxed game.
Starfire II (1980)
Starfire III: Empires (1982)
The boxed version, containing the original and both expansion, was released in 1984 (at right).
The second Task Force Pocket Game, Asteroid Zero-Four, was also released in 1979. Unlike Starfire, it’s generally forgotten today, but it was a fun little two-player game that extrapolated the Cold War into space, simulating a battle between Russian and American asteroid bases.
Much more memorable is Valkenburg Castle (1980), a surprisingly faithful board game adaption of a traditional dungeon crawl. Players take the role of young Lord Hobart van Valkenburg, rightful heir of the abandoned Valkenburg Castle, returning at last to his monster-infested ancestral home in an attempt to wrest it away from the sinister creatures who now inhabit it — including the powerful boss monsters who lair at the deepest dungeons levels. Valkenburg Castle never had an upscale boxed edition, which I think is a shame.
I previously reviewer Valkenburg Castle in more detail here.
Here’s a few pics to show you all the goodies you got for $3.95, starting with Starfire, which came with a counter sheet and a rather boring hex map:
Here’s one segment of the much more interesting asteroid map for Asteroid Zero-Four:
And here’s everything that came with your copy of Valkenburg Castle, including a flyer advertising more from Task Force Games:
A closer look at the counter sheet:
And a glimpse of half of the map:
We’ll continue our tour of Task Force Pocket games next time with a look at Cerberus: The Proxima Centauri Campaign, Star Fleet Battles, and Prochorovka: Armor at Kursk.
See the complete catalog of Task Force Pocket Games over at GameBoardGeek.
I’ve previously covered several microgames, including
The Roots of Microgaming: The Classic Games of Metagaming
The Classic Games of Metagaming: Ogre
The Classic Games of Metagaming: Chitin I: The Harvest Wars
Melee and Wizard by Metagaming
The Lords of Underearth by Metagaming
The Awful Green Things From Outer Space by Steve Jackson Games
Valkenburg Castle, by Task Force Games
Swordquest, by Task Force Games
Barbarian Kings by SPI
Barbarian Prince, by Heritage Games
Return of the Barbarian Prince
At Empire’s End, by Dark City Games
S.O.S, a complete Legends of Time and Space game by Dark City Games
The Island of Lost Spells and Wolves on the Rhine, by Dark City Games
A survey of Dark City Games
Solitaire Gaming by Howard Andrew Jones
See all of our recent Games coverage here.
I had a bunch of these. Few were great, but all were good solid games and good value. Starfire, thought, was (and is great). I haven’t played in ages but I do look at the page for the current version of the game. http://www.starfiredesign.com/starfire/
Fletcher, wasn’t there an attempt to computerize Starfire at some point? Or perhaps make it playable over the internet?
I liked Starfire more than Star Fleet Battles, mainly from the custom-building of ships aspect. Nice to know that it is still available, even digitally.
Amarillo Design Bureau, Steve Cole’s new company, is also keeping a number of the old Task Force microgames afloat, some with the aid of SJG’s Warehouse 23 outlet. So, Asteroid Zero-Four (which I swear must be related to the movie Moon Zero Two), Valkenburg Castle, Prochorovka: Armor at Kursk, and a few others are digitally available, too.
John – I think there was but I’m can’t remember if anything came of it. That could have been a blast.
> Amarillo Design Bureau, Steve Cole’s new company, is also keeping a number of the old Task Force microgames afloat
Right you are! I had a look, and found a link for the PDF version of VALKENBURG CASTLE:
Here’s the page that collects the six currently available electronic editions (you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom), under OTHER GAMES:
> John – I think there was but I’m can’t remember if anything came of it. That could have been a blast.
It’s a little dated now, but this page:
mentions an online version:
However, the link they give is dead.