The Games Plus 2019 Spring Auction: Part One

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019 | Posted by John ONeill

Games Plus 2019 auction sample-small

A few of the treasures acquired at the 2019 Games Plus Spring Auction

I’ve been attending the Games Plus Auction in Mount Prospect, Illinois ever since David Kenzer first told me about it, when we worked at Motorola in the late 90s. So, twenty years, give or take. I’ve been writing about it here ever since my first report in 2012 (in the appropriately titled “Spring in Illinois brings… Auction Fever.”)

The four-day auction occurs twice a year, in Spring and Fall.  Each day focuses on one of four popular themes: Thursday is collectable and tradable games like Magic: The Gathering and the Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures Game; Friday is historical wargames and family games; and Sunday is the massive miniatures auction, focused on Warhammer and like-minded pastimes. I’ve checked in on the others over the years, but my jam is the Saturday Science Fiction and RPG auction, which includes board games, minigames, and role playing rules, supplements, adventures, and magazines.  It runs from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with no break, and this year was on March 2.

When I first started going, I was was on the hunt mostly for 70s and 80s RPG and gaming collectables, especially TSR gaming modules, microgames, Avalon Hill and Chaosium board games like Stellar Crusade and Dragon Pass, and of course ultra-rare Dwarfstar titles like Barbarian Prince. That’s changed dramatically over the decades. We live in a golden age of science fiction and fantasy board gaming, and between the many, many active publishers, countless Kickstarters and other crowdfunding campaigns, and seemingly numerous new role playing games, it’s impossible for me to keep track of all the new releases.

Those games show up in great quantity as the skilled auctioneers move rapid-fire through thousands of titles over seven hours, and often at bargain prices. Nowadays I attend the auction chiefly to discover what’s new and exciting in fantasy and science fiction board gaming, and see if I can’t pick up a few. It’s an expensive outing, to be sure, which is why I save up for months beforehand. I rarely escape will a bill less than a thousand dollars, and this year was no exception. When they totaled up the damage at the end of the Saturday auction, I’d spent $1,573 on games that filled some 15 boxes.

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The Priceless Treasures of the Barbarian Prince

Sunday, September 16th, 2018 | Posted by John ONeill

Dwarfstar games-small

A complete set of Dwarfstar games. Probably worth more than my house.

I enjoyed Sean McLachlan’s Black Gate post last month, Wargaming with my Twelve-Year-Old. Sean and his son played Outpost Gamma, a 1981 science fiction board game of man-to-man combat on a distant colony world. You don’t see a lot of coverage of early-80s science fiction microgames these days, so I appreciated being able to share the fun.

Outpost Gamma was published by Heritage Models in 1981, under their celebrated Dwarfstar imprint. Dwarfstar, like Metagaming, Steve Jackson, and Task Force Games, produced a rich catalog of microgames aimed at younger players. Well, budget-conscious players anyway. Metagaming, who pioneered the concept of the microgame with their first release, Steve Jackson’s runaway hit Ogre, charged $2.95 for a two-color game in a small baggie. Dwarfstar did away with the baggie and upgraded to a slim box, added full color, and charged a lordly $3.95.

As a business, the Dwarfstar line wasn’t a success. Unlike Metagaming and Task Force, who released dozens of titles over the years, they produced only eight games between 1981-82. But from a creative perspective, they were a magnificent hit. Their titles included Arnold Hendrick’s classic Demonlord, simulating the desperate struggle against the Demon Empire, Lewis Pulsipher’s Dragon Rage, a game of giant monsters attacking a walled medieval city, Dennis Sustare’s Star Smuggler, a marvelous solitaire programmed adventure following the adventures of a star trader on the frontier, and the peak achievement of Western Civilization, Arnold Hendrick’s Barbarian Prince, a solitaire game of heroic action in a forgotten age of sorcery.

Superbly well-designed as they were, Dwarfstar games had one great weakness: they weren’t built to last. Paper-thin boxes and flimsy components helped keep the cost down, but did nothing for their longevity. More than 35 years later these eight games have a nearly mythical reputation among collectors, but there aren’t a lot of copies to be had. And you know what that means: the scarce copies still in good condition are very, very expensive.

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Wargaming with my Twelve-Year-Old

Wednesday, August 29th, 2018 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

Outpost Gamma-small Outpost Gamma-back-small

It may be turning into an annual tradition here at the McLachlan-Alonso household–beating the Madrid heat by playing tabletop wargames. I first introduced my son to the concept of wargames with Soldiers 1918, an old Strategy & Tactics game.

This summer it was Outpost Gamma, an old Dwarfstar Games science fiction wargame available free online. Just download it, take it to your local printshop to get the board and chits on suitable card stock, and bingo! Old school fun.

This is a simple game, perfect for a kid who hasn’t done many wargames. The rules are clear and straightforward, and the game is pretty fast moving. Game time took about an hour.

Earthers have placed mining colonies on a distant planet ravaged by electrical storms. The native species isn’t too happy about it and decides to kick the miners and the space marines out. What results is basically a colonial warfare game, with a few heavily armed soldiers trying to beat off a superior force of poorly armed natives.

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The Roots of Microgaming: The Classic Games of Metagaming

Friday, November 28th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Metagaming ad Analog 1978-small

I’ve been writing a lot about board gaming recently. It’s been a big part of my life ever since the late 70s, when I responded to an ad for a line of new “microgames” from a company called Metagaming.

I saw the above ad on the inside cover of Analog magazine, which I started reading with the April 1997 issue, when I was 12 years old. Responding to ads in comics and magazines was something you did in the 70s; don’t look at me like that. Honestly, it was perfectly normal. You mailed a check to some address in Texas, and four weeks later a tiny package arrived in the mail containing X-ray glasses, sea monkeys, or a Polaris Nuclear Submarine. Seriously, the US Postal Service and your mother’s checkbook were all you needed to access all the wonders of the world in the 1970s.

Well, the wonder that attracted my attention in the Fall of 1978 was an advertisement for SCIENCE FICTION GAMES from a company called Metagaming (click on the image above, from the inside cover of the October 1978 Analog, for a high-res version). I’d already taken my first steps into the hobby games market with the classic wargames of Avalon Hill, including Panzer Leader and Starship Troopers. But they were massive, requiring half an hour or more of set-up, and four to six hours to play. These mini-games looked portable and promised to be “fast-playing and inexpensive… a classic wargame that you can put in your pocket and play over lunch.”

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All Hail the Barbarian Prince

Friday, March 30th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

barbarian-prince-256One of the great things about having a blog is that you get to celebrate all things cool. Books, movies, comics, games… if it keeps you up late at night, after your spouse has gone to bed wearing lingerie and a disappointed look, it’s usually worth at least a few paragraphs here.

Of course you need to take things a little more seriously when talking about the real classics, the enduring masterpieces that define our very culture. And that goes double when we turn our attention to the supreme achievement of Western Civilization, the pinnacle of some three billions years of planetary evolution, Arnold Hendrick’s Barbarian Prince.

Howard Andrew Jones did just that in his splendid post Return of the Barbarian Prince this week. It’s a terrific article and interview, capturing much of the fun of this sublime solo mini-game, except for his obvious lies about being able to win.

You can’t win at Barbarian Prince. The game is an existential commentary on the nihilistic underpinings of modern evolutionary thought. I thought that was obvious. All games end in ignoble death, usually in the form of a starving goblin tribe that beats you to a pulp and steals your fur-lined booties.

Listen, I’ve owned the game for nearly 30 years. Spent many evenings rolling dice and moving my lead miniature around the little map, befriending elves and exploring ancient crypts, and I have never won. Barbarian Prince is the beautiful girl I lusted after in high school.  She hangs out and flirts like a Vegas show girl, but there’s no way she’s going out with me.

At least I’m in good company. The distinguished John C. Hocking has never won the game. None of my friends have ever won. Only my false friends like Howard, who called last week to tell me he won a game on the first turn. Dude, if you’re going to fib, at least make it believable.

Well, the good news is that now you can experience the timeless agony of Barbarian Prince for yourself. Now you too can spend your evenings cursing up a blue streak and throwing the map across the room. The original Dwarfstar boxed edition is unspeakably rare (most copies were destroyed in a blind rage, presumably), but you can download the complete game here, and Todd Sanders’ new revised version is available here.

Howard tells me he’s mailing me a deluxe copy of the revised Sanders version, hand-made with carefully crafted components, which I anxiously await. Maybe a little of his luck will rub off on me. Maybe I’ll discover he’s adjusted the rules to make the game winnable. Maybe Todd’s revisions will clarify things just enough to lead me to victory. Or maybe there’s another tribe of starving goblins in my future, waiting to take my last copper piece and turn my skull into a drinking cup.

Time will tell.


Return of the Barbarian Prince

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

barbarian-prince-256If you’ve spent much time on the Black Gate website you’ve probably seen Barbarian Prince get mentioned at least once.

A solo board game from the 80s designed by Arnold Hendrick, Barbarian Prince is a little like one of those old “choose your own” adventure books, except that the order of events is far more random, for they’re generated by rolling on a number of tables depending upon your location on the map and are partly affected by choices you have made and gear and allies you may have accumulated in your travels.

It never plays the same way twice, and a lot of us find it glorious fun — although it is difficult to win. John O’Neill is a huge fan of the game, and he got me interested some years back when he gave me an extra copy he had lying around.

When I heard rumors of an unofficial redesign over at BoardGameGeek, I dropped by to take a look and was incredibly impressed. Someone — Todd Sanders, as it turns out — had gotten permission to create a new game board, pieces, and redesign the layout of the rule and event books.

The result was brilliant, beautiful, and a completely professional product.

It’s available, free, for anyone who wants to download the files and create their own version of the game (the original version of Barbarian Prince is also available for free download, courtesy of Reaper Miniatures and Dwarfstar Games).

I contacted Todd to learn more about his redesign and what had inspired it, and discovered he was responsible for a number of stunning games of his own creation.

We talked last week about game design, Print and Play games, and, naturally, Barbarian Prince. Larger versions of the lovely game boards can be seen by clicking on their pictures.

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Spring in Illinois brings… Auction Fever

Friday, March 16th, 2012 | Posted by John ONeill

Some of the science fiction and fantasy games up for bid at the Spring Games Plus auction (click for humungous version)

Some of the science fiction and fantasy games up for bid at the Spring Games Plus auction (click for supersize version).

Games Plus in Mount Prospect, IL, is the finest games store in the Chicago area. Every spring and fall they hold a fabulous games auction.

Now, I don’t use that word lightly. I’ve been to some terrific games auctions in my time, starting with CanGames in Ottawa in the early 80s, then the friendly auctions at WinterWar in Champaign, IL where I was a grad student in the 90s.

And of course, for sheer quantity of items on offer, nothing beats the legendary GenCon auction, held over multiple days in Indianapolis every August.

But if you really, really want that rare gaming item, bidding against hundreds of hard core gaming fans from across the country at GenCon is a sure way to pay top dollar for it.

For real bargains, you need a small local auction. And I’ve never found one friendlier or more rewarding than the twice-a-year event at Games Plus, which is attended by perhaps a hundred gamers and collectors from the Chicago area.

It’s spread across four days and includes thousands of games of virtually every vintage and description, sorted into four categories. Occasionally I drop by Friday night for the Historical Games, especially when I’m on the hunt for hard-to-find Avalon Hill or SPI titles. But usually I save up for the main event: the Saturday Fantasy and Science Fiction auction, which starts at 10:00 a.m. and runs until early evening.

Knowing my lack of control in the past, my wife Alice gave me a strict budget this year. I was not to return home with more than $200 of auction loot. So you can imagine my measured apprehension when my winnings were totaled and the auctioneer handed me a bill for $1,667.75.

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Solitaire Gaming

Monday, January 10th, 2011 | Posted by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones

island-of-lost-spells

Another great adventure from Dark City Games.

I blame the whole thing on John O’Neill.

A few years back I asked him about the solo Dark City Games adventures that Andrew Zimmerman Jones and Todd McCaulty had reviewed so favorably for Black Gate. John happens to have a larger game collection than most game stores, so I’d come to the right person.

Solo games were great fun, John told me. “Here’s an extra copy of an old game you’ve never heard of that’s really cool. Go play it.”

That was Barbarian Prince. And yeah, it was pretty nifty (you can try it out yourself with a free download here, along with its sister solitaire product, Star Smuggler).

I started playing and enjoying the products created by Dark City Games, which the rest of the staff and I have continued to review for the magazine.

barbarian-prince3But what are these solitaire games like?

The most obvious analogy is to say that solitaire games are a little like computer adventure games played with paper, with dice and cards taking the place of a computer game’s invisible randomization of results.

My first thought was something along the lines of “how quaint,” but it turns out that while the play experiences are similar, the flavors are slightly different, even if playing them stimulates similar centers of the brain.

It’s like switching off orange pop to try some root beer, or vice versa. You may not drink one or the other exclusively, but they both sure are sweet on a hot day.

zulus-on-the-ramparts

"You mean your only plan is to stand behind a few feet of mealie bags and wait for the attack?"

While playing a solitaire game you may not see any computer graphics, but your imagination will paint some images for you.

And there’s the tactile pleasure of manipulating the counters and looking over the game board and flipping through the booklet and rolling the dice.

Solitaire in no way means that you will get the same game play each time, and to my surprise I’ve discovered that a well designed solo board game has better replay value than many computer games.

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