Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

KHAAAAAAN!

Tsukuda Hobby made their first real venture into wargaming in 1981 when the company acquired the license for Mobile Suit Gundam. At the time, the animated space opera was a huge hit in Japan. And no wonder! It’s about huge freakin’ robots fighting each other in space. How could you go wrong with a premise like that?!

pic from BGG. credit to Matt Boehland.

The success of the first two Gundam-based wargames, Jabro (which dealt with ground combat) and Fortress (which focused on space battles) spurred the company to venture further into their existing licenses and make games that dealt with other topics. Star Wars: Death Star and Star Trek: The Invasion of the Klingon Empire were published in 1982. I’m not sure if any of these games were good or not but they were successful enough to spur Tsukuda to keep releasing similar gaming products throughout the 1980s.

In fact, the company branched out its wargaming into three separate series. The first was an SF series that produced games based heavily on popular sci-fi licenses at the time. The second was a First Step series, which were usually tactical level wargames for kids or entry-level gamers that emphasized quick play and simple rules sets. The last one was the “NF series”, which were historical-based wargames that leaned heavily towards World War II in the Pacific and Europe.

Tsukuda Hobby – 1983 catalog

When Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out in the theaters during the summer of 1982, it was a huge hit with moviegoers in the States, achieving the highest box office weekend of the year. The movie wouldn’t be released until late February of the next year in Japan (translation and distribution rights takes forever over here – not to mention ensuring that the movie’s release doesn’t eclipse any domestic releases). But Tsukuda must have sensed by then that the movie would be a hit over here too. So they purchased the rights to the movie and produced a game.

The game Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was published in 1983 and…uh…yeah. Thirty six years later, an unpunched copy is sitting on my desk and a couple of weeks of translation work have yielded an English rules set that sort of makes sense. A warning here that some of my complaints about the game may be due more to mistranslation but I think I got most of it spot on.

So what are the issues here?

The first is the bipolar focus of the game. The game has two “modes” of play: exploration or battlefield.

The Rulebook – energy management and movement sections

Where No Man Has Gone Before

Much of the rulebook is given over to the exploration mode. I’m not sure where this really happened in the movie but hey – it’s a Star Trek game and was the central focus of the TV series. So it sort of make sense but then again not really.

Both players move their ships around on a “Warp Map” and you manage your ship’s energy each turn. At the beginning of each turn, the ships under your command are allocated a base amount of energy derived from Warp Drive and Impulse Drive.

Then both players plot out their movement and then reveal their plotted courses. Just like using sensors and weaponry, movement consumes energy.

This plotting/movement phase continues until either both players have either run out of available energy or declare that they are finished their movement for the turn. At this point, ships in the same hex as a star system can then conduct conduct diplomacy (if you’re Federation) or intimidation (if you’re Klingon).

Depending on the outcome of the negotiations, the star system might ally with you, attack others ships or star systems, or even repair your damaged ships. You also might run into space storms or have an encounter from a random table listed at the back of the book.

At the end of the game, victory is determined mainly by how many star systems both sides have managed to either conquer or ally with.

Three mounted mapboards included in the game. 

The Balance of Terror

Battle scenarios deal with famous battles from the movies and TV shows. The first couple of scenarios are based on the famous unwinnable “Kobayashi Maru” exercise that Kirk had to cheat at in order to win during his academy days. One of the scenarios lets you play out the battle between Kirk and Khan at the end of the film.

The battle sequence of play is very similar to the exploration game with some key differences. Instead of using separate warp maps, the ships are placed on the same mapboard. Since we’re dealing with close-up knife fights between huge ships at slow speed, the ships only get energy from their Impulse Drives.

It’s interesting to note that the subsystems generate a small amount of available energy each turn and this can be tapped into during an emergency – at a price.

Movement and combat occur simultaneously and damage to ship locations takes effect at the end of each movement/combat phase so both ships can take each other out in a blaze of glory (“From hell’s heart, I stab at thee!”). Battles run pretty smoothly once you get the hang of it though the charts for hit locations and damage are scattered throughout several pages of charts (that are mercifully separated from the rulebook).

The Trouble with Tables

It’s worth stopping and noting at this point that there are five scenarios in the book and four of these are Battle scenarios. For some reason, the rulebook states that there are eight scenarios but that is a glaring error and not the only one I found. Anyway, here’s a big thing: if your game only has one scenario that deals with exploration, don’t dedicate over half the rules set to it. Find a single focus for your game and develop it.

There are also some weird choices made here. There are three ship types in the game – Heavy Cruisers, Cruisers, and Klingon Battle Cruisers. Each of these has detailed tables of components and energy usage that need to be consulted and written down in a log at the start of each game. The charts are all over the place so this takes a really long time (took me nearly two hours on my first play to fill out the Enterprise log).

With only three ships here, it would have been nice just to have a few pre-made logs to photocopy in order to facilitate play time. I understand that the intent may have been to provide room for expansions or for players to incorporate other ships from the Star Trek universe into the game. But the cost doesn’t seem to be worth the payoff of customization.

The rulebook itself also has some glaring errors, especially in the examples. The illustrated charts and consumption numbers don’t always match what’s in the actual tables. I also found a couple of mathematical errors involving simple sums, which only added to the confusion.

Who Mourns for Tsukuda?

All that being said, my first game of Star Trek went fairly smooth. After translating the rules for myself into English, I finally sat down and played out the Kobayashi Maru scenario. I’ll write about the specifics in a future post but I can say handily that the game did, in fact, feel like Star Trek.

Once you get the hang of managing your energy and understanding what to do with each chart, the game becomes a lot of fun and it felt pretty cool when my wounded Enterprise managed to take on a Klingon Battle Cruiser and manage a hit with a pair of proton torpedoes.

I can’t help sensing that this game was intended as part of a series of Star Trek games that Tsukuda was hoping to further develop in its lineup. As I mentioned above, this was the second game that dealt with the license. A few lines in the rulebook encourage players to build up scenarios for each other. There are tons of counters in the game, some of which aren’t really explained at all in the rulebook – were these meant to be part of a future expansion?

There is a wonderful potential to use the empty ship logs to play with and develop your own ships from the movie and TV universe, even though it’s not specifically stated. I found all this unexplained chrome to be a bit mysterious – as if something had gone on behind the scenes that basically doomed these aspirations from the start. As it is, Tsukuda never produced another Star Trek game ever again. Soon, it turned back to mostly Japanese-based TV shows and animation for its licenses.

It’s interesting that a company like Tsukuda never really got much attention by gamers in the west. Obviously, the language differences were mainly responsible for keeping Japan-based games from having their influence and designs drift back to their source of inspiration in the west. It might have also been the “hit and miss” quality of the products, which from my experience, can vary a great deal.

While I found Star Trek to be an enjoyable but messy game, I had an entirely different experience with Fortress, which was a simple but well-honed machine that did exactly what it was designed to do in terms of theme and entertainment value. On the other hand, I have also set up and stared at Leopard II, TH’s game of armored warfare in hypothetical World War III Europe, which was both unfinished and unplayable in its final form – but somehow managed to impress nonetheless merely on the scale of what was even attempted. (How do you possibly come to terms with a base game that comes with no less than THREE THOUSAND COUNTERS.)

Basically, you can never ever guess what you get from a Tsukuda Hobby game and I find that to be part of the charm and frustration of collecting them.

I’ll be talking a little more about Tsukuda Hobbies and other Japanese wargames in my future blog  posts. Stay tuned.

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