Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Ares Magazine: Issue #1

I've noted before that, during the time I subscribed to and most actively read Dragon, I found the Ares section to be consistently one of the magazine's high points. Part of it was that I'm first and foremost a science fiction fan, so the articles in that section naturally appealed to me. A bigger part, I think, was that the articles in the Ares section were, generally speaking, better written. Having re-read those sections over the last few months, I'm pretty sure I'm not seeing things through rose-colored glasses. Because of space considerations, Ares articles were lean and to the point; there was no room for authorial flights of fancy or rambling musings. They were almost all "meat." It helped, too, that there was a smaller pool of writers for the Ares section than Dragon generally and those writers were ones whose styles and content I found congenial.

Given my fondness for the section back in those days, it wasn't hard to imagine that I'd seek out copies of its predecessor, the "magazine of science fiction and fantasy simulation" published by SPI between 1980 and 1982. I figured that, if one small section called Ares was so enjoyable, what would a whole magazine called Ares be like? Unfortunately, in Baltimore in the early '80s, finding copies of Ares magazine wasn't easy, at least in the circles in which I traveled. There were only a couple of places I frequented that carried many SPI titles and, even then, their selection was more limited than that of local favorite, Avalon Hill. Nevertheless, I did manage to obtain a few copies of Ares back in the day and have subsequently filled out my collection. For the next few months, I'm going to be looking briefly at each issue and highlighting those sections that make an impression on me.

Issue #1 appeared in March 1980, with a cover by comics legend Howard Chaykin. That's pretty awesome any way you slice it. The issue begins with an editorial by the late Redmond Simonsen, in which he explains why Ares was founded, noting that
Fantasy, science fiction, and simulation gaming share a common cord of connective tissue: the constructed world. To a greater degree than any so-called "mainstream" fiction, works of science fiction and fantasy imply or explain worlds much more dependent upon the product of the imagination -- worlds inherently more poetic or allusive thereby.
Simonsen goes on to make a connection between Ares and SPI's other magazine, Strategy & Tactics, suggesting that, where S&T serves the historical side of things, Ares will serve the fantastical. It was definitely an ambitious vision and I can't help but wonder how well received it was by the larger gaming populace. As I said above, Ares wasn't widely known in my neck of the woods prior to its appearance in the pages of Dragon, but I have no idea if that was at all typical.

Next up is an Asian-themed fantasy short story called "Dragon ... Ghost" by M. Lucie Chin. Following that is a science article by John Boardman, Ph.D. entitled "No, You're Not Going to the Stars." The article discusses all the reasons why the ways space travel, as portrayed in science fiction, are impossible or unlikely. Boardman wrote many articles of this sort throughout Ares' run and, while fascinating, they all have a distinctly "party pooper" feel to them, like that annoying kid in school who enjoyed pointing out anachronisms in historical films and TV shows so as to ruin other kids' fun. Then there's another piece of fiction, "Gangsters," by Henrik Nordlie.

The main attraction of issue #1 is WorldKiller, a complete wargame "of planetary assault." Like Strategy & Tactics, every issue of Ares included a complete game of some sort, with rules, maps, and counters. Considering the cover price of $3.00, that was a pretty good deal. WorldKiller was designed by Simonsen and is fairly brief in terms of rules, though it's still written in the largely impenetrable (to me) SPI house style of using numbered cases to distinguish between sections (e.g. 1.1, 1.1.2, 1.1.2.6, etc.).  The remainder of issue #1 consists of short, snarky reviews of books, movies, and games by the SPI staff. Interestingly, a significant number of the game reviews are of SPI products, though, perhaps inevitably, they are reviewed with less condescension and vitriol.

11 comments:

  1. Greyhawk GrognardMay 8, 2012 at 10:08 AM

    I remember Worldkiller well. Terrific game.

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  2. I used to have the boxed version of Worldkiller. I don't know what happened to it.

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  3. I was a big SPI fan and had an Ares subscription from day one. I remember this issue, and Worldkiller, well. Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.

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  4. Jeffrey FlemingMay 8, 2012 at 1:01 PM

    Just wanted to say a word of appreciation for Redmond Simonsen. He was excellent as SPI's graphic designer and he gave all the company's games and magazines a classy and distinctive look. I'm not sure if he's still with us but he should be remembered as one of the great visual stylists of gaming.

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  5. Jeffrey FlemingMay 8, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    I just wanted to say a word of appreciation for Redmond Simonsen. He was SPI's graphic designer and he gave the company's games and magazines a classy and distinctive look. I'm not sure if he is still with us but he should be remembered as one of the great visual stylists of gaming.

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  6. I liked Ares back when SPI started producing it and had several issues.  Now I only have the Barbarian Kings issue (#3 I think).  I have enjoyed re-reading it recently.  I don't remember the snarky reviews from the 80s, but they certainly strike me now as being over the top, especially considering that SPI turned out a lot of mediocre games, and plenty of stinkers too.

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  7. Looks like Deadmau5 is dominating the top of that scan; a message from the past promoting real musical acts in the future!  The wired-up lady must be operating some kind of sound board.

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  8. Reverance PavaneMay 9, 2012 at 7:49 AM

    Whilst the games were admittedly the main attraction for me, one of the very best bits of Ares (and to a lesser extent  Strategy & Tactics) was the Feedback section.  Mainly designed for subscribers, you could return the special feedback card with the various  options selected (it was an OMR card). [And SPI actually used this customer data in their decisions!  In 1980!]  Mostly were how you liked the articles, etc, but the really great things were the dozen or so short pitches for new SPI games.  Lots of cool ideas.

    The nice thing about the magazine games (both Ares and S&T) is that they allowed very talented game designers a chance to try out new things (more so with Ares as the SF/Fantasy basis allows them to build a world design around a game system they designed).  Some worked, some didn't - but it was a useful test-bed for experimentation.

    I miss SPI.

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  9. Reverance PavaneMay 9, 2012 at 7:54 AM

     Here here!

     Wargaming, boardgaming, and computer interface design (especially in games) all owe a huge debt to Redmond Simonsen and his design philosophies.  Especially when it comes to easy access of game information. 

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  10. I am very much looking forward your your articles on Ares Magazine. I hope you get a chance to play some of those board game inserts, some of which I still have.  I am also interested in hearing your take on DragonQuest and Universe RPGs. 

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  11. John Boardman deserves special recognition for another part of the hobby--Diplomacy. Boardman started the first play-by-mail Diplomacy 'zine  "Graustrak," which he published for almost 40 years. Dip PBM games were given numbers to identify the game, and these numbers were called "Boardman numbers" in his honor.

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