Introducing Star Saga: One

2011 January 25

Star Saga: One’s box proudly proclaims, “There’s not another game like it on earth.” For once, a hyperbolic-seeming catchphrase might be absolutely true. Published for the Apple II in 1988, the game combines a board game, a mammoth choose-your-own-adventure book and a computer referee to serve up a truly unique science-fiction role-playing-gaming experience. And it can be played multiplayer (1-6 players) to boot.

Here’s the box contents unpacked:

Players use the colored tokens to track their travels across the boardgame-like map:

Moves on this map and plotted via the Star Saga computer program (called the Computer Game Master), which also keeps track of the players’ stats, inventory, and handles combat and trade. After you’ve entered in your movement for the turn, the program evaluates your actions, tells you if you reached your destination, and likely gives you a paragraph number or two to look up in the Text Booklets. Now, a computer game telling you to look up paragraphs of prose in a physical booklet was not unknown in this era – text ate up precious amounts of disk space and RAM, so this was one way to deal with that. The famous 8-bit post-apocalypse CRPG Wasteland had text paragraphs to look up in its printed manual, as did the fantasy CRPG Dragon Wars and the earlier example Temple of Apashi. But in those games you were taking occassional breaks to look up some descriptive text or a cut-scene type of event. Star Saga, on the other hand, has you reading paragraphs as a core game mechanic – it’s the way the entire game world and story is revealed. Some paragraphs end with several possible actions you can take – each choice with a code next to it — that’s the choose-your-own-adventure-book similarity. Instead of “If you approach the spam asteroid, turn to page 167″, it’s “(GXYBVT) (2 phases) Approach the spam asteroid.” You enter in the code for your choice during your next turn, and the program responds with info or another paragraph number.

There are thirteen of these text booklets (labeled Book A – M), each around 60-70 pages long:

One hopes this allows a truly epic story to be told, but it certainly makes playing cumbersome, especially if you don’t have a good place for the map near your computer. In the early 2000′ s I made a “Star Saga Game Kit” for the original Home of the Underdogs site. Made using the 2000 version of Clickteam’s The Game Factory program, it has a scan of the map you scroll around, allows you to drag and drop the player pieces, write notes, and save the current state of the map (so theoretically, you could trade the save file back and forth with someone via email for long-distance multiplayer). It was going to include all the paragraphs (which the owner of Home of the Underdogs, Sarinee Achavanuntakul, had laboriously scanned) as well, but stuffing all those scans into one program turned out to be too much for the little Games Factory program, which become sad and buggy under all that textual weight. Fortunately, Ranger55, another contributor to the Home of the Underdogs site, took the paragraph scans and made them into a stack of HTML files, accessible by a Finder page where you just enter the desired paragraph number.

Amazingly, the Star Saga Game Kit still works in Windows Vista. I’ll have my Windows laptop running the Kit right by the Apple IIe running the Star Saga Game Master — I will actually flip through the text booklets, though. You can download the Kit at this clone of HOTU (the original site is sadly defunct) – you will also likely need to put this dll in same directory that holds the Kit.

(The irony of my preservation work for this game is that I’ve never gotten round to playing more than a few turns – thanks to this blog, I’m making time to give a true try.)

The Scenario

The year is 2815 AD. People have been zipping about the stars and colonizing strage new worlds since the invention of the hyperdrive in 2257. All this space exploration ground to a halt in 2490, however, the year of the Space Plague. Of alien origin, brought back by some unknown explorer, the Space Plague and wiped out half of humankind. A scared humanity constructed the Boundary, a border protecting the Nine Worlds inhabited by humans. A person can leave the Boundary if they wish, but they will not be allowed back in (so says the Space Patrol).

You play one of six characters who want to cross the Boundary, each for a different reason.

Let’s Go a-Saga-ing

The game manual encourages you to jump right in, providing some quick steps for setting up the map and Computer Game Master (CGM for short – I’ll use that from now on), and then pointing you towards the individual character booklets, each of which has a step-by-step tutorial for playing your first turn.

Player interaction in the game is somewhat limited – if two or more players are in the same trisector, they can choose to have Meeting in they can exchange items and/or trade goods, moderated by the CGM. That’s it, direct gameplay-wise. But the manual encourages a meta-game level of deciding what info players want to share with each other. When a new planet is found, all players must be told its location, but other than that, anything a player has learned can be kept secret or shared at the player’s discretion.

Hidden info comes into play immediately, as once you choose a character, you read the individual’s Character Booklet that other players are not meant to see. This gives the player’s background and their secret goal in the wilds beyond the Boundary.

Now I’m playing solo, but I also want to see how the game differs for two different characters, so if I come across a conflict of info (character B has found out something advantegous for character A that character A shouldn’t know about), I’ll just have to role-play it or randomize some otherwise loaded choices.

OK, the next post will deal with the initial turns of the two characters I’ve chosen, heretic Laran Darkwatch and xenobiologist Professor Lee Dambroke…

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