Another one from the vaults of BROG . . . anyone. Note dated references go an out-of-date view of the game-buying/playing market . . . RHB
OH DAD, POOR DAD, YOU’VE PUT MY NAME ON THE BOXCOVER AND NOW THE CONSUMERS ARE FEELING OH SO SAD!
PRINCESS RYAN’S STAR MARINES by MARK MCLAUGHLIN
from AVALON HILL
Two 16”x22” mounted boards; 202 Cards; one rather unsteady metal figurine; Rules Book; Basic Training Folder. Boxed. Avalon Hill and your local retailer. $55.
Reviewed by RICHARD H. BERG
What to make of this rather unusual, and not uninteresting, game. More to the point, who, exactly, is this game aimed at?
Some of you are probably aware that this game has been around in various guises for several years, a popular home made brew from Mark McLaughlin, designer of a small host of somewhat unusual games, such as Viceroy. The word spread to the sumptuous Harford Road offices of Avalon Hill, and, sooner than you can say “Who’s Jim Rose?”, we now have a full-blown, and somewhat over-produced version, all ready for popular consumption. Question is, who’s going to bite?
PR/SM is a Saturday cartoon, Science Fiction game in which the good guys have to rescue the Princess from the Bad Guys. We’ll draw a grateful cover over the remarkably un-PCish name for the Bad Guys, The Black Guard, their leader, the not-very subtle quasi-Japanese Dar Yamaguchi, along with several similar types of faux pas that will garner reams of dreary comment on the Internet. I will also, with some sense of mercy, comment only briefly (below) on the remarkably sophomoric “in-jokes” rampant throughout, perhaps left as a clue as to where the marketing aim is focused. What we do have is a nice combination of every other pseudo D&D, What’s-in-this-Room?, style of game with - and are you ready for this? - Clue. (Most ironic: a game partially based on Clue aimed at the “Clueless” crowd.) It’s either a lot better than it sounds, or just as bad as it sounds, depending on your comfort level for this sort of thing. For the hefty $55 tariff, it sure better be the former.
You get a lot of graphic and cardboard bang for those $55 bucks, if that matters to you. Granted, the graphics are sort of nouveau-rococo Magic, complete with arcane symbology standing in for information, leading to a lot of “what the hell does this mean?” conversational gambits for the first hour or two. There are lots of cards, several different decks totaling over 200 entries, two large, connecting gameboards (forget that kitchen table for playtime) that are unusual in play terms, but a bit dark in effect, and one rather clumsy (and unpainted) metal figure, representing the Star Marines, that kept falling over every 30 seconds - drunk? vertically challenged? lousy workmanship? - until we replaced it with a chess piece. As for the boxcover, I’m sure I saw that specimen of Study Hall Art on the front of something Travellerish, but it is complete with several steroidal men, none of whom look like they could solve a Weekly Reader crossword puzzle, along with two women, both poised to show off their rather impressive pectoral development. Most of the female Marines in the game, I noted, have an androgynous look, resembling nothing less than a casting call for Aliens VIII or GI Jane II (heaven forbid) … all designed, one presumes, to appeal to those who are somewhat overactive, hormonally. Which lets out most wargamers.
Which brings us to the title. Why not just Star Marines? Why bring the kidnapped doofette, Princess Ryan into the picture, a choice certainly not one anyone interested in marketing this game to male board gamers - a group comprising the far greater majority of the purchasing public than the “other” group - would appear to make knowingly. (It gives the game a more than faint ring of one of those paperbacks that 10-12 year old girls read.) Well, appears that Mark M had a bit more clout than any game designer has had in recent (or all of) AH history: he insisted that his daughter’s name appear front and center. And that’s where it is … more or less. Give Mark 5 points of credit for filial love and devotion. Subtract 10 credit points from his bank for inability to understand who buys these things.
Think that’s unfair? Ask yourself this question. On the basis of the title alone, how interested are you in running out to check on this sucker? (And that does not include those of you who simply like to look at sophomoric drawings of big-chested women, which is, probably, most of us.) Anyway, if you’ve been going by the title, alone, or the somewhat teeny-SF subject matter, it would behoove you to have some (not lots, just some) second thoughts, because, hidden behind a somewhat hemorraghic display of The Cutes - juvenile puns abound, most almost - but not quite - as bad as the old SPI efforts, Swords & Sorcery and Freedom in the Galaxy (which, ironically, AH is releasing in computer form!) - is a pretty good, if somewhat overwrought, game. Then again, I liked it better than my co-players.
We played the three-player version; you can go from 1 to 4. Essentially, two of us were Star Marines, the third, the Black Guard Bad Guys. However, even though two of us were playing the same side, only one can win … usually the first to find out exactly where the Ryan babe is being hidden. This, in itself, makes for same very interesting play decisions.
The game system is an often clever variant of D&D, as noted above. As a matter of fact (we tend to treat our opinions as fact), the game is rather more enjoyable in its details than in its overall effect. Ryan is hidden in one of the 40 sites on the board. The job of the Starboys is not to find and rescue her, per se, but, through a mechanic that greatly resembles Clue - it’s Princess Ryan, in the First Republican Bank, being worked over by a Security Robot with a blowtorch - deductively guess which one she’s in. (If this sounds like it will be nigh impossible, it isn’t.) Once you’ve done that, if you can successfully transit the board and make it into the Royal Suite before the Bad Guys can stop you, or the clock stops ticking, you win. More or less.
Which brings up an interesting point: that ticking clock. The game uses a randomized timing mechanic, in which you use pennies - which you supply - to keep track of how much time is left. (It can go up and down.) Pennies? In a cup? For $55 you gotta supply your own components? Jeeeez!! What about a simple Timer Track and one cardboard counter. Is there some sort of charm in dropping pennies into, then pulling them out of, a cup? We didn’t think so. Must be one of those brilliant Greenwoodies that we see every now and again. (Then again, I could be wrong; wouldn’t want to give Don too much credit.)
To reach that telling point, the SM player(s) travel along the path of sites on the board, dropping into them to see what bad things await them - and there can be some pretty bad surprises for our intrepid, if inane, hero(ine)s. If they survive, they get to keep going. If they don’t, they get to regroup, call for reinforcements - which means dealing out some new cards - and then continue on. The play tactics involve what cards the players use - each has his own soldiers and a variety of one-shot-only weapons he can use - in a particular site, without actually knowing what awaits them. As there are lots of these things rattling in and out of play, the variety of play is a major plus, at least in terms of what one does in any given site.
Unfortunately, the variety of play as to what one does in terms of “the operation” isn’t quite as inventive. Anyone seen (the excellent) movie, “L.A. Confidential”? Remember the scene where the cops burst in on the runaway (supposed) mass killers, and the shoot-out that ensues. Vividly filmed, exciting in its play-out, but pretty much the same as many similar scenes from other movies. That’s what you get here. After dropping in on a bunch of sites and opening fire, either winning or losing, it does start to drag a bit. One’s enjoyment of it all depends on at what level of play one seeks one’s fun.
To the designer’s credit, there are some very nice mechanics to keep everything hopping. Each site on the board has an alternate site - in the form of an unrevealed card beneath it - to which the SM’s may be forced to travel. Most of these are nastier than the expected destination; some can be rather beneficial. But this sort of variety does provide each individual “trip” with the sort of suspense one does not usually find in board games.
And there is also wide variety in the dramatis personnae of the game, although SM players will go to great lengths to hold onto the better soldiers. The choices given The Bad Guy are often more random, but he does have some mighty heavy heavies (such as the “Bugs” card, a not too subtle nod in the direction of Mr. Heinlein.)
Much of whether you want to buy this game will depend on whether playing an SF version of D&D is your cup of espresso latté. However, while the game works at the level the designer wants it to, it is saddled with a set of rules - actually two sets of rules - that has booked early admission to the Opaque Hall of Fame. The manual seems so intent on telling you how to play the whole game in each, separate paragraph, that the best (try only) way to fathom them is to simply start playing, looking up each rule as you need it.
But that isn’t all. In addition to the manual, there’s a 4-page “Basic Training” folder (which applies only to the 4-player version), but manages to appear to contradict not a few of the premises in the formal manual while maintaining the same level of obscurity. This is not a complex or inaccessible game. It is somewhat of a mystery as to why someone has gone to great lengths to make it seem so.
Which brings us back to the original question. So, it’s not a bad game, probably a pretty good game for some. Question is, who is “some”? When you go into a store to buy a game, or a book, or similar entertainment, you don’t know if it’s Good, Bad or Indifferent when you pull it off the shelf to look at it. (Unless, of course, you’re a BROGer, which places you on a far higher plain than the ηοι πολοι, to be sure.) You pull it off the shelf because the title, the subject matter, or even the graphics, catches your eye. And, for Princess Ryan’s Star Marines, I’m most curious to know exactly who is in that shelf-reaching group. I’m even more curious to see how it sells: maybe there’s a new niche out there. I somehow think that 12-14 year-old girls with $55 in spare change and an abiding interest in board games is not a viable niche.
A note for the non-theater types. The review title is a “play” on a famous (?) play of the 60’s by Arthur Kopit, made into a movie with, among others, Jonathan Winters and Barbara Harris.
Graphic Presentation: Excellent. A penny for your thoughts on Turn Tracks, Don.
Playability: Good, once you learn to ignore the rules book.
Replayability: Excellent variety, no two games the same.
Wristage: None; uses Don G’s beloved “numbers on the cards”, closed-end randomizer… as opposed to the open-endedness of dierolling.
Creativity: Some very clever mechanics here, very interesting from a design point of view.
Comparisons: Mostly to D&D, not an area in which I have dabbled extensively.
Overall: Micro fun; Big Picture a bit repetitive. But from any view, a marketing curiosity. Hope it sells; the system has great possibilities.
still play this one?
I'm not quite that far, Richard: I still look at this one.
The cover soldierette didn't sell me. Mark's name didn't sell me. The large and inconvenient-to-store box didn't sell me.
The small popping sound made when Avalon Hill was sucked beneath the earth at the last is what sold me.
"Just in case" it turned out to be a good game and I'd find myself kicking my own shins later in frustration 'cause I missed it (I did something similiar with "Hannibal" and now, boy, do I feel smart--at least once in a while).
Mark used to run a kid-friendly miniatures game at HMGS-East cons called 'Princess Ryan's Space Marines.' Same little Miss Ryan--a cutie. Probably very similar rules, with figures, not cards. Kids seemed to enjoy it.
Then Mark was reportedly contacted by corporate attorneys for Games Workshop, protesting his usurpation of "Space Marines." I know you're an attorney and I'm sure I'd get the legalities wrong, but Mark told me that he gave up the fight because they had deeper pockets, or some such, and changed the name. AH, apparently, changed the mode of presentation, having no interest in marketing a miniatures game (Starship Troopers is a pretty good explanation of why that was a good decision on the part of AH.)
Your review is fair, complete, entertaining as always and reminds me of the conclusion that I reached some years back explaining why PRSM sits primly on my shelf in-between some "Smithsonian" games and AH "Starship Troopers" (another Buy It Now Because AH Has Been Eaten purchase).
I found I absolutely, positively, cannot digest the rules during commercials in between something I'm actually interested in watching, and it isn't worth investing the effort at other times because anybody I show the thing to invariably asks, "What else do you have?"
Thank you for resurrecting this review; it prompts me to mentally move the game to the "Held in Reserve for Trading for Exotic Disirables" category. So many other (trying not to say 'better') games to play, so few years left to play them . . . .
"...Mark told me that he gave up the fight because they had deeper pockets..."
That is usually what happens. Its not whether you;re right or wrong (unfortunately) but whether or not you have the money to defend.
I keep this game in my collection as a reminder never to impulse buy a game of this price again. Not having a boardgame background when I saw this in a hobby store while I was travelling, I thought, "Avalon Hill doing a Sci-Fi boardgame? Looks interesting! Let's read the stuff on the bottom of the box. Hey, looks neat! Think I'll buy it!"
At least I think the price point was under $40. As Richard notes, the rules are about 10-times denser than they needed to be for an actually simple game.
After one play, I suspected I was an idiot for buying it; two more plays confirmed my first suspicion. There is some game there, somewhere, but darned if I could find it.
Live and learn.
Agree...mostly. I got my copy on e-bay for 15 bucks new, plus ship. Played it several times from both sides. I liked the interaction and the variety of play, but it tends to get repetitive and end game play is the same old fight for survival. But, I have to say I got my moneys worth, even if I don't ever play it again.
Sounds ridiculous. I'd probably like it.
What is funny is this game originated from an outrageous miniatures game that Mark used to run at the HMGS conventions on Sundays that at the time everyone still there played some part in. It came out as a miniatures game from Simtac as Princess Ryans Space Marines. GW had a hissy fit no more simtac.
Not sure if her still runs this on Sundays as I can no longer go due to health reasons but if he does I guarantee there are 50 people surrounding the table and every 10 minutes or so you will here the crowd yell in Chorus "It's Better That Way"
This game is great just like the original that was named after his little girl who was really sweet back in the 80's who I am sure is now a grown woman and fine young lady!