I am sure managing to keep up with this blog, aren't I? Better than six months since the last post, you'd think that I'd just give it up. But no! I am stubborn! Perhaps I should say persistent, to not be so hard on myself.
Let's look at a game that hardly anybody has heard of, except perhaps recently, though I have mentioned it in passing a few times in this blog. That is the point, sort of, of this series of reviews of obscure games after all. This time, we'll look at Lords of the Middle Sea, a wargame put out by The Chaosium back in 1978, around about the time that they were putting out their first roleplaying game, RuneQuest.
The scenario is loosely based on a 1963 short story by Allen Danzig published in GALAXY magazine titled "The Great Nebraska Sea". The story, which can be found [Edit: in an abbreviated version; further edit: here is the complete story] in the forum thread at the link along with an impression of what the map might look like, is a travelogue-style description of life around a great sea created in the midwest of the US when the Great Plains collapse at some point in the future. The game's scenario starts with that premise, implying that extraction of helium (and, presumably, other related resources such as natural gas) result in a massive collapse across the midwestern states as far north as the southern parts of North Dakota and as far west as the eastern portions of Colorado and Wyoming. This sets off a chain reaction resulting in increased volcanic activity, followed by cooling temperatures due to the volcanic ash, then ultimately a massive greenhouse effect that warms the planet and causes sea levels to rise as much as 30 feet per year at one point.
While the temperatures are cooling, populations flood south from Canada and the US into Mexico, creating massive social disruptions. Just for good measure, the remaining nation-states of the world exchange nuclear weapons, ending the dominance of nation-states and triggering the rise of local city-states.
During this time, apparently, the continental shelves sink somewhat, causing sea levels to end up around 1000 feet higher than previously, in addition to the Nebraska Sea, but this isn't really discussed in the background information. An important terrain feature in the game is the Godwall, a huge cliff, over a thousand feet high, along the western edge of the Nebraska Sea, which only dirigibles can pass (though there is one break in it, at the Mexican location of La Barrera).
In Mexico, a conflict between the traditionally Catholic Mexicans and a new sect of "syncretic versions of pre-Conquest Meso-American beliefs" push Mexico north as a new Nahua Empire rises. Mexico comes to hold most of what was the US and Canada, along with parts of northern Mexico, except for the islands that remain of the eastern portion of North America. This gives them control of the great storehouse of helium that was collected in the Rocky Mountains, and will eventually give them the ability to build dirigible airships.
Over time, the northern regions of this new Mexican state split off to become the fiercely independent Transwyoming, comprised to a great extent of horse nomads and related groups. Meanwhile, the Wardoms of the eastern islands eventually consolidate into a larger polity. In addition, there are the Centerline Confederacy on the island that surrounds what was once Lake Superior, beaten down to a minor state by the time of the game, and the Salvaree Council, composed of the great Arks that ply the sealanes. Originally raft cities formed as the seas rose, they eventually learned to build steam engines and control their drifting, becoming for a while the arm of decision and the dominating factor in trade in the Middle and Nebraska Seas, as well as along the western coast of the continent. With the final consolidation of the Wardoms as they incorporated Treanor (the person credited with Conception is Dennis P. Treanor) on the Ozark Island, the Salvaree Council was broken and reduced to squabbling individual Arks which hired out their services to the mainland nations. (Note that there are two centers of the former Salvaree Council on the map, the eastern Salvaree, located on the Ouachita Island just south of Ozark, and the western Sol Salvari, based in the island ruins that used to be San Francisco and the Bay Area.)
The game is divided into a Basic and Advanced version, the primary differences being that the Advanced version adds a monetary economy to purchase units, along with more fluid rules regarding alliances between the four factions, further uses for Arks (such as sending divers down into the depths to find caches of goods and materiel stored in protective plastic to aid in the competition between nations; in the Basic game, Arks are used mainly for transport and to ferry troops in addition to their considerable combat abilities), an experience advancement system for Rulers, allowing them to become Hero-Kings or Sorcerer-Kings with special abilities related to movement and combat (in addition to changing their combat strength and movement rate, the list of abilities a Ruler can display includes Mountaineer, Sailor, Diplomat, Speech-Maker, Master of Disguise, Warrior, Tactician, and Strategist, with Hero-Kings selecting one ability and Sorcerer-Kings being able to deploy them all), the ability of Rulers to Quest for lost Libraries of information, militia to help protect cities and farms, and rules for tracking the success of wars in an extended campaign game.
Combat works by a CRT (Combat Results Table) that compares the relative strengths of each side as a ratio (1:1, 1:2, 1:3, etc.), with results given as a number of counters for each side to lose. This prompts a bit of a balancing act as a player wants to maximize strength in the counters allowed in a hex ("stacking limit"), but losing a greater amount of strength in each individual counter if they are all of a high value. It helps to have some weaker counters to lose so that your strength doesn't drop precipitately. Even so, though, if you can completely maximize your strength that is best, since everyone has the same stacking limit.
Turns are in seasons (three months), hexes are 70-odd miles across, units are of various sizes, from 1200-3000 for infantry Gangs and Levies, 600-1000 mounted cavalry Hordes, 600 elite guards for Rulers (though Rulers can also travel incognito, with no guards), 10-15 large combat ships plus support vessels, or 5-7 dirigibles. The economy of a nation is represented by Cities and Farms (each major nation starts with four Cities and seven Farms) which produce money in the Advanced game, accounted in Cruzados, a large gold coin used to regulate large-scale trade, apparently.
There is discussion in the rules about the assumptions of the game, such as what Cities and Farms mean, how units are armed and an overview of their tactical doctrine (it's a mix of primitive weapons and more advanced ones, resulting in an unusual method of battle).
Because of the extensive notes on the background, this setting could be pretty easily converted for use in a roleplaying game. I tend toward GURPS since most of the work is already done, just needing to be plugged into the setting, but pretty much any game capable of a postapocalyptic setting (no mutants or other gonzo elements) could handle it, and of course with effort a Referee can adapt anything to any system.
|Here's the work in progress cover art|
by Ossi Hiekkala for the RPG,
as pointed out in the comments.
Unfortunately for me, my current copy is only partly playable since it is missing one counter, which disrupts the counter mix and makes one of the four nations unplayable. I made a replacement, but because it is easily distinguished from the rest of the counters, it isn't actually usable (counters are supposed to be selected randomly from their type due to differing combat and movement factors). Maybe someday I'll find a replacement counter sheet for less than the hundred-plus dollars that copies of this game often go for. I occasionally have dreamed about buying the rules and background from Chaosium and reprinting the game, or expanding and publishing the background as a roleplaying setting, but that is more money than I have access to. Also, as I was just now Googling around for more information and pictures to illustrate this post, I learned that Chaosium has already been working on a roleplaying version of the setting, using the Basic Role-Playing system naturally. Well, I will certainly be picking that up.
(Edited on 3/15/2021 to add RPG cover art work in progress)