In 1974, Star Wars was three years away, and John McEwan wanted a way to play out faster miniature battle games on the tabletop. Thus Starguard was born. Starguard is the primogenitor of science fiction miniature games. And it’s still alive and kicking after 46 years.
I talked to John about Starguard and its history:
Eyecast Restoration: So how did Starguard come to be?
John McEwan : Very seldom does a great idea spring from the mind of a single individual. With “Starguard”, it grew from a simple idea to a really fine set of rules. There were many people along the way who contributed in many ways to its development. Back about 49 years ago or so (when the dinosaurs still ruled the earth), there was a man named Michael Scott who approached me with the idea for a game involving jet belt infantry and powered armor as in the novel “Starship Troopers”. He had made drawings of the jet belt troopers, powered armor, lizardmen called Ralnai, and ant men called Dreenoi.
Well, I had been playing Napoleonics for the previous five years or so, and while I liked the cool uniforms and such, I did not like the rules. It took forever to do a single skirmish. We met once a month at the home of Whit Young, and I was getting kind of tired of marching all over the peninsula trying to catch the bloody British. I needed something that played a little faster.
Humm, jet belt troopers and powered armor—sounded a lot faster than foot slogging behind the damn cavalry. So, I told Michael to get me a draft copy of the rules and I would sculpt the figures for the game. Well he had not taken the time to put his rules on paper yet, so I had plenty of time to do the figures and make production molds. When the figures were ready, I asked him again for the rules. He submitted about three pages of rules.
I took one look at them and realized that they were completely unplayable. He did not understand how a 2D6 bell curve works. His whole system was totally loaded in favor of the human troops. I could see that I would have to come up with the rules system myself. I sat down with a couple of my gaming friends and asked them what they would like to see in a science-fiction game. The main desire was the the speed of play. They too were tired of slow-play games.
I wrote and published the first edition of “Starguard” as a black-and-white 8.5-x-5-inch saddle-stitched pamphlet. In the first and second editions I gave Michael Scott credit for his contributions to the game. I found out later that he had just copied almost all of his stuff from other folks. He was dissatisfied with the fact that he was not making any money off the game. At that time the rules set was only bringing in enough money to reprint it. So, he decided to go to Louisiana, and I haven’t seen or heard from him since.
ER: Was there much competition at that time? How did you plan to carve your niche in the market?
JM: There was no competition at all. Starguard was the first sci-fi miniatures game ever published. The biggest problem was how and where to advertise. I do think that attending conventions and demoing the game was one of the best ways to let people know about it. I attended several years of PacificCon at the old Dunfey Hotel. Now there was a show! Total craziness and always fun. Now that we have the internet it is much easier to get something like Starguard going.
ER: Starguard is the game that refuses to die! What do you think are the factors that contribute to its success?
JM: First and foremost is the speed of play. The average Starguard game lasts about 10 turns and can be played in 1½ to 2 hours. We have often played two to three games on a Saturday afternoon.
Secondly, Starguard rules are extremely flexible. While SG rules were originally designed only as a raid or small-unit actions, you can set up almost any type of game you want using the basic SG rules.
I have played several fantasy magic vs. science type games using these rules. I have done WWI skirmishes in Africa, and several of my players have told me about using SG as a structure for Alien vs. WWII troops— and zombie-type games also. As a matter of fact, in SG the Necromorphs are essentially just zombies with sci-fi weapons. “Yummy!” says the Dreenoi, “Pickled humans. How delicious!” SG can be combined with RPG-type games to speed up the action.
The rules can accommodate the productions of crazed scratch builders and figure modifiers. Here there are no restrictions on using only proprietary figures or vehicles. Come and have fun; use what troops you have.
ER: How do you feel the wargaming community has changed over the last 40 years?
JM: The quick answer to that one is more and better with a wider scope and variety of game types. Now is the Golden Age of Wargaming! When I started gaming back in late 1950s, aside from a few board games, almost everything from figures to rule sets had to be imported from England. And what about scenery or buildings? Short of a few model railroad (read: expensive) items you were mostly out of luck. Nowadays, with 3D printing, laser-printed paper items, and laser-cut buildings, there is so much available that we in the old days never dreamed of.
ER: There has been a revival in Old School Roleplaying lately and lots of fervor for both classic RPG and miniature games. What do you think the factors are that are causing folks to return to older games?
JM: Old-school RPGs like D&D or Tunnels and Trolls is mostly nostalgia, I suppose. Things are so upset now—the whole world seems to be in turmoil. Who would not like to go back to the Happy Times and the games we had so much fun with? I played a lot of D&D-type games back in the 80’s and 90’s. I even wrote a fantasy novel based on a D&D campaign we played. We played our RPGs for laughs, and my novel “Curse of Truth” is a comedy first and a fantasy novel second.
ER: What are the most frustrating and the most gratifying parts of being a game designer?
JM: Difficult to say—I never considered myself to be a game designer, though I have written several. To me, game design just seemed a natural thing to do. The hardest part for me has always been advertising and promoting the game. The thing is, that after all the blood, sweat, and tears I tend to lose interest in the project and get all antsy to move on to something else. In the case of SG, I had a number of very gung-ho friends that kept pulling me back to it.
ER: If you could impart words of wisdom to a beginning designer, what would they be?
JM: If possible—Don’t Do It! Get a real job that pays money and have fun playing somebody else’s game.
ER: What are your favorite games? Any kind of game applies.
JM: Aside from an eternal fascination with SG, I love fantasy games, Call of Cthulhu, colonial wars, WWI in Africa, Old West, and air combat simulators—IL-2 1946. I like naval warfare and US Civil War miniatures, but don’t have much opportunity to play those.
ER: How much of Starguard has been community contributions?
JM: SG is massively a community contribution. I couldn’t even begin to tell you all the people over the years that have sent in ideas, illustrations, and actually written parts of the text. I personally am responsible for the
design and layout of the publications and the overall thrust of the game. After all, if it isn’t fun what are you playing it for?
ER: Your Victorian sci-fi line is really cool. Are you a big fan of pulp/alt-history gaming?
JM: I love Steam Punk also. Most particularly the crazy vehicles.
ER: I want to thank you kindly for chatting with us today. It really has been a pleasure, and I hope you join me for a more in-depth interview this fall on the podcast.
Starguard has a depth of play and vast replayability. I purchased the rulebook and was amazed at how much content there was. It really shines and holds up even after all of these years. The miniatures have an "old school cool" about them that immediately hooked me.
This is right up your alley if you like Laserburn, Space Marines, Spacefarers, or Traveller.
Let's take a look at some of the miniatures and rulebooks. Included are links to John's website. I would love to see any of your painted Starguard miniatures or hear any of your gaming stories. Feel free to share them on our Facebook page here.
We will take a look at two of the 20+ factions available. First will be the Starguard themselves.
These miniatures are true 25mm scale and perfectly sized to paint quickly and still add some magnificent detail. The descriptions below are taken from John's website:
"The mobile infantry troopers of the Starguard wear an armored exoskeleton energized by tiny nuclear motors which enable the wearer to multiply his strength by ten and protects him from most weapons effects. In addition to communications, sensors, and radar fire control gear, the suit has a laser pistol built into the left gauntlet. A plasma gun and Y-Rack launcher are carried externally."
"The Starguard are the Marines of the Terran Federation. Like the marines of the 20th Century USA, the Marines are officially part of the Navy and are stationed on starships and Federation starbases. Starguard troopers are highly trained and educated; they operate in small units and have a high degree of individual initiative and autonomy. The regulars are equipped with laser rifles, multi-visors, and jump jets."
"The Dreenoi, more commonly known as "Bugs" are telepathic, hive-minded insectoids. They will eat almost anything and are always hungry. Without quick action, a planet attacked by the Dreenoi is sure to be overcome. Once the Dreenoi get established in their tunnels, they are very difficult to exterminate."
Infantry models in Starguard are supported by a wide range of vehicles, robots and terrain pieces. (Not to mention slick warbots).You can click any of the links to see some of the great assets available to a Starguard commander.
Thank you for reading! I hope that this article has educated and sparked some curiosity in you. The next part of our inaugural post will be in two days. It will cover Fantasy Games Unlimited. We will be talking to the owner Scott Bizar about FGU. See you then!
Photos courtesy of John McEwan and Boardgame Geek.
Editing by the talented Brian White.